Daniel Schut on debating metaphysics

Notes 1 and 2: “Debating metaphysics: what do we think we are doing?” and “Reasoning is uncovering common ground“.

Last summer a large discussion was held on Facebook, Twitter and SevenTwenty on the motion of the ESL final of Euros: This House Believes that God exists. More than just a debate about whether this was a good motion to set at an Euros final, the discussion revolved around a far more intriguing question: is the activity we call parliamentary debating suited to tackle metaphysical questions such as the existence of God, or should we limit ourselves to discussing questions about the political process? Former Euros and Worlds ESL-finalist Daniel Schut believed at the time that we should not debate metaphysics. In the following notes he will expand on his reasoning, and give us a very thorough explanation about whether “This House would, or would not debate metaphysics”.

These notes are the first in a series. SevenTwenty will publish Daniël’s articles as soon as they become available through Facebook, where many other debaters join the discussion. For his introduction to the subject, look here.

Debating metaphysics: What do we think we are doing?

Martha Stewart is one of the most persuasive people on the planet. Kmart is more than happy to sell the ‘Martha Stewart Everyday’-products she pushes through every media channel of hers. The Ernst & Julio Winery did their best to sign a deal with her back in 2007 to enable them to sell Martha Stewart Vintage. Both of them know: whatever Martha promotes, sells like mad.

Yet, to the best of my knowledge, Martha Stewart was never a debater. And suppose she does enter a tournament, then I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t be able to hold a candle to Ben Woolgar (best speaker WUDC 2012), Victor Finkel (best speaker WUDC 2011), Shengwu Li (best speaker WUDC 2010) and many other great debaters.

This is puzzling. We claim the competitive game of debating is all about ‘persuasion’. But what do we mean with this inocuous word ‘persuasion’? Professor Daniel O‘Keefe, an expert in the social psychology of persuasion, defines it as “a succesful intentional effort at influencing another’s mental state through communication in a circumstance in which the persuadee has some measure of freedom” (O’Keefe, 2002, p. 7). If we use this definition, debaters pale next to TV-personalities like Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey, or advertising geniuses like David Ogilvy and the Saatchi brothers. They succeed where no debater has: they reach the masses and persuade them not only to think something, but also to feel and do something.

In the jargon of social psychology: they succeed in changing attitudes and behaviors of people. We debaters generally don’t do this. If the masses were to actually tune into a webcast of a WUDC-final, they’d be bored stiff within thirty seconds. Where we see briliant arguments and smart debate-strategy, the masses hear verbosity and intellectual chicanery.

Yet, if persuasion really is whatever Martha Stewart does, we won’t have any of it. This game of ours is apparently not about reaching the masses and changing hearts, minds and behaviors. We like the game as it is: smart, knowledgeable people getting together to argue about important, interesting subjects. Then what does this have to do with persuasion?

I put forth that we debaters are mostly interested in a very specific, small subfield of persuasion. We’re interested in the kind of persuasion that involves conscious, elaborative thinking. The kind of thinking that engages with difficult questions, like “is democracy morally superior to any other form of government?”, not “what wine shall we drink tonight?”. The kind of thinking also, that engages with questions that are relevant to society, not just us personally, like “should abortion be allowed?”, not “should I become I lawyer or not?”.

For lack of a better word, I call this small subfield of persuasion ‘reason’. It’s reasoning (the verb from which the nominalization ‘reason’ comes) we, as a community, like to do. Not selling, not manipulating, not copywriting – reasoning. Obiously, that begs the question: what is reasoning?

Reasoning is uncovering common ground

Reasoning means providing reasons for a motion, with the aim of making this motion acceptable to someone else, thus creating an instance of a discursive situation. That ‘someone else’ can either be an audience, an interlocutor, a refuter or an opponent, depending on the specific discursive situation.

Let’s first look at the basic dialectical situation (a full glossary will follow after the series has ended). If someone in a dialectical context sincerely wants to persuade his interlocutor, he is practically limited in the types of reasons he can provide for his beliefs and actions. To see why this is so, consider a dialectical situation between a conservative christian and someone else. The conservative christian wants to persuade his interlocutor that abortion is wrong. The first reason he provides is ‘because god forbids it’. This won’t be effective though: his interlocutor happens to be an atheist, so doesn’t believe in the existence of god, so any reason that is based on god’s presumed existence falls flat.

Suppose they both are willing to continue the discussion in a civilized manner. Now, the conservative christian will probably think of another reason. Maybe something like “an unborn child is potentially a fully autonomous person. We generally don’t accept autonomous persons killing other autonomous persons, therefore we shouldn’t also accept autonomous persons killing other potentially autonomous persons”. This has a higher chance of being acceptable to the interlocutor, because the argument is based on premises she (probably) finds acceptable, whilst at the same time still being acceptable to the original proponent.

So, for reasons to be persuasive, they need to be intersubjectively acceptable – acceptable to both the proponent and the interlocutor. Note that there is nothing stopping the proponent from offering reasons that are not intersubjectively acceptable: he can continue offering his own, not-intersubjectively acceptable reasons if he wants – the likely consequence is that he won’t persuade his interlocutor.

Trying to offer reasons that are intersubjectively acceptable is a demanding mental effort: each proponent needs to construct a mental model of the interlocutor to be able to craft reasons that are intersubjectively acceptable. This ‘constructed interlocutor’ consists of an approximation of the acceptable premises the actual interlocutor holds. Through the ongoing process of assertions and questioning, proponents continuously check whether their constructed interlocutor is an accurate mental model of their actual interlocutor.

Through this process of continuously offering reasons and checking whether the other side finds these based on acceptable premises, the participants are slowly uncovering a set of intersubjectively acceptable premises that they can use as criteria for persuasion. Once such a common ground is found, it can be used to decide whether the proponent ‘wins’ this dialectical exchange: does the common ground provide sufficient justification for the motion to be acceptable, and thus for the interlocutor to be persuaded?

So, reasoning starts with proponents offering reasons acceptable to their counterpart(s) and ends with a common ground: a set of intersubjectively acceptable premises discussants can use as criteria for persuasion. What does this idea of a common ground mean for debating as a competitive game?

If you want to join the discussion, please do so below or on Facebook, where Daniel posts these notes directly.

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