Creationists Could Learn a Thing or Two from Socrates

cosmos-tv-logoSocrates 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.

13 Replies to “Creationists Could Learn a Thing or Two from Socrates”

  1. “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool” (Act 5, Scene 1).

    And… Trailer Park women, those Tiara Mothers, those Real Women of XYZ, and fish monger wives call themselves ‘Classy.’


    This saying is true: The more you know, the more you realize how little you do know.

  2. I’m probably a descendant of Socrates (pronounced so-KRAH-teess, by the way) if my personality is any indication – and I’m sure that lots of my forebears were made to drink hemlock!

    (A number of my college professors probably wished that they could give me a nice chug of it).

  3. Creationists are just like “zombies” who want too “feed” off of and consume all of the people on this planet who actually do have a “real” life. In my opinion.

  4. The first mistake is in thinking that Plato did not have an effect on the various authors of the books of the Bible. First, I don’t like historical ignorance be it from the right or the left. The creation story in Genesis dates from about 1200BC. Plato was born 800 years later. At the time Genesis was written, I dare you to find any creation myth that is scientific. It was not.

    As far as Plato, unfortunately, he had a tremendous amount of influence on Judean culture during the time of Christ. Also, the Neo-Platonian early Christian ‘fathers’ embraces his vehimently patriarchal anti-women philosophy. Early Christian figures such as St. Augustine of Hippo readily embraced what can only be described as the first glimpses into evolution. So did Roger Bacon, who created the scientific method.

    As for Plato – who do you think gave rise to the whole he man woman hater’s club in Christianity?

  5. Very good analysis. When they argue that science admitting that they don’t know everything means they know nothing then they are arguing against ALL SCIENCE, not just the science pertaining to their rejection of old earth and evolution.

    The reason why is obvious. Science moves in stages. Their position is as rational as saying that the theory of gravity is wrong just because Newton could not unravel the whole mystery of it. No scientist comes up with something out of a whole cloth and that is true of applied science as well. Would we have ANY medicine and ANY technology if we waited until we understood everything?

    And our understanding of physics is so incomplete that we cannot reconcile two different, but equally true models of it. Shall we say that Newton, Einstein and Hawking are wrong and throw out them all? Because on reality none of them have gotten everything right. So I guess physics is a scam then.Spawned from the devil. Repent evildoers!

  6. “At the time Genesis was written, I dare you to find any creation myth that is scientific. It was not.”

    You are sounding awfully defensive. No one debates the truth of what you are saying. All cultures have creation myths. The problem is that now we know better, but creationists do not want to admit it.

    No one here is saying that the early biblical authors should have reasoned the same way that Socrates did.What the author is saying is that people in the MODERN AGE could take a page from Socrates.

    “As far as Plato, unfortunately, he had a tremendous amount of influence on Judean culture during the time of Christ. Also, the Neo-Platonian earlyChristian ‘fathers’ embraces his vehimently patriarchal anti-women philosophy”

    Um..perhaps, but the OT right from the beginning is anti-woman. Admittedly I do not know the history that you are talking about but Plato could only have re-enforced what was already there. Have you read the OT? Women were property, nothing more.

  7. I ran out of space so I want to add a few things.First of all the creation story itself is patriarchal.Eve causes the downfall of humanity. Woman are punished by having painful labor and having to submit to their husbands in all things. This is echoed by the authors of the NT.

    Under Mosaic law rape was a property crime.If a woman who was a virgin was raped, the rapist was required to pay her father money and marry her.No thought at all for the poor woman.If the woman was married or engaged, then the rapist was put to death for “stealing” another man’s wife.In warfare virgins were spared from death and forced to marry the same people who slaughtered their families and friends.

    But in the gospels Jesus actually talked with women about spiritual things, which was unheard of.The rest of the NT has anti-woman rules while at the same time there were some women who were highly respected.

    For someone who claims to know a lot of history you seem woefully ignorant about the Bible.

  8. This is why creationists are taking their kids out of school. They don’t want anything to interfere with their tiny minds and rock their world views.

  9. If Creationists had real faith, they would go about their business living with their faith. You can tell that they are desperate to believe, but their faith cannot be called real as long as religious wars and religious abuses by the so-called faithful continue to occur. I don’t mind the religious if they don’t hurt anyone, but they do. It starts with being labeled: Heretic! Infidel! It continues with violent people who justify all sorts of violence because their “faith” demands it. The religious kidnapping of 300 young girls is the latest ‘act of faith’ in the recent news. The faithful of all faiths always seem to promote their beliefs by so-called inquisitions or crusades or television shows asking for money while they spew abuse.

  10. The Bible is not a book of science. It was written by men who tried to articulate their faith in God. The Bible contains myth, allegory, symbolism, etc. Also numbers have meaning in the Bible. The creation stories are myths, i.e., stories that tell greater stories but are not factual. The book of Genesis was written during the Babylonian Exile and the creation stories taken from Macedonian myths. Jews interpret the Adam and Eve story that man and woman as “consciousness.” Christians, on the other hand, interpret the Adam and Eve stories to be original sin.

    Also, no one can prove the existence of God.

  11. If you’re searching for “wisdom” and “happiness” and “God”, then I have a slightly used bridge in Brooklyn that I want to sell you.
    Just live, follow your own star, and make the best of it!

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