007 - When Rational Debate is Impossible

In This Episode:

We do some housekeeping, I answer a student question that updates one of my most important lectures on the rules that have to be satisfied to have a rational conversation, and I tell you about a new project I'm working on and how you can get exclusive access to it.

  • The problem that Sam Harris is struggling with
  • A Q&A question from Essi on what to do when people "just don't get it"
  • my original answer to the question "what conditions must be satisfied to have a rational conversation with someone?"
  • my first amendment: (1) what to do after you’ve recognized that there’s a problem
  • my second amendment: (2) what to do in light of the fact that our capacity to reason comes in degrees
  • my latest video course project ("Is Your Brain a Computer?") and how you can get early access to those videos


"The reality is that this is a skill that requires a high degree of judgment and self-awareness, and some people are a just better at it than others. They read the temperature of the room better. They’re better at not triggering defensive reactions. They’re better at helping people to see an issue from a different point of view, without being alienating or threatening. They’re better at the dance of conversation that bring people closer together rather than pushing them apart."

"What I’m describing here is exactly the skill set that I think is missing when we teach argumentation and rational persuasion.... That’s the skill set that I’m trying to deconstruct in this podcast."

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This is the Argument Ninja podcast, episode 7!

Hi everyone this is Kevin deLaplante and you’re listening to the Argument Ninja podcast, the podcast dedicated to the art and science and ethics of rational persuasion, and to the notion that logical self-defense and rational persuasion can be viewed, and should be viewed, as a martial art.

On this episode: we do some housekeeping, I tell you about a new project I’m working on and how you can get exclusive access to it, and I answer a student question that updates one of my most important lectures on the rules that have to be satisfied in order to have a rational conversation.

This episode is going to be a little bit of a break from the most recent series of episodes. I’ve been working my way through alist of topics on different domains where the goals of persuasion are front and center. So we talked about persuasion and the art of getting people to like you, persuasion in selling and marketing, and in the last episode, persuasion in the seduction and pickup artist community. Next on my list was persuasion in the context of magic and mentalism and hypnotism, but I’ve decided to delay that topic.

I’ve been listening to Sam Harris’s podcast and he has a habit of starting off shows with some housekeeping comments that take about 10 or 15 minutes where he explains why he has to have the conversation he’s about to have, and then apologizes in advance for everything’s he’s about to say.

I don’t think I need to apologize for anything, but maybe some housekeeping comments are in order.

First, I’d like to give you listeners an opportunity to weigh in on the format of the show. Topic-wise, I admit that this show hits on themes that might seem a bit random if you’re just dipping into it and haven’t been following it from the beginning.

I’ve got a small handful of themes that I’m trying to explore, that are tied together in my mind, but that individually may not seem to have much to do with each other.

One is the martial arts theme, and the advantages of thinking about being trained up in rational persuasion by analogy with being trained up in a martial art. I have lots to say about this, and I’ve really just touched on it so far.

Another theme that I’m exploring is about the science and practice and psychology of persuasion. Again, I’ve really just started talking about this, but I’m aware that it may be confusing to listen to a discussion about the sacred space of the martial arts training hall in one episode, and the history of seduction methods in the next episode. How is this supposed to fit together?

And a third theme, that I haven’t really gotten into yet, is about standards of good argumentation — what good reasoning actually looks like, in general and in specific cases. When I add that in, it might make it even more confusing for new people.

Actually, I don’t think it’s all that confusing for the people who are fans of the show and listening through, because I’m confident that you’re picking up the connecting threads.

I guess my main concern is that, while the show isn’t long as podcasts go, it is fairly dense. And the question I have is whether I should restrict myself to one topic per show, and maybe keep the episodes shorter, or continue as I’ve been doing and take on more than one topic, and make them a bit longer. For me, shorter is in the 15 to 20 minute range, and longer is in the 30 to 40 minute range.

Like in the last episode, for the first half I talked about the difference between teaching logic and argumentation in the classroom, and what it’s like to actually engage with people in the real world outside the classroom, and how different that can be. Then in the second half of the show I talked about Ross Jeffries and Tom Cruise and the seduction community and whether these speed seduction techniques actually work.

The question is whether I should stick to one topic per episode or keep up with this patchwork thing that I’ve been doing so far.Do you find the subject matter shifts jarring or are you okay with them?

Let me know in the comments what you think, I’m really quite interested in your feedback on this.

But I’ll tell you up front, I’m leaning toward sticking to a single topic per show, with some framing commentary at the beginning and the end.

