017 White Belt Curriculum Part 2

017 – White Belt Curriculum (Part 2): The Tao of Socrates

In episode 017 I give an update on new content at the Argument Ninja website (http://argumentninja.com), and I finish reviewing the white belt curriculum for the Argument Ninja Academy program.

The third and fourth learning modules in the white belt curriculum are titled “Socratic Knowledge” and “Socratic Persuasion“.

In this episode I also have an extended case study of a challenging persuasion case over the following issue: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

In This Episode:

  • Preparing for an upcoming talk on cognitive biases and causal reasoning (2:47)
  • The Feynman Technique (5:10)
  • Why the Argument Ninja podcast is like a novel, and the Argument Ninja Academy is like the movie based on the novel (7:00)
  • I wrote 14 new articles for the Argument Ninja website (10:10)
  • A working draft of the Argument Ninja Academy curriculum (10:45)
  • All my recurring supporters on the Wall of Thanks (11:29)
  • My steering committee (12:10)
  • Relationship of the Argument Ninja program to themes often discussed in other podcasts — martial arts for the mind (Joe Rogan, Tim Ferriss, Bryan Callen and Hunter Maats, Sam Harris, Jocko Willink) (12:57)
  • Mixed Mental Arts (15:30)
  • Socratic methods (18:30)
  • A typical Socratic dialogue (18:53)
  • Socrates as the first moral epistemologist (22:00)
  • Why Socratic knowledge is valuable (22:30)
  • Socratic knowledge as knowledge of argument structure; Socratic questioning as a tool for building this structure (27:00)
  • Socratic knowledge is compatible with saying “I don’t know” (29:00)
  • Socratic knowledge and training within the dojo (31:40)
  • Socratic methods as a tool of persuasion (33:20)
  • Simple mental models to help us think about persuasion strategy (35:10)
  • Hard styles versus soft styles in martial arts and persuasion (36:00)
  • Socratic questioning as a soft style (37:30)
  • The core belief network model (38:52)
  • Persuasion strategy based on the core belief network model (40:53)
  • Socratic questioning as a tool for mapping the core belief network (42:30)
  • The bank heist model (44:30)
  • The Indian Jones swap model (45:35)
  • Case study: “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” (47:00)
  • Why the best tool for guiding a Socratic conversation is Socratic knowledge — i.e. knowing what you’re talking about (50:33)
  • Arguments against the claim that Christians and Muslims worship the same God (51:25)
  • Arguments for the claim that Christians and Muslisms worship the same God (52:50)
  • Thinking about the “emotional resonance” of these arguments (57:45)
  • An example of an “Indiana Jones swap” (59:27)
  • Why I initially titled this module “Street Epistemology”, and why I changed it (1:01:40)
  • Origins of the Street Epistemology movement (1:02:34)
  • Why the Argument Ninja Academy is non-partisan with respect to ethical, political and religious beliefs (1:05:37)
  • Thanks to new monthly supporters on Patreon! (1:07:32)

Quotes:

“The kind of understanding that Socrates is trying to acquire, and that he’s testing with his questions, isn’t just knowledge of the facts, even if they’re true facts. He wants some understanding of why they’re true, what grounds them, why we’re justified in believing they’re true.”

“The Socratic method of asking questions in an open, non-confrontational way is just one persuasion tool among many, but it’s a particularly useful tool for this kind of challenge, because it’s a soft technique. It’s designed to slip past the guards and avoid triggering defenses.”

“I’m committed to creating a learning environment that isn’t partisan in any obvious way. Just like in a martial arts class. You line up at the start of class in your uniforms, you start working on your exercises and techniques, and the focus is on the program, not what race or gender or nationality you are, or what political or religious group you may belong to. That’s the environment that I want to create.”

 


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Introduction

This is the Argument Ninja podcast, episode 017.

Hello everyone. Welcome back to the show. I’m your host, Kevin deLaplante.

I got an email from a fan of the show earlier this week. His name is Darrell. He says “I can’t keep silent any longer. I must have another Argument Ninja fix. When’s the next episode?”.

And then I checked and saw that it’s been over a month since the last episode. So Darryll, before I start in with the second part of my overview of the white belt curriculum, let me try to exonerate myself a bit, because I actually have been pretty busy. Along with a bunch of other things, this episode has taken more time than I had expected to come together. But I’m happy with the end result, I hope you will be too.

Let me tell you what’s on the agenda. The episode has three sections. The first section is dedicated to news and updates. The second and third sections cover the remaining two modules in the white belt curriculum.

In news and updates, first I’m going to talk about a speaking gig I have coming up in Toronto. Second, I’m going to talk about the connection that this show has to some other podcasts that you may be familiar with — Joe Rogan, Tim Ferriss, Bryan Callen and Hunter Maats, Sam Harris, Jocko Willink,  — and a recent Skype chat I had with Hunter Maats about the “mixed mental arts” movement that he’s spearheading. And third, I’m going to share some major updates I’ve made to the Argument Ninja website, at argumentninja.com.

Then we move on to the white belt curriculum and third and fourth learning modules. The third module is on Socratic Knowledge, and the fourth is on Socratic Persuasion. I’m subtitling this episode “the tao of Socrates” because this is the first illustration of the yin-yang complementarity of argumentation and persuasion, which is a recurring theme of mine and it’s an important theme in the Argument Ninja program.

This episode will introduce a bunch of very simple mental models to help us start thinking about the challenge of persuading someone to reconsider or change a belief that may be closely connected to their identity.  And for the sake of an example we’re going to look at attitudes and arguments surrounding this question: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

And then at the very end I’m going to talk about the relationship between what I’m calling Socratic Persuasion and the Street Epistemology movement, which is closely related.

Prepping for a Talk

Okay, let’s get into news and updates since last episode.

There are a few things that have occupied my time the past few weeks.

The first is that I had to develop a keynote talk for a conference coming up in early April, in Toronto. It’s an annual professional meeting for legislative and performance auditors in Canada. This is a group whose job involves investigating and assessing the performance of public bodies, like government departments and programs. I gave a talk to this same conference last year on the subject of cognitive biases and critical thinking, and that went over pretty well so they invited me back this year.

This year there’s a panel on the subject of causal reasoning and identifying the root causes of a fault or a problem. There’s a whole literature on what’s known as Root Cause Analysis, that has developed in fields like quality control in manufacturing, accident analysis in occupational health and safety, failure analysis in engineering, risk management in business, and so on.

I was tasked with doing a presentation on cognitive biases and debiasing in Root Cause Analysis, and reasoning about cause and effect more generally. What sorts of biases can influence our judgment about when A is the cause of B, and so on? What can we do to avoid or reduce the errors that we’re prone to in this area?

So this month I had to research and prepare this presentation, which resulted in a slide deck with about 75 slides in it. And I had to submit these materials well in advance because this is a bilingual conference, so as I’m giving the talk in English there are two slide presentations running simultaneously, a version in English and a version where all the text is translated into French, for the benefit of the French speaking attendees. The organizers need enough lead time to translate the slides and make sure everything’s formatted properly.

This was a lot of work. But as always, I use teaching as a tool for learning.

I spent a number of intense days immersed in this literature, from a variety of different fields, including the philosophical literature on the logic of causal reasoning, and tried to synthesize a story to tell to a body of 250 people, most of whom would have no prior exposure to these ideas, and make the story engaging and relevant to their practical interests. And I had to tell this story without using any technical jargon.

