This House would not debate metaphysics

doorNederlandse Debatbond

This House would not debate metaphysics

In the ongoing discussion about the Galway EUDC 2011 final motion (“This House Believes that God exists”) former Worlds ESL finalist Daniël Schut makes an obversation that reaches the core of the discussion: is the parliamentary debating format suitable to debate metaphysical matters?

The Galway EUDC 2011 final motion for the ESL-competition has generated a little bit of a stir online. Some have gone so far as to call it ‘a disgrace’ and managed to turn it into an ESL-issue. That’s just plain wrong. I am fully convinced that the highly capable CA-team set this motion with the best intentions and I am also convinced that any debater, whether they’re ESL or not,  should be expected to be able to debate on this topic. That being said, I do believe that we probably shouldn’t set metaphysical motions in the context of parliamentary debating, if the word parliamentary is to have any meaning at all.

Explanation follows below, but first: I wanted to write this piece because I feel there is a valuable discussion to be had over what parliamentary debating as an activity actually is, instead of the apparently ‘ironic’, negative, accusing tone this discussion started with. I hope we can agree to keep this discussion away from blaming people, so that we can actually look at the fundamental issues for debating as a human activity this issue touches upon.

The unfairness of debating as a competitive sport

Debating aspires to be the embodiment of the highest peaks of practical human reasoning. If the evidence is there and if the evidence is at least less disputable than the evidence for an alternative position, than any good debater should,  and hopefully will, change his or her opinion. The key word here is ‘evidence’. Even though philosphers are still discussing what counts as evidence for knowing something to be true, when we look at our everyday lives we could at least agree that the social practice of ‘reasoning’ your positions with ‘evidence’ usually means justifying a statement with other statements that the person whom you’re trying to persuade (your auditorium) a priori assumes to probably be true.

But this notion creates an unfairness in debating as a competitive sport. If reasoning as a social practice is justifying positions by using statements your auditorium a priori holds to be true, this implies that apparently debating is nothing more than ‘pandering to the crowd’ – a race to reach the ‘common ground’ of a priori assumptions first. The unfairness is this: we don’t know beforehand what a priori assumptions our judging panel has, and even if we would know this, the draw decides what position we have to argue, so we could, by bad luck, end up debating a position that is just unfortunate enough to be less acceptable given those a priori assumptions.

Why we need a priori assumptions

The first method debaters use to get out of this problem, is by demanding that arguments are well-formed. One example is the SEXI-model.This is a ‘best practice’-recipe for creating reasonably well-formed arguments: it ensures that you deliver at least an explanation and an illustration of your positions. Another example of well-formedness is the logical principle of non-contradiction. What these well-formedness criteria have in common is that they don’t prejudice for or against certain a priori held assumptions: they just demand a certain form, sequence or structure of the sentences debaters utter.

This method only gets us halfway. If we only use well-formedness as criterion, debaters could question any a priori held asssumption as long as they’re doing this in a well-formed way. Does 1+1 equal 2? Is pedophilia bad, or genocide? Aren’t we all just brains in vats and is nothing we perceive real?

Questioning the assumptions which underly these currently commonly held ‘beliefs’ is an interesting intellectual game but they make debating as a competitive sport impossible. We have limited attention spans and limited time, so we can’t reasonably ask of debaters to prove, when questioned, that indeed, 1+1 equals 2, genocide and pedophilia are indeed morally abbhorent and that indeed, something like reality does exist. If we want to have multiple rounds so we can select winners for finals, we need to provide limits.

The background context we provide in parliamentary tournaments

This brings me to the second method debaters use to get out of the problem posed by a priori held assumptions of the auditorium. Instead of leaving the a priori assumptions up to coincidence, we explicitly define them as background for a debate in such a way that they don’t prejuedice any position in any debate. That’s why almost every judging instruction for a parliamentary debate tournament specifies that debaters are expected to argue in front of an auditorium of ‘reasonably educated, reasonably informed, newspaper reading laypersons’.

As I argued elsewehere, this admonition helps, but not very much. Thankfully, there is an additional set of a priori assumptions we can take as given during a parliamentary debate tournament. These assumptions stem from the fact that we’re doing parliamentary debate tournaments. By debating in parliamentary debate tournaments, we are putting ourselves in the confines of a deliberative and legislative context in a political community, whether in the abstract or in the real. This means that we can take as given a minimal set of beliefs generated by the political philosophy of democracy and the rule of law. To be sure, these notions can be contested, in real parliaments as in parliamentary debate tournaments, but the presumption is in favor of a minimal set of beliefs about democracy and the rule of law. This means that challenging any of these beliefs implies a heavy burden of proof on behalf of the challenger.

Defining the acceptable a priori assumptions in a parliamentary context has been done by many philosophers. One attempt is John Rawls’ neo-Kantian The Idea of Public Reason, revisited. Another attempt can be found in almost all of Jürgen Habermas’ work, especially in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and Between Facts and Norms. All these philosophers have different views, but some common threads for what I will from now on call ‘public reason’ can be distilled.

Public reason and metaphysics

So, what are these common threads of public reason? Off the top of my head, ignoring all the important differences between and disregarding all the very fine nuances made by the best and brightest philosophers, at least two basic principles of public reason are:

1. The topics are of significance to ‘us’ as a political community. When topics are resolved and thus a position in the debate is taken, they imply, directly or indirectly, actionable consequences for that political community. An example of a motion which directly implies actionable consequences is “THBT abortion is wrong”, implying that abortion in that community should be forbidden. An example of a motion which indirectly implies actionable consequences would be “THBT an embryo is entitled to rights of full personhood, even immediately after conception” – which indirectly implies that abortion is wrong and should be forbidden.

2. Arguments should be mutually acceptable, or as Rawls states it: arguments should be construed in such a way that they are acceptable in the eyes of it’s opponents. One way to make arguments mutually acceptable is to make them independently verifiable. By making arguments independently verifiable, opponents don’t have to take their opponents on their word, but can empirically see for themselves that the argument holds water.

There are more criteria, but you can already see where a metaphysical motion like “THBT god exists’ fails. Firstly, we don’t know for which political community resolving this motion would have actionable consequences (other than the fictitious political community of John Milton’s Luciferian council) . In what public forum do we argue this and why is it practically relevant there? Secondly, the existence of god as metaphysical being is, by definition of being a metaphysical being, never independently verifiable. There’s just no scientific experiment which can at least make plausible the empirical existence of a god, because for all intents and purposes, god is supposed to be outside of the practical, empirical realm in which we’re supposed to debate.

What does this mean for us?

This means that at least for parliamentary debate tournaments, we shouldn’t set metaphysical motions. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t debate metaphysics at all. In other setting, even other championship tournaments, we most definitely should. Metaphysical debates are, after all, very interesting, and especially the existence of god, since that’s a debate we’ve already been having since the earliest of times.

But if we believe in the meaning of words, and if we truly believe that the word ‘parliamentary’ has any meaning at all, then we have to accept that currently, both EUDC and WUDC are set within the context of public reason. And public reason really does exclude metaphysics, which is why I conclude: this house would not debate metaphysics.

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De Nederlandse Debatbond (NDB) stelt zich als doel het wedstrijddebat te bevorderen en ondersteunen in Nederland. Als nationaal overkoepelend orgaan vertegenwoordigt de NDB ongeveer 1.000 leden waarvan de meesten lid zijn van één van de debatverenigingen die Nederland rijk is.

3 Reacties tot nu toe

AnonGeplaatst op4:42 am - aug 20, 2011

“1. The topics are of significance to ‘us’ as a political community. When topics are resolved and thus a position in the debate is taken, they imply, directly or indirectly, actionable consequences for that political community.”

I really can’t believe I’m wading into this. I’ve tried to be thorough, so if at any point I’ve misinterpreted your argument, it’s probably because I’m attempting to deal with all possible interpretations.

So, the first thing to note about what you’ve written is that it is completely inconsistent with basically any analysis motion ever – and particularly those involving non-state actors. The entire purpose of setting an analysis motion is so that teams DON’T have to make arguments that ‘imply actionable consequences for the political community.’ Let’s take your example of THBT abortion is wrong. The reason why you would set that motion instead of simply THW ban abortion is so that teams are able to disassociate themselves from any legislative conclusions. It would be entirely legitimate for the first words out of the PM’s mouth to be, “We believe that a woman should always and forever have the right to choose; we simply believe that when she choose to have an abortion, she has made a poor moral decision.” A similar example would be round 6 of Euros this year: “THB that hacking is an acceptable form of protest against large corporations.” I think most people would agree that it would be a rather tough burden to place on prop for them to prove that the hacking of large corporations should be legalised, given the ensuing economic harms. I haven’t heard of such a line being taken in any rooms, and yet nor have I heard complaints that the motion was inconsistent with BP.

