The informality of natural language argumentation
September 17, 2007
It is often implied, although usually not explicitly said, that debate is like chess: if you gather all the facts, and get your logic straight, then your position will prevail – i.e., you will convince your audience, or at least any member of the audience who does not have a strong inherent bias.
It is supposedly especially so when dealing with an elite, and therefore, rational audience, e.g., scientists or judges. These audiences are less susceptible to rhetorical manipulation and general stupidity. There are a few celebrated cases of supposed failure of elite rationality, but those cases are considered rare enough to merit celebration: for example, the U.S. supreme court failing to see the obvious moral failures of slavery, and the astronomers of 17th century Europe failing to see the truth of Galileo’s heliocentric theory.
This notion, that may be called the theory of formality of argumentation, is in fact the basis of the established judicial systems. Competent and fair judges are supposed to be carrying out formal analyses of cases and laws, drawing inevitable conclusions which leave little room for personal preference. Again, corrupt or biased judges are known to exist, but they are considered the excpetion.
Of course, this implied theory is untrue. It is quite easy for any observer of a debate to decide that some argument is unconvincing and another is overwhelming, almost irrespective of the real merits of the arguments. Furthermore, the same can be done without any insincerity on the part of the observer. The logic of natural language argument, even the most carefully laid out, is so non-rigorous, that there is no formal or near-formal or semi-formal or formal-like or reminiscent-of-formal, way to decide how good the argument is. It is all up to the observer and his personal ideas and biases.
In court, the judges, being the observers, can always come up with some interpretation of fact and law that would justify a pre-conceived outcome, or one the meshes with pre-conceived ideas or inherent interests. Split opinions are a proof of that, in case the matter is not obvious enough.
In upcoming posts I intend to explore two areas of implication of the falsehood of the theory of formality of argumentation. One is the far-reacing implications on the function and legitimacy of the judicial system. The other area is the implications of that falsehood on personal experiences of debaters, as extrapolated from my own.