Monday, November 30, 2009


In my ancient philosophy class a few weeks ago, the guy who sits behind me was complaining about how Socrates questions everyone, but never really provides anything of his own.  He wasn't so much complaining that Socrates doesn't enlighten us, as Socrates claims to know very little himself.  He seemed to be annoyed with the skeptic outlook one might get from questioning everything.  I was just wondering, at what point is it okay for this guy to accept lies, just so he can believe in something.  The contradictions Socrates points at in people's belief systems were there before he showed them, they were just overlooked.  I came across a quote just now on neurologicablog which I think sums up Socrates' attitude on this fairly well. 

For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.
- Carl Sagan

Sagan was, I'm sure, talking about science, where Socrates is more interested in ethical matters, the nature of virtue and all, but the principle still holds.  It's interesting majoring in chemistry, and minoring in philosophy.  There is a link between the two, or more generally between science and philosophy, as both look for answers about how the world really is, beyond superficial appearances.  That physics (all physical science, including chemistry and biology) was once a branch of philosophy (hence the PhD in Chemistry, Biology, Physics) is more and more evident after studying both for a while. 

In philosophy, even more than hard science, it seems that there are a lot of questions without answers, maybe because there are no tests which can be derived to test many philosophical theories, just logical inquiry.  I think it's interesting though, how many things in hard science that we take as known are just as unknown, and as science moves along, yesterdays facts and truths become laughable.  Very few people still believe the world is flat.  Atomic models have gone through a number of vast overhauls as the previous model was found to be flawed.  Newtonian physics have given way to quantum mechanics.  The more we know, the more we realize how much more there is we don't know.  Socrates' skepticism seems more validated as he says he is the wisest only because he knows that he knows nothing. 
In a related thread, I came across one of those tables during a campus fair with a few students pushing their particular views.  This one was a group  pushing secular humanitarianism.  They believed that God was not necessary as a base for ethics, in fact that there was no God, and that acting for the greatest good of humanity was a natural logical outcome of ethical inquiry.  They also thought they were skeptics. 
I was interested in them at first, as secular humanitarianism sounds like a good thing.  When I started studying philosophy I was hoping to find a logical base for ethics, rather than a religious one.  I have no problem with religion.  I just thought it would be good to have a base to argue from with others who don't share my faith, or maybe at times to reason through something myself when my own faith is lacking.  This is not what they were offering here.  They were yet another group of atheists, pretending that a lack of proof of God is the same as proof of a lack of God.  If you wanted in on their group, you didn't just need a secular belief in humanitarianism, but an atheist one. 
So, there were two counts where they failed to be skeptic.  First skepticism does not lead to atheism, but agnosticism, the belief that one can not have knowledge proving or disproving the existence of God.  I'm alright with this as I believe (not know) that there is a God, and that he remains voluntarily unproven as there is no faith where there is knowledge (rather than remaining unproven because he is not real).  Second, skepticism does not lead to any ethical stance.  I was initially depressed to find this, but any ethical theory I have heard of studied so far begins with an assumption.  That it is good (ethically) to act for the benefit of others, is an assumption.  That pleasure is good (ethically), is an assumption.  I find comfort anymore in the idea that the knowledge of good and evil can not be determined empirically.  Any ethical system, like a physical (scientific) system, is an imperfect model based on perception reality, reality is never based on the model. 
I think the comfort of skepticism comes when you take it as absolute, and understand that as you don't really know anything.  Further, you know that no one else knows anything either.  This humility relieves you of the burden of knowing reality even as you keep searching to.