A Scarcity of Dialogue

Why Should We Agree to Disagree?

The value of effective dialogue is often underrated, if not wholly neglected. Although my thoughts on the matter run the risk of becoming excessively abstract and unstructured, I am compelled to write upon this. It cuts to the heart of belief, unbelief, faith and skepticism—why do we (really) all believe such different things? How biased are we?

I have always found it disconcerting a hefty proportion of the human race walks around with such widely varying views, each person believing that his or hers are correct. I’ve devoted a fair number of my sleepless nights to wondering why, if there is only one reality, it should be so hard for us to agree about it.

It has crossed my mind that I am right about everything, and everyone else is simply wrong. But that’s probably not true. [1]

The obvious answer is that people are different, and their realities are different than mine. This explanation, however, fails to placate me in the same way that an antibiotic fails to kill resistant strains—some questions still linger, and they multiply until the whole infection is resistant. People are different, but this itself is an observable fact that we should be able to adjust for, if we are thinking straight.

Another explanation is that, since we employ differing foundational assumptions, agreement is impossible. But the foundational assumptions we employ are not necessarily the result of a unique experience; they arise from the very reality that, in a sense, is “static,” and it is available to all of us. Let’s call this the “system.” If this is the correct explanation, it suggests that our access to this common reality has been conditioned by our experience enough to cause us to disagree. How, then, can we elevate one of these conditioning agents above the other, if we have all been thus conditioned?

Science seems to have circumvented this problem. The reason seems obvious—at each step along the way, an appeal is made to the system for confirmation. Theoretically, it might be possible for two completely different ideas to make the same predictions. The complexity of the universe, however, seems always to collapse these predications into a single truth, such that no two self-consistent scientific models are indistinguishable when the system is consulted… if the system is consulted. [2]

We cannot do this with everything else, because science is the only discipline that allows the system to dictate the result. In fact, I think that all cases in which the system can conclusively arbitrate the conclusion end up being classified as hard science! In the remaining cases, we may find ourselves with no authority to appeal to.

Even if there are good explanations for the spectrum of opinions held in the general population, it has puzzled me that honest, rational people have irreconcilable disagreement on so many issues.

It seems that all agreements require a prior agreement, by which an appropriate method for consulting the system is established between the two parties. In order to save space, I’m going to call this the “prior” (at the risk of sounding like I’m going to invoke Bayesian estimation or something). Even science could not function without this, since science has no effect on minds that are unwilling to accept the prior agreement that underlies it.

My inference, then, is that the most frustrating disagreements have something in common with the most honest disagreements—they stem from a disagreement over how we ought to “consult the system.” How are we to agree on this?

It is somewhat of a false dilemma. There are always priors that we share, and we must begin with those in order to modify the interlocking web of asymmetrical views through dialogue. When we have achieved as much symmetry as possible, however, we will still often reach an impasse.

A true, honest disagreement will arise when we find that the asymmetrical priors cannot be influenced by the data available to the conversation, or the mental or experiential limits of the parties involved.

Dialogue is the complete apprehension by both parties of the others’ position, inasmuch as this is possible. It should be conducted with sensitivity, much the way one plays in a musical ensemble by listening to the ensemble.

A full dialogue involves the following understanding:

1. What constitutes the disagreement

2. The non-identical priors that lead to the disagreement

3. What would be necessary to change these priors (though this “falsifiable” criterion is somewhat scientific in itself, and may be criticized)

4. Why this is not possible

This idea has often kept me awake at night, because it seems that there should never be a good answer to the fourth step—provided there is limitless time and information available to a dialogue. That disagreements occur as a result of finite resources is a repulsive idea to me, but perhaps it is true in many cases.

There are exceptions. It can be easily explained why the belief in God may not be agreed upon by two rational individuals sharing the same essential priors that constitute “reason.” Simply put, there is not enough information to force the conclusion (this might have been abbreviated “you can’t prove it either way,” but I’m making a broader point here.) A conclusion about the existence of God must arise from priors that are, in many cases, more likely to vary. [2] At this point I’ve decided it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to invoke Bayesian estimation after all. [3]

I digress. Perhaps dialogue ultimately can lead to complete agreement on even our foundational assumptions. As I’ve said above, the conditions that produced our foundational assumptions do not derive from unique experiences, but truths that we can expose ourselves to. This is not to say that they will change, but that they may.

