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How rational human beings exchange ideas

Eww, I hate this:

A “debate flowchart” that Them in the subsequent example is following verbatim.

Me: “Hi, excuse me, but you dropped your wallet before you stepped off the train, I thought you’d want it ba–”
Them: “Can you envision anything that will change your mind on this topic?”
Me: “Not sure what you mean, I just thought you mi–”
Them: “If one of your arguments is shown to be faulty will you stop using that argument (with everyone)?”
Me: “I mean, statements are context-sensi–”
Them: “Are you prepared to abide by basic principles of reason in discussing this topic?”
Me: “Such as?”
Them: “For example, the position that is more reasonable and has more supporting evidence should be accepted as true.”
Me: “Not sure what you mean by ‘reasonable’, and there have been false convictions made in cases where there seemed to be more indicia in favor of–”
Them: “Or that the person asserting a position bears the onus of demonstrating its truth.”
Me: “I just thought you might wanna consid–”
Them: “This is a discussion. I will talk to you about this topic provided the following rules are obeyed.”
Me: “‘Obeyed’…? I–”
Them: “Rule number one! Do not introduce new arguments while another argument has yet to be resolved.”
Me: “Sometimes a new argument, a new perspective can can help shine a new li–”
Them: “Rule number two! Do not move on to another argument if it is shown that a fact you have relied upon is inaccurate.”
Me: “But why should we dwell on a faulty argument for an otherwise true proposition if that argument has been dispr–”
Them: “Rule number three! Provide evidence for your position or arguments.”
Me: “Evidence? I didn’t have a notary public with me when you dr–”
Them: “Rule number four! Do not argue that you do not ‘need’ evidence.”
Me: “I just thought that perh–”
Them: “You have breached the rules in the discussion. You cheated.
Me: “I didn’t even try to ‘win’, I just–”
Them: “The discussion is terminated. You are deemed to have conceded all opposing arguments up to this point.”
Me: “Wait a minute, I definitively don’t th–”
Them: “You forfeit any right to complain about the discussion. Congratulations! This is how rational human beings exchange ideas. 😊 Have a nice day.”

There are a ton of issues with this approach.

It comes across as unilateral. You are not saying anything about whether you are willing to change your own mind, you seem so sure you’re right. Don’t worry, I’m not asking for false balance or arguing for every li’l sea lion to get to have their hours at the pulpit. You’re just coming across as a steam roller.

But, OK, that’s just rudeness.

The bigger problem is a foundational epistemological flaw. Humans betray the honest and curious search for truth when they entrench themselves before walking the road fully. We jump to conclusions. For example, you see a glint in the starry sky and you dig in to a camp of “it was definitively a flying saucer piloted by Zeta Reticulans with big eyes and small mouths”. We love a silver bullet. We love answers that are just one single simple consistent answer, that makes is feel like “OK, now we know the whole truth of the matter, glad that’s settled”. It’s the Buddha-on-the-road that we forgot to kill.

Sometimes to understand something that’s very far from what we currently know, we need to get a variety of new perspectives. That’s not to condone gish galloping or overwhelming someone. You need to let each other breathe and pause and think. A true conversation takes time. Modern fundamentalist religion is based on the same fallacy that gave us string theory and Ayn Rand: you think you’ve found this perfect, consistent, closed “system”, and there you dig in. This flowchart was originally made by atheists with christians in mind, and I’m sure in that context people were cheering it on, but imagine the exact same approach but placed in the hands of… let’s say a tobacco-risk denialist.

When you’re like “every single statement you make needs to be followed by Evidence” while also playing loosey-goosey with the truth like saying ‘the position that is more reasonable and has more supporting evidence should be accepted as true’. Supersymmetry was super reasonable (some would say that was the problem). Susy had a ton of evidence. But in the end it was not enough.

Don’t worry, you don’t owe every single billion people out there a genuine and heartfelt conversation. There is a lot of bad-faith approaches out there. But when we do decide to talk to someone, a friend perhaps, then let’s really talk and not just fall into a robotic and victory-oriented “debate”.

As I wrote here:

Instead, I wanna teach you something I think you might’ve missed (if not the entire concept then maybe a new aspect of it, or a way to think of it) while holding my own ideas loosely and being ready to change my own mind.


I found the original text and it’s a little bit gentler.

I do feel bad for digging into it because it’s a real person, discussing their private issues and the grief they get from their high school friends, and it’s also not on the real internet anymore, only Wayback Machine. So I’m trying to address this with more nuance. I’m simultaneously doubling down on some of what I wrote above while softening other parts.

The flowchart felt more fair game since it’s been posted and reposted including by some pretty sus types.

Conversations are a two way street in which both participants need to be willing to alter their position if it makes sense to do so.

Yeah. It’s mutual. The flowchart version doesn’t contradict that, of course, but spends so much time focusing on how I need to be willing to change my mind and not the other way around.

I’ll need you to tell me what could change your mind

And here we are again with the one-way street. Anything can make me change my mind. I’ve had some pretty big changes of heart and realizations over the years. But you need to offer the same if you’re asking for this. Or, rather, not all conversations have to be about changing minds. Sometimes people just wanna share.

Second, if I show that one of your arguments is a bad argument, how will that affect your position? Will you alter your position accordingly or will you maintain the exact same position and just move on to the next argument, and the next, and the next, and so forth?

This is being sloppy with “position”; by “position” they mean a particular argument, not (as I misunderstood it above) a proposition as a whole.

If you advance a fact and I show that fact to be inaccurate, do not simply throw out another argument as though we are finished. It is important to resolve individual arguments before moving forward.

I’m super not–on-board with this but I can rephrase it in a way that gets me on-board: “it is helpful to explicitly say things like ‘OK, you’re right about that one. I have another issue’ or ‘Can we please put a pin in this one because I think this next one will…” People like clarity and explicit validation.

Also, either provide evidence for your position or against mine.

The “or against mine” was a pretty crucial omission from the original flowchart. The text version is generally more nuanced and “symmetrical”.

Whichever position is more reasonable and has more supporting evidence is the one that should be accepted as true. If you start making excuses for why you don’t have evidence or for why you should maintain your position even though it’s unreasonable

Eppur si muove.

I never wanna argue semantics but you’re using “reasonable” in an unusual way. More often it means just, fair, lagom, a reasonable price, a reasonable amount of time, etc. I am not trying to be uncharitable but it’s genuinely unclear to me whether they’re saying “according to most people’s general common sense” (in which case it’d be in the company of so much wrongness over the year) or “according to reason—i.e. deducible from premises”; seems like they’re equivocating those two meanings.

I’m not a denier of objective truth but I’m also not a fan of clinging too tightly to hasty guesses of what that objective truth really is.

if your faith is a matter of utter certainty, then it has not integrated humility and doubt; and if your position will not change in the face of contradictory evidence, then you are not searching for the truth

Here, I’ll grant them something big: The kind of religious practice that deliberately disdains reason and questioning in favor of unyielding, pure-hearted trust can not also schlep out “there’s no transitional fossils” Kent Hovind-style faux science and fake evidence. That is dishonest to both themselves and to the person they’re talking to. Great point.

Whenever I agree to meet with someone, I insist that the conversation be filmed. Afterward, I will post it unedited to my blog (you may also post the video of our conversation wherever you wish)

… holy shit no. I shoulda read all the way to the end before trying to be nuanced because that is messed the heck up.