1. The death of Socrates
I only know that I know nothing. - Socrates (English translation)
The writer of the Wikipedia article on this last quote adds the following: "The impreciseness of the English translation stems from the fact that the author is not saying that he does not know anything but means instead that one cannot know anything with absolute certainty but can feel confident about certain things."
The problem, as the city fathers saw it, was that he was too often infuriatingly right.
Athens had just lost a 'war of choice'; Sparta, the occupying power, had set up a 'conservative' (i.e reactionary) regime to keep the Athenians out of their hair for a few years, and bogged back off the the Peloponessus to flog their peasants and sing hymns to themselves. Democracy had apparently failed the Athenians, and the new rulers were in the mood to settle a few long standing vendettas and stifle a few irritants.
Socrates had dedicated his life to being an irritant. He dressed badly, lived off everyone, never bathed, and could drink (and talk) anyone in Athens under the table. But so what? I am sure we've all known someone like that. Heh-heh.
A quote from the Wikipedia article on the life and death of Socrates says: "Socrates defended his role as a gadfly until the end: at his trial, when Socrates is asked to propose his own punishment, he suggests a wage paid by the government and free dinners for the rest of his life instead, to finance the time he spends as Athens' benefactor."
A most infuriating person, indeed! He considered himself the least wise of men, and the most ignorant; his only arrogance was that he considered himself enlightened and improved by this epiphany. Since he was indisputably successful at making anyone look like a fool, merely by demonstrating how shaky the roots of their convictions were, he was very skeptical of the value of 'inherent' or pious virtue and the wisdom of influential men. A recipe tailor-made to piss off everyone, almost all the time. The kids loved him, of course.
Back in the bad old days, while Athens slowly destroying the spirit of 'democracy' with that thoroughness that only a really successful society can muster, Socrates was inventing situational thinking in the most Darwinian possible arena: he was an infantryman during the later episodes of the war with Persia. Luckily, he had apparently been introduced to the pioneers of Greek 'science' (Anaxagoras and his predecessor Thales) in his youth, and this practice in abstraction of thought served him well, both on the battlefield and at the dinner table. Socrates became an expert at 'dialectic' reasoning, i.e. thinking on one's feet.
Socrates possibly considered his complicity in his death sentence a last act of instruction; by throwing himself under the bus, he may have averted worse. He has often been cited (mainly through the mouth of Plato) as an opponent of Athenian democracy, but... From what little we know of his life and his character, it seems more likely that he despised what Athenian Democracy (capital D intentional here) had become; what had been done in its name, particularly in the disastrous war with Sparta. (A.R. Burn, Thucydides)
2. the Socratic legacy
The wisdom of nature is such that it produces nothing superfluous or useless but often produces many effects from one cause. - Copernicus
Non-scientists and semi-scientific 'philosophers' of the current era often mischaracterize the nature of the scientific enterprise: that science thrives on certainty and... the immutability of facts and... the rigid adherence to logic... etc. This is EXACTLY wrong, as we can see from the practice of situational ethics, the perspective of 'weak' anthropomorphism, and phenomenon of anosognosis.
The Socratic habit of skepticism, of ever-shifting ethical principles, is the very basis of Western philosophy and particularly the scientific method; it is at the very core of what separates what scientists do from 'opinion' (or religion if we must be blunt). No hypothesis is safe from scrutiny, no matter how overwhelming the evidence; and no facts are safe either: we should always go back and measure again, just to make sure.... in other words, the skeptical intuition of the scientist leads him where logic cannot or will not.
So in reality, 'Intelligent' Design enthusiasts and others who try to hijack the scientific apparatus invariably accuse the scientific 'establishment' of exactly the things that make religions and churches soinsidious; rigidity, blind adherence to logic (Aquinas and St. Augustine), unshakeable axioms, indisputable and unexaminable 'facts'. “More hypocrisy?? Haven't we had enough of this cr***? ....and a wonderful arena for examining psychological motivations and such, hmmm..??”
3. the 'weak' anthropic principle
[Freeman] Dyson [takes] Steven Weinberg (a physicist and Nobel laureate) to task for his claim that someday we will be able to know everything. “Our ape-brains and tool-making hands were marvelously effective for solving a limited class of puzzles. Weinberg expects the same brains and hands to illuminate far broader areas of nature with the same clarity. I would be disappointed if nature could be so easily tamed. I find the idea of a Final Theory repugnant because it diminishes both the richness of nature and the richness of human destiny. I prefer to live in a universe full of inexhaustible mysteries, and to belong to a species destined for inexhaustible intellectual growth.” - from the Errol Morris article
Darwinism and evolution and contingent history extend far back in time; infinitely far back beyond the history of life on earth and very possibly beyond the Big Bang itself... human intellect may very well be incapable of grasping a scale of history of even human history. How can we cope with a time scale that encompasses millions and billions of year? How will we ever reach a consensus on exactly what the universe IS, much less discern any purpose to it?
Strong anthropic adherents try to take advantage of the apprehension that the current cosmological 'physical setup' is so improbable that there MUST have been intelligent intervention at some point; the more weasely and 'devout' scientists place this intervention 'outside space and time' and, usually, beyond the Big Bang (e.g. Owen Gingerich and Francis Collins) so that 'atheistic' scientists can't get the filthy fingers of their 'method' on it (or Him).
