Exhibiting a disciplined and sound set of ethics during argument is a key indicator of high intelligence. Argument is a spiritual endeavor after all. There are twelve steps to sobering one’s self from the addiction of always appearing to be right. Key attributes of discussion that serve to earmark a quest for actual knowledge, as opposed to the loosh of utterly destroying an opponent.
Given that we outlined the Art of Pseudo-Argument in our last article, I thought it would be appropriate to outlay those elements of discourse which I believe provide for the most effective form of arguing. Several of my loyal Twitter followers even broached this very question. Therefore, bear in mind that this article outlines the traits of effective or dialectic arguing and not necessarily the structure of a sound argument.1 Those are two different things. These features of sound arguing serve to underpin the goal of ascertaining knowledge, or communicating the past and future critical path of research, if not knowledge itself.
You may notice that these twelve elements do not pertain to the intoxicating rush of a Schopenhauer-esque need to always be found right. Nor do they pertain to the Hegelian notion of arriving at the truth by stating a thesis, developing a contradictory antithesis, and combining and resolving them into a coherent synthesis. These notions developed by Schopenhauer and Hegel constitute Pollyanna views of the readiness of most domains of inquiry to support and vet a claim to resolution in the first place. The context for our argument herein regards subjects which are murky in comparison, and for various reasons (most often obfuscation or our not knowing what we do not know) have, other than from a simpleton’s perspective, eluded true consensus.
Thus, without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, The Ethical Skeptic’s Fabric of Sound Argument.
I. Articulate your opponent’s actual position, even if they are not skilled at doing so
The first priority during an argument’s inception is to understand your opponent’s position. The reason why this is necessary as a first step, is that this allows you to detect the situation where the arguer’s sole point is ‘You are an idiot’ (coercive religious argument camouflaged in extensive rhetoric). Such is not really an argument at all, and finding out that this shallow depth of thought, constitutes the sole objective or cache the arguer has to offer, saves one from a complete waste of time.
Avoid inflammatory buzzwords (pseudoscience, anti-______, woo, believer, etc.) to describe your opponent’s position. This is a large warning flag that there is not much going on inside you intellectually. As with all warning flags of this nature, you are typically the last one to realize it.
One may employ a steel man tactic here, provided it is not conducted in an insulting manner. A steel man argument is simply one in which you help you opponent articulate their position in a clearer manner, or at the very least, a manner which will bear utility in the putative upcoming discussion. Exploiting your opponent’s inability to articulate a point, in order to embarrass them, is not a valid method of improving knowledge nor alleviating suffering.
Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.~ Marie Curie
II. Resist the temptation to imbibe in the loosh of embarrassing or insulting an honest opponent
If your opponent is sincerely in the business of probing truth, don’t seek a goal of destroying them by means of your accrued wisdom and skill in argument, simply because they may disagree. In contrast, loosh is an addictive spiritual intoxicant derived from the instance wherein one enjoys causing the suffering of a higher order being, especially one of an unblemished, young, virginal, or innocent nature. Although an example in the extreme, a serial killer is a being who has fully succumbed to the addictive nature of loosh. They draw power from imparting terror in and the specter of death upon their victims. For most other people however, observing mere discomfort through social embarrassment (epicaricacy) or harm to an opponent’s career will suffice. You can detect them by the focus of their argument. Is it truth, or is it you? Despite constituting a mild form thereof, one who seeks knowledge earnestly, falls into a category of innocence.
‘Turning the other cheek’ is not simply a beattitude mandating niceness to others. Rather it is the signature spiritual rejection of loosh, both as a currency expended in lieu of faith, and as a passport indicating citizenship inside a vast dark Kingdom fueled by its addiction.
If you catch the scent of loosh on your opponent’s breath, block them and move on. Where one is corrupt in their skepticism, there also they will be corrupt in their heart.~ The Ethical Skeptic
This does not mean you need to be nice to everyone, but it does mandate discernment. If a person researches dishonestly, argues dishonestly, or seeks harm, these are all really manifestations of the same thing. No matter what act they may put on. Let them know this and depart the argument. One is either seeking knowledge or hungering for loosh as a self-priority, and there is not much in the way of overlap between the two. Detecting a person motivated by the latter (and even deceiving themselves in this regard) is a fairly easy task for an ethical skeptic. Degrees, credentials, authority, humor – these things do not confer immunity from this mandate. Everyone gets frustrated at times, but we all will eventually revert back to that which constitutes our essential nature. Don’t hide your allegiance to Antifa or hate for your fellow citizen, your character will still be betrayed (along with its dishonest veneer) through your habits of argument.
