Why I vary my arguments

This post is a comment that I left on my own blog in response to Mr. La Roche. This is getting to be a bad habit with me. But when I write two pages out, I hate to bury it in the comment section. Especially when writing out those two pages prevented me from writing the post that I wanted to write tonight.

Those who are already familiar with my essay site might want to skip the first part of this post (all the way to the Continue Reading tag). But they might find the second part to be an interesting insight into my philosophy of argument (though I don’t always follow that philosophy as well as I should).

Thanks for responding the way that you did. It occurred to me after I had posted my reply that the obvious response would be to point out that I had just been criticizing the Economist for being unreasonable. That lends a certain air of irony to my argument, does it not?

If I can fault The Economist for being unreasonable how can I argue the wishy-washy crap that I argued in the above post? I blame lack of sleep and being short on time.

The fact is that I appreciate a well reasoned argument, even if I disagree with it. And I dislike a poorly reasoned argument, even if I agree with it. A well reasoned argument that I disagree with helps to sharpen my own thinking, but poorly reasoned argument whose conclusions that I agree with only makes me ashamed.

Having said that, I don’t believe that reason has much to do with what we perceive to be the truth, and that is what I was trying to get at in my last response to you.

One of the people who helped me refine my own thinking on the matter of reason and truth was a Dutch philosopher by name of Benedict de Spinoza. He is not widely known in America, but I hear that he has a wider following over in Europe, so maybe you are already familiar with his work.

If you have heard of Spinoza, you know that he argued the exact opposite of my position. He is a good example of how someone can make a very reasonable argument that I appreciate even when I disagree with it. But the real reason I bring him up is that I think he laid out the best possible case for reason as a universal guide to truth.

One of the reasons that I find Spinoza so impressive is that he takes the a priori position that reason is the only valid guide to truth and he reasons from that about how the world must be in order for that a priori position to be true. Most people don’t even stop to think about how the world has to be in order for reason to work. They just assume that reason works and don’t bother thinking about what that implies. But Spinoza took the time to think about what the nature of reason required the universe to be like if it was to work.

Now I find Spinoza’s argument to be very impressive. It is easy for me to see why Einstein practically worshipped Spinoza. It is really eerie to see how well Spinoza anticipated future scientific advances simply by reasoning out what reason itself required. Einstein’s own work is a particularly noteworthy vindication of Spinoza’s thought process.

But contrary to Spinoza, I think that reason itself requires one to believe that Spinoza was wrong. As a consequence, I think that we must give up all hope of using reason to work people towards a common truth.

If you’re the type who is willing to entertain philosophical arguments, I argued this position in my essay called Spinoza, Einstein, and the Failure of Reason. But if you are not the type who likes to deal with philosophical arguments, you will probably find that the essay is too much too deal with.

I would like to deal with the issue in a simpler manner, but I am not sure I can.

I will give it the good old hillbilly try by dealing with the question you posed when you said “Why should your arguments, if they are well thought out, vary? Is this varying of arguments not a rhetorical trick on your behalf?”

I don’t think it is a rhetorical trick. After all, reason requires an a priori. Not everyone accepts the same a priori’s. Thus the arguments that people will accept as legitimate will vary even though the quality of reasoning stays the same.

For example: Let us suppose we have two different people standing before us who are perfectly reasonable. But let us suppose that one person has an a priori belief that freedom is highest goal that society can pursue, and let us suppose that the other person believes that fairness is the highest goal that society can pursue. Neither of those positions is open to critique by reason unless you get those two people to accept the other’s a priori’s in addition to the ones they already have. So right off the bat we have a gap that cannot be bridged by reason.

But let us take this example a step further. Let us say that you want to convince these two people to accept a free trade agreement with another party.

Now your goal is the same in both cases. You want them to accept the free trade agreement. But your reasoning has to be different for each person. For the first person, you are going to have to show that the free trade agreement advances freedom. For the second person you are going to have to argue that the free trade agreement will advance fairness. Thus, you need two different arguments to bring two different people towards a common goal.

That is why I vary my arguments depending on who I am talking to. Since I think that people can have widely different a priori’s I try to structure my argument around what I perceive to be my audiences a priori’s.

Most people don’t do this. They argue from their a priori’s and then feel that people who don’t accept their argument are unreasonable. But the truth is that everyone has a priori’s that are beyond reason. Reason cannot even function without a priori’s. So if you don’t want to argue in terms of your audience’s a priori then you might as well talk to a brick wall.

Unfortunately, this means that reason cannot bridge some gaps between people because some things cannot be discussed without sharing similar a priori beliefs.

One Response to “Why I vary my arguments”

  1. Guy says:

    Apeman, thanks for this most interesting reply. I am definitely into philosophy. Ultimately the whole discussion can be brought down to simple “choice”. We choose, for a number of personal reasons or a-priori’s, to believe either this or that.

    I do not have the time, alas, to delve deeper. But check out my latest post at AFOE for another dimension, notably the importance of the elements of “doubt” and “authority”. Whenever the “truth” is not obvious or unknown, personal factors, personal psychology as it were, comes into play. This post is a much better reply to what we have previously discussed. It explains much better what I mean by “the psychology” behind public discourse.


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