One of my reasons, I’ll admit, is that a shorter show on a single topic per show is easier for me to produce on a regular schedule. And this is important because while I’m producing the podcast, I’m also producing videos for courses that I’m developing.

For example, I’m currently working on a video course on the philosophy of cognitive science, called “Is Your Brain a Computer?”. So I’m writing and producing videos on arguments for and against the view that the brain functions like a computer, that thinking should be viewed as a computational process of some kind, and all the related topics about the possibility of strong artificial intelligence, conscious robots, and so on.

I’m doing that while I’m producing this show. I want to keep on a regular weekly schedule for both, so that’s a reason to keep these shows shorter and more focused, so that it’s easier for me to maintain this schedule.

Anyway, I wanted to be up front about that. And by the way, at the end of this episode I’ll let you know how you can get early, exclusive access to the videos in this brains, minds and computers course that I’m doing.

Okay, I’m going to return now to Sam Harris. My earlier comment about Sam’s podcast won’t make much sense to you if you don’t listen to Sam, but I’ve been thinking about the general problem that he’s been struggling with, which is about how to have productive, civil conversations with people with whom one might have ideological or political disagreements, or when the issues themselves are highly politicized within the culture. In Sam’s case, he’s talking about Islam and religion and atheism and race relations, and he himself is a politicized figure, which makes all of this even harder.

Sam’s had a couple of guests on his show offer him free advice on rhetorical strategy for approaching these conversations. Neil Degrasse Tyson did it a while back, and most recently, at this time I’m recording this, in his conversation with Eric Weinstein.

One of my goals with this podcast is to shed some light on this phenomenon of conversations that start out promising and then get bogged down or hijacked. This happens to everyone, but it’s a particular problem for those of us who fancy ourselves intellectuals or rationalists of some sort, who find ourselves looking for opportunities to engage with people on important topics. And then we’re frustrated when people don’t always respond in the way we’d like them to, or don’t adhere to the rules of rational conversation that we would impose on ourselves, like not attacking straw men or not ignoring your last point and changing the subject.

Over at the Critical Thinker Academy, which you can find at criticalthinkeracademy.com, I have a question and answer section on the site where people can submit questions. Here’s a question I just received this morning, the morning that I’m recording this. This is from a woman named Essi. I won’t give her last name because I didn’t ask her permission to talk about her question on the podcast, but here’s what she sent me.


I have been studying logical and critical thinking and I feel I can recognize some bad arguments etc. However, some people just "don't get it". It may be that they don’t understand the difference between valid/strong/deductive/non-deductive/irrelevant/etc.arguments. Sometimes they simply mix everything and reach some conclusion that is only partly true, or valid, but they think they have proven their point. Sometimes they simply wander around and end up "some place else “. This is very frustrating and I feel they need more than a five-minute explanation of why they haven’t proven what they think they have. Unfortunately I am not very patient and I wouldn't make a good educator. But I don't want them to feel all smug thinking that they were right all along.

What do you suggest in such cases?

This is an example of what I’m talking about. Lot’s of us can relate to this.

In this particular question, Essi is concerned about not having enough time or patience to educate someone about the problems with their reasoning. And she doesn’t like that feeling of frustration when someone leaves a conversation with you and they think they’ve won the day or gotten the upper hand, and you feel the exact opposite, or you feel like you had to keep your mouth shut or patronize them because you don’t see a way of productively engaging with this person.

Time can be a factor, but the problem usually isn’t just a matter of not having enough time. Sam Harris has lengthy conversations with smart people, hours of conversation, and he can come away feeling the very same frustration.

So, let me offer some comments on this general problem.

I talk about this issue a little bit in my course on informal fallacies, which again you can check out at criticalthinkeracademy.com.

There, I talk about a class of fallacies that involve a violation of what I call the rules of rational conversation. These are minimal rules that have to be satisfied for a rational conversation to even be possible. In order to have a rational conversation with someone, you have to assume three things:

One, the person knows about the subject under discussion. They’re not ignorant about the subject.

Two, the person is able and willing to reason well.

And three, the person is not lying.

If any of these are not satisfied — if the person is ignorant about the subject, if they’re unable or unwilling to reason well, or if they’re willing to lie or distort the truth, then you can’t have a rational conversation with them.

If a person is ignorant about the subject, they have no grounds for having reasoned opinion. If my mechanic says my car needs the tie rods replaced, and I don’t know anything about cars, I’m not in a position to argue with him about the point. If my physics professor says that we’ve confirmed the existence of the Higgs particle, and I don’t have relevant expertise in physics, I can’t get into an argument with him about it. And if I did challenge his opinion, he couldn’t have an argument with me. He could try to educate me about the science, he could try to explain why the evidence for the Higgs is strong, but he and I couldn’t have an argument about the evidence, if I don’t know enough about the subject under discussion.

