A person-changing-her-mind is a fiction on a par with Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster: it is something I have heard stories about and can readily envision, but have never actually witnessed.

The appeal of arguments comes from the prospect/promise that well-crafted arguments will make people “change their minds.” Yet, by all regular inductive standards, this transformative power of argumentation occurs only infrequently, if at all.

I say this, not with any cynical intent, but in a strict empirical spirit: to say that arguments have the power to persuade is to make a statement open to either corroboration or falsification. By those standards, the idea of someone being “persuaded by an argument” is no different than other tenets deemed improbable, like the beasts of cryptozoological lore. Call this the “non-persuasion induction.”

To sustain the salutary expectations traditionally placed on arguing, entrenched mindsets would have to routinely be changed by exposure to sound arguments. Alas, this is simply not so. By parity of reasoning with other fields of inquiry, the absence of success stories hardly justifies the faith placed on arguing. While there may be rare cases where one does alter one’s convictions upon being exposed to a sound argument, I have never actually seen such cases.

Now, my sample size and variety is admittedly limited. Even so, I do not think rare instances glimpsed by a few would gainsay a generalization like the non-persuasion induction. One can of course engage in an activity like argumentation irrespective of the (low) odds of success. But, one should do so with a sober awareness that, in this case, the persuasive virtues of argumentation simply do not obtain.

This may seem damning to philosophers who, like me, teach critical thinking. However, the truth is that I do not care to change my students’ minds. It suffices that I am moved by reasons. I have therefore resolved to show students what an intelligent lifestyle looks like and let them decide whether this is a laudable model to emulate.


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