Why Can't We All Agree?

There are often times when I feel swamped by the various opinions and arguments in philosophy. It seems as if no progress is being made and the truth is difficult to find. But it is not as if philosophy is the only discipline that appears this way. Theologians often suffer from exactly the same impressions. How do we know which theological system, religion, or supposed revelation we should believe? To a lesser extent, historians and scientists also suffer from this problem. So why is there such persistent disagreement?

One response might be to claim that all properly educated and rational people would come to a consensus, but not all people are properly educated or rational. This sounds quite plausible at first. Then you meet a well-educated, rational atheist who disagrees with a well-educated, rational theist over the existence of God. Simple familiarity with the educated and rational world shows that educating rational people does not lead to a consensus. There must be something more to a consensus than that.

Some of those who self-identify as Reformed have insisted that human depravity is the missing factor. This implies that as well-educated and rational people are sanctified, they will converge on a consensus. Even allowing for differences in sanctification among various individuals, there is no good evidence for this thesis. Christians do tend to converge on certain issues (deity of Christ), but they also have great disagreements about other issues (ie. Calvinism, church government, end times). There are very godly individuals, who are both rational and well-educated, who strongly disagree with each other over certain issues.

In my experience, I have found that certain factors encourage debates to continue. One is a lack of understanding of the other side. Both sides must understand the motivations, arguments and plausibility structures of the other side. Their understanding must be so well developed that they could place themselves in the minds of their opponents and argue for the side of their opponents. The only way to know that they have such an understanding is for their opponents to acknowledge that they do. A second is an understanding of one’s own position. You must be able to explain your own position in the language of your opponent. You must be able to explain what your position assumes, how your position alters plausibility structures and what it entails. You know that you have achieved this when your opponent demonstrates an understanding of your argument and agrees with you over what it assumes, entails and how it affects plausibility structures.

These are not the only constraints. Once you and your opponent understand each others and their own position, then they must agree on a common authority in order to resolve residual differences in plausibility structures. Provided that you and your opponent are always honest, always humble and continually love the truth, there should be no further problem. My speculation is that everyone who fulfills such criteria will converge on the same opinions under any dispute. My further speculation is that this convergence will alway be accurate provided that one’s access to information is unbiased and extensive.

In any case, there are not many people in the world who are well-educated, rational, understand their opponent’s position and their own, humble, honest, love the truth and share a common authority with their debater. I am not aware of any such individuals within philosophy or theology. Therefore, under our current circumstances I believe that it is extremely likely that any current debates will not be resolved. Nonetheless, these criteria do suggest directions for us to go in our pursuit of the truth.