On the Nature of Debate, Denial and Refutation
by Robert L. Kocher
As a basic philosophical principle, there comes a point at which if two people or groups of people are at such extreme variance in their most fundamental perceptions and interpretations of the world around them, then this variation can only be explained in terms of at least one of the people or groups having some sort of serious mental disorder. For example, if one person points to an object on my desk as an ash tray while another person seriously insists it is a hippopotamus, the issue is really not related to intellectual difference or even anything that can be resolved by intellectual discourse. The issue is one of basic sanity or basic mental competence. Within this context, it should be understood that not all differences of opinion can be resolved by reason or by even the most obvious real-world evidence.
During a Nightline segment some years ago, discussing an anniversary of the Woodstock music festival, I heard Carlos Santana, one of the Woodstock musicians, debating two other people about the significance and legacy of the event. Santana talked vaguely about a consciousness legacy of the period and some other mystical aspects. One of the other people interviewed, who happened to be President Carter's former press chief, argued that the significance was a destructive legacy of drugs. Santana replied in substance, You have your reality and I have my reality. That reply, in one concise phrase is one of the true destructive legacies of the borderline Sixties and Seventies-and Woodstock. Anyone could make up any desired version of anything and it was still to be regarded as reality. Anyone was entitled to his or her own version of reality. Conversely, anyone could arbitrarily deny any aspect of reality which did not suit him.
Regardless of any arguments to the contrary, the conventional real world with its lawfulness of cause, effect, and consequences is the only world I, or you, have. Regardless of whether we would like to hallucinate a different world, or wish there were a different world, or wish there were different consequences, or argue for the validity of subjective experience over reality, or argue that subjective experience is the only reality; the conventionally defined sane (conventionally sane as was defined in this country before the borderline Sixties) method of interacting with that world is the only one that works over time. Violation of that working principle points one rather consistently, objectively or subjectively, unto the house of defecation.
There is only one reality. In Mr. Santana's case the reality is that many of the people who appeared on that same stage subsequently died from drugs within a few years after Woodstock. Some of the others weren't even that lucky and destroyed themselves incrementally over a period of years. That is the reality that is.
Whether he or others want to accept it or not, will not change it. That is the reality that is. Continued irrelevant argumentation will not change that. That is the reality that is.
When Debate Is Futile
It is a fact of life that you cannot win an argument with someone who is not sane. Sane bystanders may come to agree with your presentation, but you have no way of convincing someone who is not sane of anything. This is implicit in the definition of insanity. This is inherent in the psychotic process or borderline-psychotic process of reality-denial. The rules of rationality, and basic reality, are not recognized in the insane world. As a consequence, the valid rationality of an argument is not recognized in that world. Neither is irrationality recognized in that world. Given those two conditions, no intellectual leverage is possible to establish agreement on the truth.
There are several entirely different reasons why any given argument or explanation cannot be refuted.
One reason an argument may be irrefutable is that the argument is so incoherent as to be irrefutable. It is more mental disturbance than it is argument. If someone says something is true, or says they should be allowed to do something, because glack sbutz ta snirt kluda zohx opleg hawpikw, no direct intellectual refutation is possible.
There are arguments or explanations using real words instead of nonsense syllables which make no more sense than the preceding. Such arguments are, or should be, their own refutation. They are, on their own face, clearly irrational. Here we are dealing with irrationality as a primary quality. The existence or form of primary qualities cannot be argued. Something is either red, black, round, square, or it is not. In the same way something is relevant, rational or, on the other hand, irrelevant or nuts. There must be an agreement on what constitutes basic sane coherence before there can be intellectual discussion.
Another element in the ineffectiveness of sane resolution or refutation is absence of basic agreement upon, and acceptance of, basic reality.
In terms of specific example, suppose that I say that the red pen I happen to have in my hand at this moment is a red pen. Further suppose that someone else says it is not a red pen, but is instead a flower pot, or a suitcase or a TV set. As a practical matter, I am unable to refute the assertion that what I am holding in my hand is not a flower pot. That does not mean that I'm incorrect when I say that it is a red pen. Nor does it mean that I am intellectually weaker than the other person who is arguing that it is not a red pen. Nor does it mean that his assertion that it is not a red pen is correct.
