How to Not Lose an Argument

Related to: Leave a Line of Retreat

Followup to: Talking Snakes: A Cautionary Tale, The Skeptic’s Trilemma

“I argue very well. Ask any of my remaining friends. I can win an argument on any topic, against any opponent. People know this, and steer clear of me at parties. Often, as a sign of their great respect, they don’t even invite me.”

--Dave Barry

The science of winning arguments is called Rhetoric, and it is one of the Dark Arts. Its study is forbidden to rationalists, and its tomes and treatises are kept under lock and key in a particularly dark corner of the Miskatonic University library. More than this it is not lawful to speak.

But I do want to talk about a very closely related skill: not losing arguments.

Rationalists probably find themselves in more arguments than the average person. And if we’re doing it right, the truth is hopefully on our side and the argument is ours to lose. And far too often, we do lose arguments, even when we’re right. Sometimes it’s because of biases or inferential distances or other things that can’t be helped. But all too often it’s because we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.

How does one avoid shooting one’s self in the foot? In rationalist language, the technique is called Leaving a Social Line of Retreat. In normal language, it’s called being nice.

First, what does it mean to win or lose an argument? There is an unspoken belief in some quarters that the point of an argument is to gain social status by utterly demolishing your opponent’s position, thus proving yourself the better thinker. That can be fun sometimes, and if it’s really all you want, go for it.

But the most important reason to argue with someone is to change his mind. If you want a world without fundamentalist religion, you’re never going to get there just by making cutting and incisive critiques of fundamentalism that all your friends agree sound really smart. You’ve got to deconvert some actual fundamentalists. In the absence of changing someone’s mind, you can at least get them to see your point of view. Getting fundamentalists to understand the real reasons people find atheism attractive is a nice consolation prize.

I make the anecdotal observation that a lot of smart people are very good at winning arguments in the first sense, and very bad at winning arguments in the second sense. Does that correspond to your experience?

Back in 2008, Eliezer described how to Leave a Line of Retreat. If you believe morality is impossible without God, you have a strong disincentive to become an atheist. Even after you’ve realized which way the evidence points, you’ll activate every possible defense mechanism for your religious beliefs. If all the defense mechanisms fail, you’ll take God on utter faith or just believe in belief, rather than surrender to the unbearable position of an immoral universe.

The correct procedure for dealing with such a person, Eliezer suggests, isn’t to show them yet another reason why God doesn’t exist. They’ll just reject it along with all the others. The correct procedure is to convince them, on a gut level, that morality is possible even in a godless universe. When disbelief in God is no longer so terrifying, people won’t fight it quite so hard and may even deconvert themselves.

But there’s another line of retreat to worry about, one I experienced firsthand in a very strange way. I had a dream once where God came down to Earth; I can’t remember exactly why. In the borderlands between waking and sleep, I remember thinking: I feel like a total moron. Here I am, someone who goes to atheist groups and posts on atheist blogs and has told all his friends they should be atheists and so on, and now it turns out God exists. All of my religious friends whom I won all those arguments against are going to be secretly looking at me, trying as hard as they can to be nice and understanding, but secretly laughing about how I got my comeuppance. I can never show my face in public again. Wouldn’t you feel the same?

And then I woke up, and shook it off. I am an aspiring rationalist: if God existed, I would desire to believe that God existed. But I realized at that point the importance of the social line of retreat. The psychological resistance I felt to admitting God’s existence, even after having seen Him descend to Earth, was immense. And, I realized, it was exactly the amount of resistance that every vocally religious person must experience towards God’s non-existence.

There’s not much we can do about this sort of high-grade long-term resistance. Either a person has enough of the rationalist virtues to overcome it, or he doesn’t. But there is a less ingrained, more immediate form of social resistance generated with every heated discussion.

Let’s say you approach a theist (let’s call him Theo) and say “How can you, a grown man, still believe in something stupid like talking snakes and magic sky kings? Don’t you know you people are responsible for the Crusades and the Thirty Years’ War and the Spanish Inquisition? You should be ashamed of yourself!”

