What is "Methodical Debate" ?

3 mars 2009, par Emmanuel-Juste DUITS

Aren’t you tired of reading books or websites that narrowly develop one sole truth without taking any consideration of possible objections to it ?

We see masses of arguments exhibit themselves as if unchallengeable : pro or anti-universal health care, pro or anti-parapsychology, pro or anti-liberalism, pro or anti-“conspiracy theory”, pro or anti-global warming, pro or anti-immigration, pro or anti-psychoanalysis,-the list goes on. On these controversial subjects, we mostly find biased writing, in service of a one-sided point of view.

Faced with this kind of method, we can’t help but be dissatisfied ; one asks oneself what the author would have responded to such or such an objection that seems too important and too obvious not to have been discussed. Or else one feels convinced and comforted by an opinion that one already holds dear-while secretly feeling that it wasn’t really put to the test.

We need to invent other places where opposing viewpoints could respond to one another on neutral terrain. Of course, debating is but the first stage on the path to participative democracy. Debates are only meaningful if the deliberations that they give rise to have a role in a final decision. Debating also has a role, albeit a different one, in the essential philosophical controversies.

Is it possible to gather onto one stage, for needs of discussion, scientists and laymen, activists and researchers, the partisans of immoral views and the defenders of humanism ?

These questions tend, whether in the name of morality or in the name of science, to disqualify certain interlocutors-those who are judged “odd”, “dangerous”, “extremist” and so forth. The texts on the present website attempt to demonstrate why we cannot exclude a priori any approach or argument from a debate. It is only a posteriori, after the discussion, that a position can be invalidated.

Once this will to confront different opinions affirms itself, the other problems are of a technical kind. The question is one of inventing a method of discussion capable of being implemented on a large scale. This method should exclude the risks of a “seizure of power” by a group trying to promote its own point of view.

Where might this kind of open and methodical debate take place ? The internet could be a precious aid in setting up such debates, but at present we are a long way from it being so : too many forums consist merely of a unorganized pile of messages, with each expressing itself in a joyous anarchy where rumor and noise prevail over information. There is a website project at hyperdebate.net that has been created in order to respond to a need whose urgency we have begun to recognize.

“The idea of our association of continuous methodical debate is based on a rather paradoxical observation. Namely, that even though nothing is more common than debating, we have found no method of debate that allows for : -the clarification of the principal sides of a debate, the different options and reasoning. -the avoidance of needless repetition -the assurance that any argument capable of advancing the debate is taken into account, even if it is an extremely minority position or a particularly contested point of view. -the pursuit of a debate across a period of time without having to begin anew each time it is continued. In this respect, the internet offers useful new possibilities : a) the storing of information b) the ability to participate with no limits of time and space c) the ability to inform oneself as to the current state of a problem and its principal elaborations before contributing one’s own reflections.

To respond to these needs, we propose to develop a tool for rigorous debate, using the internet as a non-exclusive support for what we call hyperdebate. It’s an interactive method, enabling the continuous organization of a great diversity of information (databases, arguments, etc.), while striving for exhaustiveness and accessibility. Hyperdebate is open to all opinions within the framework of certain rules. A minimal “netiquette” is required-no personal attacks are allowed. Once hyperdebate has proved itself efficient, it will an extremely vast field of application : general debates-technical debates or debates of land settlement, debates in preparation for the taking of any decision...”

In the end, if such a project were developed, the use of methodical debate would become a “reflex”. Individuals would hopefully have a global vision and a basic critical knowledge of the questions treated, as well as concrete perspectives of their own existence in society. For some of these debates, as they touch important controversies (the choice of new energy sources, for example), and as they index the possible solutions, may have the power to influence those making the decision.

Sitting before his computer, the internet individual will no longer be a simple consumer of virtual experiences, but a decision-maker in charge of his life and capable even of influencing collective evolution. That is without doubt a utopian idea, but can we construct the future without an ideal goal ? A synthetic vision of the important philosophical and social problems our time, encompassing their diverse aspects and the ensemble of possible responses, will tomorrow be an indispensable tool for any democracy.

Technical Presentation of Hyperdebate

Each debate will have at least one “facilitator”, in charge of creating a readable classification tree where the different arguments can be inserted. One will pose a major political or philosophical problem, or a technical question, formulated in such a way as to define a limited number of possible responses.