It means that I have no stronger argument than the red pen being in my hand. There is no stronger argument possible than the simple fact of the red pen being in my hand. No stronger refutation of the other person's arguments is possible. At some point there must be agreement on what constitutes basic reality. There must be willingness to argue within that framework. In particular, there must be some agreement on what constitutes a red pen and agreement that the red pen I have in my hand actually exists. I can say nothing more. The resolution of differing assertions, if there is to be one, will not be on the basis of intellectual reasoning or investigation, but on the basis of resolving a severe mental disorder. If the disorder is based upon physical brain deficiency, no resolution is possible. If there is intractable disinclination, no resolution is possible.
The last form of irrefutability is, or at least should be, existence of support for an argument in basic agreed-upon reality. If what is being said is obviously true, then no valid refutation is possible. Specifically, if I hold up the red pen in my hand, this evidence speaks for itself. It should be sufficient to establish the truth. In the borderline psychotic world it is not sufficient.
The problem, especially since the borderline Sixties, is that increasingly fewer people understand the difference between the various forms of irrefutability or the importance of basic reality in refutation. Within the borderline psychotic liberalism of the past several decades, the various forms of irrefutability have come to have intellectual equivalence. Mental disorder and psychotic levels of denial have come to have a certified validity because of their irrefutability--even to the point of being misinterpreted as being a powerful form of intellectuality. It has become common for people who routinely engage in chronic psychotic levels of denial to consider themselves as being mental powerhouses, and to be considered by others as being mental powerhouses, because no one can break through their irrationality. This is often supported by a self-referencing congratulatory inner voice which says, "(guffaw) He REALLY didn't have an answer for that one!" And they are correct. He didn't have an answer.
And neither will anyone else.
Sometimes Sex Is Just Sex
In my private and professional life during the last 35 years-since I left the Army in 1963-I have spent a large proportion of time in a state of near stammering rage arguing with people, especially leftists, who consider themselves intellectual powerhouses in vain attempts to obtain at least minor degree of acceptance or agreement on what constitutes basic reality. In recent times this has included extensive one-way conversations over TV with the President and First Lady of the United States in vain attempts to find agreement that sex is sex, or that "is" means is, or that belief that sex is sex is not a right-wing plot.
No matter what I have said, it has been followed by "but", or some kind of whining or protest. This is followed by some kind of argument twisting everything up. Basic simple reality is no longer acceptable or is considered to be some sort of intellectually intolerable oversimplification that in many cases produces some sort of absurd guilt if accepted.
Under the Politically Correct doctrine that rationality is an arbitrary and punitive artifact of western civilization, psychotic ramblings and the most infantile rebelliousness are further qualified as genius.
Mental illness is being improperly defined as intellect. Moreover, absence of a demanded refutation for incoherent disorder is interpreted as license to put whatever that disorder is advocating into practice. There has developed an extensive pool of what is incorrectly labeled intellectuality that supports reality disorders, borderline disorders, psychopathic deviance, and so forth.
Many of the people who engage in this operate under the romantic and self-flattering conception that they are "challenging ideas" or "challenging middle class complacency" or something similar. In fact, they are not challenging anything and are not capable of challenging anything. There may be challenge in the sense of aggravation, but this is not the same as challenging intellectual content. The content of intellectual challenge is the same as that found when arguing with the denial of an alcoholic or a pothead as to whether they are alcoholics or potheads and should seek help--or are destroying their, and your, lives.
The convoluted argument with them can go on for days without your winning a single point. At the end of that time he or she has verbally rejected every fact. The reality is that he or she is still an alcoholic or a pothead.
