I think debate is a waste of time.
I know that this proclamation may be quite puzzling coming from someone so committed to reason and cooperation. And I know how valued debate is in our culture…though less so in our current political climate, which is trending solidly toward violence. But given the number of debates I have had and seen during my lifetime, and especially since my break from Christian orthodoxy, which put me at odds with the majority of my friends and family, it is impossible not to notice how people simply NEVER change their fundamental positions—their premises and conclusions. If anything, the more rationally consistent one participant is, the more stringently the other commits to his intellectual error. So after years of witnessing this both directly and indirectly, in thousands of instances, I am forced to come to the disturbing conclusion that regardless of my commitment to voluntarism and idea exchange, debate is simply an irresponsible way to spend one’s time and emotional and intellectual resources. It just doesn’t work. You can’t drive a railroad spike into the ground with a rubber mallet, and you cannot reason someone into or out of a position by argument. You just can’t.
This admission, finally made, while disturbing and disappointing given the amount of energy I have spent trying to change others’ minds, and they trying to change mine, is also somewhat freeing. I can now evolve as an intellectual and an academic, and put my resources into more productive and fulfilling activities. For instance, I have committed to no longer debating in the comments section of this blog, or others, or on facebook or any other social media platform. Instead, I will spend more time and energy writing articles, pursing questions and finding answers, and less time caring too much whether or not anyone agrees with me. I understand that the integrity of the ideas is the most important thing, and that my focus should be all about getting to the truth of each and every question, not maximizing agreement, and not even about presenting ideas in the most appealing or un-abstruse manner possible (not that I can really be accused of doing that anyway on this blog). Because—and please understand that I am not saying that I have ALL the answers or am the paragon of intellectual consistency—rational and intelligent people will grasp my meaning, or at least apprehend the question I am trying to answer and see why doing so is important—and the more obtuse and complacent amongst us, let’s be honest, won’t get it and won’t care no matter how directly or simplistically the argument is made. And bye the bye, I think that putting complex arguments into simplistic conveyances isn’t a very good idea, anyway. Bumper sticker philosophy can be a fine way to affirm the opinions of those who ALREADY agree with a certain ideal, for whatever that’s worth (the laughably facile and ubiquitous “COEXIST” sticker comes to mind immediately), but this seems like a general waste of time. Better to formulate the argument as comprehensively as possible, despite it being perhaps more arcane and involved, than to leave out a bunch of details which are inexorably necessary to the argument’s root veracity.
In other words, real understanding doesn’t proceed from the ass-end of a car.
Additionally, foresaking any concern with HOW to convince someone of an idea makes studying the idea more fun and relaxing. Realizing that people who hold contrary premises and conclusions simply cannot be convinced by debate to agree or disagree with a certain idea puts YOUR understanding front and center, where it should be, not the understanding of others. Now, I’m certainly not arguing that we shouldn’t have an utterly rational foundation for whatever we accept as truth, just that arriving at this foundation doesn’t need to appeal to anyone else, not because other people don’t matter, but because it CANNOT be MADE to appeal to them, no matter how you develop it—they either accept it or they don’t, you need not spend much time on the aesthetics of your argument. It only needs to be rationally consistent. Further, the HOW you arrive at your conclusions and premises, though complex perhaps, WILL I believe necessarily be appealing and ultimately understandable to those who are are already rational. The rational and intelligent among us are first and foremost committed to truth, as oppposed to the mysticism, sophistry and contradiction which underwrites most peoples’ root thinking, and at the end of the day rational and intelligent people don’t really care how complicated the path is. Getting to the truth is what matters, not how comfortable or direct it Is for them. The rational and the intelligent, who understand the deep moral relevance of the truth, WILL pursue it through fire and fury and hell and high water to get to it. The lazy and/or the stupid and/or the cowardly will not be compelled to apprehend it even if given a map that points them in a straight line to an X which is marked merely across the room.
Now, having said all of that, let us get to question begged here: Why is debating (issues of substance, in particular) such a waste of time? Well, let’s talk briefly about philosophy.
Philosophy is cumulative as well as corollary. What I mean by this is that each philosophical category (metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics) except for the first (metaphysics) proceeds from the one before it (cumulative). Epistemology of course proceeds from Metaphysics, metaphysics being the first category, dealing with the nature of reality, itself. The metaphysical premise is the fundamental Primary of the entire philosophical paradigm which all other premises infinitely imply and from which they are infinitely implied (corollary). Epistemology considers how man knows what he knows…or more specifically, how man can say what is true and what is not. In this article we are mostly concerned with the epistemological premise (occasionally I may refer to this as the epistemological primary) but for the sake of clarity it’s important to know all of the philosophical categories, and how they line up and their basic symbiosis.
