Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Yes but, no but - the futility of argument

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The reason I prefer blogging over writing books and articles is that argument is futile.

All arguments take so much for granted, make so many assumptions, that they can always be rejected by anybody - according to what that anybody pre-wants

If the argument is short and clear, then it can be rejected because it didn't mention abcxyz.

But if the argument is long and mentions abcxyz it will not be read, or if it is read it will not be followed, or if it is followed it will not be understood. And anyway it still misses-out alpha, beta and gamma.

All that can be hoped-for is to provide the missing piece that completes somebody-else's jig-saw.

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17 comments:

  1. You say that argument is futile - but compared to what? Clearly there are people who are convinced by arguments, and not accidentally it is those we perceive as most reasonable and intellectually honest.

    It is true of course that the argument often is not sufficient, but I believe that any mature exchange increases the knowledge and consciousness of the participants, regardless of the outcome. And in such cases the effect of good arguments is much more than just jigsaw-filling.

    Please, do not abandon aruments, even if impact by emotions, mood, atmosphere, authority or vision is on average much more effective in influencing general population's minds.

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  2. @wy -

    " emotions, mood, atmosphere, authority or vision"

    This is not the only alternative to arguments. The alternative I try to deploy is aphoristic statement. In other words I try to make a brief and explicit statement of a particular (perhaps alternative) view.

    This is the method deployed by the likes of Pascal, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and 'Don Colacho'.

    http://don-colacho.blogspot.co.uk

    The idea is that, piece by piece, you build a 'picture' of what you mean.

    People either get it, or they don't.

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  3. @BC:
    Still, you can support any case with such methods. Arguments can stand only on the side of a reasonable case.

    I had the aphoristic method, as you describe it, in mind when I mentioned 'vision'. You can really 'sell' anything this way. Certainly, it will be much more successful (again - on average and on general population) - nevertheless, I would not count it as reasonable, rational or scientific (scientific as in your comparison of Christianity to science, not as in scientism).

    Not that automatically it counts as unreasonable, of course.

    Last but not least, not every worthwhile case is defensible by arguments, but intellectuals should strive for good argument whenever possible, as a normative ideal.

    A case for arguments is for example one that presupposes non-futility of arguments and therefore must be backed by certain intellectual stance, treating reason as virtue, and decision to subordinate oneself to reasonable arguments.

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  4. @wy -
    I take it for granted that all writing, all communication, ought to be honest.

    http://corruption-of-science.blogspot.co.uk

    I have reached my conclusion after a long spell of argumentative (polemical) writing in a scholarly as well as journalistic setting. I was, indeed, extremely good at it! - well, you can judge for yourself by looking at my older writings.

    What brought you to the conclusion of the innate superiority of argument based writing - given that it is so very obviously a failure (no merely ineffective, but easily subverted, reversed, abused, and *extremely* prone to error in so many situations?

    Even at its highest development in the late medieval universities of Western Europe (i.e. 'scholasticism'), and an argument based method seemed unable to progress - except in formal logic, where it did indeed work.

    But that argument is circular, because formal logic is itself based on rules of argument - nonetheless, when scholasticism declined, so did formal logic. This went backwards for centuries, and did not recover its lost ground and move further until the time of Frege.

    My point is that formal logic is not about 'life'.

    As for science, it works only within small and essentially closed groups, and it is a matter more of communication rather than any particular mode of honest social communication such as argument.

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  5. @BC:
    "What brought you to the conclusion of the innate superiority of argument based writing - given that it is so very obviously a failure (no merely ineffective, but easily subverted, reversed, abused, and *extremely* prone to error in so many situations? "

    The alternatives suffer from the same illnesses and are even easier to subvert and much more error-prone. Appeal by aphorisms was mastered by Nietzsche (as you observed) and influenced many, but I would not support most his cases. Indeed, they would seem much weaker if he spelled them in detailed argument.

    Reasonable arguments are a good tool to fight error and they consist not only of logic, but also of examples and thus gain connection to 'real life'.
    Aphorisms usually communicate the 'big picture' - maybe there is a middle ground between scholasticism and pure 'insight'?

    I, for one, changed my mind a couple of times due to a good argument. On the other hand, I often find that a certain aphorism/vision, while initially very appealing, fails under closer scrutiny. In this way, an argument is a way of checking our premises.

