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[Edit: Please read the whole question, or at least the new "N.b" paragraph, that I added just now to the end of the question, before attempting to answer it.]

I'm asking this because recently Conifold addressed two posts to me in the Symposium, which is the main chat room for Philosophy Stack Exchange, and I can't understand either of them.

The weird thing is that I have been strongly influenced by each of the posts, and now have major new doubts about not only the truth of illusionism (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2n-s6C1iYQ&list=PLhgvALi0LQGXIA7cKNmGNTiQ7dpS-7dLw), but even about whether the theory, for want of a better word, deserves any more attention than it currently gets. The latter is something I was a hundred percent sure of before reading Conifold's posts and reading various Wikipedia articles and so on, in a vain attempt to learn enough to be able to understand Conifold's argument(s).

Here's Conifold's first post addressed to me in the Symposium

I asked this question about Conifold's first post in the Symposium. No one was able to make me understand it.

Here's Conifold's second post addressed to me in the Symposium

I can see that Conifold seems to me to know what he is talking about, and that no one else is arguing against his position(s). And some people expressed agreement with him, although I couldn't understand their arguments either.

Googling around I can't find anything that addresses (not even close) the question of whether I should be influenced at all, let alone a lot, by an argument that I can't follow. [This](https://www.quora.com/You-just-dont-understand-seems-like-a-powerful-argument-tactic-How-should-we-respond-to-that which asks about when someone ) is the closest to it that I could find was: https://www.quora.com/You-just-dont-understand-seems-like-a-powerful-argument-tactic-How-should-we-respond-to-that .

But what about when the only person saying it is me? I am saying, "I just don't understand." And I am being completely sincere.


I knew that professional philosopher's jargon can be incomprehensible to me.

I also knew that the majority of professional philosophers disagreed with illusionism, and that some of them are quite passionate in their disagreement, for example Galen Strawson who said in his recent New York Times article, "What is the silliest claim ever made? The competition is fierce, but I think the answer is easy. Some people have denied the existence of consciousness: conscious experience, the subjective character of experience, the “what-it-is-like” of experience. Next to this denial—I’ll call it “the Denial”—every known religious belief is only a little less sensible than the belief that grass is green."

So I was not exactly surprised by Conifold's posts, and had already concluded that there were presumably out there philosophy papers that disagreed with illusionism and did so using language that I could barely begin to fathom.

I was not at all surprised that when I clicked on Conifold's link to the SEP article about ontic structural realim (what a phrase), and started reading the article, I found that about once per two lines there was a term of art that I could not understand at all.

And yet, I still found myself influenced strongly. I guess part of it was that I couldn't fault any of the arguments, or indeed anything in Conifold's posts.

Maybe one reason for this is the fact that ontic structural realism, so far as I can grasp it, is something I find highly relevant a interesting (mainly because I think science is underrated), and yet had never heard of.

I don't mean to suggest that if I understood all the jargon terms I would then be able to understand Conifold's argument(s). I suspect that I still wouldn't, especially since Conifold and others have seemingly created plain English versions of the arguments and I still can't understand.

Also, I respected Conifold's opinions, and I had seen brief comments by him that indicated that he wasn't attracted to illusionism, and that had not sown doubt in my mind to any significant degree. It was his incomprehensible argument(s) that had that effect.


N.b. Several answers have not answered the question that I asked but have answered a slightly different question, which is: "Should I ever be influenced by the mere fact that someone I respect has let me know that he is of a particular opinion?"

As I said, I respected Conifold, and I knew he was not impressed by illusionism, and this did not significantly affect my opinions about illusionism. I am not asking about that sort of thing.

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    If you do not understand the argument, how do you know that you are being swayed in the direction the argument should move you?
    – Boba Fit
    Commented Jun 13, 2023 at 18:54
  • If the argument you don't understand is made by someone you respect, it is reasonable to allow it to case doubt on something you believed. If you work at the argument, ask questions about it and still can't understand it, consider the issue more widely - (other arguments that people have made). If you still can't understand the argument, park the issue in your pending tray and keep your eyes open for something that helps you.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Jun 13, 2023 at 19:37
  • I'm afraid I can't help you much with this topic. It seems to be built on the idea of a 'property of "what it is like" to experience a quality; alternately, the relevant introspectible property of the experience itself.' (quotation from SEP plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness-representational/…) For me, this is very obscure, and it is not surprising that what is built on it is difficult. One day I hope to get my head around it; until then, I have other things to think about.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Jun 13, 2023 at 20:00
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    It's not whether you should be persuaded by an argument you can't understand. It's whether you should accept his conclusions as true based on expert testimony as an epistemological source. The TLDR is judges do it every day, so it's acceptable in practical reasoning to do so.
    – J D
    Commented Jun 13, 2023 at 20:31
  • There is one philosophical idea id like to explore which would focus on the activity of thinking itself as biasing the kinds of thoughts or forms of experience that can arise. You could actually argue from that perspective that trying to understand something - thinking - preemptively limits the kinds of thoughts (or, “way of being”, “way of life”) you can have. I think this relates heavily to “embodiment”, and some kind of process-philosophy of consciousness, where experience is a dynamical system or state that cannot always categorize, analyze or understand itself. Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 8:10

