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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Socrates Hypo-Critias

A few lines from Plato's lost dialog: Hypo-Critias

Grecian Guy: Is it true Socrates, that the nature of the good is knowledge, and that with knowledge brings wisdom?

Socrates: I'd really like to answer, but I'm just snowed right now. You know, Peloponnesian War, lecture trail, that sort of thing. I'll just have to get back to you.

Grecian Guy: But Socrates, if virtue is reason, then why would it not be virtuous to reasonably act against the common wheal?

Socrates: You know, I wrote a book on just that topic, in which I of course reinvented the wheal. You can get it from Amazon, in fact there's one of them over there.

Of course, Socrates was not like this at all, which is why the wisdom of Socrates has come down to us over the millenia. But unfortunately the mind set of his antagonists exemplified in this exchange has come down to us, and it is embodied today by lawyers, politicians, and (of all people) social and physical scientists.

To demonstrate this, here's a practical experiment. Make up a question, and email some psychologist type who has plastered his accomplishments on a web site. He or she will geneally ignore you, charge you, or refer you to his latest book or lecture tape.

This is what was called in Ancient Greece sophistry. The sophists were proto academics who got paid for their wisdom and clever turn of phrase. Useful stuff when you had a dispute over property rights, or saw the potential profit in interpreting goat entrails or justify some act of cupidity or stupidity. Socrates hated those guys. For Socrates, wisdom was something you pursued because you loved it, not because it got you grant money, tenure, or lecture fees. Indeed, money is the root or should we say motivation of all evil, and that includes a heck of a lot of not just bad social science, but bad physical science too.

The problem is uniquely illustrated in an article by the distinguished physicist Frank Tipler, who noted that if you wrote on physics in the early 20th century, you did it because of love, not money, and invariably what you wrote about was not sullied by vulgar interests that compromised the love of truth. Nowadays, you write because you have to earn a living, and thus truth is denoted by the tonnage of your verbiage, not its quality. So science has turned into a gigantic muddle, with researchers bursting at the seams with conclusions full of sound, fury, and statistical significance, but meaning nothing. This also means that if you have a sound idea that can clear out some of this academic clutter, think again. A paper or article that challenges the pocket book values underscoring academic opinion likely won't get a fair hearing, or any hearing for that matter.

So if you want to be a philosopher, do it because you love it, and don't expect anyone to write you back on your insights. I am sure that in this day and age, Socrates would have traded in his real audience for a virtual one, and have blogged on about virtue and truth, unknown to all except those who loved the truth.

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