Arguments That Defeat Arguments

One of the first things I blogged here concerned my dismay and scorn of self-defeating arguments. I quote myself:

The lamest arguments of all are those which, if true, would make argument impossible. If there were to be a litmus test for a functioning mind, this would be it: if you make an argument which, if valid, proves that argument is impossible, FAIL!

Examples are alarmingly common. Short and sweet:

There is no truth. I am all that is.

Slightly longer:

Free will does not exist (in the words of Lucy, then why are you telling me?).  Truth is unknowable. We can’t know if we are sleeping or awake.

Most of the more long-winded self-eradicating arguments are really based on nothing more sophisticated than these. Often, there’s an implied nod and a wink in there as well – oh, sure, I know that if I claim their is no truth (in however roundabout a way that claim is made), there’s no point to this (or any other) argument, but, hey, we really know that what I mean is that there’s no point to THEIR arguments, you know, the ones that are mean and would lead one to conclude that MY world view is, well, STUPID.

It’s vanishingly rare to see that level of clarity.

So, we hereby declare: if your argument either leads to or is premised on the impossibility or meaninglessness of argument, then – shut up. Go home. Rethink your decision-making paradigm.

A variation on this theme came again to my attention:

“You can’t make that argument because it concerns Group X and you belong to Group Y!”

This is commonly flung at men who argue against abortion.(1) It is one  usually made with anger or a smirk, its devastating effect assumed to be unanswerable. Well, it is unanswerable, at least in any rational sense, because if one believes that mere group membership determines ability to understand and communicate, then, guess what? We’re all, ultimately, a community of one with a unique set of experiences and perspective and – so we can’t argue or even talk to each other rationally. This group membership ‘argument’ is a specific rejection of any appeal to an objective reality we both share. Thus, reason dies.

And, foolish and ignorant children that we mostly are, few of us see that, once reason is out of the way, it’s the law of the jungle all the way down.(2)  They are so sure they are enlightened and good, better, for sure, than all who disagree with them, that the hoped for future in which they rule supreme will of necessity be a paradise. Those pure and vigorous champions of this cause, if they succeed, will, like the paladins of the French and Russian revolutions before them, most likely have their heads separated from their shoulders – by their fellow revolutionaries. A 4-year-old playing games with his buddy learns that not everybody can be in charge all the time. These putative grown ups will relearn this the hard way.

  1. This particular assertion is idiotic on another level: millions of women think abortion is wrong, for exactly the same reasons millions of men do. Well? If I make an argument also made by millions of women, doesn’t dismissing the argument insult and disrespect those women, too? Sorry, slipped up and was appealing to reason, there.
  2. Probably accounts for the weird interest in painting Nature as a benevolent goddess  in the face of all contrary evidence. Many of us seem to sense on some unconscious level that by rejecting reason we’re asking for the law of the jungle, and therefore want to amend that law into something less tyrannical and blood-drenched.