Miscellaneous

Don’t Apologize for Disagreeing

Tonight, a few of us got together at an airport hotel bar to socialize, watch the debate, and have some beers. At some point we were joined by a business traveler, with whom we had a nice conversation slash bull session about a wide array of topics.

One thing that struck me was that every so often, he’d say something none of us agreed with, like “Wouldn’t it be better to just stop following the news for six months?

Wouldn’t you be much more relaxed?” We’d argue with that, and he’d put up his hands and say “Look, I’m just throwing it out there.” That struck me as odd, but I was too distracted at the time to offer a proper reply. What I should have told him was:

“Don’t apologize. What you’re doing is forcing me to examine my beliefs, and see whether they’re well supported. If there are sound reasons for believing what I do, I ought to be able to find them. And if you uncover a flaw in my reasoning, then you’re doing me a favor; I can stop believing something that isn’t true.”

Argument Clinic I’ve been hanging around with people who value argument for so long that it’s become natural to assume that everyone is comfortable with the give and take of spirited debate. It’s easy to forget that in most situations, telling someone they’re wrong carries a subtext: “you’re an inferior person; you don’t know as much as I do, or you haven’t thought things through as well as I have.” (Obviously, I’m exaggerating a lot to make a point.)

But of course that’s not necessarily true. Nobody knows everything, and no one has the time to think everything through. Two people arguing can pool their knowledge, expose flaws in each other’s reasoning, and point out cases that the other hadn’t considered.

I want to believe as many true things, and as few false things, as possible. So if you can show me where I’m wrong, great. Don’t apologize. You’ll be doing me a favor.

5 thoughts on “Don’t Apologize for Disagreeing

  1. Wise words. I help moderate the space.com messageboards, and I’ve encountered a lot of people who have taken it very personally when someone disagrees with them or, worse, posts evidence contradicting them or a sound argument for why they are not convinced. At first, I just rolled my eyes at them. I mean c’mon, people, you’re not being oppressed just because someone dares to have a different viewpoint! But I met enough people who had that same problem that I began to wonder whether there was something fundamental to human nature that makes people prone to taking disagreement personally.

    You’ve nailed the reason — it’s because there is often a subtext (intentional or otherwise) that the person who is wrong is inferior. We’re social animals; we evolved with the capacity to jockey for position within the group, and so it’s probably adaptive to strive to be seen as the one who is right. Like a lot of adaptive traits, it has a negative side-effect, and that’s that it can make us lose our perspective when we encounter disagreement or contradictory evidence.

    The lesson I’ve taken away from that is twofold: on the one hand, I try to consciously resist being offended just because someone disagrees with me. On the other hand, I try to be gentle when I encounter someone who has taken offense to someone’s disagreement and try to remind them that if we really have open minds and really treasure freedom of speech, then we must respect all viewpoints and allow them to be heard. That doesn’t mean agreeing with them; it just means giving them a fair opportunity to make their case.

    There’s a delicate balance there too, of course, because I’ve seen many go too far the other way, treating all views as if they are equivalent, the result of which is that they all become meaningless.

  2. “I want to believe as many true things, and as few false things, as possible.”

    And yet there are exceptions. There are many uncomfortable truths that are irrefutable, but that we are generally the happier for ignoring. How would you get through your day if there was a sticker on your bathroom mirror which read, “Every action, decision and movement you make is merely the macroscopic appearance of a myriad infinitesimal energy interactions which are random, uncontrollable and utterly without higher meaning.” Would you still smile and whistle on your way to work?

    And how much harder is it to lose yourself in the pleasure of, say, romance, when you consider that the human being, like any living organism, is purely a vessel whose only “function” (if we can call it that) is to self-perpetuate? Romance precedes reproduction. Pretending otherwise, pretending something magical is going on, is to delude oneself — i.e. to believe false things. But of course you like the delusion better, don’t you?

    So I say: you make a good point, but be careful what you wish for. It is pleasant to forget these types of truths and live in a fairyland — far more so than the nihilistic alternative. But it is possible to forget how to forget, if you see what I mean, and that can be a curse. Ignorance really is bliss.

    m.e.t.a.

  3. m.e.t.a.:

    Would you still smile and whistle on your way to work?

    Yes, actually.

    For one thing, I don’t know what you mean by “higher purpose”. If you mean that the universe as a whole doesn’t care whether I live or die, that’s true, but it’s also true whether physics is, at its core, deterministic or not.

    If you mean that a hundred years after I die, there will almost certainly be no noticeable trace of my presence on this earth, then yes, that’s sad, and not something I want to dwell on.

    However, if I ever need to make a decision that depends on an uncomfortable fact, I’d rather know what the truth is. It’s unpleasant to think that I’ll die one day, but I shouldn’t make any major decisions on the assumption that I’m immortal.

