Insights For Apologetics From Other Disciplines
This is, to be sure, an intriguing title for this essay. Nevertheless, professional apologists know that other disciplines are important in order to carry out their programs. For instance, the findings of science are significant in providing evidence to the apologist, in spite of the fact that science is not equipped to deal with the question of origins. Likewise, for Christian apologetics, theological insights are invaluable. And, the weaknesses in either area of study form valuable thematic studies also. If one denies freedom, or the nature of consciousness, then any “theological” and/or any “scientific” position where either of these are questioned or denied exposes an impotence in the position. For, both theology and science depend upon freedom and consciousness to even begin their work! Without freedom and consciousness, no one could expect another to either understand or accept their conclusions. How could one, for instance, “change her mind,” if there really is no consciousness or freedom at all?
For the purposes of this essay, I am going to discuss the important insights one gains from the worlds of investigative journalism and professional sales, as well as the important area of interpersonal communications. Ironically, this study will also help us to understand how to make Christian apologetics eminently practical. We will learn not only how to do a better job ourselves, but also to help others to reach out to skeptical friends as well. This is a big promise, so, let's get started.
Jeffrey Gitomer, widely recognized as one of the most prominent contemporary sales gurus said: "Combine powerful questions with effective listening skills and you will have the power and self-discipline to uncover facts/needs and then formulate a response that moves the buyer to a decision." Man that sounds so simple. So why doesn’t everyone buy when you try to sell them? Because . . .
1. You’re not doing an effective job of asking questions.
2. You’re not doing an effective job of listening to the prospect.
3. You have a preconceived notion about the prospect--prejudging the type of person, anticipating answers, and interrupting dialogue.
4. You think you already know all the answers, so why bother asking questions or listening with full attention.
5. You have not uncovered the true needs of the prospect. How can you satisfy needs if you don’t know what they are?
The most effective sales call is 25% questioning/talking and 75% listening. How does that compare with what you do? (80)
I have spent the last 23 years of my life, in addition to preaching the gospel, lecturing and writing in the field of apologetics, etc., as a direct sales professional. And I quickly learned when I started working in sales that asking questions and listening carefully is extraordinarily difficult for preachers and debaters who are more accustomed to making their case by talking. I learned to be a better (but far from perfect) questioner and listener, both in my sales career and in my personal one on one Bible study situations. It is this skill that will give anyone the practical ability to work with their skeptical colleagues, family members, and friends. It was the famous writer, Rudyard Kipling, who focused so clearly on this important skill in “The Elephant’s Child.”
I Keep six honest serving-men: (They taught me all I knew)
Their names are What and Where and When And How and Why and Who.
I send them over land and sea, I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,I give them all a rest.
I let them rest from nine till five. For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea, For they are hungry men:
But different folk have different views: I know a person small--
She keeps ten million serving-men, Who get no rest at all!
She sends 'em abroad on her own affairs, From the second she opens her eyes--
One million Hows, two million Wheres, And seven million Whys! (50)
My wife and I raised three children, and we now have five grandchildren. I completely understand the seven million whys of which Kipling writes. But really, philosophy itself begins with a childlike wonder. We want to know the “why” in any number of areas. It has been said, for instance, that the single greatest philosophical question is, “why is there something rather than nothing?” Nonetheless, the six “serving men” function as our best tool for getting at the heart of an issue wherein we differ with others. This is the process by which investigative journalists and police investigators do their work. And, if we are smart enough, it will also be the way that we do our work as well.
As far back as Plato, one learns the value of Socratic questioning. There are at least six different areas probed by Socrates (as reported by his pupil, Plato), and in this one learns how to uncover the hidden prejudices in other’s opinions (and often, in our own opinions). First, there are conceptual clarification questions. Among these would be, “why are you saying this?” Or, “how did you arrive at that conclusion?” Still further, one might ask, “can you rephrase that, please?” Finally, we might say, “how does this relate to what we have been talking about?” These are just samples of possible ways to get clarification. And, the truly valuable thing about this is that most people are not offended when they are asked questions. Statements, on the other hand, can be taken to be accusations or challenges in some other way.
