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How to Win an Argument with a Sophist

June 21, 2013, 5:52 PM

I think that some philosophers are what Socrates said they were, sophists.  They’re in it to win, not to get at the truth.  And there are lots of sneaky, tricky things that people can do.  I don’t recommend any of that.  I think we want to get at the truth. 

So many of the tools I describe in my book are ways of avoiding fooling yourself or being fooled by somebody else. I don’t offer any advice on how to fool others.  I do think, however, and perhaps this is a fine line, that in philosophy what you have to do is tweak people’s imagination.  And people have hang-ups and blind spots and phobias and just sometimes they have a principled refusal to take something seriously.  They think it’s beneath their dignity and they refuse to take something seriously.

For those attitudes a careful formal argument is not going to cut any ice at all.  You have to find more artful ways of dislodging those convictions, those sort of emotional blockades which can be quite strong.  I think that, for instance, a very, very smart friend of mine once said, “I just can’t imagine the conscious robot.”  I said, “No, that’s not true.  You can imaging the conscious robot just fine.  You’ve seen Star Wars.  You’ve seen C3PO and R2D2.  Certainly you imagined they were conscious.  You can imagine the conscious robot just fine.  You think you shouldn’t imagine the conscious. You don’t want to take it seriously but it’s not hard to do.  For that matter, you can imagine a conscious choo choo train or a conscious tea kettle.  You can.  So don't tell me that I can’t imagine that.  Just admit that what you really are saying is you don’t want to imagine it.  You think that you’re committing some sort of confused act if you do it.  But it’s easy enough to do."

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

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