2 min read

Hollow Arguments

Many online discussions go nowhere because people never actually engage with the substance of the argument. I have had several exchanges of the following form. Say my initial argument is this classic syllogism:

  • All men are mortal.
  • Socrates is a man.
  • Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
  • Someone who disagrees with me will say, “Socrates is not mortal.” Why? I ask. Do you disagree with one of the premises? Or do you have a problem with the logic of moving from the premises to the conclusion? “Well, you just can’t say Socrates is mortal.”

    People want to argue with the conclusion. But they don’t want to argue about the substance of the argument that leads to that conclusion. Which is completely baffling to me. And they haven’t formulated an argument in favor of their conclusion either.

    If you press them, you get strange, ethereal responses. Why do you think that Socrates isn’t mortal? “Well, I wasn’t around to see him die.” This is just a non-sequitur. Or, “his ideas have lasted for thousands of years.” This is just an intentional misreading of the original argument – no one said anything about ideas. Or, “how can you be so certain that Socrates was mortal?” I didn’t mention anything about my level of certainty (although it’s quite high); I’m making a claim based on certain assumptions and simple deductive logic. "So-and-so disagrees with you." So? "You're being irrational." Then demonstrate my irrationality. "If only you really understood how the brain works, you would see that you're wrong." Then point out what I don't understand. Or they will revert back to “I just really don’t think he was mortal,” which simply restates their claim again.

    It's common to blame “motivated reasoning” for exchanges like this. People start from the conclusion they want to reach and then attempt to construct some support for that conclusion. And I think that can play a role.

    But there’s another problem: many people never learn how to argue. They think that arguing is just about making opposing claims rather than analyzing and critiquing the arguments themselves. The conclusion is not the argument – it's just a result of the arguments supporting it. Denying the conclusion without engaging with its supporting arguments is not arguing at all. It’s just repetitively saying, “no, you’re wrong” in a variety of ways.

    Of course, most arguments are considerably more complex than our syllogism – involving different forms of evidence, interrelated claims and warrants, specialized language, and various unstated assumptions. It can be difficult to see that you are just denying the conclusions without actually arguing.

    Properly arguing complex cases is also exhausting. Much easier to stick to "talking points". The best arguments deepen our understanding of the issues at hand. You can't do that by skating over the surface.