Sunday, September 23, 2012


There is something just so uncomfortable about our presidential elections. Other than Kelly Ripa there are few things that make me cringe as much as a presidential candidate with certainty (unless, of course, it is end zone or sack dancing). Unfortunately, a candidate's certainty may be a personality trait as necessary to getting elected as evincing their belief in God.  I suppose the dream candidate I would admire who who would say "I don't know" a lot, admit there are policy issues which are too complex or he isn't up to speed about and that he hasn't reached a firm conclusion about everything, would not get very far in an election, if he could possibly win a nomination. But, I can't help myself. I just generally prefer people who say "I don't know" about things they don't know about or aren't certain about everything. And, I can dream.

I'm going to hedge on this right away. That doesn't mean when we think we are right, we shouldn't say so, even with a certain degree of confidence, particularly about a fact of which we are certain. It is fine to have a political, scientific, historical opinion too and feel strongly about it.  You can call me a bozo for insisting that presidents usually win another term when we are in a war (a fact I had to once insist upon against virulent opposition), but, though we can't be absolutely certain about anything, I can reasonably have a far greater sense of certainty about it than I can about a theological point or quantum physics.  False humility or hedging isn't so attractive either, particularly in an argument, and I would not ask for it. Simply put, as obvious a point as this should be, the more speculative a subject, the less certain we can be. Why do I bother then to write about it? Because all too often we find that people are more certain in areas they should be less so, and less certain where they should be. The certainty of presidential candidates of what they will attain if elected falls into the earlier class, particularly when there is not an overwhelmingly supportive congress behind them. I note with a grimace that I just heard Mitt Romney say on tv that he is going to win (with implied certainty) without any protest from his interviewer, but get heat for not saying exactly what all of his plans are, because he acknowledges he is going to have to work them out with others. It should be precisely the opposite.
When I was a wee laddie, my mother told me that the smartest man who ever lived was Socrates, because he knew that he knew nothing. I was always attracted to the idea even though that is really not quite what he said. Later on, I actually read the Plato dialogue,  The Apology, where Socrates discusses his lack of wisdom in defending his life. Apology there means a defense and not an expression of regret. Socrates wasn't sorry at all for what he had done (or not done).

The Athenians had just spent decades fighting the Peloponnesian War and thanks to the democracy's own hubris and designs of empire, Sparta eventually garnered some powerful allies, not to mention a kick ass navy which vanquished Athens' highly trained fleet and defeated them. But, they let Athens, which had survived some near crushing disasters and plague during the war, survive yet again, although they tore down her long walls and put the city under a hated oligarchy.  The tyranny didn't last long. The Athenians soon wrested back control and regained their democracy for a while.  Their Periclean golden age was past already and it could be a dangerous place for self proclaimed gadflies like Socrates. He found himself charged with certain moral crimes but the underlying problem was his association with two former students, one the leading oligarch (also, Plato's cousin) who had only been recently turned out, not to mention killed  and another who was a leading citizen but became a traitor during the long war.
Socrates defended himself but unconventionally challenged the jury, almost dared them to convict him.  And, they did. Then they sentenced him to death, the knucklehead. And then he didn't take the opportunity to escape offered him and drank the Hemlock. This led, centuries later to one of my favorite paintings by one of my favorite 18th century painters, Baroque, Jean-Jacques David, which I only mention here as an excuse to prettify my blog.  His death also led to a lot of regret among Athenians, who put up a bronze statue of him not too long after they put him to death. 

During the trial, Socrates had to defend his teachings and his character. Doing so, he denied that he thought of himself as the wisest man.  “This one of you, O human beings, is wisest, whosoever, like Socrates, perceives that he is in truth of no value to wisdom,” he quoted an oracle, with great self-effacement. It is harder to say what that exactly means, but I think what my mother taught me, which is the conventional English translation, is close enough.

I've tried some cases in my days as a lawyer. One thing I could have assured Socrates, without ever needing to test it, is that it would not be a good idea for me to tell the jury that I was the wisest of men even if I qualified it that it because I knew I knew nothing. But, this post is not about arguing to a jury. it is about knowledge.

And, there is no doubt in my mind that this much Socrates (or to be scrupulous - perhaps it was Plato) rightly understood - that we know so little and can be sure of almost nothing. I have much to criticize Socrates/Plato about, but not in this. It is an easy enough concept in the abstract, but very difficult to apply in real life, especially as it seems from our everyday experience. Certainly Socrates was not the first or only one to recognize it.  How apt a description of Socrates' own style of questioning is Chapter 3 of the Tao te ching (we think, but can't be sure, that the Tao, which tradition says was written in the 6th century, B.C., is the older of the two as the earliest records scholars have of it appear to be from the 4th century, B.C.; that is, about the time Plato was writing his dialogues and after Socrates' death):

The Master leads
by emptying people's minds
and filling their cores,
by weakening their ambition
and toughening their resolve.
He helps people lose everything
they know, everything they desire,
and creates confusion
in those who think that they know."
How similar in concept this is to Socrates' self evaluation, if different in style:

