Nov 8.15: Of sophiboles, cases of cooperative misleading

I am still thinking about misleading and truth from an interesting and thought-provoking talk by Jennifer Saul last week. Many of my intuitions have gained form and structure from her presentation. In it, she argued that misleading and lying are not (all other things equal) morally different. Importantly, Saul suggested that misleading can be different than lying in one special subset of cases — effectively, in those contexts where the listener can be reasonably expected to have special duties to scrutinize the testimony before them, owing to the adversariality of the context and the capacity of the listener to engage in critical inquiry.

I have long had reservations about academics and the subject of truth-telling. So, here’s an essay from 2006: (…/who-needs-sophistry-…/) In it, I argued that the public assertion of certain kinds of exaggeration are sometimes both faultless and laudable. Over the past decade I have had plenty of occasion to have that thesis challenged, but am generally unpersuaded by those challenges.
In that essay I argue that philosophers and scientists frequently engage in a kind of wise exaggeration, which I have mentally given the label of “sophiboles”. That is, we faultlessly assert things in a black-and-white bivalent fashion, when the closest justified belief is much more complex. Example. According to his critics, Galileo was guilty of asserting a sophibole when he decided to cast aside fictionalist and probabilist readings of the evidence; and for what it’s worth, I’m inclined to say that he is guilty of doing right. (Anyway, this is my simplistic conception of the history, and reminds me I really ought to read Alice’s Dreger’s 2015 book, “Galileo’s Middle Finger”. But for now it’ll suffice as a toy case.)
Are sophiboles cases of misleading? Much depends on how you define “misleading”. To me, “misleading” involves distracting someone away from apprehending a true proposition that is worth caring about in a conversational context, and hence to cue belief in a falsehood, or distract away from a truth, without explicitly thereby asserting a falsehood. (It is hard not to include reference to what conversation partners care about if we are to assess them in terms of the cooperative maxims.)
Unlike most cases of misleading, sophiboles are constructively focusing our attention upon *true* beliefs worth caring about, and are not directed towards the malicious creation of false beliefs. e.g., for Galileo, the truth of the theory of heliocentrism as a model of the solar system; it is not to inculcate a false belief in the solar system. Suffice it to say, Galileo did not lie in any of this; he did not assert a falsehood. Moreover, his intention was to lead us to a truth about the world, not to lead us to a falsehood.
But that will not save his sophibole from being a case of misleading, since people in a cooperative conversation can be concerned with different things, and they can disagree about the truths worth caring about in such contexts, so long as those cross-purposes are jointly acknowledged. So, the Church — wanting Galileo to tone down his rhetoric — encouraged him to adopt a probabilist or fictionalist vernacular. Those little qualifiers (i.e., “In all probability, p…”) mattered to them. For them, Galileo was attempting to mislead away from the epistemic, or second-order, status of his claims. Galileo’s actual heliocentric claims were true, but (according to his critics) the realist statement of his claims misled people from the form of justification, and in that sense were distracting people away from an important truth about the limits of our knowledge. Galileo was misleading about something worth caring about.
To be sure, Galileo’s highly politicized insistence on realist rhetoric soon evoked an adversarial context. And, FWIW, I would even argue that he was right to be adversarial, because while neither departed from intellectual good faith, it is the case that the Church’s epistemic concerns are not so much worth caring about as the realist ones are. (There’s that famous middle finger of his.)
But that’s a historical contingency. My point is that we should be able to see the two parties continuing to accuse each other of misleading even if they had been able to maintain a cooperative dialogue. And so misleading, at least in the form of sophiboles, is generally not so bad as lying.


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