Whether we realize it or not ALL of us hold basic philosophical premises. If we did not, we simply could not function. For example, that you know that you don’t brush your teeth with a banana at least obliquely implies a basic interpretation of reality, which implies a philosophy, which implies premises and a metaphysical primary. In our example you must make a distinction between you, the toothbrush, and the banana. A is not B is not C, in other words. Thus, you accept a practical plurality of reality…these objects exist separately. Yet because they are relevant to you (that is, they have equal practical meaning) you accept that they also exist in a single existential context. Thus, I already somewhat know your basic metaphysical assumption: reality is both plural and relative. This is very important. Your metaphysical premise is the basis for WHY you do what you do and think what you think.
Next, because you know that a banana is NOT a toothbrush (A is not B), the plurality of (relative) existence implies that specific objects in reality have distinct definitions. The metaphysical idea that A is not B implies a difference in meaning, and the specific meanings elucidated are epistemological. Metaphysics says that A is not B. Epistemology says that A is a banana and B is toothbrush.
Next, you know that it is irrational to brush your teeth with a banana. Another way of saying this is that it is not good (where “good” in this case is defined as “productive”) to use A to do a job reserved for B based upon its practical definition. This is a form of ethics—how you value things in a given context depending on their meaning and the nature of their relativity and relevance to you and each other at the existential level.
And here I could go on to politics and aesthetics, but you get the idea. However, I wish to make it clear that no one should ever assert it is a simple thing to determine the sum and substance of a given individual’s philosophy, for such a thing can be extremely complex, full of nuance, ostensible and/or subtle contradictions, and even rank delusion. Not to say that it is impossible to determine with relative certainty the nature of someone’s philosophy at a detailed level, but it takes quite a bit of experience with and observation of their behavior, not to mention listening to what they actually say about what they believe, which is, unsurprisingly, probably the best way to figure it out. So, while I can get an oblique picture of one’s ideas, philosophically speaking, by simply observing them brushing their teeth, there is a great depth to one’s understanding about the nature of their existence which reveals itself much more fully the better one knows them. I cannot tell the difference between a collectivist and an individualist by their teeth brushing beyond the fact that they on some level accept an existential distinction between and contextual relativity amongst themselves and the toothbrush (and everything else involved in the process). But I cannot see where those philosophical assumptions may give way to the contradiction and delusion of, say, a theocratic socialist state, in the case of the collectivist, or provide a simple but sturdy framework for the argument of property rights and self-ownership, in the case of the the individualist.
At any rate, the point is that we all have a philosophy and we all hold philosophical premises in all five categories. We simply must, because such a thing is endemic to our identity as thinking creatures, period.
So back to the issue at hand.
Let us focus on the epistemological premise, because this deals with how reality is specifically defined and interpreted, and so it deals most directly and most substantially with the topic of debate.
I submit that one’s epistemological premise isn’t chosen, but is simply known—and this is very important because it provides the fulcrum for my entire argument here. The epistemological premise is either inculcated by one’s environment, such as in childhood, and reinforced by experience and perhaps instruction; or it is realized, again through experience, but perhaps later on in life—such as in my case where the hypocrisy of decades of Christian orthodoxy left me with the realization that my spiritual “belief” was, at the irreducible root, a distinction between a “truth” that is madness (truth within the church) or a truth that is reason (truth outside the church). I left the church because experience forced me to realize that real truth could not be found there, and thus morality dictated that I abandon it. Which I did…to great emotional harm to my family, and emotional and physical harm to myself. This realization amounted to a categorical shift in my most fundamental philosophical assumptions, and I mean consciously. In order to make a move like that, trust me, you have to understand the ENTIRETY of why, and ALL of the implications for the nature of your existence for the rest of your life, both this one and the hereafter. I and my family lost 99% of our friends and aquaintances by realizing that the church is built on a lie, and that the devil, as always hiding in plain sight, was meeting us every Sunday morning at the podium on the stage in front of the big, comfortable auditorium. You don’t make a sacrifice like that unless you know the profundity of it exactly. And you simply cannot leave that much behind unless your philosophy utterly changes.
And it isn’t a choice. Because one cannot choose to be insane any more than one can chose to be rational. Once you are punched in the face with rank evil and you recognize it and realize it, you instantly become apart from it. In that sense, I didn’t choose to leave the church. I REALIZED a new premise, reason instead of madness, and was obliged to follow it.