    Maybe it is good to frame a general view vs. argument distinction as a particual case of paradigm and (thought) experiment, respectively?
    Single arguments usually fail to change the worldview, just as experiments lead only to slight modifications of paradigms, but sometimes paradigm shift happens, quite often induced by cross-experiment.

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  6. @wy - Yes about Nietzsche - but I counter with Pascal. My point is that argument is not intrinsically superior to other forms of discourse; and is equally prone to error and deception.

    Clearly a single aphorism cannot communicate much, but a sequence or pattern of aphorisms can.

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  7. Genuinely curious people may sometimes be convinced. I've been drifting towards social conservatism for a while now. You usually don't convince the partisans of the other side, but you may convince the occasional onlooker.

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  8. All that can be hoped-for is to provide the missing piece that completes somebody-else's jig-saw.

    Yup. It's one reason I find comments to the effect that one is "preaching to the choir" tiresome. Yes, I am - I only "argue" with anyone anymore when I already have about 95% in common and we are sorting out the 5%.

    @SFG:

    but you may convince the occasional onlooker.

    This is true, but then you're still taking on a thankless, wearisome task that seems, in my experience, only suited to a certain personality type (one that I tend to dislike).

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  9. I appreciate your style. I don't think you should try to do all the thinking for us.

    It's sort of like learning to use a coloring book - we need to build our own picture based on the outlines in order to grow.

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  10. @Bruce
    "All that can be hoped-for is to provide the missing piece that completes somebody-else's jig-saw"
    Well for whats it's worth your other recent post appears to have achieved that. So, thank you for that. These posts are a rich source of reflection.

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  11. "The idea is that, piece by piece, you build a 'picture' of what you mean."

    It should be noted that this is how most scripture works as well.

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  12. The Continental Op31 December 2013 at 20:18

    In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin: but he that refraineth his lips is wise.
    --Proverbs 10:19.

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  13. The Continental Op31 December 2013 at 20:22

    By the way, when I read sites like yours or Don Colacho's or Deogolwulf's, or read Pascal, I am electrified by the parade of insights I find.

    The aphoristic method appeals to me. Maybe it's me.

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  14. @Co-Op - That's a very nice comment - thanks! While he was active, I used to correspond with the excellent Deogolwulf (who is also English - not too many of us in this corner of the Blogosphere).

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  15. It makes me sad that no one defends rational discourse among intellectuals.

    Really, an argument is simply presenting justification of a proposed idea, or at least lack of it in the opposed one. Aphorism is, like emotional appeal, only stating the case, not defending it. While sometimes unavoidable (scriptures? maybe, but not always), it is nothing that should be exceptionally praised.
    I repeat myself - you could defend anything with that.
    Being able to counter adverse vision embedded in the aphorism with a better one does not count as a rational discourse, it is merely influencing by the 'picture', mood, attitude - not reason. What tool other than reason do you have to fight error?

    In New Year, let us please do not forget about the rational part while polishing wit and insightfulness of our aphorisms.

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  16. @wy - "I repeat myself - you could defend anything with that. "

    And I repeat - you can defend anything with an argument.

    And often people who make the biggest thing about the importance of rigorous arguments - i.e. some philosophers, are themselves *the worst* culprits for defending anything - constructing arguments to back-up what they pre-believed.

    Maybe the unsupported argument that arguments are a superior form of reasoning is the best example of this: There is no argumentative proof of the superiority of argument which escapes from that closed loop.

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  17. @BC:
    "Maybe the unsupported argument that arguments are a superior form of reasoning is the best example of this: There is no argumentative proof of the superiority of argument which escapes from that closed loop. "
    Please note that I admitted this already:
    "A case for arguments is for example one that presupposes non-futility of arguments and therefore must be backed by certain intellectual stance, treating reason as virtue, and decision to subordinate oneself to reasonable arguments."

    It is a choice to rely on reasonable justification. True, you can *try* to justify anything and it may seem rational. But it is a task of reasonable critique and argumentation to debunk it.

    Countering an aphorism with a better one does not destroy or correct the first one, as happens when arguments are countered. Nietzsche's aphorisms retain their appeal desipte being countered with Pascal's pensees. This is not the case when we look at a debunked argument of passed philosophers. The exchange of adverse aphorisms can only result in beauty contest.

    I risk sounding boring. You cannot really have a reasonable discussion on any matter using only aphorism and no rational justification. What we are doing now is actually trying to justify each others' cases.

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