On Reasonable Discourse

Politics & Religion: The two content areas of Ack’s View. Choosing to write on these two topics in particular was intentional. These are the very topics we are all told not to discuss at the Thanksgiving dinner table. We are warned that discussing such will strain familial relations and set a negative tone for the rest of the evening. Politics and religion are the two topics about which many people often become very impassioned. This may not be for incorrect reason; political decisions and religious beliefs can affect us personally at an individual and emotional level. However, regardless of how intimate those areas may be for all of us, they still deserve to be treated with intellectual rigor so that validity in our opinions may be reached. That is the mission of Ack’s View.

Thanksgiving dinner conversations based on politics and religion can be so divisive because they are often not intellectually rigorous. Dialogue may include a snarky comment or off-colored joke, which will undoubtedly upset whomever at the table is of a different opinion. I argue that there is an inherent problem with this type of dialogue. The insult of personal views via sarcasm or degrading humor will hardly ever change minds. You cannot tell a Republican Christian that Republicans are evil or that Christians are stupid and then expect that person to listen respectfully to the merit of your argument. That shutting down of intellectual debate is due to the fact that the conversation began lacking any intellectual sophistication.

If we wish to change the world via changing other people’s minds, we must debate ideas with the goal of finding the right answers regardless of whether we were the ones who had the right answer first. As I wrote in “I’m Offended:” America’s Struggle with Political Correctness, insulting someone’s character or social group is offensive and rightfully so. The first step to effectively debating, then, must be to acknowledge the other person’s intellect. If you truly believe that their mind can be changed via logic and reason, you must subconsciously be convinced that they are then capable of using logic and reason. Therefore, they are intelligent. You would feel it of no use to use intellectual argument on someone who is incapable of understanding such. Therefore, let’s start every debate realizing that the other person is indeed intelligent.

Furthermore, the very reason we wish to debate someone then is not to show them that he or she is dumb. If the other person is not unintelligent, then you must believe that they are convinced of incorrect or misleading evidence. Therefore, the only way to fix this perceived error in thinking is through logical argument. Thus, we can stop engaging in any arguments via the use of personally degrading attacks. Additionally, we should not feel personally attacked when the opposite person uses reason, logic, and evidence to dismantle our arguments. Of course we may not agree with their arguments. However, we ought to accept that the other person sees us as intelligent enough to engage in such a debate. Therefore, I call for the end of bringing personal feelings or attacks into argument. Such does not advance social progress in any way and most certainly does strain relationships. This elimination sets the groundwork for a fruitful discussion that may genuinely change minds. We ought to envision debate not just as an opportunity to change the minds of others but as a chance to test our own ideas and learn something new. If our ideas do not stand up to the test of the opposition, then those ideas are not worth keeping any longer.

The conversations can then be able to progress to an evaluation of logical arguments. After the groundwork of personal respect is laid, mutual understanding on some assumptions must be made. It is critical that the meaning of specific words, terms, or labels are accepted by both parties. This allows for the debating of the actually desired topic rather than a straw man of an argument. For instance, if one person says “I am an atheist,” it is necessary that the other person understands what he or she means by that label. Of course there is a dictionary with formal definitions; however, language is imperfect and the only way for us humans to translate our internal thoughts into perceivable sound. It is on the atheist debater to explain what he or she means and for the other person to accept that definition–at least for the means of this debate–before moving forward. Labels carry far too much baggage and preconceptions that it becomes crucial to reasonable discourse that there is agreement on the meanings of the labels used in debate.

The method we should use to achieve logical argument intuitively requires the lack of logical fallacies. As I argued above, personal attack–which is also called ad hominem–ought to be excluded from all intellectual discussion that has the ultimate hope of obtaining the truth. Additionally, we should not feel personally attacked when someone else critiques our own ideas with logic, reason, and evidence. Therefore, I am arguing for an end to people incorrectly claiming ad hominem has been done against them when in really it is their ideas rather than their character or intellect that are being critiqued. Emotional ties challenge this notion, but we should seek to separate ideas from the person they originated. This allows for an unbiased analysis of the ideas rather than of the person who is saying them.

