Arguing with very clever people

Whose side are you on in this dialogue? And can you justify your allegiance?

JO: There’s no point in arguing with you, I’ll never win.

TOM: No, because I’m right!

JO: Not because of that, because you’re better at arguing than me.

TOM: Eh? You’re not stupid. If I’m wrong, you should be able to show that I’m wrong. If you can’t, then saying I’m better at arguing than you is just another of saying I’m right and you’re wrong!

JO: Not at all. Just because you can construct better arguments than me, that doesn’t mean you’re right. People can construct very good arguments for false positions.

TOM: Sure they do, but if we’re committed to rational debate, then you surely have to accept whatever the best argument leads you to. You wouldn’t say “There’s no point arguing with you, your evidence is better than mine”. If I have better evidence, you should agree with me; likewise if I have better arguments.

JO: It’s not quite the same. If the evidence supports one theory better than another, then we both have good reasons for accepting that. But the strength of arguments depends much more on the strength of the arguer. For example, I bet if you wanted to, you could beat me in almost any argument, even if you chose to defend a position you thought was false.

TOM: I’m not sure about that! But even if it’s true, you’ve got a problem. I assume you think that as a rational person, you should accept whatever position has the best arguments in favour of it?

JO: I guess so.

TOM: Well better arguments are bound to come from people who are better arguers! So you can’t just refuse to accept what I say on the basis that I’m better at arguing than you.

JO: I still think I’m on to something here, but, as usual, right now, you have the better argument.

TOM: Because I’m right!

JO: Because you’re the better arguer – it’s not the same.

TOM: Grr!

Leave a comment ?

47 Comments.

  1. I’m with Jo, and she defeated Tom quite easily.

    She first states that better arguers usually win arguments because of their skill, while Tom thinks truth always prevails. But when we are dealing with truths, there isn’t much arguing going on as the person who is arguing against the truth is debating a false argument (through ignorance or deceit). An argument where the truth is unknown to both parties means neither position can be explained and so the better arguer always wins.
    By -apparently- conceding the argument to Tom, she won the original argument, concreting her belief in that better arguers always win. Neither party can bring a truth to the table in this debate and so Jo easily won as she’s the better arguer.

  2. This is a false dilemma. I can agree with both positions. I agree that Tom is right that people should accept the position with the best arguments in favor of it, and I also accept that Jo is right when she says that just because you can construct better arguments than someone else, that it means that they are right.

    Arguments don’t guarantee truth, they give us good reasons to believe something is the case (unless we are talking about deductive arguments which isn’t the case here). Jo is bringing up the problem of induction. Tom is bringing up the principle of rationality. They’re arguing past each other, on different topics.

  3. That’s a good example of “eristic dialetic”.
    Bye :-)

  4. Just to muddy the waters a bit, there’s the case of the most insistent arguer, who wears the less insistent arguer down by his or her willingness to argue past the less insistent arguer’s dinner or bed time.

  5. What’s the “better argument”?

    I think the better arguer will nearly always win. Sun Tzu demonstrated that, about 4,000 years ago!

    A better strategy and deeper understanding of the tactics of argument and debate will trump even superior knowledge. Simply because knowing the facts, etc, isn’t enough. You also have to know to present them!

    Carolyn Ann

    PS Which is the better technique: laying out the facts (etc) and hoping that everyone comes to the same conclusion you did, or just putting the same facts (give or take a few of varying relevance) facts into a context that others can understand? :-)

    Sorry. I’m still thinking about Jean’s political post from earlier this week…

  6. TOM: Well better arguments are bound to come from people who are better arguers!

    It depends whether Jo trusts Tom to be a disinterested inquirer. If he is biased, and just trying to persuade her of a pre-determined conclusion, then the fact that he can muster arguments she can’t refute is not good evidence that the position is true. (In particular, it is not good evidence that there are no better contrary arguments to be had.)

