The Enlightenment and the Power of Rational Argument

Dr Ray Scott Percival
Jan 18 · 15 min read
(Photo by j zamora on Unsplash)

How poor are they that have not patience!

What wound did ever heal but by degrees?

Thou know’st we work by wit and not by witchcraft,

And wit depends on dilatory time.

—Othello II: iii.

Have you abandoned your engagement with the project of the enlightenment, liberty, and progress because you have grown cynical about the effectiveness of sound argument? When someone tells you you’re wasting your time arguing with them because argument is an illusion, do you have an answer?

Today, it’s popular to depict people as irrational puppets of charismatic leaders, drawn unwittingly along by the emotional tides of crowds, mesmerised by the visual propaganda of flag-waving parades and historical statues glistening in the light of ideological firework displays. Witness the otherwise excellent periscopes of Scott Adams. We are told that we are living in a Post-Truth society. Logic and truth are irrelevant. Facts and logic don’t persuade, and “master persuaders” such as Donald Trump avoid them. Adams writes:

“A good general rule is that people are more influenced by visual persuasion, emotion, repetition, and simplicity than they are by details and facts…If you’re using super-strong persuasion, you can be wrong on the facts, and even the logic of your argument, and still win.”

Adams maintains that persuasion just has to hit the right buttons because we are stimulus-response, machine-like entities that he calls “Moist Robots”:

“A ‘Moist Robot’ is my framing of human beings as programmable entities. If you provide the right inputs, you get the right outputs.”

Scott Adams is in the same tradition of thought as Danielle Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow [2011], and winner of the Nobel prize in bias-research. This tradition emphasises the irrational and assumes that biases expose the irrational in humans. Kahneman carefully refrains from saying that humans are robots or 90% irrational, as Adams is inclined to say, but his emphasis still lies on the irrationality of humans.

This now fashionable line of thought — though full of fascinating research — can be deeply misleading and demoralising for those committed to sound argument. Fortunately, there is no cause for despondency.

From the short-term persuasion of the salesman’s patter, to the hostage negotiator’s adroit conversation, to the earnest politician’s campaigns, to long-term propaganda, to the rise and fall of ideologies, the logic and truth of argument is a key factor. As one might expect, each of these domains of persuasive argument has its own specific techniques tailored (more or less) to its purpose, audience, and time-window of action. The exchange of information in the sale of an apple is over in a moment; recruiting minds to an ideology or disabusing them of one requires months or years of mentoring. However, truth and logic enhance the propensity of sound argument to win, but only if the argument is pushed. The logic of an argument gives an organised structure to persuasion, and research shows that organised propositions are more easily recalled; the truth is a mnemonic because truths remind us of other truths.

That’s just two of many other services truth and logic provide to the intrinsic vitality of your argument. But logic also acts as a ruthless master in checking the faithful reproduction of your argument. Aristotle, one of the founders of rhetoric, defined rhetoric as the art of identifying the available means of persuasion in any given situation. I accept that and extend the time-window of persuasion to include the sometimes millennial-long life span of ideologies and doctrines. And it is across endless future millennia that the battle for the enlightenment stretches.

Just as the captain of a ship relies on navigation charts and the fixed stars as his coordinates, a master persuader uses truth and logic as essential reference points as he manoeuvres the complex and stormy waters of discourse. This is just as true in deception as it is in honest persuasion. For example, if the ship’s navigator wished to deceive the captain to send him to the wrong port, the navigator would have to know the accurate truth about the whereabouts of the correct and incorrect ports and also the truth about how the captain thinks. Firstly, because the navigator needs to know where he is. And secondly, because it is slight differences from the truth that would deceive the captain and so a deceiver must be discerning of the truth. Paradoxically, a master deceiver must be a lover of the truth.

In the simplest case, a part of the message received in an argumentative exchange must, at the very least, entail the original intended transmitted content. Your interlocutor can hardly believe a proposition you’ve failed to transmit. Right there you have logical continuity as a fundamental constraint on persuasion. Adams’ allegedly non-logical “repetition” is in fact essential to the logic of persuasion. And if logic governs your message to John, then it also governs the same message from John to Peter to Mary to Robert…to the thousandth person and on into the indefinite future.

Of course, an effective argument comes in a rhetorical package. We prefer our Christmas presents enticingly wrapped and may feel slighted if given an unwrapped item straight from the shop. But given the choice, we’d take the present rather than the decorative tinsel wrapper. (The present is the argument content; the tinsel wrapper is the rhetorical frame, including the time and place. Strictly speaking, content and rhetoric aren’t separable in a real episode of argument, and so real persuasion is always a case of good or bad rhetorical “wrapping”.) The tinsel of persuasion captures and maintains attention, targets the right audience and the right time and place, opens up the avenue for communication, and improves memory of the content. That’s all. A perfectly rational process. There is no further esoteric quasi-magical mesmeric art involved. And as Aristotle correctly observed in his fundamental work The Rhetoric, rhetoric includes logic.

