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November 25, 2004

A Treatise on Debate: Part I

I have had a number of debates recently on a range of topics that has me rethinking the topic of debate itself. At the least it has given me ideas for how to have more productive debates. By productive I am referring to the idea that your goal in a debate should not be to win, but to acquire as much information as possible for your own analysis and conclusion drawing. I have observed some trends in debates that seem to almost always be impediments to productivity as well as some suggested tactics meant to decrease misunderstanding, bias and resentment.

The general thesis I want to put forward is that debates are more productive when we first disarm OURSELVES from using arguments which are not productive. This seems like a tautology because it is, but it is less obvious in practice. In practice, the idea of disarming ourselves seems unproductive because we are taking away tools we can use to win the debate. Which brings me to my first point, the purpose of debate.

When entering a debate it is hoped that there is an understanding on both sides as to what the purpose of the debate is. For example, if one person is hired by another to debate something, it may be that the debater's intention is NOT to gain new knowledge or find truth, but instead merely to defend a position. It is likely that if the other person being debated is following a more liberal guideline for the debate, they will lose and rightfully feel they lost unfairly. However, if both people are aware they are defending positions without compromise they are on a more even playing field. We find these debates most commonly in politics. It is just as important for the observers of these debates to recognize the type rules of the debate. Without invalidating the above form of debate, it does and should diminish the legitimacy of both sides if they hold this type of uncompromising stance.
A more productive debate is one in which both sides are truly debating to find the truth and not merely to defend a position. If both sides agree to this format, they must trust the other is observing this format for the debate to be effective. One side may still decide to staunchly hold a position and make the other defend their position more fully even if the person holding staunchly already has doubt. In this case it is the intent that matters. If the persons intention is to find the truth and is only using stubbornness to tease out more information, it is legitimate. However, the debate is seriously delegitimized when one person suspects the other of stubbornness just for the sake of being right. In this way it is almost more helpful to think of a debate as trying to convince ourself of something rather than the person being debated. This may seem counterintuitive, but taking away the need to have the other person agree, in place of trying to convince ourselves of something takes away some of our bias. We can control our own thoughts, but we can not control our opponents. A scientist is not supposed to come up with a hypothesis because he wants to prove that hypothesis is true, but merely to learn whether it is true or not. He may still rigorously test and defend the hypothesis, but it should only be to learn the real truth.
Furthermore, our PURPOSE in debate should not be to come to a conclusion or an agreement at all. Instead, our purpose should be gain information which can be incorporated into our decision making process. We rarely are able to get all the information that exists in a topic in the midst of a debate so why should we expect we can come to a definitive conclusion on that subject. We can choose when to agree and disagree in order to gain information, but if our goal is to be right or to have agreement, we will hold positions and argue unarguable areas longer than is productive. This is often seen when a point arises where there is clear disagreement, with no path towards agreement. At this point, it would be more productive to find a finer point to debate than to keep beating a dead horse, but I will go into this more later.

There is a further problem with believing in the need to be correct or whether we ARE correct to begin with or not. If we believe it is possible we are currently correct, having come to our conclusion logically, without misinformation or bias, it immediately assumes some things about our opponent. If we are right by right means, then they must be wrong because of incorrect thinking, either because of bias, misinformation, illogical/emotional thinking, etc... Believing our opponent is not playing with the same deck we are immediately delegitimizes his/her argument and decreases your ability to hear or believe what they are saying.
This is most commonly seen in the area of bias. It is easy to assume our opponent disagrees because of some bias on their end that has forced them to come to their conclusion incorrectly. We each have a POV which determines our bias. None of us are free from bias. Our bias is determined by a large number of factors including our disposition, events that happened around us, reactions to our actions by others, our reaction to events and others, etc... It is possible for us to see areas in which we have bias and possibly even what that bias is, however, it is not possible to know ALL the areas we are biased and how or why we are biased in those areas. Given this reality, it is safest for each of us in a debate to assume we ARE biased on the issue we are debating and have no ability to truly detach ourselves from our bias. Admitting our own bias disarms us from using the argument that our opponent is merely biased. Furthermore, the recognition that we are all biased can be used by a tool to determine the truth. But more on this later.

Related to the issue of bias is the issue of believing oneself or ones opponent to be open or closed minded. We may frequently talk about someone else being closed minded, or more closed minded than a third person. We also refer to groups of people as more closed minded. There may be merit in investigating whether a person or persons are more closed minded than another person or persons, but this investigation is almost always counter-productive when done in the midst of a debate not relating to open mindedness. When we believe someone else is closed minded we are delegitimizing their position. In essence we are saying they hold their position because they refuse to see the reality that should be obvious. However, I believe study on this matter would show that we believe people who disagree with us to be more closed minded than those that agree. This gives away our bias on the matter and delegitimizes our ability to call someone else closed minded. Furthermore, if our goal is the pursuit of truth, thinking our opponent is closed minded will likely result in us being more closed minded to their position (given that we have already delegitimized it). Most frequently, when you find a party in a debate that thinks the other to be closed minded, you will find the same belief on the other side. Two people who both believe the other to be closed minded cancels out their argument that the other is closed minded. At least it does practically. It is best to disarm oneself of the ability to excuse your opponent's position as being closed minded.

