15 September 2006

Woolf on Misology and Truth

Raphael Woolf gave a paper last night in the BACAP series, "Misology and Truth". It took its start from the famous misology passage of the Phaedo(89d-90d), where Socrates counsels his interlocutors not to despair of discovering the truth through reasoning--although fairly quickly Woolf turned from exegesis to a consideration of the nature of Socrates's devotion to truth.

I found this fascinating and have been thinking about it since. I will give you my interpretation of the paper: you will need to wait for it in the Proceedings to judge for yourself.

To me it seemed that Woolf wished to distinguish the following:

  1. Concern for the truth because the truth is leads to something, or is useful for attaining something else that you want. (Woolf thought that Simmias is in some ways meant to exhibit this.)
  2. Concern for the truth because what you take to be true is something you regard as important and valuable-- love for some particular truth. You indeed love it for itself, and not for what comes of it, but what you love is some doctrine or claim (theory, picture, vision).
  3. Concern for truth wherever you may find it, whatever it happens to be, and come what may.
It seemed to me that he wished to say the following: Socrates is sometimes said to be someone who 'follows the argument wherever it leads' (which suggests 3.), but in the Phaedo, at least, his attitude is that of 2. Socrates wants it very much to be the case that the soul is immortal and the Forms exist, and he defends this view with a kind of partisanship. Admittedly he recognizes that he couldn't be confident that this was the truth, if he believed it out of mere partisanship or some kind of wishful thinking. Thus he allows (in a manner suggestive of 3.) that his arguments have to meet canons of rational criticism--they have to be arguments that would be found acceptable by someone who was evaluating them without caring how they turned out. But this is nod to method and disinterested objectivity a relatively minor note in Socrates' philosophical personality. His primary attitude is that of 2.

Yet Woolf added that, although we might be tempted to think that this sets Socrates apart from philosophers and resarchers today, who say perhaps that they are committed to the truth come what may, in fact 2. and 3. tend to be fairly closely related: most people pursue the truth generally, because they take some particular view of what is true, according to which truth is especially appealing or interesting.
One might, though, argue that being motivated by, say, the nobility or challenge of one’s field is quite different from being partial about specific outcomes of the enquiries that these features motivate us to undertake. An astronomer, for example, may find the celestial universe fascinating without favouring one view of it over another, except in the innocuous sense of favouring whichever accords with the best evidence. Here there seems no tension between having, in the familiar sense, a keen interest in one’s topic of enquiry and pursuing enquiry in a disinterested fashion.

Yet this is to some extent an illusion. Astronomy would quickly lose its appeal if it were discovered that we had been suffering from a mass hallucination and the extra-terrestrial universe were nothing more than a piece of cardboard with tinsel decoration. The astronomer is partial to outcomes that confirm his view of the celestial universe as an object worthy of enquiry. For this is no more than to say that the (apparent) depth and complexity of the universe is presumably a motivating factor in the undertaking of astronomical enquiry in the first place. So, with a different example, interpreters of Plato will typically perceive his ideas and arguments to have a certain richness that makes them worth interpreting. Generalising, it seems that we humans want and need things to engage and absorb us. We are biased in favour of the world being a place of interest, and the bias is a healthy and necessary one. Thus fields of enquiry entice us with the challenges they present, the richness of the worlds they offer, and the prospect of discovery commensurate with the challenge. We tend, thankfully, to be biased as to outcome. The astronomer who does not prefer making great discoveries to trivial ones is an object to puzzle at not admire. But this bias brings, in every walk of life, the danger of reading more into our data than is strictly justified.

One wonders whether 3. can stand on its own at all. Suppose that we came to think that there are no laws of nature--and thus no deep or beautiful laws. It was an illusion that we thought the universe was like that. (Or: suppose things begin departing from laws with enough irregularity that we cannot affirm any general laws at all.) All truths, then, are on a par; all are accidental and neither signify nor intimate anything else. The truth that there are three leaves on the floor next to my ficus tree is one such truth; that .342 inches of rain fell on Park Street in DesMoines is another; etc. Now, if such were the case, why would it be admirable to want to know the truth? Why would truth be valuable? Why should anyone want to know it for its own sake?