I’ve debated with a lot of people over the years, and have always tried to keep myself open to having my mind changed. In some cases I stubbornly dredged on with my argument in the face of a better-prepared opponent whose points ended up totally changing my view point. Of course it took me awhile to reflect to get there and get over myself in those cases, and I probably argued on well after I’d lost. But observing my own stubbornness and that of those I’ve debated has taught me a lot about the dangers of circular reasoning and treating assumptions as fact.
Here are a few significant areas for discussion.
Errors of logic create confusion
Both circular logic and straw man fallacies center around arrogance and closed-mindedness. Circular logic is everywhere, and it uses its own supposition as a basis of proving that supposition. “Everything you read on the internet is true; the internet said so.”
This is a simple example of this, and it can be hard to shake someone off this type of argument. The logic is essentially “Since the internet said that everything on the internet is true, which is supported by the fact that the internet said so and never lies, it must be true.”
The more hostile counterpart to this is the straw man argument, which is essentially an argument that only sounds good because it deliberately leaves out information that would prove it untrue, or that deliberately misinterprets the opponent’s arguments to something more easily argued.
An example modeled after stuff you see in politics goes like this. “Law XYZ is going to stabilize the economy and create jobs, both of which are things that a patriot wants. So anyone that doesn’t support this law is an enemy of patriotism.”
There are countless reasons a person may not support that law that have nothing to do with patriotism; it’s even possible that the patriotic thing to do would be to oppose the law. But framed that way, especially during a debate, it throws the opponent off and forces them to have to defend a “stance” they never had. Anyone taken in by this foolish logic looks at the opponent questioningly, and if the opponent’s defense to this inference isn’t strong it can invalidate their whole position even if in actuality their points were better. (The points that were on topic, that is.)
In short, fail to defend yourself against a BS accusation and your actual argument may fall apart.
Elements of this hubris play into the next area as well.
Building a house of cards
A lot of differences of opinion I’ve encountered have involved a foundation of assumptions, followed by inferences based upon those assumptions, followed by more assumptions made about those inferences.
Here’s an example. “I wonder why Bob is unhappy. I bet it’s because he decided not to buy that new car he talked about last month. Maybe he sucks with salesmen, or maybe his wife talked him out of it. Man, Bob really needs to stop allowing other people to dictate his happiness and just do something he wants for a change. He’s never going to be happy about anything at the rate he’s going.”
By the end of that I’ve implied a lot of things about Bob’s life all from an assumption that Bob is unhappy because he didn’t buy a car. Everything that follows relies upon that assumption. If it’s wrong, I’ve wasted my time speculating about a bunch of untrue things and even passing judgment about Bob based on this bogus reasoning I created for him.
Maybe it has nothing to do with his car, and therefore nothing to do with his social skills or even his wife. Therefore my entire assertion that he will never be happy seems mean-spirited, empty, and exaggerated. Bob might not even be that unhappy, but we sure arrived at that assumption by the end.
This thinking comes up in arguments, and random assumptions later into the process of speculation reference earlier ones as “fact” to combat fact.
Doing this may have become attractive with the popularity of deductive reasoning in TV and movies. If the clever protagonist can look someone up and down for 5 seconds and accurately tell their life story by a series of cumulative deductions, that must be a good way to act, right?
Except that no one is ever that correct. It’s fake, contrived for TV. And since so many of those serial assumptions were based on assumptions before them, if you’re wrong about anything early on you create a wildly inaccurate string of conclusions.
Skiing on the slippery slope
Hypothetical outcomes are important considerations in any discourse, but we have to remember that discussing them is academic. They’re hypothetical, so they haven’t actually happened yet. And even if they do happen, we can’t be certain that they’ll have happened for the reasons we predicted.
“We believe that if A happens it will lead to B, and we don’t want B. Therefore, we should prevent A from happening.”
But what if A doesn’t always cause B? What if a whole bunch of other things also cause B? Arbitrarily preventing A may do little to prevent B, and any beneficial effects A might have had are now also lost.
These arguments are often paired with random supportive facts that sound great when used together even if the correlation is weak in actuality. This can create a can of worms, because if the resulting assertion were used in general it would be disastrous. It may seem to fit in one instance, but if that logic were applied to other things it’d be quickly apparent how flimsy the reasoning is.
Sometimes people get too caught up in what could theoretically happen rather than how likely it is to happen, which saps a lot of energy for no good reason. A person with a certain skill set and disposition might be hypothetically really dangerous under a certain set of conditions, but if those circumstances are unlikely or easily prevented it’s of little use to twist our panties over what could possibly happen or judge this person based on something that hasn’t even happened and isn’t likely to.
What conclusions can we draw about this?
The source of most types of flawed reasoning or argumentation boils down to laziness and arrogance. I would’ve used the word “ignorance” instead of laziness, but I don’t think that not knowing certain information inherently causes these issues. Have you ever been persuaded by someone who knew more about a topic than you? Probably, right?
But if a person is too lazy or closed-minded to ever seek new information, or truly consider it when it’s shared by someone else, there will never be understanding. “You could be right, but I don’t feel like finding out,” is an attitude.
Likewise, if that person is too arrogant to accept that the opposing view point could be valid, there’s an immediate mental shut-off to facts that may disprove that person’s beliefs.
But in either case, it says more about them than you.
George Carlin said “Never argue with an idiot. They will only bring you down to their level and beat you with experience.”
Idiocy is interchangeable with closed-mindedness in the case of argumentation. Where there is continuous ham-fisted reasoning there is usually an absence of either the intellect or the willingness to accept finer points that would change the outlook.