Now, when might a person be unable to reason well? An obvious case would be a parent talking to a child. If a child is too young to understand and process the reasons why it’s in their best interest to drink less pop and eat more vegetables, there’s no point in the parent trying to argue the point with them. You can’t have a genuine argument about it.

Another case is when you find someone temporarily in a highly emotional state. Under those conditions, it may not be possible to reason with them. You can offer reasons, but they aren’t in a position to process and assess them properly.

Or you might find yourself in a situation with a person who wants to reason well, but doesn’t have the capacity to follow reasoning that is too complex or abstract. There’s a wide range of aptitude in the population on this. And one’s reasoning ability can vary from topic to topic. Some people are better at following ethical arguments, and worse at following mathematical or abstract logical arguments. A lot of this comes down to familiarity and practice.

And finally, it goes without saying that if you suspect a person is consistently lying or misrepresenting positions that you knowthey understand, or if they have a strong motivation to lie, and a track record of lying about a particular topic, then you can’t have a genuine argument with this person.

Rational conversation, rational discussion, has rules. These rules are a precondition for having a rational conversation at all. It’s not that different from sitting down with someone to play chess. If you discover that the person across from you isn’t willing or able to play by the rules, then you stop playing. Continuing to play, under the mistaken belief that you’re still playing chess, is a mistake.

Okay, what I just said here is the position I take in my course on informal fallacies. With the examples I gave, it’s obvious to see how the criteria apply. I picked them because they’re obvious.

And the tone of this position is pretty definitive, it makes the situation seem fairly black and white. Either it’s possible to have a rational conversation with a person or you can’t, and the trick is to become sensitive to when you can’t.

I think this way of thinking is important and has its uses. These are useful concepts to have in your back pocket. Way too many people get into trouble trying to argue with people in conditions that make genuine argumentation impossible.

But it’s also obvious, I think, that this picture I just gave, is very incomplete.

First, it doesn’t really address the question of what to do after you’ve recognized that there’s a problem.

And second, it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that in real people, these attributes — background knowledge, willingness to reason, ability to reason, truthfulness — these attributes come in degrees. The quality of our rational conversations comes in degrees, it’s not always black and white.

So, to complicate things, let’s talk about this first point.

Let’s say I decide that the person I’m talking to isn’t able or willing to reason well about this particular topic, and it’s pointless to argue with them about it.

Now, what do I do?

Do I give up and change the subject? Or do I change my approach to the interaction I’m having with this person? Maybe they’re not in a position to reason well right now, but are there things I can do to change that?

The range of possible responses can be huge. What you do will depend on the context, the details of the relationship, the nature of the the issue at hand, and what you want to get out of it.

Is this person a family member that you’re going to have long relationship with anyway? Is this someone you’ve just met and may not meet again? Is this an anonymous commenter on the internet?

Do you think the person is reacting defensively? If so, maybe there’s a strategy for de-escalating the stakes and getting inside those defenses.

Do you think the person has a real cognitive deficit that keeps them from reasoning well about this issue? Or is this a temporary or situational issue that could be improved by changing or reframing the context in some way?

And how do you feel about the outcome of this interaction? Why does their reaction frustrate you? Why are you invested in this?

These are questions that pull us deeper into the psychology of the person we’re interacting with, and deeper into our own psychology.

In some situations, the problem may not lie with the other person. The problem may lie with us, with what we’ve invested in the success or failure of these interactions.

It may be that we’re attached to something that other people pick up on. Maybe they’re reacting defensively to something that we’re manifesting in our demeanor, in our speech, in our questions.

I think we all know people who seem overly invested in winning arguments and changing minds. Sometimes they come across as overly intellectual, overly formal. They’re obviously bright and good arguers, but we find them annoying or off-putting.

Maybe that person is you, or me.

These are just questions to get us thinking about how complex the situation is that we’re discussing. When you sit down with someone to have a rational conversation, it’s not just a meeting of arguments … it’s a meeting of people.

The more you know about people — people in general, the specific people you’re interacting with, and maybe the most important person to know, yourself — the more you know, the more tools you’ll have at your disposal, and the more options you’ll be able to explore, in creating productive conversations.

Now let’s look at that second point. In most cases, our capacity to have a rational conversation comes in degrees, it’s not an all-or-nothing thing.

What does this imply for how we should respond to frustrating interactions with people?

Does it invalidate the black-and-white picture that I presented, with those three criteria that need to be satisfied for a conversation to qualify as a rational conversation?

