Tom Gilson

How Do You Tell a Good Answer From a Bad One?

Monday Student Focus

I’ve been posting here about the importance of questions, and I got a great one from Tony that I’ll be addressing soon. Before I go there, though, I sense a need to say something about answers: how do you tell a good answer from a bad one?

Since you’re reading this you’ve probably reached the stage where, “Mom or Dad said so,” isn’t good enough any longer. My wife and I are encouraging our son and daughter to make their own decisions about faith, based on their own investigations, not our say-so.

You might have even realized, “My teacher/prof said so,” isn’t necessarily good enough, either.

So what is good enough? Unfortunately there’s no magic machine that automatically sorts out the good answers from the bad ones. But there is a list that can help guide you.

  1. A good answer really addresses the question. It doesn’t sidestep it, it doesn’t shove it off to one side, it doesn’t ignore it. It doesn’t say, “Don’t ask that!”
  2. It’s logically coherent. To be coherent means that the answer holds together without contradicting itself.
    Some answers actually deny themselves. For instance, “You must be tolerant of all beliefs, in the sense that you should regard all beliefs as equal in value.” That’s intolerant of at least one belief itself: that it’s not necessary to be tolerant of all beliefs.
  3. It matches up with known evidence. There’s nothing we know of — in nature, in science, in history, in our self-awareness of what it means to be human, and so on — that shows that it’s wrong.
    There are some atheists who say human consciousness is an illusion (really!), but that contradicts the evidence of human experience, so it can’t be true.
  4. Better yet, evidence plus logic together lead toward that answer. That’s how a detective decides who committed the crime.
  5. Sometimes, though, it’s a good answer if a trusted authority gives it.
    I’ve been to Cuba, and I could tell you just a little bit about what it’s like there. Before you accept my answer as a good one, you might want to decide whether you trust my word. Once you decided that, though, you could feel free to take my answer as a good one, just because I’m in a position to know something about Cuba. (This is why it’s not a good idea to doubt everything you hear from your parents or teachers. They have good reason to know some things.)
  6. Many things we know by direct perception or experience. That’s how I know I’m not hungry at the moment (I can feel whether I’m hungry or not) and that it’s stopped raining outside (I just looked out the window).
  7. And there are some things you just know are good answers.
    Here’s a famous philosophical question that fits that category: Do other people have minds? It turns out there’s no scientific proof that they do: it might be you’re the only one who does, and the world could look just the same way to you if that were true. But really: you know you’re not the only person with a mind, just because you know it.

What would you add? (See below about including the Bible.)

I’m writing this today because I am concerned over how few people seem to be able to tell a good answer from a bad one. Over the next several months I’ll expand on that list, and I’ll try to teach some of the principles in it so we can all be wiser about the answers we accept.

(Some Christian readers might wonder why I didn’t include, “The Bible supports it,” on my list of ways to recognize a good answer. I did, actually: it’s under item 5. Those who recognize the Bible’s trustworthy authority know that it’s the best source of all. It’s just that not everyone knows that about the Bible, or is totally comfortable with viewing it that way, and this list is for them, too. So I didn’t make the Bible an item of its own on this list.)

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3 thoughts on “How Do You Tell a Good Answer From a Bad One?

  1. A good answer doesn’t beg the question or utilise circular reasoning. If someone tells you that the Bible is trustworthy because it says it’s the word of God, they’ve offered an obviously circular argument, or begged the question: it would have to be true that the Bible is the word of God in order for that to be a valid point, but the truth of that assertion is exactly what was in question. Bear in mind, however, that this is a very broad and general problem: nothing can authoritatively testify to its own veracity: not the Bible, not science, not anything. We need to start from somewhere with our reasoning, though. A good answer makes it clear where the reasoning starts from — what it assumes to be true. A really good answer will start from a point that you accept as true already, and show you that the answer follows reasonably from your existing point of view.

  2. I would add that evidence is better than other ways of knowing things.

    If a teacher says “Cuba is part of Africa”, but satellite imagery disagrees, you should go with the evidence even though the teacher is a trusted authority.

    Historically, we’ve learned that “trusted authority”, “direct perception and experience” and “things you just know are good answers” are all less likely to be true than things for which there is evidence. (For example, the moon really isn’t larger when it’s near the horizon, it’s just that your brain’s visual cortex makes you think that it is — hold up a ruler and prove it for yourself!) If you don’t have physical evidence (and often, you don’t), then trusted authorities are great; but it’s best if you can find some evidence.

  3. If a teacher says “Cuba is part of Africa”, but satellite imagery disagrees, you should go with the evidence even though the teacher is a trusted authority.

    Unless you already knew what Cuba and Africa were, how would the satellite imagery help you? And if you already knew what Cuba and Africa were, you wouldn’t need the satellite imagery in the first place.

    In my experience, when people say that “evidence is better than other ways of knowing things,” they are simply punting their criteria for a good argument over the fence into their definition of “evidence”. You then wind up in a separate argument about whether X is evidence for Y or not — although that “argument” usually degenerates into “yes it is,” and “no it isn’t.”

    There’s a little-quoted proverb in the Bible: Proverbs 18:17. “He who pleads his cause first seems right; until another comes and questions him.” One interpretation of the evidence might seem reasonable until someone with a different interpretation challenges it. If someone claims that the evidence supports their claim, be sure to question why and how the evidence is so supportive, and get a second opinion from someone who honestly disagrees, if you can.

    In the end, it usually comes down to a question of authority, unless you really feel that you are competent to evaluate the evidence yourself.

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