“Discussion or vāda is the breath of intellectual life. We are obliged to use it in the search for truth, which is complex in character and yields only to the co-operation of many minds.
– Hindu Philosopher, S. Radhakrishnan, on The Logical Realism of Nyāya
The art of intense debate and discussion, especially where it pertains to the search for Truth, has been a perennial part of Hindu culture. Hindu Philosophy extensively made use of vāda-vidyā (the science of discussion) and tarka-vidyā (the science of debate), both of which converged into nyāya (science of logic and reasoning), and which later developed into a darshana or standalone philosophy of its own, navya-nyāya (one of the six mainstream schools of Hindu Philosophy or approaches to Truth).
In this article, I will get into a very very general “popular science” type of discussion about discussion :). Will give an introduction of vāda-vidya, tarka-vidyā, and nyāya in separate article.
One of the things that distinguishes civilized society from the uncivilized (or for that matter from animals) is the ability to use communication to resolve disputes. The lack of it results in violence, brute-force methods, war, fist fights, domestic feuds, break-ups, misunderstandings, etc.
The ability to have a discussion implies a certain level of maturity: the maturity to be objective, to not get attached to your standpoint. Which implies the maturity to accept that your conjecture might be wrong. Humans are reasoning beings, no matter what their level of intelligence or education is, differing only in their level of maturity.
Discussions need patience and detachment. Detachment allows reasoning and logic to shine through as the primary tool, as opposed to ones emotions. A good discussion is one that is followed through to completion — i.e. both parties come to a mutual agreement (the word mutual is redundant here, as an “agreement” cannot be imposed by just one side). Anything short of this will essentially result in the issue remaining unresolved, resulting in potential for the issue (or the elements leading to the issue) to manifest again.
A discussion involves proposing each others point of view, then responding to any questions to shed more clarity so that everyone gets more understanding into the point being made. The question and response are often in the form of proposing arguments. That is, if you disagree with something, you don’t simply say you disagree, but you propose an argument stating the reason for your disagreement. Such as pointing out the error in the opponents argument by proposing your argument explaining or illustrating the reasoning behind why you think the opponents argument is flawed.
A debate is a form of discussion where the both sides hold strong (and often opposing) views, and makes arguments in support of their views. However, if even one side is neutral — that is, if one side doesn’t not have any view of their own (they have no stake in whether the proponent is right or wrong), but is more interested in just the validity of the proponents ideas, then it is not a debate, but a discussion. It is often possible to have debates, where both takes strong sides, but don’t have any real stake in whether they are right or wrong (as is common in scholastic/academic debates, or by playing devil’s advocate in order to explore each topic in depth via debate).
In philosophy, an argument is a claim, or set of claims, supported by one or more defensible reason(s). In logic, this can take the form of one or more declarative sentences (or “propositions”), known as the premises, along with another meaningful declarative sentence or proposition, known as the conclusion.
– Wikipedia: Argument
Arguments are the building blocks of any serious discussion. Arguments use logic or reasoning as the basis. In fact to say “logical argument” is redundant, as all arguments are supposed to be based on logic. Arguments almost always start out with reasoning as the basis. Thus to say two people are arguing a particular topic is not in any way inherently negative.
A discussion degrades into a quarrel when the proponent is emotionally fixated that his point of view is correct and is unable to provide others with reasoning or enough clarity to others as to why he thinks so. This may require several rounds of discussions in order to shed more clarity to help understand each others reasoning better. This may require considerable patience and objectivity. The proponent is required to provide the reasoning or the relevant details linking the premise and the conclusion to reveal the logical connection. Without providing this, the proponent is essentially forcing the opponent to accept his proposition blindly.
Often times a discussion does not become a quarrel, but becomes one-sided, where the proponent gives nothing but criticism and complaints, while the opponent is constantly on the defensive. The proponent is more interested in pushing his view, rather than engaging in any form of creative effort to help the other side understand.
The Burden of Proof
The proponent who made the statement carries the burden proof, and does not get to put the burden on the opponent to prove his case. That is if the proponent says the moon is square on certain days, it is up to him to demonstrate that statement by being answerable to any questions asking for clarity (like on which dates is the moon square? how long is it square? is that state readily observable by anyone anywhere?). It is not up to the other person to spend time proving that the moon is never square on any date, time, or location. The burden of proof is on the proponent.
