Personal experiences of debating, political implications

September 28, 2007

I have been often frustrated, upset, angry and humiliated at my inability to “win” debates, in which I was certain I had all the facts on my side and have constructed an unassailable logical chain. Despite my best efforts I was unable to convince the opposing side that their position is indefensible.

Without realizing, I was assuming that this inability was due to a fault of mine: I was either not as well-informed as I should have been, or I was not articulate enough in making my case, or I was not clever enough in rebutting the false arguments made by the opposition.

In some cases, I was undoubtedly at fault. In fact, I now consider some of the positions that I have advocated at those times to be wrong. But, be that as it may, one of the sides of the debate was wrong, and whether it was me or the opposition, neither side was convinced as the debate ended. If either side did eventually come to change their position, it was long afterwards, with much more reflection, fact-gathering and debate.

These personal experiences are testimony to the rather obvious fact that natural language does not allow for formal argumentation. There is no way to build an unassailable chain of logic using natural language. Therefore, one cannot realistically expect to get the other side to a position where they are unable to come up with a retort. Even if the other side is speechless at some point, this is far from getting them to a position where they are convinced they were wrong.

Discourse in our society, however, tends to obscure this simple fact, and the feelings of frustration and inadequacy that I experienced upon failing to build a knock-out argument are the inevitable result of this denial.

When society denies the obvious, there is some good reason – something to gain for somebody with power. In the present case, denying the fallibility of natural language argumentation serves to buttress the conventional wisdom, and to marginalize any contrary positions. This serves those people whom existing systems of beliefs put in positions of power.

Any believer in a falsehood has failed to detect a false step made in the chain of argumentation the led him to believe in the falsehood. If we assume that everyday arguments are rigorous, then most persons should be able to detect false steps in reasoning. Most of the beliefs commonly held by the public must therefore be true, since the idea that a large part of the people would be fooled by a false argument is incredible. People arguing against common ideas therefore must be fools or liars.

In addition to discrediting contrarians, making any attempt to change accepted ideas harder, painting natural language argumentation as rigorous makes changing your mind a humiliating experience that should be avoided. If arguments are rigorous, one must either have been a fool before the change of mind or be a fool after it. With such a dilemma, it is better to stick to existing positions. This, again, makes changing people’s beliefs harder, serving the powers that be.

Getting a hearing for new ideas is difficult, for objective reasons, even under the best of conditions. It is the interest of most members of society to remove any additional, unnecessary, obstacles to open-mindedness.


2 Responses to “Personal experiences of debating, political implications”

  1. Are you sure that the biggest problem lies in the form of argumentation, and not simply in disagreement on basic assumptions?

  2. yoramgat Says:

    When the argument is non-rigorous it is quite difficult to pin down all the assumptions that go into the argument – there are many, many unstated assumptions being made. Many of those assumptions, however, are not axioms – they are also derived, in informal ways, from some evidence. Therefore a disagreement on an assumption should often be seen as part of the debate rather than as the cause of the disagreement on some conclusions.

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