Saturday, October 09, 2010

Book Review: Why Good Arguments Often Fail by James Sire

Why Good Arguments Often Fail: Making a More Persuasive Case for ChristWhy Good Arguments Often Fail: Making a More Persuasive Case for Christ by James W. Sire is a 185-page book that is a fairly quick and useful guide to the practical use of apologetic arguments. As Sire puts it, “This book is about the way Christians can most effectively present a case for Christ. In short, it deals with the art of persuasion, the art of making the most credible witness to the truth of the Christian faith.” (15) It is divided into three parts – dealing with the issues of logical principles, arguments that fail, and arguments that work. This review will provide an overview of some of Sire’s main ideas.

Part one, Common Logical Fallacies, is an introduction to the typical problems that occur in framing arguments. This handy primer begins with an entertaining chapter entitled Love is a Fallacy. This is a quirky story that introduces the common fallacies in a clever and humorous way. What follows is an overview of such fallacies as hasty generalizations, causes and contradictions, sentiment, false analogy, poisoning the well, and others. Along the way, the author makes insightful points on each.

Part two, Good Arguments that Often Fail, focuses on what can make good arguments ineffective: “But even a good argument is not enough. An argument can be good and still not persuade. People can understand a good argument, see nothing wrong with it and still walk away unconvinced, that is, without really changing their mind or their behavior.” (67) Sire spells out the need for proper rhetorical power in logical persuasion: “A good argument, however, needs one more characteristic to be what we would like it to be. It must be convincing. And this is the rub. What makes an argument convincing is often outside the control of the arguer.” (70)

Sire continues his analysis of factors that cause arguments to fail, which includes three categories: failures of the one who defends the faith, failures of the cultural background (the worldview factor), and failures of the audience. (71) He elaborates on each category, pointing out common pitfalls. Persuasive power most often depends upon the communicator: “In short, we should not only learn the best arguments for the faith; we should also learn how to present these in the most persuasive way. Reason alone is not enough. It must combine with rhetoric.” (74) The word rhetoric here is not used in a pejorative sense; rather, Sire appeals to its proper place in persuasive dialogue. “Valid, well substantiated arguments presented with arrogance, aggression or an overly clever attitude are often not heard clearly enough to attract the attention they deserve.” (74)

Sire also cautions the communicator to beware of complex language or abstractions, as they run the risk of losing the listener: “Many excellent arguments, especially in classical apologetics, are so highly abstract that they make little or no personal impact even on those who do not disagree with their conclusions.” (80) Psychological blocks are also an issue, and the apologist should be sensitive and discerning of them. “Some people who do not profess the Christian faith are especially resistant to some of its key ideas because of events in their lives that have personally scarred them. Rational arguments therefore miss the mark.” (89)

Sire’s emphasis on worldview (as explored in his other writings, such as The Universe Next Door) shows its relevance and importance in persuasive dialogue as well. Sire points out the “worldview principle,” which simply says that, “a person’s worldview limits the view that can be consistently held. No argument whose conclusion is obviously inconsistent with one’s worldview can be rationally convincing unless the worldview itself is adjusted.” (93) If our arguments are to be successful, it is extremely important that we be sensitive to the worldview of the person to whom we are communicating.

Sire addresses a number of other issues that the Christian will most likely encounter, and he offers his suggestions on the best way to approach such topics as evolution and relativism. The author suggests avoiding the emotional topic evolution: “In general, I believe that in their witness to their Christian faith most Christians should never raise the issue of evolution. They should talk about it only if they cannot avoid doing so.” (104)

Sire also explores what he calls the “moral blindness principle,” which he unpacks briefly: “Christian claims to truth often imply moral obligation. As ordinary human beings, we do not want to be morally obligated, and so we reject ideas that obligate us.” (117) With this in mind, Sire gives a warning: “If someone rejects – or is not convinced by – a given argument, we may be tempted to attribute this rejection to willful moral blindness. It lets us off the hook. My argument is good, I say to myself; it’s my friend who is not.” (120) But, Sire notes, “before we draw this conclusion, we should pause. Perhaps our argument is flawed. Perhaps our use of it has been inept. Perhaps there is a valid reason why the argument should not be persuasive.” (120) And what if the person’s rejection of our argument really is stemming directly from their moral blindness? Sire’s advice: “The conclusion that any given person who refuses to accept our argument is morally at fault should generally be kept to ourselves. Accusing someone of this fault – even when it is true – can easily be counterproductive. It should be done only with great care and after great prayer.” (120)

Part three, Good Arguments that Work, is the shortest of the three sections, but contains helpful insights nonetheless. The author looks more closely at the Apostle Paul’s apologetic preaching in Athens (Acts 17) and offers a contemporary interpretation. Sire also includes a chapter on the topic Why should I believe anything at all?, which Sire is known for. Finally, the book concludes with a substantial chapter providing a topical index of highly recommended resources and books for further study, making Sire’s small volume a great starting point for Christians seeking to equip themselves in the area of apologetics.

In sum, Why Good Arguments Often Fail is a useful and practical guide to persuasive dialogue for the Christian apologist. It is accessible for the newcomer to the discipline, providing a springboard for further study; at the same time reminding even more experienced communicators of the importance of clarity, sensitivity, and Christian character. A worthwhile read.

James W. Sire, Why Good Arguments Often Fail: Making a More Persuasive Case for Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).


Roger Sharp said...

Looks practical!

Simon Friis Larsen said...

I have it and I've read most of it. It focuses a bit heavy on dialog rather than debate. I also disagree on his view of leaving out the issue of evolution, which is a big issue for many non-Christians, and an area in which a creation model is best supported by the Bible. This book does give some valuable information regarding persuasion, yet it doesn't persuade me regarding what issues to cover and which one's to avoid.
Sire's presuppositions are more philosophical rather than theological, whereas apologetics deals with both of these disciplines.
The best part of Sire's book is the first section on logical fallacies. "Why Good Arguments Often Fail" is not as good as "The Universe Next Door" (which is an excellent book!).

pds said...

Hi Simon,

Your post leaves me a little confused. What is the problem with plenty of dialogue? Surely it is an effective means of leading people to the truth.

Evolution/Creation is a large and complex topic, why not try and focus on Jesus and his resurrection? Or perhaps the Moral argument?

Finally, what is the matter with using Philosophy? The Bible doesn't cover many topics that Philosophy does.


Unknown said...

First, useful review!
Second, I heartily agree with this fact from the book: " Reason alone is not enough. It must combine with rhetoric."
This is a classical truism and if there's nothing else to be learned from this book, this single idea is it. Many times in life, I have "won" an argument yet felt uneasy. I came to know that my methodology, while logically sound, was insufficient. Rhetoric was missing.

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