When these frameworks are accepted by both persons, logical debate is finally possible. For the most effective discourse to occur, the strongest forms of argument are required. Let’s parse through the most popular logical fallacies so that we can be cognoscente of them when in debate. Having the most logically robust argument will provide for the greatest probability in both parties reaching an argument on the truth.

The List:

  • Ad Populum – Appealing to the fact that most people agree with your stance; thus, the person you are debating should agree as well.
  • Appeal to Authority – Appealing to the fact that someone with authority agrees with your stance. This is especially fallacious when the authority figure lacks credentials in the content area of your argument. For instance, it would be logically fallacious to say that because Stephen Hawking appreciates post-modern art, it is a respectable genre of art. If the appeal is to an authority figure in the field related to the content of your argument, such as the age of the universe and Stephen Hawking, the appeal is still fallacious if evidence of the authority figure’s argument is not provided.
  • Argument from Personal Incredulity – Arguing that the counter-argument is too complex to understand; therefore, it must be false. This acts as a forfeiture of effort in seeking to understand the other side’s argument, which by itself does not increase the likelihood that your argument is valid. For instance, someone may argue that because he or she does not understand the engine of biological evolution, it must be false.
  • Argument from Ignorance – Arguing that because an argument cannot be proven false, it must be true. This fallacy stems from the lack of falsification in an argument. For instance, the field on science can test only claims that can indeed be tested to be false. If a claim cannot be tested to determine whether it is false, this does not certify the validity of the claim. For instance, someone may argue that he or she saw a ghost last night and since you cannot prove that claim false, it must be true.
  • Ignorait elenchi – Arguing that someone’s stance on an issue must be false because of their false stance on an unrelated topic. For instance, someone may argue that Ted Cruz once believed that vaccines cause autism–which is a false argument; therefore, Ted Cruz’s stance on climate change must be false as well. The two topics are completely unrelated and being incorrect on one does not lead to being incorrect on the other.
  • Non-sequitur – Making a conclusion from premises that do not lead to such a conclusion. Some people confuse this fallacy with ignoratio elenchi as they believe a non-sequitur is mentioning something irrelevant to the argument. However, non-sequitur is, for instance, arguing that if Ted Cruz believes in vaccines causing autism, he must be wrong on climate change as well. Ted Crus is wrong on climate change; thus, he is wrong in vaccines causing autism. The fact that the conclusion is true does not validate the premise. (Inclusion of Ted Cruz’s name is just for convenience purposes; knowledge of his stance is unknown to me).
  • False Choice – Arguing that the only possible conclusions are a given set of options when in reality there are more options. For instance, someone may argue that Jesus is God or God does not exist. This is logically fallacious as these are not the only conclusions available. Jesus may indeed be God, God may not exist, or God may exist without Jesus being God.
  • False Equivalency – Arguing that two issues, objects, etc. are equal due to some shared characteristic. For instance, someone may argue that confirming Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy is equal to the situation Barack Obama is facing in filling the vacancy of Antonin Scalia. The two scenarios are alike, yet Anthony Kennedy was nominated more than a year before the next presidential inauguration, whereas Barack Obama will be nominating someone less than a year from the inauguration; therefore, the two scenarios are not equivalent. There may be other valid arguments for Barack Obama to appoint a new justice, yet mentioning the case of Anthony Kennedy does not support the argument for Barack Obama nominating someone.
  • Argument to Moderation – Arguing that the middle of two extreme opinions must be the correct stance.
  • Hasty Generalization – Arguing that one specific instance validates reaching an overarching conclusion. For instance, someone may argue that he or she witnessed a teenager committing theft; therefore, all teenagers are thieves.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of logical fallacies (1). This list is a great start to mastering the art of logical argument. Beliefs and opinions should always be based on sound reasoning; therefore, for our own sake and for the sake of argument, it is crucial to internalize the meaning of these logical fallacies.

