For some reason, you’ve gotten into a debate with me about philosophy, software, psychology, history, life, the universe, and everything. Awesome! Before we go any further, let’s lay down a few ground rules to help ensure that we don’t waste each other’s time.
Rule 1: cogito ergo sum
If we debate long enough, it’s possible that we’ll become unhinged from reality and start to question everything. Perhaps the world is not what it seems. Maybe our senses are lying to us. What if this is all a dream? What if you’re a figment of my imagination or I’m a figment of yours?
If we get to this point, we need to stop immediately, and back up.
All arguments boil down to just a single truth:
I think, therefore I am.René Descartes
Unfortunately, this is not a particularly useful result. If we’re going to have a debate, we need more than that.
Even though I can’t prove it, I’m going to assume that there is some sort of real world out there; that there isn’t a robot deity keeping my brain trapped in a computer simulation; that my senses aren’t lying to me all the time. I’m going to assume that the world is, more or less, what it seems, and our role is merely to do our best to adapt to it.
If we can’t agree to these axioms, then we shouldn’t waste any more time debating. If “I think, therefore I am” is the only thing you’re willing to believe, then we won’t make it very far anyway. After all, if everything is a lie, what could we possibly gain from a debate?
Rule 2: theories and models
Although I’ll rely on some axioms as the basis for my reality, most of my claims will come from theories. I put this word in italics because it needs some explanation. Outside of a scientific context, the word theory often means that something is uncertain or unproven. For example, people like to criticize the theory of evolution by saying “it’s only a theory.”
This is an unfortunate mix-up because, in science, theory means something different. A theory is an explanation based on observation and experimentation that can be used to describe and predict something. In other words, a theory is a tool that you use. It is a model of reality that can be used to make predictions; whether or not the theory corresponds to some underlying truth about that reality is (almost) irrelevant.
In fact, I’ll go one step further:
All models are wrong, but some are useful.George E.P. Box
Yep, all theories are wrong. And that’s OK. For example, we know that the theory of gravity is wrong (see: general relativity); we know that Newton’s laws of motion are wrong (see: special relativity); in fact, most of classical physics is wrong (see: quantum mechanics); there is a whole wiki page of superseded scientific theories. Nevertheless, all of these theories have been and continue to be incredibly useful, providing the essential tools for building airplanes, bridges, computers, spaceships, and understanding the universe.
The goal of a theory isn’t to be right; after all, you can never really be right, as per rule 1. The goal of a theory is to be useful. The important question is not “is this theory correct” but rather, “does this theory let us make predictions about the world better than other theories”? For example, the theory of evolution by natural selection lets us make some good predictions about how plant and animal species came to be and what will happen to them in the future. It may be only a theory, but it’s a very useful one. On the other hand, intelligent design doesn’t match our observations, isn’t useful for making predictions, and therefore not a theory.
So, when you and I debate, it’s not worth debating axioms, so all we can really do is debate theories. And we won’t debate them based on the merit of whether they are true or not, but whether they are more useful than other theories.
Rule 3: the most important question
One final step before we can have a debate: you need to ask yourself a question. It’s arguably the most important question in all of science, reason, and debate:
What would convince you that you’re wrong?
Be honest. What facts, evidence, or events would convince you that your current stance in the debate is wrong? This question is the very basis of the scientific method. If there is not a single thing in the world that could convince you that you’re wrong, then your stance isn’t a theory, but an article of faith. And faith cannot be debated.
What would convince an evolutionary scientist that the theory of evolution is totally wrong? That is, what would show that the theory of evolution is not a useful model? I can think of a few examples: discovering evidence that the earth was just a few thousand years old; observing a new species magically materialize with no connection to any other species; finding evidence that the entire fossil record is an elaborate hoax by the liberal media.
What would convince someone who believes in intelligent design that they are wrong? As far as I know, nothing. Apparently, numerous observations of natural selection in progress, mounds of data showing the earth is over 4 billion years old, an extensive fossil record, and countless examples of unintelligent design are not enough. This is yet another reason intelligent design is not a scientific theory and should not be taught as one in schools.
As long as a debate is about faith instead of theory, it is largely pointless, since there is nothing that can change either party’s mind. This is why it’s so painful to debate topics like abortion, conspiracy theories, politics, and religion.
Therefore, I propose that we only have a debate if both of us can identify, at least to ourselves, that there is at least one piece of evidence that could convince us that we’re wrong.
Alright, let’s do this
Made it this far?
Because I’m ready to put on a clinic.