March 11, 2005

Okay, so you won the argument. So what?

Posted by shonk at 07:35 PM in Language | TrackBack

Over at Catallarchy, Micha Ghertner discusses “How To Tell You’ve Won An Argument;” namely, when your opponent concedes that his position is less coherent than your own, you’ve won. Now, I don’t want to dispute his point, but rather to question how relevant it is. I’ve touched on this before, but I’m a bit dubious of the notion that the “correct” position is the one that wins arguments between advocates of two different positions.

Obviously, in the first place, there’s nothing to prevent both arguers from being wrong; the relative lack of coherence of one of their positions means, at best, that the other’s position is “less” wrong (assuming that even makes sense and assuming that coherence is a measure of correctness).1 But this is somewhat superficial (and besides, already mentioned and acknowledged in the comments to Ghertner’s post); more importantly, I want to cast doubts upon the parenthetical assumption I made above, that coherence is some sort of infallible metric for measuring correctness/validity.

In fact, Ghertner (perhaps unconsciously) alludes to this very issue when he quotes Wittgenstein’s famous seventh proposition from the Tractatus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Within the context of the Tractatus (as an attempt to construct or at least describe a perfect language), this supports the notion that being right and being coherent are synonymous, but Wittgenstein himself later rejects this perspective and, to me, the more apropos quotation is: “Explanations come to an end somewhere” (Philosophical Investigations, I§1). That is, no argument (and certainly none about abstract principles) is completely coherent; we always run up against that whereof we cannot speak and therefore must be silent. The question is simply at what stage in the investigation we enter the realm of unsupported assertion.

And even if we scale back our expectations and choose to embrace the position that manages to maintain coherence as far back as possible, there’s still no guarantee that we’re on the right track. Although much of the world can apparently be explained without the need to stipulate a deity, this doesn’t really make it any less likely that theism is right. In the words of Chuck Klosterman:

Math [or, perhaps more fittingly in this context, logic] is the antireligion, because it splinters the gravity of life’s only imperative equation: Either something is true, or it isn’t.

In fact, if we really want to get all Wittgensteinian about this (not that we necessarily should), we might even begin to question those positions which do appear to be coherent:

In the actual use of expressions we make detours, we go by side roads. We see the straight highway before us, but of course we cannot use it, because it is permanently closed. (PI, I§426)

Anyway, getting back to whatever semblance of a point I was trying to make, when someone admits that their position is incoherent, that does indeed mean that they’ve lost the argument, but I just wonder how important that really is. Giving up your high-paying job and live-in girlfriend to go back home and take care of your sick mother isn’t going to win a lot of arguments if we’re taking logical coherence as the criterion of victory (seriously, think about it), but that doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do. That doesn’t mean that coherence is totally irrelevant to what is right/correct, either (and, I should point out, in the above example helping your sick mom isn’t necessarily the right thing to do; as is almost always true, it depends on the circumstances), but let’s not give argument-winning more importance than it merits. Or, as some smarmy new-age intellectual might put it, in the pursuit of knowledge, our goal shouldn’t be to win arguments, but, rather, to discover truth.

1. Since I’m quoting Wittgenstein anyway, I might as well include the relevant quote for this as well:

The law of the excluded middle says here: It must either look like this, or like that. So it really—and this is a truism—says nothing at all, but gives us a picture. And the problem ought now to be: does reality accord with the picture or not? And this picture seems to determine what we have to do, what to look for, and how—but it does not do so, just because we do not know how it is to be applied. Here saying “There is no third possibility” or “But there can’t be a third possibility!”—expresses our inability to turn our eyes away from this picture: a picture which looks as if it must already contain both the problem and its solution, while all the time we feel that it is not so. (PI I§352)