Related to: Logical Rudeness, Semantic Stopsigns
While working on my book, I found in passing that I'd developed a list of what I started out calling "stonewalls", but have since decided to refer to as "conversation halters". These tactics of argument are distinguished by their being attempts to cut off the flow of debate - which is rarely the wisest way to think, and should certainly rate an alarm bell.
Here's my assembled list, on which I shall expand shortly:
- Appeal to permanent unknowability;
- Appeal to humility;
- Appeal to egalitarianism;
- Appeal to common guilt;
- Appeal to inner privacy;
- Appeal to personal freedom;
- Appeal to arbitrariness;
- Appeal to inescapable assumptions.
- Appeal to unquestionable authority;
- Appeal to absolute certainty.
Now all of these might seem like dodgy moves, some dodgier than others. But they become dodgier still when you take a step back, feel the flow of debate, observe the cognitive traffic signals, and view these as attempts to cut off the flow of further debate.
Hopefully, most of these are obvious, but to define terms:
Appeal to permanent unknowability - something along the lines of "Why did God allow smallpox? Well, no one can know the mind of God." Or, "There's no way to distinguish among interpretations of quantum mechanics, so we'll never know." Arguments like these can be refuted easily enough by anyone who knows the rules for reasoning under uncertainty and how they imply a correct probability estimate given a state of knowledge... but of course you'll probably have to explain the rules to the other, and the reason they appealed to unknowability is probably to cut off further discussion.
Appeal to humility - much the same as above, but said with a different emphasis: "How can we know?", where of course the speaker doesn't much want to know, and so the real meaning is "How can you know?" Of course one may gather entangled evidence in most such cases, and Occam's Razor or extrapolation from already-known facts takes care of the other cases. But you're not likely to get a chance to explain it, because by continuing to speak, you are committing the sin of pride.
Appeal to egalitarianism - something along the lines of "No one's opinion is better than anyone else's." Now if you keep talking you're committing an offense against tribal equality.
Appeal to common guilt - "everyone is irrational now and then", so if you keep talking, you're claiming to be better than them. An implicit subspecies of appeal to egalitarianism.
Appeal to inner privacy - "you can't possibly know how I feel!" It's true that modern technology still encounters some slight difficulties in reading thoughts out of the brain, though work is underway as we speak. But it is rare that the exact details of how you feel are the key subject matter being disputed. Here the bony borders of the skull are being redeployed as a hard barrier to keep out further arguments.
Appeal to personal freedom - "I can define a word any way I want!" Now if you keep talking you're infringing on their civil rights.
Appeal to arbitrariness - again, the notion that word definitions are arbitrary serves as a good example (in fact I was harvesting some of these appeals from that sequence). It's not just that this is wrong, but that it serves to cut off further discourse. Generally, anything that people are motivated to argue about is not arbitrary. It is being controlled by invisible criteria of evaluation, it has connotations with consequences, and if that isn't true either, the topic of discourse is probably not "arbitrary" but just "meaningless". No map that corresponds to an external territory can be arbitrary.
Appeal to inescapable assumptions - closely related, the idea that you need some assumptions and therefore everyone is free to choose whatever assumptions they want. This again is almost never true. In the realm of physical reality, reality is one way or another and you don't get to make it that way by choosing an opinion, and so some "assumptions" are right and others wrong. In the realm of math, once you choose enough axioms to specify the subject matter, the remaining theorems are matters of logical implication. What I want you to notice is not just that "appeal to inescapable assumptions" is a bad idea, but that it is supposed to halt further conversation.
Appeal to unquestionable authority - for example, defending a definition by appealing to the dictionary, which is supposed to be a final settlement of the argument. Of course it is very rare that whatever is really at stake is something that ought to turn out differently if a Merriam-Webster editor writes a different definition. Only in matters of the solidest, most replicable science, do we have information so authoritative that there is no longer much point in considering other sources of evidence. And even then we shouldn't expect to see strong winds of evidence blowing in an opposing direction - under the Bayesian definition of evidence, strong evidence is just that sort of evidence which you only ever expect to find on at most one side of a factual question. More usually, this argument runs something along the lines of "How dare you argue with the dictionary?" or "How dare you argue with Professor Picklepumper of Harvard University?"
Appeal to absolute certainty - if you did have some source of absolute certainty, it would do no harm to cut off debate at that point. Needless to say, this usually doesn't happen.
And again: These appeals are all flawed in their separate ways, but what I want you to notice is the thing they have in common, the stonewall-effect, the conversation-halting cognitive traffic signal.
The only time it would actually be appropriate to use such a traffic signal is when you have information so strong, or coverage so complete, that there really is no point in further debate. This condition is rarely if ever met. A truly definite series of replicated experiments might settle an issue pending really surprising new experimental results, a la Newton's laws of gravity versus Einstein's GR. Or a gross prior improbability, combined with failure of the advocates to provide confirming evidence in the face of repeated opportunities to do so. Or you might simply run out of time.
