Two Debaters Enter, One Epistemology Leaves

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.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Joe

    What I think is so great about St Thomas is that his philosophy is beautiful and useful. What makes it strange enough to unsettle a person enough to keep them investigating more is that he was humble enough, after his vision of heaven, to admit that all his writing was as straw compared to the reality he had a glimpse of. St. Thomas ended up having the Song of Songs read to him on his death bed, one of the most romantic books of the Bible an allegory for God romancing the human soul. His philosophy and theology may have been as straw but I think it can be powerful kindling for lighting the fire of Divine love in a sincerely searching soul.

    • Joe

      “Behold my beloved speaketh to me: Arise, make haste, my love, my dove, my beautiful one, and come.” Song of Solomon 2:10

  • Tom

    Three observations:

    (1) I don’t think the Problem of Induction is exactly the way it’s been characterized here. It’s not simply that the inference from “I know of no exceptions” to “there are none” isn’t deductively valid. And more generally, it’s not simply that a set of observed cases, all of which have property F, does not deductively entail that the next unobserved case will have property F. The problem is far more damaging; it’s that observation cannot provide any evidence at all for contingent facts other than the ones already observed. If the Problem is correct, then even after observing 100,000 black ravens, you should still think that it’s no more likely than not that the next raven you see will be black.

    I mention this because it’s sometimes a glaring omission in atheistic treatments of science and evidence. Without a solution, the theist and the atheist start to look to be on disturbingly (to the atheist, generally) epistemically equal footing. This brings me to my next point.

    (2) It may be useful to begin with epistemological assumptions before engaging in the “meat” of the debate. But this may also be dangerous for the atheist. Few philosophers think there is a fool-proof justification for foundationalism, the position that all knowledge is ultimately inferred either from other knowledge or from foundational beliefs that are justified but not by any inference. In turn, prodding too hard at the epistemological foundations of one’s approach to a debate (or to forming beliefs in general) may allow the theist to argue that absent a convincing account of the structure of knowledge, her feelings or intuitions that God exists are ultimately just as trustworthy as any evidence the atheist employs, in that neither (or both) can be demonstrated to be foundationally justified, or justified by justified inferences ultimately from foundationally justified beliefs.

    (3) Finally, I guess I thought at fewest one of the goals of a debate is to convince the audience that your position is true.

    • leahlibresco

      In re 3: I think that’s almost always impossible in the space of a debate. Your real goal is to cause some subset of the audience to doubt and get them motivated to keep pursuing the question. One way to do this is by opening lines of retreat.

      In my college debating group, it was very rare someone broke on the floor, but it was a lot more common for a speech or line of questioning to hook someone for a whole semester’s worth of arguments over coffee, which sometimes resulted in conversion.

      • Tom

        Well, that seems right, at least if the audience member in question begins the debate fully disagreeing with you. The point about lines of retreat is especially important because I seem to remember some psychological research according to which if someone thinks that you are disagreeing with him or her, he or she will oppose your position even only for that reason. So it may be useful to minimize even the perception of disagreement by one’s audience.

      • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

        ” 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. ”

        So is it the audience or the other person in the debate that you are trying to convince? If it is the audience, the quoted material is perhaps less relevant, except insofar as an audience member might hold the same epistemological positions? I should say outright that in my experience not all Christians hold the same epistemological positions, and the comments on this blog seem indication enough that atheists don’t, either.

        Maybe I’m misunderstanding, but it seems to me like there’s a little confusion about the ends of debate in your structure here.

        • leahlibresco

          More the audience. But if you want to convince them on the merits, you want you and your opponent to be giving the best cases for your side, and that means letting your opposite number know how your defense works.

          You can’t count on the audience sharing your epistemology, but laying it out for them gives them a better idea of what you’re trying to convert them to. I guarantee they showed up with some idea of your thought-process, and it’s probably way worse than what you actually think.

          • Joe

            So the goal of the debate is to prove to the audience that one position is less wrong then the other?

          • leahlibresco

            The goal of any debate is to seek truth. The best way to do that is setting yourself up against a strong, sincere opponent. It takes time to think arguments all the way through and investigate possible counterarguments you didn’t come up with at the time.

            So, to spark continuing investigation, you want to convince the audience and their interlocutor that they should be less confident in their position than they started, and you should show them some philosophical/epistemological payoff if you’re right.

          • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

            OK, thanks. That helps clear things up for me.

            This is kind of terrifying: “I guarantee they showed up with some idea of your thought-process, and it’s probably way worse than what you actually think.” I imagine you’re right, but the consequences are unsettling.

    • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com The Ubiquitous

      Tom: I accept your criticism. I am more mystic than philosopher, and I’m working on thinking more carefully.

      • Tom

        Well, I didn’t mean to nit-pick. I just wanted to make sure that the full force of the Problem of Induction was understood. I agree with your broader point that its resolution is very relevant to the theism-atheism debate. The failure to solve it is also a fairly big omission in the more-or-less naturalistic-scientistic-atheistic-New-Atheistic approaches to epistemology and the theism-atheism debate.