Specifically, the logical fallacies of making hasty generalization and argument from personal incredulity bring to mind an important lesson on engaging in complexity. Leaning into complexity should be the action we take in all daily thoughts and activities. But what does that really mean? Well, our brains are hardwired to categorize and classify everything possible in an effort to better understand things as quickly as possibly. However, simplification overlooks nuance and an appreciation for diversity.

Concerning social identities, we are so often pressured to see people as black or white, straight or gay, rich or poor, religious or atheist, smart or dumb, Republican or Democrats. But these labels–although tempting for our brains–shut down any conversation about the details and then prevent deep, significant learning. When we use labels and do not investigate further, we immediately subconsciously assign to that person all the preconceived baggage that our brains have acquired for those labels throughout life. When a person hears black, maybe they think immediately of how the media portrays certain black people or they think of race/police riots. When a person hears gay, maybe they think of flamboyant, feminine, or sinner. When a person hears atheist, maybe they hear religion hater or God denier or immoral person destined for Hell. When a person hears Democrat, maybe they think government free loader or hippy. When a person hears Republican, maybe they think greedy or bigoted.

Assigning these labels without any further thought helps nothing. It only continues to build up barriers between us. The only way we will make social progress is if we can discuss with each other and decide on the best ideas for the future. Those conversations are not possible if we demonize each other or write one another off with a simple label. Identities are wonderful things to self-express, but using the identities of others to assign generalizing preconceptions is dangerous. We have to lean into the complexity of one another.

Regarding ideas in general, our brains desire simple answers. If we hear a straightforward response, we are more likely to choose that option out of pure convenience compared to the detailed, thought-out answer. When people think there are one-sentence answers to immigration reform, taxation, trade, etc., there will be much bigger problems in the future. We have to lean into the complexity of analyzing ideas and being skeptical of all sides. We need to seek out the data and the evidence in order to confidently find the best ideas for the future.

When debating ideas, it is crucial to practice the scientific method. This entails not having absolute certainty about anything. We all have imperfect brains and can sometimes be convinced of something on bad or misleading evidence. Therefore, we ought to keep an open mind that we could be wrong so that if confronted with compelling evidence, we can indeed be convinced of what is actually true. We ought to begin with questions and seek to confirm or falsify those ideas with evidence and logic. If an idea lacks logic or evidence, it should be discarded. We ought to have tentative certainty only about the ideas for which we have evidence and sound reasoning.

These challenges are not easy to overcome, and fighting them is exhausting. However, it is our only chance at creating a better, more tolerant, more informed society. We hope that rather than assigning preconceptions, we can lean in and ask about the difficult topics. Rather than forfeiting when ideas are complex, we should engage with that complexity to have the best opportunity at discovering the correct answer.

If we do not debate, ideas will risk living in isolation and, therefore, can never be subject to question. There is nothing more dangerous than ideas that are not ever open to change. Everything should be subject to question.

Philosopher John Stuart Mill describes perfectly the necessity of debating ideas and making ourselves vulnerable that we could be wrong:

“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion… Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them…he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form…The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

Reasonable discourse will only be possible through this type of respectful, logical, humble argumentation. As Stephen Hawking once said, “The enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusions of knowledge.” Furthermore, the only way we will ever learn effectively or change others’ minds effectively is through arguing through reason, logic, and evidence. No one should believe something or argue something based on bad reasoning; therefore, let’s raise that bar through conversing with one another on respectful and intellectual terms. If we internalize these tactics, we can indeed have political and religious conversations at the Thanksgiving dinner table. We can indeed be best friends with people across the political and theological spectra. A difference in values can determine the strength of friendship, but a mere disagreement in ideas should not strain relationships if people respect one another and debate ideas rather than insult one another and perceive intellectual critique as a personal attack.cropped-new-logo.jpeg


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fallacies

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