The point of following a logical rule, like all logical rules, is that it will never lead you astray: you’ll never be led from a true premise to a false conclusion. That’s what a valid argument is. Who would have thought that a classic valid argument lies at the heart of one of Scott Adams’ supposedly non-logical persuasion devices?

Scott Adams waxes enthusiastically about one of the shiny tools in the grand persuader’s toolbox: the “linguistic kill shot.” We are told that Trump deployed a “linguistic kill shot” when he called Kim Jun Un “Rocket Man”.

“Linguistic kill shot” is an attention-grabbing term for what ordinary folk would call a nickname. It’s half technical (Linguistics is a serious science) and half hyperbole (no one actually gets shot or dies). Nicknames are powerful: when well-crafted, they stick and can seemingly place an indestructible and inescapable frame around a person.

Adams argues (or rather, persuades — he doesn’t argue, remember) that Trump calling Kim Jun Un “Rocket Man” deprives him of his prestige. After the nickname has been cast, you simply can’t get that image out of your mind. It’s like casting a spell! Every time Kim launches a missile, the whole world thinks, “Rocket Man” — even Kim thinks the entire world is thinking this of him. Before Trump’s “linguistic kill shot,” he could think of himself, “I’m so powerful and sophisticated; the world has to take notice of me.” Now, Kim has to think of himself as a lonely man isolated in space:

“And I think it’s gonna be a long long time
‘Till touch down brings me round again to find
I’m not the man they think I am at home
Oh no no no I’m a rocket man
Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone.”

— Elton John

This kill shot is supposed to be devoid of logic. I grant the power of the visual here, but it’s unclear why this is illogical. The visual image is a mnemonic. Let’s take a closer look at the logic behind it.

In the cut and thrust of everyday life, many of our arguments allude to tacit assumptions and even conclusions. Because of shared assumptions, with a little patience, you can discern “where the person was coming from” or “where they’re going with that.” There will be variations on this argument, but one could easily be the following:

Premise 1: If anyone is basing all of his or her political prestige on the world’s stage on launching missile after missile, then they are aptly nicknamed “Rocket Man”.

Premise 2: Kim Jun Un is basing all his political prestige on the world’s stage on launching missile after missile.

Conclusion: Kim is aptly nicknamed “Rocket Man”.

Although such an argument is partly tacit, its form goes by the well-known name, “Modus Ponens.” Modus Ponens is valid: whenever its premises are true, its conclusion must be true. What is happening is that some premises — held by the audience — are suppressed. It is in fact a nice contemporary example of what Aristotle held to be the preeminent tool of logical persuasion: the enthymeme. The persuasiveness of this pattern lies in the fact that part of the message —the premises— are already accepted by the audience, a fact surmised by the artful persuader through empathy.

Despite the initial sting of a nickname, the adroit exchanging of nicknames —hypocoristics — is a friendly gesture, building bonds, diffusing tensions and opening paths of communication on more serious issues. Unsurprisingly, empathy is an esteemed tool of modern negotiation.

The same can be said about so-called “hypnotic” gestures and body language involved in short-term, intimate, face-to-face persuasion. No magic is involved; only well-deployed empathy constrained by logic. The earthly and real phenomena of “pacing”, and the transient empathy and altruism even between people who have just met in person, are powerful at setting the scene for persuasion and is part of the tool-kit of the modern negotiator. The art of the negotiator in bringing an emotionally distraught person off the suicide ledge or delaying the action of a terrorist is fascinating and admirable, and there is more to be said about it. (See Never Split The Difference, by former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss.) However, there is nothing at the level of Star Wars’ Obi Wan’s mesmeric wave of his hand as he tells the stormtroopers, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”

As explained by Voss, genuine listening, rapport, and empathy form part of the modern approach: “tactical empathy”. Deferring to Danielle Kahneman, Voss feels that he has to portray the use of tactical empathy as acknowledging the “irrational” and the “unconscious emotion” in humans. However, he also says that it is the avenue — the method — to a more problem-focused interaction and understanding between the negotiator and the potential suicide case or terrorist. Just how does Voss’s negotiator deploy tactical empathy? Critical rationalists will be pleased to know that Voss recommends an attitude of discovery about the person involved: “Don’t commit to assumptions; instead, view them as hypotheses and use negotiation to test them rigorously.” My gloss on that is that once the negotiator manages to invoke a problem-solving context for those in the conversation, the channel of information flow is clear. Even Voss, after paying lip service to Kahneman, the guru of the “irrational mind”, asserts: “Negotiation is nothing but communication with results.” The imperative logical identity of the sent and the received message is an immediate corollary of Voss’s summation, yet it is one ubiquitously overlooked.

