Talking About the Same Thing When the Other Side Won’t

Downblog, Kyle highlights and provides approval for a comment to my post this afternoon on the importance of “talking about the same thing.”  That comment was in response to my argument that ideology works best when it is viewed more as a rule of construction than as an “always and everywhere” belief in the primacy of a particular first principle.  Specifically, matoko_chan wrote about this:

“But this is simply impossible when one side’s arguments are not based on logic and reason, but on superstitious belief and the historical right of imposing those beliefs on other citizens.”

In his post mostly agreeing with matoko_chan, Kyle writes that:

This is why, as I point out above, there are two necessities: a willingness to accept the fallibility in one’s own thinking, and a general ability to accept that in a debate sometimes compromise is not the desirable outcome but instead a thorough drubbing of one idea set by another.

I point out that there are definitive right answers and wrong answers.  In today’s political landscape, often those right answers can be found somewhere in between two polarized sides, but there are times when there really is no question that one side is undoubtedly wrong, and one side is undoubtedly right.

I don’t deny that Kyle is correct in making this point.  However, the problem I have with these responses is that I think they fundamentally miss the point I was making in that post.  Specifically, my point was to acknowledge that there are absolutely some things that can be proven at least to a pretty high degree of certainty by pure reason or empirical evidence.  The problem I identify, though, is that the commitment to one core principle as being always and everywhere superior to other core principles prevents any kind of debate based on reason because core principles, even when more or less universally accepted, are primarily articles of faith accepted as self-evidently true. 

It is simply impossible to conceive of a way to objectively prove that, for instance, maximizing free choice is a worthy social goal; instead, the maximization of free choice is accepted as being self-evidently “good.”  Ditto for the concept of valuing human life, for respect for tradition, and for valuing social mobility.  But because it is impossible to empirically prove the value of these core first principles, it is impossible to ever come to an empirical conclusion as to which principle to value most in a given instance. 

When one holds to the idea of a particular core principle being always and everywhere superior to other core principles, one denies the legitimacy of those other core principles and will refuse to even entertain empirical or rational arguments that would suggest the supposedly superior core principle conflicts with other core principles. 

So my point in arguing for a “rule of construction” view of one’s own ideology is that it avoids this trap, and attempts to keep one’s mind open to evidentiary or logical arguments against a particular position while simultaneously allowing one to maintain their hold on their core principles.  Simply put, it seeks common ground between two seemingly opposing viewpoints by keeping in mind that even though one may prefer to err on the side of a particular core principle, one still accepts the legitimacy of other core principles.

In the case of the creationism vs. evolution issue to which Kyle refers, and really of any issue where we have religious groups seeking to impose their religious beliefs on others through the force of law, it is often (though not always) because that group is engaging in the fallacy of awarding one core principle “always and everywhere” primacy over other core principles.  The existence of evolution challenges the “always and everywhere” primacy of that core principle (call it one of Biblical literalism), and so must be reflexively denied. 

So, the example of essentially theocratic arguments doesn’t refute what I said at all – it is instead a good example of choosing the intellectually lazy approach to ideology over the healthy, but intellectually challenging approach.  As such, matoko_chan’s question would have been much better phrased as “how does one respond to arguments that hold the primacy of one core principle as ‘always and everywhere’ true”? 

And that, to me, is the most difficult question.  One possibility is to simply ignore those arguments, under a “Don’t Feed the Trolls” theory….but the stakes here a tad higher than putting an end to a nasty comments thread since there are very real consequences if the opponent continues unchecked and winds up getting their policy imposed as law.  I do know that the proper response is NOT to engage in the same type of argumentation that denies the legitimacy of the opponent’s core principle. 

On the specific question of the teaching of intelligent design, I would suggest that the appropriate and most productive response would be to say something along the lines of “I understand that you are not convinced by the theory of evolution, which conflicts with your deeply held beliefs.  However, whether or not you accept that theory is irrelevent to whether intelligent design belongs in a science classroom, as ID theory is non-falsifiable and thus by definition does not qualify as science.  If you sincerely believe Darwin’s theory of evolution to be incorrect as a matter of science, you are more than welcome to pull your child out of class or to send them to a private school or to homeschool them.”  At the very least, this style of response succeeds in validating the sincerity of your opponent’s belief even as it denies the accuracy of those beliefs.

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4 thoughts on “Talking About the Same Thing When the Other Side Won’t

  1. “I understand that you are not convinced by the theory of evolution, which conflicts with your deeply held beliefs.”

    I noticed being nice to creationists has never accomplished anything, for the same reason being nice to a terrorist who wants to kill you won’t accomplish anything. I prefer to tell the creationist retards to keep their breathtaking stupidity out of our schools or else they will be taken to court.

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  2. Well said, Mark.

    So, the example of essentially theocratic arguments doesn’t refute what I said at all – it is instead a good example of choosing the intellectually lazy approach to ideology over the healthy, but intellectually challenging approach.

    Right on the money. Is this, in a sense, a question of simply taking the high road in all debates, arguments etc.? When faced with pure partisanship, or thoughtless ideology, one must simply take the Zen approach? Find the way to maneuver the conflict by doing the least harm, and making the most strides forward?

    So much to consider…

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