To Debate or To Discuss
Which gets us closer to truth? That is the question…
The world is full of people who disagree. Shouting, personal attacks — these define the state of intellectual exchange today. But if disagreement is how we fight “confirmation bias” and master our views — isn’t that a good thing? Where disagreement is lacking, how can we trust our conclusions?
There can be nervousness in the philosophy community that we’re all just telling ourselves what we want to hear. Few discussions prove less than an hour in length, and there’s often little emotional outcry. Is this a good thing? Or is it a sign that no real progress is being made? How can we trust that any progress is happening unless there is vehement disagreement?
I’m afraid we’re so trained today by politics to think that if there is no debate and vivid disagreement, no real thought is occurring. As a result, when we encounter a discussion where real progress is possible, we can assume nothing that has been tested is being expressed and thus nothing we can take seriously. This has been the death of civil debate and democracy.
When we are trying to build a cathedral, do we want our coworkers to get along with us or prove disagreeable? Well, if the goal is to build a cathedral, we want our coworkers to “be on our side.” Yes, they may disagree with us on some ideas, but we don’t have to worry about them attacking us or insulting us while we try to work. However, if our goal is to “be right,” then we don’t really have “coworkers,” only opponents, people who could threaten our correctness. Even people who agree with our conclusions could turn into “threats” at any moment if they introduce a new idea or complexify a position we hold. In other words, where the goal is “learning the truth” (building a cathedral), we want people on our side to help, but if the goal is “being right,” our relationship to “others” becomes much more fraught with tension. The desire to “be right” versus “participate in truth” is a source of great hardship and trouble around the world.
The point of a “discussion” is to “build a cathedral” (to “participate in truth”), while the point of a debate is to “win a fight” (to “be right”). Please note that there can be “debate in discussion,” but not so much “discussion in debate.” Also, philosophers (who tend to discuss more than debate) disagree all the time, but they tend to do so by asking questions versus shout, “You’re wrong!” If our position is that “life begins at conception,” for example, the philosophy will ask, “What do you mean by life?” versus explicitly say, “That’s wrong?” The philosopher is trained to “suspend judgment,” and so disagreement often doesn’t become explicit for a very long time, making it seem as if no disagreement is present at all. In the political arena, we’re trained to think disagreement should emerge instantly and at the start; thus, when we don’t instantly hear philosophers disagree, we can assume they are “just telling each other what they want to hear,” but this is not the case.
Why do philosophers “suspend judgment” for so long? Well, to start, they understand that we can’t disagree with people we don’t fully understand. To really disagree with you, I have to understand your whole system of thought, and that can take hours if not years to trace out, “enter into,” and really “get.” This means I need you to explain your whole system of thought, and you won’t be able to do that if I’m disagreeing with you every five seconds. I have to listen to you and prove agreeable so that you have time to “build your entire system,” which might seem like I agree with you, but really I am “gathering data.” Often, in politics, disagreement occurs on the level of premises, but philosophers often want to disagree or agree on the level of the entire system, and that requires a lot more time and listening. Furthermore, since we can’t really understand a single premise except within the entire system of premises in which it is situated, that means most “political disagreements” are really just misunderstandings. Real disagreement is rare, because real disagreement must be earned. The cathedral must be finished.
Philosophers are in the business of understanding “entire systems” and “axioms.” Grasping axioms though requires “a systems-level approach,” because it is only from that perspective that I can see “the entire shape” of a line of thought to understand how its fundamental assumptions all work in concert. Getting to this “systems view,” again, takes a lot of time, and I stress that what seems like “agreement” in philosophical circles is often “data collection.” Also, since philosophers are so slow to “judge” and take a hard stance, they often don’t have “solid enough” of a position against which they can say a person disagrees. This isn’t because philosophers are fools or cowardly (as politics has trained us to think), but because philosophers don’t make a judgment until a whole system of thought is viewable. And by that time, philosophers have already dialectically disagreed in themselves to figure out the best positions. This is critical: whereas in politics disagreement happens across people, in philosophy a huge percent of the disagreement occurs within each person. In a conversation, this radically reduces the amount of disagreement we “hear,” because mostly we hear individuals raising premises and then bringing up the counterpoints on their own against themselves. This doesn’t sound like disagreement, because the dialectical process is self-contained, but it actually is disagreement and tension. This contributes to the sense that “no real debate” occurs in philosophical discussions, but this is a false impression.
