On Dialectical Success

In “An Ontological Argument for Polytheism”, Walking the Worlds 2.2 (Summer 2016), I said that an “[a]rgument will be called dialectically successful if (i) its conclusion follows from its premises, (ii) its premises do not beg the question and (iii) it is not subject to parody,” (44).

I stand by this. But, what does it mean to ‘beg the question’? I’d like to spend some time thinking about condition (ii), especially as it will clear the runway for posts lined up next.

To begin, then, consider that an argument is a set of statements of which one (the conclusion) is thought to follow from the others (the premises).

Arguments are inherently conditional: they do not even attempt to show that their premises are true, they merely assert that they are and identify what follows given this assumption.

To show that the premises of one argument are true, you could appeal to another argument. But this second argument will do the same thing as the first and merely assert a collection of premises, thereby replacing or compiling one set of assumptions with another. And if you were to think that the third time is the charm and appeal to yet another argument, you will only add a third layer of assumptions to the pile of merely asserted statements. So long as you continue this process of appealing to arguments so as to show that premises are true, it will go on ad infinitum.

Or so it might seem. But this will depend on what is meant by “showing” that something is true. In the above sense, it is not a matter of revealing to one what she is unwittingly committed to, given things that she already believes. Nor is it, in a similar vein, a matter of getting one to realize that she actually believes something already – such as if she didn’t want to admit it. This is because if it were a matter of either of these sorts of things, then the process would not have to go on ad infinitum: a set of premises could eventually be reached which are discovered to already be believed or committed to.

By contrast, the above sense is about changing someone’s mind; altering their perspective, or otherwise causing them to see something new. A sort of unveiling, not of what is already in another (such as a belief, disposition, or commitment), but of what has hitherto been (information, initial contact). It’s a difference between discovering and implanting; between showing someone what they already see and showing them what you see. How deep this division cuts is another question – perhaps they are really just the same thing at the end of the day.

But, for our purposes, the apparent distinction is instructive, for the rules of propriety change depending on what the argument is intended to accomplish.

If the argument is being used to show someone what they see (whether occurrent, or subconsciously), one must appeal to premises that are already believed (in whichever respective sense). This is the whole point of the argument in this case, so to speak: to find premises that are already believed. Were one to instead assert premises to another whether or not she believes them, the exercise would become deeply confused and practically irrational.

By contrast, if the argument is being used to show someone what they do not yet see (even indirectly or by extension), you cannot appeal (exclusively) to premises that are already believed. You must appeal to at least on premise which the person does not yet believe in.

How you can get someone to believe something just by asserting it is one question; how you can get them to believe something rationally just by asserting it is another. Perhaps there is an element of self-evidence required, but whatever the case, if someone does not believe the asserted premise, she cannot be compelled to its conclusion: arguments are only ever conditional.

From all this I want to risk platitude and draw a lesson on the propriety of dialogue and debate: each of us is only ever beholden to what we believe. I am not accountable for what you believe, or what you are committed to based on what you believe, and vice versa. So, if you present an argument, be sure that your interlocutor believes the premises! Otherwise, all you’re doing is sharing with them what you believe; reporting your psychology, rather than giving them any reason to agree with you. That is, all you’re doing is begging the question. Likewise, if an argument is presented to you, ask only what is being claimed and whether you believe it. If the argument is premised on things you do not already believe, it begs the question and is of little relevance to you.

This will all become concrete in upcoming posts where I dissect various objections to polytheism and find that they are not dialectically successful because they baldly assert things to polytheists which they have no reason to agree with. In essence, they beg the question: they object to polytheism by reasoning from, say, monotheism, which of course gives polytheists no reason at all to change their mind.

Let this serve then as a prolegomena of sorts to future posts (perhaps even as their lemma), as well as an exhortation to all those involved in these types of discussions (polytheists and non-polytheists alike) to strive for dialectical success and raise the quality of discourse.

As we await submissions for the new series, the first up will be an application of all this, where I take the classical monotheists to task. Buckle up Thomists, and get ready for the other side of the story.

Stay tuned!


One thought on “On Dialectical Success

  1. Pingback: Classical Theism: The Other Side of the Story | The Analytic Pagan

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