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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.
There is a passage in Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue where you challenge Euthyprho, a priest of that ancient era, by asking him if he really believes the stories about the gods of Olympus. Euthyprho says that of course he believes them, but you reply that you doubt their truth. So I wonder: Did you believe in the gods at all?
I did, and I do. But I not only doubt but absolutely disbelieve many of the stories that have been handed down about them. My grounds for disbelief are twofold: As I explained in that dialogue, some of them have the gods doing things that violate my innate sense of virtue and so could not possibly be true of the divine. The second reason is that many of them are simply silly and so violate my acquired undertanding of what is plausible.
Yours as ever,
A. replies: Your answer is rather vague, question-begging really. You have only told me that you don’t find the stories believable. Why not?
Socrates replies: Sometimes it is difficult to explain things that are so obvious. You have this fellow named Santa Claus in your culture, do you not? Only little children believe the story about him. When you reach a certain age, you start to wonder about some things, like: How could Santa Claus reach every single house on the planet in one night? Can reindeer really fly? And so on. Then you simply stop believing the story because the details conflict with your commonsense knowledge of the world.
A. replies: But if it is all so obvious, Socrates, then why do you appear to be among a minuscule minority of humanity that realizes it? Aren’t you being a bit of a snob?
Socrates replies: It’s not just a question of intellectual adornment, my dear A: These supernatural beliefs often affect how people behave regarding important matters. But do you seriously mean to tell me that most people today still believe that Zeus bound his father, Cronus, and that Cronus swallowed his sons and castrated his father, Uranus, and all that jazz? Poppycock!
A. replies: You would perhaps be surprised by how many people do indeed believe that, or at least plead agnostic about it. But I am not referring literally to those stories or those gods, but to equivalent ones. The majority of the citizens of my country, for example, claim to believe that a virgin gave birth to a child, whose father was God, and who is God himself, and who walked on water when incarnated and performed other miracles. Many also believe that God created the first human being directly from dust, and the second from the first, and then brought about lesser miracles, such as parting the Red Sea and stopping the Sun in its course. What say you to that?
Socrates replies: You leave me speechless, that is, if I can believe you. I noticed that you qualified your remark by saying most people claim to believe those things. Do you suppose they had some incentive to lie?
A. Theist: I assure you, Socrates, that the average person you will come across in the world today is no different in this regard from the average citizen of your earlier place and time. It seems that people genuinely, indeed adamantly, believe what they are brought up to believe, for the most part. It is deeper than a mere belief, such as the date of some historical event, but a fundamental assumption about the nature of the world. To give up such a belief, people would have to change their way of looking at everything, including themselves. This is not something that can be given up lightly.
Socrates replies: But I do not accept that such silly and absurd beliefs are like bedrock and keystone, holding up the larger structure of reality. That is what I precisely deny, in fact. For example, I am told that all of the people in your country are educated – almost all receive at least twelve years of formal instruction in science and history and so forth. But these other beliefs of which you speak do not agree with what they learn in their classes in school. Their teachers can simply point this out to their students by the law of contradiction.
A. replies: But most of the teachers believe these things too, Socrates.
Socrates replies: Ah! For a moment you had me believing you. But I see you were just telling a story yourself – a very entertaining one, I might add – downright creepy, like a science fiction novel I recently read, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, except that in yours everyone has become a zombie not because of loss of emotion but because of loss of intelligence.
Stories can be excellent vehicles of enlightenment, to be sure ... provided they are recognized as such, as stories whose truth may always be questioned, or whose truth may be metaphorical but not literal. But you were just playing upon my own credulity. I reject the literal truth of your story on the same grounds I reject that of the stories your story was about: sheer implausibility. Thank you for keeping me on my toes.
Yours as ever,