Also related to the issue of bias is whether we believe our opponent is being logical or not. Believing our opponent to be illogical delegitimizes their position and thus makes the debate less productive. We can disarm ourselves of this argument by assuming ahead of time that our opponent reached their conclusion logically based on the information he/she had and his/her way of thinking. Based on the above discussion of bias, we then should not disparage our opponents information gathering process or his/her way of thinking as these are essentially employing the same tactic of believing our opponent to be less logical than you.

You also must not assume your opponent is judging you while attempting to not judge your opponent. This is best demonstrated with an example. Two people are arguing on the existence of karma and what it might be. One argues that he/she believes in cosmic karma, but that the scale each action is judged on is based on whether the person doing the action believed it to be good or bad. The other person asks the first person whether that means a terrorist who bombs a school and honestly believes it to be 'good' would be judged 'good' based on his own belief. It would be easy for the first person to assume he/she is being judged as someone who might agree with or sympathize with terrorists. This might make them defensive. In reality, the person asking the question is merely trying to understand the meaning of their opponents belief and not saying they think the other person is a terrorist or condones terrorism.

All of the above speaks to the format and preparation for debate, and now I want to get into the substance of debate. Once we have disarmed ourselves of the ability to delegitimize our opponents position, there are tools we can use to be more productive. Again, productivity in this regard, I am defining as attempting to find the truth irrespective of your initial position. Most often, debates begin spontaneously with a disagreement. Usually, the conclusion is debated first. Given that it was the conclusion that sparked the debate, this is both natural and not unproductive. It may be that the debate can be quickly resolved without going into much greater depth. At this phase and at deeper phases it is constructive to ask each other questions that test the voracity of each others beliefs. It should be understood that, "I don't know," or, "I haven't thought about that," are valid answers that do not imply concession. For example, in a debate above about Karma, the question about whether terrorists are good or bad is meant to be an extreme test of the persons belief. If they can defend their belief against extremes it bolsters their claim. The intent of the question should not be to 'stump' your opponent though. The difference may be subtle. You should TRY to ask questions your opponent can at least attempt to answer. If you ask a question they are not able to answer, try toning the question down until you find the point at which they can answer. Finding this point is instructive as well. It is not a sign of weakness to decide that your beliefs have a limit. It is valid to say you believe what you believe 'up to a point.' Trying to find this point is constructive for both members of the debate.

However, at some point, if no consensus or understanding between the two parties seems likely, the topic of debate should be altered. There is no definitive way to know when this point has been reached, but there are often clues. For example, when points that have already been presented and disagreed upon come up again, you are probably at or near the aforementioned point. When one person believes this point has been reached, that person should initiate a change in the topic of investigation for the debate. It does not matter whether both people agree this point has been reached because this change in substance can not be detrimental to the debate. The only thing calling it too early or too late can do is prolong the debate, not make it less productive. The purpose of this change is to attempt to flush out bias, areas of agreement, and areas of unarguable disagreement.
Firstly, to flush out bias, someone should ask the question, "Why do you believe I believe what I believe in the way I believe it." This question should be rephrased to fit better in your debate, ie. "Why do you think I believe abortion is wrong in all circumstances." Once the person has responded, it is your turn to tell them why you believe they believe what they believe about the topic. You should answer this question regardless of whether your opponent asks the question. If you are answering the question, unprompted, you should probably preface your answer with an acknowledgment of the question you are attempting to answer.
Once you both have answered why you think the other believes what they do, you should answer why YOU think you believe what you do. Here is where it starts to get tricky. Frequently, your opponent will have a different belief than you on why you believe what you believe and visa versa. During this phase of the debate you can attempt to support your position of why you think your opponent believes what they do and why you think you believe what you believe. However, this phase of the debate can quickly debase into name calling or other such unproductive stances. Once both parties have made BRIEF arguments as to why you believe what you do (about yourself and your opponent), both parties must agree to believe the their opponent believes their reason for believing what they believe. This may seem confusing, but the purpose of this phase is to disarm oneself from delegitimizing your opponents position. If at this point you can not accept your opponents belief in why they hold their position as legitimate, the debate is over. It will not be possible to find agreement if you both can not agree to this. However, if both of you can submit to the legitimacy of the others POV, the debate can continue. I can not emphasize this point enough. You have to truly believe that your opponents view is logically possible in order to have a productive debate. You do not have to agree.
Its at this point you may find you have reached an unarguable point. For example, if someone believes something is the way it is because God made it that way, and you do not, you can not argue with them on that point. You do not have to delegitimize their argument, its just that you are both basing your argument on premises you do not agree on. It likely not be possible to come to agreement if your premises are different. It would be like two people trying to make similar tasting pumpkin pie with completely different ingredients. Possible, but unlikely.

