"How to Have a Rational Discussion"

by jschulter1 min read20th Mar 201124 comments

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I have a feeling that most of the people reading this site already understand everything in this article, but it's a useful synopsis of common issues faced when trying to have a reasonable discussion with laypeople, and might be good to point them to if necessary.

 

http://thoughtcatalog.com/2011/how-to-have-a-rational-discussion/

 

I also want to mention how much I wish someone had shown me something like this as a teenager- I was very prone to lecture others against their will- as it might have saved me a lot of grief. I'm curious to see if these tendencies might have been common among members of this community growing up, so please comment to tell me if so (actually, please tell me even if not-no reason to encourage my own confirmation bias)!

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That diagram assumes an adversarial model of discussions. Note the use of words like "concede" and "forfeit". I prefer to get into discussions where the interests of participants are aligned, e.g. everyone wishes to find the truth. This way you never need your opponent to "concede" anything, in fact you'll try to fix your opponent's arguments for them.

Such "rules" may help in discussions with misaligned incentives, e.g. when you're trying to defend your theory or convince spectators that you're the better debater, but avoiding such discussions seems to be a better strategy.

[-][anonymous]10y 2

This is actually better than I expected from the title; however, besides having a very simple model of decisions, given average rhetoric capabilities this will lead to very much "no discussion" endpoints.

It will not save you too much grief I think -- how do you determine whether your partner "can envision anything that will change ones mind on this topic", or if your discussion partner "will stop using an argument shown to be faulty"?

You talk.

From then on, the most important advise is to "not get too emotionally involved" (at least I get into the anger-failure-mode very easily), and then, on each step, re-check whether one is still on track.

I'm happy for those who are in an environment where agreement on such rules is not a rarity.

The context of the flowchart's original appearance (see above) makes it pretty clear that rejecting most potential exchanges as non-discussions was part of the point.

I think this is largely addressed to political and religious topics where prior commitments to specific conclusions mean that at least one party is not updating their beliefs based on anything they hear in the conversation.

The bit about "If one of your arguments is shown to be faulty will you stop using that argument (with everyone)?" seems to be pointed directly at creationists and other religious apologetics, who tend not to follow that little rule.

how do you determine whether your partner "can envision anything that will change ones mind on this topic"

You could ask them. I had a long debate with my dad where I eventually came to asking him if he could envision anything that would make him change his mind on religion. It was then that I realized how pointless the discussion had been. Knowing something like this chart beforehand would have saved me plenty of grief.

Unfortunately, that only works if they assume you're asking the question in good faith, which is rare; the standards of casual debate are so low that most people encountering a similar question are going to interpret it as an attack on their conviction, not as a prerequisite for discussion. In other words, "no, I can't imagine anything that'd change my mind" probably doesn't mean what it says on the box, but rather something along the lines of "I'm confident in my opinion; I don't consider myself a seeker or a lapsed adherent, and I'm not trying to solicit reasons not to hold it".

This is particularly true when belief in an orthodoxy is cast as virtuous in itself; then admitting vulnerability even in principle means you're imperfectly orthodox and thus imperfectly moral, and that someone trying to get you to think of vulnerabilities is directly attacking your moral worth. Even without this, though, it's pretty rare for people who haven't internalized the notion of falsifiability to be comfortable with taking on their beliefs in this way.

Eventually I made a habit of this with religious friends. "What might happen that could even hypothetically change your beliefs in God?" "Nothing." "Oh, 'kay then."

I'm currently considering an approach with the most recent friend who is "researching" for the sole purpose of knocking it down. "Since you already know that what you read isn't going to change your beliefs, why are you pretending that you care about evidence?"

I'm trying to come up with a way of saying that that's likely to cause them to update (even if they're updating in terms of "oh, yeah, as long as I know I'm not gonna change my mind it is pretty silly to pretend like it matters")

IME, in these situations the answer is typically "Because I don't want to accept the status-hit associated with being perceived as not caring about the evidence." That is, I would rather think of myself as someone who evaluated the evidence and came to my conclusion, rather than someone who came to my conclusion without evidence.

Which makes it tricky to get people to admit to it when doing the latter, since that's just yet another way to take the status hit.

Lowering the wall can help a little... that is, artificially reducing the perceived status hit of admitting to not caring about the evidence.