Let it be noted that even complex subjects have only so many possible responses. Take for example the metaphysical question as to whether there is an intent behind the origin of the universe. Either there is an intent (the theistic position), there is not an intent (the atheistic position), the answer is unknowable (the agnostic position), or the question has been, in one way or another, inadequately formulated (the position of linguistic philosophy). With these few essential responses, it seems to me that we touch already all the possible responses, which must be discussed. Each of these responses would be distinctly charted. The facilitator of the debate would create an initial classification tree, but one supple enough to branch out according to the contributions made by participants.

The classification tree would be presented in the following fashion :

Further down the line, each debate would be accompanied by a general presentation, comprising different databases (definitions of useful terms, summaries, important statistics, links to relevant reference sites).

Then, the 1st page (corresponding to the first level) : list of basic possible responses to the question or problem brought up.

2nd page : on the page consecrated to each of the main options given above, there would be a column of arguments “for” and a column of arguments “against”. These columns would have to be as exhaustive as possible, with all proposed arguments being cited, even those that might be considered odd or specious. The objective is to create an index of arguments.

To access a particular argument, the participant would click on a possible response, opening a new page.

3rd page (third level) : the participants may click on each of the arguments, which are then developed in a different window. At the end of each argument, they could add their own reflections in an attached forum. Thus, each argument will be addressed, in order to be refuted, amended, completed, etc., by the participants themselves.

Engaging an argument in-depth, internet users could enrich the classification tree, for example with links to different articles, websites and so forth, or by adding in critiques of the argument. Associated with each argument, then, would be a more or less exhaustive discussion. It’d be up to the moderator to periodically incorporate the responses of the users.

When the debate around an argument reaches a level of saturation (say, for example, the responses were becoming merely repetitive, with nothing new being added to the discussion), the moderator would propose a sort of balance sheet,-“This argument has been met with these major objections (with a list of objections with a link to separate pages elaborating upon each), and these confirmations (with a list of confirmations with links etc.)”.

Therefore, the argument is : valid/obsolete/contestable/not decidable

Or it is inconclusive : additional experiment is needed for it to be confirmed or invalidated.

Here a provisory conclusion might be advanced about the argument, and placed high up in the classification tree.

Obviously, at each of the levels, an internet user could propose adding something that he or she regards as missing : an option, an argument that hasn’t been brought up, an objection, or a document of some sort. Out of a concern for transparence, all contributions would always remain accessible to visitors in the archives. All users could thereby judge for themselves whether a contribution or argument has been rejected justly or not.

As we can see, the moderator would intervene in order to avoid contributions that or too repetitive or too obscure, or that are frankly delirious. It would be a matter of reading each new post, then classifying it as a new argument, or a repetition, and so forth. This list of arguments is only a preliminary step, necessary but not sufficient in itself. To my knowledge, there are very few websites that present, in a readable and practical form, the different arguments around a precise question,-either one finds a great number of documents that are sometimes contradictory, that often long to read, and whose key ideas have neither been summarized nor classified ; or else on finds sites where all the arguments-are the same argument !

Therefore, establishing a readable “catalogue” of arguments would already be good progress in the utilization of the internet. For the internet cannot become a tool for debate as long as information has not been better clarified, organized and summarized. Nevertheless we must go still further.

Arguments would be dissected according to dialogical methods like those elaborated by Gilbert Dispaux (or those of the Amsterdam school of Grootendorst and Van Eemeren). Every proposition would be classified as “observational judgment” (fact, data, testimony...), “evaluative judgment”, or “prescriptive judgment”. According to the nature of the proposition, it would become the object of a test procedure.

As noted above, after a certain time, when there are a sufficient number of contributions by internet users, a kind of balance sheet of each argument could be established. There is in all and for each four possibilities : 1) an invalided argument ; 2) a valid argument ; 3) an argument that cannot be decided ; 4) more information or additional experiments required. These different assessments would be regrouped on a page of synthesis, allowing one to see the general state of the debate in course.

Thus out of a static list of arguments idly opposing one another we would create a dynamic of ideas...

This work can remain benevolent for a long time. It would require in any case the participation of a small, motivated team of philosophers and specialists in the humanities, in order to conceive and launch the debates, and also some computer scientists to perfect the site according to the needs of the discussions. Ideally, all researchers and indeed every curious individual will be able to make fruitful use of this site of methodical debate.

Let’s recall here that methodical debate takes place within a more general process of deliberative democracy. The idea is to permit individuals to reflect upon and evaluate different options, with view to an effective decision be referendum, vote, etc.