I like discussions - let's talk about definitions.
I like discussions. Seriously. You can stop me on the street, and start a discussion on any topic, and I'll spend as much time as a I can talking with you about it - and most of the time, I'll at least partially try to challenge your views, no matter if I actually agree with you or not, just as a mental exercise in trying to shift the perspective and analyze all facets of a topic. (I may or may not state this explicitly)
On a side-note: for simplicity's sake I'm using the terms discussion, debate and dialogue for every kind of exchange between two or more people about a topic about which there is no complete agreement/a knowledge gap between the participants, either about the whole topic or details thereof. I am well aware of the subtle differences between the terms, and also about the fact that my description is not the common usage of those words, but my thoughts here apply to such a broad spectrum of communications that specifying one or the other will always be incorrect. Additionally I'm sure you'll agree with me on the point that most engaging dialogues can turn into passionate discussions which then can turn into combative debates. So in the scope of this text I'll use the terms interchangeably.
One of the reasons I really like discussing is that I'm fascinated by the fractal nature of knowledge: no matter what niche you look at, you will always find out that there is more too it, that it's way more interesting then one would expect, and that there are people with strong opinions about details. Debating with a person about a topic that person is passionate about is just wonderful. Depending on my knowledge in the field I might fully engage in a dialogue, play devil's advocate for the other opinion or mostly sit pack and listen to learn and mostly just inquire to dig deeper.
Sadly, most discussions come to a halt in one of the following ways:
- the conclusion that nothing can be trusted except our self-awareness (Descartes was up to something with his "cogito ergo sum" - but cartesian doubt gets boring quickly)
- the conclusion that the question at stake is just a decision of a limit on a fluid scale
- the conclusion that everything depends on one or more definitions, which we don't have/agree on
- frustration by one party for the incapability of the other party to see the former's point
And once the debate reaches one this points, it's over - there's no point in discussing this further, except semantics, and (except if semantics was the actual topic we were discussing about) there's no point in continuing the discourse. Of course this is unavoidable: these are the natural conclusions if you take a carry on a discussion for a while.
No, that's not accurate.. these aren't conclusions, these aren't stopping points.
In my opinion, these are the crux of the discussions, this is what it's all about: we may discuss about if we should shoot down airplanes derailed by terrorists, but what we actually talk about is what is the relative worth of an innocent human's life. We might debate the viability of a vegan lifestyle, but in reality we're talking about how .. "aware" a living being must be for us to morally be allowed to use it. Sadly, most of the time, the discussion stops at this point, but this is the actually interesting point: elaborate your stance! Why do you think that a self-taught homeopath is more trustworthy then millenia of science? Why do you think that saving a few jobs is worth dooming the economy of a country? How did you choose how much freedom of expression we are willing to give up in the name of social justice? Why do you discard evidence for something? Why do you discard evidence against it? These are the really important discussions, the fundamentals, this is what shapes all our opinions on a variety of topics, our opinions being just emergent properties of choices we may have made unconsciously and we take for granted. The fact that we rarely discuss this root questions, and delegate such thoughts to philosophers and lawmakers, is pitiful, as this way we never consciously analyze our own decisions and opinions.
I could go on and on listing fundamental questions, but that would be boring, so let me take a step back: how can we even have meaningful discussions, if we can't agree on the actual definitions of the concepts we're talking about. Are video games sport? Well, it depends on how you define sport. Are video games art? Well, that depends on how you define art. So how can we have a discussion about topics we don't even agree on? (Woah, fancy sentence) We often have these discussions because we assume an implicit agreement on a common definition, without bother to state it explicitly.
The same applies to fluid scale issues: how can we talk about refugee crisis if we can't decided how much "suffering" a person can be expected to endure, or how "urgent" their need is, or how "bad" their situation. We just assume an implicit agreement on a given limit, and thus think the other is either a naive idiot or a non-empathic monster, just because we don't even consider that the limits on this fluid scales are set different for different people.
We can see how those two issues, the assumption of implicitly agreed definitions and limits, can lead to frustration during debates, so we have to find a way to deal with them. The simplest thing would be to just state everything explicitly - but that's not going to happen for a variety of reasons (listing them would just further lengthen this already way too long article), so we need some other solution.
Spoilers: I don't have a solution. I believe nobody does. But what I have is a personal non-solution: playing devil's advocate long enough until the discussion actually has to be about deep-rooted issues. Sometimes this makes me look like a jerk, most of the time it makes me look like a know-it-all ("Well, actually, ... " - you know the drill), but when it works out, you can't believe how fascinating a discussion gets. I didn't even mention the best part yet: as soon as all parties involved in the discourse are agreeing on a set of base definitions and ideas, even if it's just for argument's sake, the discussion can climb back up the abstraction ladder and offer great insights to all participants. This base agreement can even be built upon in future discussions, providing a much more pleasant exchange of ideas.
Sadly, like I already stated, this is a non-solution, as the downsides are too bad for this strategy to be really viable. My current discussion strategy involves plenty of biting my own tongue, as the reflexive need to "correct" others is always there - thanks to years of training. The on thing that helps me stay sane is explicitly challenging the other party's definitions, when appropriate: stating my understanding of their definition makes them question it and think it through themselves, thus temporarily descend to more base abstraction of ideas and try to agree on some core definitions.
I'm fascinated by people's personal definitions and lines in the sand, it's incredible how nuanced they can be (or not. "I know it when I see it" is one of the worst. definitions. ever.), and I love seeing how definitions and limits evolve over time (or don't). Sometimes I just straight ask people, why something changed, most of the time I just try to tingle it out from them, trying to follow their thoughts and maybe adjsuting my own definitions or limits accordingly.
I'm not sure how I'm gonna do it, but I think I'm gonna post some of my personal definitions and limits here, trying to dissect why and how I reached this point, and updating them to reflect my current definitions. This will also help me rethink my own definitions, so that's an additional benefit.
(I wrote this article in two sittings, and I really can't remember where I was going with this, so if it changes pace halfway through - I'm sorry. I wasn't even sure if I should post this, but I decided to go ahead anyway, and maybe I will update the post as soon as I have some idea how to improve it. consider this as a public beta of a blog post..)