A Pugilist in Good Faith?

A Pugilist in Good Faith? June 22, 2011

After reading my earlier post on rhetorical strategy for deconversion, Alex Knapp from The League of Ordinary Gentlemen thought I blew it. He wrote:

Getting a reputation for arguing in good faith is good tactics.

And thus, by writing this, you obviate your good faith.

It’s important to seek knowledge and truth, and engaging with others is a part of that. But the goal with engaging with others should simply be to listen to and understand critiques to your own position, see what you can learn from them, and get closer to the truth.

Persuasion is a dead end. Just try to find the truth. If you get closer, great! If others come with you, even better!

But if your goal is “conversion”, then you will never question your own underlying ideas and the search for truth is lost.

I disagree with Alex on two counts.  First, getting a reputation for arguing in good faith is good tactics.  But almost everyone knows that, so when I reveal that I know that, it shouldn’t much shift whatever conditional probability you’ve assigned to the assumption I’m trying to argue in good faith only to secure a tactical advantage.

‘Rhetoric’ is sometimes used as a dirty word, with the implication that anything that is good tactics is cheating.    Certainly I’d have less of an advantage if I had a reputation for arguing in bad faith, or no particular reputation at all, but I’m not under any obligation to sully my name in order to play fair.  No more am I required to dress poorly when I speak in public, in order to avoid making a too-good impression on my audience.  The goal is to make the ideas I’m presenting as accessible as possible.  Cultivating a good reputation removes a barrier to hearing me, and it’s up to all of you to decide if that reputation was earned.

Now, on to the second point: “Persuasion is a dead end.”

When I push for conversion, I am still arguing in good faith. I think my answer is correct and I think there are adverse consequences to being wrong, so I try to persuade others. Seeking out a fight doesn’t mean forfeiting my ability to be persuaded in turn.  It’s important (and hard!) to avoid being so prideful that we can’t give up if the evidence goes against us, but I don’t think it makes sense to try to pursue truth in a vacuum (or an armchair).

After all, what does it look like to question your beliefs while giving up persuasion?  I suspect it looks like reading and reflecting on opposing arguments.  I’m skeptical of the making introspective approach central in any quest for truth.  A book can’t hold your feet to the fire, so you’ve got to be very humble to be converted by one.  I’m not known for epistemological modesty, but I’m modest enough to want to be supervised and held accountable when I’m philosophizing.

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  • False dichotomy.Some discussions are best done Knapp style. There are people/arguments with whom your primary goal should be to learn and develop yourself.Some discussions are best done Leah style. There are people/arguments that you've heard before, decided are wrong, and the best course of action is to correct your interlocutor's mistake.Not all discussions have the same goals and so do not require the same methods. On a further note, Leah's first retort misses the point. She is right that her admission of tactics don't ruin their value as a means to conversion. But the point is that they are effective means to the wrong end. (The better end being improving one's own knowledge).

  • Do you mean "epistemological modesty" instead of "epidemiological modesty"? Because the second sounds unusual. 🙂

  • Both PZ's and Leah's approaches to deconversion work. Whilst some want to learn which works best, the far more interesting question is whether one approach negatively impacts on the other. From what I've heard the jury is still out. Any research into the data will need to measure both the deconversion rates plus any polerizating effect.This recent podcast covers the psychology of maintaining our beliefs…http://www.pointofinquiry.org/michael_shermer_the_believing_brain/

  • Good catch, Brian! I am orthographically modest, so when I got the squiggly red line, I accepted the computer's correction casually. Turns out 'epistemological' wasn't in the dictionary!Thank goodness the sentence was correct as it stood. No one has ever thought I was epidemiologically modest.

  • dbp

    Leah,What strikes me here, and has struck me in the past, is that although I agree with both of your points in substance, I agree with Alex to a certain degree in spirit.The point isn't so much that you're out to persuade people of a position you're also (on this blog) publicly subjecting to interrogation. That seems fine to me, which is why I find your answers on those points reasonable. However, there's another area in which I think you're doing yourself a disservice, if a completely (OK, maximally) unencumbered re-examination of your atheism is your goal.Specifically, you're setting yourself up as a champion or model for the atheist side. (NB, this is my interpretation of the effect of what you're doing, not my assumption of your explicit goal– I'm not trying to accuse you of being in it for your own glory or anything.) You (admirably) try to establish guidelines for debate and ways to establish tactical advantages in 'deconversion,' you remonstrate against atheists whom you are disappointed in, and in general you're gaining a reputation as a public 'evangelist' (if you will) for atheism. That's why you are asked to guest blog on sites like Daylight Atheism, and why you accept.All of that's fine, just as it is for someone on the Christian side to do the same for Christianity. But isn't it inimical to the goal of honestly and openly examining the foundations of your belief? That project is really, really hard to do well in any case, and gaining a 'standing' among others who hold the belief in question risks, it seems to me, encumbering the investigation you have set out to make. In the admiration, camaraderie, and attention you get in such a role, you start to have more at stake than simply the intellectual tenets you hold, and that can work subtly on the mind. Which is to say, I fear you may be shooting yourself in the foot.Forgive me for sounding like a combox psychoanalyst– that's not my intention. But as long as you're looking for epistemological modesty and such a closely related topic came up, I thought I'd share a hesitation I've had for a while now in my regular reading of your blog. It could be way off base.