I bring this up because it’s an excuse for me to mention an important technique for learning and testing your understanding of a concept. Some people call this the “Feynman technique”, named after the physicist Richard Feynman. It’s a thing, you can google it.

It basically involves taking a concept and writing down an explanation of the concept in plain English, without any jargon, as though you were teaching it so someone else, a student who is new to all of this.

If you get stuck doing this, that indicates that you don’t understand the concept properly yet. When someone understands a concept deeply, that usually translates into an ability to explain it to someone else in simple language. If you find yourself resorting to technical terms or confusing language or leaps in reasoning, that’s a sign that there’s a problem with your understanding. You need to go back, review the source material, pin-point your problem and work it out. And then come back and try to give that explanation again. Iterate this process until you’ve got it down, and test it on a real person who doesn’t know the subject already.

That’s the Feynman method for learning, and you can apply it to just about anything.

What many students don’t realize is that this is how their teachers really developed their understanding of the subjects they teach. They learned through having to explain it to new batches of students every year.

This is one of the reasons why I love to give talks, and why I love producing videos, and why I love creating these podcasts. They’re a way for me to keep learning new things. It’s the Feynman technique repeated over and over.

Anyway, that’s the first thing that was occupying my time this past month.

Adding Content to the Argument Ninja Site

The second thing has to do with the Argument Ninja project itself, and advancing awareness of what we’re trying to do here.

I want to remind listeners that my goal with this project isn’t just to keep producing podcasts in the privacy of my home. It’s to actually make something. Something big, something that makes an impact. Something with the potential to transform people’s lives.

My vision for the Argument Ninja Academy is going to require a team of people to invest their time and talent, over an extended period of time, to make it a reality.

And to do this, it’s going to take more than just a few more monthly supporters on Patreon. Even if I had a huge audience and was making Sam Harris money on Patreon, that wouldn’t be enough. Because what I want to build requires expertise and resources that I don’t have.

In producing these podcasts, and writing articles for the Argument Ninja site, I sometimes think of myself like a writer, a novelist, who is writing a story that he hopes will one day get turned into a movie. I can write the novel all by myself, that’s no problem. In this space, I’m the boss. I’m the creator of this world, I have the vision, I know what I’m doing.

But what I’m proposing for the Argument Ninja Academy is more like the movie adaptation based on this novel. It’s that story, translated into a very different medium. And movies are fundamentally a collaborative medium. If it’s a big  a big project you need a producer, a director, a cinematographer, art director, actors … a whole team.

And when you turn a book into a movie, the author of the book may not be even be the best person to write the screenplay for the movie. The vocabulary of the medium puts constraints on how the story should be told. Screenplays need to be adapted by people who understand these constraints.

For the Argument Ninja Academy, I’m envisioning an online platform where people log in and are lead through a series of learning experiences that, over the course of days and weeks and months, are designed to develop rather sophisticated skills in critical thinking, argumentation, communication, persuasion, and more, in an environment that is fun and engaging and demanding enough to keep people motivated to stay in the program and continue to learn and benefit from it.

The platform that I envision is going to have game-like elements, it’s going to have social and collaborative learning elements, and it’s going to reproduce, to the extent that this is possible, the look and feel of training in a martial art.

The team that is going to build this platform isn’t going to come from academic philosophy or psychology or education. It’s going to come from elearning professionals and instructional designers and gamification experts and web developers and graphic designers and web-based project managers.

So, part of my job at this stage is to try to generate interest in this kind of project, to eventually recruit people with the right expertise and resources to help make this happen.

Now, for a while the Argument Ninja website was only hosting these podcast episodes. There wasn’t really anything else there. As a web resource it wasn’t a great recruiting vehicle.

So what I’ve done over the past month is add content to the site that can better serve as an information resource for people who might be interested in this project.

First, I wrote a bunch of articles for the Argument Ninja site, that are intended to get readers up to speed on my vision of what critical thinking is all about and what this project is all about.

In total I assembled 14 articles, and you can see them all right now over at argumentninja.com.

The first group is about the goals and benefits and importance of critical thinking.

There’s another pair of articles that talk about what I think is wrong with traditional approaches to critical thinking education, and that sets up the next set of articles, which are about what critical thinking education looks like when you think of it as a martial art. There’s an article on mixed martial arts and critical thinking, there’s an article on sparring and critical thinking, and so on.

Another thing I did since the last episode was work on a version of the curriculum for the Argument Ninja Academy, in terms of sequences of learning modules.

So I have a page on the website — it’s called “curriculum” on the main menu — that shows nine belt ranks, from white belt to black belt, with four learning modules associated with each belt rank.

This is just a working document and it’s very early in the process, so this is obviously going to evolve over time. But there is a logic to the progression, which I’ll be talking about on the podcast. Mostly I just want people to be able to see something that makes it easier to imagine what this program might look like.

I also added an updated “wall of thanks” in the sidebar on the Support page that lists all of my supporters who have committed some amount of dollars per month to help support this work. I’m happy to say that at the time of this recording there are over 360 names on that list — which is great in itself, thank you so much to everyone — but the list also serves as a signal to visitors, that all these people have judged that this is something worth supporting, and in that sense it’s also a marketing tool — it helps to legitimize this project in the eyes of people coming to it for the first time.

So, I’ve been trying to set things up so that my team and I have something to work with as we plan our next moves.

I know I’ve been making vague references to my “team” for a while now, which I’m now calling my “steering committee”, since that’s basically the task that’s been occupying us for a while — clarifying the audience for this project, clarifying the vision, building a plan for recruiting the right kind of talent, and so on.

I haven’t mentioned any names or been more specific because we still need to work out some things and make sure all our ducks are lined up in a row. But that’ll change in the near future, and I’ll let you know when that happens.

Mixed Mental Arts and Chatting With Hunter Maats

Okay, there’s one more thing I wanted to mention before we get on with our review of the white belt curriculum.

As many fans of this show and the whole Argument Ninja theme have noticed, there’s a small but growing movement afoot that is taking this metaphor of martial arts for the mind seriously, and a lot of this is driven by people who have grown an audience in the podcast world.

On this list I would include people like Joe Rogan, Tim Ferries, Bryan Callen, Hunter Maats, Jocko Willink, Sam Harris, and others. I know I’m leaving people out. Politically and ideologically they cover a wide range of views, but all of these people have an interest in mental culture and its relationship to physical culture, and in analogies between training your mind and training your body.

Now, I had a Skype chat with Hunter Maats a couple weeks ago, and I want to talk about why this is significant, so let me back up a bit.

Many of you are familiar with Joe Rogan. He’s a standup comic and an actor. Some of you may know him as host of the reality show Fear Factor. He’s also a martial artist and a commentator for MMA.  And for quite a while he’s been hosting a very popular podcast, the Joe Rogan Experience, on audio and on YouTube.

Joe’s podcast guests include entertainers and athletes but also authors and academics. He’s very intellectually curious, very culturally curious, and he uses the podcast to indulge his curiosity and to give a platform for views that he finds interesting and important.

Now, Joe’s show has attracted a lot of like-minded people, with his particular combination of interests — intellectual interests, cultural interests, but also an enthusiasm for athletics, physical training and combat sports.

Another public entertainer who is cut from the same mold is Bryan Callen. He and Joe are good friends. Bryan is a standup comic and an actor as well — he was one of the original cast members of Mad TV when it aired back in the mid 90s. And he’s a boxer, and he’s also been hosting his own podcast for a number of years, the Bryan Callen Show.