Make a habit of two things, to help; or at least to do no harm.~ Hippocrates
III. Clarify the semantics – neutralize ambiguity, amphibology, and equivocation
One should try and set forth a Wittgenstein level grounding of what specific terms and phrases mean. Always leave little room for undefined concepts, dual interpretations (amphibology), or equivocation. For instance, terms/phrases such as ‘proof’, ‘rationality’, ‘credulity’, ‘the evidence’, ‘hypothesis’, or ‘bias’ connote different things at differing points or situations inside scientific deliberation. A charlatan will exploit the large footprint of such terms to self-aggrandize and place unreasonable epistemic demands upon their opponent. Moreover, the use of terms as weapons essentially guarantees that the conversant has no desire to learn anything. If you encounter this, end the discussion immediately and let the other party retreat back into their hole.
Above all, don’t employ ‘Occam’s Razor‘. If you don’t know why, you probably should not be undertaking an argument to begin with.
Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.~ Ludwig Wittgenstein
IV. Understand that evidence is a domain and not merely a set
Evidence is rarely constrained only to the set of things which the conversants personally know, nor really even to the set of all things observed by science or humanity. Evidence is a domain which man rarely penetrates very far, if at all. It is not a set, outside of which a convenient appeal to ignorance can be leveraged. Ask your opponent how much of the observable domain as been indeed detected and measured by science to date. Odds are that this is both a paltry amount, and as well consists mostly of linear inductive guessing. If the critical path question at hand is ‘Why does the ocean horizon appear to be curved?’, well then we are 99.9999% through that evidence domain. Unfortunately, most areas of human deliberation are not this well researched and vetted. If a topic’s evidence domain has been about 1% researched, and all inference is merely suggestive – then no claim based upon ‘the evidence’ can be made by either party. Make this clear in your deliberation. Do not allow premature inference and fanaticism to rule the day.
A person’s vehemence in opinion is inversely proportional to that which is actually known about the domain in question.~ The Ethical Skeptic
V. Avoid ‘is likely’ and ‘could plausibly be’ positions in favor of epoché (silent neutrality)
Always favor the dispassionate and quiet neutrality of epoché over hasty linear inductive inference. The second Gulf War in Iraq was driven by linear inductive arguments as to weapons of mass destruction being secretly developed by Saddam Hussein. Rumor, individual speculation, circumstantial evidence, machined parts dug up in yards, oddly designed factories, along with a pinch of confirmation bias – all combined into a recipe for inferring an invalid conclusion that specific weapons were being made.
Induction is that form of inference panned by philosopher Karl Popper in his work, The Problem of Induction; and while being somewhat in backtrack today, induction remains a problematic means of inferring a final conclusion. In contrast with deduction, induction is a method of explaining as much as it is one of describing. The difficulty resides in that most of our contentious issues of science, have been researched by inductive and not deductive means. One can pretty much ‘prove’ anything within reason by means of linear induction. Be cautious as to how far induction (‘likely is’ conjecture used in lieu of actual science) can be used to drive home a preferred conclusion.
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.~ Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
Only describe, don’t explain.
Even worse than linear inductive inference, is inference from a standpoint of plausible deniability. One can fabricate an entire cosmology and religion from the inverse negation of plausible deniability. If your opponent decides that he or she can armchair debunk an entire panorama of ideas by merely dreaming up a plausible means as to why each is invalid (panduction), you are not really dealing with the sharpest tool in the drawer. Plausible deniability is just one step removed from divine revelation. Depart the discussion immediately, as persons who conduct this type of fanciful conjecture are merely wasting your time with an exercise in self-aggrandizement.
