Convincing By Stories

When someone writes a story, something is being invented. It is not merely a narration of facts, since otherwise it would not be a story at all, but a history, or some other kind of account regarding the world as it is.

Nonetheless, there is always something in common with the real world, or something implicitly supposed to be in common with the real world. Thus for example The Betrothed presupposes and sometimes mentions actual facts about seventeenth century Italy, even while including an invented narrative about individual persons. Similarly, the film Interstellar  presupposes and sometimes mentions various scientific facts about the universe, even while adding various other things which almost certainly cannot exist in the real world, like time travel.

It is not difficult to see that it is essential to stories to have such a background in common with the real world, for if there were absolutely nothing in common with the real world, the story would be unintelligible. Among other things, a story must follow the laws of logic, at least most of the time, or it will be impossible to understand it as presenting an intelligible narrative. Consequently, a story will make sense to us insofar the background, real or supposedly real, makes the invented narrative a plausible and interesting one. Thus Manzoni’s novel must present a narrative that seems like a possible one in the context of seventeenth century Italy. Likewise, if the background implies that the invented narrative is highly implausible, the story will not make much sense to us. Thus, for example, while I enjoyed most of Interstellar, my experience was somewhat spoiled by the addition of time travel, and this generally tends to be the case for me when stories involve this particular idea. This is largely because time travel is probably logically impossible. To the degree that other people do not think that it is, or do not feel as if it were, it is less likely to disrupt their enjoyment of time travel stories.

The result of all this is that stories are one of the most effective ways to convince people of things. When we are giving our attention to a story, we are not in the mood for logical analysis or careful thought about the precise nature of the real world. And yet, in order to understand the story, we need to implicitly distinguish between the “real background” and the “invented narrative.” But in fact we may not be able to draw the line precisely; if someone does not know the details of the history of seventeenth century Italy, he will not actually know the difference between the things that Manzoni takes from the real world, and the things that Manzoni invents.The result is that a person can read the book, and walk away believing historical claims about Italy in the real world. These claims may be true, but they might also be false. And this can happen without the person having any explicit idea of learning history from a novel, and without noticing that he has become convinced of something which he previously did not believe.

 

Quotations

This blog very frequently includes quotations. Some posts are essentially nothing but a quotation, as this one here, and others do not contain much beyond a series of long quotations, as for example this one.

Why do I use the thoughts of others rather than putting things in my own words? There are a number of reasons. It is very practical. It is much easier to compose a long blog post using quotations, while it takes a lot of time and energy to write everything yourself. And the idea of originality here is not really relevant. For as Qoheleth says, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” Most of the positions argued on this blog have been argued by others, and there is nothing surprising about this. In addition, insofar as a new contribution is possible, one can do this by organizing the thoughts of others, just as Socrates teaches the boy by helping him organize his thoughts

But the most important reason is the following. Speakers and writers are addressing people, and just as beliefs have motives, so the act of speaking or writing has a motive. And whether or not people approve of doing this, the listener or the reader tends to think of these motives. As Alexander Pruss discusses in a blog post here, sometimes such considerations are necessary. Nonetheless, this can lead people away from understanding reality. If instead of thinking about what I am saying and what is true about it, someone thinks, “Why is he saying this?”, this can hinder them in their understanding of the truth of the matter.

Quotations are very helpful in reducing this effect. Since a quotation is taken out of context, it is removed from the motivation of the original speaker. Yes, there is still a motive on the part of the person who includes the quotation. But the reader who reads the quotation knows that it is not addressed to him in the manner of the original. He does not need to say, “Why is the original author saying this?”, because it does not matter in the new context. The only thing that matters is what he is saying, not why he is saying it. So it provides some impetus towards considering the truth of the matter. This remains true whether the quotation itself says something which is true, or something which is false.

I Respond

If we consider the last two posts, we can see that they resemble a disputed question. However, unlike St. Thomas’s Summa Theologiae, and instead in the technical manner of a disputed question, there are arguments on both sides. Additionally, I did not include the typical “response of the master,” nor did I include responses to the arguments. I will explain these omissions shortly.

James Chastek, in the passage quoted here, asserted that it is difficult to make your opponent’s arguments without relating to them as something to be refuted. As we have seen from these examples, there is actually no big difficulty here, and historically this was done with the disputed question. In principle people could even write books this way, and they probably have, on occasion. One could write an entire book on the actual infinite with the structure, “Part I: An Actual Infinite is Possible,” and “Part 2: An Actual Infinite is Impossible.”

There are a lot of reasons why people don’t do this in general, and why for example I would not write blog posts like this in general. One factor is the practical issue that it is twice as much work. Another is the concrete goal of a book or a blog post.

Why did I not include the response of the master? In the medieval schools, the arguments on each side were formulated by the students, followed by the master’s response and his answers to the arguments. Thus, since the master did not compose the original arguments, he could make a new argument for his conclusion, outside of the original arguments. But since I was the one composing the arguments on each side, if I thought there was a very strong argument for one conclusion, I could simply include it there. Consequently a special response would simply repeat something contained in the series of arguments.

