Friday, August 21, 2015

Science Discovers Socrates

When I first began to seriously read philosophy, and by that  I mean reading Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas directly and not through summaries or interpretations of them,  perhaps the most thrilling discovery I made was the extent to which they anticipated just about every important philosophical position that might be taken. What I had thought were modern views that the ancients were too ignorant or naive to conceive, had in fact been explored by them, and were often treated more intelligently than they were by their supposed modern betters. This is no more true than in Plato.

For instance, the objection that philosophy is just a verbal game that never really proves anything seems like a modern objection based on a review of the long history of philosophy. But we find that this is actually an ancient objection, and in fact was at the heart of the charges against Socrates at his trial. Socrates, it was claimed, just played verbal games making the weaker argument appear the stronger, misleading his young followers. Or the objection that there is no objective morality, and that "right" and "wrong" are in fact defined by whomever is the strongest and able to impose his views. We like to think that it was the naive ancients who believed in things like ghosts and objective morality, whereas we moderns, wiser through science and cultural experience, no longer fall for such things. But the idea that "right" and "wrong" have no objective foundation is a very ancient opinion and is the subject of the Platonic dialog Gorgias, in which Socrates has a spirited argument with a defender of such a view.

I recently had, once again, the experience of reading an intelligent modern author (and scientist) elaborate what he thought was a novel insight but was one which, naturally, had been explored by Plato thousands of years ago. I refer you to Dr. Steven Novella's Neurologica blog, in which he wrote a post discussing Expertise and the Illusion of Knowledge. The post begins with:
In general people think they know more than they do. This is arguably worse than mere ignorance - having the illusion of knowledge.
Anyone familiar with Plato will immediately see that Dr. Novella is practically quoting Socrates in the Apology. But he does not seem to be familiar with Plato, and he goes on to describe the scientific investigation that backs up the assertion of the illusion of knowledge,  as though the possibility of the illusion of knowledge had not already been decisively established for Western culture twenty five hundred years ago in Athens.

Most of his blog post is concerned with the scientific investigation of the illusion of knowledge, and it is only at the end of the post, and almost in passing, that Dr. Novella approaches but never actually raises the truly decisive question:
As always, I encourage my readers to apply these lessons not only to others but to themselves. The Dunning-Kruger effect and the illusion of knowledge apply to everyone, not just to others.
The horrifying thing about the illusion of knowledge is that when you have it, you don't know you do. That is why it is an illusion. And the the question of questions is: How do I know when I truly know something as distinct from when I only think I know it?

It's not enough to merely mention the Dunning-Kruger effect and move on, as though simple awareness of the effect is sufficient to inoculate one from it. The scientists used made up terms and fake concepts (like "annualized credit") to measure the extent to which subjects claimed knowledge they could not possibly have (since there was nothing to know), and perhaps it would be a good start to make sure we ourselves are not trading in deliberately bogus concepts. But that's not really the problem that faces us. The problem for us is that, even trading in legitimate concepts, we can end up believing we know things to be true that we don't.

Before discussing Plato's answer to the question of how we know when we truly know, let's consider modern approaches to the question. Descartes could be said to have launched the modern era by proposing universal doubt as the true way to found epistemology (or, the science of how we know what we know). Doubt all that you know, and what can survive that doubt can be confidently embraced as truly known. Famously, Descartes concluded the one thing that survived universal doubt was the fact of his own thinking - cogito ergo sum. From that nugget, Descartes reconstructed the world of common sense, including the existence of God.

Unfortunately, it turned out that Descartes's procedure wasn't the pure doubt he thought it was. Why, for instance, is thinking the crucial existential act? I dance therefore I am, I pray therefore I am, I eat therefore I am all work as well. In fact, as Kierkegaard tells us, the simple I is sufficient to establish existence. I anything therefore I am works because it is really I am that comes first and anything else comes later. What Descartes's approach does is falsely privilege thought over existence, as though existence were held in suspense until thought ratified it. Instead, the truth of our own existence is immediately known to us, and the conclusion we should draw is not that existence is the one thing thought can safely conclude, but that it was foolish for thought to ever doubt existence in the first place.

This may sound like one of those philosophical points that really has no bearing on anything anyone is really interested in but it is far from that. For the Cartesian move can be summed up in the principle that doubt is its own justification or, in other words, that we are justified in doubting something by the simple fact that it can be doubted. This Cartesian attitude has become deeply embedded in the modern consciousness, not just in philosophers, but in the common man as well. And it has terrible effects because it is false to human nature.

Human nature is incarnate - we existence as embodied beings in time and space. Time starts running for us as soon as we are born and does not stop for us until we die, and every moment of that time existence makes demands on us, whether we doubt those demands or not. As children, we must be fed, kept warm and educated. A child cannot doubt and, in any event, should not doubt what he is presented with. A baby who somehow was able to doubt the value of the food he was given and refused to eat until the nature and necessity of food was established for him would soon die; a child who doubts his parent's admonishments to not wander off with strangers may very likely find himself in an unanticipated but dreadful situation. So by the time a child has grown old enough to learn of Descartes and considers flirting with the process of universal doubt, he has already spent many years not doubting and, in fact, could only have arrived at the position of being able to doubt through that non-doubt (which I will give the name faith for purposes of brevity.) Will he then embrace doubt, including doubt of the very life story that brought him to the place at which he could doubt? This isn't a bold move into sure knowledge, but the deliberate forgetting of that which made us who and what we are; the consequence of which is the tendency of modern man to wander through life not knowing what he is doing.

