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I'm increasingly skeptical of the ValueOfArguing, esp. after reading things like this

Is it worth the effort? Does change not come more easily through adherents of the new culture simply naturally accreting from the young and outnumbering and outliving its opponents? (that's what happens in Doctorow's Down and Out book)


I guess it depends what you think arguing is for. Clearly, one purpose of argument is to persuade people to think and do things other than they would have done. As such it plays a role as one of the TypesOfPower. But granted isn't always the most effective, at least in the short-term. (I wonder if I can make a far-stretched analogy with the fundamental forces of physics. Gravity isn't very effective at short ranges (compared to electro-magnetic charge or weak or strong nuclear forces), but is the only force that matters in the long run. Perhaps reasoned argument is the same. It still seems to hang around when other power has subsided.)

But, as a CriticalRationalist, I think argument has a second purpose. It's a kind of collaborative research project, where two or more people explore a space of possible models of the world. You could do this more co-operatively with someone you generally agree with, but the chances are, anyone who you agree with, is actually likely to notice the same things as you, and come up with the same hypotheses as you.

Someone, who deep down, really intuitively disagrees, and wants to show you you're wrong, is much more likely to find your blind-spots. And my blind-spots are really interesting to me. So much so, that I'm willing to put up with a certain amount of discomfort, such as spending time arguing against people I firmly believe are abysmally wrong and stupid (no one like that here of course ;-) on the off-chance they might highlight something I couldn't have thought of.

Of course, many arguments go nowhere, but some apparently unpromising arguments have turned out to be invaluable.


You're right. Arguing as a means of learning and uncovering one's blind spots. I'm down with that. The most valuable product of the argument is not the thread itself, but the (subtle or not) changes in the states of mind of the people who have engaged in it, which can have long-term effects even when on the surface their positions haven't changed.

I've thought about asking the readers of my blog to do me the favor of highlighting my blind spots. I'm sure they have noticed some, but I doubt many of them would volunteer to do it.

(I also notice that my first intervention was written from the "adapting the world to myself" stance, while the last one was written with "adapting myself to the world" in mind. I need to remind myself to cultivate both goals, which can get tricky.)


Agree too - the two objectives of biased persuasion ("adapting the world to me") and "enlightenment" (for want of a better word :) seem quite opposite, but if you worry more about the latter, the former tends to come naturally, I think. Being able to see your own stance from a different point of view is a pretty powerful ability - both as a means of enhancing your position/basis, and as a way of interacting with other people. I wonder if the difference between "persuasional" arguing and "discovery" arguing isn't anything to do with the points made, but how they're expressed. Polemicism vs Collaboration, kind of thing (although that's not to say that polemicism is necessarily anti-collaborative, as pointed out above)...

In a practical situation, I think that stalemate usually occurs when people assign differing priorities to the different points of view in an argument, rather than because one point has more "logical foundation" than another. Emotional bias. Maybe that's the point which those who argue in order to find "truth" manage to avoid.



I have a hunch that it's quite difficult to find blind-spots in the abstract. "Tell me what's wrong in general" might be quite hard. I think people think well when they have a particular problem to solve. It helps focus the opponent, and brings her creativity to bear on the particular differences (ie. areas of confusion) between you. There's also a secondary factor that the opponents feels a bit, that gives them more energy to bother correcting you in the first place. (As long, of course, as this doesn't get out of control, and the correction take the form of bullets. Which is why I prefer the internet ;-)

That's also one of the reasons I prefer to make slightly baggy, overgeneral, grandiose claims. (What Popper would call BoldConjectures) that give potential opponents some space to see flaws, disagree and get involved. After that you can drill down to the details of the things that are really important. One of the things I disliked about academic writing (when I tried it) was that you had to write everything at the same, wearisome, level of detail. and take care not to leave hostages to fortune. This was regardless of what the reader might already know or accept (1). When you have a personalized discussion areas of broad consensus can be left as sketches and you can focus on the things that matter.

I suspect that one of the reasons that the DialogueForm is still practiced is that it captures something of this dynamic of skating over the surface until you find the points of real controversy and then concentrating on those.



how points are expressed is essential. Ad-hominem attacks are pretty lousy for either purpose. The whole field of rhetoric is the study of how you should argue and present things for different effect. Follow the link from OnRhetoric to find out (much) more.

Of course, stale-mate occurs when people either agree on the facts (or can't find a reason against the opponent's position, or lack a crucial piece of evidence.) and are simply in disagreement about the weighting thet give to different issues.

I don't entirely believe in this situation. I think a bit of lateral, creative thinking can usually find some differences in interpretation or belief between the parties.

(Example : my discussion with Oli on TechnologicalDeterminism. It seems we might have hit an "agree to differ on the relative importance of technology and politics" point. But this is clearly a point we could go beyond if we started drilling down into which events are technical, which are political etc.)

The greater stale-mate occurs at the point I call EpistemicExhaustion, where the protagonists think they agree. (They may still have different understandings and models

of the world, but they no longer perceive them or the friction this generates. They no longer have a source of energy to explore the conceptual space.)

OTOH, if you are in this situation, it's possibly worth using a tool like a DecisionSupportSystem to explicitly represent the weighting of importance given to different issues. Mainly because trying to explicity represent those issues may inspire new disagreement on how they should be taxonomized which can reveal differences in understanding.


Aside :

The dynamics of argument is fascinating. They often seem to be going round in circles. But I suppose they may also be going round in StrangeAttractors and suddenly fly off in new productive directions after the 156th circuit. How the hell do you judge when to stop?


See also :

  • (1) I accept that there was a good reason for the form of academic writing, grounded in the cost of publishing and acquiring documents and the anonymity of the reader : AcademiaVsNewMedia

Quora Answer : What do you do when you meet someone who is intelligent, listens, and has an opposite point of view, yet the arguments of each of you are valid?

May 27, 2014

I'm a Popperian "critical rationalist". That means I assume that conjecture or guesswork is a component of all knowledge.

What that, in turn, implies is that two people can be equally rational, aware of identical information and STILL come to differing conclusions about what it means and what general laws must be obtaining. Simply because they've made different guesses.

At this point, the only thing you can do is to have a critical argument. This is not for the sake of trying to persuade the other person, it's to apply your combined creative energy to looking for new evidence or for new problems with the reasoning which may help resolve the tie between the rival positions.

You respect the other person because there's no reason not to. But you don't tolerate "agree to differ" because there's still energy to be extracted from the difference which may help you understand more.