8 Answers 8

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I'm responding because you've brought to light an epistemological matter of great concern, and this is the role of testimony in deciding upon truth and adequacy. Ten years ago, when I first read Toulmin's Argument of Method, I found my naivete turned on its head since I had always seen logic and reason much in the way that Kant argued it in his Introduction to Logic. There were fundamental laws of thought that were objective, and that like a class in linear algebra, one had a proof or didn't. In other words, I didn't see the deep connections between logic, reason, rhetoric, and psychology. It's a compelling view Kant presents because it promises us certainty, and who doesn't like to be certain? Certainly I have relaxed that demand of reasoning.

Today, not only have I come to understand why falibilism is so popular as an epistemological position, but come to understand that reason is largely practical. From WP:

In philosophy, practical reason is the use of reason to decide how to act. It contrasts with theoretical reason, often called speculative reason, the use of reason to decide what to follow. For example, agents use practical reason to decide whether to build a telescope, but theoretical reason to decide which of two theories of light and optics is the best.

You are asking:

Should I ever be influenced by an argument that I can't understand?

because you've already chosen to be influenced, and are looking for someone to provide a rationale for why that's acceptable. We need only point to the epistemology in the philosophy of law and its case-based reasoning to see that not only can you, but there is a practical outcome to accepting that other judges who have decided and experts in domains of discourse outside of your expertise should be relied upon in your own reasoning. Stare decisis is an important precept in the Anglo-American tradition as is accepting expert testimony in the reasoning process.

While you'll hear a fallacy monger accuse of you appeal to authority, from a practical standpoint, you simply cannot know everything. For a fallibilist, the premise is simply to accept that an expert witness may be wrong, and to accept adversarial testimony which is exactly what happens. In Kitzmiller v. DASD, the presiding judge allowed both sides to bring in experts, and then using reason, sorted through the arguments between experts. Relying on adversarial precedence also captures that same notion that two prior judges from two similar situations may have reached two different conclusions, but that sifting through the arguments and claims is better than not relying on them because of a lack of expertise.

So, the question then evolves from 'should expert testimony be persuasive and admitted' into 'what exactly is expert testimony'. In the case of Conifold, you can take a look at certain facts and resolve the question yourself:

  • Conifold is one of the top-rated, long-participating contributors (which is no guarantee)
  • Conifold uses citations in (presumably) his answers extensively drawing not from WP exclusively, but the SEP, IEP, PhilPapers, and individual papers
  • Conifold is active on other StackExchange communities in math and science and also has tremendous contributions to those sites
  • Conifold not only comments, but has a history of producing quality responses to posts
  • Conifold's positions are largely coherent, and yet are not without the occasional criticism to which he often provides informed and well-reasoned responses

Now, that you've found yourself influenced by his contributions (an experience I share as a non-academic), Conifold's reputation and responses should be taken for what they are: stimulation to explore new ideas or rethink current ideas with some reasonable assurance that they are philosophically sound and drawn from the philosophical canon. Would the same be said of every contributor here? I suspect not, and that goes to show that you yourself are open to reason. In my personal opinion, people who seem to exude expertise should always be taken cum grano salum and treated like an encyclopedia, a source of new information that needs to be considered.

