Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The crucible of argument.

 Note: This is actually a post I wrote over two years ago, and put up elsewhere on the Internets. But I think it is worth reposting and, I've had trouble getting to this blog lately!
I have a theory about arguments. Political or intellectual arguments, that is. If any argument could be carried on to its smallest unit — if all the evidence, sub-arguments and assumptions entailed in each could be worked through by two opponents — inevitably the combatants would whittle the argument down into a very few, or even a singular, unproveable assumptions on which each has a different position. All the other details of disagreement rely on and can be traced back, ultimately, to this central philosophical difference.

I call this a theory for good reason, since it would work in an ideal world but, probably not too often in this one. People misrepresent facts, sometimes with only one conscious eye on the fact and, sometimes deliberately. They also ignore facts that they kind unconvincing or unimportant simply because they butt up against their opinion. Even a simple matter of data can run up against a whole slew of objections — whether this data set is the most accurate or that one is, whether this data set or that one is relevant to the question at hand, etc. And thus, if we can’t even decide on facts, it is harder for us to work our way down to the central disagreements that are not so factual. Additionally, some people are just plain disingenuous; they don’t really have any intellectual interest in the question, but merely get whatever kicks they need from being dogmatic warriors.

I do not mean to argue here that because truth is illusive, it does not exist and therefore, let’s all be moderate and listen to each other’s opinions with equal respect, even when some opinions are patently absurd. That would suggest I am content with what my theory implies. I’m not. Increasingly I am disturbed by how those, when confronted with convincing evidence that opposes their opinion, manage to weasel their way out of consciously admitting fault or reshaping their assessment. There is nothing anyone can say, for example, to libertarians convinced the New Deal made America worse off. There is nothing anyone can say, for another example, to someone who really believes the moon landing was faked. And there is nothing anyone can say to a religiously minded conservative that really believes that civilization is headed for the toilet once gay people can get married. These are mindsets immune to historical or factual reasoning. But, this is not to imply that all opinions are so ideological or resilient to reasoned debate.

However, it does imply that as humans, we have done a pretty bad job at teaching ourselves to truly reason. It does mean that currently, there are other things – religious sentiment, ideology, dogmatism — that while our society does not always openly place above reason, a whole slew of subtle and not-so-subtle influences in our society actually do encourage the dismissal of evidence and reason. Additionally, many people rely on such overarching mindsets as the means of supplying meaning, understanding and purpose in life — with so much at stake, they cling to them like desperate little birds about to fall out of trees. They will take any pathway out of having to question them, including falling under the spell of less-than-reasonable modes of thought.

It is unfortunate that so few are willing to concede that at heart, many of their cherished opinions are based on improvable assumptions. I too of course, have values that shape my thought that cannot possibly be validated by empirical evidence or pure reason. But I feel encouraged by the conclusions they lead me to because I see evidence of their efficaciousness and positive effect in the real world, in the realm of the actual and the factual. Regardless of whether humans are really created “equal” — obviously this is man-made idea, insofar as being empirically unproveable in the way it is meant to be read — it is certainly true that multiculturalism, pluralism and the division of church and state allow for more freedom of expression, which leads to more varied cultural products, which leads to more human creativity in general. I am with Chomsky in assuming man is happiest this way. But I fail to think of many examples where open minds, intellectual diversity and curiosity have resulted in a more miserable or less functional populace. Perhaps things are less conflicted in largely homogenous communities, but that is not because diversity is a bad thing in and of itself; it is because people have a negative response to diversity, which creates all sort of negative things. Ignorance, in other words, is the problem, not diversity. And diversity is perhaps one of the most stubborn characteristics of human nature and modern society.

If all people were aware of their starting assumptions, we could then have a fruitful discussion about how much our assumptions match real-world phenomena, or how well they work in a real-world context, to put it in a better way. But few consider their fundamental beliefs as “assumptions” — rather, they are truths, and truths do not respond to mere facts.

Furthermore, even if we were able to throw arguments into this crucible of debate, it would be difficult, in our current society, to find a medium in which to realistically do it, particularly due to the disagreement over facts. We would have to throw the two central representatives of a contested issue in a room (or force them into continuous written dialogue with one another), with access to every reference or experimental procedure and then force them to explain and defend each and every one of their points. In the age of infotainment, when even the analysis of important issues in the most prestigious newspaper makes an undergraduate paper look thoughtful, it is unlikely that anyone would be willing to pay attention long enough to absorb the lesson.

Yet so often I fantasize about being able to get to the heart of fundamental issues in this manner. It makes watching our sorry excuse for public discourse even that more painful.

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