I am a philosopher. I studied philosophy from a young age; particularly religious philosophy & theological discussions, because I was brought up Roman Catholic. Believe it or not, I was actually an altar boy for several years (my, how time changes us). What I did not study, or even have the opportunity to study, was debating skills: how to argue my point of view in a coherent, cogent and consistent fashion. Now that I am a jaded, cynical and far better educated being, I look back and ask “why the fuck not!?”
It might seem like a silly question, asking why I couldn’t learn to argue – almost as silly as asking “Where did you learn to argue?” I mean, everyone knows how to argue, don’t they?
No, they fucking don’t. In fact, the chances are that you have never learnt to argue in any real, concrete sense. You saw your parents argue, and picked up on that as a starting point. You’ve witnessed the folks in the playground, and eventually at the pub arguing amongst themselves and emulated the structure of their discussions. You’ve experienced other people arguing, and that’s where you’ve ‘learnt’ to argue from. You’ve had no actual education in getting your point across.
In the era we exist in, it is even increasingly likely that you picked up a great many of the methods you use for argument from the internet. This is a very fucking bad thing: 99% of arguments on the internet are unqualified atrocities against reason.
In almost any discussion on the web, be they on forums, mailing lists or social networks, you will find at least one logical cockup. Be it in the form of straw man arguments, ad hominim assaults, begging the question or inflation of conflict, people commonly use the most absurd of methods to attempt to defend their points. If only we taught people that these fallacies are not only illogical, but ineffectual in convincing an opponent, then perhaps we would see a little less blind stupidity in the infamously hopeless field of arguing on the internet.
So many people don’t even seem to understand what the point of an argument is; that is, they seem to think that it is of utmost importance that one wins every single argument. They believe that the whole reason one gets into discussions over what is correct or not – be they heated or otherwise, is to prove that your perspective is the right one. Despite this leading inevitably to the current common usage of “argument” to generally imply something passionate and unproductive, it is also a bloody stupid and naïve approach to life.
You will not win every argument. You are a human being. You will be wrong, and you will be wrong often. If you labour under the misconception that you are meant to win every argument then you will not only regularly fail in your target, but in your determination to win you will look like a gods-damned fool quite frequently. Trust me – I used to spend a lot of time looking like a twat too.
The point of arguing, of discussing anything, is to learn more, and expand your horizons. The point is to learn more about how other people see the world; grow your own sense of self to encompass further points of view; develop a more comprehensive knowledge of the universe beyond your own experience. The point, you simple fools, is to educate yourself, not blindly bludgeon down any opposing opinion!
The civilisations of antiquity from which we draw a great deal of our culture – namely the Greek and Roman societies, understood the value of a good argument. Even before the great philosophers – Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and so on, the teaching of rhetoric (that’s the art of arguing, for those who’ve only been exposed to the word via “rhetorical questions”) was considered a necessity for an educated gentleman. I imagine that had they had the sort of views on sexual equality that we have today, they would also have considered it a requirement for educated women, too. Or people of any gender, for that matter.
We should be teaching our youth how to pick apart arguments; how to pick up on and point out fallacies and indiscrepancies in arguments. From the youngest age, we should be taught how to not only speak and write our language, but also how to use it effectively. How else can we expect anyone to know the difference between that which has genuine support and reason from that which is backed up by spin and lies? Is it really a surprise that anti-science skepticism is so rampant when no-one has been given the tools to examine the false arguments used against the scientific community and its theories?
The point is, once upon a time being able to express yourself clearly and analyse the value of a given statement was considered an important part of living well. It is the only thing that allows us to make truly informed decisions based upon information given to us. What the fuck happened that made our culture side-line the only skill that would let us sift through the bullshit politicians, religious authorities and lawyers spout to find the truth?
Should you wish to educate yourself in how to argue better, and spot the holes in the arguments of others, here’s a list of fallacies that might be a good starting point: http://www.don-lindsay-archive.org/skeptic/arguments.html