Better Disagreement

Hon­est dis­agree­ment is of­ten a good sign of progress.

- Gandhi

Now that most com­mu­ni­ca­tion is re­mote rather than face-to-face, peo­ple are com­fortable dis­agree­ing more of­ten. How, then, can we dis­agree well? If the goal is in­tel­lec­tual progress, those who dis­agree should aim not for name-call­ing but for hon­est coun­ter­ar­gu­ment.

To be more spe­cific, we might use a dis­agree­ment hi­er­ar­chy. Below is the hi­er­ar­chy pro­posed by Paul Gra­ham (with DH7 added by Black Belt Bayesian).1

DH0: Name-Cal­ling. The low­est form of dis­agree­ment, this ranges from “u r fag!!!” to “He’s just a troll” to “The au­thor is a self-im­por­tant dilet­tante.”

DH1: Ad Hominem. An ad hominem (‘against the man’) ar­gu­ment won’t re­fute the origi­nal claim, but it might at least be rele­vant. If a sen­a­tor says we should raise the salary of sen­a­tors, you might re­ply: “Of course he’d say that; he’s a sen­a­tor.” That might be rele­vant, but it doesn’t re­fute the origi­nal claim: “If there’s some­thing wrong with the sen­a­tor’s ar­gu­ment, you should say what it is; and if there isn’t, what differ­ence does it make that he’s a sen­a­tor?”

DH2: Re­spond­ing to Tone. At this level we ac­tu­ally re­spond to the writ­ing rather than the writer, but we’re re­spond­ing to tone rather than sub­stance. For ex­am­ple: “It’s ter­rible how flip­pantly the au­thor dimisses the­ol­ogy.”

DH3: Con­tra­dic­tion. Gra­ham writes: “In this stage we fi­nally get re­sponses to what was said, rather than how or by whom. The low­est form of re­sponse to an ar­gu­ment is sim­ply to state the op­pos­ing case, with lit­tle or no sup­port­ing ev­i­dence.” For ex­am­ple: “It’s ter­rible how flip­pantly the au­thor dis­misses the­ol­ogy. The­ol­ogy is a le­gi­t­i­mate in­quiry into truth.”

DH4: Coun­ter­ar­gu­ment. Fi­nally, a form of dis­agree­ment that might per­suade! Coun­ter­ar­gu­ment is “con­tra­dic­tion plus rea­son­ing and/​or ev­i­dence.” Still, coun­ter­ar­gu­ment is of­ten di­rected at a minor point, or turns out to be an ex­am­ple of two peo­ple talk­ing past each other, as in the parable about a tree fal­ling in the for­est.

DH5: Re­fu­ta­tion. In re­fu­ta­tion, you quote (or para­phrase) a pre­cise claim or ar­gu­ment by the au­thor and ex­plain why the claim is false, or why the ar­gu­ment doesn’t work. With re­fu­ta­tion, you’re sure to en­gage ex­actly what the au­thor said, and offer a di­rect coun­ter­ar­gu­ment with ev­i­dence and rea­son.

DH6: Re­fut­ing the Cen­tral Point. Gra­ham writes: “The force of a re­fu­ta­tion de­pends on what you re­fute. The most pow­er­ful form of dis­agree­ment is to re­fute some­one’s cen­tral point.” A re­fu­ta­tion of the cen­tral point may look like this: “The au­thor’s cen­tral point ap­pears to be X. For ex­am­ple, he writes ‘blah blah blah.’ He also writes ‘blah blah.’ But this is wrong, be­cause (1) ar­gu­ment one, (2) ar­gu­ment two, and (3) ar­gu­ment three.”

DH7: Im­prove the Ar­gu­ment, then Re­fute Its Cen­tral Point. Black Belt Bayesian writes: “If you’re in­ter­ested in be­ing on the right side of dis­putes, you will re­fute your op­po­nents’ ar­gu­ments. But if you’re in­ter­ested in pro­duc­ing truth, you will fix your op­po­nents’ ar­gu­ments for them. To win, you must fight not only the crea­ture you en­counter; you [also] must fight the most hor­rible thing that can be con­structed from its corpse.”2 Also see: The Least Con­ve­nient Pos­si­ble World.