  7. Why does this sound so eerily familiar?

    [collapses in helpless laughter again]

  8. [i]TOM: Eh? You’re not stupid. If I’m wrong, you should be able to show that I’m wrong[/i]

    It seems to me that this is the key point here. Let’s assume that Tom and Jo argue on a issue with an absolute true conclusion (whatever that may be). Then let’s assume that Jo has adopted the true position and Tom has adopted a false one (for whatever reasons they may have) but as it turns out – Tom is very talented in arguing and providing evidence and Jo is notoriously bad at it.

    And in the end although Jo is defending the true conclusion she can’t make Tom accept it since she just doesn’t have the skills to do it. And such situation is even easier to come up when some contraversial topic is on debate.

  9. Yes that’s the issue all right. The question is – then what?!

  10. I’m substantially in Tom’s corner. At the very least, Jo should dial back the degree of credulity she lent her beliefs ex ante and follow up on these prima facie defeaters that Tom is laying out. If she finds after due consideration that they look more persuasive than any contenders, she should probably tentatively conclude that the arguments indeed lead where they initially seemed to.

    What’s critical to recognize is that the issue isn’t truth but justification. So while Tom’s arguments may not be sound, nonetheless, if Jo doesn’t have the “skills” to counter arguments that defeat her beliefs, and if she’s not willing to do the work to see whether they can legitimately be countered, then she probably isn’t rationally entitled to her opinion.

  11. It’s not even a matter of being the better arguer. Different people are better at coming up with arguments at different times. I’m terrible at thinking up responses in the pub, for instance. By the time I’ve walked home, I’ve often just thought of a good response. That doesn’t mean the person I was talking to in the pub was right.

  12. Great discussion.
    This is not a theoretical issue for me. I sometimes find myself in both positions. But of course, it feels different. When I’m winning the debate against someone who just isn’t as good at arguing as me, I tend to feel vindicated in what I’m arguing for. But when I’m up against a superior arguer, I don’t take their dominance as vindicating their position. So I’m asymmetric here in ways which I don’t think are consistent.
    However, I do think Jo is onto something, so the way to resolved it is not, I think, always to defer to the better arguer, but to be as suspicious of one’s own superiority, if and when one has it. Q the enchanter (great name) is right to say: “At the very least, Jo should dial back the degree of credulity she lent her beliefs ex ante and follow up on these prima facie defeaters that Tom is laying out.”
    But likewise, Tom should not so confident that, just because he’s won, he’s right. If Tom really is a good arguer, he should be able to take Jo’s general position and try to work out what a better argument for it would be.
    This is good old “principle of charity” stuff which I’m pretty sold on, I have to admit…
    Big caveat here: often nothing much is at stake and neither person should give the discussion much thought once it’s done. We have no obligation to be maximally rational at all times.

  13. As Thom says, some people think more slowly than others, but slow thinkers are not necessarily inferior thinkers. Slow thinkers are at a disadvantage in a verbal argument, but not in a written dispute, for example, when they have time to think through and develop their ideas. Slow thinkers may also be people who need solitude to develop their ideas, and thus, may well think more clearly walking home from the pub than in an argument in a crowded pub.

  14. Where did the assumption that Jo is female come from?

    This seems like a replay of an argument I’ve had several times. It usually occurs after I’ve (I think) conclusively demonstrated the truth of some point or other with which my interlocutor demurs.

    In that context this is an ad hominem argument (and therefore strictly speaking fallacious) of the following form:

    You argue P, but you have the ability to make the weaker argument seem the stronger, so I don’t need to believe P.

    Tom is being accused of sophistry (though not the worst sort of sophistry as we might charitably suppose that Tom does believe whatever it is he is arguing for).

    While I sympathise with Q’s position, I suspect that Tom’s telling Jo that he/she isn’t rationally entitled to her/his opinion might have certain pragmatic drawbacks.