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    The fallacy monger would be incorrect to "accuse" you of Appeal to Authority - Appeal to Authority is a perfectly fine argument, it's simply not as strong an argument as some others. It's certainly not a fallacy.
    – Nacht
    Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 6:34
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    Was Kant really so impressed by what he thought general logic's powers are? Most of what I remember from the first Critique is that he thought GL to be largely trivial and almost irrelevant to metaphysics or mathematics on the substantive side of things. And it is a popular thesis nowadays that he thought that practical reason sets the standard even for theoretical reason, see e.g. Garrath Williams' "Kant's Account of Reason". Did he change his mind for the Introduction? I only read that text once, and not too attentively... Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 6:57
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    @Nacht There are, however, much more prestigious "experts" than Conifold - particularly Daniel Dennett - who promote illusionism. If you wish to believe whatever the highest-reputation philosopher claims, then you would favor Dennett over Conifold. It is usually the case that in philosophy you can find prestigious philosophers on either side of any major issue, and no settled consensus. Because of this, in truth there are no experts in philosophy, only arguments of varying persuasiveness.
    – causative
    Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 15:56
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    Appeal to a Relevant Authority is not a fallacy. It is actually encoded in our legal system that going against the considered recommendations of a relevant professional society make one liable for any detrimental consequences, and even if nothing bad happens, one is open to charges of criminal negligence.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 15:59
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    @Dcleve That is itself an argument from authority (the legal system being the authority). Furthermore, while going against a professional society can be used as evidence, it isn't dispositive. Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 23:47
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It may be helpful to draw an argument map of what you don't understand. Draw a bubble for each claim Conifold makes, and arrows between the bubbles indicating how Conifold is attempting to support each claim based on other claims.

Then, you need to see for yourself if you grasp each claim individually, and if each arrow makes sense to you as one claim supporting the other.

If something still doesn't make sense, then at least, you'll be able to pin down specifically which claims or inferences don't make sense to you. You can then decide whether the problem with those claims or inferences is you - for not understanding - or Conifold - for not being clear or for insufficiently justifying.

Certainly, one should not be persuaded by an argument in philosophy that one doesn't understand. You are, always and inescapably, the gatekeeper of your own mind.

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The answer to your question depends on many factors, including the subject matter, whether the question at stake is decidable by evidence, prevailing opinion, and so on. I am happy to accept as true certain arguments about the properties of black holes, for example, even though I can't understand the mathematics, because the arguments are made by people who can follow the mathematics and there is a general climate of opinion in support of the arguments. I am totally unhappy to accept certain arguments for and against particular interpretations of quantum theory, because they seem to be entirely speculative, poorly thought through etc, even though a lot of physicists seem to accept them. Then there are arguments which I don't even have to try to understand to know that they must be nonsense. For example, hardly a month goes by without someone on Physics SE claiming to have refuted Special Relativity, often providing pages of impenetrable argument to back up their position.

Arguments about consciousness, and illusionism in particular, seem to me to be innately suspect for two main reasons. The first is because most of them can't be decided through practical tests. The second is that the language used is almost always inescapably equivocal, so the scope for arguing at cross purposes is endless. I've looked at virtually everything by Dennett and Frankish and I've yet to find anything that is either compelling or free of some form of fatal ambiguity.

Given all that, I would say by all means be influenced by arguments that are almost universally accepted and backed up by evidence. On matters that are practically undecidable, don't believe anything you can't follow for yourself. If someone cannot put an idea into plain English, there's probably something wrong with it.

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  • Thank you for expressing so well how to deal with a problem that we must all have encountered from time to time. The only difficulty I see is that plain English can be very hard to achieve when non-standard uses of the language are in play.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Jun 13, 2023 at 21:40
  • I have not read Frankish, but Dennett, in Consciousness Explained, actually admitted to writing so as to be deliberately unquotable. He also admitted to trying to insert an alternate operating system in his readers heads (brainwash us) rather than convince us (appeal to reason). To get clear writing, and the explicit argument for illusionism, see Blackmore's A Very Short Introduction to Consciousness. It is outstanding writing, and very evidence based. My review is here: amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R1C1TJFIWBZ8ZQ/…
    – Dcleve
    Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 16:06
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The world is too complicated for any single person to be able to understand everything that matters to them. But you have to get along in life, frequently needing to make decisions about things you don't fully understand. So you often have to defer to the expertise of people who do understand that area. Even if you may have the capacity to understand the details, you usually don't have the time to study it -- you need to make a decision now.

Sometimes we don't even try to understand everything, we simply hire someone to make these decisions for us. I think I understand finance reasonably well for a layman, but I still prefer to hire a financial advisor to assist me, and invest in mutual funds that have management teams that make the day-to-day investment decisions.

Your question may be more specifically about understanding philosophical arguments, but there's no reason why this needs to be any different from arguments about any other aspect of life. In fact, it's likely even less important -- the trolley problem may make for interesting discussion, but it doesn't come up too often in real life. OTOH, deciding how fast to drive can have life-and-death implications.

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My answer to your core question:

Should I ever be influenced by an argument that I can't understand?

Yes, of course. You are not a robot who needs objectively provable logic, deduced painfully step by step, with all axioms laid out and fully grokked, to be influenced. Humans are - rightly so, in my opinion of course - influenced by all manners of things which they do not fully understand.

To give some examples:

  • I read Foucault's Pendulum as an adolescent, and much of it was way over my head at the time (and probably today also - it has been a few decades and I don't remember much of it). Did it influence me? For sure! I couldn't tell you exactly in which way, but I for sure know that if I had never read it, I would not have read many of other works of the author, and my brain would very likely have developed differently. Today, a young person would yell out the "mind blown" meme, but we didn't have that back then.
  • The same goes for Gödel, Escher, Bach, which I also read when I was still in school. I spent days on end trying to solve the "MU" problem. The fact that I did try to solve it proves that I did not understand it (those who know, know, and I won't spoil it for those who haven't read it yet...). Still, trying to solve this not-understood riddle gave me much more intuitive insight into this kind of formal language than anything else I learned about them later.
  • As social beings, we often communicate with others, where everybody has a very one-sided view of reality. As they say, there are always three realities: yours, mine, and the objective one. It is completely normal that a person can not really understand another person until they have spent a lot of time and effort aligning their internal world views. Wars have fought over that.
  • In professional and private life, I had more than a few occasions where I absolutely did not understand anything in a heated discussion, but over time, sometimes much later, grew a lot from the experience. Some of those were midlife-crisis-level cathartic events.

So without going into what your particular experience was, it is for sure possible for you to be influenced in some way or other. Obviously it is up to you to make sure you understand specifics before acting, based on this influence. But hardly understood arguments can for sure open up new paths for thoughts in your brain.

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It depends on context as others have said or implied, but I would like to add another example that might be illuminative.

Let's say you've been diagnosed with some kind of cancer, and the doctor recommends you undergo radiotherapy. Perhaps you ask for an explanation of the exact biophysical mechanism of how that works before you agree to the treatment.

Now, you might not understand their explanation. Nevertheless, it feels intuitive to me that the mere fact that my doctor is saying it lends credence to the idea that radiotherapy is something I should get. After all, this is typically the sort of thing they've been trained for years to understand, they're regulated under various codes of ethics, they're given me useful advice and help with medical problems in the past...

This is not to suggest, by the way, that you necessarily ought to believe them and trust their judgement wholeheartedly or uncritically. The very fact you don't understand the argument could still be because it's flawed somehow. And naturally, any doctor can be wrong - there are flawed individuals in any system, and plenty of medical scandals we could reel off. But in a common doctor-patient situation, where there's some layer of reasonable trust, it does mean you ought to give higher credence to the possibility that their argument is correct. In other words, yes, you should be influenced by this particular argument you don't understand.

And then in my view, applying this idea to different contexts depends on how closely one thinks the situation matches that of "the idealized doctor explaining something to their patient", and precisely how much influence it should entail.

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The truthful answer is that it comes down to your taste and thus there is no correct answer. An ought cannot from an is. This isn't any different from moral questions.

What is certain though is that an argument coming from a supposedly reliable person does not logically imply its truth. Anything else you infer from this is speculation and has no correct answer.

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    If we defined an action A as, "A is such that it ought to be done," something, though not everything, about Hume's concern is undermined, or else any difference in topics would mean that understanding one topic has no application to understanding other topics. At any rate, I don't think the OP meant "should" so strictly, but more like, "Is it rational for me to adjust my beliefs about a topic when exposed to arguments that I don't understand?" and then the social aspect of meaning comes into play (maybe not in favor of renouncing previous beliefs, but at least doubting them more). Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 7:16
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    @KristianBerry " I don't think the OP meant "should" so strictly, but more like, "Is it rational for me to adjust my beliefs about a topic when exposed to arguments that I don't understand?" " That's exactly what I meant. I wonder whether I should edit the title? Perhaps it's clear enough as it is. Perhaps it's too late, given the number of answers the question already has. Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 11:20
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"Should I ever be influenced by an argument that I can't understand?"

Yes because an argument you can't understand (that you have encountered) can cause an effect ("influence") onto you simply through your interaction with it.

For example, if you're in a room with relatively deadly radiation (even though you can't read the signs that there is deadly radiation in the room nor understand what deadly radiation is), you can be influenced by that said radiation to the point of death.

Cause and effect.

Let's say that someone presents various forms of symbolic language to you in an effort to social engineer publicity of him or her out of you. Maybe you really don't understand the argument but they've hacked into the language and behavioral aspects of your psychobiology to give that publicity.

Cause and effect.

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    He didn't ask if he is influenced, he asked if he should be influenced. That is, is it beneficial to be influenced by an argument he can't understand? Or would he be better off if he tries to minimize this influence?
    – causative
    Commented Jun 18, 2023 at 2:05
  • I cannot make sense of the symbols in your language. Furthermore, I refuse to give you any socioeconomic patronizing. Lol. Commented Jun 18, 2023 at 2:07

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