But then you should state the stoppage condition outright and plainly, not package it up in one of these appeals. By and large, these traffic signals are simply bad traffic signals.
I feel that the such signals are often used when the person you are talking to just wants to end the conversation without losing face; in the frame where a search for the truth is construed as a status competition, this is hardly surprising.
Appeal to harmony - "Let's agree to disagree." If you keep talking, you're being quarrelsome.
A Few Billion Lines of Code Later: Using Static Analysis to Find Bugs in the Real World contains a nice example:
(It helps to know that this is forbidden by the C and C++ Standards. This rule is so well-known among programmers that if this guy were a physicist, he may as well have said, "No, neutrons are positively charged.")
In the wild, people use these gambits mostly for social, rather than argumentative, reasons. If you are arguing with someone and believe their arguments are pathological, and engagement is not working, you need to be able to stop the debate. Hence, one of the above -- this is most clear with "Let's agree to disagree."
In practice, it can be almost impossible to get out of a degrading argument without being somewhat intellectually dishonest. And people generally are willing to be a little dishonest if it will get them out of an annoying and unproductive situation.
If you have frequently been on the receiving end of "conversation halters," consider the hypothesis that you are doing something wrong. If you often provoke the reaction that people would rather not engage with you, the social part of your argumentative technique is badly broken.
An aside: many people here assume that attempts to cut off debate stem from a desire to protect a meme - but there are at least two other motivations:
When I don't have internet access I tend to halt some debates when it seems clear that everyone involved is making claims that should be justified by science but no one involved knows the science. A lot of times I just say "Neither of us knows what we're talking about. Let's change the subject." That seems reasonable to me and usually everyone immediately recognizes that they have been bullshitting for the last 5 minutes.
The items on that list of appeals can also be ranked. According to mainstream US values, "Appeal to egalitarianism" trumps "Appeal to unquestionable authority", "Appeal to personal freedom" trumps "Appeal to egalitarianism"; and so on. The standard political talk show debate consists of a back-and-forth escalation up this ladder.
For example, in a televised debate on regulation:
Person 1: "The National Bureau of Economics Research published a study showing conclusively that regulation of X is harmful" (authority)
Person 2: "Well, I don't care what the elite economists say; the poor are not getting equal access to X and that is unfair." (egalitarianism)
Person 1: "Sure, it's unequal, but if the government played big brother with X, that would violate our fundamental freedoms." (personal freedom)
I think Eliezer's using these terms in a more specific sense than you are. For instance, your Person 2 is making an appeal to egalitarianism (in the conventional sense) as an argument for their position; while it still may be invalid, it's not an argument for why the debate should stop, which is what this post is about, if I'm reading it correctly. The appeal to egalitarianism is something like "Both of us have equally valid opinions, so who's to say which of us is right or wrong? Let's agree to disagree." The appeal to personal freedom is "I have a right to my opinion, so by arguing with me, you're infringing on my rights" (I encounter that one depressingly often), "I define my words this one way, so by disputing that, you're infringing on my rights", etc. They're never arguments (even wrong ones) about the actual merit of the views being debated.
Eliezer - this is an interesting list, but perhaps it has more to do with you than with the people you're talking to.
For instance, when I was younger I had many arguments that ended in debates over definitions. (apparently the source of three of your above examples), but that's because I wanted (and was hanging out with people who wanted) to win for winnings sake. It was how that group determined status.
This is a list of symptoms -- what are the things you're doing in conversation that reduce people to saying things like this to escape? (or, alternatively, why are you talking to people who care more about proving to you that they're not listening than they do about learning from you? [and you learning from them])
I hear appeals to my politeness.
That is, because many people debate in order to show their skill at debating, or because they want to dominate the other person by making them submit to their position, some folks will mistake you for one of those people (assuming, of course, that you aren't), and they'll be upset by a debate continuing on for too long.
A rarer and sillier objection: the argument to coolness. "Why are you getting so upset about this? It's not like it, or anything else, matters that much."
Also: appeal to less than absolute certainty: "There's no way we can know for sure, since we weren't there. We can make judgments, but we don't have knowledge." Or, when you say "X", someone responds "are you really sure of X?", and you say "I'm 99% sure of X", they accuse you of retreating from your position: "Oh, well you didn't say that before; you just said 'X', which is an expression of absolute certainty" -- thereby interrupting the conversation and dodging the disagreement.
Closely related to the appeal to permanent unknowability and the appeal to humility.
I have just been reminded of another kind of Conversation Halter: fogging.
Essentially it involves just saying that they could be right. Not contesting any particular argument or even continuing to assert the position and yet not clearly updating either. In its most practical use it is a debate halter used when debating is not necessarily desired, but I mention it because it often also serves as a rhetorical tactic when debating. Depending on the tone and context 'you could be right' can mean "You're wrong and I do not need to justify myself, I'm autho... (read more)
This is similar to something I had started in my drafts folder. I guess it now belongs better as a comment here:
A behavior of written argument is to anticipate an objection and answer it before the opposition can raise it against you. A similar, slipperier act is to simply acknowledge a weakness and never bring it up again.
