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I was debating with a flat earth believer and proposed a disproof of his theory.

His theory being the earth is a circle and the sun is a spotlight that casts a circle of light beneath it.

My argument was that if the sun cast light in a circle of half the radius of the earth then the average day would be six hours.

He 'countered' that I had no proof that days were 12 hours on average and would need some to make that argument, but when asked he said that his theory was that days were 12 hours on average.

As I see it, I showed his theory would produce a result that he does not believe to be the case. And he accepts the premise, but he will not let me use it in the debate unless I can prove it.

Is there a term for his behaviour?

  • I suggest that you both agree on the definition of an hour based on the vibration of quartz or whatever mechanism is operating in an atomic clock, and acknowledge that it's somewhat arbitrarily rooted in the 24-hour cycle that everybody observes. – elliot svensson Mar 30 '18 at 17:49
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    the better question is: why are you debating these people? – amphibient Mar 30 '18 at 18:49
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I've seen the expression "argument from ignorance is a fallacy" applied to this approach, but I firmly believe that "argument from ignorance" is merely another way of saying, "the burden of proof is on the person who postulates an argument".

According to Wikipedia:

When two parties are in a discussion and one makes a claim that the other disputes, the one who makes the claim typically has a burden of proof to justify or substantiate that claim especially when it challenges a perceived status quo. [Cargile, James (January 1997). "On the burden of proof". Philosophy. Cambridge University Press. 72 (279): 59–83. doi:10.1017/s0031819100056655.]

So your conversation partner is asking you to prove something he doesn't dispute. Maybe he is carelessly disputing something, but not clarifying what. He can agree with "a day is 12 hours" and still disagree that "we know that a day is 12 hours", because of the different practices of ontology (whatever is true) and epistemology (how we know things).

To make an obvious example, two people may both say "wow, Beethoven's 9th Symphony is the best piece of music ever", but one could think that it was the best ever to add a choir to an orchestra while the other just loved the fact that it's almost a full hour of music.

Likewise, different people could admire Steph Curry with completely different reasons for doing so. Even a Cavs fan could think Curry was the best 3-point shooter, but he or she certainly wouldn't agree with an Oakland person who says that "Curry's the best because he's why we won!!!"

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It might be worthwhile to step back and first ask why we bother debating other people at all? Does it provide us any value?

There are at least two reasons for arguing with others:

First, we want to understand things better. Talking to others forces us to question assumptions we may not have realized we had. In the case of the flat earth, we assume the earth is not flat, but we may not be able to give good reasons why it is not flat or there may be reasons why it is not flat that we haven’t even thought about. So, debating this increases our knowledge even though we already know the earth is not flat.

Second, we want to be right about our commitments. Being social, we want others to acknowledge that we are right. We make gut decisions to accept various positions. Our commitment to these positions encourages us to justify or rationalize them. That may seem to belittle our rational abilities, but actually it enhances them. We don’t reason like some indifferent machine running through the possibilities offered by our programming. We are motivated reasoners. And since we are social we test our reasoning on other people who may not agree with us. This leads to rapid progress in knowledge. See Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain for a neuroscience perspective on this.

So the reason we bother debating at all is because we are motivated to defend our positions and we want to better understand the positions we maintain.

Now, for the question: “Is there a term for his behaviour?” It could be called debating.

We should not expect other people to agree with us--ever. And they should not expect us to agree with them either. What we get out of the debate is a better understanding of our own positions. All this motivated reasoning especially in front of someone else who offers resistance to what we take for granted may lead to changes that improve our own lives if not the world around us.

This makes little difference when it comes to something like the flat earth. Few people care even if it were flat. So what if someone thinks the earth is a pancake? However, there are things some people do care about.like who will be the next president? Or do we have free will? Or how do we set up a colony of machines to explore mars for us? That we care enough about something to debate it or at least talk about it helps us get things done.

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