A thought experiment…

…inspired by reading and participating in blog and Usenet arguments over the years.

Let’s stipulate that there is a Subject A, and that to fully understand that subject, one needs to know 1000 things.

If Person X knows 100 of these things, then he understands enough to discuss the subject at length with some detail, but not enough to really understand the subject. He understands the subject better than Person Y, though, who knows only three of the 1000 things.

Then there’s Person Z, who knows 100 things about Subject A, but a completely different 100 than Person X knows.

Now, a potential pitfall of getting into an argument is that it can harden your position on the subject being argued. And once you’ve hardened your mind, you’re more likely to doubt any evidence that challenges the position you’ve taken and believe any evidence that supports it.

If Person X and Person Y argue, clearly Person X is the more knowledgeable of the two of them, and will probably “win” the argument. But does that mean Person X is right? After all, there are 900 things about the subject Person X doesn’t know. And if Person X takes his victory in the argument to mean that he is right, and as a consequence hardens his mind against learning the 900 things he does not yet know, then is that really a victory?

If Person X and Person Z argue, how can they find the common ground they would need to engage each other in a discussion? They each see Subject A from a completely different angle, and, although each knows as much as the other about the subject, they don’t recognize it. In the usual case, these arguments end with accusations that the other person is dishonest, deluded, ignorant, or nonsensical.

I believe that these problems can be solved at least in part by humility about the limits of our own knowledge and a willingness to ask the other person questions that would help illuminate their point of view. It’s a harder path, and God knows I rarely take it myself, but I do think it’s the only way to make the argument give off light rather than just heat. (With people who argue like this, though — and they are out there — there’s not much you can do.)

What do y’all think?

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4 Responses to “A thought experiment…”

  1. Spillmann Says:

    The internet provides the false illusion of anonymity. With no sense of accountability and identity, humility flies out the window. Asking for humility on the internet is like asking for asking Nebraska to run a WAC offense.

    Nice idea, though. If if happened, maybe RSFC wouldn’t suck.

  2. Steve Says:

    Daryl: I agree that anonymity is a big part of it. Sock puppets have no real-life existence, so they can say anything they want to say without reality checks.

    Also, flaming away takes less work and can satisfy more quickly than a thoughtful discussion (just as junk food is easier and tastier than real food). I believe that most people who write on the Internet do it either for entertainment or stress relief. Humility rarely provides either one.

  3. Spillmann Says:

    Oh, I don’t know. Humility, may not provide entertainment, but I can see it being a source of stress relief.

    Next time you find yourself in the position of being humbled (ie. losing an internet argument), ask yourself if it’s load off your shoulder, or if you’re going to stay bitter and keep arguing because your pride won’t let you stop.

    Opening yourself and showing your weakness, and consequently having people accept you for all your faults, can often relive a lot of stress. I’m not sure I’d do it on the internet, though. You never know what kind of kooks are reading.

  4. Steve Says:

    Daryl: That’s a great point. You’re right.

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