    Philosophers tend to be pretty wedded to the notion that rational argument is a good way of establishing that things are so, or that we should do such and such. If Jo isn’t up to the task of critiquing Tom’s thinking he’d better be pretty rigorous in examining it himself.

    On the other hand Evans-Pritchard noted in the 1930s that the Azande seem to get along fairly well by reference to the chicken oracle.

  15. Virgil, everyone knows that all arguments are inert as against the revelations of the oracles. However, one has to consider that other forms of bad magic may obtain for which the oracles’ counsel has not been sought.

  16. There should be a distinction drawn between argument and persuasion. Argument connotes will, habit and pre-judgement against which rationality, overrated in any case, most often takes a back seat. Granted there can be an overlap of the two yet a dialectic effort aimed at drawing out the other and emphasizing advantageous as well as rhetorical positions and points serves both truth, understanding, and at the hopeful least, a measure of agreement.

    But then that takes the fun out of verbal combat.

  17. Maximally rational. Sounds like a subscription to a certain man’s magazine.

    Insofar as “Q, etc” argument: bullshit!!!

    It ignores, completely, the idea that an argument might not have a rationale conclusion. To be perfectly frank, and quite in keeping with the way Bob and I used to argue: if you can argue that as a coherent set of thoughts, you’re home free. You don’t even need to be accurate!

    After all – you’re relying on the arguments, and their words.

    Oh, hang on. Whatever happened to skewing the argument? Its alive and well, and living in Bognor Regis with an apartment in Washington DC.

    Metaphor and allegory have no use in an argument, apparently.

    Carolyn Ann

  18. Carolyn Ann, you say that “['Q''s comment] ignores, completely, the idea that an argument might not have a rationale conclusion.” But if you read my comment, you’ll see that I prefaced my conclusion by noting that “Tom’s arguments may not be sound.”

    And so far as I’m concerned, metaphor and allegory are not only perfectly appropriate in rational argument, they are probably indispensable.

    That being said, your multiple exclamation points were very persuasive. I shall revise my beliefs accordingly.

  19. The Book Depository - Editor's Corner - pingback on January 14, 2008 at 9:57 am
  20. JO HAD THE POTENTIAL TO WIN THIS ONE! But…accepted defeat in the beggining. Jo handed, what could have been her/his trophy away, to Tom who WANTED IT MORE….Tom, who is ready to BLEED, SWEAT & EVEN CRY FOR THIS WIN! “Grr!” That first statement, “There’s no POINT in arguing with you, I’ll never win”, lol…that was the beginning of the end for Jo. I say Jo didn’t win, but Jo surely made a POINT. And so far as Tom’s frustration at the end…well, if your looking for a fight & get a fluke…that can be quite frustrating.

  21. but, let me come back & also say, if you’re fighting someone who knows they’re going to lose & you know they’re going to lose & everyone knows they’re going to lose & you’re winning the whole time, but they keep hitting you with that stiff jab…well that’s even more frustrating!

  22. I would have to have to agree with Jo, for the reason that just becaus the better argument support one view rather than the other does not mean that this view is necessarily true in any way. As pointed arguments can be made for a point that is not necessarily true at all and not to forget that it is arguable whether or not we can really establish truth due to the problem that we can never be 100 per cent certain of anything because this would require a knowledge of the future which in our case can be made but only based on the knowledge of the past, raising the problem that the future does not have to be like the past.
    So in the end just because stronger or better arguments exist, however rational they may be, while realizing that we as human beings only have limited knowledge and thus limited rationality, it does not give us certaintiy about the truth.

  23. Tom makes a false assumption:
    what he is essentially saying is that since better arguers always give better arguments. Since we accept better arguments as truth, better arguers are always right.
    That, obviously, is incorrect.
    Tom equates better arguments to truth, which is the false assumption.

  24. I’m sorry Akab, but that is not what i was arguing for. I said that just because there are good arguments for one side, maybe even the better one, that does not mean that they are true or represent the truth in anyway.
    So you should probably read the text again.