        Without a solution to the Problem of Induction (and a couple of related problems), nearly all science is unjustified. (The theist may something like this: ‘If God exists, then God will ensure that the universe is regular. But atheists have no reason to trust induction or science.)

  • Katie

    I did a triple-take when I saw the word “beautiful” there. Someone please explain.

    To clarify: I see why some people would care about the beauty of systems or ideas, but I can’t for the life of me imagine how Leah could be one.

    • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

      I’m not 100% sure, but my philosophy of mathematics professor once tried to explain to me that “beautiful” has more a sense of “elegant simplicity” than any aesthetic judgement that word might indicate for non-mathy types. “Parsimonious” is not the best synonym, but it’s a similar enough idea that it might help…

      • leahlibresco

        I am so so tempted to hit on math folk by telling they their looks are parsimonious.

        (But seriously, Christian H gave a good definition).

        • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

          I think that line would work better on me than anything I’ve heard in a long time.

  • anon33

    The idea of talking first epistemology reminded me about this debate:

    DOES THE CHRISTIAN GOD EXIST? (Paul Manata vs Derek Sansone)

    That was interesting but I don’t know if this would be interesting if you would here it all the time.

  • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

    So you have assumed idealized debaters who want to convince solely on the merits, and are thus above slanting the evidence or becoming polemical or distracting. I’d say that makes it a ritualized discussion rather than a debate, but I’ll delay the semantic point for first teasing out the consequences of your idealization.

    I think every argument makable in your idealized mode can be sorted into one of two categories: either it is about scoring evidence (i.e. epistemology) or about how the evidence looks (i.e. points of fact).

    Disagreements of the second kind won’t take up much time, because they can basically be settled by citing sources (where, depending on the opponents epistemology, own experience may be a source).

    So basically once the epistemologies are stated the debaters will have to spend most of the debate on justifying them. But in that case wouldn’t it have been better to announce a debate on the relevant epistemological questions in the first place?

    Coming back to my semantic point, this is not a problem with real debates because they aren’t for truth finding any more than football games are for fitness, they rather are competitions for entertainment.

    • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com The Ubiquitous

      Perhaps debates are to human thought are what the WWE is to athleticism.

    • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

      Sometimes they are for promoting solidarity within one group at the expense of another (ie. the debate team set up to be skewered/who brought fair-play-knives to a sensationalist-debate-gunfight).

  • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com The Ubiquitous

    Leah: Reminds me of a line in The Dumb Ox, Chesterton’s fast-and-loose biography of Aquinas. One contemporary academic, by way of agreeing with Aquinas, stated that there are two truths and not one:

    And it is extraordinarily interesting to note that this is the one occasion when the Dumb Ox really came out like a wild bull. … these enemies had attempted the worst treachery: they had made him agree with them.

    In any case, I’ll take that correction of yours. My biggest worry was that, if the point is truth, it is infinitely undermined without refuting this problem of induction. Everyone must agree to swear off extreme skepticism, that they not escape through that mad route when the kitchen gets too hot. Beginning with epistemology was my way of barring a pretense of honesty in so doing, shaming cowards into sweating it out, but that isn’t the only way to achieve that end. Perhaps we’d be better off forging an oath that everyone present is honor-bound to recite before and after. (In so writing I imagine something not too long and very tongue-in-cheek.)

    Without shutting the door on what I loosely called the problem of induction, I worry: After an engaging discussion with uncomfortably evocative ideas, I want nobody writing it off as the lark of an evening as they lie down into sleep, they falling “like lightning” into the oblivion of a familiar mattress.

  • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com The Ubiquitous

    I think I have a better picture of what you’re saying and what Mdm. Tushnet describes. Maybe I can combine the two:

    Imagine an informal debate, between one friend and another just as it is between hors d’oeuvres and dinner. There must be a time for the audience to freely interject, another for more organized direct cross-examination by the Grand Jury, and a time when it is only the two men allowed to speak at points of moderation. It is a cordial atmosphere where saying, “I’ll have to think about it,” after a long exchange is as much to savor as the smile of the man prompting such a response.

    It must be two men testing the health of their sword by feats of strength and skill, enthralling only because both swore against sleight-of-hand and trickery. It is a duel, but one of honor and friendship, each bearing wounds as they bear their arms: openly.

    Why do I keep thinking of Chesterton and Shaw?

    • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com The Ubiquitous

      You know, for that matter, why should it not be Grand Jury vs. Lecturer? Why not merely the Eminent Professor taking on All Comers over steak and potatoes, before we even get to the salad? Such a format has to exist already — I think it is left to us to popularize it.

      (Idly said the man of accomplishes few.)

      • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

        That format does already exist – it was the medieval scholastic master’s exam. You want your title? You get in front of the school and answer every question the other students can come up with, with your profs watching. That is why St. Thomas’s Summa Theologiae is set up with question, objection, response, and replies to the objections. To get you some practice for your grilling.

        A friend of mine mentioned it also matches the point in martial arts training where you attempt to achieve the next belt – you take on all comers (of the same level) and prove you deserve the new belt.

        So these types of set-ups might be better for sorting out who has the best debate qualifications rather than who is right… Still sounds fun. I think the sides could definitely start forming ranking-structures for their best speakers!

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