But what does it matter if it IS improbable? If WE are improbable? According to the best biological and paleontological evidence, humans certainly were NOT the purpose of evolution; there is no direction of evolution other than the historical spread of species into available niches; the supposed 'advance' in complexity in earthly life is simply an inevitable consequence of this gradual, trail-and-error process of taking advantage of new vacancies in ecological space; the number of bacterial strains alone still VASTLY outnumber all other species combined. (And then there are all those beetles....) Complexity in just another tool of the trade in the evolution game.
So the fact that the universe seems so improbably constituted to allow humans to perceive it SHOULD imply the opposite conclusion: that humans ONLY 'notice the universe is improbably hospitable' because it so happens to BE constituted to allow life of our type to evolve to the point of self-appraisal. There could very well be multiple universes where that did NOT happen, or possibly ancestral or successive universes where self-aware beings didn't/won't exist. We don't know, possibly cannot know, since we are here. And that leads us to...
4. Anosognosis: Something is wrong, but we will never know what it is....
(ref: NY Times article by Errol Morris is here:
Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge. - Charles Darwin (1871)
People will often make the case, “We can’t be that stupid, or we would have been evolutionarily wiped out as a species a long time ago.” I don’t agree. I find myself saying, “Well, no. Gee, all you need to do is be far enough along to be able to get three square meals or to solve the calorie problem long enough so that you can reproduce. And then, that’s it. You don’t need a lot of smarts. You don’t have to do tensor calculus. You don’t have to do quantum physics to be able to survive to the point where you can reproduce.” One could argue that evolution suggests we’re not idiots, but I would say, “Well, no. Evolution just makes sure we’re not blithering idiots. But, we could be idiots in a lot of different ways and still make it through the day.” - David Dunning (inteviewed by Errol Morris)
Anosognosis ("You cannot know all of what you do not know.") itself no longer appears to be simply (simply? Bwahahahah!) an aberration or a delusion (or even a neurological condition), but rather a profound mental reflex of Homo Sapiens; we are wired to let the circuit breakers trip in our head, to not notice the facts if they are too terrible or traumatic or demoralizing to deal with consciously. We can't help it, not a single one of us. Every person on earth has some “unknown unknown”, some space in the mental universe that they are completely unaware of.
David Dunning and his colleagues discovered, in an exhaustive set of studies, that people consistently overestimate their abilities in areas where they are not competent; moreover they found that the more incompetent a person was in a given field, the worse they were at assessing their competence. Indeed they overestimated their abilities to a degree in direct negative correlation with their actual competence. And they also appeared to the lack the skills to judge the performance of people who were competent in that field. In other words, they were not in what we would call denial. Worst of all, the more ignorant they were, the more they were incapable of discovering or correcting their ignorance.
So...we can't just marginalize 'willfully' ignorant or malicious people merely because they must 'bad' or selfish to exhibit that much stubborn incompetence. They may be LITERALLY incapable of the kind introspective and intense self-appraisal that those of us here suffer through every day. And who can blame them, really? Ignorance may really be bliss.
5. Wrapping it all up together...situational ethics
Stupidity got us into this mess; why can't it get us out? - Will Rogers
Every thinker puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril and no one can wholly predict what will emerge in its place. - John Dewey
All of us here have repeatably fallen into the neo-Platonic swamp; I am quite sure of that.. Progressives, liberals, free-thinkers, secular humanists, moderate Republicans, No-Labelers.... we have all hit that wall that sez: “NOTHING YOU BELIEVE IS TRUE. There is NO SOLID GROUND to stand on. EVERYONE, even the people you absolutely despise, are to be tolerated, no matter how venomous or malignant their observations or conclusions or habits. Turn the other cheek. Hope for the best.” At best we believe we have discovered that we are competent enough to recognize how shaky the ground is.
Socrates, Darwin and Lincoln all shared a more constructive perspective: in a moving, constantly mutating, incredibly complex universe, we cannot afford to build a permanent foundation of belief on anything...but we can certainly find the best of the terrible alternatives, if we look hard enough and think hard enough and never, NEVER pretend that we know enough. Those ethics and morals and principles we have so painfully arrived at may be entirely irrelevant next week, but...we KNOW that's going to happen, and we are ready for it. Over and over again, throughout our lives, we will have to apply our best efforts to finding a new temporary home for our thoughts.
Darwin never lost sight of his purpose, kept his eye on the ball. He labored for more than 20 years to probe TO HIMSELF that his first intuition of his theory was true. As if it was open to question, his generosity to Wallace removed any accusation of ego from the publication of his work. He worked hard in his chosen field, for the rest of his life, defending and reinforcing his ideas. He died content, with no fear of death, because he was confident that he had comprehended what really drove biological 'determination' (or better, lack of same). And he knew that his offspring and his own personal death were an intimate part of it all. He was not of the Chosen people; he was relieved to settle for Peace instead. Only peace. Was he deluded, or was he one of the few people competent enough to judge the evidence and come to the correct conclusions?
Socrates sacrificed himself for his country (becoming a martyr to the cause of skeptical thought), as Giordano Bruno and Thomas Paine and Abbie Hoffman and Abe Lincoln did; so should we, in small ways at least. We probably will not be able to teach people who cannot or refuse to think, but we should keep trying regardless; and some of us will inevitably be burned for it. The topography of situational ethics is an ever-shifting ground of evolutionary, cultural, and physical forces in an indifferent universe. We stand willingly in the gap. The real glory is in the comprehension of a tiny part of the vast mystery of our journey. As Darwin did, perhaps, we can find solace and even content on that road.