Monday, March 07, 2011

When good faith fails.

My previous post notwithstanding, there are many times when one finds themselves arguing some position with someone that has little to no interest in seeking the truth. When one's opponent fails to reciprocate your good faith and intellectual honesty, what remains? One strategy is to shift your goal to demonstrate to your audience the lack of honesty exhibited by your opponent. In doing so, perhaps it can be demonstrated that their argument does not rest upon logic and evidence, but upon emotional appeal and on preconceived notions. If so, then the audience is enlightened for having seen the pretense and facade of rationality stripped from your opponent's counterarguments— assuming, that is, that they truly are violating the principle of intellectual honesty.

The question, then, becomes one of how best to strip away pretense and nonsense from what is claimed to be a logical argument. Enter humor. A long tested technique in discourse, the use of humor to defuse emotional appeals by one's opponent and to lay bare the flimsy pseudologic of their arguments has been elevated to an art form. Take, for example, a rhetorical device such as the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The FSM doesn't make its point directly through well-reasoned arguments, but by a sort of reductio ad absurdum that cuts to the essential absurdity of intelligent design creationism (IDC): the Christian god is added ad hoc without any justification, when any other deity (even a manifestly absurd one like the FSM) would do just as well in its place.

By ridiculing the intelligent design creationist argument, then, the FSM device makes room for a real debate (that is, one based on good faith and intellectual honesty) to occur as it adds a cost to introducing further irrational arguments of a similar kind. In this way, we can see that ridicule acts as a cultural tool to enforce good faith: when one deviates from the principles that enable a debate to be productive, ridicule and sarcasm can be employed to steer the argument back to a potentially constructive state.

One can also think of ridicule as a kind of memetic inoculation against bad-faith arguments such as those used to prop up IDC. Used as inoculation, ridicule works quite well along side well-reasoned and honest arguments, as the ridicule can serve as the mnemonic hook upon which an argument can be hung. For instance, following an argument about the methodological incompatibilities between science and faith, using a term like "faitheist" adds a social cost to using the same discredited arguments (such as "they must be compatible--- to prove it, here's a religious scientist") to justify complete compatibility. In order to be effective, one arguing for compatibility must either provide a novel demonstration of why the arguments packaged up in "faitheist" are wrong, or they must provide novel arguments not addressed in preceding discussions.

In a completely different context, economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman effectively uses ridicule in the same way: his use of the terms like "Serious People" and "Confidence Fairy" serve to keep readers in the context of a previously made argument. Whereas the Republicans (and neo-conservatives more broadly) rely heavily upon a small set of arguments even long after they have been discredited, the use of ridicule can serve as an expedient way of connecting such a discredited argument to its rebuttal.

Even beyond the importance to enabling discourse, there is another important aspect to ridicule and even outright scorn that we ignore to our detriment. Many humans implicitly measure the acceptableness of a position by how their peers react to it, so should we not use that mechanism to stymie the propagation of truly hateful ideas? Leaving the material questions of an afterlife aside, for instance, should we not ridicule and scorn the hateful notion that a being worthy of worship would ever create a place of eternal torment? Hidden in such a supposition is the truly despicable idea that people ever deserve to be tormented, much less for eternity. By ridiculing those advancing without evidence claims of a literal hell (see, for instance, George Carlin's hilarious rants on the subject), we can introduce a social cost not just for being illogical, but also for being hateful.

The danger, of course, in the use of ridicule to remedy bad faith and enforce social costs is that it can all too easily become another example of bad faith itself. Put differently, ridicule is a tool that can be used to manifestly delegitimize arguments that aren't actually legitimate in the first place, or it can be used to delegitimize arguments that are in fact made in all good faith. As a step towards addressing this danger, note that ridicule can be its own balance. Someone that uses ridicule poorly or as a bludgeon to cut off reasoned debate instead of fostering it should themselves be ridiculed. After all, the best of applications of sarcastic wit must necessarily draw upon reality, so having reality on one's side lends potency to their ridicule.

In an ideal situation, such a tool should never be needed, but in practice, I posit that there are many situations that call for tools like ridicule to make room for reasoned discourse to start. I look forward to the day where I can assume good faith by default, but until then, I shall have to be content to have a laugh at the expense of poor reasoning.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The importance of good faith.

