Edit: For clarification: I am not necessarily talking about the network Freethought Blogs (FTB). I am talking about any blog that wishes to promote freethought.
Edit: Kylie Sturgess of FTB posted a response to me at http://freethoughtblogs.com/tokenskeptic/2012/07/08/on-advice-for-a-freethought-blog-by-notung. She raises good points relating to FTB as a network.
Advice for a ‘Freethought Blog’
What is ‘freethought’, and why might we want to be a ‘freethinker’? Freethought is a reason-based approach to forming beliefs about the world, and a respect for scientific inquiry. It is productive; when we employ reason when assessing claims, or test hypotheses using the scientific method we tend to get useful results. There are other reasons for preferring the freethinking approach but for my purposes I need not worry about them here.
The opposite of freethought is dogma. We want to oppose dogma for a variety of reasons, of which I will just provide two (from Mill’s On Liberty). Firstly we are fallible beings, and if we do not allow our beliefs to be challenged we can never really be sure that they are the correct ones. Secondly, even if the belief happens to be true, granting it the status of dogma avoids a ‘collision with error’ (as Mill puts it). This collision allows us to see the weak points in our position in order to refine it appropriately. It encourages us to learn how to defend our position, and develop a stronger understanding of why what we believe is true.
So what would a ‘freethought blog’ look like? If it is to warrant the name, it would surely practise and promote the approach outlined above, putting reason before all else. It does not matter necessarily what conclusions one is led to by this approach, but rather that the posts one writes attempt to shake off received wisdom and dogma, and endeavour to replace it with a freethinking methodology. A freethought blog would encourage rational discourse in the comments, where arguments are challenged robustly and reasonably, and all opinions live or die by the quality of the reasoning that leads to them.
So I propose what I will call the Principle of Rational Discourse, which will take two forms; one weak, one strong.
The Weak Principle (wPRD):
Stick to the arguments and remain civil.
If we do not stick to the arguments but instead prefer to attack opponents personally, we distract the conversation with irrelevancies. Furthermore, if you or your opponent get needlessly riled up, then emotion takes the place of reason and the quality of the arguments diminishes. There is no good reason not to be civil. If the arguments are poor, then the surest way of demonstrating this is with a reasoned rebuttal, rather than with invective. If they are ‘trolling’, i.e. posting comments of little substance merely to anger people, then they may be justly blocked from commenting in order to prevent the discussion from breaking down and suffering a catastrophic loss of productivity.
The Strong Principle (sPRD):
Concentrate your arguments against the strongest objections to your view.
I call this a ‘strong’ principle since rather than simply granting dissent negative liberty, it involves treating dissent as a positive good. Those who hold a genuine desire to discover the truth always seek out the strongest objections to their position. We must (if we are to obey this principle) be sure to present our opponent’s arguments in their most favourable light, and employ what is known as the ‘principle of charity’. Why should we do this? Suppose somebody makes an argument that you find prima facie ridiculous. Now consider two possibilities: the first is that we have misunderstood their case and end up unintentionally weakening their argument, and the second is that we understood their argument perfectly, but they are a poor reasoner and so their claims are easy to refute. In the former case, we have misrepresented our opponent’s argument and made it easier for us to knock down (this is known as a ‘straw man fallacy’). In the latter case, all we may achieve is that we ‘win’ the argument, and what good does that do? Would it not be preferable to see whether your beliefs withstand a more robust challenge? Thinking in this way can be a learning experience, even if your beliefs remain standing at the end. We gain more of an understanding of our views by examining them in great detail; holding them up to the light to reveal any imperfections, no matter how small. It seems then that the best way to deal with such a situation is to find the interpretation that provides you with the strongest challenge. I would go so far as to say we should help our opponent out – show them how their argument can be improved. As well as being a nice gesture, it demonstrates the sort of intellectual honesty essential for freethought.
I propose that a ‘freethought blog’ ought to employ wPRD at the very least. However, it seems to me that a blog that is engaged in a disinterested search for the truth should also employ sPRD. We want to be proven wrong. One of my friends at CERN once said that he hoped that they never found the Higgs Boson, since the idea that their current understanding of particle physics was mistaken was a much more exciting prospect than obtaining data that simply confirmed what they already knew. Being wrong is a chance to learn something new about about ourselves, about each other, about the world. We should embrace that – for freethinkers, nothing is sacred.
Name-calling, threats, insults, sarcasm, invective and speculations as to the agenda of a commenter all violate wPRD.
If you are a prominent skeptic leader who recounts an experience and makes a particular moral claim, and then a well-known colleague takes issue with that claim in a way you dislike, try to understand what they mean and what they are arguing. Interpret their argument so that it is as strong as possible (sPRD). Note the points of agreement and the points of disagreement. Ask for clarification if you are not sure. Any examination of their personal characteristics is a waste of time at best (and an ad hominem fallacy at worst), and would violate wPRD. Outline precisely and efficiently why you do not find their objection sound, and await their response to your arguments. That way, a productive discussion might get going, and you may end up convincing many more people than otherwise.
If you are blogging about an issue you are genuinely concerned about, and a skeptic leader raises the idea that the way the issue is being framed might actually be contributing to that issue, then you have two main choices; a rational discussion, or an attack on the skeptic leader. In the former case, the common ground will be more apparent, the differences can be worked out as best as is possible and there is a much greater chance that the issue gets solved to everybody’s satisfaction. In the latter case, you may actually stifle the discussion, and the issue is much more likely to linger and cause more harm that it would have otherwise. It is clear that those who are serious about the issue and not simply seeking drama should prefer the former option.
My advice is intended to be constructive. Comments are welcome and appreciated. Disagreement is encouraged. Please keep all comments civil.