Bryan’s show has a smaller footprint than Joe’s, but it covers a lot of similar themes and they often share guests.

Now, for quite a while, Bryan has had a co-host on the show, Hunter Maats. Hunter and Bryan go back a long way. Their fathers were both in the international banking industry, and they both did a lot of overseas traveling when they were younger. Hunter did a degree in biochemistry from Harvard and he worked as a tutor and co-wrote a book a few years ago on the science of learning and achievement aimed at high school and college students, called The Straight-A Conspiracy.

So in recent years, Hunter has been pushing the Bryan Callen Show in a direction where it features more academics and authors talking about science and politics and education and critical thinking and cultural literacy.

And more recently, Hunter has helped to coin a term, “mixed mental arts”, that has become the new title of their podcast. There’s a new website, mixedmentalarts.co — that’s “c-o”, not “c-o-m” — where you can see podcast episodes and blog posts. And what’s really cool is that they’re making this very much a fan-based, user-driven platform.

The guiding idea behind mixed mental arts, as they define it, has a lot of overlap with the themes that I’ve been pushing about problems with our education system, the need to take seriously what psychology is telling us about how human beings actually think and form beliefs and make judgments, and the need to promote various kinds of literacy in the public — critical thinking literacy, cultural literacy, media literacy, and so on.

So, fans of their show noticed affinities with my show and what I’m trying to do, and invited Hunter and me to talk to each other, and that’s what we did. Shout-out to Nicole Lee for that.

We had a great chat, not surprising, and the upshot is that we’re looking at opportunities to support each other’s projects and collaborate on some new projects.

Mixed mental arts, as Hunter and Bryan envision it, is a very big tent that can include many different kinds of initiatives.The Argument Ninja Academy is just one such initiative.

I’m super-impressed with the enthusiasm of the mixed mental arts fans and supporters. I can certainly learn a lot from you about how to mobilize a fan-base.

Anyway, that’s my shout-out to Hunter and Bryan and the fans of their show, if they’re listening — you guys are awesome.

White Belt Curriculum (Part 2)

Okay, I’m going to transition now to the main topic for this episode, which as advertised is a continuation of our overview of the learning modules in the white belt curriculum that we started last episode. So if you need to pause and get yourself a snack to re-orient yourself, you’re welcome to do that.

Ready? Okay.

The white belt curriculum that I’ve outlined has four modules. There’s an introductory module called “What is an Argument Ninja?”, there’s a module that introduces the Argument Analysis sequence, and there are two modules that are organized around the concepts and skills associated with Socratic reasoning and Socratic questioning.

We talked about the first two modules in the last episode. So now I’m going to talk about these last two modules.

I’ve recently updated the names for these two modules. Same content, just different names. As of this podcast I’m calling the third module “Socratic Knowledge”, and the fourth module “Socratic Persuasion”.

Socratic Knowledge

So, let’s start with “Socratic knowledge”.

Most of us are familiar with the term “the Socratic method”. In education it’s associated very broadly with using questions and dialogue as a tool for teaching and learning.

But of course the term goes back to the Greek philosopher Socrates, who lived in the 4th century BC, and it’s also associated more narrowly with his particular style of doing philosophy, which has had a big impact on how Western philosophy defines itself.

We don’t have any writings by Socrates himself. We get our information from secondary sources, the most important of which is Plato, who was a student of Socrates. Plato wrote a number of famous dialogues, and he cast Socrates as the central character in most of these dialogues.

So a typical encounter between Socrates and another character would go something like this. Socrates is looking to educate himself about a particular concept, like beauty, or courage, or justice. So he visits a person who claims to be an expert of some kind on these concepts — What is beauty? What is courage? What is justice? The person offers a first answer, and then Socrates raises a question about the answer — maybe he identifies an obvious counter-example, or an ambiguity — and in response the person modifies their answer, or offers a new one, and this process of questioning and revising answers continues.

And the usual result is that at some point the person that Socrates is talking to is unable to answer a question that seems essential to the concept, and they’re stuck. They reveal that they didn’t really know what they claimed to know.

For example, if the issue is “what is courage?”, a person might be able to identify a range of acts that we would recognize as courageous, but be unable to say what it is that all these acts have in common that makes them courageous. They can’t say what courage is in general, what the essence of courage is, because Socrates has shown that all of the proposed answers that the person has given lead to contradictions or are too broad or too narrow or are unsatisfactory in some other important way.

Now, this may not seem like a very positive result. It shows that people can be confident about their understanding of a topic, but under questioning they reveal that their understanding is flawed or incomplete, and that their confidence may be misplaced. And in a typical dialogue, Socrates doesn’t offer any positive answers of his own. So what have we gained at the end of the day?

Well, in the tradition of Western philosophy, where Socrates is regarded as kind of a hero, there are two features of this kind of exchange that illustrate something important and valuable.

The first is that it highlights a certain kind of understanding as a goal of knowledge.

The kind of understanding that Socrates is trying to acquire, and that he’s testing with his questions, isn’t just knowledge of the facts, even if they’re true facts. He wants some understanding of why they’re true, what grounds them, why we’re justified in believing they’re true.

This focus on grounding and justification is the core of the classical definition of knowledge as “justified true belief”. You can’t know that a certain claim is true if it’s not true. You can’t know it if you don’t actually believe it. And even if you believe it’s true, and it turns out to be true, that doesn’t mean that you know it’s true. To know it’s true is to have some story to tell about why you’re justified in believing it. Why you’re entitled to believe it.

This search for the ultimate ground of our knowledge is what defines the branch of philosophy called “epistemology”. Epistemology is the study of the nature and origins and justification of knowledge.

So one way of thinking about what Socrates is doing is that he’s trying to figure out the ground, the justification for, our ethical and political beliefs. And for this reason, Socrates is regarded as the first important moral philosopher in the Western philosophical tradition. He’s the first moral epistemologist.

Now, it may be tempting to think that the lesson to draw from these dialogues is that we should be skeptics about moral knowledge, since Socrates himself doesn’t claim to have the answers. But that’s the wrong lesson to draw.

First of all, if you have reason to believe that a certain philosophical claim is wrong, that IS a valuable form knowledge. When an experiment falsifies a scientific theory, we’ve learned something important. It means we can move on, we can look for answers elsewhere.

Second, the fact that so many of these dialogues end in doubt and uncertainty is partly a function of the fact that these are deep philosophical questions that by their nature resist easy answers. What is justice? What is virtue? What is courage? These are hard questions! We shouldn’t be surprised to discover that our first stabs leave something to be desired.

Socrates is not a skeptic about knowledge. He’s just interested in a certain kind of knowledge, in a certain domain, that happens to be very difficult to acquire.

So let’s focus on the kind of knowledge that he’s interested in, and put aside for now the difficulties with the particular questions he’s asking.

Let’s grant that we can know things. But there are different ways of knowing, different ways our opinions can be grounded, and not all of them express a deep understanding. Socrates is after this deeper understanding.

And what we’re talking about doesn’t have to be esoteric or abstract. I’ll give an example.

Let’s say we’re on the outskirts of a city, and I ask you what’s the best way to get to City Hall, which is downtown. And you give me a good answer.

There are lots of different ways that could happen.You might look at the map application on your phone, and just show me the route directions. Or you might recall how you got to City Hall last year, which is the last time you made the trip, and you describe to me the route that you took.

Or, you could do both of these things, but also a third thing: you explain why certain routes that look good on the map are actually slower because of road construction projects that are going on right now.

