Saturday, October 10, 2009

Arguments with the Logically Challenged

Ours is a generation that combines two things in a very oxymoronic sort of way. Modern people boldly declare their love for reason, rationality, logic, and empirical truth while simultaneous remaining completely unaware of what any of those things actually are. They vocally denounce those who believe things that are logically inconsistent, while arguing that such things are logically inconsistent using contradictory arguments themselves. Many freely engage in religion-bashing, but when asked to point out specific things they object to, their statements are crafted in ways that are as elusive and insubstantial as possible. Personally, I place a high value on reason, rationality, logic, and empirical truth. Therefore, whenever I encounter someone who pays lip-service to any or all of those glorious concepts and yet fails to exhibit the slightest comprehension of how to actually speak or argue rationally, disappointment and frustration quickly fill my soul.

I wish this were a rare occurrence. However, I am ceaselessly confronted with our generation's rational impotence. Within the past week alone I have had discussions with several people that perfectly exemplify the lack of ability to argue logically. Evidence is something important. When one is referring to an external source, it is typical to provide a specific quote or cite a specific phrase from the original source, rather than simply using a paraphrase. Even if one doesn't initially provide a reference, it is only reasonable to provide one upon request. One fellow I was conversing with alluded to a Biblical passage that illustrates that God changes His mind. When I asked him for a specific example, he simply offered a loose "paraphrase" that bore no similarity to the original passage whatsoever. Rather than even looking at the original source, he just assumed that he knew exactly what it said and meant. Even when challenged on it, he never provided me any solid references or direct quotations. Lack of evidence, or an improper recollection of a quote is the perfect way to ensure that one develops a straw man argument, rather than building any real philosophical case against an actual stance.

Similarly, earlier in the week, someone was commenting on the blog I posted on Christianity and Violence. He proceeded to develop a case opposing one of my statements in the blog. As the discourse continued and the evidence continued to mount against his case, the discussion began to turn towards semantics. Eventually, he suggested that for my statement to be correct, I must be using some odd and unusual definition of the word "violence." Once a dictionary definition of the word violence was provided, he still remained happily oblivious to that fact and accused another commenter of ignoring conventional definitions. From that point on the rational content of the discussion dropped to zero as his final argument was essentially, "You can think what you like, but remember, that's just your opinion." Honestly, I don't intrinsically object to reasonable discussions of semantics. However, when someone is claiming that others are using non-dictionary definitions of words, it is very important that they know what the actual dictionary definition is. If one is going to using evidence to support one's argument, it is vital to be sure that the evidence actually supports one's argument rather than rendering it inert.

Evidential problems are one sort of thing that I frequently face when having discussions with people. Another common issue is logical inconsistency. I was having a discussion with one fellow about whether freewill and foreknowledge are mutually exclusive. For some reason, he seems to have a stance that necessitates a categorical rejection of any possible synergism between the two. Of course, any sort of stance of categorical rejection is a problem because it prevents any rational consideration of arguments for a given position. However, categorical rejection, though dangerous to rational thinking, isn't necessarily a deal-breaker for having a rational discussion. It became worse when he began to use arguments whose conclusions did not logically follow from his premises, and when the premises of his arguments directly contradicted other statements that he made. Obviously, the glaring inconsistencies led me to ask for clarification. Did he agree with the statement that he had made, or did he hold to the implied premise of his argument? Rather than acknowledging the contradiction or clarifying his stance, he assumed I simply wasn't understanding him correctly, and attempted to argue through use of analogy. Needless to say, the analogy itself was logically inconsistent and simply served to reinforce the contradictory premises previously laid forth. It's quite difficult to argue with someone who has no problem with presenting an argument that is self-defeating and yet still believes that it is a powerful and sound argument.

Another problem that I encounter when discussing intellectual topics with people is that some people are unable to critically analyze their own stances and provide a rational basis for why they think what they do. My best friend is one such person. He's an amazing fellow and quite often his stances on things are dead-on. However, every so often we'll have a discussion about some topic where we disagree. When I press for details on why he holds a particular stance, he is unable to offer any rational reasons or logical basis. At those times he'll say things like, "It just is," or "I don't understand why you don't get it." At those times, I really don't understand why he thinks the way he does, which is why I am curious to learn his basis. Yet, he also does not really know why he thinks a certain way, and therefore remains unable to extrapolate a rational reason for his stance. Because of that, whenever we do hit a topic like that, I have to remind myself that I'm not going to be able to understand why he thinks what he does, even if I really want to.

Because of the many people I talk with who are rationally challenged, it is always refreshing to have a discussion with someone who is capable of clearly following an argument, dissecting it's premises and providing a clear and logically consistent response. Such people are not as plentiful as I wish they were, which means that rational discourse is not always a possibility. I think that although most modern Americans claim to like the ideas of reason, rationality, logic, sound evidence and empirical truth, a great majority are quite incapable of utilizing such mental resources or assessing their usage by others. If you're going to argue for something, know why you hold your stance. If you're going to use evidence to support your argument, make sure that you cite the evidence and that you actually know what it says. Most importantly, learns the rules of logic so that you are capable of rationally arguing in the first place.

3 comments:

  1. I just assume that everyone is irrational and illogical until proven otherwise. That way I'm never disappointed.

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