". . . For I am not clear-headed myself when I make others puzzled, but I am as puzzled as puzzled can be, and thus I make others puzzled too. So now, what virtue is I do not know; but you knew, perhaps, before you touched me, although now you resemble one who does not know. All the same, I wish to investigate, with your help, that we may both try to find out what it is."
You could also make an argument that the same point was understood by the author(s) of The Old Testament when God banned Adam and Eve from eating from the tree of knowledge. You might even argue that in even more primitive terms The Epic of Gilgamesh concerns itself with the uncertainty of knowledge, perhaps the limitations of immortality, although hidden in Gilgmesh's attempt to learn the secret of immortality.
Even now, fully one fourth the age of Lincoln (no, seriously, I am), I spend a lot of time thinking about the limitations of knowledge. I've learned some people find this negative or at least, not positive. I couldn't disagree more.  My own interests in this area is so acute, that I find myself immediately drawn to any recognition of the subjects by writers throughout history, and the rest of this post simply speaks about some recent sightings in my studies.
Recently I have become interested in Jacobus Acontius Tridentius a/k/a Giacomo Contio Acontius, a relatively unknown 16th century Protestant writer.  Arguing against the tyrannical religious oppression of Jean Calvin, who is near impossible for Westerners to appreciate these days, except for his obvious intellect, as a result of his somewhat successful attempt to squash any sense of religious freedom beneath the homicidal power of the state, Acontius was deeply affected by the burning of the saintly yet insistent  Michael Servetus, who merely asked for a more theological rationality and a little less dogma. In Acontius' Satan's Strategies there is included this epistemological gem where you didn't expect to find it:
"When a man is convinced of anything, he cannot but be astonished that there should be anyone who cannot what he sees; and unless, as soon as he has indicated his reasons, his opposite succumb to them, he falls into a passion, as though it were evident that this refusal to be convinced came of mere perverseness and obstinacy; and so it is odds that he fall to reproach and railing."
How relevant are these century's old words today with visions of Middle Eastern riots dancing in our heads.  But, you can't help but notice, the ever certain Calvin has been, at least superficially, far more successful than  Acontius, even if, put to the question, few modern Westerners would deny, at least in the abstract, Acontius' sentiment. Why isn't Acontius better known?  Or his predecessor Castellio, who pointed out that men had been arguing about theology for centuries and clearly weren't capable of knowing the truth for certain, and who has been very influential among Protestant theologians, or even Servetus himself, better known than Calvin? I would say part of the reason is that mankind is almost hypnotically attracted to certainty and the more unknowable the subject, the more they want it. Someone who is willling to give it to them will be more persuasive and appreciated.
It occurred to me long ago that many people are much more sensitive about a-rational beliefs than they are their rational ones.
I came across the following paragraphs one day in The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a "philosophy" book I read slowly and carefully, and with which I find that I agree with almost all of  "points,"  but find lots to criticize in his emphasis, style and overstatement (and which I've covered on other posts). He appreciates the same philosophers and social commentators I do - Hume, Popper and Hayek in the main, but others to, from whom I could find endless quotes to burnish this post. But, most modern folk would much rather read the breezy Talib, who claims writers should not quote famous philosopher's much except to disagree or mock him (although he quotes as freely as anyone). He writes:
"Someone with a low degree of epistemic arrogance is not too visible, like a shy person at a cocktail party. We are not predisposed to respect humble people, those who try to suspend judgment. Now contemplate epistemic humility. Think of someone heavily introspective, tortured by the awareness of his own ignorance. He lacks the courage of the idiot, yet has the rare guts to say "I don't know." He does not mind looking like a fool or, worse, an ignoramus. He hesitates, he will not commit, and he agonizes over the consequences of being wrong. He introspects, introspects, and introspects until he reaches physical and nervous exhaustion.
This does not necessarily mean that he lacks confidence, only that he holds his own knowledge to be suspect. I will call such a person an epistemocrat; the province where the laws are structured with this kind of human fallibility in mind I will call an epistemocracy."
. . .
Everyone has an idea of utopia. For many it means equality, universal justice, freedom from oppression, freedom from work (for some it may be the more modest, though no more attainable, society with commuter trains free of lawyers on cell phones). To me utopia is an epistemocracy, a society in which anyone of rank is an epistemocrat, and where epistemocrats manage to be elected. It would be a society governed from the basis of the awareness of ignorance, not knowledge.
Alas, one cannot assert authority by accepting one's own fallibility. Simply, people need to be blinded by knowledge--we are made to follow leaders who can gather people together because the advantages of being in groups trump the disadvantages of being alone. It has been more profitable for us to bind together in the wrong direction than to be alone in the right one. Those who have followed the assertive idiot rather than the introspective wise person have passed us some of their genes. this is apparent from a social pathology: psychopaths rally followers.
Once in a while you encounter members of the human species with so much intellectual superiority that they can change their minds effortlessly."
I have to say, I am not certain at all whether that last line is meant to be sarcastic or not. But, I will end with it . But, next week, I intend to return to my initial rant on presidential politics with a thought to applying in part the principle stated here coupled with my deep desire for a third party in America more to my way of thinking.



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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .