Why we Disagree

We human beings disagree with each other because of the differences between what we want to be true, and what actually is true.

There are exceptions. But in my experience, major points of contention often boil down to this: those who are on the side of the truth, and those who either have something to lose from accepting the truth, or something to gain by accepting a lie.

Some people have something to gain from the truth. Some issues have no established truth, and attract supporters to whatever side resonates most with their emotions.

When two parties who just want to know what is true enter a dialogue, they often change each other. They never say: “we won’t convince each other.” Their respective goals are not to win the argument, but to agree. Who says “we won’t change each other’s minds,” after all? People who hold false positions say that. The logically-minded person who knows the powerful evidence for his position will always hope, even if naively,  that those compelling facts can change even the most stubborn person’s mind. Only people who do not want to reach the truth–the people who are afraid to change their minds–say “we won’t change each other’s minds.” They say is to convince themselves that they really won’t change their minds. To convince themselves that the opposition is just as biased as they are.

I will point something out, though it is not a truism: when you want to know who’s more likely to be wrong about something, start by looking for the person who has the most at stake. The most to lose. The need to believe what they do.

This may sound simple, but the oftentimes truth is oftentimes simple. Simple as pie.

In the sky.

HOWEVER, I suggest this only as a guide for where one should start looking, and things one ought to notice. I shall not be party to anyone using Bulverism (a term that I have only recently learned), wherein one feels that it is sufficient to expose an opponent’s motives and emotional biases, rather than appealing to the facts.

Bulverism is admittedly one of the most prevalent, and most pernicious, forms of argumentation out there. Lest any Christian reading this feel offended by my saying this (as if this fallacy has been named, and invented, to describe the behaviour of Christian apologists), please be settled:

C.S. Lewis coined that term.

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4 Responses to “Why we Disagree”

  1. Umm, it seems to me there is a bit of a contradiction between this post and the one immediately before it.

  2. Could you clarify?

    This is about a primary reason that people disagree (that is, that they have stakes in many things).

    The one before is about how people are always able to come up with a defence for a position that they are entrenched in.

    + Caveats on all sides.

  3. I see the contradiction between

    “When two parties who just want to know what is true enter a dialogue, they often change each other. They never say: “we won’t convince each other.” Their respective goals are not to win the argument, but to agree. Who says “we won’t change each other’s minds,” after all? People who hold false positions say that. The logically-minded person who knows the powerful evidence for his position will always hope, even if naively, that those compelling facts can change even the most stubborn person’s mind.”

    and

    “I used to think that if you made a convincing enough argument (and you were in the right), the other side would totally collapse, saying nothing in response. But I’ve come to accept that if people are strongly convinced of something, they will always have a rebuttal.”

    The first makes not expecting to change the other’s mind out as a sign of somehow knowing the own position wrong. And the second basically says you don’t expect to change the other’s mind.

    Regardless of if there is a contradiction here, I think you are both too cynical and not cynical enough.

    Too cynical, because people do change their minds because of (perhaps many) discussions even if they don’t change their minds in the course of a single discussion. And it is actually rational to behave that way.

    Not cynical enough, because in many cases both sides have “something to lose from accepting the truth, or something to gain by accepting a lie”. And that evaluation happens before any actual truth-evaluation, so one of those sides might even coincidentally be right.

  4. Right. I see.

    Well there’s a tension here. Perhaps that’s why I posted them at the same time.

    The demarcation is that I hope/think (most) people can eventually be won over to the right side of an argument. However, I have given up hoping that even a perfect argument can avoid being immediately rebutted by a long, fervent essay that fits the author’s predetermined conclusion.

    As I write this, I am thinking about the pieces of writing on ICR’s website.

    I know that people change their minds over time. However, I want it to be possible for words, and arguments, to make profound impacts on people the way that music and drama do. I want people to cede on individual points when they know that they have nothing to say, even if they don’t change their minds on the whole. People walk out of films saying “Wow! I have to think about this… I really need to think… sort things out.” But I don’t see those kinds of reactions to a cogent argument that isn’t set to music. At least not in the same way, and not very often.

    Yes, both sides always have a little bit of something to lose, but at least one side usually has a good chunk to lose–a real need to hold the position.

    When one (and only one) side has that Need with a capital N, you get the asymmetrical situation I’m talking about.

    I stand by this observation: that the bitter disagreements in the world don’t come from stupidity, poor self-expression, miscommunication, etc. — they ultimately come from the friction between things as they are, and things as we wish them to be.

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