But there is more to it than this. A special response would also give away my personal opinion, which I preferred to avoid. If I could simply state the strong arguments in the series, nothing would be added by restating it as the “response of the master” except the bare fact that I agree with the one side rather than the other.

Consider how students will react to such a thing in real life. In terms of the argument, nothing is added to their understanding of reality by this response. Nonetheless, they receive additional evidence in favor of one conclusion, namely that the teacher agrees with one side. So they will have an additional reason to agree with that side, a real reason, but not one that adds to their understanding of the issues. Thus, to the degree that they believe that this response has contributed to their understanding, they are simply mistaken, and consequently believe that they understand things better than they do.

The issue of the responses to the arguments in somewhat different. If someone wrote the above book on the Actual Infinite, presumably Part I would also include responses to the main arguments in Part II, and Part II would include responses to the main arguments in Part I. This is in fact very important for understanding. Although arguments are never one-sided, they are frequently mostly one-sided, where most of the best arguments and evidence are indeed on one side. And in such cases, this usually becomes most clear when one considers the responses to the opposing arguments, and, consequently, where one begins to actually understand the matter at hand, and to recognize the truth of the matter.

So I did not include such responses because most likely they would reveal more clearly which side had the stronger argument, and which side I agreed with. But note that in principle these two things would be the same: the reasons which would show that I agreed with one side, would show that this was the better and more likely side. In practice of course there might be other ways that someone could guess my opinion, as for example from the style of the arguments and so on. (For the record, my opinion cannot be determined by which side went first; that was determined by the flip of a coin.)

Someone once posted on Twitter (I can no longer find the particular post) something along the lines of, “How can you be unbiased if I can tell which side you are on?” We can see here that in fact there is a valid answer to this: if I simply present all of the best arguments for both sides, together with their responses, then you can tell which side I am on by determining which side is probably right, and the fact that you can determine my side in that way does not suggest that I am biased. On the other hand, if you note that I have missed strong and important arguments on the side of the part that seems weaker in my presentation, that might be a reason for thinking that I am biased.

That said, the responses to the arguments in the previous posts, and consequently the “response of the master,” is left here as an exercise for the reader.

Making Your Point vs. Understanding Reality

Generally speaking, people who write something know in advance what they are going to say, and not surprisingly, they agree with it. Along these lines, Hal Finney says in this comment:

Michael Ruse is quoted above as saying, “The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist, and the McGraths show why.” That’s very much to his credit, that although he agrees with the conclusion of Dawkins’ book, he disagrees with the arguments. You don’t often get people willing to make these kinds of public statements that undercut arguments in favor of their beliefs.

Sounds like McGrath himself is a theist, unfortunately, so his book is arguing for a conclusion he believes in, as did Dawkins. And of course, as is true for virtually 100% of books every published. Can you imagine a book arguing page after page for the existence of God, written by someone who doesn’t believe in God? Or vice versa? Is it a sign of bias, that we never see that?

This isn’t so much a sign of bias, as an effect of a person’s goals. If someone thinks that something is true, he may want others to know that it is true. Normally he would not want others to think that it is false, which would be the expected effect of arguing that it is false.

Nonetheless, the fact that the writer knows where he is going can have bad effects. We saw that in the case of Spinoza’s ethics. But this can happen with anyone: if I am trying to make a point which is in fact false, then I will be likely to make fallacious arguments. Likewise, even if my point is true, but in reality I do not have very good reasons to think it is true, I will be likely to try to make my arguments look stronger than they actually are.

Despite such possibilities, however, the fact that I have a position and that I wish to persuade others gives me some reason to argue for that position rather than arguing for the opposite. Nonetheless, this results from my goal of persuading others. If my goal is to understand the truth myself, arguing one side rather than the other is not helpful: in such a case I should indeed argue both sides, as was done with disputed questions. In other words, the goal of making a point is different from the goal of understanding, and these goals require different means in order to accomplish them.

James Chastek comments on a similar issue:

All the pleas for dialogue I have heard came from the Left, and all of them beggar belief. However sincere the Leftist might be – and I’m not a mind-reader in any position to decide the question – I can’t get beyond the fact that the Leftist himself never follows his own advice by just giving the reasons of his opponents. Why give a speech that “calls for dialogue” when you could give a speech that presents, without comment or judgment, both your own reasons and those of your opponents? Why are calls for dialectic so reliably non-dialectical?

So you want dialogue? Great. You first. Explain the arguments of the other side without continually relating to them as things to be refuted. I can’t do this, even after many years of criticizing my own thoughts and trying to find real insights in opponents (each of whom are sure believe, with some justification, that my thoughts are far more narrow than they seem to me.)

The goal of making your point only requires that you be able to make arguments for your position, but the goal of understanding requires that you be able to make the opposing arguments as well. So if you can’t do this, there is likely a great deal lacking to your understanding of reality.

In the following posts, for illustration, I will argue both sides of various positions.