Why Must You Read the Other Side’s Arguments?

Recently I had some dialogue with a person on the blog, and it became obvious quickly that this person had almost exclusively read material written by one side of a debate. Not only was he not aware of arguments and evidence on the other side, but he was way overconfident in the conclusions he had drawn from his reading.

While I was attending seminary, the idea that we must read the other side in an argument was drummed into us constantly. One of my seminary professors even told us that he would read atheist writers as devotional material in order to constantly remind himself what atheists think.

It turns out that there is a good psychological reason to do this as well. Our minds have a strong tendency to jump to conclusions with little evidence. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes this tendency in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. The first problem is that our minds tend to only offer up ideas that are fresh in our memory.

An essential design feature of the associative machine is that it represents only activated ideas. Information that is not retrieved (even unconsciously) from memory might as well not exist. System 1 excels at constructing the best possible story that incorporates ideas currently activated, but it does not (cannot) allow for information it does not have.

Recall from earlier blog posts that System 1 is the part of the human mind that is automatic and unconscious. It is constantly working behind the scenes to support System 2, which is the part of our mind that actually does intense thinking and analysis. Kahneman continues:

The measure of success for System 1 is the coherence of the story it manages to create. The amount and quality of the data on which the story is based are largely irrelevant. When information is scarce, which is a common occurrence, System 1 operates as a machine for jumping to conclusions.

Without reading the other side in a debate, System 1 will simply serve up coherent stories from the data it has from one side and jump to conclusions.

And there also remains a bias favoring the first impression. The combination of a coherence-seeking System 1 with a lazy System 2 implies that System 2 will endorse many intuitive beliefs, which closely reflect the impressions generated by System 1. Of course, System 2 also is capable of a more systematic and careful approach to evidence, and of following a list of boxes that must be checked before making a decision— think of buying a home, when you deliberately seek information that you don’t have. However, System 1 is expected to influence even the more careful decisions. Its input never ceases.

Because System 2 is lazy (we don’t want to think if we don’t have to), System 1 just keeps on serving up conclusions based on the one-sided evidence it has received. Kahneman offers up an abbreviation for this phenomenon:

Jumping to conclusions on the basis of limited evidence is so important to an understanding of intuitive thinking , and comes up so often in this book, that I will use a cumbersome abbreviation for it: WYSIATI, which stands for what you see is all there is. System 1 is radically insensitive to both the quality and the quantity of the information that gives rise to impressions and intuitions.

Why are we humans programmed with WYSIATI?

WYSIATI facilitates the achievement of coherence and of the cognitive ease that causes us to accept a statement as true. It explains why we can think fast, and how we are able to make sense of partial information in a complex world. Much of the time, the coherent story we put together is close enough to reality to support reasonable action.

However, one of the problems WYSIATI causes is overconfidence.

As the WYSIATI rule implies, neither the quantity nor the quality of the evidence counts for much in subjective confidence. The confidence that individuals have in their beliefs depends mostly on the quality of the story they can tell about what they see, even if they see little. We often fail to allow for the possibility that evidence that should be critical to our judgment is missing— what we see is all there is. Furthermore, our associative system tends to settle on a coherent pattern of activation and suppresses doubt and ambiguity.

This is why we must read the other side. Without doing so, we become overconfident in our views and we actively suppress doubt and ambiguity. One of the great lessons to be learned in life is that we have to learn to be more humble in our viewpoints, and we have to live with less confidence and more ambiguity.  Otherwise, we are simply jumping to conclusions.

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  • David Leal

    Bill, how do you filter out the snide and condescendence that is often used in popular atheist books? That’s one of the things that annoys me the most.

  • Hi David,
    Here’s the way I look at it. The more condescending and nasty an atheist writer is, the weaker their position is, or the less they understand the actual issues at hand. Ridicule is mostly used when you don’t have good arguments or you don’t really understand the arguments of the other side.

    So, ironically, I find condescension and nastiness in atheist books to be reassuring. I am reassured that the arguments I find persuasive really are good arguments, and that the atheist arguments are not.

    Many years ago, I heard Ravi Zacharias speak to a university audience and say something like the following: “There are brilliant atheists and there are brilliant Christians. Until you truly come to understand that, you will never understand the arguments of both sides.”

  • David Leal

    Bill, thanks for your reply. It makes a lot of sense.

  • Todd

    Been a while since I dropped in. Hope all is well. In reply, occasionally, when debating with someone who refuses to accept common truths about reality, I am tempted to employ an argument from ridicule. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I have a weak position, but rather when faced with a stubborn opponent, demonstrating the fallacy of their argument in a way that triggers some amount of shame might help them to see the ridiculousness of their position. For example, I often poke fun at Christians who suggest people can return from the dead with a ‘resurrection trial’ where volunteers are killed and expect god to return them to life in three days. Condescending? Perhaps. But it gets the point across.