Philosophers tend to talk continually for an extended period of time, say ten minutes, and then the next person talks for ten minutes, etc., whereas in politics a person asserts a premise and waits for the other side to reply (which takes thirty seconds). In politics, the goal is “being right,” and so stating all my positions too early and at the start is to “use all my bullets at once,” per se, which is a bad strategy. It’s much better to state each premise, piece of evidence, etc. one at a time and see if one of the premises throws our opponent off, because then victory is ours. And we would never bring up counterpoints we know against our own position ourselves: that’s shooting ourselves in the foot. But the philosopher is very different: in he or she wanting to quickly advance to the “systems-level,” the philosopher will dialectically address every premise and counter-premise the philosopher can think up quickly, moving the conversation along. The philosopher doesn’t want to waste time on the way to truth, while the politician just wants to win and will use time in favor of that strategy. As a result, a ton of the “dialectical process” in philosophers happens internally and “vertically,” with “horizontal disagreement” not happening between the philosophers until “the whole cathedral is built” (on the “systems-level”). In politics, the process of disagreement is basically horizontal and “between parities” from the very beginning. To use another metaphor, philosophers don’t fight until they reach the top of a mountain, while politicians fight every step of the way, which is why politicians don’t tend to ascend much higher than the base.
I stress, philosophers tend to disagree by asking questions, while debaters disagree by explicitly saying, “I disagree,” and then falling silent as they wait for their opponent to fall to their face and apologize (this creates an unproductive dynamic, especially since we can never force anyone to change their views: even a perfectly logical argument can simply be ignored). This alone makes it seem like philosophers don’t disagree, for we are so trained to think of disagreement as explicit that we fail to notice it when its only implicit. Also, politicians rarely change their views, while philosophers will change their positions when they are convinced of an argument. But if I change my view, that means I agree that you are right, so this doesn’t look like disagreement either, and yet it very much is: a change cannot occur unless there was a difference.
The term “difference” is key here, for we need to realize that if different people come together to talk, they will hold different views. Philosophers generally seek different people who have worked hard to achieve a level of excellence at their craft so that, together, everyone can bring about a “network effect” which leads to quicker and higher ascent upon “the mountain” of truth, but in politics the point is winning, so no such “network effect” is desired or needed. In fact, in politics, there is incentive to seek the weakest member of the opposing side precisely to “destroy them” and make our side look better. Philosophers seek “excellence and difference” to bring about emergence and “network effects,” whereas politicians look for victims.
The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change by Randall Collins is a critical book, and I frankly don’t see in it a lot of evidence that seeking intentional disagreement is what brings about the evolution and advancement of thought. Instead, I see evidence that discussion is what has generated the most intellectual evolution, discussion between people with different interests and pursuits, all of whom were committed to an excellence of craft and thinking. The Bloomsbury Group, The Scottish Enlightenment — sure, there was disagreement, but that disagreement was civil and on “the systems-level,” of which being able to discuss takes days and even years to reach.
Critically, these communities were generally not “communities of specialists on the same topic,” which almost by definition would require explicit disagreement to play a role if progress was to be made. Instead, these were “communities of generalists who were experts in their fields,” which means an inherent “difference” existed. Generally, the reason we worry if we fall into “confirmation bias” is basically because we worry that we won’t make any “real progress,” but “real progress” tends to be a result of new and creative insight, and it is difference and expertise which compose the “ground” from which emergent results are possible. Disagreement doesn’t inherently give rise to new ideas, whereas difference can. Difference entails “a kind of disagreement” in that difference being “not the same” as the other views, but disagreement doesn’t necessarily have to entail difference (in fact, people who are “alike” can often prove to be the most antagonist toward one another). Problematically, in colleges focusing on specialists for so long, colleges contributed to making an environment where “advancement” tended to only occur where explicit disagreement arose. Where there is specialization, there is radical similarity, and for that similarity to become “different” and thus a possible source of new thinking, the similar people have to make an intentional point to cause tension. But where people are naturally different because they are all generalists (say in the Bloomsbury Group), this tension is inherent and “in the background” — it doesn’t need to be brought “to the foreground” and risk causing trouble.
The work of Randall Collins highlights another key point: for philosophers, disagreement comes after agreement, while for politicians’ disagreement comes first (and usually stays first). For politicians, disagreement is resolved by “someone winning,” whereas philosophy is much more “non zero-sum.” Please note that in “non zero-sumness,” everyone wins or loses together, a point which alone will radically alter how “disagreement” manifests. If I’m too much of a jerk about it, I could bring us all down.
Philosophers are generally not interested in disagreeing until we reach “the hard stuff,” and also philosophers who have studied the same subjects are going to naturally have a lot of “overlap” in their thinking, precisely because they have dialectically approached these topics on their own. But this isn’t agreement; this is overlap. Each member of the discussion has, on their own, reached these similar conclusions (“the mountain” of a truth can be different based on the side we climb it, but only so different), and though this looks like agreement, it is overlap. Far from suggest “confirmation bias,” this actually increases the likelihood there is something to these conclusions, for they were independently reached. Again, the disagreements for philosophers don’t tend to emerge until “the summit” of the mountain is reached, on questions of “Which direction should we look in?” and “Should we build something here?” and so on.
