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How to Write a Devil's Advocate Paper for a Critical Thinking Class
Critical Thinking and Logic
A critical thinking class should be a requirement for all college students, regardless of age. Not only does it help point out fallacious reasoning and logical inconsistencies, it teaches students to identify and recognize various types of arguments and to analyze them based on their own merits - and not necessarily on the emotions or biases of the topics that come up for consideration. Understanding that philosophical papers vary greatly from the run-of-the-mill papers often required for college classes is essential to performing in the class successfully. In my own experience with critical thinking both in and out of the classroom, teaching someone how to think, but not what to think is an essential tool that can be used throughout a student's life, career and future, and makes them more capable of recognizing good and bad arguments, logical fallacies and problems with reasoning that they will encounter in every day life, regardless of the topic at hand.
Have You Ever Had to Write a Devil's Advocate Paper?
The Devil's Advocate Paper
There are several essential components to a Devil's Advocate paper. Understanding these elements and fulfilling their requirements ensures a passing (and often exceptional) grade, while failing to meet these requirements will often detract from a potentially valid and important premise. While a Devil's Advocate position paper can be about any issue, most critical thinking classes narrow the scope down to one or two options. In my class, we could write on either affirmative action or the existence of God. We were able to choose either topic, and further choose our position on the topic, but we were expected (via the rubric) to follow the template we were provided and make sure that all of the elements were adequately provided. To make a difficult subject even more challenging, our paper had to be brief - at most three pages. This meant that we had to be succinct and direct and not waste a lot of space beating around the bush with irrelevant or unimportant aspects. Both of these topics could easily turn into twenty-page papers, and being confined to even a handful was an added challenge that forced us to think in ways that we often are not exposed to. I will explain the required template, and provide an example from the paper that I then submitted as a way of demonstrating the requirements.
Part One: Thesis
The thesis portion of the paper clearly defines the writer's position and thesis statement. Since the use of the first-person is frowned upon in academic writing, explaining your position without personal pronouns was an added challenge, but it also allowed us to think outside of the box and to step away from the emotional nature of the issue at hand. While this paragraph could expand exponentially based on the topics we were allowed to select from, the thesis paragraph should be brief and directly to the point. This is not the place in the paper to ramble or to spin off on long explanations or examples. Keep it short, clear and easily understood.
Section One: The Thesis (example)
The existence or non-existence of God is a question that has plagued mankind since the beginning of time. Throughout history, humankind has posited gods to explain the seemingly unexplainable. An atheist, depending on their particular position, either claims that no gods exist – or more commonly lacks a belief in any proposed deity due to a lack of convincing and impartial evidence.
Choose Your Reasons Wisely
While there may be many reasons why you hold the position that you're arguing for, it is important (especially for such a brief paper) to pick the handful that you feel have the strongest justification behind them so that you can argue them quickly, succinctly and efficiently. If you are hesitant to use one of your examples, discard it and move on to a stronger argument that gives you a better position to defend from. Due to length, it's important to choose ideas that can be expressed briefly and argued for definitively.
Part Two: Reasons for Your Position
We were asked to provide two or three reasons behind our position. This area is one that you can not only expand on the ideas expressed in your thesis, but you can also provide brief but relevant background information pertaining to the issue at hand, and explain at least some of your justification for holding the position that you currently are arguing.
Section Two (example)
The study of theodicy – or the problem of evil – is a central theme in understanding why many atheists have recognized their position of unbelief. Theodicy is only relevant to a handful of proposed gods – most commonly the Abrahamic religions that propose that a God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. Since this encompasses the major religious players in the Western world especially, theodicy is a pivotal point of contention between atheists and theists who follow the Abrahamic religious traditions across the globe. While theodicy is not a sufficient justification for not believing in the countless god claims that do not purport a benevolent being, it is a useful argument against the most common claims of deity in the Western world – namely Muslim, Christian and Jewish mainstream faiths.
The argument from design verses the argument from a purely naturalistic standpoint has long been a contentious issue between atheists, agnostics and theists. Is the universe seen today different from what would be expected if a divine force was behind its inception? The problem arises when attempting to determine if this universe was fine-tuned at all. It is simply not possible to extract a formula by which to determine random chance verses structured and intentional design from an ultimate designer – especially if such a designer is still a force that interacts with the natural world. Even if such a designer were possible, it becomes impossible to determine which one, since countless faiths embrace creation stories that form the bedrock to their particular religious beliefs.
What Is Critical Thinking?
Critical Thinking In Action
How often do we truly think about what the opposition truly says, believes or thinks when we find ourselves in disagreement? It is all-too common to firmly hold onto our positions solely because they're our positions, without taking the time to think through what the other person is actually arguing for. Stepping outside of our comfort zone from time to time to truly listen to what's being said or argued is incredibly important in the quest to learn to think critically and analyze the positions that we actually hold in our day-to-day lives, arguments and beliefs.
