Why you should argue in public and private

Greta asks a question of the FTB community today: Atheist Arguments — Public or Private?  My answer is: both.

There’s no pat answer to how you should conduct yourself in an argument, any more than you can encapsulate morality in a set of ten laws that are followed unfailingly without question.  Obviously, I’m a big fan of taking arguments public, which is why I love being on a TV show with lots of callers.  (Well, that, and I’m a big old narcissist.)  But what I generally say as a rule of thumb is that you should only have an argument if the argument is beneficial to you and your position in some way.

Argument is a performance, and a performance only has an audience.  But there are three different kinds of audience you might want to entertain, so there are basically three styles of argument you may wind up having.

  1. The audience is… someone else.  This is what happens when Greta posts an argument on her blog, or we do one of those cute “we get email” posts, or we take calls on TV, or there’s a public debate happening in an auditorium.
  2. The audience is the theist.  Bear in mind that you do not have to enter such arguments with the expectation of completely changing the theist’s mind and making him an atheist.  If a theist drifts across the spectrum from fundamentalist to liberal theist to agnostic to atheist to outspoken atheist, then you’ve done a good job.
  3. The audience is… yourself.  And that’s the most likely motivation for keeping an argument private.

Don’t underestimate the importance of the third audience, because atheists aren’t omniscient.  There are some difficult arguments that people butt up against as they learn to explore the philosophical implications of their beliefs, and sometimes you’re going to lose.  Seriously, it happens to everyone, because unless you are the single best debater in the whole world, tautologically there is somebody better than you.  So don’t fall into trap of thinking that “only stupid people disagree with me,” because that’s really not the case.

Never forget that arguing with somebody is essentially a game, and there are good players and bad players — or rather, there are better players and worse players.  You may be a pretty good chess player against your friends, but I don’t see you beating either Deep Blue or Garry Kasparov.  But the great thing about losing is that it’s a learning opportunity.  When you lose an argument, you’ve discovered a weak spot in your understanding of the issues.  Then one of two things is true: either you were wrong, in which case — hooray! — you can change your mind and now you’ll be right!  Or else, it turns out that you lost with a winning argument.

In this second case, now you have some direction to take your reading.  You should read more about this argument that beat you.  Find out what other people would say against it; find out what philosophers have said about it; find out whether it butts up against some important scientific principle that we know about.  The overall tournament doesn’t end just because you lost the game.  And once you learn exactly where you made the mistake, then the next time you run into this argument, you’re going to nail it.  That’s what arguing for yourself really does for you.

So really, there’s nothing wrong with taking an argument private.  There is always that chance that the theist is a reasonable person who will actually soften his position on some of his misconceptions.  Don’t tell me it never happens; it happens all the time.  And there’s also an equal chance that by practicing an argument in private, you will become a better player, which in turn will help you out with future public arguments.

And then those public arguments will help you sway more people who don’t have a vested interest in picking one answer… but only if you get good at it.  Don’t be so arrogant that you think you’ve won when you’ve actually lost.  That way lies victims of Dunning-Kruger.  If you’ve honed your abilities through practice, then by all means show off and win some souls.