After I outlined my best practises for debating religion, Eve Tushnet and The Ubiquitous had some thought-provoking criticisms to make. Well, The Ubiquitous’s was framed as a compliment, but it worried me more. He said, in praise of my suggestion that debates open with both sides putting their epistemological cards on the table:
I suspect that the only debate worth having right now regards the problem of induction, which basically summarizes just about every objection to just about everything with supposed theistic overtones.
If every debate I participated in ended up being a philosophically rigorous discussion of the problem of induction, I’d get out of the business and finally start that band that only sings about grammar that I’ve been meaning to for years. It’s hard-to-impossible to come up with foolproof criteria for choosing between systems of first principles, so I’m very suspicious of Ubiquitous’s enthusiasm.
Going more abstract can distract you from the problem at hand. You can get to the rarefied point where your philosophy becomes totally unmoored from the world we live in, and any attempt to appeal to experience is denounces as foolish consequentialism. (I promise an example of this tomorrow). So I have a lot of sympathy with Eve’s criticism that:
I’ve learned a lot more, and been more deeply persuaded by, speeches which roved freely (or careened drunkenly!) from topic to topic, or which centered on a single image rather than a single topic, or which attempted to change the questions of the debate rather than answering the questions their opponents cared about…
Plus I worry that listing the kinds of evidence you approve and accept in advance makes it harder to be startled by something striking which falls outside those boundaries. My impression, which could be wrong or overly cynical, is that the more people focus on epistemological questions in this kind of debate, the less likely they are to actually change their minds about anything–because you can always find more reasons! Or add epicycles, or whatever.
So here’s my compromise/resynthesis: I still think it’s important to start a debate with epistemology and standards of evidence. It gives your opponent a chance to know what attacks might work on you and which require more heavy lifting. It also saves you time setting these expectations in the beginning instead of circling back to them constantly during the meat of the speeches. But the rest of the discussion shouldn’t all be at this level of abstraction.
The virtue of an epistemology doesn’t lie only in it’s consistency and philosophical rigor. If it did, the solipsists, in their small circles, would be sweeping all the showdowns. We also judge an epistemology by what it can do, and that requires that we link it back up with our experiences.
Essentially, the debaters have the first epistemological round to identify the system they’ll be defending and head off misconceptions at the get go. For the rest of the rounds, no matter what the topic, the goal is to persuade the audience that your system is beautiful/useful/strange enough to unsettle them enough to keep investigating it after the debate.