Purging The Discourse Of The Weakest Arguments

Sometimes I think that smart people actually spend too little time responding to the dumbest forms of arguments. It takes a certain kind of hubris to think that I’m going to persuade people who adhere to strong arguments that they’re mistaken. By contrast, I really do think I can persuade people that their bad arguments are wrong. You don’t want to waste too much time dealing with straight-up dishonesty, but plenty of well-intentioned people find themselves convinced by ideas that don’t withstand much scrutiny. And so I think there’s a case to be made for a kind of “discourse triage” where we attempt to purge the political system of the very weakest ideas as the preferred means of raising the level of debate.

Though he is specifically explaining why we should spend time debunking the worst arguments in the political sphere, Matthew Yglesias’s remarks above sum up a key part of the reason that many of us atheists feel compelled to give time and attention to the arguments of fundamentalists despite constantly being told we should save all our time and energy for the more “sophisticated” arguments for religious beliefs.

It’s important that the worst ideas and weakest arguments be purged from the discourse as they deserve. Ignoring them and, especially, leaving them unchallenged in spheres where people might not recognize what’s wrong with them and be misled by them, is the path to an increasingly ignorant population which with increasing numbers means an increasingly ignorant mainstream public opinion.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    I completely agree with you. One problem is that it takes a special kind of patience to carefully refute a naive argument that you’ve heard and refuted 1,000 times. It can be tempting to treat the 1,000th fundamentalist who offers the same old argument as if he’s been the same one offering it over and over. He really doesn’t deserve our ridicule and exasperation. To him, the argument is new and fresh. So I keep my tone sounding just as new and fresh, even though I’ve gotten very efficient at my response with lots of practice.

    Use empathy: What kind of response would have helped you to see through the holes in that same argument, if you believed it to be valid? Probably a patient, brief, but clear dismantling without personal devaluation, rather than a verbal beating or a hurtful brush-off.

    It’s important to help people to think more carefully without humiliating them. If we treat them respectfully, even though we don’t respect their argument, they are more likely to listen to us when they come back with their next naive argument. If we roll our eyes and use a dismissive, “you dumbass” tone, they won’t come back at all. They’ll only hang around those who don’t challenge them.

    As I’ve said before, if you want someone to see things more clearly, don’t start by poking them in the eye.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Well said as always, Richard. And I love this:

      As I’ve said before, if you want someone to see things more clearly, don’t start by poking them in the eye.