Dealing with Sophists: Proving Your Argument vs Proving Yourself

Have you ever been caught off guard by a person who was attempting to debate you, rather than attempting to engage you in a fairminded conversation?  They ask for proof of your position, which on the surface seems to be a reasonable request, and they may even veil their position with words such as “science”, “reason”, or some altruistic motives, but since it is a debate against you and not a fairminded exchange, there is either an overt or subtle emotional layer to their position that is gnawing at your insides. Is this reasonable, or is there something else at play that is anything but reasonable? Jordan Greenhall, in speaking about the mismatch of thinking individuals being engaged by debaters, states in the YouTube video “Genuine Conversation and the Intellectual Dark Web“:

“A debater is engaging in a pattern recognition and rapid response activity with perhaps a specific small amount of focused thinking controlling the structure. I think I should be clear that the primary utility [of sophistry and debate] is in besting someone in a social conversation, and that isn’t at all conducive to collaborative thinking. So what ends up happening, is that when someone shows up that is actually trying to engage in collaborative thinking, and someone else deploys the primary toolkit of debate, the debater will show up as winning, at least to those who are not watching closely, and the thinker will show up as being often times really rather stupid, and so nobody wants to emulate that. So what ends up happening is it begins to select against thinking in both directions, which is to say that people trying to think lose, and other people don’t even try because it just looks like a bad choice. This shows up all over the place, and political infighting is of this sort.”

Sophists/manipulators come into our experience through a gap in our understanding, and it is up to us to create some clarity in our thinking that will no longer allow us to be suckered into debates by this poor behavior. Providing evidence for a conclusion, aka providing proof, is how the process of critical thinking and logic works, as we start with a foundational premise and evidence, which is knowledge, we process the evidence with reason, which is understanding, and once the contradictions have been removed between our knowledge and understanding, that gives us our output, which is known as our conclusion (wisdom). However, “proving ourselves” to another person is not based in critical thinking, reason, or anything else, but is strictly the domain of emotions. When someone attempts to get us to prove ourselves to them, it is a power play by them over us, and any evidence we may provide that does not support their desired outcome for validation of their superiority over us is automatically rejected, since the sophist is only attempting to satisfy their thirst for power, and not actually wanting to arrive at the truth of the matter.

The manipulative party is reasoning from a pre-determined conclusion, which is an underlying need to confirm their dominance and power over us, and basing their stance in emotional need is therefore circular [logic] in nature. They are only looking for proof that validates their emotionally biased need for dominance, and the only proof they’ll accept is our submission to their position of dominance over us. Whereas providing evidence is a part of the reasoning process, proving oneself is an emotional process; skilled and unskilled manipulators get us to do the latter by making us think we’re doing the former. However, since there are two distinct processes at play, we need to differentiate between the two distinct processes with our thinking, as this will help us to avoid getting caught up in emotionally draining conversations; this distinction is necessary to help us to avoid/combat their manipulative tactics.

Flowchart of Fairminded Thinking vs Biased Thinking

With the above information in mind, here’s a possible healthy psychological boundary we could set to prevent ourselves from getting tricked into such interactions by skilled and unskilled manipulators:

“While I’m not okay proving myself to another person, to show them that I am good enough, worthy, or reasonable, which would be submissive to their unreasonable, emotional, and biased goals, I am more than happy to provide evidence for my rationale when it is asked for, and when their intent for learning the truth is pure.”


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