Really the situation is this: To get through life, we must believe many things, simply to get on with our day. Universal doubt is an existential impossibility and is the arbitrary decision to take one side of the analysis of error  Kierkegaard poses at the beginning of Works of Love: One can go wrong by believing that which is false, but one can also go wrong by failing to believe that which is true. The modern man following Descartes assumes the downside is all in falling into the former error.  But falling into the latter error is arguably worse, Kierkegaard tells us, because through it we close ourselves off to the best things in life, which can only be had through faith.

One way to think of the Cartesian approach is as an attempt to find an absolute starting point for philosophy; a point which can be embraced by any man, anywhere as the start of his thought. Descartes, the mathematician, is naturally thinking of things like geometry, which has an absolute starting point in Euclid's postulates. Anyone, anywhere at anytime who wishes to take up geometry must do it, if he is to do it legitimately at all, with these same postulates. Can the same be said of thought in general? If so, then we could get past the endless dialog of opinion that was characteristic of philosophy and so distressed the founders of modern thought.

The problem, as we've seen, is that we have already embraced many things, things that have made us who we are, by the time we arrive at a place where we could undertake Cartesian doubt. Geometry can start anytime we want, but life has already started and conditioned us by the time we become philosophically aware. And it continues to condition us even as we ponder it. What this means is that, unlike geometry, there can be no absolute starting point to philosophy. The ancient dialog of opinion that characterizes classical philosophy is not a peculiar feature of that philosophy, but is reflective of the substance of philosophy, which is human existence.

When we arrive at the point at which philosophical consciousness is possible, we have already been conditioned by our upbringing and education. We already have a set of beliefs about the world and ourselves, about what the nature of the world is and who we are, about what is good and evil, about what is important and not important. Philosophical awareness, whether of the Socratic or Cartesian variety, can begin to happen when we realize not all that we think we know we do in fact know. The Socratic approach to this realization, unlike the Cartesian approach, is not therefore to throw everything we believe overboard. It is, rather, to understand that human nature is such that we must accept as true many things that have not as yet survived our critical scrutiny. It is to continue to live and commit ourselves in light of those beliefs, and to gradually but methodically subject those beliefs to philosophical scrutiny.

Notice how subjective this process is. By subjective I merely mean that every individual will have had a different experience and be equipped with a different set of opinions by the time he comes to philosophical consciousness. And philosophy for him can only mean working through the set of opinions that are peculiar to him. Thus there is no absolute starting point to philosophy because there is no absolute starting point to life. The only universal starting point was established by Plato and, brilliantly, explored in his writing. By writing his philosophy in dialog form, following the examination of opinion by Socrates, Plato communicates the truth that philosophy can only mean working through the opinions particular to a man - you - and not some abstract set of opinions or truths falsely claimed to be a priori universal.

Some of the conundrums that puzzle we moderns show how far we have strayed from the Socratic viewpoint. For instance, one often hears the assertion: If you had grown up a Jew you would be a Jew now, or you had grown up a Muslim, you would be a Muslim now. The only reason you are a Christian is because you were born into a Christian family. The implication, Cartesian in spirit, is that we can only really find the truth by abstracting ourselves out of the existential commitments into which we are born. But this is simply false. Socrates did not discard the social and cultural obligations into which he was born as an Athenian. In fact, his last words poignantly show that his obligations were on his mind right to the end: "Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius." What he did do was philosophically investigate those commitments as he lived them, as shown, for instance, in the dialog Euthyphro. That I might be a Muslim today were I born in a Muslim country simply shows that - hopefully - I would not think human obligation goes away just because I doubt it even if I were a Muslim.  It is true that I might not have experienced the philosophical freedom I do now were I born Muslim, but this does nothing to undermine the philosophical freedom I do have having been born here. In other words, the fact that I might have been born a Muslim and never really challenged it philosophically does nothing to show that there is anything philosophically suspect in being born a Catholic and staying a Catholic. It might just be - and I think it is - that Catholicism is the one religion that really can withstand philosophical scrutiny.

So what is Plato's answer to the question of how we distinguish what we know from what we only think we know? The answer is that we know something to the extent that we can answer for it; that is, that it can withstand philosophical scrutiny in the form of Socratic cross-examination. This answer is both subjective and not absolute; I know something to the extent that I can provide reasons for it that can withstand scrutiny. And it is not absolute because cross-examination never has an absolute end. Our views can always be subject to further challenge. Put another way: I know something when I can provide a good answer to the question - How do you know that?

Returning to Dr. Novella and his post, his last sentence admonishing his readers to take account of the Dunning-Krueger effect (historically known as the Socratic insight) in their own thinking constitutes a Socratic moment. If we stop and ponder the implications of the realization of our own ignorance, we may find ourselves open to a truly philosophical adventure - one in which there is no absolute starting point but which has an absolute end in the truth. One way to short circuit this adventure is by positing an absolute starting point to thought - be it Cartesian universal doubt, or, as seems to be the case with Dr. Novella, the value of science. But the value of science, and indeed what constitutes science vs. the pseudoscience Novella battles in his blog, are not themselves scientific but meta-scientific (i.e. philosophical) questions. And as such they can only be resolved through the dialog of opinion.

So embrace the Dunning-Krueger effect, but turn to Plato to discover what it truly means.


Nathan said...

Thank you for this post and indeed your blog. I find it most insightful and educative.

David T. said...

Glad it was helpful, thanks for stopping by.