There’s a certain mistake seasoned debaters often make when interacting with lay people and the mistake is that just because the unprepared lay person cannot presently argue a point, the seasoned debater concludes they hold that belief without justification. I’ll explain why this conclusion isn’t necessarily correct.

Remember the “Change My Mind” guy, Steven Crowder[1]? If you’re not familiar with him, he’s an American-Canadian conservative political commentator and the subject of a popular meme format. He used to set up a table on college campuses to debate college students. I don’t know if he still does it. I don’t follow him. Anyways he goes into these debates where he picks the topic, one which he’s knowledgeable about and has lots of points in his favor already in working memory, and he goes up against unprepared college students.

I don’t consider what Steven does unfair in the slightest, because the college students voluntarily go and debate him, so it’s up to them to be ready for the heat. It’s not like he screens students before he debates them to make himself look good. But I fear that some people may get the impression that he’s correct just because he can look smart in front of unprepared college students.

Hacker News Comment

There’s this idea that people who can’t defend a belief to others are always unjustified in it, but this conclusion is wrong. What’s really happening might be better explained by Hacker News commenter TameAntelope[2]:

“I think this is why it’s hard sometimes to argue in support of something you believe, even if you’re right.

At one point, all of the relevant facts and figures were loaded into your working memory, and with that information you arrived at a conclusion. Your brain, however, no longer needs those facts and figures; you’ve gotten what you needed from them, and they can be kicked out of working memory. What you store there is the conclusion. If it comes up again, you’ve got your decision, but not all of the information about how you arrived there.

So when your decision is challenged, you are not well equipped to defend it, because you no longer retain why you arrived at that decision, just the conclusion itself.

It’s immensely easier to trust that you arrived at the right conclusion and the person who is in disagreement is missing something, than it is to reload all of the facts and figures back into your brain and re-determine your conclusion all over again. Instead, you can dig in, and resort to shortcuts and logical tricks (that you can pull out without needing to study) to defend what you’ve previously concluded (possibly correctly, but without the relevant information).

If this finding ends up being generally an approximation of how our brains work, it could explain a lot about what’s happening to global conversations, particularly around the Internet and on social media specifically. It also suggests a possible solution; make the data quickly available. Make it as seamless as possible to re-load those facts and figures into your working memory, and make it as unpleasant as possible to rely on shortcuts and logical tricks when arguing a point.”

TameAntelope hits the nail on the head here. Believing something you cannot justify to others isn’t necessarily irrational. If you recall a time when you did have all the relevant facts and figures in your head, and computed the conclusion, then it does make sense to stick to that conclusion even after you’ve long forgotten the justification for it.

Do I think this applies equally to everyone? Of course not. Lots of people, probably even a majority, just believe whatever their parents or friends believe. They’re not critical thinkers and, most likely, they were never at any point justified in most of what they believe.

Human Memory

If two equally skilled debaters go up against each other on a public platform, they shouldn’t be saying “Well, I remember a time when I justified X to myself in the past, so I’m going to keep believing it despite your counterpoints”. They should prepare for the debate ahead of time, bringing their best cards to the table. But it’s different when a seasoned debater like Steven Crowder challenges random college students, or an experienced public debater like Destiny[3] challenges random viewers of his stream. That’s not an equal debate and it should be acceptable for the unprepared party to cut the debate short with “I don’t remember enough about X to refute you right now. Let me see if I can find what originally convinced me of X and I’ll get back to you”.

If I smoke a ton of weed, assuming I don’t forget what I believe entirely, I’ll have a hard time justifying certain beliefs because I won’t remember the justifications, only the beliefs. I’ll remember that sober me could’ve justified my beliefs, or that sober me could’ve remembered a time when I justified them, and that’ll be good enough justification for intoxicated me. Obviously that doesn’t convince anybody else of what I believe, unless they just have lots of faith in me.

You still have to be careful when reasoning this way, but I don’t think it’s an “incorrect” way to reason. Philosophically, I’m a skeptic. I believe that one ought to have evidence for their beliefs. “My past self justified belief X and since my past self had decent reasoning capabilities, I trust the result” counts as a form of evidence. The catch is, it only justifies your beliefs to you.

Ineffable Knowledge

Suspiciousness

And memory isn’t even the only reason one might reason indirectly in this way. Have you ever met someone and something just felt off with them? I’ve met people like this. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was about them, but nevertheless the alarms were sounding. The “specialized hardware unit” in my brain was conveying to me a result, without explaining how it got that result, because how it got there wasn’t important information. The important information was “stay away from this person, they might be dangerous”.

I’m not appealing to anything paranormal or supernatural like souls, karma, auras, or ghosts. I don’t believe in those things. I’m just saying different parts of the brain are specialized for different tasks. It’s the difference between the interface and the implementation. The computer motherboard doesn’t have to care about the implementation of the hard drive. It only cares that the interface is compatible.

Similarly, I don’t need to know how the social circuitry in my brain arrived at its conclusion. I’m not going to know all the microexpressions I observed that started concerning me. I just need to trust that part of my brain that warns me of dangerous people to reliably do its job.

Relationships

Maybe you have a relationship that just “feels right”. Again, I think you have to be very cautious with making conclusions like this. Humans are heavily biased creatures. Sometimes our specialized brain functions become unreliable. They’re also subject to manipulation. People in abusive relationships say things like “It just feels right. Others people will never understand what we have” and obviously their intuitions are wrong.

But sometimes the intuition of a good relationship is right. Intuitions tend to improve over time as you get to know yourself better. It’s perfectly acceptable to love someone and not have a reason why. That might just be your specialized brain circuitry working as it should, giving you a result without all the reasons why.

Conclusion

There’s a tendency among hyperintellectual people (Spock types) to minimize, denigrate, and avoid indirect reasoning. I know because I am a hyperintellectual person myself. But we can’t afford to throw indirect reasoning out the window wholesale. Despite its flaws, it surely has its place and we can’t function without it.

We shouldn’t assume people who can’t verbalize their justification for a belief lack justification for that belief. I think this is an important thing to keep in mind when you engage with someone who is less prepared than you.

I immediately thought of this Destiny debate after reading TameAntelope’s comment on Hacker News. The debater against Destiny kept insisting upon an assertion, although they couldn’t recall any specific information to back it up. Destiny encouraged this person to renounce their position, but of course it failed because their belief was being reinforced not by facts, but by the memory of supposed facts which they no longer recalled.

Instead of Destiny realizing this was what was happening, he got extremely frustrated and continued to argue with this person for at least half an hour to an hour if I remember correctly when he should’ve just said “Go get me the facts you think you remember and then come back”. To his credit, I think he might’ve said something like this towards the end.

I think recognizing these indirect yet still valid ways people reason can help us all have better conversations and also help us not be assholes.

Link(s):
1: Steven Crowder
2: Hacker News Comment
3: Destiny