Of Truth and Persuasion


socrates

The philosopher Socrates was greatly interested in knowledge. The Socratic method is all about determining whether or not a claim is true. But, in his day, he was often compared to the Sophists. The Sophists weren’t so much interested in truth as they were in arguing persuasively. One of Plato’s many writings on Socrates involved a debate he had with a man named Gorgias, who was a popular orator known for teaching others how to be persuasive. This work has gotten me thinking about persuasiveness and truth. Personally, I care more about what is true than what is persuasive, but it seems as though a lot of people aren’t so interested in truth and are more concerned about whether a claim is persuasive.
I’ll begin this post by discussing the idea that truth can’t be refuted. What does this mean? Well, to refute something is to show it is untrue. If something is true, then it cannot be shown to be untrue, so it cannot be refuted. But a lot of people confuse refuting with rebutting. To argue that something is untrue is not to refute it, it is to rebut it. Arguing against something is not the same as showing it to be untrue. You can show something to be untrue while arguing against it, but, more often than not, arguing against something is not meant to refute it, it is meant to persuade others to disagree with it. This says nothing about truth, but it is a very important point to keep in mind. Truth matters, and, if you care about truth, it is important to think about the arguments you are given carefully. It is important to consider whether they are convincing because they are true, or if they are simply convincing because the speaker is persuasive.

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But when do you know you’ve got the truth? According to Socrates, you will know because the truth will survive any attempted rebuttal. This is why he uses the Socratic method as he does, and why he is so against the Sophists. I strongly disagree with this idea. Liars are often more persuasive than those who speak truthfully. If this weren’t the case, then scam artists wouldn’t be able to steal so much money. And we wouldn’t have to worry about the spread of misinformation. But both of those things are major concerns. It would be a lot easier to hold only true beliefs if it were impossible to rebut true claims. So now we have the issue of belief versus truth. All the true things that we believe are beliefs, but not everything we believe is true. Everybody holds at least one false belief. After all, we don’t have access to all the knowledge of the world, and it is impossible to be completely unbiased. So how do we know the difference? That’s not an easy question to answer. We can never know for certain whether a belief we hold is true or not, but we can be pretty sure. This is why I often speak about evidence: you cannot be pretty sure without evidence. It is the evidence that gives us the ability to be pretty sure that our beliefs are true.
But can you force someone to believe something? We believe something is true when we are persuaded, but persuasion is a type of force. What do I mean by this? Well, it is rare that we come to believe something without anyone persuading us (other than ourselves). We usually come to hold beliefs because they were taught to us. This way of coming to a belief may not be physically painful, and it may not seem forceful, but it is still a type of force. This is because we are not really given a choice about these beliefs. As small children, we are given a number of our beliefs in school. We are never told that what we are taught might not be true, and we are taught to view our teachers as the authority, so it is rare to find a child willing to question what they are told in school. We do not view these beliefs as a choice. In this sense, these beliefs were forced on us. As adults, we often continue to hold these beliefs. Is this a bad thing? To a large extent, the things we are taught in grade school are wrong, and our teachers are often unaware of what is wrong and how wrong it is. But we are taught things inaccurately often because we need to learn things in phases. We can’t understand quantum physics as kids, so we learn less accurate versions of physics that eventually give us the building blocks we need to understand (kind of) quantum physics. So I don’t see how it is a bad thing. However, as Gorgias points out, these forced beliefs can be a bad thing, because we can be persuaded to believe something that is untrue (in its purest form) very easily.

