Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

How to have an argument — and actually get somewhere!

Posted by Michael Dickens on January 2, 2010

Now, I’ve been in a lot of arguments.

A lot.

More than I’d like to talk about.

So I am pretty good at having arguments. Not just at “winning”, but at actually making a point and coming to a conclusion. Today I am here to talk about how to actually get somewhere in an argument. We’ve all been in plenty of arguments where both sides are thoroughly convinced of their own position’s correctness, and argue for hours without ever making any progress. Okay, maybe not hours, but you get my point.

This is how you actually make progress in arguments. But be warned: if you follow this path, you may actually end up deciding that the other guy is right. If you wish to dogmatically cling to your own beliefs, read no further. But if you wish to find the truth and actually accomplish something during an argument, then read on.

The main problem with disagreements is the problem of assumptions. Your assumptions differ from your opponent’s. That’s the core of it, right there. If you had the same assumptions, then you’d have the same beliefs. But you don’t. The thing to do, then, is to question your opponent’s assumptions — and your own.

The first step is to find the assumptions. I say this, but my opponent says that. So where does the difference lie? Ask yourself this question and work backwards to discover your assumptions and the assumptions of your opponent.

Next, think about why you each have the assumptions that you do. If you’re lucky, you will be able to find some critical flaw in your opponent’s assumptions. Whether you do or not, though, the important thing here is to question everything. Why does your opponent have those assumptions? Why do you have those assumptions? Keep working backwards until you find assumptions that both parties agree upon. Once you have your opponent agreeing with you, show why your conclusions follow from your assumptions. Now you win, and your opponent can’t deny it.

By now, you’ve probably noticed the obvious downside. What if it turns out that your opponent’s conclusions actually follow from your shared assumptions? Well, in that case, it’s time to accept the fact that you were wrong. Or were you dogmatically clinging to your beliefs after all?


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