“I’ll Assume I’m Right, Until”

“Convince me I’m wrong, or else I don’t see why I should change my mind.” “I’m not familiar with that line of thinking which claims to disprove my view, and I won’t familiarize myself with it either. If you want me to engage with it, you’ll have to explain it to me while I resist learning or understanding, and then prove to me that it’s right while I apply unimaginably strict standards of rigour to your evidence that I’d never dream of applying to my own convictions.”

This is a lazy and ineffective way of arguing. Well, it’s effective if our only goal is to resist learning or growing or changing, or if we just want to feel good about ourselves without any real justification. Otherwise, it’s good for nothing. Sorry, I know that sounds harsh.

When definitely encountering this attitude in a discussion, the only thing to do is point it out and hope it is possible to correct it or work through it. There’s no point in continuing to debate with the attitude itself unaddressed, as the discussion will almost certainly go exactly nowhere.

(In fact, part of the reason why I wanted to write this post is so that in the future I can just send conversation partners a link and they can read my objections here, rather than me having to restate it every time the situation arises — and yes, it is that common!)

The hardest place to spot it is in our own attitudes. So if I do ever send this link to discussion partners, I’m inviting them to help me see my own blind spots as well. For some reason, this bizarre pattern of thinking that is so obviously, comically nonsensical when coming from someone else, always manages to seem completely rational when we ourselves are the ones making use of it, even though, of course, it is really still every bit as unreasonable.

Here’s what it comes down to. Someone else’s conclusions are not disproved by the fact that I myself don’t believe them, or by the fact that I am unfamiliar with them, or don’t understand them, or don’t know the reasons for them.

The best thing to do in such a situation, though it’s not always feasible, is to become an expert on the topic. Learn if there are other significant thinkers who have held the view and see what justifications they have offered for their conclusion. Then the conversation is no longer a conversation of the ignorant about what they don’t know, at the very least, which is a step in the right direction. But if that’s not possible because of time constraints, here are some other options:

It is fine to say, “I don’t have time to learn about that in any depth right now, so I’ll have to remain agnostic on the question for the moment. Sorry.”

It’s fine to say, “You clearly know more about this than I do, and I would be indebted to you if you could take some time to help me understand it.”

It’s fine to say, “Your defence of this view seems to be based on such-and-such a fallacy; can you either help me understand why it’s not a fallacy, or else show me another non-fallacious reason to accept your view?”

It’s fine to say, “I can’t imagine a good reason for believing that, though I’m genuinely trying. You’ve thought about this more than I have — can you suggest some good reasons why someone might believe it?”

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