  25. This “argument” reminds me of the paradox of two statements written on opposing sides of the same sheet of paper…

    One statement reads:
    “The statement on the other side of this paper is True!”
    While the statement on the other side says:
    “The statement on the other side of this paper is False!”

    This sets up a kind of circular-dynamic in which neither proposition can be proven true or false

    Similarly the point of self reference shifts perpetually (though less obviously) in Tom & Jo’s dialog and each position is effectively neutralized.

    It seems as though Jo’s position is that there is more to the validity of an argument than the sum of its rational parts.
    Without defining what that “more” might be, that “more” cannot be argued against.

    Thus we come to a philosophical fork in the road between reason & intuition.

    The real answer lies in which informs which.

  26. If I construct an argument that is coherent then that does not necessarily mean that what I hold is true, however if I can show that an opponents thesis is incoherent or contradicts itself then this a pretty damning argument against it.

  27. I am on neither Jo or Tom’s side. Nobody can “win” a conversation. Furthermore, philosophy has nothing whatsoever to do with constructing arguments. Philosophy as argument construction is the product of a very particular way of interpreting the history of philosophy which has strong ties with analytic philosophy, and it is the bane of all considerate thinking.

    Could someone please tell me what is meant, or what could possibly be meant, by a “better argument”?

  28. philosophy has nothing whatsoever to do with constructing arguments.

    Really? How do you know? Can you support that statement? With evidence? Or…argument?

  29. Colin Spinney, I’m not sure (among other things) why you would suggest the notion of a “better argument” is puzzling. For instance, of

    A1. John wants to find the nearest bathroom immediately. Therefore, he should ask someone who might know where the bathroom is where the bathroom is.

    and

    A2. John wants to find the nearest bathroom immediately. Therefore, the United States should invade Iran.

    is there really any controversy in your mind as to which is the “better argument”?

    Granted, in many cases, judging the relative merits of arguments can be confounding, Julian’s is not such a case: Jo concedes that Tom’s arguments are better.

    Those in this thread who’ve tended toward Jo’s side leave me puzzled. Pace many of their suggestions, no one here is saying that if you lose a debate, you are thereby bound (immediately or prospectively) to adopt the winner’s position as a personal belief. But just what are you supposed to do when you’ve decided to participate in a debate* and find yourself confronted by arguments that you yourself judge to be superior to your own? Aren’t you obliged to take the competing arguments into some account? If so, how would you dispose of those arguments?

    NOTES
    * So another thing no one here is saying is that you are generally obliged to hear all arguments out. However, when you commit to the practice of reasons-giving in a conversation, you’ve committed to giving competing reasons a fair hearing.

  30. Ophelia Benson, as far as presenting evidence is concerned, I’m not sure if it’s appropriate engage in this kind of converstion in the style of courtroom proceedings. There is, however, a large body of documentation available to justify what I have said. For example, take any work of philosophy since the 19th century.

    If we wanted to, we could certainly say that I am “arguing” that constructing arguments has nothing to do with philosophy. But, what I am objecting to is a very particular notion of argumentation that seems to be prevalant in this blog. As I said before, there is no reason for philosophical discussion to resemble courtroom proceedings.

  31. “Q” the enchanter, thank you for responding to my question. I am not sure if A1 and A2 are really arguments or not. I would certainly agree that A1 is the more coherent statement of the two, but I don’t think that it is a very interesting or important thing to talk about. In a debate, one can certainly take up any position they choose and try to support it with reasons, but I personally would forego entirely this particular scheme of debate or argument for the sake of talking about something that matters. I think the most significant points made require no justification.

  32. So talking about something that matters requires foregoing reasons to support one’s positions? So in order to talk about something that matters one has to be simply arbitrary and assertive? Or am I misunderstanding?

