Monday, September 3, 2007

"... fights don't have rules!" **

I love a good clean fight. As opposed to an actual, real fight when anything goes to achieve victory (I've mostly survived my share of those and am happy to call that sufficient, thankyouverymuch).

However brutalized they may feel after, all who partake of a "clean fight" agree upon parameters and conditions which all participants abide by as a condition of participation. Sports like boxing or wrestling are physical examples of this phenomenon, as debate or argument are of the intellectual exercise of this principle. A clean fight is a test of skill and/or knowledge in a structured and limited environment - safety being too nebulous and relative a descriptive for an activity centered around conflict, I suggest - which brings us to the level of blogs.

A recurring debate I frequently become involved in revolves around the early or foundational history of a thing. A brief (and rather shallow, sad to say) example of what I'm talking about can be read here in the comment exchange between Al Fin and myself and others, wherein I make reference to a primary source*** to support my position.

[Just for the record, my understanding is that such a reference is the limit of "clean fighting" in someone else's comment section; further expansion of such a position should be made on one's own blog and debate continue between the two (or more) involved blogs.]

A primary source is often presented in these adhoc debates as some form of rhetorical ultimate action to which no refutation is possible. This is silly, of course, as no-one now alive can speak with any certainty as to the cited author's motivation to write as he did. The best that can be asserted from any extensive remove in time is that said individual stated such-and-so to someone else within a context that they, at least, shared between themselves. A commonly occurring example, in my experience anyway, is for a commentor to quote a selected passage in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to someone else (often only a sentence or two) as support for some political/ethical/moral/etc. position advanced as regards the US Constitution in a discussion taking place in the 21st Century.

This* is an on-line academic study guide developed and maintained by Bowdoin University. It explains and details the accepted means for placing a primary document within an historically accurate context. It isn't concerned with questions of authenticity (those are addressed elsewhere in the curriculum), but the context that would have existed at the time the source item was created (personally between the sender and recipient, in the hypothetical Jefferson letter example of above). This is in addition to the influences imposed by the societal context within which the source author existed, as well.

It's not enough to argue that "such-n-such said this-n-that to so-n-so which proves my point about whatever-it-was". You are only allowed to make that logical leap if you can demonstrate that the context surrounding the original statement is sufficiently similar to that of your present contention to not alter the conclusion the original statement lead to. Given the fundamental alterations that our technological and scientific understanding of our universe have permitted us over the course of recorded human history, it would be profoundly shocking to come across any thesis that hasn't had to give way in some fashion or degree to subsequent discovery(s). And if this be true for purely historical discussions, how much more so for those speculating upon the effects of matters only now subject to basic research into their practical feasibility at all?

Much of what we do here on the web is dependent upon our adhering to the conventions and mutual understandings that have developed into accepted practice. Whether the topic be politics, history or pure speculation, we each need to take advantage of the methods to educate ourselves that are freely offered via this medium. Otherwise, how can we hope to advance ourselves beyond the short-term tactic of destroying the other's position and work instead on more fully developing our own?

*The linked page is a sub-category of this site.

**Extra points for identifying the film the title is drawn from. Hint: the specific type of fight was pertinent to the original dialogue. :)

***John Taylor Gatto is still very much alive to my knowledge; I regret any inference that may be drawn to the contrary.


al fin said...

Probably most of the comments "fights" that I've observed involve at least two participants talking past each other, without actually engaging on most pertinent points of discussion.

In addition, it often seems that the most excitable commenters go out of their way to avoid points of fact that can be confirmed or denied.

If the two participants in a discussion are using different premises with different goals in mind, the sense of futility when observing the discussion can be painful.

Time limitations can magnify misunderstandings significantly and effectively prevent a constructive coming together. An early recognition of the real world limits of any particular "fight" will save time and energy.

Will Brown said...

Welcome friend, and agreed.

The time pressure you note is a big contributor to our not expressing ourselves sufficiently to clearly convey our position to others. And not just here on our respective blogs either.

I do think we are all failing to well utilize the available content on the web to better educate ourselves. I wonder what an Autodidact University course of study ought to look like? Particularly given the extremes of uneven development such an individual would necessarily have.

al fin said...

Try this one.

I've been comparing numenta AGI (Jeff Hawkins) with novamente AGI (Ben Goertzel). Both provide some good background material, but the numenta page above is almost like an entire course for learning contemporary AGI approaches.

Will Brown said...

And onto the reference Links list it goes. Thanks Fin.

I did mention a certain uneven aspect to educational development; this appears to be well beyond my own present level of math comprehension, I'm afraid. Which excludes me from actually doing the work, but not from gaining what comprehension I am able from the site.

Rev. Bayes would have understood, I'm sure.