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Intellectual debate: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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Intellectual debate: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By Victor Pross

“By free-thinking, I mean the use of the understanding in endeavoring to find out the meaning of any proposition whatsoever, in considering the nature of the evidence for or against it, and in judging of it according to the seeming force or weakness of the evidence.”

--Anthony Collins


It has been said that “Man is a rational animal” and it’s true. He can also be said to be an emotional animal. This is often to the good. Without emotions our lives would be dreary and boring. The emotions compliment our triumphs and defeats and they add meaning to our lives. Properly understood and rationally harnessed, they are the source of our greatest moments. Without reason, we are merely animals. Without emotions, we are automatons. In short, emotions are good.

Happily, Objectivists know that there is no dichotomy between reason and emotion. Now I don’t need to belabor the role of emotions in man’s life to a largely Objectivist audience. So this post will not address the Objectivist position of reason and emotions and their relationship to each other.

Having said that, I wish to put to the reader the following: despite reasoned arguments, the emotions often get in the way. You read me right. They blind us from seeing clearly and from thinking objectively. Our emotions can trick us. Because of them, we may accept as true that which is not true and we may be lead astray to regard as relevant that which is not irrelevant.

Now, I am not contradicting myself here: reason and emotions are not metaphysically antagonistic. The key word here is “metaphysics”—in that: it’s not in the nature of man that he must either follow reason or emotion. But I am saying that we are able—by choice or error—to take our emotions 'primary' and construct upon them our conclusions or perspective of a given topic. This is true of many people and, dare I say it, it is no less true of Objectivists.

I am not necessarily speaking here of rationalizations, although that can be a hindrance to truth. Sometimes it's the simple fact of our being too irritated and not at all happy that someone else has bested us in an argument--even if we now are in hold of a new truth over a falsehood. A glance at many of the posts on Objectivist sites will substantiate my claim—and this is very true regardless of the constant blow horn howls to “reason.” It is evident that there are many Objectivists who are not entirely “on the same page.” Sometimes I see a new article posted “for discussion” to find it being tackled with open praise--to being expanded upon—to sometimes see the topic collapse into bitter disputes and snide attacks on the person who either posted the article, or else attacks upon the persons who have the unmitigated gull to agree with it!

Then sometimes I see a total split from reasonableness, when following a certain thread, to find a break from the topic to personal attacks. This is hardly rational. It can even break down the spirit.

It seems that Objectivists have failed to appreciate this: just because there is no dichotomy between reason and emotion—this does not mean that we should forget that others HAVE emotions. This is obvious, but it is frequently forgotten or ignored. Our emotions are delicate. We all have weak spots; we are vulnerable somewhere. There is an old adage: The truth hurts. Sensitivity is the key word in dealing with others. I say this, but I have been guilty in my life for failing to practice it. It's on such occasions that I dislike myself for it.

This does not mean that the “truth is our enemy”. It merely means that sometimes…well, the truth hurts.

Here are some of the specific ways that emotions can interfere with reasoned discussion:

We—Objectivists included—become personally involved; we regard as a personal attack an idea or attitude that differs from one of our own ideas or attitudes; we feel that, because something we say is challenged, we are personally being challenged.

Even Objectivists can be put on the defensive by making dogmatic statements such as, “You don’t know what you are talking about” to much worse. This is not rational, but the error can be subtle enough that we overlook this insight. We become sarcastic or patronizing or hostile. We use language that is evaluative without defending or documenting those evaluations. We use loaded words, words that have strong emotional connotations.

Instead of addressing ourselves to the issue, we aim our remarks at the other person: at his weak spots, his personality or his style of presentation.

We also commit the following intellectual sins:

*We make jokes at the expense of the other person.

*We do not listen carefully to the other person; we select what suits our purpose

*We reject what does not suit our purpose.

*We refuse to admit that the other person may have an occasional valid point and that there may be at least some truth in what is being stated.

** ** **

To conclude: Let’s try to remember that the truth is the final arbiter and our objective is to KNOW THE TRUTH. This is not about and painting the other guy in a corner. Let the search for wisdom be your desire and standard.


Edited by Victor
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Victor, this is a great article. I see all kinds of malice, hostility, name-calling, just general immaturity, all over so-called "intellectual discussions." Or, as I like to call them, "18-page bickerfests." It's disheartening and discouraging. I don't want to have to read and skim over that BS to get to the heart of the discussion. So...I usually just don't participate (though not only because of this...sometimes it's just a matter of time and energy...I gotta keep my priorities straight).

I'll admit that I can get a tad bit hostile/sarcastic occasionally. It's easy to get too wrapped up and take things personally (this reminds me of a Will Smith quote: “…but if you don‘t like my cut, it‘s like you don‘t like me.”); however, I consider myself to be a pretty rational, reasonable person and I will apologize if I feel like I’ve acted immaturely (and I‘ve been there!). To me, it’s important not to condemn a person entirely based on one conversation. I’d like to think that other people feel the same. If I disagree with someone, you best believe it’ll be known. BUT, I cannot ever bring myself to shrug off that person, condemn them as invaluable to me, based on that one disagreement (it’s more how they handle themselves in such a situation).