My point is that information content is primary for the transmission of a message from person to person, which lies at the core of persuasion. No one is convinced of Marx’s Labour Theory of Value simply by receiving a beautifully leather-bound copy of Das Kapital from an admired celebrity who dances for them. They’d probably have to at least dip into the book and get to grips with its content. No one is convinced of climate change hysteria simply by the fact that Greta Stoogeberg had a tantrum over her —or her father’s— rudimentary conception of what the debate is about. (And no one is convinced of the flaws in climate-change fearmongering by my calling Thunberg “Stoogeberg” — though I could hardly resist the temptation.)

As I said earlier, Scott Adams confidently asserts that grand persuaders can and do avoid logic and facts, and instead exploit our weakness for emotion and bias. However, Scott Adams betrayed himself here, when, in commenting on Thunberg, he said that one should at least look at the arguments of those at the cutting edge of the debate, the “experts” who’ve at least studied some economics or statistics. Adams often analyses a hot political issue by teaching his audience how to apply economic concepts to it to make it a decidable problem rather than a cloud of hot air. For example, Adams consults the work of the climate sceptic Bjørn Lomborg, who recommends taking a wide perspective on world problems, acknowledging the existence of other global challenges —communicable diseases, drinking water and sanitation, malnutrition and hunger, etc. —competing for our limited budget and comparing actual opportunity costs and benefits of various policy approaches to climate change. Here is a snippet of an interview that Adams had with Lomborg [Episode 1058]:

Lomborg: The net impact of all climate change if we do nothing will be equivalent to each person on the planet losing something between 0.2% and 2% of his or her income over the next 50 years.

Adams: And by “loss” you mean an economic loss. In other words, instead of earning $100 over the next 50 years, you will only earn $98. You wouldn’t know it. Nothing in your environment would enable you to notice that.

Lomborg: Yes, and in any case, each person will be 2.6 times as wealthy by then, enabling greater adaptation.

The particular figures here are not the issue. My point is that actual trade-offs, real opportunity costs, and marginal analysis are some of Adam’s persuasive tools. Oh, dear! Truth is relevant, after all. Actually, this has been Adams’ marketing tactic all along: cause a stir by announcing that we are all irrational — at least 90% of the time — and then engage in riveting rational explanations of political actors as rational creatures.

Adams is not alone in being an astute advertiser. Robert Cialdini, one of Adams’ heroes in advertising persuasion, is a proponent of the use of the orientating reflex or response in advertising [OR]. The OR is the instinctive focusing of attention and arousal when a novel change occurs in an organism’s sensory field, enabling it to prepare for fight or flight. A loud bang, or other sudden, anomalous movement, or the appearance of a predator in the environment can elicit the OR.

Pavlov, who first studied the OR in dogs, aptly called it “the investigatory reflex,” although Pavlov saw it as just a passive mechanical phenomenon, and failed to see it as the active exploratory program that issues from within the organism. It’s Pavlov’s now refuted and defunct work that Adams’ “Moist Robot” harks back to. But as Popper would more accurately frame it, the organism is actively searching its world for structure, and in particular for opportunities or danger, which rapid change often signals. The OR is most annoyingly exploited in tv advertising, in which the viewer is subjected to a series of haphazard short video cuts which hijack one’s attention.

Most of the man-as-the-irrational-animal literature uses the same orientating-reflex tactic: flash an outlandish claim about how stupid people are at your audience to prompt their involuntary orientating reflex, sell them your book on their second double-take head turn toward you, and then return to normal conversation, informing those who buy your book that at least they aren’t so dumb. I have observed an increased frequency of lapses in Adams’ analyses in which he blurts out the name of the allegedly impotent concept: truth. (I take the marketing as all part of the fun. I say this without irony. Scott Adams is an outstanding commentator, and I highly recommend Adams’ Periscopes, books, and hilarious Dilbert comics.) In any case, Adams is veering toward rational argumentation, after all.

In Cialdini’s book Pre-Suasion [2016], recommended by Adams, Cialdini himself points out that the use of the orientating reflex has to be targeted to highlight the core message of the persuasive advertisement, although Cialdini refers to this as the “value”. Simply evoking the OR willy-nilly, as many naive advertisers are wont to do, is just distracting, confusing and tiresome for the potential consumer, and research shows that this leads to fewer purchases.

The irrational-mind literature delights in describing the human mind as a set of kluges: ad hoc constructions for solving problems. However, the mind’s kluges and biases are conjectures, which are also ad hoc constructions, but no less essential and useful on that account.