All three of these ways of grounding your opinion might count as knowing how to get to City Hall. But the nature of the grounding, the justification, is different in each case.

In the first case, your knowledge is grounded in a reliable source, the map application on your phone. You trust the information it’s giving you. In the second case, your knowledge is grounded in your first-hand experience, the fact that you’ve been there yourself.

And in the third case, your knowledge may include the other two, but you also have a grasp of the bigger picture that makes your opinion even more valuable. You understand the broader context of what’s going on, you’re aware of relevant facts that aren’t obvious to everyone, and you’re bringing all of this to bear on the recommendation you give, which ends up being more useful and of greater value because of it.

It’s this third kind of knowledge that Socrates is going for when he’s pushing us to justify our opinions in deeper ways.

This is the kind of understanding that we expect of our most creative experts. It’s what you have when you’re not only responsive to the evidence, but you also have insight into how that evidence hangs together, into the explanation of the facts, not just the facts themselves.

In everyday life, all these different ways of knowing are important and valuable. I’m not going to give up using the map on my smartphone, it’s very convenient. I’m not going to give up relying on my personal experience. But for many important tasks, we really do need a deeper level of understanding.

If there’s a tricky operation that needs to be performed, and you’ve got a choice between the surgeon who’s done this procedure once and a surgeon who’s done it a thousand times, under a variety of conditions and different kinds of patients, who are you going to choose? The more experienced surgeon, of course, precisely because they have a better understanding of how to perform the procedure successfully under a wider range of conditions. This kind of understanding is a superior guide to action. This is the kind of understanding that grounds genuine expertise.

Now, I want to make a connection between this kind of understanding, and ideas that I’ve talked about elsewhere on the podcast.

Remember from episodes 9 and 10, we talked about “argument matrices”, and what it means to really know what you’re talking about. In those episodes I tried to show that the kind of knowledge that supports genuine critical thinking and genuine understanding is knowledge of argument structure, which I generalized with the term “argument matrix”.

Take a claim, and start asking for reasons why we should believe that the claim is true. Those reasons take the form of arguments — if such and such is true, this gives us to reason to believe that this claim is also true. Socratic questioning pushes us to make explicit, or maybe even consider for the first time, the argument structure that supports our beliefs.

When Socrates pushes someone to justify the assumptions of their argument, that’s increasing what I called “argumentative depth”. When he forces us to consider a completely different set of reasons to believe or not believe something, that’s widening the scope of our understanding — I called that “argumentative breadth”. When you starting thinking about all of these arguments are related to one another, including both the supporting arguments and objections and replies along different branches, that’s what I called the “argument matrix” for that particular claim in question.

So we can think of Socratic questioning as a method for constructing the argument matrix associated with a particular claim, to the best of our ability. And as I said in those earlier podcasts, these are always going to be partial and incomplete.  My argument matrix will be different from your argument matrix. Mine might be deeper in some areas than yours, and yours may be broader in some areas than mine.

And they’ll be limited. They’ll have a finite number of branches, and every branch is going to terminate somewhere. Justification doesn’t go on forever. You’ll eventually hit premises that you’ll just take as given, you can’t see how you’d give a deeper justification for them. I may not be happy with where you stop, I might believe I can push it farther. Those kinds of disputes are normal.

But through the process of Socratic dialogue, where we push each other to broaden and deepen our understanding of a topic or an issue, we’re building out this argument matrix, like a crystal structure that grows and becomes more articulated over time.

Now, it’s very important to realize that this concept of Socratic knowledge doesn’t have to result in a single, firm conviction about the issue. One could have such a conviction, and on matters where evidence is strong you might expect it. But this kind of knowledge is perfectly consistent with saying, at the end of the day, “I don’t know”. I don’t know if there’s a God or not. I don’t know what courage is, in general. I don’t know what form the ideal state should take. I don’t know whether artificial intelligence is going to be good or bad for humanity.

But when a person says “I don’t know” after having built an argument matrix surrounding the issue that is both broad and deep, that’s a fundamentally different thing than a person saying “I don’t know” who hasn’t given any serious thought to it all. The former is an expression of a deep understanding of the issue, from a position of knowledge. The latter is an admission of ignorance.

One of the things you learn about Socrates when you study Greek philosophy is this famous story of Socrates visiting the Oracle at Delphi, and the Oracle tells him that he, Socrates, is the wisest man in Athens. Socrates is deeply puzzled by this because he says that he doesn’t know anything; he’s just a seeker of the truth, he doesn’t claim to have the truth.

But then after questioning all these so-called experts he realizes the Oracle might be right after all. Socrates is the wisest man in Athens because he alone is prepared to admit his own ignorance rather than pretend to know something he does not.

The lesson that we’re supposed to take from this is that admitting your ignorance, or more generally, being honest about the limits and fallibility of your own knowledge, is itself a form of wisdom that we should value and try to cultivate. And this is absolutely true.

But let’s not fool ourselves. Socrates really does have a great deal of knowledge, and not just knowledge — understanding. Through his conversations with these experts, he has nurtured the growth of the argument matrices that embody his understanding of these deep philosophical issues. When he says “I don’t know”, at the end of the day, after all this critical analysis, it’s not an expression of ignorance, it’s an expression of wisdom.

So, this is the picture of Socratic knowledge that I want you to think about. This is the conception of knowledge that I’m introducing to students in this learning module.

I’m going to say one more thing before we move to Socratic Persuasion. Let’s bring back the martial arts metaphor for a second.

This whole discussion we’ve had here, about the role of Socratic dialogue in constructing arguments and argument matrices, and deepening our understanding of an issue, and cultivating the right kind of epistemic humility that is borne of this understanding — this is all dojo stuff.

This is part of critical thinking education that is learned in the dojo. It’s like learning the five tenets of taekwondo, or the deeper goals of any traditional martial art. As you train in the martial art, you’re asked to learn these principles, and over time, your understanding of them, and your appreciation for them, will grow. It changes who you are, as a person. In martial arts, it’s part of the process that turns you into a martial artist. In critical thinking, it’s part of the process that turns you into a critical thinker.

But even though you’ve changed as a person, and you now carry these principles with you outside the dojo, it would be foolish to expect other people outside the dojo to follow these principles too, or respond to them in the same way that you do.

Plato’s dialogues are dramatic recreations that are designed to highlight the philosophical principles that he finds valuable and important. They’re not portraits of realistic exchanges that you would expect to encounter on the street. They’re meant as a resource for training in the dojo.

If you want to apply these principles outside the dojo, to real communication with real people, you need to reorient your mindset. You need to switch to “persuasion” mode.

And that leads us to our next topic, “Socratic Persuasion”.

Socratic Persuasion

This is the name of the fourth module in the white belt curriculum.

In both the third module and the fourth modules we’re talking about the Socratic method of inquiry. But in the third module the focus is on using Socratic methods as a tool for acquiring a certain kind of knowledge that is essential to critical thinking. In the fourth module, the focus is on Socratic methods as a tool of persuasion, to influence what people think and believe.

This is a subject that you almost never see discussed by philosophers (with some notable exceptions, which I’ll get to). They don’t think of it as an issue for philosophy, and to be honest, it makes them feel a little impure. They tend to see this as an exercise in rhetoric, persuasion for its own sake, and as such they see it as a contaminating influence, a corrupting influence, on the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.

