Should We Argue?

Agreeable Burden (William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1895)

A previous post “On Belief and Skepticism,” elicited this response from a reader:

… I too am a dedicated skeptic, but find it difficult sometimes to “disagree without being disagreeable.” Many people I disagree with most fundamentally are the ones I love most profoundly. Do you maintain close relationships with people holding drastically different beliefs? It’s hard to separate the person from the ideas they hold especially when there is so much vested emotionally in those ideas. I hate the idea of “agreeing to disagree.” I’m not going to dance around the issue; We are adults and honesty is important. How do you approach these relationships?

That comment elicited another post, “How Far Should We Go in Agreeing with Others.” There I distinguished between insidious and trivial beliefs, the former worth arguing about and fighting against, while the latter should usually be ignored. Next, I considered disputes about relatively settled scientific issues. Here is an excerpt:

Now suppose I encounter a gravitational, germ, or evolutionary theory denier. In such cases, I should be willing to enter into a polemic because any educated person knows these are well-established scientific ideas. Furthermore rejecting these ideas might entail someones jumping off a building and thinking they’ll fly; not washing their hands before handling food, or counting on last years flu shot to work this year … Of course, you probably won’t change their minds since so many persons are willfully ignorant.

Now suppose you encounter a climate change denier. You can tell them that the intergovernmental panel of climate scientists now claim with 97% certainty that humans are the main cause of global climate change. But you probably have to leave it at that. The fact that they are mistaken when they don’t believe in it, (and arrogant to think they know more about the subject then the world’s experts), probably doesn’t matter that much. True you might convince them not to vote for a climate change denier, but one vote isn’t that significant anyway and their mistaken view is unlikely to change anyway. And again that’s because you rarely change people’s minds because of the emotional attachment they have to those ideas as you mentioned earlier.

In retrospect, I’m not sure why I thought you should let some false beliefs about a scientific consensus slide and not others. In fact, denying climate change has more potentially catastrophic consequences for the species than denying more abstract theories. At any rate, the main point was that it is important for the species to have well-founded beliefs inasmuch as they often determine our actions. (In a future post I hope to address the source of many false beliefs—cognitive bias.)

Conclusion – Still I find that disagreement about abstract issues, including scientific truths, less important as I age. I often resign myself to the world’s fate, as well as to human ignorance, including my own. On the other hand, important truths seem worthy of my entering into a polemic. Thus we arrive at a paradox of life. If we engage in it, if we are active, we fight a seemingly unwinnable fight, frustrating ourselves in the process. If we disengage, if we are passive, we give up the fight and our lives become seemingly irrelevant. I don’t know what we should do or whether it matters what we do.

I do know that as I age I find myself, as Thornton Wilder said, being weaned away from life. Still, I remain hopeful that new generations will continue the fight for truth and justice. And that the future will be better than the past. That is something to live for.  

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4 thoughts on “Should We Argue?

  1. It’s probably going to require CRISPR to reproduce more humane Sapiens. Ignorance is still mankind’s greatest challenge….those shadows on the cave walls seem more frightening than the light outside.

  2. I think we should continue to argue even when we know how fixed and intractable some people are . I found quotes with an element of humour very useful , like Shakespeare’s “ Do as adversaries do in Law, Strive mightily but eat and drink as friends.” And once to persuade a judge who thought he knew it all Baron Bramwell’s “ It does not appear to me now as it appeared to me before” to change his fixed view. Also Socrates One thing I know that I know nothing and Confucius “ To know that you know what you know and to know that you do not know what you do not know. That is true knowledge” have been useful.

  3. …so it also depends where, as well as who/what/when/why. If one lives in an agreeable place, one can possibly be less argumentative than one would otherwise be.

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