2013-11-15

"You Don't Understand"

Sometimes we are so convinced in our own position that someone else can come up with a perfectly valid counter-point or counter-argument and we will fail to even notice it.

The most common way for this to happen is when we simply filter out any information that fails to uphold our existing point of view. So, for example, when theists encounter compelling philosophical arguments for atheism, they sometimes say, "You just need faith." However valid an appeal to faith might be in its own right, when it is used as a response to an argument, it amounts to nothing more than ignoring the substance of the argument and replacing it with what the folks at LessWrong.com call a "semantic stopsign." Roughly speaking, it is just a verbal signal to venture no further along that line of reasoning.

Baked into the theistic formulation of faith is the addendum that we don't question faith. So a theist's appeal to faith isn't so much an example of overlooking a counter-argument as it is simply ignoring it. In some sense, we can even forgive a theist for doing this since one cannot adhere to some religions without blind faith. It is a simple choice not to venture into fearsome forest of rationality. We might disagree with that choice, but we can respect a person's having made it.

Suppose, on the other hand, that Jones made an argument in favor of X, and Smith provided a counter-argument. What do we make of a situation in which Jones responds to Smith as follows: "You don't understand." ?

One possibility is that Smith very well doesn't understand. Smith could then ask for clarification, and Jones could provide it. This cycle could repeat itself until Smith either understands Jones' position and has no objections, or until Smith can provide a counter-argument that reflects a true understanding of Jones' argument.

Now, suppose Smith asks for clarification and Jones never provides it, but rather continues to reiterate his original proposition along with the claim that Smith "doesn't understand." What might we make of this?

It's possible in this case that Jones doesn't understand Smith's counter-argument. If so, it would be incumbent upon Smith to clarify it. In order to do that, however, Smith must make Jones understand at least that Smith understands Jones' original argument and that Jones doesn't understand Smith's counter-argument. If Jones never understands Smith's counter-argument then it might best be left alone.

It's also possible that Jones' accusation is a face-saving mechanism. It's possible that Jones does indeed understand Smith's counter-argument and cannot readily address it. Rather than acknowledge that Smith has a good point that Jones will have to think about, Jones can simply engage in a charade, leading Smith on as though Smith is the one who doesn't understand.