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So how do we keep ourselves from being convinced of things that aren’t true (to the greatest degree possible)? I feel as though Descartes says it best: “But the indifference I feel when there is no reason pushing me in one direction rather that another is the lowest grade of freedom; it is evidence not of any perfection of freedom, but rather of a defect in knowledge or a kind of negation. For if I always saw clearly what was true and good, I should never have to deliberate about the right judgement or choice; in that case, although I should be wholly free, it would be impossible for me ever to be in a state of indifference.” What does this mean? It means you should care. If you care about what is true, and if you think deeply about what you’re told, using reason and evidence, then, while you may not always be right, you will at least be more likely to hold true beliefs than false ones. I, obviously, don’t agree with Descartes about everything, and I don’t think he was willing to go deep enough in his meditations, since he was never willing to put aside all of his assumptions, but on this point I agree with him. One should never be indifferent where the truth is concerned, and one should never be willing to accept what they are told without thinking critically about it.
I find the Socratic method very useful when discussing belief, and I enjoy reading the work of Plato. However, I believe that Socrates is mistaken about truth being impossible to rebut. People are persuasive, and we can be good liars, so this cannot be the case. But there are ways to avoid being taken in with falsehoods. With any luck, we can hold more true beliefs than false beliefs, even if we can’t avoid holding some false beliefs.

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16 responses to “Of Truth and Persuasion

  • The Scarlet Elf

    It is a known fact Jesus existed – we know this from various sources!!! There is no point in saying if this or that cos you don’t know, making assumptions about me or Socrates or whoever is fantasy! No I merely wished to dispute rather than dismiss! Not with a bad intention, but merely inching nearer to the Truth. I have been further than that! I have traveled at high speed towards the light at the end of the tunnel – being on the edge of Glory – as well as outside of my own body 🙂 so I’ve traveled a fare bit, but whatever. Im bored with this so farewell and have a nice day/eve/life etc xx

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  • The Scarlet Elf

    Whether you say the god or The God if you read it in context it refers to one higher God – I have no interest in what you study (but the best of luck with it) just in what you say.
    I studied history and philosophy before you were born, and theology have a vast library of related BOOKS on the subject, and have traveled! I choose not to boast – but as you brought it up! Either way I don’t need to say there is Truth. I can understand all these philosophers but I cannot understand you – why – because it does not add up and if Socrates or any of the others were here he would dissect your offering in seconds. Sorry if I offended you re your age, I should have added experience as well. Age does Not equal knowledge – rather knowledge grows with age and experience and willingness to seek it. If you are going to write and make such claims you should be willing to debate it, that is the purpose of free speech, and exactly what Socrates done. Deleting comments simply because I don’t agree with what you say, makes no sense, 😦 Namaste

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  • The Scarlet Elf

    Re; refuting and rebutting- that is pretty obvious! and wisdom and knowledge – now you are being condescending! Experience is definitely fact – whether high or not – the experience is what it is FACT – If I say a car is yellow then it is yellow and that is a FACT, because, 1) I know my colors 2) I am not color blind – so if you say it is yellow then I will want to know the condition of your eyes! Plato – Gorgias – he is talking to Polus about Archelaus, he says he cannot say what kind of person he is as he never met him, and therefore would not know where he stands in view of education and justice.
    Who did he judge?

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    • hessianwithteeth

      No, you said that knowledge is the stepping stone to wisdom. If intelligent people can be unwise, and wise people can be unintelligent, then knowledge cannot be a stepping stone for wisdom. That is basic logic.
      Experience is not fact. Experience is experience, fact is fact. It is factual that you had an experience, but that doesn’t make your experience true. People experience colour differently. Not everybody sees the colours as you do. For example, many men have troubles with certain colours. It is quite common that they will mistake purple for blue. It isn’t completely understood why this is the case, but it is well known that women see a wider range of colour than men. But shades also differ among women, so it is completely understandable that you may call yellow what I call orange. But that still begs the question: who’s right?
      I don’t know what version of Gorgias you’re reading, but in mine Socrates talks mostly to Gorgias himself, but also to Polus, Callicles, and Chaerephon. Archelaus is mentioned, but they aren’t talking to him.
      As for who Socrates is judging, he’s judging Gorgias. Gorgias argues that oratory is the greatest of the crafts (techne), and Socrates disagrees. Basically, Socrates thinks Gorgias is a scam artist, and he is perfectly happy to tell Gorgias as much.

