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.
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.
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.