Regressive Argument

Arguments are in the business of increasing certainty. They begin with some assumptions, make some claims, support the claims with evidence, and then reach a new conclusion which, if you agree with all the steps, you should now accept as part of your belief system. We are born as blank slates who know nothing, and over the course of a lifetime, we make and read arguments until, by the time we die, we know a great many things with great certainty.

Opportunities for deep, life-changing learning are rare and must be cherished. Therefore, when we come across an argument whose assumptions are agreeable but seems to be heading in a direction contrary to our beliefs, we read with increased interest in hopes of being proved wrong. After all, if the argument is sound and comes to a conclusion that is contradictory to what we know, then, having seized the opportunity, we have discarded some nonsense and become more enlightened.

By this time, you have noticed that this is satire (I should hope!). But what am I making fun of? A simplistic interpretation is that I am lamenting the irrational way people treat arguments, that they need to be more willing to question themselves if they want a belief system founded in truth. Or perhaps they need to be more logically-minded, to prevent themselves from adopting such self-contradictory systems of belief in the first place. It doesn’t really matter what is wrong with people, as long as whatever it is explains why they will not accept my sound logical argument.

Now I am clearly making fun of someone you know. This person has a strong personality and holds as a core belief that most people are stupid. They write or speak passionately, they stay close to the scientific doctrine, they take pride in their certainty. While their arguments are convincing, they lack a certain respect for those who disagree, and it ends up limiting them from a more complete world-view. We all know this person, and, thankfully, acknowledging that we know someone like this releases us from the possibility of being this person.

The author is being subtly disrespectful now. He is trying to make me wonder whether I fall into this category, and in doing so, attempting to put himself above me. And this paragraph is even more disrespectful, taking on the voice of the reader, assuming he can predict his or her thoughts. Fortunately, he has failed, for one couldn’t say the reader was thinking anything beyond reading at the time.

At least I have not said anything that threatens your beliefs. That would merely serve the disengaged brain to produce a disinterested Ctrl-W or a polarized, indignant comment. Before I can convince you of any new truth, I have to convince you to engage with the question. An active mind taking a question seriously will produce a far more convincing effect than any amount of eloquent word-barrage. My goal was this: if the page was still in focus by the time you reached this paragraph, your mind would be curious and primed.

Now for my argument: what could I convince you of?

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9 thoughts on “Regressive Argument

  1. My experience is that trying to convince someone of the truth is mostly doomed to failure. Here are some more effective roundabout methods to lead someone toward truth:

    Live the truth, so that they may see it and possibly get curious about trying it out.
    Have them try living the truth, so that they may experience it.

  2. That I’m a man?
    That I should question/challenge/reconsider my argumentation style?
    More specifically, that argumentative conversation is ineffective if your audience isn’t engaged and so we have to get their interest by making them (based on your buildup) uncomfortable, curious or judged?

  3. Commencing polarized, indignant comment in 3… 2… 1…

    Most people (all people?) are stupid. The important part is remembering that nothing prevents stupid people from holding this belief. If I observe that most people are stupid, that’s also evidence for my own stupidity, because I’m part of the generalized class of “most people”. I get no special pass for my observation, nor for being me.

    I freely admit that I don’t get the satire in the second paragraph – I’m a big fan of discarding nonsense. Is the joke that the point is being made via argument? I’d ask you to clarify, but I have the impression that explicitness ruins these Zen-like exercises. If only someone would just hit me with a stick! I suppose I’ll carry on attempting to communicate honestly and directly, oblivious to how un-hip that is.

    Pride in certainty is silly. Pride in belief is silly. Pride is silly.

    You could certainly convince me that a bunch of contradictory assertions can serve to prime my curiosity (maybe “provoke” is more accurate). I do have a counter-argument, and it also takes the form of a question: What did the Norwegian say to the Zen Master in the forest?

  4. I read the first two paragraphs, and then noticed “it was satire”. I re-read the paragraphs, detecting nothing amiss other than some odd sentence structure in paragraph 2. I then continued reading the article in a vain attempt to salvage some meaning. I got to “The author is being subtly disrespectful”, and then realized I had misread the author as the wrong Luke: I was thinking of lukeprog (a popular author on LessWrong) rather than Luke Palmer.

    Stupid new Google Reader interface! If only it had kept the subtle blue highlighting that distinguished between title and author. Now I will have to re-read your horrid post another time in order to find and reverse whatever subtle and cruel twists you put into my mind when I was reading this.

    *re-reads carefully*

    Aha, the problem is that you used the word “we” in the first two paragraphs, which I interpreted to mean the LessWrong community. In there, the goal is in fact that arguments are judged solely on their assumptions and reasoning.

    Third/fourth paragraph: so now you are postulating that a community such as LessWrong is impossible, but that there are many people who act like they are part of LessWrong but don’t actually know or care about cognitive biases and simply believe they are mentally superior without evidence. Wrong, because LW exists, but otherwise right: overconfidence is a definite bias, one should always be slightly uncertain that one is actually making the correct choices.

    Fifth paragraph: meta-shenanigans, what made me realize that this was not a post on LW. I find recursion to be very sexy (due to reading xkcd 387, among other influences), so reading this was rather awkward as an (ostensibly) heterosexual male; consider “make me … fall”, “put himself above me” and “And /this/ is even /more/ disrespectful” interpreted in a different context… I can assure you I was worrying about being mentally violated quite a lot more than I was worried about reading the text, and in fact I think that was about when I broke off reading to find the author. (to determine if I had given prior consent)

    Sixth paragraph: You’ve threatened my beliefs about my sexuality, which admittedly I don’t care about all that much and am considering changing, but whatever. It still merits an indignant comment. I caught a glimpse of the last sentence before I scrolled up and that’s why there’s the rest of this comment. It’s not an answer, but neither is your argument a question

  5. And it ate my </indigant> tag ([/indigant comment] if it eats HTML entities as well); that should have been right before *re-reads carefully*

  6. Yeah I dunno. Experimental post, thanks for indulging me. It was going to be a subtle meta-argument about why you should concentrate on breaking down existing beliefs before trying to implant new ones. But by the time I hit the fourth paragraph, I knew I was going to have to turn it in on itself, and in trying to do that I accidentally my brain. That’s why the ending doesn’t make any sense.

  7. Yes, or at least it’s a good start. It’s nice to state and find agreement upon the assumptions first, though. I’ve found that the vast majority of disagreements I’ve had have all stemmed from at least one party missing a key bit of information, therefore my goal in arguments is generally not to argue- rather, it’s to identify and solve for the nugget in unsynced state, then let mutual understanding fall into place.

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