Some 2,400 years ago, in Athens, there were people called sophists. By name, they were “wise guys”—not like John Bellushi or Joe Pesci—but rather“experts” or “sages,” derived from the Greek “sophia,” meaning “wisdom.”
Typically, sophists were teachers of rhetoric, who collected fees for instructing people in arête—“excellence,” or “virtue.” They were known for crafting witty arguments and for their expertise in the art of persuasion.
These cats drew some serious fire from my homie Plato, who characterized them as frauds who went around pretending to know things, but merely used language to sound impressive. In fact, he thought they were quite ignorant as to how to lead a good human life, as seen in the Gorgias and Protagoras.
In some form or another, for better and for worse—mostly worse, I think—the sophistic tradition has been with us ever since. Your typical sophists nowadays can be heard on radio talk shows and in political assemblies, pontificating from their bully pulpits to progress a particular agenda.
But similar specimens can often be encountered in the real world, and especially, online. In general, these people enjoy pressing other people’s views on hot-button issues like politics and religion, often with the intent to either persuade their interlocutor to agree with them, or simply to play devil’s advocate for the hell of it.
Whether they show up at your local Starbucks or, perhaps more frequently, on your Facebook feed, our contemporary, run-of-the-mill sophists, also known as trolls, tend to stress the importance of arguments.
They’ll compose long diatribes about the validity and soundness of arguments, oftentimes without knowing what exactly that means. They’ll insist that you bring up facts, figures and statistics to justify your claims. Perhaps, if they want to be fancy, they’ll accuse you of having used a fallacy somewhere along the way.
My main beef with these sorts of characters, however, is that what they so fervently advocate really isn’t all that hard to do—just about anyone can craft either a valid deductive argument or a sound inductive argument. These arguments can at the same time be buttressed by copious amounts of supporting evidence.
But they can still be wrong.
The issue of whether truth value is conserved by the succeeding premises in an argument is something likely beyond the scrutiny of most trolls. It is, rather, something that some of the greatest minds in human history have concerned themselves with: Descartes, Aristotle, Kant, and Thomas Aquinas, to name a few.
Most trolls also probably have little expertise in differentiating deduction from induction, determining whether a given premise is universal, particular, affirmative or negative, or whether it’s possible for an argument with one or more false premises to have a true conclusion.
To delve into the sphere of epistemology, the individuals in question probably would have a hard time answering a question along the lines of, “What is knowledge?” or “Does knowledge by necessity depend on sensory experience?” I won’t even get into the matter of knowledge’s relation to truth, or the use of a priori vs. a posteriori premises in the construction of an argument.
If the brief semester I spent studying first-order logic at Montgomery College a few years ago taught me nothing else, it did make it clear that solid arguments can be crafted for or against any given position, but that doesn’t guarantee that the argument conclusions will be true.
My beef with trolls, like Plato’s beef with the sophists, boils down to the fact that they don’t really know what the hell they’re talking about. They love to talk—there’s no doubt about that—but they don’t really know what they’re saying.
I don’t mean to suggest here that we shouldn’t be questioning our beliefs and convictions. Being mistaken about something and correcting our errors is central to the process of growth and learning for all individuals.
But there is a problem with letting our convictions be called into doubt by people who are no more knowledgeable (in many cases less knowledgeable) than ourselves, and who have no proper bearing as to the truth of a given matter.
So, esteemed reader, if you should happen to encounter a troll in the course of your day-to-day life, I offer up some much-circulated advice: don’t feed them.
In all likelihood, the individual trying to draw you into an argument for no genuinely constructive purpose knows a lot less about what they’re talking about than they let on, and they probably also know a lot less about formal argumentation.
Logic can be tremendously useful, and yet so few people genuinely have a grasp on it compared to how many people pretend to.
If you’re feeling ambitious, read some of the books in Aristotle’s Organon for decisive proof that these “wise guys” don’t really have a clue.
And other than that, just let the trolls sip ‘Haterade’ at their leisure.
Featured Photo Credit: Flickr user abbyladybug.
Horus Alas is senior philosophy major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.