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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,

In an earlier column about scientific knowledge and mathematical knowledge (Issue 41) you put forward a convincing argument for the value of philosophy despite its inability to progress beyond the assumptions that any process of logic relies on. You proceeded to outline how the dialectic involved in a dialogue should lead to a more valid basis for conviction. I would accept this view but for the problem we have with this idea of validity. A criticism of your analysis would be that one view could be no more valid than the next. The ability for one conclusion to be stronger or more worthy than another would depend upon an agreed measure for value or validity. But how could such a structure be arrived at without the acknowledgement of a truth and thus, again, knowledge? It seems to me, then, that a goal of philosophy must be to find a structure within which validity and judgements can be made. But that could become a circular argument, since how would you judge one structure over another? To be honest with you, any pursuit of this gets me lost in a relativist nightmare.

To deal with this struggle I have for some time had knocking away at the back of my head the idea that there must be truth, not through positive assertions but due to two other things: (1) the fact that things can be untrue and (2) the fact that dialogue can exist at all. As you can see I am currently stuck with assertions but wonder if by engaging you in dialogue I might be able to develop these ideas further.

Alex Williams

Dear Socrates,

People who argue in a philosophical and logical way are great stimulators of my thinking and even writing (in which I dabble when not at my day job), and I don’t think I would do much of either if it weren’t for certain friends and Philosophy Now. But a problem has occurred to me. It has to do with a current real-life issue that has torn the world apart: the war in Iraq. I have one friend who has been so passionate and persuasive in his condemnation of the war and this administration that I have to mostly agree with him. Yet I do believe that if he held the opposite opinions and presented them with the force and intelligence he usually demonstrates, I would be swayed in that direction. If nothing else, you folks who are trained in the rigors of philosophy and logic know how to fashion an argument and to persuade. I am at your mercy.


Dear Alex and Wartorn,

Alex’s efforts on behalf of Truth are to be commended. His first idea puts an interesting spin on the work of Karl Popper, who famously argued that science cannot prove anything, but can only disprove particular hypotheses. The argument in a nutshell is that any evidence that would confirm the predictions of a given hypothesis would also be supportive of alternative hypotheses that made the same predictions. For example, as I forever delight in pointing out, Aristotle predicted that if the earth were round, then its shadow on the face of the moon, that is, during a lunar eclipse, would be curved. And so it is. However, it would also be curved if the earth were flat but shaped like a discus and perpendicular to the light source (the sun). Yet the curved shadow does rule out the hypothesis that the earth is square. In the last case, then, says Alex, hasn’t Truth itself been vindicated, albeit negatively?

Alas, those ever-lurking assumptions are still in play. For, you see, the earth could still be square, provided there were, for instance, a suitable refracting medium between the earth and moon during a lunar eclipse. Something analogous to that has in fact emerged in deep-space exploration, where under certain conditions spacetime acts as a kind of lens that distorts the appearances of distant light sources. (That was itself the prediction of a theory, namely Einstein’s theory of gravitation. But it just goes to show ....) Indeed, the earth’s own atmosphere bends some light into the earth’s shadow during a lunar eclipse. Or there could be something like a photographer’s darkroom mask between earth and sun, say, a suitably shaped dust cloud in orbital synchrony with the earth that produced the effect of a curved shadow from a rectilinear earth. And so it goes; who can say what is the limit of possibilities? That is why all scientific predictions come with a ceteris paribus (“all other things equal”) phrase attached to them.

So, yes, Alex, if we could establish untruths, then we have salvaged Truth; but untruths are no easier to know than truths.

I do think your second suggestion has some merit as well. But let me cut short the whole discussion by pointing out that in the column about assumptions that prompted your inquiry, I was not trying to refute relativism, the view that there is no Truth (although I did refute it in my column in Issue 45), but rather to show that we can never be sure that we know what the Truth is in any given instance. I am afraid the present column has not advanced that prospect.

I will, however, end on a more affirmative note with regard to Wartorn’s remarks. It is my experience that when I do hear two opponents in a thorough airing of their arguments, including the opportunity to answer each other as well as the bystanders, I am myself able to arrive at a conclusion about who has the right answer, which is sufficient to guide my subsequent actions.

Yours as ever,


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