There are various examples of this but an obvious one can be found in my confession. My claim is that I want to be Rational. The objection is, "But you believe in God!" So, before anyone gets to point that ou... (read more)
I'm a bit confused by your use of Appeal to personal freedom. If the "personal freedom" is the freedom of everyone to hold their own opinions, then it's just a restatement of egalitarianism. If it's about the definitions of words, then it seems to fall under the arbitrariness category.
Can you explain what sets this apart from the other categories?
I've found the best way to continue a discussion (if one wished to do so under the stated conditions...) when encountering a conversation halter is to put on a quizzical expression and utter a simple, confused-sounding question like, "How so?" or "Really?"
Asking questions, especially when you act confused (and many of these tactics are confusing on purpose, and thus it's not a false front), seems to put people in a better mood to counter with more substantive debate. Maybe it puts them into teaching mode, automatically granting them sta... (read more)
There has been a lot of work on argumentation, argumentation schemes, and burden-of-proof moves; I'm thinking in particular of Douglas Walton - http://www.dougwalton.ca/ - but the field of argumentation is big and old. This is heavily-trodden territory.
EY has a somewhat novel slant on things, and so may be able contribute to the conversation, but by not citing (or not looking for previous work) he's being (accidentally) somewhat deceptive here.
It's tempting to portray your thoughts as original and without precedent, but even if they feel original and witho... (read more)
Don't forget the "Appeal to Google" i.e. the person claims that there is plenty of evidence to support his position but refuses to concisely summarize or quote it. Instead, he just points to just points to some big document, or even the entire internet.
Does that actually attempt to halt further conversation though?
Thinking about various other conversation-stoppers, these come to mind:
Announce that you are leaving the conversation;
Declare that the conversation is insignificant;
Declare that the conversation is a digression;
Declare that the conversation is off-topic;
Declare that the issue has been resolved elsewhere;
Declare that the conversation has stooped to ad-hominen;
Invoke Godwin's law;
You are only saying that because you haven't read The Sequences. ;-)
Add false appeal to present ignorance to the list. Sometimes people will say that there currently isn't enough evidence available to finish the debate, so we should put it off. When this is said, it usually either misrepresents the amount of evidence currently available as less than it is, or accurately represents the amount of evidence available but is spoken by someone with no intention of ever gathering more. For example, "We don't know whether the earth is warming right now, so we shouldn't do anything hasty until we know more."
Of the top of my head I can think of a few items to add to the list.
Appeal to intra-group agreement - An example would be "If the FSM really exists, our family/tribe/facebook fraternity would have to be broken apart" in this case the person is putting the fate of a social bond at stake so as to counterbalance the value or arguing with him. You may win the debate over me, but you'll destroy your community - is the spirit behind it.
Appeal to Low energy level - This is mostly used in social situations in which the energy level is high, everyon... (read more)
There is also the example Eliezer originally linked to: appeal to your interlocutor's limitations, as in Grobian's behaviour. It's a universal counterargument against anything you can say in reply.
a slightly modified version of Appeal to permanent unknowability can be quite legitimate IMO, make it into Appeal to permanent unknowablity given existing conditions then consider the position that our theories are not accurate enough to conclude the existence of Everett branches-or competing theories if one supports them-beyond mathematical abstraction, this seems quite a reasonable position to me-though I'm not so well versed in QM.
on the other hand Appeal to inescapable assumptions seems to be what Eliezer used to be in favor of them being an accurate... (read more)
'If you cannot convince them, confuse them'
Throwing in irrelevant facts, needless complication can be frustratingly effective, esp. when the real party to convince is the audience, not the opponent.
This is not so much a halter as it is a derailer.
Eliezer I think this might be correct in some cases, since we all have different prior beliefs and therefore update differently on the same data.
Consider Jaynes' example of the experiment with the psychic: the skeptic sees evidence of cheating and the believer a proof of his beliefs.
I notice I'm confused.
I literally don't know what it means to say "The definition of words are not arbitrary." I suspect either that I lack the background knowledge to understand this sentence, or ironically Eliezer and I may have a different definition of the word arbitrary.
Furthermore, I don't know what the implications are of what he's trying to say. Is he saying that language is not a system of symbols? Is he saying that every word has a "correct" definition?
I disagree with, Appeal to inescapable assumptions. My specific reason is that I think it would insulate physical materialism from the main type of argument you can make against it. I see empiricism as a huge, impenetrable fortress built on assumptions that are reasonable but not necessary. Interestingly, while appealing to the possession of different assumptions, I probably would appeal to humility, personal choice, etc.
An assumption is still an assumption. Some assumptions are more natural ... (read more)