But let me highlight that we’re not talking about persuasion for its own sake. I don’t even know what that would mean. We’re talking about persuasion in the service of whatever goals we may have. We can and should be critical of the goals, but it makes no sense to criticize persuasion as such. That would be like criticizing the use of physical force, period. What could that even mean? What matters is how physical force is used, and to what ends. If I use physical force to control and intimidate my partner, or rob people, or violate the rights of others, that’s bad. If I use physical force to lift a fallen tree branch off the middle of the road, or to protect myself or innocent people from harm, that’s good.

There are a lot of opportunities to talk about the ethics of persuasion in greater depth in the Argument Ninja curriculum. In this module, at this early stage, my goals are much more limited. I want to talk about Socratic methods as a tool of persuasion, but because this is the first module in the curriculum to actually talk about persuasion “outside the dojo”, I also want to use it to introduce this whole broader topic, of the psychological realities that we need to anticipate when we interact with people in the real world.

Mental Models for Thinking About Persuasion

To do this, I find it helpful to think in terms of simple mental models that capture an important concept in a way that’s easy to visualize.

We’ve seen a few of these already. The whole picture of critical thinking as a martial art is a useful mental model, because it forces us to think about critical thinking in terms of learned skill development and performance. The dojo is a mental model, because it makes us think about the ritualized spaces that we construct that support this kind of skill development. Argument matrices are a mental model. They help us understand the structure of knowledge that supports genuine understanding.

There are lots of mental models that can help us to think about the persuasion skills that we’re trying to develop.

For example, here’s another mental model imported from martial arts.

Hard versus Soft Techniques

In martial arts we often talk about hard styles versus soft styles, or hard techniques versus soft techniques. We can take this concept, this model, and apply it to persuasion techniques.

Hardness involves meeting force with force. So a kickboxing low kick aimed to break the attacker’s leg is a hard technique. A karate block aimed to break or halt the attacker’s arm is a hard technique.

Softness involves a minimal use of force to achieve a particular goal. So, redirecting an opponent’s momentum so that they lose balance and make themselves vulnerable is a soft technique. Joint locks that require relatively little force but that can immobilize an opponent can be thought of as soft techniques.

So, extending the analogy to persuasion, if someone is giving an argument and you raise a devastating counter-argument that is intended to stop it cold, that’s a hard technique.

Socratic persuasion methods tends to fall under the soft category, for an obvious reason. If I’m asking you for your opinion on a topic, and I’m responding to what you say with more questions, then I’m less likely to be perceived as trying to impose an opinion on you, because I haven’t given you my opinion. The whole exchange is less likely to trigger a hard defensive reaction. But the hardness or softness of the exchange is really a function of a whole bunch of factors that include the context, the tone you set, the word choices you use, and so on.

In general, if you’re on the receiving end of a persuasive technique, and it feels like compulsion, like you’re being forced to say something or admit something that you don’t want to say or admit, that’s a hard technique. If it doesn’t feel like compulsion, if it feels like you’re saying something that you agree with, or doesn’t feel like it’s imposed on you, that’s a soft technique.

There are contexts where hard techniques make sense and do work. Interrogations and cross-examinations are hard. Honest peer review is often hard. But in general, Socratic methods lend themselves to a softer style of persuasion. And used in this way, they can be extraordinarily effective in exposing deeper layers of a person’s psychology. They are a true “ninja” technique.

But for Socratic methods to be effective the focus has to be on controlling the psychology of the encounter, without raising alarm bells or triggering a defensive posture.

The Core Belief Network Model

Now, this language I’m using, of raising alarm bells and triggering defenses, suggests another set of mental models. And you’ll notice, as models of the psychology of belief, these are all cartoonishly simple and unrealistic. But that’s exactly why they’re valuable. The each capture an important idea that we can use to help think about persuasion strategy.

Here’s an example. I call it the “core belief network” model.

You can think of the structure of our beliefs as an interconnected network. But some beliefs in this network are more central to our identity than others. These are basic stances on who we are, what our goals are, what our place is in the grand scheme of things, how we should live, what grounds our self-worth, and so on.They’re connected in such a way that if we’re challenged on these beliefs, we tend to experience that as a threat to our identity, so we naturally want to resist such challenges.

So let’s imagine that these beliefs are literally at the center of this belief network, because they’re central to our identity.  And we can think of the core of this network as surrounded by defensive mechanisms that function to protect and preserve these beliefs.

Then as we move outward in our network, we encounter beliefs that are less and less central to our identity. We’re more open to revising these beliefs without feeling existentially threatened, but we still care about them.

For example, I believe that climate change is a serious problem, but it’s not central to my identity. I’m happy to consider arguments that climate change is not a serious problem. But I’m going to hold those arguments to a pretty high standard, because I think there’s a lot at stake if we’re wrong. I’m not going to change them on a whim.

Now, as we move to the periphery of our network we find beliefs that we really could could care less about. I believe that the actress Anna Paquin was born in Canada, my wife says she was born in New Zealand. Do I care one way or the other? Not really. I can Google it and be happy with whatever Wikipedia says.

So the mental model is of a network of beliefs that is hierarchically organized so that beliefs that are more resistant to change are closer to the center and beliefs that are less resistant to change are closer to the periphery.

Right away, we have a simple framework that helps us think about persuasion strategy. If you want to change someone’s belief, the first question to ask is, where is it located in this network? If you’re targeting beliefs closer to the core, that’s going to require a different strategy than if you’re targeting beliefs farther from the core.

And how do you know where the belief is located in this hierarchy? It may be obvious for some beliefs, but it’s easy to misjudge these things.

I know an older gentlemen who has been a practicing Catholic his whole life, and it’s always been clear that being Catholic is important to his identity. But what is it about his Catholicism that really matters to him? It turns out that it’s not Catholic doctrine per se, or even Christian doctrine. When you push him on this, he seems genuinely agnostic about most Catholic doctrines, including doctrines as basic to Christianity as the divinity of Jesus.

What actually matters to him, it turns out, is identification with the cultural tradition, the rituals of the church service, and the mere fact of being a member of a religious tribe that has a long history. The thought of belonging to no tribe is much more disturbing to him than the thought that his tribe may not have the correct answers to deep theological questions. He cares very little about theological questions.

Now that would likely come as a surprise to anyone who didn’t know him well. There’s a general lesson here. When thinking about a persuasion strategy, we inevitably make assumptions about what beliefs are more central than others, but it’s easy for these assumptions to be wrong. So it’s better to treat these as hypotheses that are open to testing and revision.

And getting back to Socratic methods, one of the very best ways of testing these hypotheses is through Socratic conversation that is open, respectful, curious, non-confrontational and non-judgmental. People are happy to disclose what they really care about when they feel it’s safe to do so. This information is extremely valuable, if your eventual goal is to try to influence what a person believes about a particular topic. You can think of these kinds of conversations as helping you to develop an internal model of a person’s belief network, based on real data, and not just guessing.

The Questions-as-Network-Mapping-Tools Model

Here’s another mental model that I like that lets me vividly imagine this kind of information-gathering activity. If you’ve ever seen the movie Prometheus, the prequel to the Alien movies, there’s a scene where the crew is exploring this alien structure, and they need to map the area. So they release a bunch of these floating robotic drones that travel through all the open spaces of the structure and use lasers to map their surroundings. And all this data is sent back to a central computer that uses it to build a map of interior of the alien structure. Which they eventually discover is the interior of a crashed spaceship.

Socratic conservation is a powerful tool for mapping out the structure of a person’s belief network, and in particular, identifying how central or peripheral a given belief is to a person’s identity. I like this Prometheus example because its easy for me to imagine, but if you’ve ever had a medical procedure that uses radioactive tracers to study how your internal physiology is working, it’s a similar idea.

