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.

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