Learning to Argue With Lucretius

Last week in Great Books I, my students and I discussed Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things—a work that takes grim materialism and delivers it in the form of cheery poetry.

However delightful the form might be, my students were not at all distracted from the content. In fact, they took issue with much of what Lucretius has to say. Apparently, it’s distasteful to be told that your soul is nothing more than a clump of atoms that will be dissipated into the universe after your death, such that human beings are in no way “immortal” or even different from the rest of the material world. Who woulda thought?

In all seriousness, I was quite proud of my students for disagreeing with Lucretius. The immortality of the soul, the real existence of metaphysical ideas: these are principles I hold dearly.

I was bothered, however, by the way in which my students voiced their disagreement—simply repeating, “Lucretius is wrong. The soul is immortal. Metaphysical ideas are real.” When pressed, my students kept holding the line, repeating the above phrases over and over with mounting frustration.

While this mode of disagreement might sound very familiar to us, it directly contradicts what I’ve taught them about argumentation.

In addition to Great Books, I teach Logic here at TSCS. One of the most basic tenets of logic is soundness. When the premises of an argument are true (the points used to support its conclusion line up with reality) and the argumentation is valid (the form of the argument is such that the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises), the argument as a whole is said to be sound.

By their nature, sound arguments always have true conclusions. Thus, all false conclusions are, by necessity, the result of unsound arguments. To disagree with the conclusion of an argument, then, requires that we show the argument to be unsound.

We live in a culture wherein few take the time to examine arguments carefully. When one encounters an argument with a false conclusion, he or she will often loudly assert the falsehood of the conclusion without analyzing what went wrong in the argument. We treat arguments like weapons in a culture war rather than tools to uncover truth. Common ground can not be reached when opposing conclusions are lobbed about like so many hand grenades.

We cannot hope to convince anyone of anything if we cannot show them what went wrong in their thought processes.

Thus, when interacting with Lucretius, I encourage my students to not merely disagree with his conclusion, but to find the problem with his argument. If his conclusion is false, his argument must be unsound, whether he be relying on a false premise, invalid argumentation, or both. To be truth-seekers means we must not dismiss Lucretius out-of-hand simply because he is asserting something with which we disagree.

Instead, we must honestly engage with his argument and examine it carefully: are his premises true? Is his argumentation sound? If we find problems with his argumentation, we are free to declare the falsehood of his conclusions. If we cannot find a problem with his argument and we insist on declaring his conclusion false anyway, we are not loyal to the Truth, but to ourselves.

I would encourage all of us in a similar manner. Countless conclusions scroll across our newsfeed every day. The cultural leaders of the day have modeled how these are to be dealt with: voice disagreement with conclusions immediately, and often. Be sure that everyone knows whether you consider a conclusion to be true or false.

I’d like to propose a different model: dive deep with arguments. Analyze them carefully and fairly, discerning false premises and faulty logic. If you disagree, talk about why you disagree. Find premises with which you agree and build new arguments from them. We all want to believe what is true, but we are all of us deceived (at some point or another).

To seek truth together, as a community, as a culture, means not merely declaring the falsehood of false conclusions, but building sound arguments from mutually agreed upon premises in order to reach Truth together.

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