As part of a persuasion strategy you can think of this as reconnaissance — the information-gathering stage of the  mission.

The Bank Heist Model

Now, with this hierarchical belief network model in our head, we can imagine other analogies that are useful when thinking about persuasion strategy, especially when we’re targeting beliefs closer to the core.

One that I like is the model of a safecracker planning a bank heist. The goal is to break into a high security bank vault and steel something, like a brick of gold. The vault is surrounded by layers of defenses that become increasingly tough to bypass the closer you get to the central vault. The closer you get the more sensitive these defenses are, so that if you make a wrong move, alarms going off, lasers shoot at you, bombs explode, you name it.

So, we can think of the persuasion task, under this mental model, like an Ocean’s 11 heist, or a Mission Impossible assignment. Can you get inside the bank vault and steel the brick without triggering any alarms? Or more aptly, can you get inside the bank vault, and alter, or swap out, one of the bricks, without triggering any alarms? We don’t necessarily want to remove a belief — more often what I want is to alter it, change it, revise it.

The Indian Jones Swap Model

I’m going to add one more detail to this bank heist model. If you’ve seen the movie Raiders of the Last Ark, there’s the opening scene, where Indiana Jones is trying to steal a golden idol that is sitting on an alter at the end of a room. It’s protected by booby traps. Step on the wrong stone and an arrow shoots out of the wall at you.

He manages to get close to the idol, but he anticipates a final trap. If he lifts the idol off its base, it might be wired to detect the release of pressure and trigger a defense. So Indiana Jones pulls out a bag of sand that weighs roughly the same as the idol, and as he removes the ideal, he immediately substitutes the bag of sand on the altar.

This was a good idea, but in the movie it turns out it wasn’t exactly the right match, or it picked up the change in some other way, because a volley of defenses are triggered and Indian Jones has to run for his life to escape them.

What I like about this model is this idea that to make a change without triggering a defensive reaction, you may need to substitute it with something that plays the same role, or a similar role. In my head I literally think of it as the Indiana Jones Swap Model, but I know this is saying more about my pop culture upbringing and fondness for genre movies than anything else.

When we’re talking about beliefs, the central idea of the core network model is that beliefs are connected to one another, so that changes in one belief can propagate through the network and impact other beliefs. That makes them hard to isolate, and it’s one of the challenges of belief revision. It’s very hard to change just one belief without disturbing other beliefs in the network. When you get to beliefs near the core, it gets even harder, because the beliefs connect to very deep attitudes.

Consider again my belief that Anna Paquin was born in Canada. Yes, that belief is connected to other beliefs, so if I found out that I was wrong, that would have some impact elsewhere. But not to anything that really matters to me.

But let’s imagine I’m an evangelical Christian and I’m asked to consider a belief that really does matter to me. I’m asked to consider whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Most evangelical Christians will say no, Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God. Muslims generally think the opposite; they believe that they worship the same God as Jews and Christians.

Now, in principle one could treat this as an academic question for theologians and try to look at the arguments in an even-handed way. But it practice it would be very hard for an evangelical Christian to consider these arguments without also considering the impact this issue would have on other beliefs that are central to their identity. Like the belief that the only path to salvation is faith in Jesus Christ and his atonement for our sins.

A belief like this is like the Golden Idol. Under normal conditions, you can’t change it without triggering a defensive reaction, because it’s so connected to other beliefs that really matter to a person.

However, the Indian Jones swap does suggest a persuasion strategy. If you can find a way to swap out that belief with another one that plays roughly the same role within the ecosystem of beliefs that matter to one’s personal identity, that’s a strategy. That’s a way of getting in, making a change, and getting out, without setting off the alarms.

I’ll come back to this example in a minute.

Socratic Knowledge and Socratic Persuasion

Okay, so we’ve looked at a bunch of mental models that can help us visualize and think about the strategic challenge of trying to change someone’s beliefs, especially beliefs that for various reasons are resistant to change.

The Socratic method of asking questions in an open, non-confrontational way is just one persuasion tool among many, but it’s a particularly useful tool for this kind of challenge, because it’s a soft technique. It’s designed to slip past the guards and avoid triggering defenses.

But how do you guide the conservation in the direction you want it to go, if all you’re doing is asking more questions in response to the answers that someone is giving you? It seems like the conversation could end up anywhere.

Well in principle that’s right. It could end up anywhere. That’s actually one of the strengths of the technique, especially if you don’t know much about the person you’re talking to.

But in general you do want to guide the conversation in the direction of the target belief, the one we want to change. And then when you get close to the target, you want a strategy for making the other person think about the belief in a new way.

So let’s imagine I’m talking to myevangelical Christian friend, and I want them to reconsider their belief that Christians and Muslim’s don’t worship the same God.

You may have all sorts of persuasion tools in your toolkit, but I’ll tell you the tool that is far and away the most useful one here, when we’re trying to get someone to consider an issue discursively, using their reasoning faculties.

Are you ready? Here it is. It’s knowing what you’re talking about.

And I mean this in this sense of Socratic knowing — knowing the structure of the argument matrix that surrounds this issue. Knowing what the most common arguments are, and the most common objections to those arguments. Knowing where the strengths and weaknesses of these arguments lie.

Because if you’re familiar with the structure of argumentation and debate around an issue, it’s much easier to guide a conversation in the direction you want.

But that means you have to make an effort and do a little research.

Let’s consider this question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. The standard arguments against this view come from conservative Christians, and are based on basic differences in the conception of God that they see as central to Christianity.

This is the belief that the Christian God is a triune God — three persons in one: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Jesus is God the Son; he is the physical incarnation of God on earth, at the same time fully human and fully divine. And Jesus is central to the story of salvation in Christianity, because his death on the cross served as a sacrifice that atoned for the sins of all of humanity, granting us access to an eternal life in Heaven that we do not deserve and can never deserve, through our own efforts.

Muslims don’t hold this view of God or Jesus. Standard doctrine says that Jesus was a divinely inspired prophet who was born of a virgin and who revealed the will of God through his life and teachings. But he was not divine himself, he was not God incarnated in human form. And his death did not atone for the sins of humankind. Muslims believe that it still falls upon each of us to atone for our sins, if we are to be granted salvation. On this view, God is not a trinity, God is one, a unity.

So from here it seems to follow that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God.

However, there is also a long tradition of scholarship that argues that this conclusion does not follow, even granted these differences in how God is conceived.  The argument turns on a distinction: in some case, two different descriptions can refer to two different things; but in other cases, they can refer to the same thing.

Let’s say you and I were both at a party, and the next day I tell you that I had this great conservation with a guy who I thought was the smartest guy at that party. And you tell me about this guy who you thought was the best looking guy at the party. We could be referring to two different people, but we could also be referring to the same person, under two different descriptions.

So for those who say that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, what they want to say is that Christians and Muslims may disagree on the attributes of this being they call God, but when Christians talk about worshipping the Lord God, and Muslims talking about worshipping Allah, those terms can still refer to the same being. In which case one can say that they do indeed worship the same God.

Now, there are a number of lines of reasoning that can support this conclusion, but I’m going to focus on one in particular, and I’ll explain why later.

The natural urge of conservative Christians is to contrast Christianity and Islam, to emphasize the differences between the faiths rather than the similarities. But these very same theological differences also characterize the relationship of Christianity to Judaism. Yet for Jews and Christians, even granting the history of Christian anti-semitism, there is a much stronger willingness to emphasize the similarities and the continuity between the two faiths, rather than the differences, in spite of the fact that it shares those very differences with Islam.