There are obviously good reasons why you might want to set motions that don’t necessarily imply state action. First, there are other actors within society that make important decisions, and so to reduce everything to the political community is frankly tedious. If BP debating is to be relevant and purposeful to the wider world (I’m skeptical, but hey), it probably should address more than the narrow purposes of the state. Second and more interestingly, arguments that fall outside the actionable scope of the state allow us to question our relationship with it. To be more precise, when you remove prop’s fiat power to make the state do exactly what it wants, we’re able to make arguments about the way politics functions *in reality.* For example, in the hacking motion above, prop can make arguments about links between the state and large corporations, etc.

With these benefits in mind, you appear to give us two justifications for why non-state motions shouldn’t be run at BP competitions. The first is simply that it represents a misuse of the word “parliamentary”. Perhaps, but this seems a little petty: given “unparliamentary” motions have been running for years, I don’t think anyone’s under any misapprehension that BP debating motions are all legislative.

The other argument seems to be that somehow the basic moral premises of any debate flow from the assumption that we are a functioning political community, and that these assumptions somehow don’t work if we remove the illusion that all decisions are actionable politically. Firstly, I don’t see what stops judges assuming those axioms even outside the context of state action. Even if they are drawn from a statist tradition, the judge and debaters can just apply them to a debate about other things and other actors.

Secondly, if your argument is that it’s hard to debate with reference to those axioms when discussing the probability of God existing, I don’t see why they would be any more useful or applicable in determining other empirical, but ultimately probabilistic, questions like, say, “How will Israel react if it loses all its aid from the West?” Clearly there is no certain answer to that question and clearly there are no “a priori assumptions” which you can use as a point of reference for adjudicating a dispute about it – yet it is almost certainly a crucial question in deciding the outcome of round 8 at Euros this year. Clearly, then, the democratic premises that you talk about only take us so far, even in a legislative context.

Now, I think the idea that motions should be actionable by *someone* is a more interesting assertion. I can’t think of many motions which, if conclusively settled, wouldn’t inform the way an individual should act. But of course, this motion is actionable by individuals: I’m sure I don’t need to explain why belief in God might plausibly change an individual’s moral perspective, and as a consequence, their actions.

Additionally, though, I’m not even convinced that a societal belief in God doesn’t meet your higher burden of informing the way we act as a political community: I think it’s hard, without specifics, to ascertain what change in actions would result. I suppose it depends on how you define “believes” and how you define “political community.” However, it seems contradictory to suggest that if the political community’s opinion on the morality abortion changed, it would necessarily affect the legality of abortion, but also argue that a belief in God would not affect our commitment to secularism.

Your second contention about the tangibility of proof in metaphysics debates may or may not be true. I’d refer you to what others have written on this. I’m on the fence about whether or not it’s possible to “win” such a debate in analytical terms, but it’s certainly possible to have a contest of persuasion.

I don’t have an opinion one way or the other on the motion; I simply don’t want to see it used to reduce the scope of debating to the mechanisms of state. That would be rather boring.

Debating: Private thoughts on public reason – Nederlandse DebatbondGeplaatst op11:58 am - aug 21, 2011

[…] Sam Block responds to Daniel Schut’s article . […]

Mark MansonGeplaatst op11:32 pm - aug 23, 2011

A well written article Daniel, but one I’m afraid I disagree with. I agree entirely with ‘anon’, but additionally, all your arguments about the challenges of debating metaphysics apply equally to the challenges of debating metaethics, but metaethical debates are crucial for almost all debates in which normative ethics play a key role (the abortion debate you give as an example being a key one) – surely the competing claims of a women’s control over her body vs. the protection of a (potential) human life require a lot of appeal to a priori moral concepts; cannot be resolved solely by appeal to empirical reasoning; and are likely to rest ultimately on fundamental moral axioms that differ strongly between people. Ask lots of intelligent like minded people with similar information about the world what matters more – a human life or a person’s control over their own body, and I think you have a debate on your hands very similar to the metaphysical debate over God. Admittedly there are empirical disputes to be had as well (‘is it a life?), but that’s the same as for the God debate (’to what extent do we have evidence that the events recorded in religious texts are to some degree accurate?). The same is true of any debate that weighs up compelling but competing moral claims – the right of a child or the right of a parent? the rights of the individual or the rights of those who live around him? the right of political minorities, vs. the rights of the majority or vs. the right of ethnic minorities (e.g. debates about banning far-right parties). Should all debates take place in a metaethical, as well as a metaphysical vacuum?

Separately though, many congratulations on reaching the final, and hard luck on not getting quite the motion/position you might have hoped for.

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