  33. Colin, of course the issue you raised was the supposed difficulty in the phrase “better argument.” My examples weren’t meant to be “interesting” or “important”; they were meant to show that sometimes it’s easy to discern better and worse arguments. Unfortunately, you didn’t acknowledge or otherwise address this point.

    In any case, your claim that “the most significant points made require no justification” requires justification. Given that you’ve abjured the practice of justification, though, I suppose I’ll understand if you leave your claim unjustified. ;-0

  34. “Q”, I actually did acknowledge the point you made about discerning better or worse arguments, although I admit I may not have been clear enough. As you rightly pointed out, I’m not big on justification.
    So allow me to elucidate instead:

    A1 and A2, as I did say before, are not really arguments. A1 is just a suggestion with the word “therefore” thrown in. A2 is two completely different ideas put together and is meant to appear ridiculous. I know they were only meant as examples, but the fact that they are not important or interesting is still significant here. I am not sure what asking for directions to the bathroom has to do with a serious discussion of any kind. Like I said, A1 is the more coherent statement of the two, but I fail to see what it has to do with any actual discussion ABOUT something. I might understand your point better if you could devise a new A1 and A2, and this time use examples that someone would actually try to argue in a serious debate (and without any crazies or jokers who would say something like your original A2).

    Only if you don’t mind, of course. But I think it might be helpful in our conversation.

  35. What about my questions?

    And if you think supporting positions with reasons doesn’t matter and that it’s a good idea ‘to forego entirely this particular scheme of debate or argument for the sake of talking about something that matters’ then why do you want Q to provide more serious examples? What difference can it make?

    My questions aren’t rhetorical; I really am curious to know why talking about something that matters rules out supporting a position with reasons, and what the alternative to supporting a position with reasons is. But maybe you’re telling us by example: by not answering the questions.

  36. Dear Ophelia and “Q”,

    When I said earlier that I think the most significant points require no justification, “Q”s premonition was absolutely correct: I have no intention of justifying that statement. I would, however, be more than happy to elucidate the point.

    When I say that talking about something that matters requires foregoing the practice of giving justification, I am not saying that people should be bluntly assertive in a discussion. I would like to point out that justification is not the only mode of reason-giving. What I mean by that is, that it is possible to elucidate or to unfold a point you’ve made without giving justification for it. Or, that you can talk about something meaningfully without providing evidence or some other form of factual justification for what you have said.

    Demanding justification from someone, in general, is actually quite loutish. It always contains a hidden accusation that what that person has just said is somehow self-serving and arbitrary (in the pejorative sense). Furthermore, this accusation itself contains a hidden cynicism on the part of the demander. Can these demanders “justify” this innate suspicion? It would always be better to take a happy interest in what others have to say, with or without factual evidence to support it.

    So, by rejecting justification I’m rejecting the need to give factual evidence or “better arguments” of the form supposedly given by Tom in the original story. I am not rejecting the entire practice of reason giving which, I believe, can also include elucidating and unfolding as ways of providing reasons for what you have said. (I do have to admit, though, that it is a bit tricky for me to say I reject giving “better arguments” when I also admit that I do not understand what that term means. I’m still hoping “Q” will be able to help me out with that),

    thanks guys,

    Colin

  37. Colin,

    Thanks, that clarifies a lot. (I’d actually sort of figured out what you meant anyway, after I posted.)

    Still – I think it is possible to ask for reasons without being loutish, and to give them without necessarily being pedantic or lawyerish. I also think that if reason-giving and reason-seeking are actually ruled out, or avoided, or frowned on, then there’s always a risk of mere assertion. It depends on the subject matter, of course, and the nature of the discussion – but if the discussion is about contentious political or moral issues, for instance, then it really is hard to avoid the need for reasons without collapsing into mere assertion. (Doesn’t elucidation itself amount to giving reasons?)