According to standard doctrine, Jews reject the divinity of Jesus as well. They don’t believe that Jesus was God incarnate or that his death atoned for our sins. Judaism, in this regard, has more in common with Islam than it does with Christianity.

Now, here’s a line of reasoning that you could use to get a conservative Christian to rethink how they view God in Christianity and Islam.

One can ask, when Christians talk about the God of the Jewish Old Testament, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, do they not think they’re talking about the same God that they themselves worship? Yes, Christians and Jews may not agree on all of the attributes of God, but they don’t think of themselves as talking about two different Gods. They think of themselves as talking about the same God.

And Jesus himself was a Jew. Is it not clear in the New Testament that Jesus thinks of God the Father, his father in Heaven, that he prays to, as the very God that his fellow Jews have historically worshipped?

When framed in this way, our intuitions say “yes”, and these intuitions are pretty widespread. They’re precisely why Christians are happy to use the inclusive label, “the Judao-Christian tradition”, to describe the shared theological space that these faiths occupy.

This line of reasoning is even more compelling when you focus on the person of Jesus himself. Jews and Muslims and Christians may disagree about the nature of Jesus. But no one feels compelled to say that Jews and Muslims are talking about two different people. No Jewish or Muslim or Christian scholar says that the Jesus referred to in the Koran is a different Jesus than the one referred to in the New Testament gospels. They’re not referring to two different people; they’re referring to the same person, who happens to be conceived differently in these different theological traditions.

Now, what I’ve done here is sketch out some of the branches of the argument matrix that surrounds this question of whether Christianity and Islam worship the same God.

And I think it’s clear that knowing this background puts one in a better position to have a productive conversation with a conservative Christian on this topic.

What you do not want to do is rush in all excited and throw all of this at them, and expect them to respond the way you want them to. That’s the rookie mistake. Remember, we’re operating very close to the core here. Doing that could very likely trigger alarm bells and a defensive posture.

That’s why the Socratic method, and maintaining an open, non-confrontational tone, and letting the other person lead the discussion, is such a valuable tool. If you’re disciplined about it, it will save you from 90% of the mistakes that most people make when they enter into conversations like this.

But the method is even more powerful when it’s informed by a good understanding of the psychology of belief in general, and the psychological significance of the issues in question. This is a topic we cover later in the program, but listeners to this show know that even a good argument is unlikely to be perceived as good if it doesn’t have the right emotional resonance for the audience.

In this case, the current cultural rhetoric around the relationship of Christianity to Islam is a rhetoric of conflict. The emotional resonance is negative. It emphasizes differences, it connects to fears of radical Islam, it and reinforces an us-versus-them mentality.

But the cultural rhetoric around Christianity and Judaism is largely a rhetoric of solidarity, at least among conservative Christians in North America. The emotional resonance is positive. Christians and Jews are viewed as their own cultural group with its own shared tribal loyalties, distinct from Islam.

This is why it can be a challenge to get a conservative Christian to accept that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Because they are likely to see this as a petition for solidarity with Islam, and that threatens to betray this shared Judeo-Christian identity.

But this is exactly why the argument strategy I outlined has a better than average chance of being considered. It takes this contentious proposition, which is initially viewed with suspicion, and associates it with something positive, namely, the good will and solidarity that Christians feel toward Jews. You’re showing them that the very same reasoning that underwrites this widely held view that Christians and Jews worship the same God, also applies to Christians and Muslims. And because that reasoning has a positive, non-threatening association in the former case, it’s more likely to carry this positive, non-threatening association over to the latter case.

For me, this is an example of an Indiana Jones Swap. We’re not swapping out beliefs per se; what we’re swapping out are negative emotional associations attached to a belief, with positive associations, so that the belief will be considered in a more positive light and won’t trigger a defensive reaction.

That’s the idea, at least. I’ve had this conversation with several conservative Christians myself, and raising the issue of the relationship of Christianity to Judaism always gives them pause, because they can see the implication of rejecting the reasoning. If you reject it in order to exclude Muslims, it seems to imply that you should exclude Jews as well, and conclude that Jews and Christians don’t worship the same God either. They can always bite that bullet, but it’s a conclusion that most would prefer to avoid if they could, and that’s exactly the emotional resonance that you’re leveraging with this argument.

Summing Up

So, I hope you’re getting a sense of the topics that I want to cover in this unit on Socratic persuasion. This is the first introduction to the psychology of persuasion in the curriculum. We haven’t done anything on cognitive biases or dual-process theories of the mind yet, but we can still get the ball rolling with a number of simple mental models. Soft versus hard persuasion techniques. The core belief network model. Using questions as tools for mapping the belief network. The bank heist model. The Indiana Jones swap.

Simple models like these allow us to start building a vocabulary for talking and thinking about persuasion strategies.

As we learn more psychology later in the program we can start using more sophisticated models that you actually see in the literature. Like Jonathan Haidt’s Rider and Elephant model, Daniel Kahneman’s fast versus slow thinking model, Dan Kahan’s cultural cognition model, and so on.

Now, on the topic of Socratic methods per se, I actually haven’t said very much about technique, because that’s a hard topic to cover in a short space. But there are some great resources available on this, which I’ll make available in this module. I want to mention one here specifically.

A Word About Street Epistemology

In my first draft of the Argument Ninja curriculum, I didn’t call this unit Socratic Persuasion. I called it Street Epistemology.  I used that term because it’s already associated with a movement to apply Socratic methods to critical thinking in real world contexts.

But I switched the name to Socratic Persuasion for two reasons. One, “street epistemology” uses a bit of philosophical jargon that my advisors noticed, and we agreed that we didn’t want to use technical terms like “epistemology” in our public-facing documents in a way that might confuse people.

And two, “street epistemology”, is used to refer to the use of Socratic methods in a very specific context. My usage is broader and my goals are different.

The term “Street Epistemology” was coined by philosopher Peter Boghossian, and Peter’s agenda is clear. He doesn’t want people to believe anything on faith alone.  This is part of a larger goal of promoting atheism and skepticism about pseudoscience and the supernatural.

The book in which he coins this term is called A Manuel For Creating Atheists, so the title gives you a good sense of where he’s coming from. The idea is to train people in a method of Socratic conversation that can be used anywhere, but preferably face-to-face, and where the goal is to get people to rethink the epistemological foundations of their religious or supernatural beliefs. The target here isn’t the beliefs themselves — it’s not a manual for convincing people that there is no God. The target is the underlying view that such beliefs can be justified on faith. It’s a manual for getting people to realize that faith is an unreliable method of forming true beliefs.

Peter’s book has inspired the Street Epistemology movement, which promotes these goals and the Socratic conversation techniques that are taught in the book. You can visit their home website at streetepistemology.com. The person who is most associated with the Street Epistemology movement today is Anthony Magnabosco. He does a lot of speaking, writes many of the blog posts on the website, maintains Facebook pages, a YouTube channel, and so on. But it is a community driven movement.

Peter’s book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, is polarizing for sure. If you’re not sympathetic to the mission, if you’re a religious person yourself, you’ll find the rhetoric hard to swallow. But the book has one great virtue that is important for our purposes. It has the very best discussion in the literature of Socratic conversational technique that is strategically designed to get you close the center of a person’s belief network without triggering alarms.

