How To Tell You\'ve Won An Argument

Here is a sure indicator that you have won an argument: when the other side claims their own position is incoherent.

I first came across this tip reading George H. Smith's classic Atheism: The Case Against God. When arguing theology, one can tell when the athiest or agnostic has won the debate as soon as the theist concedes the incoherence of God by claiming that God is "unknowable" or "beyond reason," and must be taken on faith alone. "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent," says Ludwig Wittgenstein's seventh proposition in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

What I recently discovered, to my surprise and amusement, is that some conservatives make the same sort of claim with regard to their own political ideology. In a lengthy debate at Samizdata.net over the much ballyhooed "Marxism of the Right" article, the two conservatives arguing against libertarianism admitted -- one of them entirely unprovoked -- that their own politics are incoherent. Out of nowhere came that admission that

Libertarianism is correctly characterized by coherence and conviction. Far more so than Conservatism. Despite the positive connotations these words carry, they denote the worst part of Libertarianism.

So we can conclude from this that this person believes conservativism is best characterized by incoherence and lack of conviction. These two conservatives reaffirmed this deduction upon further questioning. As The Balko likes to say from time to time, this makes my job easier than standing somewhere near a barrel.

As soon as a conservative admits that her own ideology is self-contradictory, illogical, or incoherent, her opponent has, by definition, won the argument (as the criteria for making an argument is the persuasiveness and validity of the logic and rhetoric; an incoherent argument cannot be understood, and thus cannot be persuasive or logically valid). Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

Unfortunately, this also signals the end of the argument - there can be no further response, because incoherence cannot be argued with.

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dadahead and Patri, I'm

dadahead and Patri,

I'm going to save my response to you two for a later post about Pragmatism (the philosophy of James, Peirce, and Dewey - not this conservative nonsense about always sticking with the status quo because "it works".

Micha, as someone who also

Micha, as someone who also commented several times on that massive Samzidata thread, I broadly agree with you. What is also a giveaway is when conservatives use the word "pragmatic", ie, make it up as you go along.:stupid:

Language is not a

Language is not a prerequisite for rational thought. One counterexample is the one mentioned above. Another one is Einstein, who said that thinking up the theory of relativity was fairly easy, but finding a way to express it was much more difficult.

Yet another example is the low-level thought processes of a person who never learns language, or even an animal: whenever they act freely and intentionally, with the desire to achieve some end, and thus to adopt the necessary means to that end, they are acting rationally, even if they could never in a million years articulate their thought process.

In these cases, the individuals aren't quite sure how to describe/express their thoughts, so you might argue that rational thought needs to be capable, in principle, of being expressed verbally/linguistically, and that the fact that some people have a hard or even impossible time doing that doesn't matter -- as long as something is expressable, it is rational, and if it's not even in principle expressable, then it isn't rational.

But I think this argument would fail as well. For example: there is nothing irrational or incoherent about the distinction you make in your mind between the experience of seeing red and the experience of seeing blue. But you simply could not ever describe or articulate the difference between the two.

You could describe the difference in terms of the objects you see, some of which are red, some of which are blue -- i.e., you could say, when I see red it's like looking at the color of blood, while seeing blue is like looking at the sky.

But this doesn't capture the entirety of the distinction. For all I know, you and I could have inverted spectra; that is, it could be the case that when you look at the sky, you see what I see when I say something is red, while when you look at blood, you experience what I do when I look at the sky. There would be no way for us to know this, so we would naturally call things the same color, but our subjective, qualitative experience of color would be quite different--and quite inexpressible.

Jay -- your post seems to

Jay -- your post seems to argue mostly that Gore and Kerry did a lousy job campaigning against Bush. My personal opinion is that Gore was indeed lousy but that Kerry did as good as could have been expected, but I won't argue for that here.

But even if Gore and Kerry were inept, I don't see how that says anything about which party relies more on scare tactics. I don't think this is a subjective question at all. I think any fair, reasonable observer of the 2004 election would say that it was obvious that the primary tactic of the GOP was fear -- and not just fear of getting your benefits cut, but fear of your kids getting blown up by terrorists. These are two entirely different things.

dadahead- Bush 43 was

dadahead-

Bush 43 was eminently beatable in both 2000 and 2004. Gore was a sitting vice president riding the wave of an economy that had been strong and was still perceived to be strong (even though large cracks were showing). Kerry had Bush in the middle of a war that a significant number of our population didn't like, with an economy best described as "plodding".

Yet both lost.