If an agreement is reached that both sides can accept the other's premises as legitimate, you can next attempt to collectively construct questions you both agree are legitimate and properly frame the issue. Frequently, two people argue around each other without ever framing the debate. The best way to frame the debate is with a question or series of questions. Both people have to agree though. These questions should be based around AREAS of agreement. The first questions constructed should be those whose answers you share some agreement on. Then, questions should be constructed BASED on the questions whose answers you agree on. This may be a bit vague, so let me give an example. Two people are arguing about whether to teach safe sex versus abstinence in school. Both parties have already agreed that the other persons position is legitimate. The question is asked, "What is the goal of teaching either of these?" The abstinence side may give reasons such as preserving morality in youth, preventing unwanted pregnancies, and reducing the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. The safe sex side may give reasons such as not wanting to pressure youth to marry too young, preventing unwanted pregnancies, and reducing the risk of sexually transmitted disease. Clearly, the two groups have different reasons, one being concerned with morality and the other with marrying too young. Remember, we DO NOT make any judgments on the validity of these reasons at this point. It doesn't matter whether you think morality is a good reason or not. What is important is that there were answers to the same question that were in agreement. Of course, not all questions will result in there being overlapping answers. The challenge is to FIND these questions. Once we have determined there are overlapping answers, we can construct subsequent questions based on this agreement. For example, "If it was found that focusing on [safe sex or abstinence] teaching reduced [unwanted pregnancies and/or STDs] would you agree it would better to focus on that form of teaching?" If both sides agree you have just come up with a question that may end the debate. Now, you can try and find the answer to it. You can even put the debate on hold until the answer is found. People can always disregard the results, but since the objective wasn't convincing the other person, that doesn't matter. Of course, its not always this easy or obvious. Still, I believe it is productive to attempt to frame the debate in terms of constructing questions you both agree are legitimate.

I have more thoughts on this, but need to put this topic down for the moment. I'll leave you with a bulleted summary of areas where you should disarm yourself before a debate.
The following are things you should make an attempt NOT to apply to your opponent during a debate:
1. Small Minded
2. Illogical Deduction
3. Emotional Deduction
4. Biased Deduction
5. Misinformed Deduction
6. Ill Informed Deduction
6. Dishonest or withholding the truth (what they really think)
7. Bad Intentions

Posted by wonko at November 25, 2004 11:09 PM

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2 Thoughts

1. Logic is completely relative. What may seem logical to you, may in fact be completely illogical to someone else. This, in my opinion, cancels out someone's use of logic, unless you and the person you are debating, come to a "singular" common logical approach. Otherwise, the logic you infer, comes from different experiences in your life which make up and build your deductive reasoning. Therefore the use of "logic" to argue your point is irrelevant because logic can't be globally defined. To be fair and remove bias, your logic, should be more appropriately reported as your opinion and your deduction of the events in your debate are as such because of your relative position to the topic.

2. I personally disagree that "telling the other person what you think they believe" can be constructive or a basis for good debate. At this point you're creating a wall between you and the person you are debating. Is it not better to LISTEN first? and then explore what you understand them to mean? With statements like "I understand you to mean......." By initiated your "Perceived" thoughts of their beliefs, you may if not by accident, then on purpose be inviting quarrel based on your inability to listen intently to the beliefs of the person you're debating. The assumption will set the mood for bias and that bias will slowly tear at the debate like a piece of frayed cloth.

Posted by: obigabu at November 29, 2004 09:47 PM

I disagree that logic is 'completely relative'. I can disagree without saying that what is logical to you would be logical to me by definition. It is not logic that is flawed, it is our view of logic. Given identical premises and facts, we would come to the same conclusion. However, none of us have identical premises, and we often see things differently. We often declare things as 'facts' that are not 'facts'. The variables are variable. Given the equation, 2+2=?, we will all come to the conclusion that the answer is 4 if we all have perfect agreement on the definitions of the members of the equation (the number 2, the +, the =, and the number 4). If someone came up with 5, either they did it wrong, or they had a different definition of the symbols.
That said, it is more or less difficult to remove bias from our application of logic depending on the question. Maybe we can answer math questions without logic, but it is difficfult to impossible to answer moral questions without bias. In this case, you are correct that what we state as conclusive truth, is often just our opinion.

As to your second point, I have to think about it. I still think its instructive to tell the other person why you thought they believed what they did, however, perhaps it is better for them to tell YOU why they believe what they do first. The purpose of the excersize was to point out to both people how their bias changed their perception of the other. I did state, however, that you must believe the reason the other person tells you is his reason in order to have a fully productive debate. If you do not believe your opponant believes what they are saying, you probably can not debate clearly.

Posted by: wonko [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 29, 2004 10:39 PM

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