Real and deep disagreements are often on the systems-level, and reaching that level so that “real disagreement” can occur requires a very long road on which we “work together” so that we can reach the place where we meaningfully part ways. Philosophers understand that disagreements “along the way,” before the summit, are usually just “misunderstandings” and differences of “emphasis,” which is to say they aren’t substantive disagreements. Many philosophers are after “The Gödel Point,” for example, which is the point where a totally “coherent system” unveils its point of essential incompleteness. This is an expansive topic for another time, but the point is that we cannot see “the main premises of disagreement” in a system until we complete the system and know it well.
Why is the distinction between “discussion” and “debate” so critical to draw? Well, in Calvinism, there is an idea of “total depravity,” which is to say a state of depravity where we lose the capacity to realize we are depraved. The depravity hides itself, per se, and likewise a world that loses discussion in favor of debate is a world that loses the capacity to discuss what it has lost. If debate replaces discussion, we will likely fail to realize debate replaced anything at all: the loss will be total. If indeed discussion is necessary for reaching “the summit of the mountain” of various truth, that means we will lose the capacity to reach “system-level disagreement,” as we will also lose the capacity to realize we’ve suffered this loss. If Dr. James Hunter is correct that we require “substantive democracy” for the West to survive, this could mean we are doomed.
In conclusion, it’s critical to note that the idea that “We need disagreement to trust our conclusions” is a subjective option just as much as is the idea that “We all agree and so must be right.” Often, we seek disagreement because we associate the feeling of agreement with “confirmation bias,” but this in of itself is a subjective judgment. Feelings, environment, structure — all of this is secondary to the only question we should really ask: “Did the logic all follow?” “Did the discussion make sense?” Our concern should be paying attention to the flow of the discussion, not if there was any disagreement, strong emotions, etc. There is no law in the universe that says disagreement increases the probability of reliable conclusions: that is simply something trained into us by the politically-overrun culture.
Philosophers who “discuss” should not worry that because they don’t sound like politicians, they are just in the game of “confirmation bias.” What we fear is what comes unto us, and if philosophers are afraid they aren’t “making real progress” because they don’t (sound like they) disagree (according to cultural standards), they might invite more aggressive people into their discussions, which could easily deconstruct and ruin those discussions. Then, because philosophers were afraid they weren’t making any progress, no progress will be made.
Instead, people interested in discussion shouldn’t focus on the presence of disagreement, but on if the logic of what is said and exchanged “adds up,” follows, and leads to advancement and understanding. Are there “eureka” moments and new ideas? Were points we held refined and made more nuanced? Did we change the shape of our argument when we heard better ideas? All of this would be evidence that we are not in the business of just “wanting to hear what we want to hear,” that we are genuinely seeking “the truth” (however imperfectly). It is according to our motives and genuine work that we should assess if we are “seeking truth” or not, not if there is disagreement and conflict in our discussions. If the goal is disagreement, we can disagree at the base of a mountain, which is to say we can achieve our goal without effort. But if instead our goal is “to see the greatest distance,” well there’s only one place where that is possible, and getting there takes work, work which requires others.
I recently had a chance to watch a discussion at The Stoa where Dr. Cadell Last, Alexander Bard, Zak Stein, and Jim Rutt discussed differences between Game B and The Dark Renaissance. It was a wonderful discussion, and I simply wanted to quickly highlight it here as an example of why “discussion” is preferable to “debate” (which Zak Stein alluded to at the end with his point on the need for us to “talk” instead of “tweet”). The conversation can be found here:
Consider a few of the fascinating points which came up in the discussion:
1. How can we tell kids about Climate Change in a way that doesn’t make them lose hope? God is dead, but now the kids know…(Stein)
2. To make something concrete, we must go through an incredible amount of negativity — far more than we often appreciate. (Last)
3. It will prove difficult if not impossible to reduce consumption and not lead to a Populist backlash unless we simultaneously change our ideas of what constitutes happiness and prosperity. (Rutt)
4. Our challenge is to learn to live in “a state of between-world-ness,” seeing as time is speeding up so much that a given world never stays around but so long. (Last)
5. Changing the world from “top down” risks totalitarianism, but “bottom up” requires something like religion. (Bard)
6. If focusing on the future leads us to not dealing with present emotional negativity, we will likely fail. (Last)
Now, ask yourself: Is is imaginable that these points, questions, and ideas, would arise in “a debate?” Personally, I find that hard to imagine, suggesting further the virtue of “discussion” over “debate.”