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Debate Engine

Why have the same debates again and again when you have a computer?
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Recently, after several years of debating people online about evolution and god and health care and libertarianism, I'm increasingly getting the feeling that I "know how the argument goes", so to speak -- I know what people are going to say, and I know what I'll say back to them, etc., etc. I actually got a bit impatient in one recent debate and posted the following:

* * *

My first question would be, 'why can't God just go into their mind and change that part of them so that they believe?' And the response I expect would be, 'because that would change who you are, and God doesn't do that.' And I would say, 'but anything you do changes you to some extent. If any action makes you not you, then it's not really you in heaven (or hell) to begin with. Why couldn't god at least create some sort of proof, or experience, that would convince them of his existence (or convince them not to hate him if they do so)?' And the response I expect to that would be, 'He did create that, not in the next world but in this one.' And I'd say, 'No, he didn't.' And you'd say, 'Yes, he did. If you think he didn't you're just being rebellious and deluding yourself.' And I'd say, 'Well, there's no way either of us can possibly convince the other about this issue, since we've been to the root of it in the 'Afterlife' thread and still disagree (at least, I assume so, since nobody really responded to my last post there), so we might as well stop arguing.'

* * *

So why not automate the process?

I picture a web page containing a bunch of links, arranged in a list, like so

God exists.

God does not exist.

The universe has been around for 15 billion years.

The universe was created 6000 years ago.

Health care should be provided by the government.


If the user clicks on the first link, they're taken to a page (or alternately, the frame changes) that looks vaguely like this:

God Exists.

*No he doesn't.*

And below that are a few links. One of them says, "You're right, he doesn't.", and takes the user back to the main page.

Another says, "Yes, he does. I've talked talked to him, and he's responded." This takes the user to a page with an argument about the human brain's tendancy to create signals from noise, which has a list of hyperlinked counterarguments of its own at the bottom (there's no need to flesh these out to the extent that the main text is fleshed out because the user presumably already knows and agrees with them), a hyperlink that says, "okay, you're right about the signal-from-noise thing, but god still has to exist", which takes them back here, and a hyperlink that says, "I disagree, but not for any of these reasons", which takes them to Comments, which I'll get to.

A third says, "But he has to exist; how could the universe be as it is without some sort of designer?". Etc.

The last link says, "I disagree, but not for any of these reasons". When clicked, this, depending on what I feel like, either spawns an email message to me, with "I disagree about [subject of page that contained link]" in the subject line, or allows them to post a new argument-link in the space directly below aforementioned link list. This would probably constitute the bulk of the site over time, like a combination of a discussion forum and a open source choose-your-own-adventure.

I'm going to develop this if I ever manage to get up the motivation, but if anyone else decides to do it, email me and let me know.

Tlogmer, Mar 14 2002

Auto-response http://www.halfbake...m/idea/Auto-Nemesis
We sort of did this before [mcscotland, Mar 14 2002, last modified Oct 04 2004]

(?) Auto-response2 http://www.halfbake.../user/Peter_20Sealy
And as Mr. Bubba pointed out before, the halfbakery doesn't have an automatic mechanism for disagreement, but it can feel like it does. [mcscotland, Mar 14 2002, last modified Oct 04 2004]

A Standard for Demagogues http://www.halfbake..._20for_20Demagogues
[beauxeault, Mar 14 2002, last modified Oct 04 2004]

<stdarg.com> http://www.halfbakery.com/idea/No_20taxes
Came up in the annotations to this idea. [jutta, Mar 14 2002]

The Dogma Manifesto http://dogma2000.cx/manifesto.htm
Or is it 'A' Dogma Manifesto? [reensure, Mar 14 2002]

http://www.debategraph.org/ Editable (after sign-up) formalized debates [jutta, Aug 18 2008]


       You could do this as a branching voicemail/teleresponse system, too. "If you think God exists, please press one."
bristolz, Mar 14 2002

       I have an idea: Why don't you --deliberately-- take the other side of the debate for fun?   

       It may give you different insights and force a different debating experience if not a new perspective.   

