MENU

WHITE PAPER

What’s the Point of Philosophical Debates?

I recently attended a gathering of philosophers organized through a website. Although they were all interested in philosophy, I felt like each of them came from a different planet. They spent most of the two-hour meeting defining their own terms, and no real debate or discussion took place. I don’t think it was just me who felt this way; one of them described it as “going around in circles”. Despite the fact that they all proved their own intelligence and depth of knowledge in the field, nothing meaningful or relevant came out of the meeting. In fact, it was so painful that I started to wonder how a meeting about my favorite subject could be so boring.

I feel like I’ve dedicated my life to debating. I debate so often that many people who know me are tired of debating with me. After all these years of debating and arguing with various people, in person or on the Internet, I’ve come to realize that most debates do not ultimately lead to anything meaningful. In a debate between you and I, I have my own opinions and you have yours. My goal is to prove that I’m right and you are wrong. Conversely, you want to prove yourself right, me wrong. The assumption here is that logical flaws in our arguments would be worked out through the debate, and we’ll eventually arrive at the truth. This is what goes on in courtrooms too. In the West, we depend on this process to keep order in our societies.

I’ve had many intense debates in my life but I could probably count with my own fingers the number of times my opponents actually abandoned their own opinions in favor of mine as results of our debates. In most cases, these debates never reach any type of resolution. Even if I logically corner you, you would likely refuse to admit that you are wrong. “A Man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” This is very true. The only reason why debates settle in courtrooms is because we have a system to force resolutions. There are also cases where both parties need a resolution for practical reasons (but not bad enough to go to court), so the situation forces a resolution. But in most debates, there are no such urgent needs, so the debates remain unresolved. If we want to avoid wasting time and energy on debates, one possible solution is to never start a debate unless both you and I agree and commit to a way of arriving at a resolution before starting a debate.

But the problem with debating goes deeper than this. In many cases, a resolution doesn’t actually carry the meaning or relevance that we are hoping for. We often hear such complaints about verdicts in lawsuits where the winner at the end says all she wanted to hear was “I’m sorry,” and that the defendant finally reveals that all he wanted to say was the same thing; it’s just that his lawyer told him not to. Even if I convince you that I’m right, it does not mean that I am. It could just mean that I’m good at debating, or you are bad at it. Or, it could mean that I happen to think of a very good argument during our debate. A few weeks later, you might come up with a better argument but not bother to share it with me. Even in court, just because all the juries sided with me, it doesn’t mean that they know the truth. It could just mean that my lawyer was very good, or that your lawyer was incompetent. Truth is not a popularity contest. There have been many occasions in our history where the majority of people were wrong about something. Our legal system is not a system to discover truths; it’s just a way to arrive at reasonable compromises so that we can move on. Without such a system, we could not make any progress as a society.

Philosophical debates are the worst. Suppose our debate is not going well for me, and I don’t want to lose. It’s always possible to bury the debate in semantics. All I would have to do is to keep questioning the definitions of any words you use, like, “What do you mean by ‘define’?”, “What does ‘meaning’ mean anyway?” And so on... Every word we utter is loaded with assumptions about what the other person would/should know. If I use the word “chair”, I’m conveniently assuming that my idea of chair is the same as yours, but in reality, there are many differences between my conception of chair and yours. So, I could legitimately question them to destabilize your attempt to logically corner me. If you try to bring up the concept of “operational definition” in order to make language function like math equations, I would question the definition of “operational definition” itself. And so on... After awhile, we realize that we would never reach any meaningful resolution. If our goal is to defend our own positions, it’s not a matter of truth or about the merits of our arguments; it’s all about our debating skills. Winning may lead to a sense of superiority but you would feel more isolated and lonely as a result because it would push you further away from meaningfulness and relevance.

This does not mean that all debates are pointless. Some debates are not only useful, enlightening, and/or educational, but fun, exciting, and even beautiful. What makes them so? What is the difference?

As I was researching on the Internet about different forms of communication, I came across this article called “The Art of Dialogue”. I don’t know anything about the author but it has a great definition of “dialogue” as opposed to “debate”. He says in a dialogue, “The participants know that they do not know the truth, posit it as the unknown and are eager to investigate together in order to discover it.” This is exactly the type of communication I’ve been enjoying in recent years. That is, I engage in a conversation, or “dialogue”, with others when I still have no clear answer, opinion, or conviction. I solicit help, and try to solve the puzzle together. I’ve always enjoyed collaborations.

In fact, a big part of the reason why I prefer to publish my writing on the Web, instead of trying to publish a book, is because I see my writing as a form of dialogue. I want to share my thoughts and invite others to join the dialogue. On the other hand, book is not a medium conducive to dialogues. It’s an appropriate medium if you are convinced of your own opinions, and would like to preserve and defend it permanently. It’s a long monologue with an elaborate structure. Your hope is that it would stand the test of time, and remain true forever as the last word. I no longer have such ambition. I just want to have a dialogue that continues forever. The Web is a perfect medium for that.

“The Art of Dialogue” deals specifically with spirituality and religion, so the usefulness of the article for me is limited. The author says “It is seeking to go beyond the word and have a deep insight into reality.” My own goal is more earthly. I’m not interested in going beyond language in a dialogue, precisely because “dialogue” that I enjoy is a linguistic activity. I see no point in talking about ideas that presumably go beyond language. If we want to go beyond language, we should just stop talking. I’m interested in the possibilities of “dialogue” as an activity based on language, and I believe there are a lot of possibilities just within what can be communicated with our language. Without going beyond language, I believe one way to have a meaningful debate is to see it as a collaboration. We should bring our own ideas, opinions, and theories to the table, but we should not have any positions to defend.

