Tuesday, May 15, 2007

God hates dishonest argumentation

I don't plan on discussing the content of your latest post, Doyle. We had it out for hours in person over essentially the same topic on Tuesday, and I don't feel like doing it again in cyberspace. I'll leave Seth to respond as he sees fit.

But I have a real problem with the tenor and form of your argument, and it's a problem I've had approximately 1000 times in other arguments with you, at least to some degree. These same tendencies are why the notion of a blog in which I argue with you has sometimes seemed tedious to me, and why I've occasionally wondered whether it's worth continuing to do it. It's one thing when you do this with me, or with Ryan, or with people you know relatively well. We know you enough to know what you're really like, outside of arguments and offline. And obviously I like that person, or we wouldn't be such good friends. However, I think it's another thing entirely when you argue in this manner with people you don't know all that well.

You're not a child, and I don't presume to scold you. But I am going to explain why I dislike this particular style of argumentation, which is not the only one you use, but which appears often enough for me to comment on it.

I respect the fact that you synthesize your knowledge and knowledge taken from other sources into a coherent argument (thought I wish those sources were given more credit). And I appreciate your willingness to take up the most significant question of human existence and propose an alternate view. But aspects of your argument (I'll specify in a second) are irresponsible and unreasonable, and they make you look far more overbearing and polemical and virulent than you really are, at least in my estimation.

The first is the line-by-line format. It's a petty device designed to make another author look stupid, which explains why it originated at FJM. That pedigree should also make you question the form's legitimacy in educated debate about topics such as God and the universe; many philosophers have taken issue with comments far "denser" than Seth's, and I don't recall ever seeing any of them critiquing them line-by-line like a high school English teacher. I think this form has become a crutch for you, and I think it's irresponsible. It obviously inhibits meaningful consideration of another's argument in favor of nit-picking, dithering, and mockery. The last time I used it on you, during the Modest Mouse discord, I recall you responding furiously. It's a cheap way to warp the other person's argument to your own devices, ignore their overall premises, and inflate small-scale, sentence-level gaps in logic out of proportion and context. To steal your favorite bromide, you're better than that.

Another is your tendency to associate both yourself and your opponent with camps of people. This almost invariably takes the form of making yourself some sort of moral warrior and your opponent one of the weak-minded masses who are ruining the world. It's also the very definition of a common rhetorical fallacy. In your latest post, you associate yourself right away with a group of people who are responsible enough to fight the evildoers of the world through atheism. (On a side note, I find the idea of feeling compelled to preach on religious matters, even against the existence of god, alarming and protozealotous; it strikes me as inverse born-again-ism.) Also early on, you label Seth a deist, which is an awfully presumptuous move, considering the basis of his overall argument (more on that basis later) -- basically, the only way you can excuse calling him a deist is to do it based on an isolated excerpt of his post, which is one more example of why the line-by-line format is irresponsible and dishonest. Later, you essentially call him an idiot with another of your worn retorts, the "you're joking, right?" I would encourage you to imagine how you would feel if somebody said that to you in an argument. You've used it on me before, and trust me: it's maddening and pretentious. And finally you accuse him, quite unfairly, of being "in league" with people who wish science would just "put down (its) beakers." (I substituted "its" for "our" to reflect the perhaps underemphasized fact that none of us, including you, has held a beaker or solved an equation in years, if ever.) I sincerely doubt that Seth belongs to that group of people.

A third, and among the most bothersome, is your unwillingness to present any sort of support for statements that direly need it. For example, your claim that "we absolutely can disprove the existence of god," and its extension, in which you claim that science has already accomplished much in pursuit of that goal. I don't believe either of those on their face, nor, I think, would most reasonable, educated people. If you're going to make a claim like that, you need to provide some examples, cite some studies, name some scientists, or otherwise give us some reason to believe what you're saying other than that you said it. I'm sure you'll say it's obvious and insult my intelligence for asking, but it's not obvious, and, on the contrary, an intelligently constructed argument takes none of its claims for granted. You've made other claims in the same vein, but that's by far the most glaring.