This would be an ideal place for us to discuss better communication skills as we focus upon the necessity of careful listening. Many of us are very poor listeners, and, as a result, those with whom we are interacting are sometimes quite frustrated. This is due to the fact that they often suspect that we are not truly listening to them. As a consequence, they may think that their opinions are not of any value to us. No one really enjoys it when others are seemingly not listening to them at all! There are ways to help with this, which actually enhances good communication. The average person speaks from 120 to 150 words per minute, and reads an average of 200 words per minute with 60% comprehension. A small percentage of people read in excess of 1000 words per minute with 85% comprehension, but this amounts to only about 1% of us. The brain can process from 300 to 500 words per minute when they are heard. In fact, some can process things heard at more than 800 words per minute. Do you see the problem? There is a lot of leftover time between what we hear and what we can process. This creates interruptions, our “that reminds me,” and the like. There can be a veritable communication mess as a result. So, one way to help with the issue is to artificially slow down to make sure that the other person knows that we are genuinely hearing them. This can be done by repeating word for word what they have said to you. Or better yet, feeding the information back to them in a summarizing fashion. It would go something like this: “let me make sure that I understand what you are saying. You said _______________________; did I get that right?” If you did not, then they have an opportunity to clarify what they are saying. If you did hear them correctly, then you have helped them to understand that you are considering their views as important to your discussion. Have you ever heard a husband or a wife say, “he/she hears what they want to hear?” Or, “my husband has selective hearing.” Or, “others just tune me out.” Well, this happens when we are in one-on-one discussions as well. An oft-repeated adage in professional sales is, “don’t tell, sell!” In fact, there is a great book that has this concept as a theme. People are sometimes afraid that, if they are not speaking or “telling,” they will lose control. It is actually just the opposite. The author of this fine book said:
Far from losing control, asking questions can help you control the sales process. Whoever controls the questions generally controls the call. When your customer is firing questions away, who really is in charge? The customer. To gain (or in this case, regain) control, you need to ask questions, too. (Stop Telling, Start Selling 149)
So, whenever a question is asked and you are losing control (“chasing rabbits”) if you answer, then answer that question with a question. Suppose one says, for instance, “why do you follow the teachings of a book that was written by men who lived thousands of years ago?” You can regain control by asking, “how did you arrive at that conclusion?” Or, “do you believe that it could not have been produced by God?” The first question can then be your follow-up when they answer. At least you have tried to regain control of the discussion.
A second category of Socratic questioning is the probing of assumptions. This forces the other person to think about their presuppositions or their unquestioned beliefs. You will quickly find out that many people simply parrot what they have heard someone else say rather than having any firm convictions of their own. If they do have genuine convictions of their own, this is a valuable way to discover their reasons. You might ask, “how did you choose those assumptions?” Or, you may also ask, “how can you verify or disprove that assumption?” Still further, you may choose to ask them to “please explain why you have taken this position?” Once again, you want to control (as much as it is possible to do so) the discussion by the use of questions. If we have uncovered mere assumptions, then the use of questions can expose them. This also renders them powerless to be a defeater to your position, unless and until there are bonafide reasons for the positions they have taken.
Third, there is also the probing of rationale, reasons and evidence. When there are reasons given for a particular position, your use of questions can dig into that line of evidence rather than simply accepting it as a given. Many people use weakly understood support for their positions. Good questions can bring these weak, or even self-contradictory, positions into the open where they can be answered or defeated. For instance, Naturalists make use of acts of conscious experience, principles of logical argumentation, and freedom of choice, to advance their position. Still, many of them take the position that consciousness, freedom, introspection, and the like, are nothing but illusions. If one takes the position that nature (the universe of physics, chemistry, and “biology”) is all that exists, then we cannot, at the same time, make use of things that have no physical component at all. Frances Crick, best known for cracking the DNA code, said: "You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. . . . You’re nothing but a pack of neurons" (3).
Cambridge psychologist Nicholas Humphrey states clearly and cogently: "Our starting assumption as scientists ought to be that on some level consciousness has to be an illusion. The reason is obvious: If nothing in the physical world can have the features that consciousness seems to have, then consciousness cannot exist as a thing in the physical world" (58). Humphrey’s insights seem to be obvious, but this presents “ungetoverable” problems for the Naturalist. I have argued elsewhere that “Naturalism is incoherent.” What this means is that, on the ground marked out by Naturalism, we can’t make use of things that have no physical component whatever. How could a person use consciousness to deny that consciousness is even real at all? How can we appeal to a person’s freedom to choose a new position, if there is no freedom to do so? The statement that was made is the following:
If consciousness, free will, and introspection are all illusions, then is the illusion also an illusion? One can not have an illusion without some idea of what is not illusory. It seems that no such “thought” (i.e., conscious introspection) of such even exists at all. Unless my “pack of neutrons” lines up perfectly with Crick’s, . . . how is it even possible to communicate? Did I say communicate? That presupposes that we understand what an argument is at all, how we might convince another of both its validity and soundness, and how, when they understand it, they might change their mind. But, all of this means that we use the very thing all of these people say is sheer illusion--namely, consciousness. Without it there is no hope of understanding at all. In short, they are borrowing from (I would make it stronger and say, stealing from) a supernaturalistic worldview where cognitive abilities actually exist because a Cognitive Being created us with that capacity. How could Francis Crick, . . or any of the others possibly know that any of this is true? Just how would they go about proving it? (Buzzword 34)
Just imagine how Nicholas Humphrey would go about arguing his case, in harmony with our discussion just here. In a brief dialogue, perhaps we can bring this more clearly to evidence.