  38. Colin, my sense is that further discussion on these points would not bear fruit. That my A1 and A2 are both “arguments” doesn’t strike me as any more arguable than that A1 is a “better argument” than A2. At all events, this whole line of inquiry is off-topic since (again) the issue of which of Jo’s or Tom’s arguments is better isn’t raised in Julian’s dialogue (Jo grants that Tom’s is better); mea culpa for introducing this red herring.

    The line between “justification” and “elucidation” also strikes me as a little too fine to ground the rather significant claim that “the most significant points require no justification.” I’m not generally averse to splitting hairs, but in this case I think I’ll pass.

  39. Colin, my sense is that further discussion on these points would not bear fruit. That my A1 and A2 are both “arguments” doesn’t strike me as any more arguable than that A1 is a “better argument” than A2. At all events, this whole line of inquiry is off-topic since (again) the issue of which of Jo’s or Tom’s arguments is better isn’t raised in Julian’s dialogue (Jo grants that Tom’s is better); mea culpa for introducing this red herring.

    As Ophelia points out, the line between “justification” and “elucidation” is probably a little too fine to ground the rather significant claim that “the most significant points require no justification.” I’m not generally averse to splitting hairs, but in this case I think I’ll pass.

  40. Sorry Ophelia — posted before I saw you’d made the point about elucidation and justification. All credit due.

  41. !?? Hang on, there is a flaw in the above.
    If I have a better argument than you why do you continue to support your position. Case solved … To argue better IS to make a better case. It’s like we both empty our pockets and the winner is he/she who has most coins. No conflict at all. The “argument” are the “facts”. If your arguments now occupy a spot in my brain across from the original arguments I had .. why should I pick “mine” to “yours” ?

    Of all the arguments put forward above, plus this one … mine still persuades “Me” so I still hold it as true. This may not be the case for others.

    I can’t think of another way to put it.

    G

  42. Ophelia,

    I do agree that there are some situations where factual justification is important. For example, one country entering another illegally and without justification is wrong, and also quite scary. In a situation like this if we did not expect justification it could (and probably already has) led to terrible results.

    The context I had in mind was a conversation between 2 or more people, and I still think that in this context neither factual justification nor logical coherence are the measure of truth. You have to admit that, at some point, your argument has to rest on something that is not justifiable. For example, when “Q” says that his point about his A1 and A2 is “not arguable”, this is exactly the same as saying that his point “requires no justification”. Those who are swayed by factual justification are exhibiting a pre-disposition towards the truth of facts. Likewise, “Q”s conviction about the unarguability of his point exhibits his pre-disposition towards the truth of logical coherence. Neither one of these dispositions is justifiable by its own standards. No one could provide factual evidence to justify their belief in facts. Likewise, it is impossible to prove the legitimacy of coherent argumentation in general with a coherent argument.

    You may think that it’s outrageous to suggest that the truth of facts or of logical coherence would ever need to be proved in the first place, and you may even be right. BUT, in doing so, you are opening up a place in our debate for 2 things that do not require justification. Namely, the truth of facts, and the truth of logical coherence. If you admit that these two things do not require justification, would you admit that there may be more “unarguable points”?

    As far as the line between elucidation and justification goes, this is a bit tricky since all of these words (justification, reason-giving, elucidation) used casually can mean exactly the same thing. Above, I meant to interject the word “elucidation” as a way of answering a question that involves clarifying in a different way than by providing factual or logically coherent support. I know this is not quite the same as the popular use of the word, and I should have clarified that at the time.

    thanks,

  43. Oh this one is easy. Tom is right.

    Three questions involved, that I can see:
    1. What is the objective? Is it to win the argument?
    2. Who is the judge?
    3. What determines victory?

    Now clearly it is TRUE that for both parties the objective is to win the argument.

    #2 is a bit more difficult as it lends to numerous answers, for example, Tom, Jo, the Church of Logic, a bystander, the omnipresent eye, whatever. Now being this argument is a meta-argument, that is it being an argument about arguing rather than an actual argument about something, anything less than cold hard logic would be shortchanging. So we will say unbiased logic is the judge. We would get into validity of premises as well as their relations one to another. But let’s just say Logic, or reason be the judge.

