Saturday, January 20, 2007

Rational argumentation

In the opening page of The Moral Problem, Michael Smith says that rational argumentation aims at truth. This strikes me as rather strong and different than I would have expected. It seems like rational argumentation aims at something more like consistency. By arguing with someone, they try to ferret out what commitments you have that are incompatible. In response, you change or drop various views you had. Or, it is involved with teasing out the consequences of various positions. By coming at view from different angles, you work out what one is committing oneself to and why by adopting that view (or has committed oneself to if the view has been adopted). But this isn't aiming at truth yet, at least not without some supplementation. It seems like a strong view because rational argumentation seems like it should proceed roughly in a manner that could be presented in a formal system (although it will be conducted in natural languages with some extra ad hominem stuff through in in most cases). That is to say that it should be possible to make explicit the important assumptions and argumentative structure, at least in retrospect, and make clear what sorts of inferences were made when and why. But, inference (on one way of looking at it) only preserves truth. (This is the way that Dummett thinks is a retrograde move by Frege.) It doesn't generate truths from falsehoods with any regularity. In order to aim at truth, rational argumentation would need some way of identifying which premises were the false ones and it would need a way of coming up with truths to replace the falsehoods. The former seems somewhat reasonable in some cases. By working over a view with someone with different information, one might be able to surmise that some assumption or other was likely (in some cases, definitely) false (although Duhemian holism is righty looming, to borrow a phrase from Smith). The latter seems somewhat outside the domain of just rational argumentation. Rational inquiry, broadly interpreted to include scientific experimentation, perception, exploration, etc., could plausibly be held to do this, but just argumentation? I'm not quite enough of a rationalist to get on board with that.

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