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The Dialectic Purpose (Week 39 of Wisdom)

When one considers how ready are the forces of young men for discharge, one does not wonder at seeing them decide so uncritically and with so little selection for this or that cause: that which attracts them is the sight of eagerness for a cause, as it were the sight of the burning match-not the cause itself. The more ingenious seducers on that account operate by holding out the prospect of an explosion to such persons, and do not urge their cause by means of reasons; these powder-barrels are not won over by means of reasons.

Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Years ago, neuroscientist Damasio made an important discovery. Based on his studies of people with brain damage, he found that people with damage to the part of the brain where emotions are generated act normally, except that they could not feel emotions. And they had something peculiar in common, they could not make decisions.

Even though they could describe what they ought to do in a very logical way, they could not get themselves to make even the simplest decision, such as what to eat.  

Philosophers have told us about our emotional and irrational natures for centuries, and modern psychologists have confirmed that it is not our rationality that determines what we choose to believe, but our emotions. Yet when people argue with one another, each assumes that they can convince the other person by using facts and logic.

The Inexperienced Debater

You must have noticed how young men, after their first taste of argument, are always contradicting people just for the fun of it; they imitate those whom they hear cross-examining each other, and themselves cross-examine other people like puppies who love to pull and tear at anyone within reach. So when they’ve provide a lot of people wrong and been proved wrong often themselves, they soon slip into the belief that nothing they believed before was true; with the result that they discredit themselves and the whole business of philosophy in the eyes of the world.

Plato, The Republic

But people do not usually argue because they want to convince you of something they are truly convinced about, or because they want to find the truth about something, but because the act of argument is entertaining.  

There are few activities as engaging and stimulating as argumentation. If the topic is sensitive or interesting, there is an unexpected surge in adrenaline, the unmasking of personal vitriol, moments of resentment seep through, hidden secrets reveal themselves for brief moments, insecurities become apparent, and both interlocutors are completely submersed in a shared reality. It is an intoxicating experience.

Plato’s recommendation is to avoid engaging in this activity with the wrong people. Those who argue, not because they have reached a conclusion, based on careful study and contemplation, but because they are in the mood for a tussle, regardless of what the topic is about.

The Birth of the Nihilist

The important thing to them is that a duel unfolds. And in these cases, a debate is a waste of time. Instead of delight or engagement, you will feel frustration, especially when you sense that the person you are arguing with does not really believe what they are saying. In this case, there is no shared exploration of truth, which brings us to the final sentence in the passage from Plato.

Because the juvenile debater is not interested in truth, and only cares about whether their ego is either preserved or destroyed in a debate, they develop an antagonistic and nihilistic attitude towards truth itself. After-all, if they are not in possession of the truth, and they know for certain that other people whom them have defeated are not in possession of the truth, then it must not exist. The underlying assumption is that someone is either in possession of the whole truth or none of it. It is in that sense that the nihilist and the idealist are close cousins.

The ideas that the nihilist has do not need to be true, they only need to be functional as shields which they can use to block out reality, or to help them project an image that it is in their interest to project.

Take stock of those around you and you will hear them talk in precise terms about themselves and their surroundings, which would seem to point to them having ideas on the matter. But start to analyze those ideas and you will find that they hardly reflect in any way the reality to which they appear to refer, and if you go deeper you will discover that there is not even an attempt to adjust the ideas to this reality. Quite the contrary: through these notions the individual is trying to cut off any personal vision of reality, of his own very life. For life is at the start a chaos in which one is lost. The individual suspects this, but he is frightened at finding himself face to face with this terrible reality and tries to cover it over with a curtain of fantasy, where everything is clear. It does not worry him that his “ideas” are not true, he uses them as trenches for the defense of his existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality.

Jose Ortega y Gasset

But there is an unresolved problem. If emotions are behind decisions, then presumably, they are behind beliefs. And if beliefs are emotional, then what is the point in seeking truth, knowing that in the process of discovery, one is bound to be derailed by an emotional inclination towards one belief or another? In other words, if I know that to find truth, I need to be rational, and since I know that my irrationality will stand in the way of my rationality, then how is it possible for me to find truth?

This point only underscores the importance of being exposed to many ideas. If each person, because they are governed to some extent by irrational forces, has a biased interpretation of reality, then the only way to discover the closest approximation to truth, is to be aware of opposing perspectives. The purpose of debate, of the dialectic process, can only be to bridge the gap in interpretation and observation brought about by emotional bias, towards an active exploration of a set of beliefs that is more convergent with reality.

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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