About the author :

Joni holds a PhD in marketing. He is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher at Qatar Computing Research Institute and Turku School of Economics. Contact: joolsa (at)

On online debates: fundamental differences


Back in the day, they knew how to debate.

Introduction. Here’s a thought, or argument: Most online disputes can be traced back to differences of premises. I’m observing this time and time again: two people disagree, but fail to see why. Each party believes they are right, and so they keep on debating; it’s like a never-ending cycle. I propose here that identifying the fundamental difference in their premises could end any debate sooner than later, and therefore save valuable time and energy.

Why does it matter? Due to commonness of this phenomenon, its solution is actually a societal priority — we need to teach people how to debate meaningfully so that they can efficiently reach a mutual agreement either by one of the parties adopting the other one’s argument (the “Gandhi principle”) or quickly identifying the fundamental disagreement in premises, so that the debate does not go on for an unnecessarily long period. In practice, the former seems to be rare — it is more common that people stick to their original point of view rather than “caving in”, as it is falsely perceived. While there may be several reasons for that, including stubborness, one authentic source of disagreement is the fundamental difference in premises, and its recognition is immune to loss of face, stubborness, or other socio-psychological conditions that prevent reconciliation (because it does not require admittance of defeat).

What does that mean? Simply put, people have different premises, emerging from different worldviews and experiences. Given this assumption, every skilled debater should recognize the existence of fundamental difference when in disagreement – they should consider, “okay, where is the other guy coming from?”, i.e. what are his premises? And through that process, present the fundamental difference and thus close the debate.

My point is simple: When tracing the argument back to the premises, for each conflict we can reveal a fundamental disagreement at the premise level.

The good news is that it gives us a reconciliation (and food for though to each, possibly leading into the Gandhi outcome of adopting opposing view when it is judged more credible). When we know there is a fundamental disagreement, we can work together to find it, and consider the finding of it as the end point of the deabte. Debating therefore becomes a task of not proving yourself right, but a task of discovering the root cause for disagreement. I believe this is more effective method for ending debates than the current methods resulting in a lot of unnecessary wasted time and effort.

The bad news is that oftentimes, the premises are either 1) very difficult to change because they are so fundamentally part of one’s beliefs that the individual refuses to alter them, or 2) we don’t know how we should change them because there might not be “better” premises at all, just different ones. Now, of course this argument in itself is based on a premise, that of relativity. But alternatively we could say that some premises are better than others, e.g. given a desirable outcome – but that would be a debate of value subjectivity vs. universality, and as such leads just into a circular debate (which we precisely do not want) because both fundamental premises co-exist.

In many practical political issues the same applies – nobody, not even the so-called experts, can certainly argue for the best scenario or predict the outcomes with a high degree of confidence. This leads to the problem of “many truths” which can be crippling for decision-making and perception of togetherness in a society. But in a situation like that, it is ever more critical to identify the fundamental differences in premises; that kind of transparency enables dispassionate evaluation of their merits and weaknesses and at the same time those of the other party’s thinking process. In a word, it is important for understanding your own thinking (following the old Socratean thought of ‘knowing thyself’) and for understanding the thinking of others.

The hazard of identifying fundamental premise differences is, of course, that it leads into “null result” (nobody wins). Simply put, we admit that there is a difference and perhaps logically draw the conclusion that neither is right, or that each pertains the belief of being right (but understand the logic of the other party). In an otherwise non-reconcialiable scenario, this would seem like a decent compromise, but it is also prohibitive if and when participants perceive the debate as competition. Instead, it should be perceived as co-creation: working together in a systematic way to exhaust each other’s arguments and thus derive the fundamental difference in premises.

Conclusion. In this post-modern era where 1) values and worldviews are more fragmented than ever, and 2) online discussions are commonplace thanks to social media, the number of argumentation conflicts is inherently very high. In fact, it is more likely to see conflict than agreement due to all this diversity. People naturally have different premises, emerging from idiosyncratic worldviews and experiences, and therefore the emergence of conflicting arguments can be seen as the new norm in a high-frequency communication environments such as social networks. People alleviate this effect by grouping with likeminded individuals which may lead into assuming more extreme positions than they would otherwise assume.

Education of argumentation theory, logic (philosophy and practice), and empathy is crucial to start solving this condition of disagreement which I think is of permanent nature. Earlier I used the term “skilled debater”. Indeed, debating is a skill. It’s a crucial skill of every citizen. Societies do wrong by giving people voice but not teaching them how to use it. Debating skills are not natural traits people are born with – they are learned skills. While some people are self-learned, it cannot be rationally assumed that the majority of people would learn these skills by themselves. Rather, they need to be educated, in schools at all levels. For example, most university programs are not teaching debating skills in the sense I’m describing here – yet they proclaim to instill critical thinking to their students. The level and the effort is inadequate – the schooling system needs to step up, and make the issue a priority. Otherwise we face another decade or more of ignorance taking over online discussions.

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