    So the problem really is #3, or what does it take to claim victory in this argument. The way you claim victory is by having more evidence that you can present for your cause. By her arguments claiming a “lesser arguer” cannot win even when right, she only affirms more strongly Tom’s claim that is she had better arguments–judged by logic–she would win, and she would.

    But in this case, Jo loses, as she has conceded defeat before she began!

  44. Stories such as the following are obviously (literally obviously) enough to convince people here of truth:

    She dabbed her eyes as she spoke about scenes of unfathomable cruelty she had witnessed 65 years earlier. These were unspeakable things, but she spoke anyway. Nazi soldiers throwing babies out the third floor of an orphanage, while more below shot at them just for the fun of it. Babies thrown into bonfires in front of their mothers at the entrance to concentration camps.

    QED.

    Out the window flies all rationality.

    “Philosophers” they call themelves. Oh lordy.

  45. Silver what do you mean here, can you elaborate for my simple mind please, sounds like you may be onto something…

  46. Late to the party, but…

    The natural world itself — the thing-in-itself, or things-in-themselves — are not propositional, neither true nor false. Furthermore, there is no known epistemically neutral language which we can use to describe the natural world. Thus, any description rests on some system of metaphysics that is at least vaguely axiomatic — our metaphysic may be the atomism of Democritus or the corpuscularism of sixteenth century philosophers or modern quantum physics, but there must be some underlying system by which the truth or falsehood of propositions may be determined.

    Similar for descriptions of ethical or moral realities, except that it’s more straight-forward that we must make some assumptions going into the discussion.

    Before I can decide between one of the correspondents above, I need to know, are they working from the same set of metaphysics? Are there assumptions about the elemental units of discourse identical, or at least similar?

    If they are, I tend to side with Tom. With respect to the assumptions made by Tom, his argument is either correct or incorrect. If Jo is making the same exact assumptions, she should in principle be able to refute an argument that is false as entailed by the assumptions made.

    If Jo and Tom are not working from the same assumptions, or if it is not clear whether or not they are, then I would side with Jo. For example, Tom may be working from an implicit assumption which he is going to great lengths to obfuscate. The quality of his argumentation allows him to make a seemingly innocuous assumption which logically entails a large part of his conclusion. Plantinga and William Lane Craig employ this strategy very effectively.

    Thus, I think the effectiveness of one’s debating style can only really make a difference at the meta-level — it can help one to either defend or hide one’s choice of fundamental assumptions, but once those assumptions are agreed upon, the argument is either true or not with respect to those assumptions, and only large disparities in the ability to debate will make a difference.

    A more interesting aspect of this is that for the most part, truth values are assigned according to evaluation under a “consensus” set of axioms. One can imagine a particularly persuasive and charismatic scientist establishing a misleading paradigm that is nevertheless used to determine truth or falsehood in a scientific field for decades thereafter. In this case, effective argument has determined truth value (over and above some abstract, nebulous notion of “correctness”) and Jo wins — it’s the quality of argument, and not the “correctness” of the conclusion, that determines the truth of a proposition.

    But notice even in this case that the effective debater made his mark at the meta-level, in defining the metaphysic by which truth value is obtained.

    Tom is only right (that “correctness” should win the argument) when we have an agreed-upon system by which to determine the truth value of a proposition — i.e. when we have defined what “correctness” means. But in the attempt to define “correctness,” we have no solid ground to stand one (the correct definition of correct?) and so Jo is right: effective argument trumps “correctness” when we have no real metric for “correctness.”

    Great question!

  47. This discussion dates back to the sophists of Ancient Greece. People argue for all kinds of reasons, the “truth” of the matter becomes the 1st casualty. Cultural relativism, PC and diversity push for a level playing field by sacrificing judgment to appeasement.

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