Hav­ing names for bi­ases and fal­la­cies can help us no­tice and cor­rect them, and hav­ing la­bels for differ­ent kinds of dis­agree­ment can help us zoom in on the parts of a dis­agree­ment that mat­ter.

Let me illus­trate by la­bel­ing ex­cerpts from Alvin Plant­inga’s crit­i­cal re­view of Richard Dawk­ins’ The God Delu­sion.

DH1, Ad Hominem:

Dawk­ins is not a philoso­pher… [and] you might say that some of his forays into philos­o­phy are at best sopho­moric, but that would be un­fair to sopho­mores...

DH2, Re­spond­ing to Tone:

[In this book] the pro­por­tion of in­sult, ridicule, mock­ery, spleen, and vit­riol is as­tound­ing. (Could it be that his mother, while car­ry­ing him, was fright­ened by an Angli­can cler­gy­man on the ram­page?) If Dawk­ins ever gets tired of his day job, a promis­ing fu­ture awaits him as a writer of poli­ti­cal at­tack ads.

DH4, Coun­ter­ar­gu­ment:

What is Dawk­ins’ re­ply [to the fine-tun­ing ar­gu­ment]? He ap­peals to ‘the an­thropic prin­ci­ple,’ the thought that… “we could only be dis­cussing the ques­tion in the kind of uni­verse that was ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing us.” …But how does that so much as be­gin to ex­plain why [our uni­verse] is fine-tuned? One can’t ex­plain this by point­ing out that we are in­deed here — any­more than I can ‘ex­plain’ the fact that God de­cided to cre­ate me (in­stead of pass­ing me over in fa­vor of some­one else) by point­ing out that if God had not thus de­cided, I wouldn’t be here to raise that ques­tion.

DH6, Re­fut­ing the Cen­tral Point:

Chap­ter 3, ‘Why There Al­most Cer­tainly is No God,’ is the heart of the book… [Dawk­ins says] the ex­is­tence of God is mon­u­men­tally im­prob­a­ble… So why does he think the­ism is enor­mously im­prob­a­ble? The an­swer: if there were such a per­son as God, he would have to be enor­mously com­plex, and the more com­plex some­thing is, the less prob­a­ble it is: “How­ever statis­ti­cally im­prob­a­ble the en­tity you seek to ex­plain by in­vok­ing a de­signer, the de­signer him­self has got to be at least as im­prob­a­ble...”

...What can be said for this ar­gu­ment? Not much. First, is God com­plex? Ac­cord­ing to much clas­si­cal the­ol­ogy… God is sim­ple, and sim­ple in a very strong sense… More re­mark­able, per­haps, is that ac­cord­ing to Dawk­ins’ own defi­ni­tion of com­plex­ity, God is not com­plex. Ac­cord­ing to [Dawk­ins] some­thing is com­plex if it has parts that are “ar­ranged in a way that is un­likely to have arisen by chance alone.” But of course God is a spirit, not a ma­te­rial ob­ject at all, and hence has no parts. There­fore, given the defi­ni­tion of com­plex­ity Dawk­ins him­self pro­poses, God is not com­plex.3

Of course, even a DH6 or DH7 dis­agree­ment can still be wrong. But at the very least, these la­bels can help us high­light the parts of a dis­agree­ment that mat­ter for get­ting at the truth.

Also see: Causes of Disagree­ments.


1 This ar­ti­cle is an up­date to my ear­lier post on CSA.

2 Some­times the term “steel man” is used to re­fer to a po­si­tion’s or ar­gu­ment’s im­proved form. A straw man is a mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of some­one’s po­si­tion or ar­gu­ment that is easy to defeat: a “steel man” is an im­prove­ment of some­one’s po­si­tion or ar­gu­ment that is harder to defeat than their origi­nally stated po­si­tion or ar­gu­ment.

3 For an ex­am­ple of DH7 in ac­tion, see Wie­len­berg (2009). Wie­len­berg, an athe­ist, tries to fix the defi­cien­cies of Dawk­ins’ cen­tral ar­gu­ment for athe­ism, and then shows that even this im­proved ar­gu­ment does not suc­ceed.