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Sunday, February 07, 2016

Assumptions and Loaded Conversations

Back in 2012, NBA Commissioner David Stern caught flack for cracking an old joke in an interview with Jim Rome. Rome asked him if the NBA lottery was rigged. Stern came back with, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?”

Of course, this immediately got him into trouble with the PC set, who took him to be making fun of the very serious issue of wife abuse. I can sympathize with their ire; but in fairness, I think it’s not what Stern was trying to say. He was actually referring to an old (admittedly somewhat tasteless) joke. I think I first read it on a bubble gum wrapper when I was a kid, and I remember seeing it in other places a well. It was one of those things that was “just around”. The joke went like this:

Question: What’s a question you cannot answer either “Yes” or “No”?
Answer: Have you stopped beating your wife yet?

Perhaps Stern and I chewed the same gum, I don’t know.

In any case, I think he was just trying to say, “I can’t answer your question; it’s a trap”. You see, the question in the joke already assumes that the respondent has, at some time in the past, beaten his wife: to answer “Yes”, implies, “I used to beat my wife”; but “No”, means “I have not stopped beating my wife”. Either way, the respondent is going to be admitting to being an abuser.

Funny? Not really. And if Stern had thought for a few minutes, he probably could have come up with a less politically-incorrect way to make his point. At the same time, he was pointing to a feature of debate that we do well to consider.


Something I’ve learned in my years in philosophy … you’ve really got to watch out for assumptions.

There’s lots of stuff people believe that they only believe because they already believe something else, something deeper, something they take so completely for granted that they would never think to question it. If you’ve ever run into someone who holds an opinion you find obviously irrational or immoral, and if you’ve ever wondered how they can possibly have that opinion, chances are they are deriving it from a previous assumption they haven’t even thought to state. They just think it’s common sense.

So they may turn around and look at you, and say, “How can you possibly NOT believe what I do?” Perhaps they can’t even see your reasoning, because yours is based on something they’ve never thought about, whereas theirs is drawn from their own background of intuitions, suppositions, traditions or habits of thought.

A classic example might be something like debating euthanasia. One person says, “It’s obviously wrong to kill people”, and another says, “How on earth can you deny people their dignity?” Perhaps the difference between these two is really in their assumptions: one assumes that human beings have an intrinsic right to life derived from God having given it to them; the other assumes that human beings own themselves, and so have a right to dispose of their own lives as they see fit. They can’t see each other’s points because they don’t share the root assumption about what a “life” really is.

It’s Not a Logic Problem

Now, notice that after that initial assumption, neither is using flawed logic. If “life” is a gift of God, it is perfectly logical to insist that no one takes it away under any conditions without the permission of God. How dare they? But if life is the private possession of the individual, then what kind of a fascist thug would deny someone else the right to die with dignity? How dare they? Each may well seem lunatic to the other.

That’s why it’s not logic per se that is often the problem: it’s the first assumption or premise upon which the logic in question is being built. That is why it is so very important for anyone interested in holding intelligent and fair-minded discussions with other people to be sensitive and alert to what their underlying suppositions might be. If you can detect these, you may be able to communicate with them over things you might have thought impossible; but if you do not detect these, you may well find yourself unable to make clear to them why you think what you think, or why they perhaps might want to think about the world a different way.

No Exceptions

No one is free from assumptions. No one.

You can be making good ones or you can be making bad ones, but there’s no such thing as a person who is speaking from no assumptions at all.

Archimedes, the philosopher-scientist, claimed that if he had a place to stand he could move the world. For any human viewpoint, the endeavour to exert “leverage” on another’s worldview requires that one must stand securely on some foundational assumptions of one’s own. But the foundation upon which we rest our “fulcrum” when we assert our opinions or challenge the belief of another person is ordinarily invisible to us. It just seems so common-sensical, so beyond doubt, that we never dream of needing to explain it.

One sees this all the time in the writings of materialist philosophers. Often, they launch right into criticizing belief in the supernatural, gods, miracles or creation without spelling out explicitly that they are grounding their comments in the assumption that such things simply cannot exist. They simply assume that all right-thinking people think the way they do. Thus they honestly believe that they are completely objective, operating from a dispassionate perspective which is really a “the view from nowhere”, meaning a view completely free from bias and assumption.