The criterion "Can you envision anything that will change your mind on this topic?" bothers me. I was in a discussion with a religious person and he asked me this, and I admitted that I really couldn't come up with any set of evidence that would make me accept the Judeochristian god, as opposed to alternate hypotheses like a trickster god making me think it's the Judeochristian god for fun, I'm hallucinating, or I'm insane. This may mean it wasn't a "rational discussion" for some definition thereof, but it's hard for me to see how I did anything wrong.

"What would change your mind?" is a Dark Arts question. The problem with it is that the better your reasons for believing something, the less likely anything is to change your mind -- practically by definition. The person asking this question is usually presuming that the less likely anything is to change your mind, the more irrational you are being.

It's a universal counterargument to the very idea of basing beliefs on evidence. Strong evidence produces strong belief; strong belief is irrational faith. The more evidence you present, the more you demonstrate your irrrational faith. How much wiser is the one who adopts a rational faith on the basis of no evidence!

Presumably the Judeochristian god, if it exists, is perfectly capable of changing my mind on this topic. I mean, that can't be any more difficult than turning a sea into blood or slaying all the first-born children of Egypt. I'm not sure I can properly be said to "envision" it, but that seems close enough for purposes of a conversation like that.

Okay, I guess that does fit the literal wording given. I was thinking that directly changing my mind wouldn't really count as "evidence".

This seems sort of like a general-purpose bypass for that step, though; if something like God exists, it could presumably reach into my brain and change any of my beliefs. It doesn't seem like this is enough to support a rational discussion.

My answer's simple: miracles. However, I make sure to specify that they can't just tell me this one amazing story of a prayer coming true to a cousin's friend of theirs. If they can provide evidence of "million-to-one" coincidences happening more often than 1/1,000,000 times to people who prayed for that event to happen, I will revise my probability estimate of God upwards. Bayes Theorem 101. If we could see that prayer works consistently, or at least works better than chance, a rationalist would start praying.

But wouldn't that just provide evidence that something, somewhere is bringing about something we though was impossible via a petition?

In other words, even if that happened, I might still not believe in the god under discussion. Indeed, in the past I've said that an amputee regrowing their limb in front of me at a request in the name of Jesus and initiated by a hand clap or the command, "Now," would work. I now think this is incorrect.

I say this because even if that happened... what about all the other stuff I find incomprehensible, dubious, outright illogical, or the like? For X god to be true, it would seem that all of the beliefs associated with X god need to also be true, not just the ability to do what could be incredible magic.

For me, miracles still wouldn't explain the problem of evil/suffering, why the Bible is, apparently, such a bad piece of evidence to convince people of the right religion, how "the fall" works in light of evolution, and why contemporaries of Jesus who were historians did not care to write anything like what the gospels said about Jesus... even though they wrote at least something about him.

Does that make sense?

To really believe, I'm not sure if I think there's any other way than to have most or all of my "show stoppers" answerd, and the apparent absence of miracles is just one of them.

So, my response would probably be, "To have all my questions answered."

Now, honestly, I think other than god's direct descent and explanation, I don't think there's any way to answer these questions and thus I'll always probably be a non-believer. So maybe I'm in the same situation as Kenoubi.

Yes. "The Judeochristian God did it" is a ridiculously specific explanation. "Something weird that would be characteristic of the Judeochristian God happened" is not remotely close to enough evidence.

That's true. If that evidence was presented, it would be evidence in favor of an as-of-yet unexplained optimization process that responds to human thoughts "directed" towards the judeo-christian god. That wouldn't be nearly enough evidence to prove Christianity to be true, but it would be a serious blow against atheism.

Do also keep in mind that this is a hypothetical/counterfactual scenario. Miracles don't happen like that. This is mostly a thought exercise; what evidence could you see that would tell against your theory?

That wouldn't be nearly enough evidence to prove Christianity to be true, but it would be a serious blow against atheism.

Perhaps, though it would also be incredible to, say, be allowed to thoroughly post-process with those healed at Lourdes rather than doing enough to verify that current-knowledge can't explain the cure and then declaring it as a miracle. (As in, perhaps a miracle (at least a healing one) might simply redefine our understanding of how the body works, not introduce a supernatural agent into the list of confirmed entities.)