I remember two things from the Gore campaign: 1) the cartoon of Bush pushing an elderly person in a wheelchair off a cliff in reference to Social Sercurity, and 2) Gore trying to paint himself as a populist by railing against "Big" this and "Big" that, while all the time wanting to grow "Big" government. I would rather take my chances with the private sector.

I remember two things from the Kerry campaign: 1) Vietnam, and 2) his promise not to change ANYTHING about Social Security (no means testing, benefit adjustment, etc) and how privitization was such a "risky scheme" (personally, I'm pretty comfortable with my 401k vs SS).

I won't deny the GOP used scare tactics- heck, that's old as politics itself. I guess arguing about who used more scare tactics is a matter of our individual perspective, also.

I just wanted to balance the slate as you left out one of the agents in your comments...

I think the response would

I think the response would be the same, since language is a prerequisite for rational thought. Something can either be incoherent because it cannot be knowable or because we lack words to describe it. Both explanations essentially mean the same thing.

Micha, I disagree. You and I are both very verbal people, and to us thinking and saying are almost the same. There are people who have difficulty translating what is in their brain into words. Its fine to be a little more skeptical about how accurate their thoughts are, but I don't think one can dismiss them entirely.

"Interesting you chose to

"Interesting you chose to include the GOP and the church, but left out the Democrats. On balance, the presidential campaigns of 2000 and 2004 were much more reprehensible in their rhetoric than the GOP.

Gore claimed that grandma would be pushed off the cliff and demonized whole segments of society by putting “Big” in front of it.

Kerry also claimed that the GOP wanted to cut off every old person at the knees."

Oh come on!!

Tell you what: I'll go ahead and grant you that Gore & Kerry did misleadingly make such threats -- though I don't agree with the claim (b/c you are obviously exaggerating their rhetoric, plus I don't think what they said was untrue).

Bush & Cheney's campaign message was basically: TERRORISTS WILL BLOW YOU UP IN YOUR LIVING ROOM IF YOU VOTE FOR JOHN KERRY, AND THE US WILL BE OVERRUN BY ISLAMIST INVADERS WHO WILL RAPE YOUR WOMEN AND EAT YOUR BABIES!!

Okay, the last part was a bit hyperbolic on my part. But there is no doubt that the first part of that is exactly what the GOP argued.

You did see Zell Miller's speech at the convention, right??

You can't really believe that the Dems rely on fear more than the GOP. That's just completely silly. I imagine even most GOPers would agree with me (though they'd probably argue the fear that was being played to was not irrational). Stop being silly!

It seems to me that

It seems to me that ideologies that preen overmuch about "coherence and conviction" tilt towards those ideologies we've come to know as totalitarian.

Too much perfection is a mistake.

I think it's possible what

I think it's possible what was meant by coherence and conviction is something different than we mean. By conviction he means fales certainty. By coherence he means all the parts fit neatly together, whereas with conservatism different parts are largely separate, you can change one and only affect some aspects of others. They're coherent in the sense that they don't contradict, but not so much in the sense that they depend on eachother. Most conservatives don't think this way, but I could see how some would. Of course, this would be sloppy use of language, but I've seen far worse from smarter people. He's still not right, but his statement wouldn't be quite as ridiculous given this interpretation.

dadahead- Interesting you

dadahead-

Interesting you chose to include the GOP and the church, but left out the Democrats. On balance, the presidential campaigns of 2000 and 2004 were much more reprehensible in their rhetoric than the GOP.

Gore claimed that grandma would be pushed off the cliff and demonized whole segments of society by putting "Big" in front of it.

Kerry also claimed that the GOP wanted to cut off every old person at the knees.

Sorry, but the whole Democratic platform is based on what the the evil Republicans will take away from you, and we will "save" you with more large government programs...

Another good indicator is

Another good indicator is when two sides of an extreme position attack your position for exactly the opposite reasons.
I recently posted an anti-war piece called Iraq, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, And The Couch Potato’s Burden at http://www.cosmoetica.com/B194-DES136.htm and challenged many Right Wing and pro-war bloggers to argue against my debunking of the Joint Resolution for war, etc. Of course, I was labeled a Left Winger and Bush hater even though I played on their field, granted all the Bush assumptions, and still showed the folly of the endeavor.
More tellingly, there were a lot of liberal chatrooms and blogs that refused to allow me to post my piece or challenge and claimed that I was just a Right Winger in disguise, that I gave Bush too much credit, etc.
Of course, my piece's subtitle is A Muscular Centrist Attack On The Pro-War Position.
It just goes to show that most people do not read, and merely see what they want to in a given thing. Yet, being attacked by extremists as conspirators with the other side seems to me as good an indicator as any other that you're right. Dan

I think the response would

I think the response would be the same, since language is a prerequisite for rational thought. Something can either be incoherent because it cannot be knowable or because we lack words to describe it. Both explanations essentially mean the same thing.