I repeat this to myself if I catch myself getting too caught up: “Why do I care? Is it really imperative that I convince so-and-so of such-and-such? Is it worth all the spent energy and time? Is it worth getting venom spewed my way?” Usually the answer is “NO!”

The problems listed in your article aren’t the only ones I’ve seen, though I sure as hell see those frequently. I also witness good “debaters”, those who are sticking to the topic and having rational discussion, paying too much attention to those who are “obfuscating points” and derailing threads. Those people may eventually learn if they are ignored.

I also see people taking things a bit too seriously...24/7. Sometimes it's nice to just chill out, have a bit of playful fun. If you don't like those laid back discussions...just stay out. Simple as that.

Everybody just chill! <_<

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Kori, I agree: too many people are waaaaay too serious about trivial subjects. Does the expression "get a life" come to mind? As I said to you before, I don’t regard messages boards or chat-rooms---or whatever---with any great seriousness (however much fun can be derived from them). They are a social outlet. They are nothing less and nothing more. (This is not a bad thing in and of itself, but that's how I see it).

There are pluses and minuses that go along with them. A few of the pluses: you come across interesting people and are able to enjoy interesting conversations. Friendships and romances can be formed. I have experienced both. A few of the minuses: you come across people you don’t like and you run into conversations that leave you exasperated and angry. I have experienced that as well. (We all have). But there is an even darker side: messages boards bring out a side of people that is rather unpleasant, a side to people that is not seen in the “real world”—and here I speak from observation and experiences. We say things to people we wouldn’t dare say directly to their face.

Sitting at a key board within the safety of our home, we don’t fear having our teeth knocked out and we feel at liberty to engage in any kind of vituperation our emotions push us into. In a cyber world, we feel that “social restraints” can be relaxed, and whatever personal frustrations we may feel in our private life can give vent in cyber la-la land without fear of reprisal and consequence. Observe that this vituperation and cruelty come from people who are loudest on preaching ethics! Oh yes, it’s a funny world. Many of us have been on the receiving end of the ugliest malice that I have ever witnessed, and this is no less true of “Objectivists.”

Our interaction would be entirely different if we were interacting with each other face-to-face-- free of the synthetic form of communication that is this cyber word. What can I say, I’m old school. I like face-to-face and three dimensional interactions. I want to see you when I talk to you. Plus I am also fond of the fact that any acrimony someone may feel toward me be hidden in hypocrisy—the way it’s done in the real world.

Everybody just chill indeed, Kori.


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I don't regard them with great seriousness either, Victor. Still, I don't use it as an excuse to act completely different from the way I do in real life. I'd like to think I still have some standards. I operate by the same rules on the Internet as I do in real life (except on the web I have a bit more time to think before I 'speak'). If, at a party, one sat around and spat venom, I'm guessing nobody at the party would want them there. It would also be pointless for them to stay. It's the same thing with the Internet. You look foolish when you act like "oh, I don't wanna be here, everybody is so stupid" on the web. One has the choice to log off or leave the party! It's some kinda obsession.

I don't understand why the Internet brings out this private life emotional baggage or whatever one wishes to call it. Trust me, I have been known to take out my anger on innocent bystanders (in real life and in cyber world...like I said, I play by the same rules in both real and cyber worlds), but like I said, I always apologize. If the behavior reoccurs, I figure out what it is that causes it and I fix it. Sometimes that means ending relationships. Life goes on.

Everyone just godda be themselves, fa Christ's sake.

EDIT: Thinking again, and maybe it's not that the cyber world brings out hostility in people. Maybe that's just how they are in real life. Or maybe I just think that because it's so hard to fathom acting like a fool "just 'cause it's the Internet." What is it that draws people to places that inspire such hostility? One of life's great mysteries.

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Could you do me a favor and read this first. After you've done that, you should succinctly state the thesis of the debate (you may want to read up on what a debate is -- a debate is a proposition, and you will argue for one evaluation of the proposition such as "It is true that X" or "It is false that X"). Then you put the invitation out there to debate the proposition, and negotiate terms with your opponent. What we have here is not in fact a debate, so let's work on actually having a debate.

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(sees some crisps going flying into the cage and turns around)

"Mommy, Mommy, they seem to like it!"

(turns to kid's Mom)

Maam, please explain to your child that we take care of _that_.

Ohhhh, I see. Now she wants to know where the giraffes are? Oh yes, they're over there.

(points across the way)

Your welcome, maam. (smiles)

(parent and child walk away)

(looks down)

Ah, what's that? (picks up carton) Ah, there's "a prize in every box". Fancy that. (tosses carton into a nearby bin and walks away)


(goes and waits for OO Admin team to do its thing) <_<

They've posted 4 threads in 2 days you know. (taps foot)

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I believe that Victor meant to post this in the Debate Techniques section. Is it okay for someone to make a li'l mistake?


I think someone has a problem with quality threads. Really, don't bother with the moderator threats. Four in two days?! My, what a nuisance! Why not quit complaining and throw in your two cents (relevant to the topic, of course)? :lol:

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