The sophists have gotten a bad rap thanks to the successful smear campaign of Plato and Aristotle. They were actually the first professionally paid teachers in Classical Greek times. The Pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles (ca. 490–430 BC) lived just before the sophists did charge money to people who wanted to obtain “Divine Wisdom,” but the sophists weren’t metaphysicians…they were orators and persuasive speakers who were indispensable to the Democratic political life of Athens.
Protagoras (“Man is the Measure of All Things”) was a master of oratory and rhetoric. It is said he was the first to call himself a “Sophist.” For a fee he taught young men how to argue a point by taking the `’weakest part of that point and make it the strongest.” (In the Phaedo by Plato you may recall Socrates facing the same charge in the trial which sentenced him to death). Protagoras is represented as putting forward the relativistic thesis as itself an objective truth; everyone is a measure of the truth of their beliefs, whether or not they believe that they are. We can really only state that which appears to be so. Protagoras noticed that different people experiencing the same event perceived the same event in different ways, thus he claimed knowledge is relative to the knower.
Another sophist was Gorgias. Gorgias, a Sicilian ambassador who came to Athens in the middle of the fifth century who had a nihilistic approach towards knowledge which was essentially different from Protagoras. Where Protagoras claimed nothing could be known and truth was a relative and subjective thing, Gorgias claimed that nothing was real. Never mind proving the existence of the Gods, he said, nothing in existence can be ascertained, knowledge cannot be shared and the only thing left to do was to practice the art of persuasion of the sophist.
Where Protagoras said everything should be taken for what it seems to be, Gorgias claimed that there was no reason at all to assume things exist in the way we perceive it does. Gorgias and other rational skeptics held that their position was reasonable due to the human being’s capacity for making mistakes. If mistakes can be made, is it possible that everything that can be conceived by the human being is a mistake?
Since the world was full of change, what could really be said of it? One could only offer reasons for the “truth” of something, yet the reasons still could be false. Thus the skeptics like Gorgias, using an inexorable logic claimed that the best one could hope for was to state how things “seem,” but never arrive at certainty because there existed no valid criterion to measure anything, only reasons given and imaginative conjecture.
And there was Cratylus, mentioned in passing by both Plato and Aristotle, apparently was an admirer of the Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus and his notion that existence consisted of perpetual change. Again, since things move, change, come into existence and pass away, what use could knowledge be? Cratylus was so convinced of the worthlessness of knowledge that he took his own teaching to the extreme, refusing to even speak, content only to “move his finger” this way or that.
The sophist’s belief of the relativity of truth, their intellectual skepticism that nothing could ultimately be known and their pessimism of human nature (not to mention the sophist’s maddening charge of the infinite regress of uncertainty) were considered by Socrates, Plato and later Aristotle, as a metaphysical and conceptual anarchy that had to be opposed and overturned. Thus, Plato developed his Theory of Forms and Aristotle constructed his Prime Mover as the foundation of the of existence and the validity of knowledge (and overturning the sophists for 2500 years in the process). The mysticism of Plato and the academics of Aristotle solidified the and gave legitimacy to the notion that reality could be explained by rational means alone. While the sophists had some pretty interesting ideas and were not afraid of admitting that there was a limitation to knowledge, they became victims of the time. After Athens revolted after the overthrow of the Spartan – aligned “Thirty Tyrants,” the sophists, including Socrates – being blamed for the downfall of Athens, were hunted down, tried and sentenced to death. The sophists were not “Good Guys,” as they sold their knowledge to anyone willing to pay, using deceits and conceits in training the young men of Athens to be skillful, amoral politicians without considering anything else. They chose to rightly believe in nothing, seeking only to enrich themselves. But they did point out the Illusion of Knowledge, and dared to say what thinkers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle must have thought at times – that the objects of their knowledge were just the figments of their fleeting imaginations. The sophists receive one point for wondering aloud what is profitable trying to guess at what can’t be known, but then pretend you know the answer?
I posted all that to say this: I agree with the sophists that knowledge is limited by an infinite regress of predicates and premises. This strongly implies determinism and denies free will. For myself, free will is a social theory that can’t be proven because of the forces and feedback of the environment and society places one in a specific box of determinants. For example, if one were born into a family in the poorest country in the world, those forces are likely far too strong to exercise enough “free will” to become a highly trained physicist. Especially so if one’s physical body has been compromised by malnutrition.
What practical value is this intellectual process where minds attempt to replace common sense with mental projections we ‘think’ are ‘important?’ The failure of Philosophy is that it has never produced a practical application in world that is best for all. Instead we imagine, ponder, project and reflect on matters we will never get to the bottom of, and surely, when speaking of Philosophy, the point hasn’t moved in over 2500 years. I agree with Hegel’s observation that all philosophy travels in a (if I may add; pointless) circle.
An Infinite Regression of Premises Yield an Infinite Outflow
That digression aside, once infinite regress is taken seriously (thanks to the sophists and the skeptics that followed their lead), it suggests that no ultimate foundation of knowledge exists. It suggests no First Cause, Universal or Divine Laws will ever be found. It suggests no metaphysical force behind ‘morality’ will be found, and Free Will is confined to its rightful place as a dubious theological concept. Infinite causality destroys the concept of a free will, for if free will is to exist (as a principle or ‘law’) it would have to exist absolutely. Deciding on what sandwich to order on a menu is not free will. It’s fuzzy logic. Should we also assign free will to a washing machine?
How do you know in fact, that what you believe is true, is correct?