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  • Jacob Hansen

Debate Vs Discussion

About a year ago I got in trouble with my wife for posting too much about my political, social and religious views online. While I believe it is appropriate to make occasional controversial statements in social media, I also know that these should be rare as most people are not going on Facebook in search of socio-political opinions from random people like me. Still, I enjoy discussing deeper philosophical, religious, political and social issues with people and wanted an outlet. I decided to create a private "think tank" group where people who did enjoy discussing these topics could post without fear of their in-laws or grandmother getting involved. The last year has been fascinating as I have observed the discussions that have taken place and I have come to learn a lot about what makes for good interactions and what does not.



Debate or Rational Discussion

There really are two types of interactions that happen on our page, the first of which is debate. This is where two parties, each with their minds made up, go to battle against one another. They do not try and seek out consensus with the other side, but instead try to win a battle through a mix up of ego and clever tactics. The goal is to make the undecided observer more favorable to your point of view. We all (myself certainly included) engage in debate from time to time. Debate can be fun, entertaining, exciting, and can/does help people get closer to understanding the truth, but I don't believe it to be the highest form of communication on hot button topics.

Note: "Truth: That which is in accordance with reality" (Oxford Dictionary)




My favorite interactions on important subjects are not debates, but rather the second type of interaction - what I call "rational discussions". Rational discussions are very different from debates and much more rare. They usually only happen in fleeting moments within our group where for a short time all sides lay down their prejudices, biases and preconceptions, listen to one another with the intent to understand, then together all parties search for the truth together as a quest instead of a competition. These discussions are rare and fragile because it only takes one combative and dissenting person to polarize the quest into parties and begin the war of debate. (This is also why you don't bring up certain topics at thanksgiving) Furthermore, rational discussions are essentially impossible with people of low maturity because it takes an intense amount of courage and self esteem to be willing to drop your preconceptions and look objectively at the facts and logic coming from the other side. In the end the best discussions are not about left wing, right wing, believer or atheist dichotomies, its about the objective quest for the truth about the reality that surrounds us.




The Building Blocks of a Rational Discussion

1) The Facts: The objective of a rational discussion is for all parties to come to a mutually agreed upon conclusion about reality. The first step is to lay out the facts and gain consensus on them.  The more self evident and objective a fact, the better. Even the meaning of key words in the discussion should be laid out as much as possible. This is not easy, but it's essential to do this first before continuing. 

Often the root of the disagreements are not in the logic or conclusions but in the facts supporting those conclusions. Sometimes the other parties may have facts you are not aware of and you too may have facts they are not aware of. The point is, that all objective facts should be laid out on the table and established prior to continuing. There will be no consensus later on unless their is a consensus in the beginning on what facts are at play in the discussion.




On a side note: Facts can be placed into two categories. Objective facts, meaning those which can be proven to others and subjective facts. Subjective facts are things which you know to be true but you can't prove to anyone else. I can say "God told me so", and maybe he really did. However, this is not a very valuable discussion tool even if it is real because you can't prove it to others and they essentially have to trust you are not a liar. This demonstrates one of the inherent limitations of rational discussion. There is no way to completely account for subjective facts in rational discussion. If a man saw God and was telling the truth you have no way figure that out via rational discussion.  However, this does not mean that discussions are useless- far from it. Most subjects afford you the ability to make valid conclusions with only objective facts. However, without a consensus about and a focus on the objective facts, there is no point in continuing a rational discussion.

2) The Logic: Once the facts are on the table then we use logic to organize them to produce conclusions. Logic can be studied with considerable depth through courses and books (like this one) but here is a simple example to illustrate a basic logical concept in practice.

------ Fact 1: Dogs are mammals Fact 2: Mammals have warm blood.

Logical Conclusion 1- Dogs have warm blood.

------- Fact 1: Dogs can fly Fact 2: Flight is only done by airplanes.

Logical Conclusion 2- Dogs are airplanes.

------ Logic does not say if an conclusion is valid, validity is dependent on the facts. Logical conclusion 2 is completely logical, but it is based on erroneous facts.  Logic merely shows that the statement is consistent and does not commit any logical fallacies. (<here are some common ones>). Below is the simple examples given above written out mathematically. A, X and Y could be anything but the logical flow is still the same

Fact A = X Fact X = Y

Logical Conclusion= A=Y

You can see that regardless of the truth of the statement, it can still logically be consistent. This is why consensus on the facts is so important before reaching conclusions. Too often people get derailed disagreeing about conclusions and logic without ever first gaining consensus about the facts in play.

3) The Conclusion. Conclusions are facts and logic combined. When people reach different conclusions they need to look back into the facts and the logic to see where they lost consensus. If two parties are walking together trying to find a truth they can both agree on, they need to identify where they agree, exactly where they disagree and why. As I have watched the endless disagreements in our "think tank" group I can see people thinking they are so much different from each other. However, as I have looked closer I find that we are actually very similar but differ on a few fundamental facts (either subjective or objective) that lead us down very different paths where with each additional step we find another reason to disagree. Notice that on TV the same people debate all day long about a variety of government policies and can never seem to agree on nearly any of them. This is not because they disagree on the policies per se, but because they fundamentally disagree about the proper role of government. You will never agree on policy if you don't first agree on the role of government. However, instead of having discussions about the root differences they spend time hacking at the leaves.



Rational discussions are exciting when they happen. When you have a group of mature people who have dropped their defenses, are totally transparent, trusting of each other and honestly seeking the truth it creates a synergy that is palpable and exciting. All sides are guilty of messing this up (myself included) but I believe it is the ideal and one of the key methods we have for coming to know the truth about the reality around us.  

Questions for reflection

- Do you gain consensus about facts before voicing your conclusions? - Do you consider there are facts possessed by others you are not aware of, perhaps even from those you think are complete fools? Do you even try and find out if they have some? - Do you know how to spot common logical fallacies? - Do you strive for rational discussion or are you just looking to debate? - Are you hacking at the leaves or are you discussing the heart of your disagreements? - Do you know how to find the fundamental disagreements that lead to all the others? - What are the pro's and con's of debate? - What are the pro's and con's or rational discussion?

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