It’s called Street Epistemology because it’s intended to serve as a practical guide to having productive and persuasive conversations on sensitive topics, with people on the street, outside the dojo. It emphasizes skill development, and that makes it a valuable resource for the Argument Ninja program.

There’s a great summary summary document on the Street Epistemology website that runs through the main principles and techniques, and I’ll link to it in the show notes. They also have a number of YouTube videos that show actual conversations where the techniques are being applied, and those are valuable to watch well.

They’ve also developed an app for mobile devices, called Atheos, that is basically the pocket version of the Street Epistemology guide. Development of the app was supported by the Richard Dawkins Foundation. I’ll link to it in the show notes.

Now, let me say a few words about how I would situate myself and the goals of the Argument Ninja program with respect to the goals of the Street Epistemology movement. Because there are some important differences.

The official position of the Argument Ninja program is that I don’t care what you believe when you join this program. My focus is on teaching people how to think, not telling you what to think.

However, learning how to think will inevitably have an impact on what you think. You can’t develop a rich background in logic and argumentation and moral reasoning and scientific reasoning and the psychology and sociology of belief and persuasion and NOT be changed that experience. I guarantee that it will change you.

But how any individual person will respond to this curriculum is unpredictable, and I don’t have an agenda about where it should lead. My goal is to help people become independent critical thinkers, that’s it.

So I’m committed to creating a learning environment that isn’t partisan in any obvious way. Just like in a martial arts class. You line up at the start of class in your uniforms, you start working on your exercises and techniques, and the focus is on the program, not what race or gender or nationality you are, or what political or religious group you may belong to. That’s the environment that I want to create.

But to implement that goal, I’ll end up using resources that are developed by people with more specific agendas, just because they’re really good resources. The Street Epistemology approach to Socratic conversation is an example.

Wrapping Up

Well, I think that about wraps it up for this episode. We covered a lot of ground, but the beauty of podcasts is that you can listen to them over again whenever you want. And I’ll remind you that there’s a full transcript of this podcast below the show notes over at argumentninja.com, so if you’re a reader that’s an option for you. I’ve got links to all the people and the sites I’ve mentioned.

I want to thank my new monthly supporters over at Patreon. I’ve added about 40 new Patrons over the past month, which I very much appreciate. I’m just under $1000 dollars a month on Patreon, and when I hit this goal I’ve promised to convert one of my paid courses at the Critical Thinker Academy into a free course, so please know that you’re helping to make these resources available to people who might otherwise not be able to afford access.

As well, anyone who pledges at a level of $3 per month or higher gets complete access to all of the video courses at the Critical Thinker Academy, AND your pledge reserves you a spot in the Argument Ninja Academy when it is finally launched.

So, if you’re not already a Patron, I hope you’ll take advantage of this opportunity.

Thanks again for listening, I hope you have a great week, and I’ll talk to you again soon.

 

5 thoughts on “017 – White Belt Curriculum (Part 2): The Tao of Socrates

  1. The model described regarding thological differences is going to be very useful in my political activity. Many times I have stated in my work that we (the differing sides) are not in opposition, we differ only in how to accomplish the same objected. Many are taken aback by this idea, and it has often resulted in an opening of a dialog.

    1. That’s a good opener, actually. Ask someone what their objectives are, what their ultimate goals are, by their political activity. And see how many of those you actually share. It’s often much more than we think, and right away you’ve got a basis for conversation.

  2. I would like to highlight two weaknesses with this model that I saw exposed during the discussion of theological differences. I don’t know if the weaknesses are inherent in the model or that presenting the information doesn’t/can’t portray an actual interaction.

    The first weakness I see is that “You need to have a better understanding of the subject than the person you are trying to influence.” The line of reasoning regarding the Muslims, Jews, and Christians talking about the same thing but with different attributes or that Christians are willing to say they have the same God as the Old Testament Jews and that might lead them to be more open to saying that Muslims worship the same God. I have no doubt that there are plenty of people who would be swayed in some way, but someone who has studied the subject would have no problem turning these arguments aside.

    The second weakness is that “There is little humility in the model.” The line of reasoning given glossed over the foundational question, “Who is Jesus?” If the model causes you to downplay the question that is the actual crux of the matter or it causes you to route around the central arguments then it seems that the model requires you to decide what should be important to the the other person.

    1. Thanks for this feedback Brian. I think I see where you’re coming from. My first thought is that I would be careful to distinguish “the model” from the argumentative details of the issue in question. If we’re talking about the model where we’re trying to be careful not to trigger psychological defensive reactions to a line of questioning by suggesting an interpretation of the issue that appeals to beliefs or positive associations that your audience already has in another area, I don’t think there’s much to criticize, other than the fact that none of this is guaranteed to ‘work’. It’s just a strategy for persuasive communication, one of many one might try.

      Now, if the person that you’re talking to is well-versed in the arguments then of course all bets are off. If they’re well-informed and reasonable, then this ideally should become a rational dialogue between two people. Then it’s just a matter of seeing how the conversation evolves. From a critical thinking standpoint, that’s the ideal scenario. Not to “win” an argument, but to have a genuinely open, rational conversation. If the other person wants to redirect the conversation back to what they consider to be the foundational question, that’s what they should do. There’s nothing in this scenario that prevents someone from doing that. Just as there’s nothing preventing the other partner from trying to avoid engaging this question, for whatever reasons.

      These persuasion models really kick in when we’re concerned that either party isn’t inclined to give the arguments a fair shake, or that there are psychological factors present that are functioning this way, because of confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, cognitive dissonance, etc. that are raising obstacles to a more open conversation. If we sense that this is going on, or can reasonably anticipate that this is going on, then we need to start thinking more psychologically and strategically. The basic idea is that psychologically-based resistance needs to be met with a psychologically-informed communication strategy, if we want people to (eventually) consider the arguments on their merits.

      On the question of whether the conversational strategy that I outlined ‘glosses over the foundational question’, the answer is clearly yes, by design. That’s precisely the question that the strategy wants you to downplay, because it’s so central to Christian identity. This scenario only makes sense if we grant that this might be a source of psychological resistance to a fair consideration of the issue at hand.

      But your main concern in the last comment is about manipulation the direction of the conversation, is that correct? “it seems that the model requires you to decide what should be important to the other person”. Again, from a strategic standpoint, that’s exactly what what you’re doing — you’re trying to influence a person’s initial judgment about what questions are actually salient to the issue at hand.

      But why is this unduly manipulative, or arrogant? This is something we do all the time in ordinary, reason-based argumentative discourse. I want to point out that in this example we’re always using conversational strategies that involve explicit appeals to reasons. We’re not using strategies that intentionally try to bypass a person’s deliberative reasoning faculties. The goal is to try to engage them.

      Anyway, thanks for the comment. I hope this makes some sense!

  3. Lots of great ideas in this podcast! The Core Belief Network Model is a really interesting concept to help understand why people are not really receptive to ideas that are inconsistent with their core beliefs, because core beliefs are fused to one’s personal identity. And any threat to one’s identity increases the likelihood of negative emotions spewing forth (one of my weaknesses). Learning the Socratic Questioning skills seems like a cool way to help defuse the emotional land mines!

    I was reading an article at the Center For Applied Rationality (CFAR) website proposing that one’s identity should be small and fluid in order to help one remain as objective as possible. I haven’t really consciously analyzed my identity, so I don’t know how hard it would be to get “small and fluid.” However, learning the Argument Ninja Curriculum for Rational Persuasion and adopting it as part of one’s personal identity should definitely help with cognitive objectivity!

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