A Tragicomical, Unsophisticated Blog about the Weird, the Absurd, and the Banal

Saturday, February 23, 2013

I Refute You. Thus! (Kick)

Because we were all post grads starved for something to argue about, we AmeriCorps kids decided to form a reading group. We were also lazy, so we decided the pieces had to be short. So, every week we would designate someone to host and choose a story, essay, comic, or whatever. We called ourselves the Swimmers because that was the first story we read and discussed. And because we usually drank a lot.

One week, R decided to join us. R was in charge of making the warehouse more efficient and was outstandingly successful at it. He was also taking a break from an MA in philosophy at Ole Miss and since we hadn't read any philosophy yet  he volunteered to provide.

At lunch, we were sitting in the dwindling shade underneath a rusted, sheet metal structure that served as a volunteer orientation spot. Anyway, I asked, "What are you thinking for a philosophy essay?"

I admit that I didn't particularly care what he was going to choose -- I just wanted to hear him talk. R has a fantastic academic Mississippi drawl and so at lunch I would usually try to prod him into a rant so he'd keep going.

R shrugged. "I don't know. What would people like to talk about?"

"Well, your specialty was ethics, right? Why not bring up something from that?"

"Nah, I'm taking a break from that and I don't think anyone would really want to hear me talk about it because I've researched it so heavily I slide into minutia. What about you? What would you like to talk about?"

"Well, I'm really fascinated by Allan Turing's 'The Turing Test.' We could talk about that."

R gave me a horrified, baffled look. "Why would you want to talk about that?"

"Why not?" I asked, falling back on that age-old rhetorical last-stand question. "It's interesting. I think it could be fun to talk about the idea of humanness and talking about other minds."

R shook his head. "No, it's not. I find that entire debate dull and ridiculous. Why would you bother to ask if a computer can think? Of course it can't. It's a programmed machine."


"And why bother asking if someone else has a consciousness outside of yourself. Of course they do. If they didn't, why would you bother trying to communicate with them. Go down that road too far and you end up in solipsism and you've lost the whole game."

I suddenly realized I'd brought a English major to a philosophy fight and looked for an escape route.

"Isn't that poor sportsmanship?" I asked. "Just dismissing someone's argument outright. Isn't that called straw-manning?"

"No, straw-manning is when you misconstrue someone else's argument to be weaker than it is and then tear it down. I didn't do that - I just said your argument wasn't worth my time."

"Again," I said, feebly. "Sportsmanship. What do they teach you at Ole Miss?"

R laughed. "Actually, they encourage you to do that. If you can't argue with someone then you just dismiss it outright and say, 'I'll tell you how wrong you are by ignoring you and starting at the beginning.' Bertrand Russell did it all the time."

Lunch was over. We started to retreat back to our respective offices. "So, what would you like to talk about?"

"'The Apology,'" R said, and proceeded to explain. I considered it a successful lunch break.

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