Searching For Truth Versus Debating
I actually posted this on my sub-site two days ago, but Rufus suggested today that this would make a good cross-post. And since, like all writers, I will re-use a piece any chance I can get to avoid the work of writing something new, here it is on the main page for your perusal.
I’ve been meaning to respond to this post by Leah Libresco for awhile, so let me give it a shot. Leah is responding to a comment I made in another one of her posts, in which I discuss the difference between argument for persuasion and argument in favor of finding the truth. I originally wrote:
It’s important to seek knowledge and truth, and engaging with others is a part of that. But the goal with engaging with others should simply be to listen to and understand critiques to your own position, see what you can learn from them, and get closer to the truth.
Persuasion is a dead end. Just try to find the truth. If you get closer, great! If others come with you, even better!
But if your goal is “conversion”, then you will never question your own underlying ideas and the search for truth is lost.
The post I was commenting on is here, where Leah talks about her rhetorical approach to “converting” the religious to atheism.
Leah states that she thinks its possible to push for Christians to “convert” while still looking for the truth:
I think my answer is correct and I think there are adverse consequences to being wrong, so I try to persuade others. Seeking out a fight doesn’t mean forfeiting my ability to be persuaded in turn. It’s important (and hard!) to avoid being so prideful that we can’t give up if the evidence goes against us, but I don’t think it makes sense to try to pursue truth in a vacuum (or an armchair).
I disagree with this. I think human nature is such that once you’ve put yourself on one “side” or the other, confirmation bias and other psychological aspects of human nature make it very difficult to let go. It’s one thing to argue issues or ideas. For example, on the politics side I’ve argued in favor of or against several different issues in the past few weeks.
But it’s a very different thing to argue that, say, “there’s no harm from raising marginal tax rates” to “liberals are usually right, so you shouldn’t be a conservative.” Likewise, it’s a different thing to argue that “there’s not a lot of evidence to support that the God of the Bible exists” to “you shouldn’t be a Christian, you should be an atheist.”
In both cases, the former argument centers around a single issue, where you can develop criteria and mull over evidence. The latter argument is “you shouldn’t be in YOUR group, you should be in MY group.” And that’s a very different qualitative thing altogether, even if they are superficially similar. Because even if the abstract issues can be resisted because ideas can become part of your identity (as I’ve discussed before), discussing ideas is different from discussing group identity. How you feel about yourself, and what groups you align yourself to, are far more emotional and primal things that just ideas.
Over the past few years, I’ve become very hostile to the idea of aligning myself with any group identity apart from my family and friends. It’s simply too easy for me to go overboard and think ideologically, and that’s a part of myself that I have taken great pains to remove from my identity. I’m not always successful at this (especially when it comes to politics), but I’ve found it’s been worth the effort.
In order to figure out the truth, I find that you have to strip away your thinking about identity, affiliation, and ideology. That’s next to impossible to do if your goal is to get other people to join your side because your side is better than theirs.