Socrates said, “This man, on one hand, believes that he knows something, while not knowing (anything). On the other hand, I — equally ignorant — do not believe (that I know anything) (Apology 21d), which is often paraphrased, paradoxically, as, “I know that I know nothing,” or, “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Humble words coming from the man said by the oracle of Delphi to be the wisest human.
Socrates defends the verdict by explaining that he – unlike others – at least knows that he knows nothing, while those others think they know things they do not.
Shakespeare captured the sense of this in As You Like it, when he wrote, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool” (Act 5, Scene 1).
We all know people like this. We all know they most often turn out to be wrong. Socrates knew this as well, and the dialectic was eminently suited to deflating their pretensions.
Socrates did not often end up with answers to his questions, as when he says “I didn’t learn anything during this talk” (Rep. 354c) or in Meno, when he tells the interlocutor that while he may have entered into the discussion sure of what virtue is, he ended it, like Socrates, in doubt (80d1-3).
For Socrates, the beginning of wisdom lay in questioning everything, in challenging assumptions. And he did. Fiercely. He may have been an unpleasant, disagreeable man (particularly for blowhards), but he was brave enough to admit his own ignorance.
The man creationists fear the most, Neil DeGrass Tyson, has admitted his own ignorance – and that of science – on a number of occasions in his reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Creationists, who are to be understood as those people Socrates put down for pretending to know things they do not know, love these admissions of ignorance from scientists. They point and say, “Aha!”
Tyson said at one point, while examining the origins of life on earth, “Somehow, carbon-rich molecules began using energy to make copies of themselves.” Somehow is imprecise. It is also honest. There is nothing here for Socrates to sink his teeth into. Unlike those who appear in Socratic dialogues, Tyson is not coming before us with ill-thought out, or un-reasoned claims to knowledge he does not possess. He is admitting he does not know.
Creationists blanch at this. You want to substitute “somehow” for “God”??? Tyson has made them greatly wroth.
For them, not knowing something is ignorance. Argument lost. Like, instantly. End of conversation.
For creationists, celebration ensues. For the rest of us, great hilarity.
In other words, admitting you do not know something is not a sign of weakness. It is wisdom.
Creationists mistake an admission of ignorance for ignorance when it is in fact wisdom of a very profound variety. These creationists want to fill that void with knowing. But rather than employing fact, they substitute belief. They cannot prove what they say is true, however much they might assure you that it is. They have only faith that it is true, because what they think they know was written down in a book composed many centuries before anybody had any idea how life might have developed.
Their objection revolves around a rejection of their own viewpoint: “After some passing references to Earth-based models of the origin of life (which of course omit any mention of intelligent design as a possibility)…”
Oh dear, dissed again.
Sure, they can assign “intelligent design” as the answer to the question of the origins of life, but there is no scientific evidence for this. Indeed, there is no scientific evidence for an intelligent designer – a creative force like the Christian God, or the Platonic One, or Odin or any other god. No evidence at all. You cannot employ as science a book written when people thought plagues (or natural disasters) could be explained by divine wrath. We have scientific explanations for plagues (and for natural disasters) today. There is no need to assign them to a god, though some Christians continue to do so.
In searching for the origins of life, Tyson, like a good scientist, looks only at valid possibilities, things for which an argument, based on scientific data, can be made. Tyson lives in an open-ended cosmos, not the tiny, self-enclosed thing described in the Old Testament where stars and planets are fixed in the sky when in fact we know they move, and the earth is flat instead of round and at the center of the universe instead of occupying third place in a middling solar system on one spiral arm of a vast galaxy that is one of billions.
Socrates grasped the problems better than 21st century creationists, as we find in Phaedro:
I believe that the earth is very large and that we who dwell between the pillars of Hercules [109b] and the river Phasis live in a small part of it about the sea, like ants or frogs about a pond, and that many other people live in many other such regions. For I believe there are in all directions on the earth many hollows of very various forms and sizes, into which the water and mist and air have run together; but the earth itself is pure and is situated in the pure heaven in which the stars are, the heaven which [109c] those who discourse about such matters call the ether; the water, mist and air are the sediment of this and flow together into the hollows of the earth. Now we do not perceive that we live in the hollows, but think we live on the upper surface of the earth, just as if someone who lives in the depth of the ocean should think he lived on the surface of the sea, and, seeing the sun and the stars through the water, should think the sea was the sky, and should, by reason of sluggishness or [109d] feebleness, never have reached the surface of the sea, and should never have seen, by rising and lifting his head out of the sea into our upper world, and should never have heard from anyone who had seen, how much purer and fairer it is than the world he lived in. I believe this is just the case with us; for we dwell in a hollow of the earth and think we dwell on its upper surface; and the air we call the heaven, and think that is the heaven in which the stars move. But the fact is the same, [109e] that by reason of feebleness and sluggishness, we are unable to attain to the upper surface of the air; for if anyone should come to the top of the air or should get wings and fly up, he could lift his head above it and see, as fishes lift their heads out of the water and see the things in our world, so he would see things in that upper world; and, if his nature were strong enough to bear the sight, he would recognize that that is the real heaven.
Socrates understood, as the authors of the Old Testament did not, because like creationists today they occupied a closed system, the importance of context. Creationists could learn a lot from Plato, if only they were willing to open their minds to the wonder of the cosmos, and to the idea that an admission of ignorance is not the end of wisdom, but its beginning.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.