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So, here is a link, posted by several people on FB, including a couple who sometimes post comments here:


It’s an interesting link, and I’ve got no argument with it in theory.   In fact, I think it sums up the definition of “rational argument” pretty well.

My problem is that I think it largely misses the point. 

The problem in discussions these days, on the Internet or off it, is not that some people accept that they have to have evidence for their arguments and the other side doesn’t, but that everybody, on both sides, assumes that what the other side asserts as “evidence” is a lie.

If you look at the chart, you’ll find, towards the top:

If one of your arguments is proved to be faulty will you stop using this argument (with everyone).

It’s a nice principle, but when do we know that an argument has proved to be “faulty”?

Start here:  an argument can be faulty in three ways.

First, it can be invalid factually while being invalid formally.  That is, it can be wrong in every sense.  OR

Second, it can be invalid factually while being valid formally.  If you don’t think this can be done, you need to get out more.  OR

Third, it can be valid factually while being invalid formally.  Meaning, you could have the truth and not know how to present it in a valid argument.

For an example of number three, try this: “the world is round.  I know it because everybody believes it.”

That’s an invalid argument.  It’s called the ad populam fallacy.   It is not the case that something is factually true just because “everybody,” or a lot of people, believe it. 

But although the argument is logically  invalid, the fact that it asserts is true. 

The problem comes with deciding what is factually true, and it really isn’t as easy as you think. 

For one thing, most arguments are not about such straightforward issues as whether the earth is round or flat.  They tend to be about things a lot squishier.

Let’s try the topic that is central to the last third of the book I’m reading now–book report later.

What is the reason terrorists attack American and Western European targets?

One side says the reason is a long history of Western and American crimes against humanity–colonialism, imperialism, racism, you name it.

The other side says the reason is religion, and specifically a religion whose theology calls on it to rule the world in order to benefit all mankind with God’s law and to suppress or eliminate the affronts to God’s honor such as tolerance of homosexuality, women’s rights, general debauched adultery and the treatment of all religions as if they were equal.

Now, if it were me, I’d have a good run at defending the second proposition above, because it seems to me to be supported by the facts.  This is especially the case of the fact that the people committing these terrorist attacks say that this second line of thought is their rationale.   In fact, they keep saying it, over and over and over again.

When I assert such a thing in an argument, however, my opponents do not challenge the fact–that the Islamists say it–but the meaning of the fact.

They say that’s all rhetoric, that the real causes of the terrorism are material poverty and corporate exploitation of the resources of Muslim countries.  If we fixed those things, we would find the rhetoric changing and an end to attacks which would no longer be necessary because these countries would control their own resources.

In the long run, this argument will be resolved by facts on the ground, and I tend to think it will be resolved my way.

The problem is that in the short run, the issue is not the facts but the interpretation of the facts.  Both sides agree, without quibbling, that the pronouncements of people like Osama bin Laden and the Muslim Brotherhood say that all the world must Islam, that democracy and “human rights” as proposed by the West are an abomination that must be eliminated from the face of the earth, that Shari’a law must be the law in all places at all times, and that the struggle will not be over until no Muslim must live under the rule of any infidel, anywhere.

We just don’t agree on what all that means.

The other big problem concerns something this chart doesn’t deal with at all:  the tendency of modern arguments to actually be twofold–that is, based on a set of assumptions that are left unstated and therefore cannot be directly countered unless the opponent understands what’s happening and backtracks to do it.

This is true of nearly all the climate change arguments, which appear on a public level as shouting matching about  whether or not climate chane exists at all or whether or not climate change is being caused by human beings. 

But this is not really what the problem is.  The problem is not “does climate change exist?”  The problem is “assuming climate change exists, what (if anything) do we do about it?”

Most of the people arguing that climate change exists or that it exists and is caused by human beings then go on to assert that these facts (and let’s stipulate to them–let’s say we all accept that both are in fact facts) mean that we must do a laundry list of specific things, most of which involve large multinational organizations imposing government-mandated policies meant to change the way people live  in order to halt or reverse it.

But this is a nonsequitor.  Accepting that climate change exists and that human beings cause it does not necessitate any specific set of policy initiatives.  It doesn’t even necessitate the idea that we have to do something to stop or reverse it.

You can go on and make the argument that a specific set of consequences will result if we do not stop or reverse it, and then you can argue which of those projected consequences are in fact facts and which mere speculation–but even if the very worst scenarios anybody has asserted up to now were to be stipulated as true, that still wouldn’t necessitate any specific set of policy initiaves.

The real template for the argument about climate change is as follows:  I find the idea of X so horrendous, I’m willing to put up with a lot of Y to avoid it.

So, for the “climate change proponents,” the argument is:  I find the idea of the possible results of a warming earth so horrendous, I’m willing to put up with a lot of large, centralized bureaucracies with power over my life to avoid it.

And for the “opponents” of climate change the argument is:  I find the idea of large, centralized bureaucracies with power over my so horrendous, I’m willing to put up with all those possible results of climate change to avoid it.

And that’s what we’re really talking about, although we never actually talk about it.

