Thursday, August 12, 2010

Why Engage in Rational Argument?

The very wise Robert Todd Carroll, author of the Skeptic's Dictionary, made my day with an insightful essay (DEFINITELY worth reading in its short entirety) about the purpose of critical thinking and rational argument in a world where our interlocutors rarely seem to value those things. Arguments, online and in meatspace, are often emotionally difficult and seemingly counterproductive; no one ever seems to change his mind, so why bother?

Carroll's reader laments:
I . . . find it frustrating and upsetting when people make me feel I’m wrong or crazy when I, very diplomatically, describe a more rational, objective, or philosophical explanation, when other people follow irrational paths.

Carroll correctly notes that rationality, the practice of critical reasoning, is a very unnatural mode for humans - it's not what we evolved to do. Valuing truth above one's own interests is hardly evolutionarily beneficial behavior. And people don't tend to admit that you've changed their minds.

But, Carroll says, rational argument has several major purposes, even if it doesn't seem to change anyone's mind: first, argument benefits us directly by promoting our own truth-seeking function:

It is pleasurable to seek out the best evidence available and construct the best argument possible. It is pleasurable to explore a strong argument that goes against what you believe. Either you find weaknesses and fallacies in the argument (strengthening the confidence in your conviction) or you realize the error of your ways. Either way, you benefit. Examining arguments, especially arguments that seem counterintuitive, is the only way we can arrive at the most reasonable beliefs possible.

Mostly, though, argument serves the purpose of (a) potentially changing an observer's mind (especially important for web arguments), (b) changing an interlocutor's mind later, when face-saving is no longer an issue; and (c) figuring out whether we ourselves might be wrong. Carroll says:

The dynamics of changing minds are complex, but I hope for two things by confronting the errors of others in a public forum: I hope they will later reconsider their views in light of the evidence and arguments I present, and I hope others who are not directly in the fray, but who are interested in the subject and interested in getting it as right as possible, will read the discussion and see that I have the better evidence and arguments. I also remain open to the possibility that I might be wrong and that some observer will provide me with the evidence and argument to show me the error of my ways.

Take heart, fellow antinatalists and other thought criminals.


  1. On occasions when I have changed my mind about some significant matter, the change has seldom happened in the midst of an argument. Yet an argument has often been the catalyst. There's a feeling that comes after the heat, as the gears keep churning and the little homunculus goes back over his notes...

    The last passage by Carroll closely mirrors my own thinking, of course. Civility matters.

  2. "Civility matters."

    It depends what you want to accomplish: do you want others to share your beliefs or share the same reasons as you for those beliefs?

    What if most people are more receptive to changing their mind in response to public shaming and ridicule than carefully crafted logical arguments? What if most people become converted because Oprah endorses it? Etc.

    Some people will never understand nor change their minds about some things. Why treat them any better they would treat you?

  3. Well-reasoned argument can, I think, have an influence, but usually only indirectly, perhaps mainly through the mediation of generations ( --perhaps Rawls is, or will prove to be, an example). More often than not, I suspect, it's at bottom unwitting erudite emoting, signalling, and post-hoc rationalization, organization and sprucing up of pre-existing more or less inchoate intuitions.

    What I suspect usually happens is that argument may help to spark an awareness within oneself of kinship with the intuitions motivating the construction of the argument proffered, leading one to mistakenly pride oneself in believing that one's endorsement of the position advanced by the argument is entirely a matter of rational acceptance of its logical authority, when in fact the real work of persuasion is churning about underneath it all according to associations and relations of intuitions which bear little resemblance to the organized surface of articulated rational relationships among beliefs.

    On the other hand, it might be useful in a culture which puts a premium on being able to rationalize (account for oneself), to promote the illusion, through the presentation of argument, that the view one is arguing for is a pure product of reasoning, which might have an effectively humiliating impact (though I'm very doubtful).

  4. Most of my mind-changing has occurred after an argument, as well.

    As for civility - Plague Dr. brings up a good point about shaming and ridicule... Unfortunately, there are not enough of us for shaming to be effective. On the other hand, civility often becomes a red herring in an argument and people can construe any statement as uncivil, especially if it overtly or covertly criticizes their behavior and choices. Then they treat their opponent's "incivility" as an excuse to ignore his/her arguments. I'd like to see this attitude evaporate, but I'm not sure what the best way to go about it is. You can call people out on it, but by then they may have already stopped reading the thread (if it's an online discussion).

  5. After watching The White Ribbon, I looked up a recent interview with Michael Haneke where he says "Every argument is powerless against feelings." I'm stung by the implacable simplicity of this assertion. While I think it is possible, with practiced effort, to at least partially overcome the tendency to align argument with sentiment, there's no easy way to navigate the terrain in the theater of debate. Perhaps the best you can do is to plant seeds in the hope that they'll find purchase in richer soil.

    I don't think of civility as an outgroup strategy for dissidents. I think it's more about human relationship and good conscience, which I admit are subjective values. I may be wrong about the aggregate effectiveness of mannered discourse in matters known to provoke violent opposition and discomfiture. If I am wrong, there's not much I can do other than learn from the sport and hold out for marginal returns.

  6. Huh, I just watched the White Ribbon myself, and now I can't remember who it was I wanted to thank for the recommendation. Great movie.

  7. I remember now: It was a person called Jem, who writes very nicely, who recommended The White Ribbon over on Jim Crawford's blog Antinatalism: the Greatest Taboo. Thanks again, and here's an exchange recommendation: I just saw The Invention of Lying, which is a hugely problematic movie due to its gaggy rom-com structural underpinnings, but it does take on death head-on before veering back into pro-natalist happytalk. When the inventor of lying presented his new knowledge of the Man in the Sky to a detail-hungry populace I laughed till I cried.

  8. Despite being, or perhaps rather because I am, a longtime admirer of Haneke's work, White Ribbon is hugely disappointing to me, as I really should have anticipated from the relative popularity it has enjoyed in the States. Granted, the scene between the doctor and the midwife is one of the most searing episodes of unmitigated emotional cruelty I've ever seen; and there is an exquisitely ominous editing subtlety within the first sixty seconds or so of the film ( --the first cut after the shot of the daughter running from the house up to where her father has been thrown of the horse is not, as one would naturally expect, a point-of-view shot directed at her father but rather one directed at the horse then the father). But for me it never really rose beyond an arch thought experiment of what a community whose moral ethos is permeated by a numinous caricature of Kantian severity might be like.

    A collaboration with Houellebecq might be interesting.


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