Never concede a sound point in order to prove that you are capable of conceding a point.

Always concede a poor point, even if your opponent is not clever enough to explode it.

Do not say “we won’t change each other’s minds.” If you want to be entirely honest, say “I am right and you are stubborn.”


[1] The world is full of people who are overly concerned over “who” is right. Let us be logical for a moment: this is foolish. Arguments are right, not people. I do not defend arguments because I wish to be right about things, I defend arguments because I believe they are sound.

[2] So, the physicists keep talking about this thing called “string theory…”

[3] If you’re inclined, consider the following line of thinking—having selected these priors (which represent what we believe to be the case), we can go through life developing our “posterior” (which represents what we observe to be the case), which will eventually cause us to have a conversion experience if there is enough dissonance. If we discover that the posterior is very much in line with the prior, we will become surer of ourselves. There are buckets of nuances that become obvious here, one of them being: how do we decide what to expect?

This essay was written without careful attention to detail and will need to be revised.


5 Responses to “A Scarcity of Dialogue”

  1. Stephanie Says:

    If I were less tired, I’d probably be bouncing in my seat with enthusiasm. Rough draft or no, these are great thoughts. And there’s at least one beautifully worded bit, at any rate:

    “Dialogue is the complete apprehension by both parties of the others’ position, inasmuch as this is possible. It should be conducted with sensitivity, much the way one plays in a musical ensemble by listening to the ensemble.”

    Good stuff. I’ve thought of this plenty before, though I don’t think it’s kept me sleepless. I just figure that people disagree for one of three reasons: lack of information (necessary or self-imposed), lack of proper communication of information, and an overabundance of negative emotion targeting the opposite side. I’ve devoted my life to addressing problems #2 and #3; I see no reason why these should not be overcome. As for #1, I’m patient enough to let other people gather more data, and as for my opponents who simply don’t want to accept certain pieces of data, well, those I give up on. I’d put them in category #3 except that rather than thinking badly of others, they simply think too much of their own views. I don’t know how to react to that, except perhaps impose a severe guilt trip (which requires an incredible amount of charisma), because that’s when logic fails to do any good, even if it is flawlessly executed. This is basically the issue you raise with “priors” and the answer (even though it isn’t a “good” one) to why some are never reconciled. Sometimes we just don’t wanna–we’d have to sacrifice too much.

    The question of God is unique, I think, because the decision about it doesn’t hinge on the overwhelming abundance of information one way or the other: it hinges on what *sort* of information a person considers most important. You might consider that “priors” come in hierarchies as well, which are also going to be different for different people. Um, if this were a graph, I think it just went 3D. I also think this consideration may provide something along the lines of an answer for your “deciding what to expect” question (which, really, was a ridiculously obscure statement that I can only vaguely decipher).

  2. “At least one… at any rate:” – Why, thank you.

    I meant “if the world is as we believe it to be, what do we expect to see?”

    You have cited reasons why most people disagree on everyday matters, but none of those apply to long-standing debates addressed by salaried academics–if we can assume most of them aren’t letting negative emotions run the show.

  3. Stephanie Says:

    “You have cited reasons… but none of those apply, etc.” I beg to differ; I think my second reason explains this quite well. I could elaborate with specific and varied illustrations, but I’m not going to do it tonight. 🙂

  4. Pre-emptively: this position seems to entail a problematic assumption–that the position you’ve sided with presented information that was obvious to you, but not to anyone on the other side.

    So you’ll have to address that, if you do.

  5. Stephanie Says:

    Not that it was obvious only to my side, but that my side emphasizes that particular set of data more–which can easily result in a disparity of effective communication.

    As an example: research on ancient writers involves scads of disagreements between scholars. Take the Homeric question: some think it is more important to consider the “group effort” attitude of the rhapsode occupation, others would point to the stylistic continuity of the text as the work of a single inspired mind.

    The dozen or more approaches to literary analysis of post-Gutenberg texts are another example: feminist criticism will simply not provide you with the same answers as New Criticism. It is a matter of the information filter you select–and different filters produce different, oftentimes conflicting, methods of communication.

    I know relatively nothing of scientific research other than what friends in those fields have told me–and one of them recently informed me that (for example) 95% of geology is made up. He was joking, but it suggested to me that the study might have been developed very differently if the founders of the field had selected different parameters for their information filters.

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