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April 08, 2004

Comments

Check the 'You might be a wingnut' thread for some ground rules.

Opponents of the war suspect that the US wanted to go into this war no matter what evidence was available (for reasons which are ususally left unsaid lest the speaker sound silly)

I think "usually left unsaid because the reasons are so unclear or at best complex (v. the famous Wolfowitz quote)" would be more accurate and anyway less partisan. I'll skip what I think is the entirely accurate formulation because it would sound, well, too partisan.

"So in the comments feel free to figure out how we could safely determine irrationality without being dismissive."

I find asking a series of questions is helpful, if not necessary, and that's generally the avenue I travel down.

The sophists in 5th Century BC ancient Greece were the first, so far as I'm aware, to teach that one could rational argue for any position, whether or not one believed in it.

It's entirely possible, and I have to stop myself doing it at times because the English language is particularly useful for those who want to twist meaning.

Opponents of the war suspect that the US wanted to go into this war no matter what evidence was available (for reasons which are ususally left unsaid lest the speaker sound silly)

You mean like citing news articles reporting direct quotes from people who heard the President and Donald Rumsfeld say that they intended to attack Iraq after 9/11? Or like citing PNAC, which has been saying since before Bush took office that the US ought to attack Iraq?

Is it possible for you to write an unbiased post even when you try, Sebastian?

"Sophistry: Plausible but fallacious argumentation." Looked it up at dict.com, wondering about relevance. At least that definition is not. I had presumed the definition of Casey above, plausible but insincere.

To me this definitely does go to the question of Socrates, especially in the early dialogues. That Socrates was less interested in achieving a result or consensus as in developing the methods of the Sophists as a tool for good use.

My two base philosophers, Nietzsche (who sired Freud) and Kierkegaard, were both obsessed with the early Socrates. And both may have concluded that Reason's purposes were always ironic, to reveal and conceal simultaneously. Why did ancient Greek actors wear masks?

How "beliefs are produced and sustained" is kinda the base project of humanity, and the answer generated has most often been religious. More recently the three modernists above have generated more secular explanations...corrected, Kierkegaard's despair probably not secular...and people like the evolutionary psychologists and whatever the guys with MRI's and catscans are attempting new ones.

I suspect delving too deeply into the question may not well serve civilization nor civil conversation, and end up with a serving of hemlock.

"Opponents of the war suspect that the US wanted to go into this war no matter what evidence was available"

"...US wanted..." was I presume broader than your intent. I wanted to go into this war no matter what evidence was presented, for reasons I certainly do not believe silly. I believe the same of Cheney and Wolfowitz.

On the other hand, I do posit our President may have gone into the war for silly reasons, for I find him basically a silly man.

"Silly: Exhibiting a lack of wisdom or good sense; foolish. See Synonyms at foolish.
Lacking seriousness or responsibleness; frivolous"

Bob:

"Sophistry: Plausible but fallacious argumentation." Looked it up at dict.com, wondering about relevance. At least that definition is not. I had presumed the definition of Casey above, plausible but insincere.

The OED goes into a little more detail on this:

1. Specious but fallacious reasoning; employment of arguments which are intentionally deceptive.

...which I think fits what you're looking for a little better than does dictionary.com's definition.

Since I'm more of a language geek than a politics nut, I'm having a harder time with the second half of this comment, which is actually on topic.

Sebastian, I think you're entirely correct when you say that people ascribe irrationality to opponents to avoid dealing with the opponents' arguments - if nothing else, doing so might itself be considered irrational - and that we would be better off if we did not assume that our opponents were irrational. Another reason to ascribe irrationality is that, with the information we have, we cannot reason our way to the conclusion to which the opponent has come, and our inability to do so leads us to believe that the conclusion itself is not based in reason. (Sometimes, of course, the conclusion isn't based in reason - but there are plenty of other valid bases for conclusions, and the fact that I'm acting based on emotion or a gut instinct rather than logic doesn't necessarily mean that what I'm doing should be dismissed.)