The important thing is that we maintain plausible deniability.~ Richard M. Nixon
VI. Favor deductive, consilient and falsifying evidence over linear inductive suggestion
This is the only time during a discussion where logical consequence, proof theory, and model theory (e.g. ‘ if p => then q‘, quod erat demonstrandum, logical versus semantic truth, p-values, etc.) can come into play. Beware of those who use this structured approach to argument outside the context of deduction and falsification. They are conducting sophistry. Such fake deliberation is depicted in the graphic to the right, in the forms of panduction, abduction, and cleverly leveraged linear induction. It goes without saying, that a sound arguer should avoid panduction (and even abduction for the most part), for this is the habituated practice of the debunker.
Deduction is the process of inference which reduces (or deducts from) the set of reasonable possibilities/hypothesis features. Consilience is the property wherein several disparate avenues of investigation all triangulate upon common answer. Finally falsification is the white crow moment, when an entire idea can be released from consideration because it has been conclusively shown to be invalid or no longer salient to the argument at hand (see ‘critical path’, below).
Six friends do I trust, six friends I know true, their names are what, where, and when, how, why, and who.~ Kipling, Bacon, Jefferson, et. al.
So goes the famous quip attributed loosely to Kipling, Bacon, and/or Jefferson. For me however, of even more importance is the additional rhyme I crafted:
Four inferences of sound ranking will good evidence produce, to falsify, deduct, triangulate, and induce.~ The Ethical Skeptic
Always examine the strength of inference first, as a priority over ‘drilling-down on the data’. A treasure trove of less-examined wealth often resides therein. One can possess absolutely pristine and reliable data, and be able to infer absolutely nothing from it save for mild suggestion. Such is the more common circumstance in professional deception plaguing today’s social discourse around science.
But the quick inference, the subtle trap, the clever forecast of coming events, the triumphant vindication of bold theories – are these not the pride and the justification of our life’s work?~ Sherlock Holmes, The Valley of Fear – Arthur Conan Doyle
VII. Constrain the discussion to the critical path of inquiry
A critical path is a concept employed inside systems theory and complex program management. The critical path is the sequence of events or questions upon which the entire outcome of events, or their final conclusions depend. It is the ‘thin red line’ of an avenue of investigation or prosecution of an inquiry. It is the ‘prosecution’ which a legal counsel employs in a court of law. Everything aside from the critical path becomes moot under an objection which is sustained by the presiding court.
The critical path is the sequence of questions which must be answered (as opposed to ‘would be nice if we could answer’), and answered in the correct order, as the means to arrive at a sound conclusion. Watch quietly for persons, organizations, or scientists who meticulously avoid ‘must be answered’ questions or observations (methodical deescalation). They are not honest, no matter how much ‘science’ they may appear to do. In theory, every other question or issue which does not reside upon the critical path is either rhetorical, ignoratio elenchi, red herring, out of correct sequence, or irrelevant.
Keep your focus on this ‘shining pathway of success’ as I like to call it with my strategy clients, and eventually you will be able to spot the time-wasters and pretenders at play – regardless of their credentials and purported authority. You will also become a better presenter and casual conversant.
The best way to succeed is to have a specific Intent, a clear Vision, a plan of Action, and the ability to maintain Clarity. Those are the Four Pillars of Success.~ Steve Maraboli, Life, the Truth, and Being Free
VIII. Avoid appealing to the popularity of an idea or employing social pressure in order to persuade
An appeal to popularity, or ‘what scientists think’, or an attempt to imply that your opponent is socially unsophisticated because they do not appear to know what everyone else knows, is a weak method of argument. The very ethic and purpose of argument is to shatter widely accepted myth in the first place. Don’t fall back on such a crutch, because not only is the form of argument weak – but it demonstrates your weakness as well. Neither should you allow your opponent to leverage such appeals. Many people never get out of high school emotionally. You harm both your ability to communicate an idea, as well as persuade, through such rhetorical artifice.