    At times I also think the atheist writers are appealing to the perceived intellectual superiority of atheism. While I don’t personally subscribe to this, I think pride of thought can be found on both sides. I like the inverse that Bill suggests, there are intelligent folks on both sides. If we start our disagreements thinking the other person is perhaps just as intelligent, a better discourse can occur. Often though, I think the better course of action when no common ground can be found is to simply stop arguing.

  • I think I would agree that ridicule can be used sparingly, from time to time, to make a point. But this should be a tiny part of your argument repertoire. If it is a technique that is used by someone all the time, then this person simply doesn’t understand the other side’s position.

  • Donny

    Who says one “must read the other sides arguments?” Is that written in stone somewhere?
    OTOH, since I discovered MY TRUTH about Spirituality, I no longer have to “argue” about religion or God.
    Having found who and what I was (mostly unconsciously) searching for, I maintain that anyone who must “argue” about their faith or their beliefs, doubts their own faith.
    BTW…to me Truth and God is one and the same. That’s MY Truth!

  • Donny

    David Leal…
    If I may…you might look at whomever is being snide and condescending (about whatever?) as that particular person offering this, is telling you all about themselves.
    It works if you don’t take their comments personally.

  • Donny,
    Since you are stressing that these things are only your truths, I’m curious why you are telling anybody else.

    Each person has his own truth, so why bother telling us what your truth is? It just doesn’t matter to me what your truth is, because I and already else already have our own truths.

    Or do think that our truths are really false and you’re trying to help us see your truth because your truth is true?

  • Donny

    I didn’t mean to say, (if i did), that “things” are ONLY my truths…what I mean is, truth & God is my truth (not yours) and only within me.
    By the same token…whatever is TRUE for you has nothing to do with me…or anyone else.
    But there’s a caveat…that truth explained, whatever I share, then becomes an opinion.
    And there’s this…some sage said a long time ago, that the truth explained, is a lie.

    And why am I telling others? Because it works for me..and for those who want to know what peace of mind is. That’s why people pay me…not for the knowledge, but for empowering their lives. They “get it!”

    And they’re not just clients. They’re my good and loving friends.

    And whatever is “true” for you it’s none of my business, except if you want to share it. And that’s exactly what I do as a coach. I just share my life…which I’ve learned to love. That’s what my clients love!
    Wanna talk to them? They’d be happy to share with you too.

  • I have peace of mind, my mind is empowered, and I “get it”, yet you and I seem to have quite different views on a variety of topics.

    Some of my truths directly contradict some of your truths, as you yourself have pointed out. What do we do with that fact?

  • Donny

    With respect, what’s true for you is none of my business…that is unless you tell me SPECIFICALLY whatever “truth” you’re considering and ONLY if you request my feedback. Which I don’t recommend.
    But then what you call YOUR truth (or mine) is shared or explained, it’s no longer the truth, it becomes an opinion.
    And make no mis-take, Bill. Whatever I’ve shared here, I have absolutely no need to convince you.

  • Donny

    Your life works for you? Nothing more to say…(Big smile)

  • Donny,

    I think you’re being disingenuous and that’s what is really bothering me. You think I and other Christians are wrong about all sorts of things, but when I ask you to clarify any single issue, you dance around and refuse to engage me in conversation that will lead to the truth of the issue.

    You seem to think you’re above having to engage me in anything, as if I’m a child that you don’t want to upset. Or perhaps your thoughts are just too deep for me to comprehend?

    Take a look at a sampling of the kinds of negative and judgmental things you’ve said in the blog comments over the last few days, and then explain to me why I’m misunderstanding you. These are all your comments written to many different people:

    “When I gave up my belief ‘system,’ especially regarding religious beliefs (replaced by Thinking for myself), the result was Spirituality…the Oneness which religion does not encourage”.

    “For example, as Ken Wilber might suggest…’to believe in God is to miss the point altogether.’”

    “Make no mistake, no religion can exist or survive without ‘believing’ their particular dogma and superstitions. OTOH, as a long time professional life coach, my experience is that through organized religion(s), beliefs has taken over people’s minds..and truth has gone out the window.”

    “For me, when it was suggested I read the bible as a metaphor, then it made perfect sense…including the absurd ‘miracles.’”

    “To cut to the chase…it happened long after I gave up ‘believing’ in God through religious doctrine, dogma and superstitions.”

    “This is not the same as organized religion where you MUST ‘BELIEVE’ their dogma or superstitions OR ELSE!”