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  • The Scarlet Elf

    Sorry I had a tablet malfunction earlier, so to continue from previous comment, He said his work as a philosopher was from THE God (meaning one) and I think there is no greater blessing for the city (Athens) than my service to the God. ‘For I go around all day doing nothing, but persuading young and old – not to care for their body or your wealth, in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible state of your soul.’ He goes on and on about the God and that he was a gift to the city from God!!!
    I did not say he heard voices, you are misreading/misreading. I said Gods voice! For anyone who knows the Truth it is clear that he is a Lover of it and therefore knows it! Yes he preferred people to come to that realization themselves as with any good teacher. The quote you are referring to is not as in your picture but as follows ‘what I do not know I do not think I know’ which is very different than saying I know nothing.
    Storytelling and deliberately lying or fooling someone are different things, it may not be difficult for someone who is a liar but not for someone who loves Truth – as Socrates said he would rather, and it is better to suffer wrong than do wrong. Not everyone is a liar some people love Truth and will choose to live by it at any cost!
    Indeed he chose death rather than to do wrong, when he had the opportunity to leave Athens he chose to accept his sentence. There is one Truth-God-Love, because you do not know this and may never – does not mean it is not, and you belittle a multitude of people by saying that! That manner of talk is something Socrates would never have engaged in! As I said before people who recognize Truth will know it, its not rocket science – I will put your lack of wisdom and knowledge down to your age! Namaste.

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    • hessianwithteeth

      I’m a 25 year old university student who actually studies philosophy and ancient greek. So I will put your stupidity down to your arrogant belief that age equals knowledge. I have answered why your assumption that “the” equals one is wrong in your other comment. Though here is a link that defends my argument (in 19a), since I’m too young to possibly understand my own field of study: http://www.friesian.com/apology.htm. Try reading some actual philosophy before you make assumptions about what is being discussed. And don’t bother commenting again if you are just going to be insulting. We will just delete it.

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    • hessianwithteeth

      Thank you Hessian,

      As well Scarlet Elf’s seeming lack of understanding around Ancient Greek history. Like until now I did not know that the Greek of that time put the in front of proper nouns.

      However, I do know that Plato was writing around 400 BC which was a good 500 years before Christianity was a notable religion, over 400 years before Jesus, if he existed, would have been born. And Judaism of the that time had hardly move outside of what we tend to call Israel. This along with the hard fact the the Greek of that time believed in the Greek Pantheon, you know Zeus and the like. Further if Scarlet had bother to read any more of Plato’s works she wold understand that Both Plato and Socrates talked at length about “the gods” Had Socrates been a monotheist in the middle of then independent Greek city state Athens they would have made in clear in his trial that they where charging him of blasphemy, not the charge of corrupting the young by way of him being an atheist.

      Now to direct the rest of this comment directly to Scarlet Elf, please take your arrogant and insulting comments else where. Your are not the expert you seem to be claiming you are, and you certainly do not know more about the history or philosophy of Plato then the combined knowledge of both Hessian and I. If you where such an expert you at least would have addressed our arguments rather then dismissing them.

      If I where to blame your lack of wisdom on anything it’s your unwillingness/inability to step outside or your monotheistic framework, and your willingness to quickly dismiss the thoughts of those who are younger then you. As though somehow having rode the earth a few more times around the sun gives your more knowledge then us in every subject.

      Withteeth

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  • The Scarlet Elf

    The philosopher Socrates was a great believer in God and claimed to hear his voice (as many do Inc myself! You have mentioned amazing great names who’s writings I love and all who not only knew – but understood Truth very well, this is the reason their writings are still here today! Your observations are immature, and wrong . Spammers are clever nasty liars who pick vulnerable/weaker people or those who they deem less clever than themselves! But liars mostly get caught out, as they eventually slip up! Also you say people cannot be certain if a belief is true or not, that is nonsense, and you say everyone can be a good liar, speak for yourself! Truth is Truth and does not dwell in lies or liars! And is irrefutable and can stand it’s ground and as the Teacher said cannot lose an argument – or like the scammer will Never be caught out!
    Blessings of Truth be with you – Namaste!

