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Dear Socrates

Dear Socrates

Having returned from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.

Dear Socrates,

You ask us to submit arguments and not just ask questions; all right, I will do that. It seems likely that during your two and a half thousand years’ absence, you have not noticed fully a profound change in the human condition, namely, the huge increase in human know-how. Of science you write, “It is really like reading a fictional narrative. ... I would only fault it for its pretension to be something other than a cunningly told story” (Issue 41). Of course there are stories in every field of intellectual endeavour. Historians tell us the story of the past; literary scholars tell us the story of literature; economists tell us the story of how the economy has come to be the way it is. But these people do not tell us how to predict future events, how to write a good novel, how to discern where the economy is going. They have a lot of valuable know-that but very little know-how. Science, by contrast, gives us much know-how.

For nearly thirty years my survival has hung on a cardiac pacemaker. The knowledge we have of cardiology and of electronics is, to that extent, not just a couple of cunningly told stories. That knowledge – judging by results – is real truth, even though it is not the whole truth and is not nothing but the truth. Science yields much know-how; other disciplines yield mostly know-that – and both are incomplete. Science is not just a story, although undoubtedly it includes stories.

Yours respectfully,
Eric Stockton

Dear Eric,

Yours is a compelling story and an engaging argument, I grant. Thank you for both. Your remarks are a useful corrective or qualification of my claim. I think it is not so much that I have lost track of human progress over the millennia, as that my memory lapsed; for, you will recall, I attributed impressive knowledge to the skilled craftsmen of my own day. My real complaint, in the present as in the past, is that experts of all kinds pretend to more knowledge that they actually possess. Even one of your Nobel laureates can sound downright loutish when pronouncing on some subject outside of his or her specialization, I think you will agree.

Where you and I may disagree is on the question of someone’s knowledge in their own field of expertise. On one reading of your remarks, you are saying that I err when I deny the claims to knowledge made by contemporary science, since I fail to distinguish knowing how from knowing that. I might be correct to assimilate the latter to fiction because such (purported) knowledge is based on assumptions; and when one says, “suppose,” one might as well be saying, “Once upon a time ....” But the great mark of progress has been technological knowledge, engineering know-how. Theory can weave its tales, but practice is the bottom line. Does it work? If “Yes,” then you can tell any story you like about why.

Before there were pacemakers, the father of a current colleague of mine was diagnosed with a bad heart condition. His doctor’s advice: Believe in God. What the doctor probably had in mind was the therapeutic effect this belief could have on his patient, who, fearing death less, might live longer. His rabbi might have offered a different interpretation: God will listen to your prayers. This would in effect be a theological technology. Maybe the medical engineer’s works better for some purposes, the rabbi’s for others; but for all we can tell, which prescription will be more efficacious seems in the end a pragmatic issue.

Maybe sometimes we are better off with no story at all! My eminent predecessor, Gautama Buddha, told a story about that: A man was wounded by an arrow but refused to have it removed by a physician until he had ascertained the identity of the archer, his tribe, the dimensions of the arrow, its composition, etc. “This man would die before he had the arrow removed,” was the Buddha’s pointed observation. Just so, he preached, questions about the right way to live – also my main concern – are not answered by speculations (stories) about ultimate reality.

In fact, even those whose work, one would have thought, is precisely to engage in such speculations – physicists – can be proponents of a pure instrumentality. In the days when Aristotle’s Earth-centered cosmology ruled supreme, many considered Copernicus’s innovation on Ptolemy to be merely a convenience for calculating the positions of the planets. And even today, while the predictions of Einstein’s gravitational theory are borne out with ever-increasing accuracy, so too are those of quantum mechanics, which appears nonetheless to be metaphysically incompatible with it, indeed, almost incoherent in its own right. Some, then, may be prepared to forgo interpreting (story-telling) and content themselves with just the formalisms.

However, another reading of your remarks is that the success of modern technology verifies the theories of modern science. Our remarkable contemporary know-how could not have come about without our having got the know-that right. Therefore, however like the telling of stories theorizing may be, some stories are true, and we now have an experimental means of showing which. Your pacemaker does seem an advance on prayer, but would never have come about if people had been satisfied with the story that, say, disease is a punishment by God, who must be appeased.

So I cannot deny the appeal of your claim, if it is this latter, and prefer it to the other. Even so, I maintain that significant assumptions lurk within the best-established theories, and the mark of the most enlightened scientists will be their willingness to acknowledge this. Nor is that just some intellectual ornament, but always has been and forever will be a basis for appropriate applications of existing science and for theoretical revolutions of new science.

Yours as ever,

Socrates

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