Your example - or Reppert's, rather - of Steve using dice to determine the position he will take on a disputed topic might be an example of the lack-of-information variety of irrationality: Steve uses no accepted reason to come to his positions, but it's entirely possible that his decision-making process was the conclusion of a rational process. (Suppose, for example, that Steve belongs to the school of thought that states that ideas, positions, etc. grow stronger not only by support but by opposition. A certain percentage of the time, then - a percentage determined by the dice - he would be arguing against what he believed to be true, in order to strengthen it.)

Bringing this back around to the administration and the Iraq situation - we don't have all the information on the subject, regardless of whether that information was kept from us through neglect (they forgot to mention it), intent (they're suppressing it), or some third thing I haven't thought of yet. To call the Iraq situation "irrational", then, is premature at best; we can only arrive at that conclusion (or a different conclusion; I make no presuppositions) after we have all of the information.

hmmm

In order to distinguish the word from logical, and to differentiate from a process I have always defined rational as something like "having a conscious motivation".

Steve in the example is acting randomly,and not rationally. If he thought Martians were telling him which positions to take, (insert train of reasoning here), he would be acting rationally.

Animals are not rational not because they cannot construct a syllogism but because they lack conciousness.

To me this definitely does go to the question of Socrates, especially in the early dialogues. That Socrates was less interested in achieving a result or consensus as in developing the methods of the Sophists as a tool for good use.

Bob - let's agree that we're not calling Socrates a Sophist, because that he was not... for a start, the sophists charged people to learn their methods of arguing a case, whereas Socrates refused to teach anyone... in fact, all we can say with any reasonable certainty that Socrates actually said (as opposed to being reported/invented by Plato and others) is that he thought he was probably wiser than person X or person Y because where they thought they knew something, he knew he didn't know.

Sophistry in its modern meaning and the methods of the Sophists are a little different.

Sebastian, "it depends what you mean by" rational. Strictly, the word means 'reason' (ratio, Latin). But you could call an argument rational whether someone believes it or not; if it makes sense from its particular starting points than it can be rational, because it is based on reason and is internally consistent.

But though a person could argue rationally, the base for their argument might not be rational - e.g. if they rolled a die. One can argue rationally and not be rational. In fact, in most arguments, we would reach the same conclusions as our opponents - it's the starting point we disagree with.

Steve is no different than any of us except the degree of randomness in his accepted positions. I assume that most of us employ rationality even in the positions we hold but all rational systems employ presepts, postulates, things assumed to be true. These differ from person to person and are often the reason we think our rhetorical adversaries seen "irrational". We are not argueing with the same set of postulates.

I suggest that Sabastian's post doesn't go deep enough to discover the real level of disparation between rational actors of the left and right. For example, he states that "Proponents of the war suspect that their opponents don't believe that war is ever good". I hope that proponents of the the war, like me, think that all war is bad and, like me, think that some wars are necessary. But cost benefit can be applied to each situation of war in a rational way so this is not the level at which the underlying difference can be found. The deeper level of values and emotions is where the true difference between left and right is and I doubt if a coherent debate can be found there.

I think in some cases our desire to ascribe Steve-like irrationality to our opponents comes from an overestimation of rationality. Say Steve states an opinion that I disagree with. Obviously I don't think his given reasoning is solid, or else I wouldn't disagree with the conclusion. So what am I to make of his argument? To agree that Steve believes what he does because of the reasons he offers (i.e., to conclude that reasonable people can disagree on the matter) would require me to assume that rationality is limited -- either an admission of humility about our mental capacities, or a postmodern denial of the efficacy of reason. As someone wishing both to win an argument and to maintain a belief that my own opinions are rationally grounded, I find neither option terribly palatable. So I turn to the idea that Steve's opinion is not rationally grounded, and look for other possible explanations for why he believes what he does (he was brainwashed by his church, he's callous and selfish, he has a secret homophobic agenda, etc.). It takes a lot of effort (and some cooperation from Steve) to take the "humility" view while holding out hope that by working together we can do better.

Apropos of nothing, I just saw some footage of gunmen mistreating three terrified Japanese hostages. That rendered me temporarily incapable of rational thought.

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