From the Critical Thinker’s Toolbox: Have You Considered the Other Side’s Best Argument?

Most of us prefer to listen to people who agree with us. Hearing a critical assessment of our beliefs can be quite uncomfortable or potentially a waste of our time if the criticisms are not well reasoned. However, if we listen only to people who agree with us then we’re susceptible to a type of groupthink where we do not know or address the most viable arguments against our positions.

183121335Because I believe that being an informed and objective critical thinker will likely get me closer to truth, I intentionally force myself to listen to contrary or opposing opinions and positions. Of course, not every issue in life, or even every position on a specific issue, is worthy of such time and effort. Sometimes it is reasonable and necessary to trust qualified authorities in a given field. However, I always give greater weight to those specialists who reflect a fair-minded objectiveness in their analysis of controversial issues.

To get the maximum benefit from this important intellectual exercise I’d encourage people to ask four broad questions. This criterion can be used to approach philosophical, religious, ethical, historical, political, and even key sports (Lakers) questions:

  1. Is this a sufficiently important topic where I either need or want to form a judgment but in which I have not adequately studied the field?
  2. Are there likely genuine alternative positions to mine on an issue that may prove true and could significantly impact me, my country, or human beings in general?
  3. If there is an important alternative or opposing position to the one I hold, then who best represents that position in a clear, careful, cogent, and compelling way?
  4. Having identified the best representative of this alternative perspective, what is the best inference or argument in its favor and could it serve as a potential defeater of my view?

Here’s an example of how I used this approach recently. Last November marked the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination and because I am passionate about American history, I wanted to read a credible source that would offer the best argument against the lone gunman theory (Oswald acting alone), which is the view I hold. Having studied the JFK assassination case for decades, I know conspiracy theories are notoriously speculative and lacking in facts. So, I decided to read two books by attorney G. Robert Blakey who served as the Chief Counsel of the House Select Committee on Assassinations (1976–1978). In my opinion, though his reasoning didn’t ultimately convince me, Blakey is one of the most credible voices among those who believe there was a conspiracy behind the assassination of President Kennedy.

Even if this formal approach to controversial issues is too burdensome or intimidating, you can still broaden your understanding by simply getting in the habit of asking yourself, “Have I considered the best argument on the other side of this issue?”

As a historic Christian I believe truth is sacred. Truth will always standup to honest critical analysis and believers should lead the way in intellectual honesty and candor.

For more about the healthy intellectual habits provided by the historic Christian worldview, see my book A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test.

  One thought on “From the Critical Thinker’s Toolbox: Have You Considered the Other Side’s Best Argument?

  1. Sean Rhoades
    January 14, 2014 at 12:14 pm

    Is it possible to set one’s world view completely aside when viewing evidence, or scientific data, in order to make a completely objective conclusion?

    • January 15, 2014 at 3:21 pm

      Hi, Sean.

      Good question.

      No I don’t think we should set aside our worldview and I don’t think anyone is completely neutral when it comes to the important questions of life. But I think we benefit when we endeavor to hear the best argument against our position.

      Best regards.

  2. January 14, 2014 at 3:17 pm

    Two quick thoughts Ken:

    First, for some of us question 1 is the most challenging (sure wish I was better at prioritizing time getting the all the reading done), and
    Second, it’s not flaming idiots who present the greatest threat to our positions, but well-reasoned and likable antagonists (who deserve our attention).

    Thanks for another thought-filled post!

  3. January 15, 2014 at 3:30 pm


    Thanks for your comments.

    Criteria #1 is definitely challenging.

    I definitely value those critics who are thoughtful and measured in their critical assessment of my views.

  4. Josh
    January 5, 2015 at 12:47 am

    I would like to know what the best argument from the opposing side is. But what would the nature of such an argument be? I believe in God. Atheists don’t. What is the ‘best’ argument against God in general and the Christian God in specific?

    Well, if God is real (specifically the Christian God) then all arguments against him would be wrong. So I guess the single ‘best’ argument would be the one that contained the most truths and the least non-truths; ie: it would contain a high ratio of truth to non-truth. The closest you can get to a non-truth is coating it in as much truth as possible to make it seem true. Many many truthful points all leading up to a wrong conclusion. The conclusion itself would have to be the only wrong aspect of the argument, in order to be the single ‘best’ argument against the existence of God. It would have to be completely correct right up to connection between the final point and the conclusion.

    If God isn’t real, then there should be at least one 100% truth proof against him, and that would be the argument I would seek. All points in the argument AND the conclusion itself would have to be true. It would have to be flawless.

    All I have to do is expose a single flaw somewhere along the lines of the argument -a flaw that breaks the chain of logic- and the argument is invalid.

    So which argument is it that does this? What is the single best argument? The argument that contains the most amount of truth and the least amount of non-truths (possibly being zero)?

    • February 24, 2015 at 4:20 pm


      Thanks for your comments.

      Let me be specific. As a committed Christian I think one can make a substantive argument against God by appealing to the problem of evil in some form (deductive, inductive, or experiential). I don’t think such arguments are ultimately persuasive but neither are they easily dismissed. Evil, pain, and suffering contain elements of mystery even from the Christian perspective.

      So as a Christian thinker I have benefitted from knowing what I think is one of the more substantive arguments against Christian theism. I also benefit from knowing how painful life can be and am able to have compassion on people who suffer. Moreover the only way of offering a defense of Christianity is knowing the best arguments from the other side.

      The habit of considering the best argument from the other side probably has greatest value when an issue is less than clear (immigration, tax reform, entitlement reform, etc.).

      Best regards,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 243 other followers

%d bloggers like this: