Controversial subjects should be learned through dialogues and debates

Reflecting on my own learning experience, I do not remember learning much of anything (with exceptions) about controversial matters such as politics, religion, or ethics from listening to lectures. But I have learned more from participating in and listening to dialogues and debates.

Listening to a lecture — given either to a small audience such as in a typical classroom, or to a large audience such as in a public lecture — at best, one learns the opinions of the lecturer; but one does not learn the merits of such opinions unless they are subject to criticism by a person of at least equal competence. I, therefore, recommend that all controversial matters taught in schools be conducted by two competent persons with incompatible positions.

Historically, such an approach was dramatically illustrated by Plato’s dialogues, as well as by Aristotle in some of his writings, and more so by Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae. But these are imaginary or opinionated dialogues. What is needed is to witness real disputes.

As illustrations, let me offer the following debates available on the internet as examples.

The first one is a BBC radio debate between Bertrand Russell and Frederick Copleston in 1948:

Here is a transcript of the debate: A Debate on the Argument from Contingency

The second debate is between Norman Finkelstein and Alan Dershowitz at Democracy Now in 2003 on the Palestine-Israel conflict:

Here is my take on this debate and its aftermath: Andrew Chrucky, Norman Finkelstein, DePaul, and U.S. Academia: Reductio Ad Absurdum of Centralized Universities, 2007.

The third debate is between Richard Wolff and Gene Epstein on Socialism vs Capitalism in 2019.

Here is my partial commentary: Richard Wolff’s failed definition of capitalism

The fourth debate is between Tucker Carlson and Cenk Uygur on immigration in 2018.

Here are my Comments on the Cenk Uygur and Tucker Carlson “debate”

The fifth: Sir Roger Penrose and William Lane Craig: How to combine the physical realm, the mental realm, and the abstract realm?

My last illustration is the debate between Stefan Molyneux and Peter Joseph on the merits of capitalism: Andrew Chrucky’s annotated commentary on the debate between Stefan Molyneux and Peter Joseph of the Zeitgeist Movement about the free market system, which took place on September 23, 2013.

Philosophy as philosophizing

Recently I was introduced by Jacob Feldman to a video and a corresponding article by Eric Dietrich who poses the question: “Is there progress in philosophy?” And his answer is that there is not.

He does not tell us what philosophy is, though he selects some allegedly philosophical problems and some metaphilosophical positions as examples of unresolvable philosophical disputes.

I want you to listen to him and read his article. Afterwards I will give you my commentary.

Erich Dietrich, “There Is No Progress in Philosophy, Essays in Philosophy, 12:329-344 (2011).


The first thing that I would like to say is that his view of philosophy is too narrow or myopic. The broader view is that philosophy is really “philosophizing.” It is an activity whose goal is to resolve disputes and hopefully to come to agreements. This activity is called by Mortimer J. Adler “dialectic.” See his book: Dialectic (1927). A related approach can be called “critical philosophy,” as presented by C.D. Broad in “Critical and Speculative Philosophy,” Contemporary British Philosophy (1924): 77-100.

See also my: The Aim of Liberal Education (2003)

As with any activity, a critical discussion can be done with various degrees of proficiency. In this sense, there can be progress in the acquisition of such a proficiency.

As to solving problems, I will mention some which have been solved.

The first is the clarification that existence is not a predicate. This solution has been attributed to Kant, but there are better modern expositions. And since this matter is relevant to an argument for God’s existence, see: C. D. Broad, “The Validity of Belief in a Personal God,” Hibbert Journal 24 (1925): 32-48.

The second concerns the credibility of miracles. See: C. D. Broad, “Hume’s theory of the credibility of miracles,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 17 (1916-1917), pp. 77-94.

The third concerns the problem of a free will and determinism. The solution consists of reframing the problem as contrasting doing something freely with being coerced to do something. This solution is referred as “compatibilism.”

In short, there has been progress in philosophy in discarding superstitions and the cobwebs of language.

Further Commentary:

1. He takes Aristotle as a “paradigm?” philosopher. But is Aristotle a philosopher because he has scientific speculations? Aristotle, qua scientist was wrong about many things. And, Aristotle qua philosopher has also been criticised by other philosophers, and if these other philosophers are correct, then philosophical speculation has indeed advanced.

2. As an example of philosophy not having resolved any philosophical problems, he assumes that as to the question whether there is a God or not, there is no solution. Here he is wrong. The fact that there are people who disagree, what does that show? Can their reasoning be evaluated? Yes, relative to some agreed to standards, such as non-contradiction and compatibility with the findings of science. I pose to you the problem of finding fault with the reasoning of C. D. Broad, “The Validity of Belief in a Personal God,” Hibbert Journal 24 (1925): 32-48.

3. On the assumption that philosophy does not progress, he cites three philosophers who try to answer why this is so: Colin McGinn, Thomas Nagel, and James Sterba. By my lights, the assumption is wrong. But it does not exclude the intractability of some sorts of questions.

The Bullshit of Intellectuals

Thomas Sowell has written a book, Intellectuals and Society (2009), which, in essence, repeats the thesis of Jose Ortega y Gasset, in his book Revolt of the Masses (1930), namely, that men of science who are experts in field X, espouse claims in field Y (in which presumably they are not experts).

As an example, this is exactly the charge which Sowell makes against Bertrand Russell and Noam Chomsky. He admits that they are experts in mathematical logic and linguistics, respectively, but denies that they are experts in social, economic, and political matters.

There are three possible errors in this claim. The first is that Sowell may be wrong by denying to them an expertise outside their core expertise. The second is that people may appeal to the conclusions of experts outside their own area of expertise, as do Russell and Chomsky. And, thirdly, experts disagree; so there is a need to adjudicate.

The conclusion from this reasoning should be that an intellectual should have, as C.D. Broad put it, a synoptic approach, taking into account everything relevant to what he is talking about. So, what Sowell should be saying, or is saying, is something like the following: “Most, or many, intellectuals do not have a synoptic approach — including Russell and Chomsky; but I, Sowell, do.”

Contrary to what Sowell claims, both Russell and Chomsky have a better synoptic view than does Sowell. Why? Simply because Sowell scope of interest is in the actual state of affairs under liberal democracy and capitalism rather than in any radical alternative. Specifically, both Russell and Chomsky espouse a form of liberal socialism, about which Sowell has nothing to say. And I, for example, cite Switzerland as having a better form of democracy than that in the United States. Again, something about which Sowell has nothing to say.

But the point Sowell may be making is that there is too much bullshit coming out of the mouths of so-called intellectuals. And so, what is the remedy? Write a book such as Sowell’s exposing the bullshit. But really? Who will read his book?

The Influence of Science and Intellectuals?

Sowell exaggerates the influence of science and that of intellectuals, including his own influence. For example, Sowell has nothing to say about superstitions and religion. But, in the period of the 17th and 18th centuries, many intellectuals dismissed superstitions and religions as unworthy of belief — as incompatible with science. And recently, four intellectuals have written anti-theistic books. What impact has the Enlightenment or these authors made on the publics belief in superstition and religion?

Since Sowell constantly urges us to consult the empirical and statistical data, here are the statistics about religion: A WIN/Gallup International poll in 2015 found that 63% of the globe identified as religious, 22% as not religious, and 11% as convinced atheists. So much for the influence of science and intellectuals on popular beliefs!

Here is an interview with Thomas Sowell. Judge for yourself.