What I’m reading (or just read)

1. Middlemarch. As I mentioned before in this blog, I have been leading a reading group on George Eliot’s masterpiece. We will be discussing Book V tonight. Here’s a nice quote that bears on my blog’s themes: “[The] egoism which enters into our theories does not affect their sincerity; rather, the more our egoism is satisfied, the more robust is our belief.” True, isn’t it?

2. Everything is Obvious (*Once You Know the Answer): How Common Sense Fails Us by Duncan Watts. Very good so far. The subtitle tells it all. As the blurb says, the book is about “how common sense reasoning and history conspire to mislead us into believing that we understand more about the world of human behavior than we do; and in turn, why attempts to predict, manage, or manipulate social and economic systems so often go awry.” Definitely speaks to the limitations of opinion (since common sense is a type of opinion/doxa in Plato’s sense.)

3. Battling to the End by Rene Girard. A book on the important of the Prussian war strategist Clausewitz (of all people) for understanding the contemporary crisis and its basis in total war and the duel. I read it far to hastily when it came out and am reading much more carefully this time around in preparation for my presentation at the Colloquium on Violence and Religion in July. I still can’t tell if this is Girard’s best book or worst book — I am only two chapters in. I will figure it out and write a review later on. (As a side note I actually participated in a study group at Stanford with Girard when he was working though some of these ideas.)

4. Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis. This just came out yesterday and I haven’t received my copy yet, but if Lewis’ previous books are any indication, I will finish this book within a day or two of starting it. I have read an excerpt and (again) Lewis’ books always make useful case studies for some of the epistemological ideas that I explore in this blog. If you told me Michael Lewis’ next book was on sock manufacturing, I would still guess it would be a gripping read.

5. The Up side of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success by Megan McArdle. I just finished this one. A couple of people I respect let me know that this would be a book that I would like and they were definitely right. The book is on failure, which turns out to be an engaging and informative theme — much like my favorite subject: ignorance!

6. Physics by Aristotle, translated by Joe Sachs. I spend the rest of the semester on Aristotle and just reread Books 1 and 3 in preparation for the Ancient Greek Philosophy Class I am teaching. Hopefully I will be able to communicate my excitement in reengaging the great Aristotle!

The trifling knowledge of Socrates

As I listed in a previous post, Socrates (in the Platonic dialogues at least) claims to know only a few things:

(1) erotic matters;  (2) that there is a difference between knowledge and right opinion; (3) many small/trifling things; (4) his own ignorance.

At the end of the post listing the actual texts, I asked whether or not there may be anything that these bits of knowledge have in common. Let me give a stab at collecting them together within a single logos:

1. Erotic matters. Can we love something that we know anything at all about? Mustn’t we have some precognition of what is moving us to longing? In an early post in this blog, I discussed a phenomenon known as “felt absence” in which we are aware of something missing. I think this awareness of absence is at base an erotic phenomenon. [Perhaps I should note here that “erotic” does not mean narrowly “sexual” as it does in our culture. Eros can refer to any strong desire for consummation that is fueled by a sense of one’s own lack.] I may not yet “know” what it is I am after, particularly in the regime of intellectual eros, but I have at least a presentiment of knowledge that (a) makes the lack of knowledge present to me in a dynamically effective way, (b) guides my pursuit by strengthening or weakening as I get closer or farther from the object of desire, and (c) indicates a difference between what I have and what I want. Such knowledge is far from “trifling” to a philosopher, but is so to those who value fullness over lack.

2. The difference between knowledge and opinion. Notice that Socrates doesn’t claim to know what the difference is, only that there is such a difference. The fruit of Socratic virtue is to cultivate a dissatisfaction with mere opinion. The goal is not to jettison any opinion that fails to rise to knowledge for that would be to jettison all thinking. The goal is not to cultivate dissatisfaction as an end in itself, but as a goad toward that knowledge of which it is the presentiment. It is to cultivate a dissatisfaction specific to the opinion at hand, as an avenue for exciting an eros for the knowledge that it already intends yet lacks. The effect of the difference between knowledge and opinion is eros, an eros directed toward and hungering for a consummating knowledge. Knowledge of the difference between opinion and knowledge is a desire for knowledge growing out of dissatisfaction for a particular opinion.

3. Many small/trifling things. Clearly we can be sure that Socrates does know many things, that the sun is or is not shining for instance. All such things are true but not existentially urgent, i.e “trifling.” But I think there are other things Socrates knows that are trifling to those who consider ignorance a trifling matter, easily dismissed. Most prefer a strong opinion to the hesitations of doubt. But opinion is always partial. To the extent that opinion intends knowing, this partiality is always subordinate to some animating, comprehending whole. Desire for knowledge of the whole, which is the root of philosophical eros, is reflected in every still-partial opinion. There is felt difference between an opinion and the knowledge that would perfect it. Socrates “knows” an ignorance correlative to every bit of opinion he holds. For each opinion, there is a knowledge of specific ignorance related to it. 