Part Three: Devil's Advocate - An Opponent's Objection
Unlike other papers you're likely to write in college and in the workforce, the Devil's advocate paper gives writers and students the unique opportunity to argue both sides of an issue, with obviously greater emphasis on the position or thesis that you are arguing. In this section, you're going to write about what your opponent is most likely to say in response to the reasons your provided in defense of your thesis statement. In essence, you're going to argue about what you already wrote from the opposing side. Now is the time to truly begin thinking critically about a position that you hold, and examining what people on the other side are most likely to say in response to what you've already written. In politics, this is commonly understood to be writing an "opposition piece" and is useful in understanding where the other side is coming from so that you can be prepared to rebut any points that they may raise and be prepared in advance to rebut their rebuttal.
Section Three (example):
In regards to the problem of evil, Christian denominations counter theodicy with the notion of free will. They claim that in giving His creation free will, the Abrahamic god has allowed His creation to choose their paths for themselves – with potentially eternal consequences. In this argument, God is therefore the ultimate judge of both good and evil, and humankind will be held responsible for their choices and their actions upon earth at the moment of the final judgment which will decide their ultimate fate. Since the majority of god claims in existence throughout history are not known to be omnibenevolent, the problem of evil does not apply, and cannot be used to counter those deity claims.
The fine-tuning argument is a proposition that is put forth by many believers of many differing faiths. They argue that it is simply improbable that the universe that exists today occurred by chance, without the hand of an invisible designer behind it. Because of the earth’s placement in the galaxy and the relatively low probability of life, theists argue that chance is improbable and therefore the argument from design is valid. To bolster their claim, theists point to their creation story as further proof that not only was the earth designed, but it was created – often specifically for humanity.
Steps to Critical Thinking
Part Four: Rebutting the Rebuttal
The fourth section is designed to respond to the common objections that the opposing side may raise, further explaining, justifying and demonstrating the reasons behind the position that you argued for in the first two sections. Now you can fully pick apart what you argued for in section three, and you can explain why the objections do not logically follow the premise that you're arguing for.
Section Four (example):
For the free will argument, it’s easy to see that it’s an argument of convenience, rather than one of significance. As long as a choice is present, free will still exists. That does not mean that every option has to be available in order to maintain a sense of choice. Removing one or two of the options from the table does not negate the fact that a human being still maintains a choice. In addition, free will does not account for natural disasters that are, at least from a Abrahamic perspective, acts that God certainly has power over. If an Abrahamic God does exist, it creates more pathways to an eternal hell than it closes. Furthermore, many theists claim that being shown undeniable evidence of God would negate free will entirely, which does not necessarily comport with the Biblical model. It is possible, at least in the case of the Judean and Christian model, for a created being to know with certainty that God exists and choose to go against Him anyway. This is demonstrated in the traditional story of Lucifer’s fall from heaven, and the ultimate fate that awaits the devil and all who choose willingly to go against God.
The argument from design often mingles with the argument for creation. Theists use the false dichotomy of pitting creationism against evolution even though evolution is not meant to describe the origins of life. Even if evolution was proven definitively wrong, it does not necessarily mean that creation – let alone a specific version of creation – automatically wins by default. Creation in itself is not repeatable, testable or demonstrable, and stories from any verbal or written accounts have to be considered for bias, and cultural influence. Moving from the concept of a creator to positing a particular, specific one does not logically follow from the premise of fine-tuning or design, and without evidence to support the claim, it simply cannot stand.
Has This Helped You Understand Writing a Devil's Advocate Paper and its Requirements?
Part Five: The Conclusion
As with any paper, a well-reasoned, logical and concise concluding paragraph is one of the most important elements to be concluded. Now is the time to wrap up your thoughts, tie up any loose ends and make your closing remarks. The conclusion is your final opportunity to make your case, restate your arguments, briefly remark on your justification and make your final case. It is the last thing that your professor and/or classmates will read, and it may linger with them long after reading your paper has concluded. It is therefore essential to make sure that it is well written, argued and reasonable, regardless of whether or not your argument agrees with your premise, justifications or closing remarks.
Section Five (example):
While it often seems that both sides are stuck at a stalemate, theists still maintain that proving their version of God is possible. The time to believe something is true is after it has been demonstrated to be true, not simply appealing to faith or ignoring any cognitive dissonance that may arise. If a God exists that interacts with the natural world, the natural world should show traces of His presence. If a God exists that does NOT interact with the natural world, it is therefore indistinguishable from a God that does not exist at all. With so much effort put forth to prove His existence, the wish to believe cannot override the desire to know and understand, which means faith must be withheld until further evidence can be both presented and examined.
© 2014 Julie McFarland