An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.~ Oscar Wilde
IX. Avoid rhetoric, but acknowledge when you do broach it
Rhetoric is ‘an answer looking for its next question’, the special pleading of using any and all available means of pathos persuasion, aside from that which is actually important. For example, citing that a hypothesis will ‘offend a research host nation’ or ‘is racist against an ancient culture’ constitute bogus and desperate attempts to persuade. However, sometimes a rhetorical device is useful in illuminating a side issue in a debate. If you undertake such a process, make it clear that you are citing a special case, per hoc aditum, or presenting a rhetorical argument. This will place a check upon your opponent’s ability to surreptitiously employ rhetoric against you at a later time, as you both will be able to detect its abuse.
You can sway a thousand men by appealing to their prejudices quicker than you can convince one man by logic.~ Robert A. Heinlein, Revolt in 2100/Methuselah’s Children
X. Acknowledge speculation or when you personally don’t hold the qualifications or answer to something
Acknowledge when you do not bear the qualifications or knowledge level to answer a specific question. As well, make it clear when you are speculating on an outcome, scenario, or answer. This will engender trust in your opponent and encourage them to do the same. If you speculate, acknowledge that your speculation might bear fewer constraints than would reality. Everyone claims to know how the Great Pyramid of Khufu was built, but few have actually built a structure of such scale in their life. Pull out only that inference which is potentially useful, or even set the conjecture aside as lacking utility if needed.
Here we begin frank speculation. And since we are speculating, we’ll use those powerful pseudo-laws, the Principles of Mediocrity and Minimal Assumption.~ Yanis Varoufakis, Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternative Present
XI. Rarely force argument to a conclusion – rather make it clear when you are resisting a forced conclusion
Unless you possess a strong cache of deductive evidence sufficient to drive home a conclusion, odds are that the reason you are embroiled in an argument to begin with is because someone else is pushing a fatalistic and agenda-based conclusion of their own. Make it clear that you are not enforcing one single answer, but rather opposing the enforcement of an unsound answer upon people who might not know any better. Oppressive voices always contend that there is one equivocal answer which must be adhered to. Need an example for this? – simply watch any official syndicate news outlet or one of their sycophant trolls on Twitter. There is only one answer, and they possess it – guaranteed (see Element #2 above as well).
Don’t employ apothegms such as ‘Occam’s Razor’, ‘Poe’s Law’, or ‘Hanlon’s Razor’ to force a conclusion – as this is the methodology of a pathos-only arguer. You quietly gain no respect through such short-cuts, and often are the last person to perceive this.
If your opponent has the courage to contend that you are attempting to force a contrary position, ask them to steel man your position for you. In such an instance, the odds are very high that they will not be able to do so. Give them points for even trying.
There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.~ Alfred North Whitehead
XII. The argument should end with both parties hungering for more research on the matter
Finally, both you and your opponent should bear a renewed hunger to research the issue under deliberation to a further extent. An ethical arguer might even suggest a reconvening of the discussion at another time – in order to deliberate over what you each found in your work.
There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance – that principle is contempt prior to investigation.~ English Philosopher, Herbert Spencer
Do I succeed at employing these elements every time I have a discussion or argument? No, I fall very short most of the time. These are the things to which an ethical skeptic aspires. Faith is the portrait of our life we paint inside the frame of objective reason. One of the purposes of life is to bring unity between what we aspire to have that portrait be, and what life crafts that portrait into becoming (aka integrity). This is a process of learning, hard knocks, along with some successes.
Through using these elements, not only will you find that you have some successes, but you will also find trusted companionship along your journey as well.
The Ethical Skeptic, “The Fabric of Sound (Dialectic) Argument”; The Ethical Skeptic, WordPress, 29 Oct 2021; Web, https://theethicalskeptic.com/?p=53998
- The Ethical Skeptic; “The Nature of Argument”; 5 Jan 2016; https://theethicalskeptic.com/2016/01/05/the-nature-of-argument/
“[…] one who seeks knowledge earnestly, falls into a category of innocence.” What a beautiful statement. I remember an instance from my school days when someone tried to imbibe in the loosh (never heard that term before, what a strange concept …) by acting superior to a very nice girl with a more religious background than was usual for most students, arrogantly spouting the same old (technically true but o so tired) big Atheism stuff that was so clever to him and his intended audience and so obviously meant to humiliate her that even my quite non-religious friends were so… Read more »
Yeah – I may modify the language to be ‘Schopenhauer-esque’ so that the contrast is manifest.