There’s been a lot on here recently on trolls, trolling, and counter-trollism. This post and the next are a counter-balance and complement: counter-trollism and ethics: tolerance, but also the limits of understanding, human sympathy, and universal tolerance. I’ve tagged it under “ethical living”: because dealing with trolls is an important part of living an ethical life online, and bothering to do so has political implications.
There will be a lot of Karl Popper. Now, I don’t agree with all things Popper, but we are in concord on a lot. And a lot is relevant to internet life and to trolling. Impressive, considering that his earliest ideas on pseudoscience are from 1919-21; most of the work considered here is from the late 1940s-early 1960s; some more from later; and he died in 1994. Just when interwebbery was starting up.
Here are some Greatest Hits ℅ the joys of copy-paste and Wikipedia; because no, I’m not going to sit here and type them all up from my books here in the office; and no, I’m not going to make scans either; not when almost everything I’d want to quote here is already on the big W already. OK?
The quickie version:
Although Popper was an advocate of toleration, he opined that even a tolerant person cannot always accept another’s intolerance.
For, if tolerance allowed intolerance to succeed completely, tolerance itself would be threatened. In The Open Society and Its Enemies: The Spell of Plato, he argued that:
Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.
The utterance of intolerant philosophies should not always be suppressed, “as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion.” However,
we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols.
Furthermore, in support of human rights legislation in the second half of the 20th century, he stated:
We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.
^ The Open Society and Its Enemies: The Spell of Plato, by Karl Raimund Popper (Princeton University Press: 1971): 265
Wikiquote: more, longer, etc.
Science must begin with myths, and with the criticism of myths; neither with the collection of observations, nor with the invention of experiments, but with the critical discussion of myths, and of magical techniques and practices. The scientific tradition is distinguished from the pre-scientific tradition in having two layers. Like the latter, it passes on its theories; but it also passes on a critical attitude towards them. The theories are passed on, not as dogmas, but rather with the challenge to discuss them and improve upon them.
Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (Harper & Row, 1963)
If we are uncritical we shall always find what we want: we shall look for, and find, confirmations, and we shall look away from, and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories. In this way it is only too easy to obtain what appears to be overwhelming evidence in favor of a theory which, if approached critically, would have been refuted.
The Poverty of Historicism (1957) Ch. 29 The Unity of Method
Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.
Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach (1972)
There is an almost universal tendency, perhaps an inborn tendency, to suspect the good faith of a man who holds opinions that differ from our own opinions. … It obviously endangers the freedom and the objectivity of our discussion if we attack a person instead of attacking an opinion or, more precisely, a theory.
“The Importance of Critical Discussion” in On the Barricades: Religion and Free Inquiry in Conflict (1989) by Robert Basil
When I speak of reason or rationalism, all I mean is the conviction that we can learn through criticism of our mistakes and errors, especially through criticism by others, and eventually also through self-criticism. A rationalist is simply someone for whom it is more important to learn than to be proved right; someone who is willing to learn from others — not by simply taking over another’s opinions, but by gladly allowing others to criticize his ideas and by gladly criticizing the ideas of others. The emphasis here is on the idea of criticism or, to be more precise, critical discussion. The genuine rationalist does not think that he or anyone else is in possession of the truth; nor does he think that mere criticism as such helps us achieve new ideas. But he does think that, in the sphere of ideas, only critical discussion can help us sort the wheat from the chaff. He is well aware that acceptance or rejection of an idea is never a purely rational matter; but he thinks that only critical discussion can give us the maturity to see an idea from more and more sides and to make a correct judgement of it.
“On Freedom” in All Life is Problem Solving (1999)
SOCRATES: THE ORIGINAL “GOOD” TROLL! and how he got screwed by Plato:
What a monument of human smallness is this idea of the philosopher king. What a contrast between it and the simplicity of humaneness of Socrates, who warned the statesmen against the danger of being dazzled by his own power, excellence, and wisdom, and who tried to teach him what matters most — that we are all frail human beings. What a decline from this world of irony and reason and truthfulness down to Plato‘s kingdom of the sage whose magical powers raise him high above ordinary men; although not quite high enough to forgo the use of lies, or to neglect the sorry trade of every shaman — the selling of spells, of breeding spells, in exchange for power over his fellow-men.
The Open Society and its Enemies (1945), Vol. 1, Ch 8 “The Philosopher King”
The so-called paradox of freedom is the argument that freedom in the sense of absence of any constraining control must lead to very great restraint, since it makes the bully free to enslave the meek. The idea is, in a slightly different form, and with very different tendency, clearly expressed in Plato.
Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.
The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol. 1, Notes to the Chapters: Ch. 7, Note 4
No rational argument will have a rational effect on a man who does not want to adopt a rational attitude.
The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol. 2, Ch. 24 “Oracular Philosophy and the Revolt against Reason”
I do not overlook the fact that there are irrationalists who love mankind, and that not all forms of irrationalism engender criminality. But I hold that he who teaches that not reason but love should rule opens up the way for those who rule by hate. (Socrates, I believe, saw something of this when he suggested that mistrust or hatred of argument is related to mistrust or hatred of man).
