Friday, May 18, 2007

Intellectual tennis without a net

This chap prefers to play with a net


Every discipline of sports have their own prescriptive rules and internal game-mechanics. This includes the non-physical game discussion. I prefer to call discussion a game rather than a sport, but I do acknowledge that a lot of people see it as a sport (or more precisely: a competition). Because of this attitude, discussions actually tend to get that way: fighting to win. I don't like it.

More specifically, I find it peculiar how elements of tennis and "competition-discussions" look so similar in function. The idea is stolen from the philosopher Ronald de Sousa, who once accused philosophical theology of playing "intellectual tennis without a net" (in the sense that theologians always end up saying: "Well, it's a matter of faith"). I have never read anything by de Sousa except that little sentence, but I just immediately liked the tennis analogy. Hence the title of this post. For the fun of it, I wanted to see how far the idea could be expanded. So then, in both tennis and discussion certain elements are needed:

  • Ball: Any remark, comment or argument (notice how people even say: "the ball is on your court")
  • Hit: When the ball gets stated or claimed, it gets hit to the other side of the court, where the opponent need to respond. Sometimes discussions are slow in speed (when there is not much at stake) - sometimes they're fast (and then we "get personal").
  • Ad hominem hits are defined as "attacking the opponent, rather than the ball". This is not pleasant when playing either tennis or having a discussion.
  • Boxes: The personal territory of the competitors. Only balls may pass over here. When the players "get personal" and ad hominem, it is usually because they trespass on each other personal boxes. Hence why some subjects are "off limits".
  • The serve: The initial claim or statement that sparks of any discussion. It can be presented in many ways. Some people like to spin their serve, in order to confuse their opponent (often found in political tennis). Others are more fond of the direct approach, as we see it in a cannonball serve. No spin here, just go straight for the target with dogmatic persuasion. Cannonballs are usually hit very low, as to get as close to the net as possible (this is almost inevitable in the domain of philosophers who don't do philosophy very often - and therefore not realising that you have to be careful not hitting the net).
  • The net: A marker for the lowest possible internal logic any hit or serve can have. An argument that fails to make it over the net, cannot be properly responded to, because it doesn't make sense in the game of rational discussion (or basically tennis with rules). If the net is not up, both participants are allowed to say anything, thought they cannot expect any response to what they are saying. They may shoot the ball at opposite directions or high up in the sky, but should not hope that the ball will be returned. Therefore, tennis without a net, usually ends up being played alone.
  • Let: When an argument touches the net, but barely makes it to the opponents box. The serve is replayed, so that it can be properly analyzed and understood.

One could find a bunch more of these similarities (and I have, but I thought this was getting to obscure and needed some feedback first). It may seem as a joke - and indeed it is fun to find all these similarities - but there's a serious motive behind this as well. At least as far back as Aristotle, people have written on rhetoric - and often about the bad uses of rhetoric. I would call this "semi-consciously false applied logic", because almost all of the dirty tricks of rhetoric concerns logical fallacies and misrepresentations. It's "conscious" because people often are aware of their own fault, but too dishonest to admit it. "Semi" because we have manipulation as an innate ability (no wonder the psychologists call this "Machiavellian Intelligence" after the famous Renaissance political theorist). Therefore most of these manipulations are quite automatic and unconscious.

I think the idea of discussion as playing tennis works especially well for the problem of basing arguments on faith. Every time a person does this, it is really not possible to respond to (other than just giving up - letting the serve pass). The famous "faith-hit" really does the job, when the opponent doesn't realise that the net is down - and therefore everything is allowed. You cannot question the faith-argument, so you might as well just shoot some balls in the air yourself. Example: Person-B fails to realise that he is playing tennis without a net:

A (hits a serve): "Homosexuality is a sin and I know it because God told me"

B (questions the premise of the serve): "Oh, but how do you know if your God is speaking to you? Maybe you are just dictated by your internal moral feelings"

A (sends of the penetrating "faith-hit", while the net is not up): "Because I believe in God. Doh, it's called faith you know"

B (loses): OK then. Sorry to bother.

We should therefore, whenever we encounter someone playing without the net, tell them that the rules (or lack of rules) applies to everyone. We can then agree to:
(1) Keep playing without the net and let questions and comments have no logical limitations (A: "The president made a lot of mistakes last year" - B: "The solar system is a big floppy ham")
(2) End the game, because decision (1) is obviously very boring when played for more than a few seconds.
(3) Restarting the game with the net up, in order to have a reasonable and fair discussion.


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