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Do arguments change minds?

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This topic has come up a couple of times in classes, so I thought I’d post it and see what responses we get. The question is about philosophical arguments, of course, not yelling matches followed by fisticuffs. (If you’re not sure about the difference, see the Monty Python clip over in the VodPod, on the right.) Here are some initial attitudes, for priming the pump:

A “YES” answer: yes, arguments can change minds. Once in a while, someone presents a sets of reasons we accept, and logic requires us to adopt the conclusion. It may not be immediate — the conversation may take weeks, but eventually the force of the reason gets us to change our minds.

A “NO” answer: no, arguments don’t work. Beliefs are based on many factors, including how one was raised, what one’s friends believe, emotional stuff, etc. When someone presents an argument to you, and you change your mind, it’s not the argument that does it. Rather, you were already disposed toward changing your mind, and the argument just gives you the “excuse” for doing so. Arguments merely justify beliefs you already have; they don’t give you those beliefs.

What do you all think?

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7 Comments

  1. Mike says:

    YES, and even if an argument doesn’t change a belief it may change the claims that a person makes in regard to a belief (arguments might be consistency more than growth generators). But experience usually trumps argumentation.

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  2. Stuart says:

    I say No. I don’t think arguments change my mind as much as I’m predisposed towards certain beliefs. It’s like you say: one’s environment, friend’s beliefs and emotional outlook shape our beliefs, and when some of these things change, some of our beliefs must change as well. Sometimes it takes an argument to see for yourself that your beliefs have changed. That’s not the argument changing you, but the realization that you just don’t believe what you used to.

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  3. Andrew Blackwell says:

    Of course it does. How many times do you think C.S. Lewis argued before he converted to Christianity? What about George Carlin becoming an atheist? Somehow, some debate was brought up, points were made and although there may not have been an instant change, the ideas were expressed and incorporated into each participants thoughts. Philosophy is all about debate and arguing points with proper logic and some sort of evidence, and every time I come away with something new. Not every argument will result in a “changed mind” sometimes they bolster the originally held thoughts. For example, I recently got into a debate with the anti-mormon bible bashers on campus. They were using the “mormon bible” (the king james version) and were attempting to show how the mormon religion expects you to be perfect, if not you are damned. I entered into the argument and began asking the man questions about baptism. The man could not, and would not answer my questions while I willingly and openly answered all of his. The growing audience soon became frustrated with him and we all left due to his lack of biblical knowledge and his outright refusal to answer simple questions. I came away from that argument knowing more than ever just how wrong that guy was, and i wasn’t the only one. Many of the onlookers approached me afterwords and said things like “I was always wondering about that and you answered my questions exactly.” They weren’t even participants in the argument. So not only did my mind change (I used to think these types of Christians really knew the bible) but several of the people just watching had a change of mind. Arguments open up new avenues to the mind, they force those watching or participating to think. They either further establish held beliefs, or lead to a questioning or complete change of ideas once upheld.

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  4. Kleiner says:

    While I agree with Andrew’s basic point that arguments can change minds (I changed my mind about the existence of God at least in part due to argument), I am afraid that his example was not well chosen. His mind changed about “these types of Christians really knowing the bible” since this fellow did not apparently know the bible all that well.
    Looks like Andrew committed the fallacy of hasty generalization (drawing a conclusion about a population based on a insufficient evidence, that is, too small of a sample).

    So is it only good arguments that change minds, or will any old argument do?

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  5. Huenemann says:

    I think Andrew has pointed out another function arguments can serve. When I rehearse an argument for myself, for a conclusion I believe, it helps in some small way to further cement that belief into my mind. When I rehearse it in public, especially in front of people who deny my conclusion, and encounter no troubling objections, then it really cements that conclusion in. That’s the reward of rational discourse: either I’ll be shown the error of my ways, or grow increasingly confident of my beliefs. Seems like a win/win. But the danger is that if I rehearse my arguments only in front of people who embrace my conclusions, or who are ignorant or foolish, then I may end up cementing in some false beliefs.

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  6. Kleiner says:

    I agree, and have the same experience. When arguments are public (as they should be), and those who deny my conclusions have no troublng objections, I treat it as something of a confimation.

    But it makes me wonder about what Aristotle means when he says that one can best do philosophy “among friends.” At least at first glance, Aristotle does not seem to share Huenemann’s fear that if I only to philosophy with those who already agree with me, that I might cement in false beliefs.

    Based on his notion of friendship (in particular “complete friendship”) it seems that he thinks that philosophy is best done among people who, in general, already agree with you (perfect friends are, Aristotle says, “second selves”). This makes some sense if we understand that argument is not combat and that philosophy originates in wonder rather than competitiveness. But, still, this might rob us of this “cementing” feeling that we get when we argue with those who disagree with us, but they fail to produce compelling objections. And Huenemann worries that if we only argue with people who already agree with us, we might cement in some false beliefs.

    Maybe Aristotle has a much more general notion of agreement in mind.
    “Some, indeed, demand to have the law proved, but this is because they lack education; for it shows lack of education not to know of what we should require proof, and of what we should not. For it is quite impossible that everything should have a proof; the process would go on to infinity, so there would be no proof.”

    I think Aristotle is right on here. If two people cannot even agree on basic terms (or first principles), then it is pointless to have a discussion. As Huenemann says, if I only argue with foolish people (and the now well-known evangelist on campus certainly sounds foolish) then I might cement in false beliefs, not because my argument is so great but because the person I am arguing with is so foolish.

    Huenemann and I disagree about most basic philosophical questions. Can I do philosophy with him? From Aristotle’s point of view, might we say ‘yes and no’?

    No: We are not “second selves”, so instead of making progress, we tend to just go back and forth on the same points over and over again.

    Yes: Huenemann and I agree on the basic terms of the debate, and so can argue. We are both, in that broad sense, “reasonable”. My sense is that this recent “christian evangelist” on campus did not meet this very basic qualification.

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  7. Hagen says:

    I’m going to cheat and say “both”. Arguments do change minds, but the vast majority of arguments made do not. Through participating a bit in Christian apologetics I have had the fruitful experience of discussing matters of religion and the arguments for the existence of God quite a lot with some rather intelligent atheists. Not to be elitist, but at times I have felt I came out on top, at times I did not. But one thing that I know subjectively, and I assume applies equally to my atheist friends, is that often even after losing an argument, one will hold out for an alternate explanation. “Sure,” we say, “I may not have the answer now, but that doesn’t mean you are right.” And so we decide to pursue the topic further and postpone judgement. Of course, I hope that when we make this move we actually do pursue the topic further, and not just put it on the back burner indefinitely.

    At any rate, I have, on occassion, changed my mind upon hearing a good solid argument, and I think others have as well. One of my friends used to be a kind of fundamentalist anti-intellectual, and he often challenged me on my love for philosophy. With time, and several arguments I won him over, and he is now pursuing philosophy as a personal hobby.

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