    “Yet I don’t ‘believe’ in Jesus or God…I’ve given up ‘believing’ in either one to KNOW God. I suggest you define ‘belief’…but you won’t find truth there.

    That said…Embracing Spirituality, I no longer need to argue about religion…”

    “I think (for myself) rather than believe, that Jesus wanted us to know we are all children of God, just like him. When I gave up ‘believing’ in God, I found him exactly where Jesus said…within me!”

    “FYI, I don’t teach…I educate. And I highly doubt you know the difference. The same goes for belief and truth…I doubt you know the difference? OR EVEN WANT TO KNOW the difference!”

    “And no I don’t ‘believe,’ I THINK..for myself! Especially regarding organized religions insisting on their flock to blindly accept their dogma and childish superstitions…or else! And thinking for oneself is no doubt a phenomenon your ‘faith’ probably discourages.”

    “What organized religion tolerates an open mind? Try being open about thinking for yourself and you’ll find yourself out on your ear.”

    “The big difference I see is, with Christianity, one must believe what they’re told, their dogma and their superstitions they call ‘miracles.’”

    “Many years ago the church leaders believed the Earth was the center of the Universe…with the risk of jail (or worse) if one disbelieved. Galileo? Later, it was proved it wasn’t true. So somewhere down the line, religious wise, belief was substituted for truth…while truth went out the window. And if one doesn’t accept (believe) the respective religion’s dogmatic versions…you are OUT! Yes? Thus, belief is belief and truth is truth…they’re not the same.”

    “Bible or not…Punishing children? A jealous God? Certainly Not a God I’d honor.”

    “So when Eve yielded to temptation, and ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil, what she, later Adam, woke up to was the world of opposites. The dual world of right/wrong…good/bad…up/down…in/out, etc., etc., the world we live in today.

    Of course none of this ever really happened, but the story is a most wonderful (full-of-wonder) metaphor for how we live our lives today…still trying to get back in the Garden.”

    “OTOH, since I discovered MY TRUTH about Spirituality, I no longer have to ‘argue’ about religion or God. Having found who and what I was (mostly unconsciously) searching for, I maintain that anyone who must ‘argue’ about their faith or their beliefs, doubts their own faith.”

    “OTOH, I could identify ‘belief’ as a lame and dangerous substitute for truth.”

    You can see from the above that you disparaged “belief” numerous times, but When I asked you why you were disparaging the word “belief,” you said:

    “I am done explaining. Disparaging is your word, not mine. And it doesn’t work for me to put words in my mouth that I didn’t say nor meant! Offering any further opinions, explanations or distinctions would approach my having to defend myself…which I decline.”

    “And make no mistake, Bill. Whatever I’ve shared here, I have absolutely no need to convince you.”

    “Here again I never said you needed to understand the difference between belief and truth. OTOH, for clarification, I meant IN ORDER TO UNDERSTAND where i’m coming from, yes, you’ll need to understand the difference…no question there!”

    What say you?

  • Donny

    I say…whatever works for you, Bill.

  • Donny

    BTW Bill, everything you’ve written to me or about me…isn’t about me. It’s all about you. So with all due respect, I thank you for sharing you.

  • David Leal

    Thanks, Donny. I agree taking it personally almost certainly ruins any chances to move the discussion forward.

  • Donny

    Thanks for the thanks. and you’re certainly welcome. It’s refreshing to know there’s another here who can think for yourself…
    If I may add, that’s the key to stop bullying…at least verbally. To not take a bully’s words personally can save a victim much grief…you and me too!
    Happy Holiday…I’m glad you’re around.

  • Donny


    Let’s look at YOUR words, Bill…
    “I think you’re being disingenuous and that’s what is really bothering me.”

    Again, “disingenuous,” is that true Bill or your belief…about me?
    And even if it’s TRUE I’m being disingenuous, why does that bother you?
    Think about that for a sec, Bill?
    So who’s the real subject here? Me or you?
    I’ll answer the rest later.

  • Donny

    Again, YOUR words!

    “You think I and other Christians are wrong about all sorts of things,”
    (Big grin)
    Bill, please show me where I said, “you and other Christians are wrong?…about anything?

  • Donny

    Once more recreating YOUR OWN words:
    “You seem to think you’re above having to engage me in anything, as if I’m a child that you don’t want to upset.”
    DR’s response:
    Is it true i’m above you, as if you’re a child?…Is that what I’m thinking, Bill? Would you bet your life?
    Again, those are YOUR words…are they not?
    And who is it that’s saying anything about you not being upset?
    And why engage me at all if you believe my thoughts are too deep?

  • David Leal

    Oh, I’m sure everyone here can think for themselves. 🙂

    Happy Holiday to you too, Donny.