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    • jrob8157293

      Hessian didn’t say that Socrates said the truth was just irrefutable but that also it could not be rebutted. I somewhat agree with your point that if it is being spoken in the right company the truth can’t be rebutted, but how do we ever know when we’re in the right company? People fall for lies all the time. And you’re right not everyone is a good liar, but a lot of people are. Hessian was just speaking of humanity as a whole. But the thing is about the truth, we technically really almost can never know what is true and what isn’t. Even if no lies have been told about a subject we could be totally wrong about it. The quote Hessian posted about Socrates saying that the first step to gaining true knowledge is understanding that one knows nothing is completely true. So while I might “know” that some thing is the truth or the Truth deep in my mind, soul, or heart, there is technically always a possibility I could be wrong that I must acknowledge.

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      • The Scarlet Elf

        Exactly Truth is irrefutable and can not be rebutted. Wisdom is the beginning of knowledge (beginning) – experience is EVERYTHING. We learn by our mistakes. To say we cannot hardly know what is true is not true – if you know something you know it, you don’t half know it! If you know the colour yellow and see it, you know what it is. I am positive my phone in my hand and I am typing, you will not convince me otherwise. What Socrates said is you have got to learn about someone’s life before you can judge them! And yes he said the BEGINNING of knowledge is understanding and accepting we are all ignorant! Again the knowledge of Truth cannot merely be learned, because it is an experience.

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        • hessianwithteeth

          Refuting and rebutting are two completely different things. I even defined them in my post. And wisdom and knowledge are different as well. There are a lot of very smart people out there who lack wisdom, and there are a lot of very wise, not so smart people as well. Experience isn’t fact. People say they experience all sorts of things while high. Are those experiences true?
          So if I say “that car is yellow” and you say “no, it’s orange” we both know what colour the car is despite saying it’s different colours?
          When exactly did Socrates say you have to learn about a person’s life before you can judge them? Because he judged a lot of people without knowing anything more than their belief that they have knowledge.

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    • hessianwithteeth

      Socrates believed in the Greek gods. As in a pantheon of many gods. He was accused of being an atheist (at the time meaning that he didn’t believe in the right gods, not that he didn’t believe in any gods), but he denied this. It was a common claim in ancient Greece to say that you heard voices. Pointing out that Socrates claimed to hear voices isn’t really meaningful, since that was the language of the time and we don’t actually have the information necessary to say what he actually meant.
      Socrates would never have said that he understood capital T truth. He said that his wisdom came from his willingness to admit that he doesn’t know anything. You seem to know very little about Socrates for someone saying that you love his work and I’m wrong.
      I never said everyone can be a good liar, however, we are as a species good storytellers. It isn’t difficult to go from telling a story to lying. We are all capable of telling lies, and we all make use of that skill at some point in our lives. To say otherwise would be, well, lying. Not all liars are caught, and many people make a career of lying. Some people are even praised for their ability to lie, and are given jobs based on their ability to lie better than the other guy.
      Can you prove that it is nonsense to say that a belief can’t be 100% proven? So far you haven’t given me any evidence to support any of your claims.
      There is no capital T truth. There are things that are true and things that aren’t. You cannot show that your beliefs are true simply by stating or arguing that they are. You can only show that they are true through evidence. It is not enough to be convincing. If you think otherwise then you are very gullible indeed.

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      • The Scarlet Elf

        No, he believed in one Higher God as he stated repeatedly in his Apology – Saying he had been ordered to practice philosophy by “The God” he said It has been enjoined upon me by the God, by means of oracles and dreams, and in every other

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        • hessianwithteeth

          I think you’re misunderstanding how ancient Greek works. It would not be “The God,” it would be “the god.” In ancient Greek “the” proceeds all proper names and nouns, though it is not always put in the sentence for nouns. Saying “the god” meant that they were talking about one god in particular. Those who were present for the conversation would have understood which god was being discussed given that they had a full understanding of their language. Since we don’t always have the proper context, we generally assume that they were referring to Zeus. So no, saying “the god” doesn’t mean he believed that there was only one god.

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