Paradoxes of argumentation

1. Arguing for P weakens P

Arguing for P weakens P, firstly in virtue of the grounds substantiating the discourse against the arguments, which is often the same as the discourse against the debate, S. Debate. This discourse develops as follows:

People don’t accept living in doubt, not to being committed to some cause, not knowing, not having an opinion on everything, not challenging the other’s opinions. They are ready to argue for or against all and everything. They relish dispute, and are inherently unable to dispute, as shown by the Port-Royal philosophers. Disputes are just substitutes for fights or playground games, they always produce more heat than light. Querulousness is a disease. The will to be right, to attack and defend is the transparent mask of the will to power. Our most entrenched opinions are not grounded in argument, but in our reptilian brain, we don’t argue, we just reformulate our opinions. Conclusion: let us rather strive to clearly say what we have to say, etc., etc.

Secondly, arguing for P weakens P because argument-based knowledge is inferential, i.e., indirect knowledge. Indirect knowledge is frequently considered inferior to direct knowledge, which is expressed in a simple, plain statement of fact, especially to direct, revelation-based religious knowledge, S. Self-Evidence. Newman expressed this idea in particularly energetic words, first in the epigraph of his Grammar of Assent (1870), taken from St. Ambrose, “it did not please God to save his people through dialectic” (“Non in dialecticà complacuit Deo salvum facere populum suum”), and further:

Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion. […] No one, I say, will die for his own calculations[1]: he dies for realities. (Id., p. 73)

To most men, argument makes the point in hand only more doubtful, and considerably less impressive. (Id., p. 74)

Arguing along the same line, Thomas Aquinas, when discussing the question of “whether one ought to dispute with unbelievers in public?”, envisages the following objection to a positive answer:

Objection 3: Further, disputations are conducted by means of arguments. But an argument is a reason in settlement of a dubious matter: whereas things that are of faith, being most certain, ought not to be a matter of doubt. Therefore one ought not to dispute in public about matters of faith. (ST, Part 2, 2, Quest 10, Art 7)

Arguments develop from a question; they are mirrored in counter-arguments, attested or conceivable. The same doubt is cast upon both positions. This explains the existence of the paradoxes of argumentation: to contest a position is both to accept that one’s own becomes debatable and to acknowledge the attacked position as debatable. This explains why the first step in the process of legitimizing a new position involves opening a debate about it and, to do so, one must first find some opponents.

2. Producing a question legitimates the variety of answers

Should there be a “scientific and public debate” on the issue of whether there were gas chambers in Nazi Germany? This is exactly what the revisionist Roger Garaudy has demanded: the organization of a debate would legitimize the various positions taken in this debate.

Roger Garaudy has a persisting doubt about the existence of gas chambers
Later in the book, Roger Garaudy evokes Shoah, the film of Claude Lanzmann, which he considers a “stinker”. ‘You are talking about “Shoah business”, you say that this film only brings testimonials without demonstration. This is a way of saying that the gas chambers do not exist’, suggests the President [of the Court]. ‘Certainly not’ protests Roger Garaudy. ‘Until a scientific and public debate is held on the issue, doubt will be allowed’. (Le Monde, 11-12 January 1998, p. 7)

Here, Garaudy claims the third party position. He may even say that the president fallaciously argues from ignorance — saying that P is not proved is not claiming that non-P. The refutation must take into account the contextual knowledge: here the affirmation is false, because the historical and scientific work is done, has been published and libraries stay opened late into the night. We are exactly in the situation of the Aristotelian indisputability, S. Conditions of Discussion.

3. Refuting P reinforces P; but not to, even more

To be criticized is much better than to be ignored. Being at the center of a polemic may be an ideal and comfortable position. Seeking somebody who can put forward an argument that contradicts one’s own is an argumentative strategy which gives initial legitimacy to a viewpoint. Refuting and opposing counter-arguments generates a question where there was none, and this question, by feedback, legitimizes all the speeches that give it an answer. The proponent is weak since he or she bears the burden of proof, but strong because he or she creates a question.

The historian P. Vidal-Naquet describes this argumentative trap as follows in the case of the negationist discourse.

I long hesitated before writing these pages on the alleged revisionism, about a book whose editors tell us without laughing that, “Faurisson’s arguments are serious. They must be answered”. The reasons for not speaking were multiple, but of unequal value. […] Finally, was not replying accrediting the idea that there was indeed debate, and to publicize a man who is passionately greedy of it? […]
This is the last objection that is actually the most serious one. […] It is also true that attempting to debate would be to admit the inadmissible argument of the two “historical schools”, the “revisionist” and the “exterminationist”. There would be, as is expressed a leaflet of October 1980, “supporters of the existence of homicide gas chambers” and the others, as there are supporters of a high chronology and of a low chronology for the tyrants of Corinth. […]
Since the day that R. Faurisson, a duly qualified academic, a professor at a leading university, was first allowed to write in Le Monde1, even if it was immediately refuted, the question ceased to be marginal. This became central a central question, and those who had no direct knowledge of the events in question, especially young people, had the right to ask if some people wanted to hide something from them. Hence the decision made by Les Temps modernes1 and by Esprit1 to reply.
But how to reply, since the discussion is impossible? We have to reply as we do with a sophist, that is to say, with a man who resembles the one who speaks the truth, and whose arguments must be dismantled, piece by piece, to unmask the make-believe.
Pierre Vidal-Naquet, [A Paper Eichmann], 1987.[2]

4. A weak refutation reinforces the attacked position

According to the law of weakness, a weak argument for a conclusion is an argument for the opposite conclusion, S. Argumentative Scale. Symmetrically, a weak refutation of a thesis reinforces this same thesis.

Gérard Chauvy appears in court for a libel against Raymond and Lucie Aubrac, two leaders of the French Resistance against the Nazis.
He quoted a brief from Klaus Barbie describing them as members of the resistance turned into double agents.

Gérard Chauvy, who has said that he discovered Klaus Barbie’s memoir in 1991, was the first to give these sixty pages, which had, until then, being “circulating under the cloak”, a broad public dissemination, reproducing them in extenso in the annexes of his work. Does he share this thesis, as the civil party maintains? Are his apparent reservations about this memoir but one more maneuver to accredit it? In any case, this document is at the center of the debate. (Le Monde, 7 February 1998, p. 10; my emphasis).

5. A strong refutation reinforces the attacked position

In 2001, Elisabeth Tessier, a renowned astrologer, successfully defended at the Sorbonne University her PhD dissertation in sociology entitled “Epistemological Situation of Astrology”. This dissertation was received with great indignation by a large number of academics. Four Nobel Prize winners and leading academics intervened to deny that it had any scientific value, dismissing it as supporting irrationality and pseudo-science.

As a result of this intervention, the debate was re-framed as follows: on the one hand, the authorities, renowned professors and scientists, pitted against a woman. Now, a quick peripheral reasoning, backed by the proportionate measure argument, is enough to conclude that the former are deeply disturbed by this dissertation; and the trap of the strong refutation closes on its own initiators: the very prestige of the opponents reinforces the rebutted thesis, at least in the eyes of the adepts of peripheral thinking, but they are many.

[1] May be alluding to Galileo who accepted to publicly recant heliocentrism and the movement of earth, while privately maintaining the truth: “E pur si muove” (And yet it moves)

[2] Pierre Vical-Naquet, Un Eichman de papier. In Les Assassins de la mémoire. Paris: La Découverte, 1987, p. 11-13. Le Monde, a major French newspaper; Les Temps Modernes, a philosophy journal, founded by Jean-Paul Sartre; Esprit, a philosophy journal, founded by Emmanuel Mounier.