You Can’t Debate What You Don’t Know
How Truth-Seeking and Fallibility are Take Precedence in Debate
The Purpose of Debate
It’s easy to get caught up in debates. If you’ve spent any amount of time on social media, you know. Of course, the propensity to disagree is not novel to the Internet, much less social media. It’s quite common to human nature. We have an idea, that we believe is right, and when we find someone with a contradictory idea, we proceed to explain how they are wrong.
Worse still is when someone uses debate as a defense mechanism. One might fear being persuaded by another idea and so resists thinking about it, even if doing so would improve their own argument. This happens much more than you realize. We form views about the world before ever setting out to consciously reflect on them.
These non-conscious beliefs are very closely connected to our identity – who we are. So when a challenge comes, it’s not only challenging our idea, but our own identity. This can feel like an attack! Fight or flight will kick in and the fight manifests in a debate to be fought and won.
What’s at stake is our identity, not the truth of the idea we hold. But this is purposeless debate.
Not all debates happen in this manner, but certainly many debates do. We need look no further than the polarization in our own society as evidence. So, then, if the purpose of debate isn’t to win and show how someone else is wrong, what is it?
Two principles of purposeful debate
How much knowledge do you have right now? Can you even quantify it? What kind of knowledge do you have? Where did you get that knowledge from? How do you know the knowledge you have is true? Is it possible for a person to go through life operating on untrue knowledge?
Genuine debates follow several principles. Here are two: the fallibility principle and the truth-seeking principle. In his book, Attacking Faulty Reasoning, T. Edward Damer explains these two principles.
The fallibility principle: understanding one’s own ability to err, and that one’s initially-held view might not be the most defensible.
The truth-seeking principle: a commitment to searching for the truth, or the most defensible position.
These two principles rule out the possibility of the misuses of debate I describe above. The misuse of debate negates the possibility of genuine debate since truth-seeking is set aside. Let’s explore these two principles in greater detail.
The Fallibility Principle
Employing the fallibility principle is harder than it sounds. It requires the skill of intellectual humility. We develop this skill over time through practice. To do this, you must grant that your present view may be false or flawed. This is hard for many people. Denying it though demonstrates unwillingness to be persuaded by a better argument.
Accepting this principle is crucial! The implication of denying it is that you perceive yourself as infallible; perfect. This, of course, is not possible. Even if we hold some true views, we’ve synthesized them with untrue ones. Where we continue to err is where we must allow ourselves to be persuaded by more defensible views.
We increase the likelihood we hold true views when we’ve spent time reflecting on, developing, correcting, and refining that view. But even this is no guarantee. For example, we can still err in our conclusions, even while our rationale is logical, if our premises (or presumptions) are incorrect.
But let’s say we hold a view that is strongly defensible; it’s still not infallible. Our reasoning will always have flaws. So, admitting one’s own fallibility actually increases the likelihood problems will be resolved.
The areas people are least likely to admit their fallibility are in politics and religion. And yet, fallibility is a necessary condition for every other intellectual endeavor. Politics and religious belief are not excluded from these principles. People are just the most unwilling to be persuaded here.
If we’re willing to understand why this is, it helps us be more peaceable and patient with one another. Damer explains why you should be persuaded of the fallibility principle:
The most convincing evidence of the fallibility of most human opinions come from the history of science. We are told by some of science’s historians that virtually every knowledge claim in the history of science has been shown by subsequent inquiry to be either false or at least flawed.
And if this is true of the past, it is probably true of present and future claims of science, even in spite of the more sophisticated techniques of inquiry used by modern science.
Moreover, if such observations can be made about an area of inquiry with well-developed evidential requirements, it seems reasonable to assume that non-science claims would suffer an even worse fate.
The best way to test the validity of the fallibility principle, is to simply try it. Next time you’re in a heated disagreement, be the first to confess your fallibility. Your opponent will likely follow suit perhaps only to avoid embarrassment. If they do not, you at least know the debate is not worth pursuing.
Are you a reflective thinker? Have you changed your mind on something in the past year? If not, you might consider this principle more deeply.
The Truth-Seeking Principle
Genuine debate cannot be about winning. This is especially true if it means ignoring or denying your own fallibility. The truth-seeking principle goes hand-in-hand with the fallibility principle. This has also been a mainstay principle since the time of Socrates.
Socrates, is best known for his method of inquiry which required thinkers to be aware of their own ignorance, and seek the truth. Truth-seeking becomes a lifelong endeavor. We choose to engage in dialogue with others as we evaluate ideas we come in contact with. Of course, any truth-seeker will eventually acquire some true knowledge.
What then? Does he stop seeking? Does he deny his fallibility?
Both of these principles are intended to keep us humble. Even the brightest minds err! The question we have to ask ourselves is, “have I come to the end of knowledge?” The answer is (probably), ‘no’. Not only that, but we’re continually synthesizing new information with the true knowledge we have.
Purposeless debate is a fruitless effort
Debate for its own sake – for the sake of mere argument, is fruitless in so far as the participants are concerned. One might be inclined to think that debate is useful for revealing the other person’s fallibility, or to demonstrate one’s own true knowledge. Even if you are superior to your opponent, your opponent is probably thinking the same thing.
Socrates was also known for sometimes embarrassing his interlocutors. (These were usually politicians who thought more highly of themselves than they should have). But even then, Socrates did nothing more than ask questions aimed at revealing the fact of these two principles.
Recognizing one’s own ignorance while maintaining a wonderment for the truth, was what Socrates held to be the pinnacle of wisdom.