Thursday, March 29, 2012

23. Nothing Could Be Further from the Truth (I)

Google Images
One of the previous posts (The Haves and the Have-nots around us II) referred to the be-have-do triad and its multi-faceted nature. A conclusion became then obvious: being is, according to many, more important for Man [don’t forget, Man (with a capital m) is the philosophical category for the human being in English] than having – in conceptual terms (what hasn’t been tackled is the status of doing, for which the time is not yet ripe). Yet there’s more to it than that: as the previous post mentioned, problems connected with knowledge, values, reason, and language may find answers through philosophy; but where to look, and who should we listen to?

We should consider ourselves fortunate because – the truth is – we are spoilt for choice: information is ‘out there’ and, actually, an Internet connection gives unlimited access to it. The unfortunate occurrence is that Time is far from being on our side: it is practically impossible to get to know even a tiny fraction of what has been found in a domain. But this is not a real problem: Modern Man has in many ways got used to his limitations, which – of course – doesn’t mean he should enter a state of akinetic mutism (see the post ‘To Choose or not to Choose to do Something’) because of that: when there’s a will, there’s a way!

Plato's legacy: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle
It was the case that, while browsing the web in search of a better explanation for points in time, I stumbled upon this pearl: History of Philosophy without any gaps. It’s been on the blog page for a couple of weeks now, so it is time you scrolled down to see...what you could see and hear: you’ll step into another dimension, where you’ll find out about Man’s unyielding determination to Know. Your guide (and mine): Professor Peter Adamson from King’s College, London.

He will accompany us through millennia of human enquiry; his friendly voice will guide us while explaining the whys and wherefores of Man’s endless struggle with the Unknown. You just can’t imagine [yet] how easy it becomes for anyone to understand what a line of thought really means; arguments unfold with a surprising clarity while you, the listener, witness the enquiries of the philosophers who shaped the Western world view – that is, precisely of those who have given us food for thought, even if we didn’t know it!

You will feel him close at any one time, but never as close as in these two posts: by courtesy of Professor Peter Adamson, you now have the unique opportunity to listen to the audio and read the script. When I expressed my hopes that at least one of 120 students will find answers to enquiries in his podcast series, he sent me the script below, with the following dedication: “Good luck on inspiring the other 119 to become more profound!”

And now I'll leave you in good company:

“I Know, Because the Caged Bird Sings: Plato’s Theaetetus.” - Part One.
Script for podcast (aired Feb 28 2011) by Peter Adamson
‘“Those of you who spend time with children will know that, between the adults and the children of this world, a war is raging. Skirmishes in this war are fought across the land, every morning, and both sides use all the weapons at their disposal - tantrums, the silent treatment, withheld treats, even, in extreme cases, the naughty step. I am speaking, of course, about the question of how warmly to dress. The children’s perspective on this issue is well-entrenched: it is not nearly as cold outside as you parents would claim, and we aren’t going to wear that winter coat, though we may be willing to consider a light sweater. The parents’ point of view is equally firm: you’ll catch your death of cold. Now, I guess that most of the people listening to this podcast are above the age of 12, and so naturally favor the adult perspective. There is, we quite naturally think, a fact of the matter about how cold it is outside: just look at the thermometer. Yet the children can turn to us and say, “but I don’t feel cold. So for me, it isn’t cold.” And they’ve got a point, albeit a point which is undermined slightly when they start shivering even as they’re insisting on how warm it is. The point is that it is for each person to say how cold the air feels to them. You might even say that, whatever the temperature may be, the air’s being cold is nothing more than the air’s seeming cold to each of us.

“This prompts an unsettling thought. It’s not implausible that the air is really neither cold nor hot in itself, but is cold for you, and warm for me -I grew up in Boston, so I’m made of tougher stuff than you are. And we can think of other cases: most of us have been in disputes about whether a certain piece of clothing is blue or green, and maybe it is just green for one person, blue for someone else. Thus the unsettling thought: what if everything is like this? Suppose that there is no truth apart from the way things seem to each person? Things may be warm for me, cold for you, blue for me, green for you, good for me, bad for you, while having none of these features in themselves. In that case, nothing is true absolutely. Rather, truth is relative: something might be true for me and false for you, but neither false nor true in itself. This relativist theory of truth is one that still arises in contemporary philosophy, but it has its roots in the dialogues of Plato. In particular, it is explored in my very favorite Platonic dialogue: the Theaetetus.

