Why You (Usually) Can’t Persuade Someone They’re Wrong

I recently finished Mapping The Origins Debate by Gerald Rau (which is excellent by the way). My review is forthcoming, but I wanted to go ahead an highlight a hugely important point that Rau makes, almost as an afterthought.

After presenting 6 models of the beginning of everything (not one by one, but through different themes), Rau offers an epilogue that almost (almost!) reveals his own position. He does though explain why conceptual change is hard. Pulling from what looks like an interesting essay in Cognitive Models of Science, Rau gives four factors that must be present for conceptual change to take place:

  1. There must be dissatisfaction with current conceptions
  2. A new conception must be intelligible
  3. A new conception must appear initially plausible
  4. A new conception should suggest the possibility of a fruitful research program

Now, Rau is talking about paradigmatic shifts in science (not unlike The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). However, I think his insights apply just as equally to apologetics, and that makes the initial point crucial.

If you are into apologetics, this would mean your primary task is creating dissatisfaction with the status quo. Not presenting evidence for the Christian faith (which is #2, and #3 above). Unless you’ve made an effort to create conceptual nausea in the person’s current worldview, you are wasting your time trying to prove your case.

This is one of the main reasons I am a presuppositionalist when it comes to apologetic methodology. The key thinkers in presuppositionalism (Van Til, Bahnsen, Frame) get this, and give you the tools to deconstruct a person’s worldview (thus getting to criteria #1 above) and then you can use the tools of constructive apologetics to make a positive case.

In the end though, this is why you usually can’t simply persuade someone they’re wrong. If you’re not aiming at dissatisfaction with their current viewpoint, you’re probably not going to get very far in your efforts at paradigm shifting.


Author: Nate

I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

2 thoughts on “Why You (Usually) Can’t Persuade Someone They’re Wrong”

  1. I just finished this book the other night as well. If there was only one thing to take away from this book it is that the scientific evidence is not self interpreting and that every interpretation and observation about the evidence is done so through an already developed worldview or set of presuppositions. This is why an atheist and theist (depending on the model) will always see the same evidence differently at certain points. This is one of the shining contributions to Plantinga’s book Where the Conflict Really Lies. He points out that naturalism itself is an interpretation of the scientific evidence. He calls it a philosophical add-on I believe. Good book!

    The issue is not whether or not we have presuppositions when interpreting the evidence but whether or nor we are operating with the right set.

    I try to hammer this time and time again with my evidentialist friends but get nowhere. Maybe I am not communicating it well enough, I don’t know.

    1. I got that as well, although I also got that during seminary as well. And you’re right that’s a shining point of Plantinga’s book (which I really enjoyed!). It seems like a straight-forward thing, but it’s not surprising that evidentialists might push back on it a bit.

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