What if we posted a medical bureau at ever health care center around the world. How many "miracles" might we find? And if we could perform every possible known medical test on every person in existence and then have that running data for every "sporadic" reported "miracle" -- how much more might we also learn?

Anyway... just some [probably off-topic] thoughts on that question.

This is mostly a thought exercise; what evidence could you see that would tell against your theory?

Which part of my post = "my theory"?

You would have to do a serious series of experiments to rule out all other possibilities, but scientific evidence of miracles would be enough to get me seriously considering the god hypothesis.

>

Oh, so you were asking what evidence would "tell against my theory" as in what would demonstrate that it really was a miracle vs. what I suggested about lack of medical understanding?

My computer ceased working, and so I only got a part of what I wanted to say posted. In general, I was trying to say that there should be some level of evidence that would be sufficient to prove the existence of a deity. Now, obviously, our prior probability for the god hypothesis is very low. One experiment, no matter how convincing, would not be enough to convince us. The probability would actually be higher that some part of the experiment was mishandled as opposed to god actually being real. However, an experiment (say, take three groups of terminally ill patients, give all of them equivalent levels of medical care, give the names of the members of two of the groups to a church and have them pray every day for their health, tell one of those two groups that they're being prayed for but leave the final group ignorant, and monitor how many of them make unlikely recoveries) if it did ever provide evidence in favor of prayer working, that would be a step towards proof of god. It's not proof on its own, of course, you'd have to replicate it, run other similar tests, etc to ensure that you ruled out all other possibilities, ensure that it can be replicated, and everything else we need before drawing those conclusions. You'd have to run a lot of tests, and those tests would have to disprove a lot of theories that we currently have good cause to believe.

We're not absolutely certain that there is no god. Therefore, there should be some level of evidence that, if seen, would be enough to get us to change our minds. Saying that you can't envision anything that would change your mind is really just a failure of imagination.

My computer ceased working...

That makes sense, as it looked like you were about to quote, but only got the ">" down.

However, an experiment (say, take three groups of terminally ill patients...

And this has been DONE (the fact that you worded your suggestion as an exact replica of the study implies that you certainly knew this, though).

...if it did ever provide evidence in favor of prayer working, that would be a step towards proof of god.

Absolutely, so long as "god" = "entity or system that is able to bring about physical changes in the universe at the response of one or more humans."

You'd have to run a lot of tests, and those tests would have to disprove a lot of theories that we currently have good cause to believe.

Also agreed -- off hand, one should test and see if "negative intentions" can hurt others, increase the likelihood of natural disasters, or anything else. This might support the existence of an "anti-entity" or, perhaps, an entity that doesn't care what the request is -- it always answers it.

We're not absolutely certain that there is no god.

Also agreed.

Therefore, there should be some level of evidence that, if seen, would be enough to get us to change our minds. Saying that you can't envision anything that would change your mind is really just a failure of imagination.

Well, careful there. I specifically meant evidence of a specific god, even more specifically, that of Judeo Christianity.

For that specific god to be established as plausible to me, I already said:

I think other than god's direct descent and explanation, I don't think there's any way to answer these questions and thus I'll always probably be a non-believer.

I say this because I can't think of any experiment that will establish whether Jesus really did rise from the grave, how "the fall" (which is necessary for Christian theology to make any sense whatsoever) occurred in light of evolution, whether OT prophets meant what it seems that they meant or what apologists say they, apparently, meant, etc.

So... I think that there surely are tests that could establish the existence of some interacting "thing" with more power to affect reality than we currently have or are aware of existing... but could experiments now establish that the specific formulation of the Christian god is true? That's what I can't think of any solution to... except for one:

Give me a time machine for a day.

All very true. My one possible quibble is that if you were ever able to prove that the bible/religious authorities were generally trustworthy, then their beliefs about jesus rising from the dead might qualify as evidence...maybe...a little...but probably not.

I have heard of that study. I came up with the idea to use in arguments (basically offer to run that experiment to theists and see if they accept, to test whether or not they are anticipating whether god exists). Then I found out that it had already been done. I'm calling this one an example of "great minds think alike".

That's kind of neat. Seems to be designed as an image that you can hotlink into a discussion thread somewhere.