Debates can be fun, but are ultimately pointless

As the president of an atheist / skeptical organization I've occasionally been invited to debate true believers.  I've accepted a couple of those in the past, but declined the last invite I've received.

I've come to the realization that debate is merely a sport.

Don't get me wrong - sports are fine.  Lots of Americans go crazy over their favorite football or basketball team.  And although I'm not usually interested in sports I can spend a pleasant afternoon watching minor-league baseball at the local stadium.

Debates are much like a boxing match.  Two opponents duking it out with arguments instead of fists.  And like boxing it has very little correlation with finding out what is true or not, outside of who is better at the sport.

In a boxing match being smart about the sport is great, but might not be enough against someone who is quicker and more physically fit.  In a debate the more intelligent opponent may be defeated by someone who quickly throws out lots of arguments in a glib, but engaging manner. 

This is a terrible way to determine what is true.

Don't get me wrong - debates can be fun to watch or participate in as long as you realize that they ultimately don't have any bearing on what is true.  And it is exactly this reason why I decline debates - because religious people take a debate "win" as an affirmation that their position is true. 

Equating the winning of a debate with truth is so obviously a fallacy that I'm surprised that no one seems to have given this fallacy it's own name. 

As I said, debates can be fun.  But in order to remove some of the advantages that debate tactics confer, I prefer to debate only in writing, in a forum that all can see and comment upon.  It's easy to make a claim in a spoken debate that an opponent will not be able to verify as true or false.  But in a written debate, with a day between responses, it is possible for a debater to unpack his opponent's claim and demonstrate it to be false. 

In this, a written debate is closer to the process used in peer review.  But not close enough.  Ultimately even this sort of debate is not very useful in finding out what is true.  Although perhaps it may be useful in determining areas that warrant further investigation.



Peter Wall said...

Debates just aren't reality, especially when the subject is religion or theism. A debate is a stylized argument about a proposition, which means participants must presuppose that the subject is amenable to propositional argument. But few people, if any, hold real religious beliefs on the basis of propositional arguments. Their beliefs are the products of habit or devotion, primarily relating to the interpretation of their experiences. Moreover, while I think people do abandon religious beliefs by following the contours of propositional arguments, such arguments will not be effective unless they have waned in their habitual or devotional interpretation of their experiences. That is, people with a desire to believe are going to believe. And a debate is not likely to affect their desire to believe—because the desire isn't built on propositional arguments.

I do think that exposure to conflicting ideas and interpretations can tend to soften the resolve of a believer to maintain the habit and devotion. What might make the difference in a debate, I think, is not what the debaters say but who they are. When people encounter others who do not share their beliefs and are required to confront them as full persons, instead of as caricatures, then it may cause them to question whether their habits and devotions are really necessary, or even useful. But in debates over religion, the deck is always stacked for the part of the audience that is favorable to religion: they come in with strong in-group identification that allows them to believe they know the religious debater as a person much more intimately than they know the non-religious debater. That is an illusion, of course, but it means they tend to see the non-religious debater as less than a full person, shallow, a fraud, fundamentally in denial about reality, and so on. So no matter what they say, no matter how analytically persuasive it may be, their view will always be discounted.

Unfortunately, the very nature of a "debate" is to wave the hands and say "pay no attention to the human beings here, just focus on what they say." When religious people demand these debates, I think they know, whether consciously or not, that the nature of the debate gives them an advantage: they can capitalize on the strong in-group identity that fellow believers will share, and which non-believers notoriously lack. If a non-believer were to get up in such a debate and simply try to humanize himself, then the shrewd believer would accuse him of misdirection, to much acclaim from his fellow believers in the audience.

As Admiral Ackbar would say, "It's a trap!"

And it's something like a Chinese finger trap. If all you do is argue vigorously against religion or theism or however the subject is parsed, then you're almost certain to "lose" the debate, the way religious people keep score. The harder you argue, the worse you lose. But if you pay attention to relationships and reputations, and work on humanizing yourself, then you might soften the soil a bit, and make the arguments more effective. That's where the dispute over "tone," which is raging along the borders of the for-or-against-religion battle, goes completely the wrong way, in my opinion. The problem is not the tone of the arguments, but that they come from people who have essentially just hollowed each other out into caricatures. It's possible to take an edgy tone and still recognize the full humanity of your opponent—it's just difficult. And debates are not set up as appropriate places to confront that challenge.

Calladus said...

When people encounter others who do not share their beliefs and are required to confront them as full persons, instead of as caricatures, then it may cause them to question whether their habits and devotions are really necessary, or even useful.

This is one reason why I don't mind giving talks, or hosting a tabling event.

It's hard to demonize the person sitting in front of you.