Friday, October 09, 2015

Why aiming to marginalize is a self-defeating enterprise

One question that interests me is the question is whether debate of any kind can do anything to marginalize an opposing viewpoint, or whether there is a way of conducting discussion with the intent to marginalize, or whether all you can do in arguing against a position is to show that it is mistaken.
I am inclined to think the latter. If you are going to discuss something, you are required to be as fair and as respectful as you can be, as is required by the Principle of Charity.
I am familiar with Wolfgang Pauli's expression "not even wrong," but I think all that debate can do is establish wrongness. Now you might do so well in criticizing something that no one will ever again want to defend the opposing view, but there is nothing you can do to aim for that result. You just have to argue that you are right, and argue well.
That is what critiquing an opposing view involves. You have to work hard to understand your opponents. You will perhaps preach well to the choir, but your opponents will have every right to accuse you of the straw man fallacy. People who are informed about what they believe will look for misrepresentations in the work of people who are trying to ridicule them. And in my experience, they will typically find it.
For people who want to abolish philosophy of religion, for example, I am inclined to use a version of the pro-choice slogan: "If you don't believe in abortion, don't get one." If you can't find in yourself enough intellectual sympathy with an opposing viewpoint to deal with it fairly, you are probably better off leaving criticism of that viewpoint to others. Nothing requires you, as a theist or an atheist, to write argue for what you believe.
The predominance of religious believers in philosophy of religion, to me, has a pedestrian explanation, believers are articulating what they do believe, so they are more likely to do philosophy of religion. They think that religion holds the right answer to the basic questions of life. Atheists think that religious answers are the wrong answer, which means the right answer lies elsewhere. People may be concerned about answers they think wrong, but most people don't find it very exciting to devote themselves to wrong answers. They want to spell out the right answers.
It's not niceness, so if people ask "Why do we have to be so nice" they are missing the point. The issue is just doing the job of criticizing effectively. If you don't think you have to try to be fair, you probably won't do a good job.

6 comments:

Legion of Logic said...

Theists are likely attracted to philosophy of religion in the same way atheists are attracted to scientific pursuits. Atheists put their stock in science instead of philosophy, and it shows when they get their posteriors handed to them in debates.

I find the only Christians who lose debates are young earth creationists and those who don't know the arguments of either side well enough to debate.

cl said...

"Theists are likely attracted to philosophy of religion in the same way atheists are attracted to scientific pursuits."

Makes sense, but at the same time the founders of science were near exclusively theists. It's more in the last century that we see a strong dichotomy of believer / POR and atheist / science.

grodrigues said...

@Legion of Logic:

"Theists are likely attracted to philosophy of religion in the same way atheists are attracted to scientific pursuits. Atheists put their stock in science instead of philosophy, and it shows when they get their posteriors handed to them in debates."

Mathematics is not an empirical science, and has its own special, distinctive character. And because of that you will find the naturalist lunacy less widespread among mathematicians.

And yet... here is a true story (going by memory; hopefully will not get the details wrong). On a mathematics forum, a mathematician trotted out (a propos of what I no longer remember) the usual atheist naturalist line about God and empirical evidence. I responded that the argument was a very bad one, because Platonists (in the modern, sense of the term in the philosophy of Mathematics) believe in the existence of abstracta for which we can have no empirical evidence of their existence, so the logic of his argument would lead to disqualify Platonism which is absurd. His response was, and I kid you not, that he himself was a Platonist and in fact he was amazed at how there could even be mathematicians that were *not* Platonists. My jaw dropped. I never responded. What would be the point?

Legion of Logic said...

Isn't that a convenient worldview? Just pick and choose when to apply certain standards to support your preconceived notions.

Bill said...

"If you can't find in yourself enough intellectual sympathy with an opposing viewpoint to deal with it fairly, you are probably better off leaving criticism of that viewpoint to others"

Well said. These days it sometimes seems that we're expected not only to have an opinion on whatever the issue du jour happens to be, but we're also expected to articulate it, by joining in a debate in which the vast majority of the debaters aren't sufficiently well informed to have anything meaningful and worthwhile to say. At least that is what seems to be the case in the Facebook/Twitter world.

Crude said...

You have to work hard to understand your opponents. You will perhaps preach well to the choir, but your opponents will have every right to accuse you of the straw man fallacy.

Intellectually, sure. In practice? No one needs a right to accuse in order to actually accuse. I think all of us have been arguing on the internet long enough to have noticed that half the people who scream 'X fallacy!' don't even know what X fallacy is. And when you explain it to them they don't acknowledge you were right, even if you provide sources. They just get angry. Well, angrier.

That, I think, is the problem with Victor's advice. It's great as an ideal, it really is, and my respect for Victor for his pursuit of it over the years is considerable. But the fact is, it's not an ideal most share - even if they pay lip service to the idea of sharing it.