Micha, What would be your

Micha,

What would be your response to someone who argued that God wasn't unknowable, but that they lacked the ability to articulate "God" to you?

Sadly, connecting atheism

Sadly, connecting atheism and libertarianism is not a strategy for winning converts to either. Both words tend to elicit a gut-level response from many people that completely precludes any opportunity for a rational argument. Of course, those are the very same people who wouldn't be swayed if they heard one. :idea:

"if your goal is to win in

"if your goal is to win in the court of general opinion, well, the large majority of people have no problem with even quite a bit of philosophical incoherence and contradiction."

This is true, and it's why the best way to convince large numbers of people that you are right is to appeal not to their reason but to their (irrational)fear.

Just ask the GOP. And the Church.

True, Petro, not everyone

True, Petro, not everyone realizes why coherence is so important. That's partly why I wrote this post - as a public service. But what else can I really do? As I wrote in the last sentence, how can one argue with incoherence?

If your goal is to score

If your goal is to score points in a debate, you're on the right track, if your goal is to win in the court of general opinion, well, the large majority of people have no problem with even quite a bit of philosophical incoherence and contradiction.

This is, at least in part, why the Libertarian and Green Parties are largely confined to the margins of the public debate, while they tend to be relatively more apparent in academic circles (or other places where intellectual rigor is highly regarded).

I'm saying this with a lot of sympathy *philosophically* for the libertarian position, I *wish* the world could work that way, and in as much of my life as practical I try to live it, but it's just not.

But outside these networks, out where real blood flows when real police use real night sticks, or real burglars use real guns things aren't so clean and sharp and well defined.

And that's the world most of us live in.

But then I thought: wait a

But then I thought: wait a minute: surely they didn’t admit their position was incoherent!?

Yep, that is what was so shocking to me. And I though I did recognize while writing this post the lack of a proper Modus Tollens that brian r pointed out, in the context of the discussion, and their later confirmation, the conclusion of incoherence seems to hold. But good catch!

Okay, so you won the

Okay, so you won the argument. So what?
Don't underestimate the importance of winning arguments, but don't overestimate it either (plus more Wittgenstein!).

only that A is really,

only that A is really, really bad.

Well, if you suggest that A = conservatism, you have a deal, sir!

You know, I'm not sure about

You know, I'm not sure about "relative coherence". Obviously, at one level, either all your propositions are compatible or they aren't. But maybe a world-view based on one hundred propositions, of which only one is incompatible with one or more of the rest, might be held to be "more coherent" than one consisting of fifty mutually-exclusive pairs? Can someone with more statistical smarts than me propose a quantitative theory of coherence?

Sorry, Friday afternoon, it's the BRT* at work!

*Big Rock Traditional, a fine ale native to the fair city of Calgary.

I was going to make the same

I was going to make the same comment as Brian R, but the post says upon further questioning they affirmed M.G.'s interpretation of this argument, so I didn't.

But then I thought: wait a minute: surely they didn't admit their position was incoherent!?

Even to say it was incoherent relative to libertarianism, or 'not as coherent' as libertarianism: it is not entirely clear to me how much sense can be made of such a notion as relative coherence. If you're talking about a logical system of propositions, it would seem that incoherence is an all-or-nothing affair; either all the propositions in the system are compatible, or not.

But M.G. says they weren't even making this argument; they were just admitting that they were being illogical! This can't be! Please, tell me there are not people out there who admit that their position exhibits logical incoherence yet continue to hold to that very position!! Say it ain't so!

:wall:

And since you're being

And since you're being logically nit-picky (a trait I'm inclined to indulge in myself) the fact that they admit to "...far more so than conservatism..." doesn't mean that conservatism is "best characterized by incoherence and lack of conviction". It was an admission of a relative characteristic, not an absolute one. It's still a win. You don't even need to play against most religions - indeed, you can't - since "Faith", i.e. belief in that for which there is no objective evidence, is the supreme virtue (certainly is in Christianity).

Well, as much as I agree

Well, as much as I agree with the pro-libertarian argument, that admission certainly indicates that one side is wrong, it doesn't automatically imply that the other side is right.

Still:

Us: 1
Them: 0

True. The failure of one

True. The failure of one side to prove their argument doesn't mean the other side has successfully done so by default. But it does mean that one side has won the debate by technical knockout. It's like when soccer team A loses ten-to-zero to soccer team B because soccer team A kicked the ball into their own goal ten times. That doesn't prove that team B knows how to play soccer - only that A is really, really bad.