René Magritte, Les Reflets du Temps
“In a few previous episodes I’ve mentioned the word “epistemology,” which means the study of knowledge - because the ancient Greek word for knowledge or understanding was episteme. We saw last week that Plato’s Meno has quite a bit to say about epistemology, and we’ve found interesting epistemological ideas already in the Pre- Socratics. But the first work to devote itself fully to epistemology is the Theaetetus. It explores some of the ideas of the Meno but goes well beyond them, investigating not only this relativist theory of truth, but also the question of how false judgment is possible and how knowledge relates to belief. The main characters are our old friend Socrates, Theodorus, a mathematician, and a young man who is a mathematician like Theodorus, and profoundly ugly like Socrates: he shares Socrates’ protruding eyes and snub nose. This is Theaetetus, one of the most admirable characters ever to engage with Socrates in Plato’s dialogues. Despite his youth he shows much more commitment to the philosophical search than the older Theodorus. He offers several attempts at saying what knowledge might be. As we have come to expect in Socratic dialogues, each attempt is refuted, but he doesn’t lose heart - and we learn a great deal about knowledge in the course of the dialogue, even if the characters fail to produce a definition of knowledge that satisfies them.

“Theaetetus’ first attempt is to say that knowledge is perception. The word for perception here is aisthesis, which incidentally is where we get the word “aesthetics.” It can mean sense perception - that is, vision, hearing, smell, and so on - or more broadly any kind of perception, including the perception of things with the mind. Especially if we take it in this broader sense, Theaetetus’ definition looks plausible: we know something when we perceive it. Or perhaps one might say, we know when we grasp that something is the case. But Socrates shows that Theaetetus’ definition could be taken in a more unsettling way: if knowledge is perception, then whatever seems to me to be the case must actually be the case for me. Here he gives the same example I used a moment ago: the wind seems warm to me and cold to you, so I perceive the wind as warm and you perceive it as cold. If perception is knowledge, then that means that I know the wind is warm and you know it is cold. How could this be? Well, only if truth is relative: it’s true for me that the wind is warm and true for you that it is cold, but there is no such thing as the wind’s being truly warm or cold in itself, relative to no perceiver. After all, knowledge is nothing but perception.

M.C.Escher, Relativity
“Socrates adds that in putting forward such a view, Theaetetus would be in good company. In particular, this relativistic theory of truth was asserted by the great sophist Protagoras. As we saw in our previous episode on the sophists, Protagoras was famous for saying, “man is the measure of all things, of the things that are, that they are, of the things that are not, that they are not.” Like Theaetetus’ definition of knowledge as perception, this “man is the measure” doctrine could be taken in a lot of different ways. But Socrates wants to take both claims as boiling down to relativism about truth. If I am the measure of whether the wind is warm, then there is nothing more to the wind’s being warm than its being warm for me, and not cold for me. The way things seem to me determines the way the wind is and isn’t - for me.

“But wait, there’s more: Socrates adds that Theatetus and Protagoras have another heavy-hitter on their side, namely the Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus. You might remember that when I talked about Heraclitus, I said that Plato portrays his illustrious predecessor as believing in a doctrine of total flux. That is, everything is constantly changing in every respect, and there is no stability in us or the world around us. The Theaetetus isn’t the only dialogue where Plato ascribes this view to Heraclitus, though it is the most famous example. But why does the flux doctrine go along with relativism about truth? This is a slightly complicated question, but the basic answer is that if Protagorean relativism is true, then the things in the world around us will have no stable natures from moment to moment. They will only be whatever they seem to be to various perceivers, and this is changing all the time, according to Heraclitus as he’s presented here. So on this view, it would turn out that nothing is cold, and nothing is warm; rather everything is always changing in every way. Actually it might be even worse than this: if we say that what is changing from warm to cold or vice-versa is both warm and cold, then the air will always be both warm and cold. It was with this in mind that Aristotle later accused Heraclitus of denying the principle of non-contradiction.

“These radical consequences of the flux doctrine give us plenty of reason for rejecting it. And, if buying into the relativist theory of truth means buying into the flux theory, then maybe we’ll give up on relativism as well. But Protagoras will try to persuade us that the relativist theory isn’t as implausible as it seems. If you’re interested in which things are good, then obviously what you’re interested in is which things are good for you. What would it even mean for something to be good, but not for you, or for anyone in particular? This, perhaps, connects the theory Plato is considering to the real historical Protagoras. He claimed to teach virtue, and may have supposed this was possible because the good is the advantageous, and that he could teach you how to get things you would consider to be advantageous, like political power. Whether Protagoras really held the radical epistemological theory that Plato ascribes to him here in the Theaetetus is of course another matter. But let’s leave that aside, and also leave aside the problems about flux, and just consider the problem of how to refute someone who adopts the relativist position on truth.”’
BBC World: Aurora Borealis over Dunvegan, Isle of Skye (Scotland)