Here is a related story of Wittgenstein in “The Duty of Genius” by Ray Monk.

At this time [Rush] Rhees felt he ought to join the (Trotskyist) Revolutionary Communist Party... Wittgenstein was sympathetic, but tried to dissuade him on the grounds that his duties as a loyal party member would be incompatible with his duties as a philosopher. In doing philosophy, he insisted, you have got to be ready constantly to change the direction in which you are moving, and if you are thinking as a philosopher you cannot treat the ideas of Communism differently from others.

His idea of what philosophers are supposed to do is different from the conventional one. Philosophers are supposed to be convinced of their own ideas of the immutable truth, and are supposed to spend their lives trying to convince others of their truth. Wittgenstein had the opposite view; he felt that conviction would get in the way of doing philosophy. That is to say, he started philosophy with the assumption that there is no such thing as the truth. He assumed philosophy as a never-ending dialogue, a process without a goal, a travel without a destination. Very much in line with the philosophy of Zen.

In “The Art of Dialogue”, the author discourages forming of opinions, theories, and conclusions but these are essential aspects of any linguistic communication. We need them in order to have a meaningful communication using language. However, we do not need to take any positions, or to identify ourselves with them. Opinions, theories and conclusions are not problems in and of themselves. What creates a problem is our attachment to them. This is a subtle but important distinction we need to make. To abandon opinions, theories, and conclusions is to abandon linguistic communication altogether. We just need to abandon taking any positions.

I also believe that faith and compassion play significant roles in making a debate meaningful. When we play any kind of game, if I have to suspect you of cheating, it wouldn’t be worth playing. I have to have faith that you would respect the rules. A debate is a “language game” which assumes that we know and respect certain rules. Games are defined by their rules, and we enjoy games by following their rules. Rules have no deep meanings. They are arbitrarily set to maximize our enjoyment, so even if we change them, we could still enjoy the game as long as we can mutually agree on them before we start playing. Whether any given rule is X or Y is not relevant. The only thing that matters is whether everyone is following the same one. For instance, Japanese version of chess, Shogi, uses a 9×9 board as opposed to Western chess which uses a 8×8 board. Otherwise the rules and movements are quite similar. Having more squares doesn’t make Shogi any better than chess. There is no profound meaning in the number of squares or in any given rule.

In the philosophical gathering I attended, everyone was playing his/her own version of chess, and everyone was intent on playing their own, and some were even claiming superiority over the others. What the gathering lacked was faith and compassion. There was an atmosphere similar to that of courtrooms where everyone was eager to win or prove himself, and at the same time scared to lose.

When we engage in a debate, we have to make many assumptions. No statement can be uttered without making countless assumptions. These assumptions are very much like the rules in a game. We’ve internalized the rules, so we do not have to spell them out before starting the game. But sometimes we come across situations where our assumptions do not sufficiently overlap. For instance, in playing pool, there are subtle variations in the rules. Some people require you to call every shot, which ball is going into which pocket. Some even require you to declare how it goes in; for instance, whether the ball would bounce off of any rails and how many times. People often start playing pool without defining their rules and realize during the game that they are not following the same rules. So, they define the rules at that point, and continue or start over.

A similar situation can come up in a philosophical debate where people suddenly realize that there is a discrepancy in how they are understanding a certain term. For instance, one person might be using the term “materialism” to mean consumerism while the other means how material needs influence human behavior. So, someone asks, “Oh, wait. Can you define what you mean by ‘materialism’? I think we mean different things.”

We tend to believe that defining our terms precisely and accurately would lead to more meaningful discussions, but this is not always the case. If we have to constantly define our terms, we are probably lacking compassion and faith in each other. If I were compassionate, I wouldn’t use terms that you may have trouble with. And, if you had faith in me that I would honestly admit my errors (when confronted with reasonable evidence or argument), you wouldn’t have to nail me to precise definitions of any terms. How rigorously we define terms have no correlation to relevance or to meaningfulness of a dialogue. When we do understand each other well, it owes more to faith and compassion than it does to precision of definitions or accuracy of logic.

Compassion also comes into play when deciding what assumptions we make as the basis of our discussion. Suppose for instance that your friend is a devout Christian and you are an atheist, and your friend is going through a difficult time in his marriage and asks you for your opinion about what Jesus would do in his situation. Your immediate thought might be that he shouldn’t worry about what Jesus would do because God doesn’t exist anyway and because Jesus is a fraud. But such a response would be lacking compassion. If you think deeply enough about it, does it matter whether you believe in God or Jesus? Could it be scientifically proven that God does not exist? In fact, could the validity of science be proven without having any recourse to the same system of verification that science itself uses? And, can we agree on the definition of “god” before we even argue about its existence? Your own position as an atheist is filled with assumptions also. Does the validity of our fundamental assumptions matter in starting any discussion? It’s very much like choosing to play Japanese chess or Western chess. If your friend is asking for your opinion on what Jesus would do, for that moment, you can simply put yourself in his shoe and try to think what Jesus would do. There is no point in convincing your friend that Jesus is a fraud in that specific context. You could say to your friend, “You know I don’t believe in God, but assuming for the moment that God does exist, I think Jesus would do...”

To be compassionate is to be sensitive to relevance for others. A meaningful debate shouldn’t be about advocating for our own positions. A meaningful dialogue happens when we simply lend our own perspectives and mental abilities to each other, as if to expand our own abilities by combining our brains. To do this, our fundamental assumptions are irrelevant. In our world where nothing is certain, faith and compassion are prerequisites for any type of communication to be meaningful. The point of any debate isn’t a resolution or a conclusion but to discover and understand what is relevant to one another.