Critical Thinking Tip: Use The Socratic Method!

Photo: Jacques-Louis David/Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Jacques-Louis David/Wikimedia Commons


An essential and effective strategy to have in your debating repertoire is the Socratic method. The Socratic method is named after the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates who was one of its early pioneers. The Socratic method basically consists of asking your opponent, or the person you're in dialogue with, a series of penetrating questions and follow-up questions. Using this strategy can bring about one of several results.

For starters, you can illustrate that your opponent hasn't thought the issue through very deeply or doesn't know much about the topic at hand. Although this can frustrate an inexperienced debater, keep in mind that you're not necessarily antagonizing or attempting to humiliate them by doing this. Any time a person gets us to think more thoroughly about a topic and gets us to discover limitations in our knowledge and argumentative capabilities, we should be thankful. I can't tell you how many times I've gone into a debate confident in my view on the topic, only to have just a few basic questions from my opponent reveal that I don't actually know much about the question at hand. This realization motivates us to seek out more knowledge on this topic and ultimately put ourselves in a position where we truly are well-informed and prepared to answer those sort of questions. 

This brings to mind a quote from none other than Socrates himself: "The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing." While this might seem a bit hyperbolic, what I take away from this quote is that once you recognize how little you know about so much, this puts you in a position of wanting to rectify that situation by seeking out more information and trying to learn more about those topics. It's this sort of modesty, honesty, and open-mindedness that allows us to ultimately become more knowledgeable and arrive at the most reasonable positions. I'm not sure if that's exactly what Socrates was getting at when he said that quote, but that's what I read into it.

Another potential outcome of using the Socratic method is the demonstration that your opponent's view on the topic is inconsistent with another view that they hold. One notable exchange I had in the past will serve as an example. Not long ago, I was debating somebody about whether it's ethical for women to abort fetuses with birth defects such as Down's Syndrome. My opponent's position was that this would be unethical, and their position appeared to be motivated, in part, by the fact that they had a sibling with Down's Syndrome. Before you think less of me, know that it was the other person who brought this topic up and wanted to debate it.

After prodding him with a string of questions, I put this person into a corner where he admitted that he generally supports the right of women to choose to have an abortion and doesn't view this as ethically problematic—unless that fetus has a birth defect like Down's Syndrome. Only then did it become unethical in their mind. I would argue that this revealed a massive inconsistency in their views towards abortion. If anything, you'd expect a person to permit abortions if the fetus is defective or unhealthy in some way—while being opposed to the abortion of perfectly healthy fetuses. This person's view was the exact opposite. In addition to revealing this inconsistency, I think the Socratic method, in this case, revealed that this person's argument was motivated more by emotion than a reasoned analysis of the question at hand.

Another benefit of the Socratic method is that it can reveal troubling or absurd consequences that follow from adopting your opponent's view on the subject. Let's imagine, in a simplified example, that a person presents us with the following argument:


Premise 1) People commit murder with guns.
Premise 2) We should make things that people commit murder with illegal.
Conclusion) Therefore, we should make guns illegal.


Using the Socratic method, you could pay special attention to Premise 2 of this argument, and ask the person questions like "We should make anything that people commit murder with illegal? What if I were to beat a person to death with a coffee mug? According to your logic, since I committed murder with a coffee mug, we should make coffee mugs illegal, right? Couldn't a creative person commit murder with the vast majority of items in their home?" Questions like this would quickly reveal to your opponent that his argument is problematic because, if adopted, it would lead to the illegality of so many different things that no sensible person would want illegal.

This example also leads us to another possible outcome of using the Socratic method: It can lead your opponent to clarify and refine their argument. If a person realizes that their original argument was poorly thought out or poorly worded, they can go back to the drawing board and rephrase it in a better way. Or, alternatively, if they can't resuscitate the argument and frame it in any reasonable way, this might ultimately lead them to drop the argument altogether and revise their position on the topic at hand.

Applying the Socratic method could also lead us to change our views on the topic at hand. If the opponent answers every question we present them with to our satisfaction, the end result could be that we end up adopting their view because they've demonstrated to us that it's reasonable and worth adopting. So the Socratic method can benefit both the person asking the questions and the person being questioned.

A final benefit of using the Socratic method is that it can simply steer the conversation down interesting paths and move the debate forward. When you ask a person a series of penetrating questions, you're getting them to do more than just regurgitate the standard talking points that they're used to making on the subject, almost as a sort of Pavlovian response to the stimulus of bringing that topic up. The Socratic method allows us to very quickly and effectively get somebody off their script and have them provide spontaneous responses to questions that they might not be used to answering or thinking about. So the Socratic method ultimately allows us to break new ground and move the debate forward.

Keep in mind that you don't need to be a scholar on the topic in order to utilize the Socratic method, nor do you need to ask the most brilliant or incisive questions. You can just ask simple questions like "Why do you think that?", "How do you know?", and that's enough to get the ball rolling. It really is an easy process to engage in, and with practice, it just becomes second nature for you to ask a series of piercing questions that allow us to cut through the bullshit and get to the core of the issue.

Another great way to become skilled at using the Socratic method is to see the process in action in real time rather than in hypothetical examples. This also illustrates its many benefits in a tangible way. I'm going to close this video by showing an example of the Socratic method in action. This footage is taken from the cross-examination section of a debate on abortion between Matt Dillahunty and Kristine Kruszelnicki. (Watch from 37:36–48:10.)


Notice some of the results of Matt's Socratic probing: He revealed that Kristine views the usage of contraception that blocks implantation as the starvation of a child of nutrients and oxygen. He also revealed that she thinks abortion should be treated as equivalent to the murder of a born and conscious human being. These were important revelations, because they show that if we adopt her arguments as the foundation for our position, it can lead to further positions that are arguably ridiculous and ethically unsupportable.

He also revealed some of the difficulties that would exist if we were to adopt Kristine's position, because the question of "What constitutes sufficient risk?" to the health of the mother would be very difficult to assess. Where would the line be drawn? Who would make the decision? What would the criteria be? Many complications would arise from adopting her position.

His freezing of the embryo question was also an interesting one, because, if I recall correctly, the crux of her argument was that embryos and fetuses deserve the same rights as do conscious human beings. If that's the case, how we treat one should be identical to how treat another. So if it's acceptable to freeze one, why not freeze another? These questions make us think twice about the idea that embryos and full-grown human beings should be treated in the same way and given the same rights. Our flippancy towards freezing embryos contrasted with our reluctance towards accepting the idea of freezing full-grown humans makes us consider that maybe there actually are some important differences between embryos and full-grown humans.

Kristine also had some good questions for Matt. The one that stuck out to me was her question about whether Matt would support the right of homophobic parents to abort gay children. Such a question could certainly make opponents of religious homophobia think more deeply about their stance on this issue. This and the question about sex-selective abortions also brings to mind the broader idea of eugenics, making us think about the ethics of aborting fetuses simply because they have undesirable traits that we as parents don't like the sight of or that we as a species would like to purge from the gene pool altogether.

The most basic observation we can make is that the Socratic method is clearly useful for the questioner, the person being questioned, and for any audience that might be listening to the ongoing exchange.