Saturday, 25 July 2015

Socratic Fiction?

Scientia is Latin for knowledge.
Science is a systematic search for knowledge.
Technology is the application of scientific knowledge.
Science fiction is literature about that application.
Yet Socrates is quoted here as saying that "To know is to know that you know nothing."

The Delphic oracle, asked who was the wisest man in Greece, answered, "Socrates." Socrates thought that this must be wrong because he knew nothing. Then he realized that it was right because he was at that time the only one that knew that he knew nothing. But he did try to find out.

However, his means of seeking knowledge were limited to mere reasoning and argument. Humanity has learned a lot since then but by other means: observation and scientific method. Poul Anderson celebrates this search for knowledge for example in "Starfog," his story about the exploration of the "Cloud Universe" cluster.

It remains true that to know is to know how little you know. If reality is an infinite plane with human knowledge a finite circle somewhere on the plane, then, as the circle grows, its area, the number of things known, increases but so does its circumference, the point of contact with the unknown. Someone with a very small circle knows very little and also has very little contact with anything unknown to him.

Kurt Vonnegut quotes:

"My name is Yon Yonson.
"I live in Wisconsin.
"I work in the paper mills there.
"When people ask me my name, I say,
"My name is Yon Yonson..."

That expresses someone who knows who he is, where he is, what he does and nothing else and does not ask anything else. Even the name, Yon son of Yon, implies no change from generation to generation. Poul Anderson's characters may start in Wisconsin but from there they explore the universe.

6 comments:

  1. Kaor, Paul!

    Sorates, alas, fatally irritated the Athenians because of his arguments, logical debates, and alleged impiety towards the gods. It ended with him being condemned to death and ordered to drink hemlock.

    And is Socrates dictum that "To know is to know that you know nothing" the ONLY means of beginning to acquire wisdom? Apologies for being vague, I can't quite recall the exact location, but Scipture says somewhere that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. I'm sure that concept has been deeply pondered by theologians and philosophers!

    Sean

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  2. Sean,
    Proverbs 1.7; Psalm 111.10.
    Socrates annoyed influential people because he set out to vindicate the oracle by demonstrating that they knew nothing.
    Paul.

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    Replies
    1. Kaor, Paul!

      Thanks for the exact Scriptural citations, which I'll be looking up.

      I can see why Socrates critics got so angry at him! Being told by him, in effect, that they were idiots would annoy some people! Esp. since, as a practical matter, that simply wasn't true. A sculptor or quarry worker would certainly know how to work with stone. A merchant would know how to buy and sell goods for the best available price. A mathematician would know how to use numbers, and so on.

      Sean

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  3. Sean,
    It was the pretensions of "Sophists" that Socrates was deflating.
    Paul.

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    Replies
    1. Kaor, Paul!

      It's been so long since I last read any of Plato's Socratic dialogues that details such as Socrates debates with the Sophists have faded. But, yes, I can see how some of the more vindictive Sophists and their patrons would get angry at Socrates.

      Btw, this is how the NEW AMERICAN BIBLE, a standard English language Bible for Catholics in the US, annotates Proverbs 1.7: " 'The fear of the Lord,' reverential fear and respect for God on account of his sovereignty, goodness and justice toward men. This is the foundation of religion."

      Sean

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  4. Sean,
    That is the foundation of monotheistic religion. More generally, I think that religion is response to transcendence.
    Socrates' "knowing nothing" has to apply to some philosophical level so that it does not involve denying that tradesmen know their trade etc.
    Paul.

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