Thursday, September 17, 2015

Socrates and the sophists

We were discussing some misunderstandings about Socrates and the sophists. Some people seem to think that Socrates was a skeptic and that the contrast between him and the sophists is that the sophists made knowledge claims while Socrates questioned everything. 

Instead, what we see in the history is the following. The sophists were skeptics about knowledge. They did not believe knowledge is possible. All beliefs are revisable or fallible. Because of this all that matters is that one is able to persuade others. Knowledge of the truth is not important because it is not possible. 

By way of contrast, although Socrates did begin by questioning everything and recognizing he did not know anything he believed knowledge is possible and once you have knowledge it is permanent and unchangeable. He desired to have knowledge.  He sought knowledge through the process of eliminating contradictions. 

The sophists dismissed him in a variety of ways. One way is that they said he makes what is the best seem to be the worst and the worst to be the best. He confuses people about words. Another way is that they said he is not sophisticated. He still needs a nursemaid. He hasn't read all of the latest articles by sophists.

The skepticism of the sophists continues to be influential. It is often set in contrast to the simple assertion of beliefs with unfounded confidence in their truth. But these are not our only options. The Socratic example is to use dialectic to eliminate contradictions to pursue knowledge of what is basic so that we will be able to attain what is permanent and lasting. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Augustine and Certainty

In The City of God Augustine has a section talking about the Trinity and how humans are made in the image of God.  Augustine suggests that human nature, however imperfectly, reflects the truth about the Trinity.  One way it does this is in those areas where we can be certain.  He gives three examples: that I am, that I know I am, and that I love.  He relates these to the Trinity in the reality of God, that God is know and how God is known, and the providence of God.

Augustine's proofs about each of these involve showing that we cannot doubt that we exist and that we think.  Philosophers sometimes like to talk about first and second order subjects.  For instance, playing football and reflecting on playing football.  Presumably there are n-orders since one can also reflect on reflecting about playing football.  In this case Augustine is reflecting on, or thinking about, thinking.  However, what is the same in whatever "order" of thinking is that it involves thought.  This makes it different than the football example.  When one reflects on football one is not playing football. But when one reflects on thinking one is thinking.  Doubting is thinking.  And so while we can doubt the truth of a particular belief we cannot doubt that we doubt nor can we doubt that we think.

What Augustine is helping us do is reflect on the nature of thinking, the laws of thought, and what conclusions are unavoidable or cannot be doubted.  In this case he influenced Descartes who is famous for saying "I think therefore I am."  We are looking at Descartes this week.