David Barnett

British Council


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What is the objective of a debate?

To convince? To defeat your opponent? To seek the truth? To look for weaknesses in your own arguments? To share ideas? To seek a common ground?

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    Feb 23 2012: Hi David,
    It totally depends on the participants intent as individuals and/or the ground rules that have been agreed upon if the debate is a competition. If the debate is a competion, then the participants will try to convince, defeat the opponent, look for weaknesses in opponents arguments and try to "win". Unfortunately, we see some of that here on TED, and I do not percieve TED to be a competition.

    Since I do not use debate as a competition, my objective is to seek truth with the exchange of information, share ideas, and my biggest personal objective is to recognize common ground:>)
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    Feb 21 2012: People enter debates, or listen to them, with different objectives. Some debate to defend a position. Others debate to get a better understanding of multiple sides of an issue or to help the listener get a better understanding of the issue at hand. Some people listen to debates to understand an issue better, others for entertainment, and some less to consider the issues people present than to see how the parties handle themselves in the face of challenge or conflict.Young people often get involved in debate to learn to make a pursuasive argument in public and to support or defend their positions.
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    Feb 22 2012: Debates are commonly done to form sides on an argument (left vs. right) on a specific topic that is not finding common ground.

    So yes to all your questions.

    But, I feel the fashion of left vs. right should be dropped and all debates have 3 or more sides to it. That way truth and common ground expands faster. More minds in different angles make more results than all the mind in 2 groups.
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      Feb 22 2012: I agree with you when you say " the truth is always fuzzy." That's why barristers only let the accused answer a plain 'yes' or 'no' , so that they can lead them to their version of the truth. Absolute truth, which Krisztián refers to, is practically unobtainable, as there are just too many elements to factor in.
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        Feb 22 2012: practical unobtainability does not make something nonexistent.

        similarly, the right amount of disease is zero. the optimal amount is not zero, because we need to find balance between health and other things. the achievable amount is also not zero, since we have limited resources. but the target is zero.

        in any debate, the target must be finding the truth. even if we know we will not be able to.
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        Feb 22 2012: I agree with Kris balances make for absolute truths.

        But I also believe even that absolute truth will take measures of multitudinous accords to dissecting the truth, fuzzy logic - not merely logic.
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    Feb 22 2012: to seek the truth.
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      Feb 22 2012: Does that mean there is only one truth in a debate?
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        Feb 22 2012: there is only one truth in general.
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          Feb 22 2012: Now, that is just not true.

          1 + 1 = 2 (Mathematical truth)

          1 cup of sand + 1 cup of water = 1 cup of sand-water (Retrospective truth)

          1 line on a plane + 1 line on a plane = 3 lines (Argumentative truth)

          Truth is always fuzzy, there is never one truth.
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          Feb 22 2012: Establishing a single truth in a debate, I think is impossible.

          As an example, science has one truth and religion has another.

          Who is right? - and why?
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        Feb 23 2012: nicholas: your classification seems arbitrary. a statement is about either a testable fact of the observable world, or not. if it is, universal truth exists. the world either behaves this way or that way. if the statement is not a about the observable universe, but about taste, or is a definition, then no universal truth exists, but we don't require one.
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          Feb 23 2012: Statements about nature come down to a lot of statistics, research, trial and error, deductive/inductive reasoning, intuitive knowledge... the list goes on from which we can gather information from - not just "basic truths."

          The world can behave both ways at the same time in some situations - logically this statement is incorrect, but in reality it is most correct.
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        Feb 23 2012: allan: you mix opinion with truth. religion has no truth in any sensible way of the word. religion has claims only.
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          Feb 23 2012: Entering into a debate with rigid opinions, 'truths' and beliefs is bound to fail because nobody is prepared to be flexible in their own arguments, or be in any way understanding of arguments in opposition to them.

          Would a debate be better off establishing an understanding, rather than trying to sustain a pre-ordained single truth?

          There must be a reason why religion makes its claims. Even if we do not agree with the claims themselves, then at least try to seek an understanding of the psychology behind them.

          Do you think that peoples' beliefs should evolve as they gain new experiences from healthy debate, or stay as rigid as they were from the outset? Is debate about winning or learning?
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        Feb 23 2012: allan,

        "Do you think that peoples' beliefs should evolve as they gain new experiences from healthy debate"

        the prerequisite of that is to admit that there is a common truth, and debate is aimed to discover it. if truth is personal, a debate is meaningless and useless. if the truth is unattainable, a debate is meaningless and useless.
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    Mar 6 2012: It would greatly depend on the forum. In debate club: Defeat your opponents ideas and surplant your ideas. Political: To elicit support for your cause; Appeal to the target population (NOTE: sincerity is not necessary); With friends: persuassion. College: To submit different views in hopes of arriving at a meaningful conclussion.

    Debates are usually hostile in nature. Discussions are informative and helpful. Best of luck .... Bob
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      Mar 6 2012: Rather than defeating ideas, using knowledge and arguments well... sometimes a great idea can come to nothing if handled badly...and what mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow...
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    Mar 6 2012: To see different sides of the same coin. Sometimes, we are not able to see the other side of the coin, which is not properly visible to us, and therefore we might not be in a position to make any informed decision, there, I believe, debate is helpful, as it also weighs all the different aspects of the same situation / problem.
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      Mar 6 2012: Indeed, and helps us not only form our own opinion, but understand the opposing opinion(s) also. :-)
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    Feb 22 2012: QUOTE: "The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress." -- Joseph Joubert, Pensees (1842). Your question could become a debate. Thank you Mr. Barnett.
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      Feb 22 2012: Thank you Mr Long. I only asked because in all the "debates" I've seen in the last few years, political or otherwise, neither side goes into the debate with the slightest intention of changing their mind or being persuaded. They use it as a platform for self-love and injury to others. TED, I'm pleased to say, is one of the few places where the true idea of debate is being kept alive...although, not by everyone.
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        Feb 22 2012: You said what I was thinking....when I was in school we entered debates hoping to inform the audience on the two sides of a controversial issue....hoping that all in attendance would come out of it with a more balanced view.

        Like you said....today, debates are, for the most part, "a platform for self-love and injury to others."

        I personally do not watch them either....they leave a bad taste in my (intellectual) mouth.

        In my humble opinion, some here on TED enjoy the conversations, with not so much of an interest in winning, but in understanding and growing in knowledge.....this way, everybody wins.

        Be Well