The ideas here are all old news, but some anvils need to be dropped.

Many arguments, especially political ones, fail because both parties argue from a default position. The implicit logic goes roughly like this.

  1. I believe X.
  2. The other person believes Y.
  3. X is the right belief.
  4. If I can show that the other person’s reasons for believing Y are wrong, they’ll believe X instead.

The first two are prerequisites to an argument. The third is a matter of debate. The fourth is where everything goes to shit.

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before. Two people on the Internet are arguing. One believes X, the other believes Y. The X believer comes up with a reason someone would believe Y, then writes a scathing comment attacking it. The Y believer comes up with a reason someone would believe X, and attacks that too. Meanwhile, neither has addressed the actual reason one believes X and the other believes Y.

Y supporters read all the stupid rebuttals made against X supporters. “Wow, Y supporters think we believe X because of that?” X supporters read all the stupid rebuttals made against Y supporters. “Wow, X supporters think we believe Y because of that?

Both, at least, agree on one thing. “Why should I listen to this people? Their reasoning is garbage, and whenever you try to point it out they hurl garbage back.”

But the real problem is that you think their reasoning is garbage, and they think your reasoning is garbage, when neither may be true.

Your position is not the default position. No one’s is. Pointing out problems in other people’s arguments only shows there are problems in those arguments. It doesn’t make your argument any more valid. Besides, who says your argument would stand up to the same level of scrutiny? All you’ve really shown is that the people you’re talking to don’t have strong counterarguments. How do you know no strong counterarguments exist? And if they do exist, why should people believe you’re any more right?

Okay, look. I’ll be blunt. Some people do believe in things for stupid reasons. The harm comes when you generalize the stupidity of some arguments to justify ignoring all arguments. If you’re an X thinker, and want to understand how anyone could believe Y, you should assume that at some point, somebody came up with an intellectually consistent argument for Y. (If no good argument for Y exists, how did anyone start believing Y in the first place?) As belief in Y spread from person to person, the original argument got muddled, like a game of ideological telephone. By the time it got to your filter bubble, it’s been distorted into something weaker than it was. So don’t generalize the distorted argument that reaches your eyes and ears. Look harder.

Or, if you don’t have time to look? Take things slowly. Recognize that problems are complicated, and there’s more than meets the eye. Recognize the diversity of belief.

(And yes, I notice the irony of me dictating all these ideas, of arguing against the default position problem from my own default position. Far be it from me to expect people to believe my ideas about epistemology without question. Just please, keep these ideas in mind. Remember it’s hard to argue well, and that it’s worth thinking about problems like this. Something tells me we’re going to need good epistemology a lot in the upcoming years.)