A blog about belief

Always say never

In Philosophy on July 8, 2011 at 2:28 pm

Years ago, I went to a writers’ group in St. Louis, and I commented that the way a story depicted a real-life volunteer organization seemed too much like an advertisement for it. Someone responded, “Let me see if I’ve got this right.  So you’re saying that people should never use the names of real organizations in their writing?” I got annoyed at this because I never said anything like “never.” This has happened to me a number of other times: I’ve made an argument that I meant to apply in a specific context, and to be just one factor among many to consider, and the other person has responded to it as if it were meant as an absolute.

Call this a failure on my part, and I wouldn’t object. But I think my problem is not that I express myself unclearly. I think it’s that I’ve failed to recognize a bias in how people process the statements made in debate. I’m not sure if this bias is universal or just Midwestern stubbornness (I can’t think of any major instances since I left there), but in either case it’s better we try to understand and account for it than complain. What seems to happen is that a person takes statements made with a fixed variable (Pa → Qa), and adds a universal quantifier to them (∀a (Pa → Qa)); then, rather than interrogating the logic by which these statements were reached, they go looking for counterexamples.

Attack the argument, not the conclusion, philosophers say. But the type of discussion to which this (at this point, only conjectured) bias seems keyed is not a terrible one; it’s just more conducive to inductive than deductive reasoning. If we see the positive statements put forth as hypotheses, rather than conclusions, a debate based on the search for counterexamples to universally-quantified claims could be quite effective at reaching the truth.

What this implies is that the way people tend to debate is not optimized for a situation in which multiple perspectives co-exist. An attempt to respect other points of view by speaking only in contingencies would have quite the opposite effect if the listener winds up universalizing the claims one makes; but that universalization would also allow people to hold those claims to stronger, and more objective, epistemic tests. People can’t be expected to be objective in everything they say, but when a conversation is a debate it can come to a gridlock or worse if the participants deal in nothing but particulars.  The truly productive tension is between the particular and the universal.

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