The Art of Argument

Let us suppose that we are anthropologists from another planet, visiting earth in order to learn about this complex life form called a human being. All of the earth’s political views, metaphysical views, traditions and culture would be, well, quite alien to such visitors from outer space. They would be objective observers of the human species, without a dog in any argument or controversy.

Now, let us suppose that we direct our alien technology and scientific instruments towards an understanding of this human phenomenon called a “debate,” or “intellectual argumentation.” I don’t mean an argument over who washed the dishes last; I mean an argument like what justice is, or morality, or the best economic system for earth’s citizens. Why do the slightly evolved apes argue? What’s the purpose?

Well, on the surface level, judging by what the participants may say, humans engage in debate and argumentation in order to arrive at truth. “Let’s hear your evidence; I’m quite rational and able to change my opinion should you present a logical reason for me to do so.”

The philosopher Socrates said that his greatest benefactor would be the individual who could show him why he was wrong about something, could teach him truth. Truth is the stated aim, the goal of all conversation. Without the implicit goal of truth, why waste time arguing?

Now, all scientists–including alien scientists–use empirical evidence to arrive at conclusions; words are not enough. What do the humans actually do when arguing? We must observe actual conversations in order to see this. What do we see?

We would see individuals entering a conversation without the slightest intent of hearing another person’s actual views. We would see frequent interruptions, so that a person’s full view cannot even be heard. We’d hear cheap, unfair misrepresentations of views in order to gain support from those who already agree with us.

The British philosopher, writer, and humanist A.C. Grayling writes:

It is quite hard sometimes to hear things. We make ourselves deaf and blind by means of our unrecognized prejudices and assumptions. We acquire such rooted ways of thinking about the world, such natural prejudices, natural blindfolds and earplugs, bad mental habits, that we too often do not see and hear things we ought to if we are to get the rounded picture.

If intelligence involves the ability to change views upon the disclosure of evidence or superior argument, than we’d have to conclude that most human beings are not very intelligent. We’d have to conclude that argument really serves as a means to bolstering self-esteem, solidifying identity in a tribe, and enacting personal vengeance on another person through ad hominem and stereotyping.

…well, I’ve seen enough. Time to fly back home and let the monkeys fight it out.

Ah, but I’m not really an alien at all. I’m a human being and I love all things human; I want to recognize my own deficiencies and help my fellow brothers and sisters so that together we can become something more than what we currently are.

And that’s precisely the goal of the Apotheosis project: to form a community around real philosophy: the study of human excellence and its actual practice in the real world.

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