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Why Engage in Rational Argument?

with 8 comments

The very wise Robert Todd Carroll, author of the Skeptic’s Dictionary, made my day with an insightful essay (DEFINITELY worth reading in its short entirety) about the purpose of critical thinking and rational argument in a world where our interlocutors rarely seem to value those things. Arguments, online and in meatspace, are often emotionally difficult and seemingly counterproductive; no one ever seems to change his mind, so why bother?

Carroll’s reader laments:

I . . . find it frustrating and upsetting when people make me feel I’m wrong or crazy when I, very diplomatically, describe a more rational, objective, or philosophical explanation, when other people follow irrational paths.

Carroll correctly notes that rationality, the practice of critical reasoning, is a very unnatural mode for humans – it’s not what we evolved to do. Valuing truth above one’s own interests is hardly evolutionarily beneficial behavior. And people don’t tend to admit that you’ve changed their minds.

But, Carroll says, rational argument has several major purposes, even if it doesn’t seem to change anyone’s mind: first, argument benefits us directly by promoting our own truth-seeking function:

It is pleasurable to seek out the best evidence available and construct the best argument possible. It is pleasurable to explore a strong argument that goes against what you believe. Either you find weaknesses and fallacies in the argument (strengthening the confidence in your conviction) or you realize the error of your ways. Either way, you benefit. Examining arguments, especially arguments that seem counterintuitive, is the only way we can arrive at the most reasonable beliefs possible.

Mostly, though, argument serves the purpose of (a) potentially changing an observer’s mind (especially important for web arguments), (b) changing an interlocutor’s mind later, when face-saving is no longer an issue; and (c) figuring out whether we ourselves might be wrong. Carroll says:

The dynamics of changing minds are complex, but I hope for two things by confronting the errors of others in a public forum: I hope they will later reconsider their views in light of the evidence and arguments I present, and I hope others who are not directly in the fray, but who are interested in the subject and interested in getting it as right as possible, will read the discussion and see that I have the better evidence and arguments. I also remain open to the possibility that I might be wrong and that some observer will provide me with the evidence and argument to show me the error of my ways.

Take heart, fellow antinatalists and other thought criminals.

Written by Sister Y

August 12, 2010 at 5:26 pm