Part of the reason we never actually talk about it is something that’s not on that chart:  each side thinks the other side doesn’t really mean it. 

Take this to another argument for a minute–the one on smoking.

I’ve got a very good friend with a family history of depression.  Bad depression.  There are lots of alcoholics in her family, and lots of suicides. 

She tried, for many years, to do the Sensible Thing and get antidepressant drugs.  They sort of worked, in that she no longer felt suicidal.  In the meantime, however, she also had no sex drive, no ambition, and very little energy.

Then she found something out: she could self medicate with cigarettes.  Nicotine lifted the depression and left her with all her drives and energy intact.  She got promoted at work over and over again, had a series of relationships she was very happy with, socked away a ton of money.

And someday she may get lung cancer, and she knows it.

Her rationale is:  fine, I will, but I find that less awful than a life lived the way I was living it with the antidepressant drugs.

Almost universally, people listening to her make this argument say:  oh, but that’s the addiction talking!  You don’t really mean that!

I would say that response is far more a bar to real, rational discussion than most of the things listed on the chart. 

I’m not dissing the chart.  It’s good, as far as it goes.  I just think it’s superficial.

Because the real issues are not the ones it outlines, but the unstated assumptions of all the parties and the definitions accorded to things like “reason” and “facts” that are not in fact common to all sides of any of these arguments.

Written by janeh

March 23rd, 2011 at 6:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Discussion'

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  1. Jane wrote: Because the real issues are not the ones it outlines, but the unstated assumptions of all the parties and the definitions accorded to things like “reason” and “facts” that are not in fact common to all sides of any of these arguments.

    I have long given up reading about justice because the word seems to have no meaning. For example, is Affirmative Action just? The people arguing on either side often have different conceptions of “just”.

    Jane mentioned both the muslim problem and climate change. I’ve noticed that people demanding that something be done about climate change often appeal to the “precautionary principle”.

    But many of those people refuse to apply the principle to Muslim threats of jihad. I happen to agree with Jane that Muslims mean it. But the precautionary principle would seem to say that when someone threatens to destroy our society and culture, we should take them seriously. I don’t think its rational to apply the principle in one case and ignore it in another case.


    23 Mar 11 at 2:55 pm

  2. There are precautions, and then there are precautions. I’ve yet to be convinced that the plastic wrap now surrounding all cutlery in my workplace cafeteria actually is a sensible precaution against anything.

    But, back to the point, yes, I agree that often people are arguing past each other because they don’t understand or don’t think the opposition really believes what they say they do. I don’t know how you get around this entirely; some people don’t seem to have elastic minds. There’s something to be said for ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ in social situations in which all participants are perfectly willing to acknowledge that the others do have these rather bizarre ideas, but that doesn’t mean we all can’t work together in the same place or be neighbours.

    But, but…some issues – like abortion – appear irreconcilable in the sense that at least two major groups do not want the others’ beliefs to have expression in the joint society. No doubt we can all think of other examples.

    At the same time, this is clearly not always the case. Both people who support and oppose capital punishment live in both states which carry it out and states which don’t. Do we have more intransigence now, or have we forgotten what it was like in the past? And why are we intransigent only about certain issues?

    I don’t really know, but I have noticed that a lot of people are not satisfied by their own conviction that they are in the right, and their own actions supporting their convictions – they want some kind society-wide approval for themselves and their opinions. They want to be the heroes. They aren’t necessarily inflexible or ill-informed – if they were, they could live and let live, or at least not ask questions for which they know the answers might lead them to infringe on others’ lives. Their need not just to be right, but to be acknowledged publicly as right, prevents them from acknowledging that others, with other interpretations and understandings of the same facts, might have just as much logic in their reasons as they have.

    And maybe we need people like that for cultural change and to avoid cultural stagnation. But I’d feel a whole lot happier about the direction of cultural change here and now if I thought they had any awareness at all of where we all come from (culturally speaking) and what they’re throwing out with their particular choices of which ‘Others’ to include.


    24 Mar 11 at 9:46 am

  3. There is, sadly, less rational discussion even attempted than is often assumed. More often, one sees articles of faith asserted. Take that materialist explanation of Islamic terrorism as an example: If someone were actually trying to PROVE that, he’d attempt to demonstrate that the states most messed with–or most poor, unequal, what have you–produce the most terrorists. He wouldn’t get very far. As for the customary companion statement–that if we could improve material and political circumstances in the Islamic world, terrorism would decline–we could look at real-life examples. Did violence decline in Ireland, for example, as legal restrictions on Catholics were removed? How about Basques in Spain? In France? The middle class in Bourbon France?
    Studying FACTS would lead to a nasty suspicion that these matters can be complicated. Instead we get terrorism as proof of oppression: things must be bad because the bomb-throwers are still out there.
    It’s not reason. Reason musters factual evidence and logic to establish a position. “Individual violence is the outward sign of material or political inequality” is part of the Credo of the Faith with No Name. You might as well attack Transubstantiation with chemical analysis.


    27 Mar 11 at 9:35 pm

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