In this post, which is not a part of my apologetics series, I give my reasons against the following viewpoints:
Claim: The best test of an argument is its ability to convince someone with an opposing viewpoint.
Reason: Only by being forced to defend an idea against the doubts and contrasting views of others does one really discover the value of that idea.
The following is a practice essay written as a part of my preparation for GRE General Test which I am taking on Tuesday, October 3rd (wish me luck!). The text has been slightly edited in order to conform to the style of this blog.
A valid argument is a sequence of propositions arranged in a logical order such that when the premises are true, then the conclusion necessarily follows. The soundness of an argument is therefore a function of the validity of its logic and the truth of its starting points. This should be in fact completely clear: unless the content of the argument is correct, the argument is not good.
The claim in question, however, stipulates that the best test of an argument is its ability to convince someone with an opposing viewpoint. Now, this is a manifestly different criterion. Besides observing that there is no clear connection by means of which the difference between a psychological property (being convinced) and a factual one (argument being sound) could be logically overcome, I have several arguments against the claim.
First of all, being unconvinced may in general have multiple causes other than the quality of the argument, such as failure to understand the reasoning, the listener’s cognitive biases, and even sheer unwillingness to change one’s mind on the issue.
My second argument is empirical. There are many conspiracy theories out there, for example the theory that Moon landing was fabricated. Due to faulty reasoning, people who believe in such conspiracies are rarely convinced by sound arguments, yet we surely wouldn’t say that there are no good arguments that Moon landing did happen. The issue is that these arguments won’t convince someone with an opposing viewpoint no matter how powerful they are – perhaps due to some sort of personal identification with the view. The same applies to flat-Earthers, anti-vaccination movement etc.
Let us now consider the reason given in support of the claim in question. First I will clarify that I do see the value of discussing arguments with people of contrasting views; I do admit that it may have positive impact, mainly because it is a fact of psychology that if we agree with the conclusion, we may be oftentimes blind to flaws in our argument. So discussing with other people and listening to their objections can have positive effect and this is something I would recommend to everyone. But it’s not the case that it is through this process that “does one really discover the value of [the] idea” – that’s because the value of the idea is dependent only on the logical content of the argument. Moreover, it can be simultaneously true that in the course of discussion I successfully defended my idea against objections (and neutral bystanders acknowledge that), yet my opponents are not convinced, so the reason does not support the claim.
So, to conclude, while I agree that discussing an idea with others with an opposing view has a positive effect, I do not think this fact supports the claim, which in my view is false.
(By the way, as a matter of fact the argument stated in the beginning does not convince me at all that the claim is true. But if the claim was true, then me being unconvinced would imply that the argument failed the best possible test and therefore the claim must actually be false. Through this reductio ad absurdum we arrive at the conclusion that the claim cannot be true; and since the sentence is meaningful, the claim must be false.)