Listen long enough to any group of humans talking, and you're likely to hear an argument of some kind. It may be a small argument or it may be a loud and angry argument, but either way, it will very likely nucleate about a disagreement between the parties about some aspect of reality. After all, if all parties involved in an argument agreed with each other on their assessments of reality, there would be nothing to argue about. In much of our arguments, then, we should expect that our goal is to impress upon our peers that some claim is true and correct.
This process of disagreement and ensuing debate are thus potentially good and useful: to the extent that we are only convinced by logically and empirically sound arguments, then debate furthers our understanding of the world. Implicit in this assessment, however, is an assumption that both parties are actually interested in the pursuit of truth. That is, arguments are useful only insofar as the parties to an argument are practicing good faith.

If one is honest about their arguments, then that must necessarily include an understanding that they could be wrong and hence that they could "lose" an argument. Thus, one can violate good faith by disallowing for any change in their views as the result of an argument. This violation is especially common in discussions about religion, where one party to an argument (typically the more religious party) refuses to admit of any evidence or line of reasoning which could possibly budge them from their beliefs. It is simply not plausible that any individual human is infallible, even within some particular domain of knowledge, and so to argue from infallibility is to deny that one's understanding of the world could possibly be more complete. Such a denial is fundamentally incompatible with the goal of learning, and hence has no place in a discussion intended to bring enlightenment.

In a similar vein, good faith requires that one only advance arguments that they do not already know to be false. If someone shows that your argument is not in correspondence with reality, then continuing to use that argument is an affront to the pursuit of understanding and of truth. To be particularly blunt, the use of known-false arguments is simply dishonest, and is the practice of a liar.

It is concerning ourselves with good faith that we find it important to be aware of common logical fallacies. It hardly does anyone any good if an argument is tainted by mistakes which have been well-understood for centuries to be flawed. Appeal to authority, post hoc ergo propter hoc and confusion between correlation and causation, to name a few examples, should all be seen as undermining an argument and hence avoided.

On the other hand, it is similarly unconstructive to bludgeon others with a mistaken understanding of some particular logical fallacy, such as the ad hominem fallacy, that favored bludgeon of those arguing from bad faith. ("What? You called me a clueless gobshite? That means I won!") Focusing on name-calling, ridicule and other such patter comes at the cost of focusing on the merits of an argument. Taken to its extreme, critiquing a lack of decorum represents bad faith in that it distracts from critical evaluation of an argument. Of course there is a point at which a stream of ridicule or a particularly vile insult also disrupts useful debate; I call it a failure of good faith when this valid concern is exaggerated and perverted for the purposes of distraction or suppression.

Perhaps the most common and hence egregious violation of good faith, however, is the intentional mischaracterization of another's opinions for the purpose of delegitimizing their views. While there is room, of course, for arguing that one's opponent is being dishonest in how they describe their views, there is a wide gulf between such arguments and flat-out lying about what someone else does or says. By lying and employing such strawmen, one once again gives up discovering what is true. To wit, fighting a strawman doesn't expose holes in an argument, but rather is a strategy explicitly purposed to prevent having to change one's views in the face of opposition. Such dishonesty is by nature incompatible with reasoned and constructive debate, and should be disdained as strongly as any other form of blatant dishonesty.

Why is good faith so important to me, though? Because I actually care about learning more about the world. Because engaging someone in an well-reasoned argument is time-consuming, and should be reciprocated in kind. Because we, at a societal level, desperately need constructive discourse, no matter how much popular etiquette demands that certain views be kept out of the public sphere. Because constructive dialogue is much more about intellectual honesty and mutual respect for the truth than about how many profanities are spoken. Because we, as a culture, seem to have forgotten (if indeed we ever knew) that truth is something to strive for and that dishonesty is something to hold in contempt.

I don't ask that the whole world agree with me--- that would be boring and quite useless, after all. I don't even ask that people refrain from calling me an ignorant fucktard (or whatever the slang of the day might become). I merely ask of my peers that we all engage in good faith as we seek to improve our understanding of the world.