This suggests the following dichotomy in Theo’s mind: EITHER God exists, OR I am an idiot who believes in stupid childish things and am in some way partly responsible for millions of deaths and I should have lower status and this arrogant person who’s just accosted me and whom I already hate should have higher status at my expense.

Unless Theo has attained a level of rationality far beyond any of us, guess which side of that dichotomy he’s going to choose? In fact, guess which side of that dichotomy he’s now going to support with renewed vigor, even if he was only a lukewarm theist before? His social line of retreat has been completely closed off, and it’s your fault.

Here the two definitions of “winning an argument” I suggested before come into conflict. If your goal is to absolutely demolish the other person’s position, to make him feel awful and worthless—then you are also very unlikely to change his mind or win his understanding. And because our culture of debates and mock trials and real trials and flaming people on Usenet encourages the first type of “winning an argument”, there’s precious little genuine mind-changing going on.

Really adjusting to the second type of argument, where you try to convince people, takes a lot more than just not insulting people outright1. You’ve got to completely rethink your entire strategy. For example, anyone used to the Standard Debates may already have a cached pattern of how they work. Activate the whole Standard Debate concept, and you activate a whole bunch of related thoughts like Atheists As The Enemy, Defending The Faith, and even in some cases (I’ve seen it happen) persecution of Christians by atheists in Communist Russia. To such a person, ceding an inch of ground in a Standard Debate may well be equivalent to saying all the Christians martyred by the Communists died in vain, or something similarly dreadful.

So try to show you’re not just starting Standard Debate #4457. I remember once, during the middle of a discussion with a Christian, when I admitted I really didn’t like Christopher Hitchens. Richard Dawkins, brilliant. Daniel Dennett, brilliant. But Christopher Hitchens always struck me as too black-and-white and just plain irritating. This one little revelation completely changed the entire tone of the conversation. I was no longer Angry Nonbeliever #116. I was no longer the living incarnation of All Things Atheist. I was just a person who happened to have a whole bunch of atheist ideas, along with a couple of ideas that weren’t typical of atheists. I got the same sort of response by admitting I loved religious music. All of a sudden my friend was falling over himself to mention some scientific theory he found especially elegant in order to reciprocate2. I didn’t end up deconverting him on the spot, but think he left with a much better appreciation of my position.

All of these techniques fall dangerously close to the Dark Arts, so let me be clear: I’m not suggesting you misrepresent yourself just to win arguments. I don’t think misrepresenting yourself would even work; evolutionary psychology tells us humans are notoriously bad liars. Don’t fake an appreciation for the other person’s point of view, actually develop an appreciation for the other person’s point of view. Realize that your points probably seem as absurd to others as their points seem to you. Understand that many false beliefs don’t come from simple lying or stupidity, but from complex mixtures of truth and falsehood filtered by complex cognitive biases. Don’t stop believing that you are right and they are wrong, unless the evidence points that way. But leave it at them being wrong, not them being wrong and stupid and evil.

I think most people intuitively understand this. But considering how many smart people I see shooting their own foot off when they’re trying to convince someone3, some of them clearly need a reminder.


1: An excellent collection of the deeper and most subtle forms of this practice of this sort can be found in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, one of the only self-help books I’ve read that was truly useful and not a regurgitation of cliches and applause lights. Carnegie’s thesis is basically that being nice is the most powerful of the Dark Arts, and that a master of the Art of Niceness can use it to take over the world. It works better than you’d think.

2: The following technique is definitely one of the Dark Arts, but I mention it because it reveals a lot about the way we think: when engaged in a really heated, angry debate, one where the insults are flying, suddenly stop and admit the other person is one hundred percent right and you’re sorry for not realizing it earlier. Do it properly, and the other person will be flabbergasted, and feel deeply guilty at all the names and bad feelings they piled on top of you. Not only will you ruin their whole day, but for the rest of time, this person will secretly feel indebted to you, and you will be able to play with their mind in all sorts of little ways.

3: Libertarians, you have a particular problem with this. If I wanted to know why I’m a Stalin-worshipper who has betrayed the Founding Fathers for personal gain and is controlled by his base emotions and wants to dominate others by force to hide his own worthlessness et cetera, I’d ask Ann Coulter. You’re better than that. Come on. And then you wonder why people never vote for you.