So the epistemological premise is not a choice. And neither is it learned, in the strictest definition of the word. Choice is a function OF the premise, it does not precede it. Choice is impossible unless one knows the nature of it at any given moment, and the nature of the choice depends on what what you believe about truth. Choice is NOT how you decide what you believe about truth. The epistemological premise is lived and subconsciously accepted, or perhaps later in life circumstances change and a new premise is realized. But it is not something which can be merely communicated to one another by language; it is not something one can reason another into, because the epistemological premise is that FROM which reason springs, and that which reason itself thus necessarily implies.
Reason, you see, is only REASONABLE if one ALREADY has a premise which serves as the plumb line for what makes reason meaningful and efficacious. And this is why one never changes the mind of another during argument or debate of issues of any real substance…because both parties must have the SAME epistemological frame of reference in order to actually have an argument or debate on any sort of equal platform of reason; for otherwise their frames of reference for MEANING in general are incompatible, and debate is necessarily impossible. But the paradox thus becomes that IF they do hold to the same epistemological premise—implying, remember, a metaphyscial premise—then debate is likewise not really possible. Because “debate” amongst two people who share the same frame of reference of meaning (reason—epistemology) and reality (existence—metaphysics) don’t debate so much as merely exchange information. That is, one or both parties simply lack certain knowledge that if they knew, WOULD have them accept the SAME perspective with respect to the argument…and debate over. Once the information discrepancy is corrected, then reconciliation—or agreement—is inevitable (again, assuming the argument is regarding something of substance, and by that I mean, objective, as opposed to, something like, say, whether Gene Simmons is cooler than Ace Frehley). The “debate” in this case isn’t at root a difference in how reality is interpreted, which is the foundation of any true and worthwhile debate, but again merely a deficiency of information. In other words, the parties debating already agree with each other, they just don’t know it yet. But if the epistemological premises are different—if there is a descrepancy between the parties’ interpretive lenses with respect to meaning, then agreement on ANY issue of substance is impossible, because each party intellectually (and thus emotionally) occupies utterly distinct realities at root, which obviously makes these realities incompatible, and agreement ultimately impossible.
One’s epistemological premise is either reasonable (adhering to categorical conceptual consistency (e.g. a square cannot also be a cicle; black cannnot also be white; man cannot possess a depraved nature and yet be on the hook for making moral choices)) or it is not. And again the premise is not chosen. It is lived and unconsciously accepted or (later in life perhaps) consciously realized. Choice I submit springs from and leads back to the premise, and thus choice is always relative to it, and therefore is in a sense superficial, all choices fundamentally and equally affirming the premise, which guarantees a particular MEANINGFUL conclusion, which may LOOK different depending on the given practical context (the context of routine daily life), but will be, when viewed in terms of the epistemological (and metaphysical) foundation, equal to ALL the conclusions of ALL of one’s choices.
Reasoning as an argumentative strategy is only effective on reasonable people (and the converse is also true…that is, irrationality as an argument only works on irrational people). And a reasonable person is one who has already accepted a reasonable epistemological premise, which in turn means that he has accepted a reasonable metaphyscial premise, which is his very assumption about the root of reality itself.
Now, as I said earlier, the epistemological premise to which one holds is not a function of choice, but indeed it is the other way around. The circumstantial context of choice in daily life may make specific choices seem fundamentally meaningful in and of themselves, but all choices are simply equal expressions of one’s premise, which isn’t chosen. And this is why I find choice so fascinating and a little enigmatic. I belive in conscious agency and thus choice, but I also understand that choice doesn’t play a very significant role in determining one’s actions…choice is basically superficial when it comes to fundamentally understanding WHY people do what they do.
In order for me to choose, I must already have a premise by which I devise a working definition of what “me” is, as “me” relates to the environmental, emotional, and psychological context in which “me” finds itself, and this definition of “me” is a function of the subconsciously assumed or consciously realized epistemological premise. To say I choose this premise is thus putting the cart before the horse. The premise is the substrate of the meaning (to me) of reality, itself. Thus, this primary, not my choice, is the ROOT of my ideas, and thus is WHY I make the choices I do (why I do what I do). Therefore, if people holding mutually exclusive epistemological premises attempt to debate an issue of substance, then the absolute best that can be achieved is a stalemate. Because I cannot CHOOSE to accept an argument which is rooted in an epistemological premise that I do not choose.