A counterargument that isn't

post by dominicq · 2022-01-09T09:50:52.269Z · LW · GW · None comments

(cross-posted from my blog)

Let's say that you're in a discussion, and it goes something like this:

This back-and-forth is good and welcome, and the people in this discussion are pretty respectful and are trying to learn, but one thing that jumps out to me in this discussion, and in discussions in general, is that the counterarguments aren't actually counterarguments.

What you actually have is a counterargument for a certain part of an argument, and that counterargument isn't something that you can tally, and whoever has more arguments/counterarguments, wins. So it's not like, I say "A", you say "B", and we come to a state of "B over A; B is right, A is wrong". It's more like, I say "A", you say "actually B, because certain problems with A", I say "actually C, because certain problems with B" and so on. The counter-arguments get more and more informative that way because in a discussion, you're imparting large amounts of information on edge cases. You can see it in the physical size of the text.

I first had the idea that counterarguments aren't actually counterarguments when I read Bostrom's crucial considerations [? · GW] talk. In it, he talks about whether it makes sense to vote, and goes back and forth: yes because A, but not because actually B, but actually yes because actually C, but actually no because actually D, and so on.

Each of the counterarguments isn't actually a full-blown takedown of its argument. Removing the decision from the discussion altogether (what we should do with our conclusion), counterarguments are actually just angles, other ways of seeing, filters, positions that allow new information to come to light. That's why their name is so wrong - it implies that they negate the original argument, and they mostly don't. At the very best, you can negate a portion of the original argument, but they hardly ever negate the appropriateness of the decision based on the original argument.

A mathematical analogy: decision-making doesn't actually look like a series of arguments and counterarguments that cross each other out, and whatever remains, wins. The argument-counterargument dynamic produces a set of parameters. Then you assign certain weights to the parameters, depending on how important they are, they affect the final decision more or less. This math can be made explicit, but with good-faith decision-makers, the math is already there, implicitly. Meaning, if someone actually considers your argument, even if they provide a counterargument which seems to "negate" your original claim, they will have integrated your claim, and will assign some weight to it.

"Counterargument" is soldier language instead of scout language [LW · GW], and it obscures the non-negating reality of counterarguments.

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