Posted by: dacalu | 13 December 2011

3 Arguments

When we disagree with someone we tend to think that the matter is simply one of right and wrong (“I’m right, she’s wrong.”) or one of indifference (“Who can say, really?”).  While meditating on being wrong today, it struck me that there are, in fact, 3 types of arguments and that it might be worth paying attention to the distinctions.

In type 1 arguments, two people disagree on a matter, but agree on the means of resolving their disagreement.  “What was the color of the carpet in our old apartment?”  “What color is the star Betelgeuse?” “Who won the world series last year?”  We consider these to be questions of fact – because there is a consensus that the correct answer exists AND we have a way of determining it.  [pull out the pictures, pull out a telescope, google World Series.]  Such arguments come up frequently when the right resource is not readily available.

Type 3 arguments involve irresolvable differences. They usually involve matters of taste or historical arguments over some event for which there is no longer sufficient evidence. “Is Van Gogh better than Seurat?” “Did Shakespeare really write Hamlet?”  In this case, both disputants know that no definitive answer could ever be agreed upon, but enjoy pointing out the merits of their own case.  [Duh.  What’s the point in saying otherwise?]

This leaves us with type 2: arguments in which no clear standard of truth has been agreed upon BUT at least on party feels there should be a standard.  Questions of faith and morals usually fall into this category.  “Does God exist?”  “Is there such a thing as a soul?”  “Is it okay to poison a cat?”  Once we start dealing with the murky area of type 2 arguments people start to have strong feelings.  [Yes.  Yes.  No!]  If we were sitting safely in type 1, we could agree on how to resolve the dilemma, but here we are arguing about whether or not someone has proof – usually completely ignoring the question of what qualifies as proof.

I would challenge you, next time you find yourself in a debate, to ask which type of debate it is.  If it’s a type 2, see if you can short circuit (or at least focus) the dispute by identifying what it would take to resolve the argument one way or the other.  In most cases I suspect that’s the fundamental issue at hand.

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