4. His own ignorance. We have already seen how knowledge of ignorance informs every other nontrivial claim to knowledge that Socrates makes. Self-knowledge of his own ignorance is at the root of all of his other claims to knowledge.

My root hypothesis is merely speculative, but at least plausible: that Socrates had ignorance-seeking-knowledge in mind when he made his various claims to knowledge. Socrates prefers the desire for knowledge to the satisfaction of mere opinion. The former is better because it has a potency for knowledge that the latter lacks. His desire is not directionless, but is informed in each case by the defects peculiar to his best available opinion. To describe his profound knowledge of ignorance as “trifling,” is just as ironic as to call ignorance “knowledge” in the first place.

A Defective Reading of Descartes’ Third Meditation

The subtitle of Descartes’ Third Meditation is “Concerning God, that He exists,” but the meditation doesn’t really originate in the question of God’s existence. It actually begins with an epistemological question, not a theological one. Descartes admits that he “previously admitted many things as wholly certain and evident” that [he] later discovered to be doubtful.” He must therefore interrogate whether/when the “natural light” that is the marker of evident truth is really true. Only then does he turn to asking about the nature and existence of God, as an originator of this “natural light” that makes truths “clear and distinct” so that his understanding can be trusted. Notice that a feeling of certainty, taken by itself, is defective as evidence for Descartes. These interior markers (natural light, clarity and distinctness) need to be perfected to be fully accepted.

Let’s stop for a moment and think about the difference between a meditation and an argument. Although Descartes will make logical arguments for his position, their logical validity will not make them true unless the premises are also recognized as true. Don’t therefore rely on Descartes’ testimony if you are interested in determining the real meaning of his argument. You, the reader must look within yourself and independently verify that the matter is as Descartes reports. So take a look at what Descartes is asking you to verify:

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What Socrates claimed to know

There are only a few places in the entire Platonic corpus in which Socrates claimed to know anything, at least as far as I have been able to discover:

1. “I claim to know nothing aside from erotic matters…” — Symposium, 177d. (Ta erotika could also be rendered variously, “erotic things,” “the erotic,” “erotic matters”)

2. “It is certainly not conjecture to say that right opinion and knowledge are different. There are few things I would claim to know, but that is among them at least…” — Meno, 98b

3. “Come then, tell me this, [Euthydemus] said: Do you know anything? Certainly, [Socrates] replied, many things, though trifling.” — Euthydemus, 293b.  (The relevant objects of knowledge are qualified as polla, i.e. “many,” and as smikra, which is “small” or “unimportant” or, as I have rendered it in my translation, “trifling.”)

4. “I am wiser than this man, for neither of us seems to know anything great and good; but he imagines that he knows something, even though he knows nothing; whereas I, not knowing anything, do not believe that I do. In this trifling thing (smikron) then, I seem to be wiser than he is, because I do not believe that I know what I do not know.” — Apology, 21; (It must be said that this is the closest as Plato’s Socrates ever gets to saying, “I know that I do not know.” Literally, this is not what is said, although it is not clear how recognizing one’s lack of knowledge could ever be doubtful if recognized at all. Notice that this recognition of a difference between himself and the one claiming wisdom is also called a “trifling thing.”)

Is there some way in which Socrates’ few admitted objects of knowledge — (i) the difference between opinion & knowledge, (ii) erotic matters, (iii) many trifling things, and (iv) one’s own ignorance — are related in some way?

 

Whom to believe?

I recently listened to a debate/conversation between atmospheric scientists on both sides of the climate change debate. The conversation was unusually civil and I learned a lot from it. Now, I’m not here to tell you about whom to believe concerning climate change. I admit to my ignorance of the facts and science (although I am fully aware of the headline facts and the headline science.)  I simply don’t know enough to be much of a partisan for either side, and I am just not able to devote the time to attain a PhD level in atmospheric science. I fully admit that the question matters, but we can only do what we can do. Better to admit ignorance when the knowledge is out of reach. This post is about thinking how we might generally justify assuming any belief at all. Here are a few ideas:

1. We are stuck with beliefs; there is no getting around our practical need for them. We believe a host of things we cannot prove but which have proven reliable for the purpose of governing our lives. Our minds would be terribly impoverished, our worlds much more circumscribed, without the treasury of beliefs that we learned from teachers (who learned them from their teachers.) I can confidently assert that holding belief can be quite reasonable and that to refuse belief altogether is unreasonable.