A bumper sticker states one of the world's most profound psychological truths. The sticker says, "You can't argue with a sick mind." This is a simple truth. But the rules of debate in front of an audience with the mentality of the Phil Donahue fan club are not the same as the rules of real life. The best way to win a debate before irrational or mentally deficient people is to argue from a point of such irrationality that there is no way any opposition can even begin to make a refutation regardless of the validity of their position. The only thing they can do is stammer. This was found out very quickly by the countercultural subculture during the Sixties and Seventies. They established psychotic levels of denial and irrationality as acceptable methods of immobilizing opposition.
Psychotic Thinking Has Become Conventional Wisdom
It is today routine to hear levels of disordered thinking which would have been labeled psychotic forty-five years ago. This disordered thinking has underwritten the drug problems, the sexuality problems, the illegitimacy problems, the AIDS problems, the family dissolution problems, and the broad range of social, educational and economic difficulties in this country. It has furthermore created a political instability and made the nation nearly impossible to govern.
The catastrophic consequences of drugs, of irrational narcissistic sexuality, of irrational educational programs and all the rest are as objectively observable as the red pen I hold in my hand. However I, personally, have not won agreement from the proponents on any of the issues in thirty-five years. I've been correct in my observations and predictions for thirty-five years. But, observable basic reality does not make a dent in countering the psychotic arguments underwriting the chaotic consequences which are occurring. No matter how airtight the refutation, the talk continues. No matter how inane the talk, the issue is still considered unresolved. Capacity to continue speaking has become looked upon as a form of refutation of absolute real-world evidence.
Not long ago I read a book review in Commentary magazine. While the reviewer seemed somewhat sympathetic to the points made in the book, he complained that the book author consistently referred to his adversaries as idiots. The reviewer criticized the book author on the basis that calling people nuts or idiots is not intellectual content or intellectual refutation. The reviewer was absolutely incorrect. It is profound intellectual content. It is shorthand for the valid and important observation that the content of certain positions is a form of mental disorder for which no intellectual refutation is possible.
The optimum method of dealing with a content of mental disorder in daily life is to label it as such and leave the presence of the disordered person. You dismiss whoever it is as a mental defective, a crank, or a nut and get the hell away without bothering to answer whoever or whatever it is. Not to do so is a very bad habit to get into. To continue the conversation makes as much sense and is apt to have the
same rate of success as attempts to teach calculus to a goldfish. It is, in the words of a Chinese saying, like playing piano before a cow. Regardless of the quality of the sonata, the cow is likely to remain unimpressed. The lack of success is not a reflection upon the sonata, but is an innate characteristic of the cow.
Whether one can distance oneself from fools or from even the criminally insane is contingent upon several conditions. It presumes that the disordered person or group is not widespread, but is too small a proportion of the population to represent anything but an easily-escaped, isolated, and perhaps amusing anomaly. It presumes the disordered person does not have direct power to inflict or implement their view. If either one of these presumptions is not true, then the option of distancing one's self is no longer possible.
The person who wrote the book review was a Jew writing for a magazine which, while often presenting some of the finest and most diverse minds in the country on issues of general interest, also dedicates a portion of its content to Jewish culture. Jews come from a historical cultural background of needing to helplessly negotiate with irrational people or irrational conditions as though those people were amenable to rationality while those same people mocked and taunted them for amusement. (If you were a Jewish inmate at Buchenwald you didn't have the option of labeling the SS as idiots or mental degenerates, and leaving. Instead, there was reduction to the remaining irrational and impossible necessity to attempt to deal with a pathological group of people through intellectual and moral discourse. The attempt was, of course, doomed to failure.)
This has been a periodic fact of life during centuries of Jewish history.
There is a pertinent parallel between the Jewish experience and the experience of being an intelligently sane inhabitant of American culture during the last thirty-five years. Under both conditions the sane individual has found himself confronted by a pathology and an irrationality which under reasonable conditions anyone should be able dismiss as isolated lunacy or stupidity and walk away from, relegating its proponents to wander in the fever swamps. In both situations the individual was prohibited by the numerical and political strength of the pathology from being able to either dismiss the situation as isolated anomaly or from establishing distance. In both cases there has been, or is, the attempt to resolve the situation by application of intellectual and moral suasion on deaf, and often contemptuous, ears. In both cases, the consequences have been catastrophic.
