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Sophisticated October 26, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Language, Philosophy.
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In ancient Greece, the sophists were intellectuals who charged money for teaching the art of rhetoric. They were of the opinion that language cannot be used to uncover truth, but is rather a tool for convincing others and getting one’s way. They maintained that language can be used to construct equally valid arguments which lead to opposite conclusions.

There is a tale about a student of the sophist Protagoras (known for saying that “man is the measure of all things”), who declined to pay at the end of his lesson — claiming that he had not in fact learned any persuasion skills. Protagoras thought for a moment, then suggested that they argue the case before a judge. If the judge ruled in Protagoras’s favor, then the student must pay; on the other hand, if the judge found in the student’s favor, then the student must have learned some persuasion skills from Protagoras after all, and should therefore pay for the lesson.

The student considered Protagoras’s proposition, and finally declared that he had no objection to taking the case before a judge. After all, if the judge should find in the student’s favor, then he need not pay; and if the judge ruled against the student, that would show that the student’s rhetorical skills remained poor — and so Protagoras had not earned his fee.

The Greek philosophers detested the sophists.

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I am not a label, I am a free man July 16, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Language, Politics.
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Living in a complicated world, with a deluge of data constantly bombarding us from all sides, generalizations can often be useful. We instinctively categorize everything around us: threatening/harmless, animal/vegetable/mineral, friend/foe, and so on. This often makes the world easier to deal with, but we can sometimes become slaves to our own man-made labels, our thinking constrained by the assumption that reality must conform to our choice of words. This can be the source of much confusion when things just don’t fit our predetermined categories. Often, this happens when we use discrete categories to label a continuous spectrum. A good example is the labeling of biological species, which continues to cause many misunderstandings about evolution. The naive assumption is that every creature that ever lived can be classified as belonging to some discrete species, but species are labels we bestow in hindsight. The boundaries between species are fluid, as all populations of organisms are in constant transition.

The consequences of labeling can be even greater when it comes to classifying people. First of all, we must obviously overcome superficial stereotyping, where we ascribe traits to people based on arbitrary markers like their nationality, heritage, skin color, etc. It seems to me, however, that the liabilities can be just as serious when labeling people by their political or philosophical ideologies, like “Republican” versus “Democrat” or “capitalist” versus “socialist.” Once we have a label for someone, it becomes easy to dismiss any of his positions out of hand without having to actually consider it carefully or present an explicit counterargument – after all, he’s an X and I’m a Y; end of discussion. (Watch Sam Harris telling the participants at the Atheist Alliance International convention why they should not call themselves “atheists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights,” or “secular humanists” –  or anything.)

More subtly, people’s labels allow them not to think critically about new issues for themselves: they just toe the party line. (“I’m a Republican, so I must be against the Democrat health care plan.”) Our labels really get in the way of honest, rational discourse and decision making. They distract us from the actual issues at hand.

Some will insist: You must be either a right-winger or a left-winger! If you’re not a socialist or a capitalist, then what are you? I’m sorry to be a troublemaker, but my opinion on any and all matters cannot be summed up in one word. I’m just a person who tries to think rationally about issues on an individual basis, with no automatic allegiance to any ideology. You can put that on my label.