Debates, the Earth’s shape, etc

This entry has been stuck in draft mode for weeks, so I think I’ll just post it as is.

Recently, I read Carrier’s account of a team debate on the existence of God that he did in 2004, and it started me wondering just how one gets through such an ordeal. I can’t imagine agreeing to such a context without an assuredly impartial moderator willing to adhere to strict rules about ad hominem. As in, “Whoever uses ad hominem attacks the least automatically wins the debate,” or “Repeated use of ad hominem will surrender the remaining speaking time to the opponent” (And when I say ad hominem, I mean attacks on character that are not conceivably relevant to the line of argument, as it is possible to use that particular rhetorical maneuver in a justifible fashion). Then again, where does one find the virtue of impartiality in America? The Supreme Court, supposedly filled with the best judges we have available, only has one, Kennedy, that regularly defies partisanship. In short, while I feel religion should be a frequent matter of public debate, sometimes I think American culture – even on a college campus – doesn’t have the civility to be up to the task.

There’s this stubborn Western concept that you’re supposed to be able to defend your ideas, and successful defense means that your ideas are strengthened. This has always struck me as a bit silly. An idea is no “better” after a written or oral defense than it was before. There are more available reasons to attach to the idea in question, of course – some kind of persuasion has taken place, and it is now colored by additional claims that put it in a favorable light – but the idea remains unchanged. As I have heard Michael Leff say (heavily, heavily paraphrased) truth still matters in rhetoric. An impassioned argument against the spherical shape of the Earth may persuade someone to believe the Earth is flat, but that does not make the Earth flat. Furthermore – and just as important a point – a good argument for the Earth being round does not make the Earth round. The Earth’s roundness (or non-roundness) is stubbornly independent of pro and con argumentation.

This has been a longwinded attempt to say that we argue about what reality we choose to believe, not what reality is.

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