Logic / Art of Arguments
This is an entire topic of its own, and is critical for any civilized debate or discussion. As a starter I recommend reading Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking or A Rulebook for Arguments or if you’re really into it, the most advanced exploration of logic and types of arguments is from the Nyaya Philosophy (one of the six darshanas, Hindu schools of philosophies). Or just google for art of debate/reasoning/arguments :).
Know Your Audience
Most intellectuals are logical. In the Hindu varna-srama archetypes (which is based on ones qualities and karma actions), the ordering of intellectual temperament from highest to least, are brahmins, kshatriyas, vaishyas, and sudras. Note that varna-srama is not confined to Hindu society, but is universal. For example, in the USA there are think-tanks (fielded by brahmin/kshatriya varna) that do the heavy thinking, not the common man (the majority of which is vaishya/sudra and some kshatriya). It is important to determine the level your opponent is at before engaging in argument. A person of brahmin archetype engaging with a sudra archetype is going to result in the debate being long and drawn out, as the brahmin will have to think for the sudra by fielding and clarifying the sudras weak logic. This is the reason that the vaishya/sudra defers the debate to a brahmin/kshatriya to represent them on their behalf. See varna-srama.
No Room For…
Impatience. This causes the person to force his opinion on the other instead of arriving at a mutually agreed conclusion through discussion.
Getting emotional (becoming defensive, upset, angry, walking away, sulking, throwing tantrums). You know when a discussion is no longer a discussion when there is mud-slinging, ill-feelings, anger, resentment, wounded ego, wounded pride, self-respect, dignity, personal beliefs, personal traditions, personal attachments, biases, prejudices, etc. Indicates emotional immaturity (due to any number of psychological issues – ego, insecurity, paranoia, fear,…).
Escapism. Statements like “no point having this discussion, as no matter what you will never agree”. Such statements are not permitted in a discussion. One has to agree to this even before engaging in discussion. If one cannot do that, then it shows that he or she does not have the patience/maturity that is necessary to follow through a discussion to a conclusion (true, false, intractable, or mutually agree to disagree).
Stubbornness. There is no room for stubborn belief that only your point of view is right and expect others to blindly accept it (i.e. without giving enough clarity to the argument they are making). You cannot say “I don’t have to explain anything, because I know I am write”. Then that is not a discussion, but tantamount to just barking and walking away, with the expectation that others have to blindly accept what you say.
Shrugging responsibility. One cannot add other statements or data points, and later retract those statements, when those statements have already done their deed (see: red herring or straw man attacks in types of logical fallacies). You also lose the privilege of retracting a statement, the moment the statements has had its intended their impact. You can offer to retract those statements (in the tradition of apologetics), but whether it is accepted lays in the hands of those whose arguments were impacted by those statements (i.e. potential damage done to their argument). Frequency of making such statements and retracting them is underscored by lack of maturity or credibility (ulterior motives, hidden agenda,…). Once the maturity or credibility of either side degenerates beyond a certain point, the discussion is called off.
Not all discussions have a true or false conclusion. Some require compromise and some can even be intractable (no conclusion either way), and yet be very productive. Most questions of science and philosophy do not have conclusive answers but tremendous amount is learned from the exercise of the discussion, so that one is set on the right path. An often quoted question is “Is there a God?”. In fact, most of the schools of logic and reasoning (which today are the cornerstone of all science) in Eastern/Hindu and Western/Greek schools of thought have come from profound debates in metaphysics.
In discussions that seem to be potentially intractable, the validity of all points need to be addressed – no point should be excluded, unless mutually agreed upon. This prevents the situation where a person makes an influential point and then retracts it after its influence/damage has been rendered. Note that one should not conclude the intractability to begin with. It is for the chain of logic/reasoning to reach that conclusion.
In such cases, both parties come to a mutual agreement that the discussion is intractable. This agreement is not based on “feeling”, but on based on exhaustive logic. In typical discussions (not science/philosophy debates) it usually takes only a few iterations to realize a the topic of a discussion is intractable.