Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Beware the Debate-Naive

I recently read John Searle's The Mystery of Consciousness, which contains exchanges between Searle and other philosophers of consciousness working today; one of them is Dan Dannett, who, like Searle, I respect and admire a great deal. I've even seen Searle lecture and been impressed with not only his clarity but his sense of humor. Dennett of course is a certified atheist hero, even above and beyond his philosophical work. I have to say I've drifted continuously closer to Searle's camp since the mid-1990s, mostly because I recognize the existence of qualia. (If you care about this stuff you might want to check out my blog at Cognition and Evolution.) Incidentally, when theists accuse us (in a classic act of projection) of deifying Dawkins, or Dennett, or Darwin, or any of the rest of them - point out disagreements you have with them. How many disagreements does the theist have (or can they have) with Christ or Allah?

This particular philosophical debate is not the point; its tone is. The Searle-Dennett debate is at once cerebral and vitriolic, and in some ways borders on personal - but the salient feature of the exchange is that both Searle and Dennett are trying to get at something - an answer about consciousness. (For another exchange to get your cerebral blood pounding check out the Hitchens-Chomsky exchange in the pages of The Nation post-9/11.)

This kind of exchange - passionate but not ad hominem - is foreign to many, if not most people; I'm amazed at the number of discussions I enter where my prior agreement with all opinions expressed is taken for granted. It's one thing to have a profound, non-negotiable disagreement with someone, but quite another to be offended (and surprised) to learn that someone else Actually Believes That.

I've been running into this a lot lately. People in forums and on comment threads apparently expect to give their $0.02 without being challenged, or being expected to back up their claims. I'm not even talking just about religious people here. These poor souls tend to be people naive to public discourse, unused to dealing with people with different opinions and shocked that not everyone agrees with them all the time right from the start. Inevitably, any such challenge to them meets with some combination of these annoying reactions:

- General offense that someone would dare express an opposing view. This raises the question of what the commenter was doing giving their $0.02 unless they were just looking for validation.

- Any challenge or request to support a claim is regarded as an angry, mean personal attack. Consequently, ad hominems against the challenger are justified.

- Criticism of the debate-naive's opinion is confused with unfairness and censorship of that opinion, i.e. "When I said I believed in the tooth fairy, and you asked me for evidence, you censored me! How come your opinions are allowed but mine are not?"

- Any deviation from the party line by a self-described herd-think movement member (religious/political ideolog) immediately brings that member's credibility into question. e.g., a conservative says in a forum that they don't like Rush Limbaugh, the other conservatives jump on them and tell them they're a liberal plant. I'm actually happy when I see this because I like watching herd-thinkers devour each other in schism-orgies. Another fun one is to start Baptists/Pentecostals vs Catholics vs Mormons arguments and walk away (when you don't have time to watch). Instead of throwing a rock at a bee's nest, why not throw another bee's nest? (I showed that in the 2008 election, the best predictor of a state's vote for candidates was % Baptist + Mormon population. Divide and conquer.)

The good news is that it's the twenty-first century, and try as we might, we cannot avoid being exposed to views we don't agree with, and it becomes increasingly difficult to function without a working critical-thinking faculty, or at the very least a stunted ideological fight-or-flight response. This is why a Mohammed cartoon caused rioters to burn down McDonald's halfway around the world, but anti-Islam polemics since then have triggered only grumbling. Here's the message, boiled down: grow up. Get over it, and be prepared to back up your claims.


Dan said...

I take issue with your 'Divide and Conquer' message. That only works in limited contexts. Unless you're in a scenario in which there's a defined goal (perhaps a race for office where a third candidate can 'spoil' the vote?), you're only playing towards the strengths of your opponent.
Tricking one religious zealot into fighting another religious zealot might be amusing on the internet, but it's pretty useless. Neither zealot is going to kill the other and both will get more attention and more soapbox time, each building his worldview in opposition to the other by using bad rhetoric.

Unless you can educate people in proper debate and critical thinking, you're just trolling.

If you want discourse to swing towards useful and honest debate, you've got to point out rhetorical flaws and deceptive logical fallacies for what they are and explain why they are wrong.

Dan said...

Might I direct you to a Pharyngula post called "Kook Fight?"


Michael Caton said...

Way ahead on Kook Fights. I was happy to see that.

The ultimate goal should be a world where everyone can arrive at conclusions based on evidence. We're not there yet. So for now, I'm okay with disrupting the more politically organized beliefs that stock the courts and legislatures with their memoids.

Dan said...

My point is that by setting up straw men for zealots to fight, you're actually helping them. It doesn't make them lose the support of the masses when they fight each other in most cases. Usually, it makes people join one of the top few loudest sides. Rarely are those sides the one with the evidence based theories.

Mike, you are for the most part a logical, rational guy whose opinions are swayed by evidence-supported theories. In public debate, these are often trumped by soaring oratory and rhetorical tricks. Supported evidence is often boring. Appeals to 'us versus them' are not. Fear, othering, flattery, group identification, and other such tactics work best when you've got an enemy on which to pin a target.

Making zealots fight zealots only helps the folks who fuel the zealots. Where do you think the "War on Christmas" came from?

While trying to attain short-term goals, be careful not to sacrifice long-term ones.

Remember, the only way to kill a religion is starvation. Nothing else works.

Dan said...

On this topic, check out comment #40 on this thread...