DS: Professor Humphrey, may I ask how you came to this conclusion?
NH: For a thing to qualify as science it must occupy space within the physical world.
DS: Then, since consciousness does not occupy such a space, it can’t qualify as science, correct?
DS: And, since it is non-physical, it is just an illusion. Does this mean that whatever is non-physical is really illusory?
NH: That would follow from this analysis, wouldn’t it?
DS: Of course, but that leads to another question. How could you possibly argue that this conclusion is true?
NH: What do you mean?
DS: Well, consciousness is non-physical, so, just an illusion. But, don’t you use your consciousness to attempt to prove this?
NH: I don’t. My conclusions just follow from what we mean by science.
DS: That’s just my point. If something follows as a conclusion from something else (a premise), then you are using something else that is non-physical, namely, logical analysis.
NH: How could you possibly think this sort of nonsense?
DS: Well, you just accused me of “thinking” which is an attribute of consciousness, right? And, you suppose that you are using logical reasoning. Please tell me, are the laws of logic merely physical? Or are they non-physical too? And, you spoke of “what we mean by science” just a moment ago. Without consciousness, how does this make any sense
NH: We just happen to be able to reason in this way, because of the laws of physics.
DS: Do you hope to convince me (as well as others) of this “truth?”
NH: And, why wouldn’t I hope to do so?
DS: Precisely because I would have to possess the freedom to change my “mind” (whatever on earth that could mean) because of the strength of your argument. But, all of this presupposes consciousness, freedom, the “mind,” and the laws of logic, none of which are physical. They are all non-physical, so, on your view, they must all be illusory and non-scientific. The hopeless self-contradiction of this position is that you use all of these non-physical things in an effort to prove that only the physical exists. All else is illusion.
This is just one example of how one would dig deep into the rationale for another’s argument. Using well-placed questions can easily point out the irrationality of a position like the one that Naturalists use when they try to prove their philosophical stance.
Fourth, still another way to make use of Socratic questioning is to attack the position. Most arguments are given from a particular viewpoint or perspective. It is fair to question the position. This is done by showing that there are other equally strong positions. So, the questions one would ask would be like: “is there another way to look at this?” “What are the strengths and weaknesses of your position?” “How is this position (call it ‘a’) similar to ‘b’?” We have to find the way to determine whether or not it is possible to have more than one way to look at the issue in question. For instance, consider the Naturalist’s position just discussed. If there is nothing over and above (or, “outside”) the natural realm of physics and chemistry (also, some biology), then the “non-physical” realm simply does not exist! If it does not exist, then who are we trying to convince, of what, and who ultimately is being convinced? How? Why should we adopt such a position that is so different from our own? What all of this shows is that there is another-- much more sensible--way to look at this, and that is to ground these supposedly non-existent things (like consciousness, mind, freedom, thinking, the laws of logical analysis, etc.) in the non-physical (or, metaphysical) realm.
A fifth line of Socratic questioning is to consider the implications of any position. The questions one asks at this point are like the following: “What are the consequences of your position?” “How would this affect our study of ________?” If God exists, then what are the implications of that truth for my life, and yours? If God does not exist, then what follows for morality, the idea that there is an essential difference between humans and animals, etc.? Briefly put, there are implications for any and every position that a person holds. It is wise to reflect on the results that would follow from such a viewpoint.
Sixth, Socrates was a master at questioning the questions, or in turning the question back on the questioner. In order to regain (or, keep) control of the discussion, answer all questions with a question. Avoid at all costs the temptation of chasing the rabbits when you can ask a follow-up question instead. As examples of this, consider the following: “Is that important to you? “You apparently had a reason for asking this question. May I ask you what is that reason?” “What was the point of asking that question?” If you think that this is easy, try it with several friends. When I managed an office and was training new sales reps, we would practice this technique in some of our sales meetings. It is exceedingly difficult. Everyone was required to answer a question with a question. No one was permitted to give a straightforward answer. There are, of course, times to give straight answers, however, the weaknesses of a position are brought to the surface more forcefully by asking questions.