    And how much harder is it to lose yourself in the pleasure of, say, romance, when you consider that the human being, like any living organism, is purely a vessel whose only “function” (if we can call it that) is to self-perpetuate?

    Your premise is wrong, since I have other purposes that don’t involve self-perpetuation, such as learning stuff, having a good time, helping my friends, solving various problems, and hopefully leave the world a slightly better place than I found it.

    And the fact that love, romance, the feeling of a loved one’s hand stroking one’s back are just chemicals and electrical impulses obeying the laws of physics doesn’t make them any less real. Rain is just a bunch of water molecules obeying the laws of physics; that doesn’t mean that rain isn’t “real” rain. Love is a lot more complicated than rain, but the same principle applies.

  4. Your premise is wrong, since I have other purposes that don’t involve self-perpetuation, such as learning stuff, having a good time, helping my friends, solving various problems, and hopefully leave the world a slightly better place than I found it.

    I believe we are interpreting the meaning of the word “purpose” in two different ways. When you said it, you were describing “purpose” in the metaphysical sense. For example, one might say, “I believe was born to be a doctor. Helping people is my purpose in life.” In this context the idea of purpose is abstract, indefinite, relative to the individual — a matter of opinion, in other words. When I used the word “function” (contextually synonymous with “purpose”) I meant it in a factual, causal sense. That is to say, I was asking, “What causes us [human beings] to be here? What causes life to exist?” The answer, of course, is: “Because life self-perpetuates”.

    A generation of organisms exists because the previous generation gave rise to it. If the entire previous generation had not reproduced then that species would spontaneously become extinct. I.e. it would cease to be called “alive”. Therefore part of the definition of life is “That which self-perpetuates [through reproduction]”. And so we can say that the primary function (or “purpose”, if you prefer) of any species — the drive at the core of its programming — is to reproduce. Humans are not an exception.

    And the fact that love, romance, the feeling of a loved one’s hand stroking one’s back are just chemicals and electrical impulses obeying the laws of physics doesn’t make them any less real.

    While I will not speculate what you mean by “real” (the word is vague and could take whatever meaning the reader wishes it to take) you make a good point; in fact, you have struck the nail on the head. As a species we are like any other in that we exist only to reproduce. The principle difference between “us” and all other life forms is that we are intelligent enough to describe this desire to reproduce. Almost invariably this description takes on a spiritual, magical, often religious air. What love song would ever gain popularity if its lyrics included, “You are a fertile female, and I a male of similar age. You appear healthy and fit for bearing young. Hormonal changes within my body cause me to want to mate with you.”?

    You assert that possession of knowledge of the physical processes by which rain falls and couples come together to mate does not make these phenomena any less “real”. I would argue, then, that our unique human ability to describe love and rain does not make these phenomena any more “real”.

    The reason you fell back on using the word “real” is because — and this is the crux of my argument — it is impossible to describe a phenomenon in a purely scientific/logical manner and yield a conclusion which includes the idea of “purpose”. A geologist might spend a lifetime studying erosion and find the resultant rock formations “beautiful”, but that is not a scientific or logical conclusion, it is merely their own opinion. And their opinion itself is a physical phenomenon.

    My point is that one must be deluded to be happy, and that knowing one is deluded diminishes the feeling of happiness. The religious may ask, “[Insert Creator/s here] gives life purpose. Without purpose, life is not worth living. So why do atheists not kill themselves?” The answer has two parts. Firstly, the instinct to survive is equally as strong as, if not stronger than, the instinct to reproduce. And so, while it may be relatively easy to logically deduce that suicide is equally as preferable as continued existence, it is very difficult to follow through accordingly. Secondly, it is easy to push the truth to the back of one’s mind and convince oneself that such fairytale concepts as “good”, “happy”, “right” and “fair” are in some way special, magical, or, for want of a better word, “real”.

    I spend most of my time in this dream state, as I’m sure you do, too. Most people never leave that state and, in spite of myself, it is those that I envy. Imagine if people could not believe in their own pleasure for more than a moment without being reminded that it is an illusion of their own, similarly illusory, consciousness. No, you can’t have both happiness and understanding of life at the same time. There isn’t room in the mind for both; you have to either stick with one or phase between the two, or else the cognitive dissonance would be unbearable.

    m.e.t.a.

  5. @meta: have to agree with arensb – you can still enjoy something pleasurable in the knowledge of the physical reasons it is pleasurable. I personally love doing so, as those reasons often bring up deeper philosophical questions: you not only get, for example, the visceral sense of belonging and peace of watching waves breaking on a beach, but also the intellectual stimulation of wondering where that feeling comes from.

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