Another problematic tendency is not to cite your sources. I understand that we're not running an online scientific journal here; I realize nobody, me included, wants to have to put a Works Cited at the end of posts. However, I know you pretty well. I know that you don't have much in the way of a scientific background. (Neither do I, and I freely admit that.) I also know you're reading a book about atheism and that you have the internet. So I have to assume that much of your argument regarding string theory and branes and such is taken from somewhere else -- unless that asshole teacher of ours in English 255 covered that stuff during the days I missed. In other words, I think your lack of attribution of that material makes your argument both harder to believe and of suspicious provenance, and further that it does so unnecessarily. Your major premises, I would wager, are yours alone. So why make us wonder what parts of your logic are yours, and what came from somebody else with whom you agree? It certainly doesn't make a person any less smart if he uses sources -- nobody expects you to come up with the Theory of Everything from scratch.

There are a few others I could discuss. You take up the mantle of science or discard it completely as you see fit, depending on whether it supports your point at the time. You misrepresent Seth's argument a number of times. At least twice you employ textbook red herrings, and another time you call one of his points a red herring when it clearly was not. You patently misrepresent the scientific process when you say that "any time we cannot empirically prove a scientific theory, it is discarded." I know you'll disagree with that, since we spent hours yelling about it the other day, but I strongly urge you to consult any high-school science teacher about whether or not a scientific theory can be empiricially proven (and, while you're at it, science's relative valuation of proof as opposed to disproof).

However, far and away your most disturbing argumentative tendency is to ignore and/or distort and/or misconstrue the other person's argument until it seems patently ridiculous and false. Look no further than this last post. Seth was not arguing that God created the universe! Reread his argument, and let that idea sink in. He never said God created the universe. He explained how it's a rational position to think that God created the universe. There is a difference, and no, it's not semantic.

For an illustration of the difference between the two, look at your own argument. Your own essential argument takes this form:

1. Science can and will disprove the existence of God.
2. Anyone who believes in God is wrong.

You talk about positive content, and even try to provide some, and yet your entire argument is about how wrong other people are. Seth's is not. Seth is explaining how one position on an issue is a rational one. The thing is -- and I know this is anathema to you -- he never says it's the only rational view! In fact, he never says that atheism isn't rational.

And that's why there is a huge, significant difference between your argument and his. He elucidates one view while allowing for others. You attack others as a way of supporting your own. You probably think it's academic to allow for other possible viewpoints, but it's not. It's just argumentation and analysis. Believing others are wrong does not make you right, and those who are right rarely prove it by showing how wrong others are. Even when you claim to be offering "positive content," all you're really doing is questioning the opposing view. Why believe in God? Why not believe in God? Why don't you explain the latter, instead of asking the former? That would be positive content. And that would also be a hell of a lot harder. You often profess your dislike for academics, and yet your entire "philosophy" at the end of your post is predicated on rhetorical questions directed at the opposition. You don't say why we should believe what you believe. You say why we're stupid for believing what we believe. That's awfully academic, awfully patronizing, and pretty fucking hard to swallow.

This may sound like a rebuke, and I suppose it is, but it really wasn't written in anger or in hopes of upsetting you or proving you wrong (which I can't hope to do here, since I didn't even discuss the topic itself). I'm just sick of seeing this same style of argumentation. You know I don't dislike you. I shouldn't have to tell you that. I regard you highly as both a person and -- this is rarer, for me -- as a writer. I've told you that repeatedly. And I understand that this probably sounds really patronizing. But I just don't understand why you tend to be such an absolutist in these arguments: you are right, and anybody who disagrees is wrong. It's uncalled for and unreasonable, and I think you'd convince a lot more people if you stopped doing this sort of thing.

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