However, no such situation exists. As feminist critic Marion Namenworth puts it, “Scientists firmly believe that as long as they are not conscious of any bias or political agenda, they are neutral and objective, when in fact they are only unconscious”. But being unconscious of one’s own assumptions is not at all the same thing as not having assumptions.

In fact, a true “view from nowhere” cannot have anything to say of any meaning or depth. It would have to be devoid of categories, and absolutely free from the use of value-laden terms. Thus it could collect and list random data only, but could never decide anything. The very minute it adopted criteria for data, or the minute it attempted to categorize and classify or evaluate data, it would no longer be assumption-free.

And as Namenworth points out, that such a person’s suppositions are opaque to him does not give him any kind of deliverance from bias; it simply makes him dangerously na├»ve, for in his confidence of objectivity he is prone to scorn all perspectives which fail to commend themselves to his prejudices. He is twice fooled — once for biasing his findings and once for failing to recognize his own bias.

Such is truly a “blind guide of the blind”.

Safety from Folly

Being conscious of assumptions is the first step not just to understanding the other, but also to full understanding of your own point of view. It is also the first step to avoiding being drawn into a belief that is based in a bad assumption. Herbert Schlossberg, the Christian author, in his 1990 book Idols for Destruction, said this:
“Assumptions, in fact, are more powerful than assertions, because they bypass the critical faculty and thereby create prejudice. If someone argues the proposition that modern intellectual people do not believe in religious dogmas, I am able to judge whether his arguments are persuasive. The simple act of listening to and argument is almost enough to engage it. But if I listen to someone discourse on a related subject in a way that only assumes that modern intellectual people do not believe in religious dogmas, my mind tends to accept the assumption and bypass it in order to engage the argument which, in fact, depends on it. That bypassed assumption is the pocket of enemy soldiers that was ignored in an effort to engage the main body of the adversary, and it lies in wait to strike from the rear. A false assumption can be combined with an unassailable argument, which then proves the truth of what is false.”
Schlossberg warns us not to jump past the assumptions to get to the argument. If right at the start we concede to our discussion partner an assumption that we actually should know isn’t true, what can happen is that he or she can use a solid pattern of subsequent logic to defeat our view completely rationally. And we may end up mystified as to how our own view, which seemed at first to us so reasonable, has somehow now been torn to shreds and shown as completely irrational.

Assumptions rule.


The book of Proverbs says, “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is a folly and a shame to him”. When we engage in conversation with people from other viewpoints, our first task is to really “hear” where they are coming from. In specific, we need to be asking ourselves not just “What is he or she saying?” but also “Why does this seem true to him or her?” To know that, we need to ask, “What is he or she assuming is true, that also makes his or her opinion seem rational?” For unless we get to the root assumptions that are driving the expressed opinions, we will not easily change anyone’s mind.

But the good news here is this: it may not be necessary to see those who hold different opinions than we do as either wicked or stupid; for there are cases in which the problem is neither their morals nor their rationality — it’s their assumptions. We may be able to take the charitable view that perhaps they have never thought about their own foundational premises, and that perhaps by discussing these explicitly we may find them more reasonable and tractable than we might have otherwise supposed.

With a little charity, we may even find out they’re more open to the gospel than we ever imagined.

And how great would that be?


  1. Thanks fir this very informative and eye-opening blog. Never really thought along those lines. I passed on a link to this blog because most people can benefit from your exposition.

    I also know that you are really implementing and living it by your near saintly endurance of the, as of late, vituperative environment in the PN forum (I do check back occasionally). Something that turns me off so that I am not interested in returning there. I hope that you find cases where your patience pays off.

  2. Thanks, Q. My patience is very small, actually. :) But God's patience with me is very great, and that always counsels me to greater patience than I naturally possess with those who think differently.

    And sometimes, the Lord opens the ears of the deaf. It was one of the things He did very frequently during His time among us, wasn't it?

  3. Caution! Beware of unintended consequences. Actually, IC, your advice, even though meant to help, can make life a lot more difficult too.

    I copied my daughter on this link and this was her response:

    Next time I hear you debating with someone I will take notice of you trying hard to figure out the other person's "assumptions" before you declare them a "ninny."

    Note: I will bypass discussing the truthfulness and merits of her statement.

    1. Sorry if I've made trouble for you, Q.

      That's why having children is dangerous...they know too much about you. :)