When you have a clear case of it in the occupants of the White House, with those same people starting wars and bombing other countries, it's clear that we have been made cultural prisoners and no longer have the option of dismissing the situation as isolated anomaly and walking away. There is now no place to leave to.
There are two major issues here. One issue is that the individual in this situation must maintain confidence in reality and final confidence in himself in stating reality. In other words, there comes a point where the only and final argument is, "That's the way the real world operates, and that's the way it is." Many of us who are graduates of diseased liberal educational systems have been brainwashed into accepting the undermining belief that if we don't have a refutation that satisfies people holding an irrational position, then according to what we are told are the rules of liberal intellectuality we should be morally or ethically bound to adopt that irrational position or be labeled irrational or anti-intellectual. This leads to the inverted condition of feeling guilty or irrational for not adopting wholesale mental disorder.
Simultaneously, this contributes to a social condition wherein sanity and irrationality become exchanged, where irrationality comes to take precedence and dominance over real-world evidence. The acceptance of these rules comes to undermine personal confidence in simple real-world evidence.
There must be confidence in the principle that there are many times when the only answer is, "That is not reality." No further debate is obligatory or wise. Ayn Rand stated it decades ago as one of the principles of Objectivist philosophy when she said "A is A" (in the empirical as well as tautological sense). It is a profound philosophical truth. It means that somewhere there must be an acceptance of basic physical reality.
The idea is not novel with Rand, by the way. It extends back to David Hume, and was developed by Ludwig Wittgenstein ("the world is all that is the case") and Bertrand Russell, and expanded by the Vienna Circle in the 1920s and 30s. It is one of the premises of logical positivism ("a proposition is factually meaningful only if it is verifiable").
The second issue is one of process. When confronted by irrationality, there are three choices of action. Dismiss and distance oneself from the irrational person. Or confront the irrational person physically. Or negotiate with the irrational person.
One of the destructive legacies of the Sixties and Seventies is that the militantly pathological were allowed to set the rules. The rules they set were that in the name of intellectual freedom they could continue to do what they wanted as long as they could synthesize inane arguments to that effect. Secondly, they were entitled to financial support, direct or indirect, or other support, direct or indirect, for what they were doing, whether it was from worried parents hovering over their offspring to protect those offspring from their own irresponsibility, or whether it was social programs. At that point parents and society should have said "We're not supporting it." Society should have said, "We don't owe you a playground where you can experiment in irrationality and pathology or inflict irrationality and pathology upon society." In one sense this is a type of physical confrontation. It allows reality to physically confront pathology and the pathological.
For specific example, teams of doctors should never have been flown in to treat drug overdoses and drug effects at the Woodstock music festival. That might have resulted in hundreds or even thousands of deaths at the festival. However, it would have both established both the reality and pathology of the event and the coordinate life style. It would have forced a confrontation with reality which has been successfully avoided in years of debate because of the original intercession between the event and reality.
That is one of the important reasons for maintaining a free society where people are not allowed to impose responsibility for the consequences of their lifestyles and self-indulgence upon other members of the community. Freedom is a method of preventing people from confiscating and squandering the resources of the community to insulate themselves from corrective reality. It is also a method of preventing members of society from being victimized by other's attempts at evasion of corrective reality. Freedom is a part of a system of psychological and economic checks and balances.
Because of pampering and lack of confrontation, pathology was allowed to become so widespread and socially powerful that we were forced into the futile attempt to confront it intellectually under a pathological rule system designed to protect and perpetuate pathology. Under these conditions, there should be little wonder that there has been little leverage and little success in attempting to plead for a restoration of basic sanity in this society.
What this means is that anyone representing sanity or seeking to hold on to their sanity today must possess emotional ruggedness. It means being subjected to constant temper tantrums. Agreement is not to be expected regardless of the correctness of your position. In many cases the only refutation to the opposing argument is to look at the world around you as evidence.
Robert L. Kocher is the author of "The American Mind in Denial," as well as many other articles. He is an engineer working in the area of solid-state physics, and has done graduate study in clinical psychology. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.