2. I believe quite confidently that the earth traces an elliptical orbit around the sun. I haven’t taken made the careful observations or done the math necessary to ground that belief. I just trust the scientists on this one. More than that, I trust the self-correcting process among the community of astronomers. I understand the scientific method and how it operates and I grasp why trusting its results is better than merely speculating on matters of physical fact.

3. The self-criticism is an essential feature of the process. I want to see that the purveyor of belief is appropriately critical of his/her methods and sources. If any supposed knower dismisses a legitimate doubt or qualm out of hand, then I would recommend not trusting him/her.

4. I trust no one who is not transparent about how he/she came to believe what he/she knows. Every belief comes with a genealogy that shouldn’t be suppressed.

5. An authority ought to be frank about the caveats and boundaries of their knowing. All empirical knowledge reaches a limit beyond which certainty breaks down. All empirical knowledge has a range of reasonable confidence, outside of which it must confess its ignorance. Knowledge must be self-aware of these limits/caveats.

6. I tend not to trust people who grow shrill or angry in response to critical questioning.

7. I trust no one who’s best defense is an ad hominem attack on the other side.

8. The public advocates of politically-charged scientific positions had better be humble in the face of questioning, willing to accept their critics as potentially reasonable people, or I pay them no mind.

9. Some situations are critical in the sense that refusing to believe in such situations is practically to take a side. In a crisis, not deciding is as consequential as deciding. (Perhaps the global warming debate is of this type. I am still trying to decide.)

10. Beware of mood affiliation in which we trust/distrust a line of argument based on how we feel about its conclusion.

11. Similarly, we must try to work around our own confirmation bias and seek out the most reasonable advocates for the position we are biased to disbelieve. An abundance of “proof” is not our friend when we are in the grip of this bias.

12. We, and by extension our preferred authorities, ought to be open about our susceptibility to bias and be able to demonstrate the steps we have taken in our own learning process to overcome it.

Mind, truth and commonality

I want to discuss a feature of ancient Greek thinking that is certainly alien to the metaphysical presuppositions of our age: namely, that mind/nous is not a faculty of our individual minds but a single, transcendent, common ground on/toward which our various intellects participate/relate. As thinkers we participate in it as much as we do our environing physical world. While each of us may hold distinct opinions about this or that, different knowers know the same thing and not just identical replicas of the same thing. Knowers live in a common (zynon) world, joined as they are to a common mind.

Think for a moment of how we might communicate the meaning of a word like “banana” to someone who doesn’t speak the language: Tarzan, let’s say. We would hold up the common object, the physical banana, pronounce the word “banana” and hope that Tarzan grasps the link between word and thing. A hard matter to accomplish, but certainly possible. Now, imagine trying to communicate the meaning of the word without the physical banana present in common between us. Try to teach Tarzan over the telephone without common access to a world of things. Now we can say “banana” to our heart’s content and never advance one iota toward communication. An ability to communicate presupposes commonality: either the commonality of objects between two people who don’t share a language or the commonality of language (which itself must originate in a common world.)

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Some thoughts on goodness

1. Let’s distinguish between intentional goodness and effective goodness. Any of us can intend something good without that intention being effective, either because: (1) we don’t know or understand what we need in order to accomplish a good end; (2) we lack the power or resources to bring about the good end.

2. By intentional goodness, I mean something that intends concrete performance, and thus intends effectiveness. An intention unconcerned with effect is no intention at all — it is merely a sentiment.

3. Sentimental goodness is a state of feeling approving of some (apparent) good. Such sentiment is not in itself a bad thing; it is even a good thing if it leads to the intentional good. Sentimental goodness is blameworthy when it mistakes the pleasant feelings of the apparent, prospective good with the satisfaction that ought to attend the achievement of an actual good. Sentimental goodness is the good-felt-in-prospect stripped of the difficulties of actually being effectively good. It confuses itself with good intention, when it is nothing of the sort. Sentimental goodness is usually (and prematurely) self-congratulatory.

4. Intentional goodness is still a very good thing, but not as good as effective goodness, since an ineffective intentional goodness would include as one of its aims the cultivation of effectiveness and would consider itself defective until the effective good is achieved. Intentional goodness is a dynamic mean between sentiment and right action.

5. One cannot be effectively good without intelligence and good judgment. It is a duty of intentional goodness to recognize that fact and to act upon it. Intentional goodness that does not concern itself with an education that would make it effectively good is not sufficiently intentional — in fact it is merely sentimental.

6. An intentional goodness that has not reached a level of knowledge or power sufficient to be effective is not blameworthy; in fact it is praiseworthy, provided: (1) it is willing to strive for the requisite intelligence, good judgment, etc. that it lacks, and (2) it defers from acting carelessly outside the sphere of its own competence. If it must act, it should act very carefully, conscious of its ignorance and alert for the means of correcting it.

7. An effectively good person is the only adequate rule of right action. Against such there can be no valid law.