The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol. 2, Ch. 24 “Oracular Philosophy and the Revolt against Reason”
Utopia and Violence (1947) Address to the Institut des Arts in Brussels, Belgium (1947); later published in The Hibbert Journal 46 (1948), and in Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (1963)
A rationalist, as I use the word, is a man who attempts to reach decisions by argument and perhaps, in certain cases, by compromise, rather than by violence. He is a man who would rather be unsuccessful in convincing another man by argument than successful in crushing him by force, by intimidation and threats, or even by persuasive propaganda.
We all remember how many religious wars were fought for a religion of love and gentleness; how many bodies were burned alive with the genuinely kind intention of saving souls from the eternal fire of hell. Only if we give up our authoritarian attitude in the realm of opinion, only if we establish the attitude of give and take, of readiness to learn from other people, can we hope to control acts of violence inspired by piety and duty.
There are many difficulties impeding the rapid spread of reasonableness. One of the main difficulties is that it always takes two to make a discussion reasonable. Each of the parties must be ready to learn from the other. You cannot have a rational discussion with a man who prefers shooting you to being convinced by you.
Do not allow your dreams of a beautiful world to lure you away from the claims of men who suffer here and now. Our fellow men have a claim to our help; no generation must be sacrificed for the sake of future generations, for the sake of an ideal of happiness that may never be realised.
“On Freedom” (1958; 1967) essay republished in Alles Leben ist Problemlösen (1994); translated as All Life is Problem Solving by Patrick Camiller (1994)
The true Enlightenment thinker, the true rationalist, never wants to talk anyone into anything. No, he does not even want to convince; all the time he is aware that he may be wrong. Above all, he values the intellectual independence of others too highly to want to convince them in important matters. He would much rather invite contradiction, preferably in the form of rational and disciplined criticism. He seeks not to convince but to arouse — to challenge others to form free opinions.
Although I consider our political world to be the best of which we have any historical knowledge, we should beware of attributing this fact to democracy or to freedom. Freedom is not a supplier who delivers goods to our door. Democracy does not ensure that anything is accomplished — certainly not an economic miracle. It is wrong and dangerous to extol freedom by telling people that they will certainly be all right once they are free. How someone fares in life is largely a matter of luck or grace, and to a comparatively small degree perhaps also of competence, diligence, and other virtues. The most we can say of democracy or freedom is that they give our personal abilities a little more influence on our well-being.
It is wrong to think that belief in freedom always leads to victory; we must always be prepared for it to lead to defeat. If we choose freedom, then we must be prepared to perish along with it. Poland fought for freedom as no other country did. The Czech nation was prepared to fight for its freedom in 1938; it was not lack of courage that sealed its fate. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 — the work of young people with nothing to lose but their chains — triumphed and then ended in failure. … Democracy and freedom do not guarantee the millennium. No, we do not choose political freedom because it promises us this or that. We choose it because it makes possible the only dignified form of human coexistence, the only form in which we can be fully responsible for ourselves. Whether we realize its possibilities depends on all kinds of things — and above all on ourselves.
Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (1963)
It is often asserted that discussion is only possible between people who have a common language and accept common basic assumptions. I think that this is a mistake. All that is needed is a readiness to learn from one’s partner in the discussion, which includes a genuine wish to understand what he intends to say. If this readiness is there, the discussion will be the more fruitful the more the partner’s backgrounds differ. (352)
It seems to me certain that more people are killed out of righteous stupidity than out of wickedness. (368)
Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography (1976)
Always remember that it is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood: there will always be some who misunderstand you. (29)
Darwinism is not a testable scientific theory, but a metaphysical research program.
Unsourced variant: Evolution is not a fact. Evolution doesn’t even qualify as a theory or as a hypothesis. It is a metaphysical research program, and it is not really testable science.
I have changed my mind about the testability and logical status of the theory of natural selection; and I am glad to have an opportunity to make a recantation.
“Natural selection and the emergence of mind” dialectica Vol. 32 (1978), p. 339-355; republished in Evolutionary Epistemology, Rationality, and the Sociology of Knowledge (1987) edited by Gerard Radnitzky and W. W. Bartley, III
In Search of a Better World (1994)
Our aim as scientists is objective truth; more truth, more interesting truth, more intelligible truth. We cannot reasonably aim at certainty. Once we realize that human knowledge is fallible, we realize also that we can never be completely certain that we have not made a mistake.
There are uncertain truths — even true statements that we may take to be false — but there are no uncertain certainties.
Since we can never know anything for sure, it is simply not worth searching for certainty; but it is well worth searching for truth; and we do this chiefly by searching for mistakes, so that we have to correct them.
Why do I think that we, the intellectuals, are able to help? Simply because we, the intellectuals, have done the most terrible harm for thousands of years. Mass murder in the name of an idea, a doctrine, a theory, a religion — that is all our doing, our invention: the invention of the intellectuals. If only we would stop setting man against man — often with the best intentions — much would be gained. Nobody can say that it is impossible for us to stop doing this.