We used to role-play these techniques in sales meetings. Almost every rep that I had working with me despised role-playing. I don’t find many who enjoy it. Nevertheless, there is a well known principle at work in this strategy, and that is, we generally perform better when we practice beforehand. In other words, in the safety and security of meeting with one another and working through the difficulties, we do much better when we face an opponent. It can be quite annoying to work on our communication skills, and is even rather frustrating to the partner in the role playing situation. For instance, when one makes a statement, and then you ask the question, “did I hear you correctly when you said,” followed by a word-for-word restatement of what they said, it can get very wooden. So, to vary the communication, one might state it in an abbreviated fashion followed by, “is that what you meant to say?” Or, “did I understand what you said?” This insures the other person that you have indeed heard what they said, and if you did not, they have an opportunity to clarify their intentions. Even though it slows the process down, it is necessary to make sure that the battles we are waging are real skirmishes and not only imaginary conflicts.
In a similar fashion, we seek to regain or to keep control of the discussion by answering questions with a question. This too can be even humorous in role playing situations, because we struggle to find a good question to use when answering the other’s question. Tom Hopkins, one of the foremost sales trainers in the world, calls this the “porcupine question.” He imagines that someone has tossed a porcupine to you, which you immediately want to throw back. I come from an area where we had porcupines, and I can assure you that you would hardly ever throw them back. You would be entirely too busy trying to pull the quills out of your hands in order to throw that animal anywhere. So, I renamed it the “hot potato” question. This may not be any better as an illustration, however, if someone threw you a hot potato, you would be more inclined to throw it back to them. The point of all this silliness is to illustrate how important it is to answer a question with a question. That puts you back in control of the discussion, because the one who answers with statements generally tends to get long winded or to chase the proverbial rabbits. Now, I have said that it is exceedingly difficult for preachers to do either of the two things I have just mentioned. We prefer to be heard instead of hearing others; to talk rather than listen! At least that is true of most of the preachers I know. It is also true of many of the apologists that I know. So, if I were training a group to get better at these skills, they would definitely be doing a lot of role playing.
It was not a role-playing situation, but I remember a class taught by Dr. Josef Seifert where he was making a complex philosophical argument. Phenomenological Realism seeks to “get back to the things themselves” by peeling back the layers of extraneous material until we finally get to the essence of the datum in question. That means that we have actually gone as far as we can go in dealing with that particular thing. I raised my hand to ask a question, and reminded him of what he had taught us that we were trying to accomplish in our reasoning. Then, I said, “but, when we get to the place where you are currently, I can still ask ‘why.’” That stopped him in his tracks because he had not peeled away all of the layers, even though he may have thought that he had. As an example, consider the metaphysical principle of non-contradiction, which says, “a being cannot both be and not be, at the same time and taken in precisely the same sense.” We can not get any further back than this. Such a being either exists or it does not. There is no middle ground here, and even though this is presupposed in all our thinking, it is a presupposition that has evidentiary backing.
Now, if I have accomplished what I set out to do in this brief essay, I will have convinced you or the importance of (1) asking pertinent questions and (2) using effective communication skills when discussing these crucial matters. And, what could be more critical than to raise the questions of God, Christ, and Scripture? There are simply no greater questions than these--considering God Himself, the Son of God, and the Word of God. The strategies contained in this essay should be considered as a starting-point for effective discussions with those who are pondering such questions, both positively and negatively.
Crick, Frances. The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. New York: Touchstone, 1994.
Gitomer, Jeffrey H. The Sales Bible: The Ultimate Sales Resource. New York: Morrow, 1994.
Humphrey, Nicholas. “Consciousness: The Achilles Heel of Darwinism? Thank God, Not Quite.” Intelligent Thought: Science versus the Intelligent Design Movement. Ed. John Brockman. New York: Vintage, 2006.
Kipling, Rudyard. The Complete Just So Stories. New York: Penguin Books, 1902.
Richardson, Linda. Stop Telling, Start Selling: How to Use Customer-Focused Dialogue to Close Sales. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994.
Sztanyo, Dick. Is Worldview Only a Buzzword? Vienna: Warren Christian Apologetics Center, 2016.