The Seven Liberal Arts

The Seven Liberal Arts

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

5 Rules for a Rational Discussion

This post is inspired partly by an attempt I made at having a conversation with an atheist. On a YouTube comment. I should've known better.

I thought I could get through to him because he had an avatar with words like "Logic" and "Reason" plastered all over it, things that I also esteem and desire to use. My hope led me to overlook the other, glaringly bizarre factor: he was making a sarcastic remark about God on a video that was about soccer ball-shaped carbon molecules.

I'd go and find that conversation so you could see how it went, but the owner of the video must have put the poor thing out of its misery because it has disappeared. To make a long story short, there was no "Logic" or "Reason" involved on my interlocutor's part. There was, however, a lot of swearing and Protean evasions. By Protean evasions, I mean he was acting like Proteus, the "Old Man of the Sea" described in Homer's Odyssey, who changed his own body shape so rapidly that you'd just have to squeeze him hard enough to get him to finally listen to you. Except it's impossible to pin people down through the computer, so this guy thought he got away with it. Imagine trying to draw a picture of something, but someone keeps coming along, tearing the paper out of your hands, and giving you a new blank sheet. It is impossible that you will ever finish the drawing that way. Likewise, you will never get anywhere in a rational discussion if the topic keeps getting changed before it's done.

Swearing is not a good sign either. It is a well known experience that strong emotions cloud your judgment and ability to reason. And usually, people swear when they are in a state of strong emotion, often anger. Plus, plenty of those words end up as ammunition in name-calling, which also gets you nowhere. Actually, name-calling resembles an argument, but it's a pretty vacuous one, that goes like this: "You are a (name). (Name)s are wrong. Therefore, you are wrong." Both premises are highly disputable and rather arbitrary, and that is why it is much simpler to dismiss the practice as an ad hominem fallacy, because the person making the argument is irrelevant to the argument being made.

So here are some rules for having a successful rational discussion.

1. Lay aside your emotions.
This might be the hardest one for many of us. People, when deciding to join an argument, are naturally drawn to the topics that they care very much about, and when you care very much about something, you can't help but be a bit biased. It's extremely tempting to get all riled up when you see someone being WRONG. They might be so wrong, in fact, that you'd really just like to punch them, because nothing else will teach them the truth. Well, no. If anything, a reasonable argument should convince someone, not berating them until they see how superior you are and they join your side. Take some deep breaths, a sip of ice water, and calmly explain your position. But perhaps your interlocutor is the one being overly emotional, not you. In that case, I am sorry, you have my condolences. You can only control your own behavior. Do not descend to their level, lest you antagonize them further, or obscure your own point. "Be the change you want to see in the world."

2. Define your terms.
This is huge. I don't know how many times discourses go in circles because each side is talking past the other. My guess is that it would be majority of the time. If one of you thinks you're talking about ipsum esse subsistens and all that implies while the other thinks you're talking about an imaginary friend who lives in the clouds, there are going to be issues. Say exactly what you mean and avoid buzz-words.

3. Keep it simple.
By simple I do not mean simplistic. That comes across the same problem as I mentioned before, where brevity causes more problems than it solves. I mean take your discussion down to the basic principles. The more complex the subject, the more likely there is going to be a disagreement at a more fundamental level. Find that disagreement and work through that first, or you will be once again talking past each other. For example, in the conversation I had with that atheist, he was saying essentially that he did not like religion because religious people try to influence society. But that had no bearing on whether God exists, which is the belief that would make one join a religion in the first place.

4. One thing at a time.
Don't be Proteus when it comes to the topic. Pick one thing and stick to it until it is resolved, or both of you agree to move on to something else.

5. Be charitable.
Think of your opponent not so much as your opponent or enemy, but as a fellow human being trying to come to a better understanding of the truth. Listen to what they are really saying and do not make baseless accusations against them. It is amazing how the dynamic can change from one of antagonism to one of teamwork. I go to a college where all the classes are discussions, and rather than it being a fighting arena, everyone contributes their thoughts, and the ones that make sense survive while the erroneous ones are exposed as such, for the most part with no hard feelings in the end. The goal of an argument should always be the truth, not "winning." Have humility.

You should also, of course, try to avoid logical fallacies. However, I think the things I listed are prior to that, because I've seen debates where plenty of fallacies were identified and called out, but the person doing so was still being stubborn, angry, etc. Following these rules might even significantly reduce the number of fallacies committed, for instance the first and fifth ones would reduce ad hominem, which is a fairly common one. Having an open mind is something worth mentioning, but I tend to think of "open-mindedness" as a buzz-word that would deserve a post of its own. Perhaps that will be expounded upon later.


  1. This was fantastic. Your style of writing and your topics are incredible. :)

  2. I love this! Totally gonna reference it.