A natural consequence of human existence is disagreement. Each of us tend to have opinions or beliefs as to the truth on any matter in question. Our interactions with others almost inevitably reach some contention as it is often the case that individuals have different beliefs and opinions on the same matter.
There are really two different dimensions in view here: 1) the logical dimension – disagreement, and, 2) the emotional dimension – contention.
In the logical dimension, we disagree because we have an intellectual commitment, a belief, that the truth is this or that, and we believe that the person with whom we are disagreeing has a logically incompatible belief. For example, we may believe that the Earth is a sphere. When we encounter someone who believes that the Earth is flat, we disagree because we believe that these two distinct beliefs are incompatible. And, we believe these two distinct beliefs are incompatible because we recognize the self-evidently true laws of logic. One of these laws is the Law of Noncontradiction which states that “any proposition P cannot be both true and false in the same sense and at the same time” (Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by Moreland and Craig). Thus, the proposition “the earth is flat” cannot be both true and false. It would be false if the proposition “the earth is a sphere” were true and so, one or the other (or both – but that’s another matter) of these must be false. They can’t both be true. They are contradictory, i.e., incompatible. And, so, getting back to our example, we recognize this, and because of our commitment to the belief that “the earth is a sphere” be disagree with the person who says, “the earth is flat”.
The emotional dimension is a completely different matter. The fact that we disagree, for the above stated reasons, causes all kinds of emotions and contention. Perhaps it is even the case that emotions drive our conclusions wholly apart from logic. And, I offer no help for emotional management. My focus will be on how we can navigate the logical dimension with a structured approach to discourse and my hope is that this will organically result in less emotional problems.
So, let’s get back to the question: How can we ensure productive discourse?
But, what exactly is productive discourse? Well, that depends on the common objective. If two or more people are gathering to have a good time, then you will know you are productive if everyone has a good time! Clearly, however, the focus of my discussion here is much larger than merely having a good time.
For the purposes of this discussion, I will define productive as “moving one or more of the people involved in the discussion to a new or deeper understanding of the truth of the matter in question”. Defined this way, the objective of discourse is clear: new or deeper understanding of the truth of the matter in question.
I’m not going to be comprehensive or elaborate too much. I’m just going to offer a few things that seem to be preconditions for productive discourse.
Precondition #1 – A Common Commitment to Truth
This one seems very simple. If you want to be productive in discourse with others, then you need to have a common objective. This is a rule which applies to any type of discourse. Of course, given my earlier definition of productive, the objective that we must have is TRUTH. We want to discuss the matter in question so that one or the both of us gets a new or deeper understanding of the truth. If one or the other doesn’t have this objective, then it is very likely you are not going to get to the objective! You will be like a two-headed animal, pulling each other towards your different objectives.
I think this is what the Old Testament prophet Amos meant when he asked: “Can two walk together without agreeing where to go?” The answer is obvious. You need to agree on the destination if you both want to get there!
So, I recommend, before commencing with the discussion, agree on the destination. You could say something like this: “Are we agreed that what we both want is to get to the truth of this matter?”
Precondition #2 – A Common Willingness to Be Wrong
The fact of the matter is: most discourse is undercut because one or the other, or both, is simply not willing to admit that they could be wrong. I don’t need to elaborate on this point. If all parties simply lead with the admission that they are a limited human being and could be wrong about their opinion, then discourse would be far more productive.
So, I recommend, admitting you aren’t as studied as you could be on the issue. If you reach a point where you don’t know the answer, admit that and ask the other person for resources that have convinced them of their position.
Precondition #3 – A Common Ground of Authority
I discussed this point a little more in my article Authority & It’s Argumentative Pretensions. It seems necessary that when we discuss a particular matter with the goal of getting truth we must have a common authority to which we both can appeal that demands belief. Obviously, neither party is the authority that demands belief. There must be something outside of themselves that can demand belief. Determining what the authority is can be difficult, but it is necessary if the discourse is going to be productive.
So, I recommend, clarifying what we both believe has the authority to demand our belief and why. Then, once you have come to a conclusion about what will have the right to demand belief on this particular matter, you can commence.
As I said, this list isn’t comprehensive and I didn’t elaborate as much as I could or may be needed, but these are just some thoughts I had that I hope helps us all in our Search for Truth.