       Also, your idea is somewhat baked in the form of "both-sides-of-an-issue books". By the way, they tend to contain more informed, explorative, and reasoned arguements than most joe-blow's in a chat room.
lumpy, Mar 14 2002

       In debating club at school, when we did national long-table competitions we used to train as a team - the actual tem in the competition was a pair, who would be put on the proposition or the opposition, and in one of the three stages: openers, development and summation. The debate (if you didn't know this) goes Proposition1, Opposition1, Proposition2, etc etc. Prop1+2 are a team, and 3+4... usually, the person in the opener position has a completely pre-written speech - and 6th on the line will have an almost blank sheet. Five minutes each person, the first and fifth minutes are not allowed to be interrupted.
Anyway, I was going to explain how we "trained" as a team. Well, about ten days in advance of the debate date, we would get the debate topic (e.g. STUC 1995: This House Believes... there is no longer a need for Trade Unionism in the UK) and the position of the team e.g. Opposition5/6. The club would get together, and with the research done by the competeing pair, we would have a round table debate where you can switch sides any moment you like - you can be fiercely in opposition one moment when you think of a good argument for that, and staunchly pro the motion a second later. Complete chaos, but always brought up wild and unforeseen points and tactics. Then we would go away and my partner and I would set out all the things our club had brought up. We'd reconvene and have a structured debate, either with both of us on the proposition, or one each side, but just not in the position we'd be 'playing' in the actual competition. Then we'd gather more notes on the typical arguments being presented, and be even better informed and prepared. The one thing we never did was simply Do The Speech - that avenue leads to a stale and unresponsive role in the debate.
I guess your idea is kind of orientated towards online chat and message boards. Well, for fun I would suggest playing the round table game - if you are not too passionate about the topic it is reasonably easy to play devil's advocate (cliche!) in this way. And if you do have a passion or a passing interest in the topic, it does make you think more deeply, as Lumpy says.
Incidentally, my debating team were pretty successful - I don't know whether that was due to the 'training' method or our superb teachers, but it taught me a fair bit! And (sigh) now I want to train to be a lawyer...
sappho, Mar 14 2002

       Love it. Put it online as a database. Sounds like you and I would take similar sides in such debates--I'll see if I can collate some of my stock answers. But there is a certain kind of forum poster, you know the kind, that just...never...admits...ANYTHING!...and never changes his tune. You can tell him "No, quantum theory does not prove there has to be a God to collapse the probability function of the universe" and explain why in great detail, and bang very next topic there he is again "But quantum mechanics PROVES beyond a DOUBT that God must exist to collapse the wavefunction!!!!" (He's always the one with the sticky exclamation key, I don't know why that is.)   

       End rant. Sorry. But what I really want is an auto-responder that will detect this guy's claim and whack out the same detailed answer every time this goon posts it, even on threads I don't personally read.
Dog Ed, Mar 14 2002

       Interesting idea. Closely resembles a choose-your-own-adventure web site. Choose-your-own-debate. You could draft it up, but you'd have to be ready for every potential (or the most common) responses at every juncture.   

       (In answer to your first question [and knowing I will regret this], God gives you free will to decide so that there is value and meaning to your faith. If He just makes you believe, what good is that? Would you rather have a mate that loves you because they choose to, or because you make them do it?)
waugsqueke, Mar 14 2002

       I like the idea, but I don't think it follows from your premise, which I do not like. Your premise seems to say that you already know all the arguments, so you'd like to be able to automate the whole argument without actually engaging in it. I think this attitude is reprehensible, and based on the actual idea, I suspect it's not what you really mean. Maybe I've misunderstood you there.   

       Particularly with respect to debates about religious matters, I do not believe that anyone knows *all* the arguments, even those who are certain and immovable from their position, even those who are agnostic but spend a lifetime searching, even the Pope, even me, even you. The very argument you list assumes responses that are not at all the responses I would give (waugs is closer).   

       Which is why I like the actual idea so much. As a living, growing device, it could help any honest searcher find the answers that they *don't* already know.   

       This relates to an idea I posted once called "A Standard for Demagogues" (link). It so irritates me to see someone pick a side and then pile up all the arguments they can find for their position, as if there is no reasonable case for the opposite side. If you're trying to sell me something, I first want to know if you've considered the opposite side. (Just for clarity, Tlogmer, I'm not accusing you of this.)   

       Finally, would the Automatic Debater eventually lead to some supportable (if not certain) conclusions? If the only purpose is to argue, without ever reaching a useful answer, what's the point?   

       Croissant, by the way.
beauxeault, Mar 14 2002

       // If the only purpose is to argue, without ever reaching a useful answer, what's the point? //   

       [beaux], unfortunately your criterion of usefulness will be open to (pointless) debate. Give it up...
lubbit, Mar 14 2002

       Hmm...for some reason I didn't think I could comment on my own submission so I was adding stuff to the body. Anyway,   

       - - - -   

       About "both sides of an issue books": they might not address in depth the particular arguments a person has and might not convince them (this probably won't convince them either, of course, but it stands a chance of developing their viewpoints more); they're not customizable; you have to read the whole thing. :)   

       - - - -   

       Just to make it clear, I would give the automatic debater the ability to take any side in a contentious debate (that's why I have initial links saying "God Does Not Exist" in addition to "God Exists"). Also -- beauxeault -- the premise was meant to be somewhat silly and facetious. There's no substitute for arguing with a real person in real-time, of course, and nobody can know every possible in and out of every possible discussion. It's just that so many of the same points seem to be repeated so many times that something like this could be worthwhile (and fun to make).   

       As for reaching a useful answer -- if online debate with real people never does this, how can you expect to hold a machine to that standard? :)
Tlogmer, Mar 14 2002

       Automatic Debater vs. the Real World … I like it.
reensure, Mar 14 2002

       A while ago, [bristolz] suggested in an annotation to have a website storing "standard arguments" for everything, ready for inclusion with C-preprocessor-style comments.   

       I went and registered stdarg.com, but never did anything with it (and bristolz never saw my invitation to help); but the idea I had in mind was very, very close to what you outline.   

       Arguments that end usefully (most of them don't) sometimes come down to which sources you trust and which value judgements you make; there could be check boxes provided on the site to exclude or include assumptions, and the site would automatically exclude arguments based on nothing but untrusted other arguments, and so on.   


       There is a field of software that helps lawyers design their arguments. Think little boxes and arrows. I wonder if those designs could be adapted for arbitrary human discussions.   

       (I'm not sure they can. As I've grown older, the relationship between rhetoric and logic has revealed itself as a very loose one, more a form of mimicry than the firm attachment I had hoped for.)
jutta, Mar 14 2002

       I think jutta's right about the useful conclusions. The Autobater could include branches that lead to firm conclusions on both sides, and the route to either one would depend on the judgments of the person deciding which fork to take.   

       Actually, now that I've thought about it some, I realize that Tlogmer's/Bristolz'/jutta's device would help an honest seeker develop that useful conclusion even if the device itself provided no conclusions at all. We all constantly come to useful conclusions without following exhaustive arguments to their logical end, because life frequently requires us to act on conclusions, and rarely waits for us to hold a debate. Of course these conclusions are never (one hopes) truly conclusive, either, since we should all still be looking to more fully inform ourselves (this does not mean my faith is weak; it means I remain willing to consider counter-arguments from a rational viewpoint). But to the extent that such a device would reveal arguments that one might not otherwise consider or encounter, it could facilitate these inconclusive conclusions.   

       What prompted the question was my fear that the purpose of the repository would tend to foster the idea that the argument itself is the goal, rather than finding a way to live a real life. Sure, arguments can be stimulating, but ultimately they're meaningless if there's no intent on using the result. I mean, if you're exploring the issues for and against euthanasia, it makes a difference whether you're doing it to exercise your intellect or you have an elderly, terminal parent who's in a great deal of pain.   

       In short, what bothers me is that "online debate never does this" (i.e., leads to conclusions) because the online debate is between people who seem to have made up their minds and are out to make someone else agree with them, rather than between people honestly looking for answers seeking to help each other find truth. Certainly neither debate nor the Auto Debater will lead opposed demagogues to a common conclusion, but that doesn't mean that observers to the debate can't be helped toward a conclusion if that is their goal.   

       Tlogmer/jutta/Bristolz, if any or all of you bake this, will you let us (or at least me) know?
beauxeault, Mar 15 2002

       Perhaps the system could be set up to allow debaters to add new insights/opinions/observations to argument branches which lead nowhere.   

       As I understand this, any given argument would have a series of 'argument lines' branching out from it. No one is ever going to get them all, so allowing visitors to annotate their insights and effectively start a new argument line would be useful.
waugsqueke, Mar 15 2002

       waugsqueke -- the system *is* set up to allow debaters to add new insights/opinions/observations to argument branches which lead nowhere. That's what the comments system is for (I could have made that a bit clearer in the original post).   

       blissmiss -- thanks. :) One of my stories was selected as a daily feature over at Deviantart.com ; you can check it out at http://www.deviantart.com/deviation.php?id=168242   

       </shameless plug>
Tlogmer, Mar 16 2002

johnbakersmon, Aug 21 2008


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