Good persuasion-tinsel makes use of other human biases, too. But this doesn’t show that we are irrational and aren’t interested in truth and efficiency. We still act according to our best ad hoc conjectured explanations at the time. Biases only show that our cognitive structure is reminiscent of the makeshift, opportunistic adaptations of biological organs. The human eye is, if scrutinised, a kluge. But what a magnificent kluge for getting around! A similar story can be told about our cognitive “organs”.

Good persuaders are connoisseurs about the true nature of biases. Some theorists of persuasion are even up to speed and know that many biases are heuristics, rules of thumb that solve problems more efficiently by ignoring much of the information that the supposedly “rational” procedures demand.

Epistemologically, kluges and biases are conjectures. As Popper argued, there is no alternative method for promoting the growth of knowledge other than conjecture and refutation. More generally, there is no other method for solving any problem, whether practical or intellectual. The problem of propagating a message is a practical conjecture-and-refutation affair, and so biases and kluges are just a part of our evolved problem-solving toolkit and not incorrigible barriers to persuasion through rational argument.

If you believe there are sound arguments for liberty, you’ll feel emboldened by the knowledge that false, incoherent, and otherwise defective anti-liberal ideologies will always lack a stratagem of propagating themselves that systematically protects them from classical liberal criticism and the Enlightenment. Why? Because no defective system of ideas can systematically protect itself from criticism. Any system hoping to capture large numbers of minds within its net has to enter an ocean of other ideas competing for the same limited cognitive space of a population of minds and must have some way of coping with countercriticism. Even the reinforced dogmatisms of authoritarian ideologies — socialism, Political Correctness, Identity-Politics, etc. — can be toppled by argument alone. All systems of ideas are vulnerable.

Many ideologies try to fashion stratagems that aim to shut down criticism and thereby safeguard their future, but these ploys are utterly wrong-headed and counter-productive. People who simply shout down their opponents miss valuable practice in developing the skill of persuasion and the ability to promote their own system. J.S. Mill, in his classic 1859 essay, On Liberty, argues that a belief, no matter how true one might grant it is, if not grounded on a conviction born of frequently and fearlessly defending it against the opposition, is liable to atrophy and to become a dead dogma susceptible to the flimsiest of arguments. [In On Liberty, Utilitarianism and Other Essays. Oxford World Classics. 2015. Pages: 35–36.]

Mill correctly and eloquently notes this strength of belief gained by the brave acolyte in meeting criticism, but there is also a purely logical aspect to note. Stifling of debate not only attenuates the acolyte’s conviction, but also cripples his understanding of the content of the “message”. Part of the meaning of a doctrine or ideology consists of its logical implications, which good criticism can help to make explicit. An extreme retreat from argument in either of these senses is likely to lead to a movement that effectively de-platforms itself. This happened in the case of “Jonestown”, a San Francisco-based cult under the leadership of Jim Jones. My general point is that there is a trade-off between the degree to which you avoid criticism and the reproducibility of your message.

We can see this degradation in message-fidelity in the evolution of Woke “culture”, in which, due to a fear of reasoned debate and intellectual cowardice, even the meaning of words hardly matters — witness the addition of “Awomen” to “Amen” for the conclusion to the opening prayer in Congress — a tendency that can transform an ideology into an empty shell, leaving its acolytes with nothing but the persecution of heretics to feed on.

To promote peace and avoid reciprocating this persecution culture, we ought to hold fast to our navigation aids of truth and logic.

Our ideas are our “mind-children”, and, like real children, they have a proclivity to develop a life of their own. They often frustrate our attempts to manage their future.

Join the discussion; don’t let your cynicism rob you of the pleasure of exchanging ideas. Instead, find confidence in the sheer power of rational argument. For remember, all systems of ideas, including classical liberalism and the Enlightenment, are vulnerable to criticism and must forever be defended and sustained by fresh argument, just as an immune system is kept healthy by the constant bombardment by viruses and bacteria. There can never be a final, permanent, utopian state in which everyone accepts the principles of liberty and progress. And if there were, the clarity and strength of those principles would fade without challenge, like an immune system wrapped up in layers of misguided “protection”. The key mission is to keep the idea of liberty alive in the ocean of competing ideas. In contrast to some of the opposition, in the often-stormy seas of debate, at least we haven’t lost our navigation coordinates of truth and logic. The battle for the Enlightenment is the battle of forever.

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Conjecture Magazine

Conjecture Magazine is dedicated to progress through ever better explanations, criticism thereof, and avoiding appeals to authority in all its guises.

Dr Ray Scott Percival

Written by

Author of the book The Myth of the Closed Mind and director of the documentary Liberty Loves Reason, starring David Deutsch F. R. S. and Prof. Paul Levinson.

Conjecture Magazine

Conjecture Magazine is dedicated to progress through ever better explanations, criticism thereof, and avoiding appeals to authority in all its guises.

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