Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Uses of Argumentation

One thing people do a lot is argue. It's ubiquity suggests that it has significant adaptive value. To my mind, the most important component of this value is the Platonic argument: argument as a tool for discovering the truth. That principle is the basis of our legal system as well as a critical component of scientific reasoning - the idea of testing a proposition against the alternatives. A related, but quite distinct, purpose is persuasion, or getting others to sign on to a course of action one wishes.

A couple of other common uses, IMHO deservedly in lower repute, are point scoring and proclaiming tribal affiliation. The aim of point scoring is to make somebody else look bad, while proclaiming tribal affiliation is the verbal or literary equivalent of the gang tattoo. "I'm a conservative, so I don't believe anthropogenic climate change is real," for example.

Even though real world arguments often contain all four of these elements, I think it make sense to distinguish them. Insult, for example, is a reliable indicator that you are in category 3 and 4 territory. Even more indicative is a disinclination to address the contrary logic and fact.