I don’t think it does, but I’ll tell you how I rationalize the black-and-white picture with the picture where our capacity for rational communication comes in degrees.

The key is to think of this line that separates conversations that can be rational and productive and worth pursuing, and conversations that are compromised and no longer productive and no longer worth pursuing, as a choice.

There’s nothing in logic or theories of rationality that specifies where this threshold lies. We make that choice.

The line represents a decision that we’ve made about whether it’s worth it to continue this conversation with the hope of bringing about some rational resolution or change of opinion.

Different people can have good reasons to draw that line in different places.

If I’ve never met this person before and we’re talking over drinks at a party, my investment in the debate will be different than if this is a friend or a colleague of mine that I’ve known for years, and the issue is an important one that affects our relationship.

It will be different if this is an issue that really matters to me, where a resolution or a change of mind really matters to me, or if it’s just an academic issue that really doesn’t matter to me.

It will be different if the debate is public or if it’s private.

It will be different if I know I have to pick my battles, and I’ve decided whether this is a battle that needs to be fought or that I can let slide.

It will be different if the person I’m engaged with has a high tolerance for debate or a low tolerance for debate.

There are all sorts of reasons that can matter to whether I think this conversation is worth pursuing.

So yes, our capacity to have a rational conversation comes in degrees, but our decision to pursue a conversation is, by its nature, an all-or-nothing thing.

In hypothesis testing, something similar is going on. The support that a body of evidence affords a hypothesis comes in degrees, but the decision to accept or reject a hypothesis based on this body of evidence is a decision we make.

In argument analysis, the basic definition of a strong argument has a similar structure. Here’s the definition. An argument is strong if it satisfies the following condition. If all the premises were true, they would provide good reasons to accept the conclusion.

Usually this notion of good reasons is translated into some degree of probabilistic support. If all the premises were true, the conclusion would very likely be true.What counts as “very likely” isn’t specified. Logical strength comes in degrees. What counts as strong enough — strong enough to count as ‘good reasons’ to accept the conclusion — is not a matter of logic, it’sa decision we make, and we can have different reasons for setting that threshold higher or lower.

So the upshot is that there’s no cut and dried formula for deciding whether it’s worthwhile to pursue a conversation in the hopes that it might have some rational resolution.

The reality is that this is a skill that requires a high degree of judgment and self-awareness, and some people are a just better at it than others. They read the temperature of the room better. They’re better at not triggering defensive reactions. They’re better at helping people to see an issue from a different point of view, without being alienating or threatening. They’re better at the dance of conversation that bring people closer together rather than pushing them apart.

What I’m describing here is exactly the skill set that I think is missing when we teach argumentation and rational persuasion.

Yes, logic and evidence matters, but rational persuasion is never just about logic and evidence. It’s about rhetoric, it’s about psychology, and it’s about relationships, and it’s about knowing yourself.

When you bring all these skills into alignment, and you’re optimizing your effectiveness as a rational persuader … that’s what it means to become an argument ninja.

That’s the skill set that I’m trying to deconstruct in this podcast.

So, Essi, this is my answer to your question. I hope it was helpful in some way.

Questions can be a great way to organize episodes of the podcast, so I welcome them. You can send me an email at [email protected] , or use the contact form at criticalthinkeracademy.com, or leave questions in the comments section at argumentninja.com.

Now, earlier on in this episode I mentioned this new course that I’m working on, called “Is Your Brain a Computer?”. It’s a course on the philosophical and scientific issues surrounding this concept, that minds are related to brains in something like the way that computer software is related to computer hardware. This has been a driving metaphor of the cognitive science revolution, and it it underwrites many of our assumptions about the plausibility of creating machines that can think and be conscious in the way that we are.

The only people who will have access to the videos in this course, as they’re being developed, are my supporters on Patreon. So for as little as a dollar a month, you can get exclusive access to this content, before it’s ever published. At higher support levels you also get access to courses at the Critical Thinker Academy. Like the Informal Fallacies course that I mentioned. This course is part of a four-course bundle, that you get access to if you pledge just $3 dollars a month on Patreon.

I link to my Patreon page on all my sites, so you can find it at argumentninja.com or criticalthinkeracademy.com, or you can visit directly at patreon.com/kevindelaplante.

You can also support this podcast by leaving a rating and/or a review on iTunes. iTunes is still the biggest search engine for podcasts and it would really help the profile of the show if it got featured in the new and noteworthy section on the homepage, but that won’t happen without ratings and reviews.

Thanks so much, take care and we’ll see you again next week.