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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,

I have caught you in a blatant contradiction. In a previous column (Issue 48) you dismissed the beliefs of modern-day theists who accept all of the Biblical stories about God. In fact – in what I take to have been a rhetorical flourish – you refused even to believe that people believe such things, for example that Jesus walked on water. Your argument was that such beliefs would contradict other beliefs that those selfsame theists also hold and that are far more certain because they are both commonsensical and scientific.

But, Socrates, you have maintained consistently in these dialogues that wisdom resides in the realization that all of our knowledge or claims to knowledge rest on assumptions. Therefore your own beliefs – in this case, about the falsity of some Biblical stories – must themselves rest on assumptions and thus be tentative. In other words, your dismissive attitude to the religious believers is a betrayal of the intellectual humility you purport to champion.

Many people – and you must admit this is true – do believe that Jesus walked on water. Furthermore, many of these people are at least as intelligent and knowledgeable and observant and insightful and authentic and virtuous as you. You cannot deny any of the latter simply on the ground that they believe that Jesus walked on water, since that would be question-begging. Meanwhile, you think it is ridiculous to believe such a thing, and – I will grant this much – are genuinely puzzled as to how anybody could, especially someone of like intelligence.

You know the psychological answer: People generally believe what they do because they were brought up to believe it. It is not just a coincidence that many English are Christians and many Indians are Hindus. Yet, you have argued, even when all people in a given society are brought up to believe something, they may universally discard it, such as the belief in Santa Claus. Your explanation is that rationality chips in at last, forcing a choice to be made, on pain of contradiction, between scientific commonsense and childish magic. But the puzzle (for you) of enduring belief in miraculous religious stories remains.

Perhaps, then, you would be willing to concede that various factors extraneous to reason can influence people’s beliefs; for example, mass belief in miracles might arise from an urgent desire for salvation from worldly pain. You would still insist that reason, when sufficiently exercised, prevails. You might put yourself forward as a case in point, since many people of today – used to thinking of people of the past as more ‘primitive’ in their thinking – are surprised to learn about your skepticism about the religious stories of your own time and place.

But even here psychology can explain the phenomenon; for example, we should not be surprised to discover that there was something out of the ordinary about your parents and the way they raised you, such that your skepticism might have been predictable by a psychologist, without regard to your reasoning in the matter. Is my surmise correct, Socrates? If so, then you must admit that your disbelief in miracles should be at least as suspect in your eyes as others’ belief in them.

A Theist

Dear A,

I must say, A, that you push me to amazement beyond amazement. The last time we spoke, you strained my credulity by introducing me to the miraculous thinking of most of your educated contemporaries. This time you would have me question my own incredulity, my commitment to science and commonsense; you wish me to entertain the miraculous as a live option. Really, it makes me dizzy, so that now I am taking a dose of my own medicine; I am numbed “as if by the sting ray,” as I put it to Meno.

You argue in effect that the very intransigence of certain theists’ beliefs should count in their favor, at least in the indirect sense that my own adamancy in opposition to them ought to be tempered by a consideration of the contingent ancestry our incompatible convictions share. That would seem to leave all knowledge on a foundation of sand, which is only compatible with my own conception of wisdom.

I must of course grant your general point that, to be consistent myself, I should allow for the possibility that even my own most basic assumptions are in error, or at least dubitable. But from this you seem oddly to draw the conclusion that I must reject my own assumptions and accept everybody else’s willy-nilly. How on earth would that follow? To hold, as I do, that assumptions are subject to questioning, does not mean that any given assumption will buckle under at the first glance, nor even at the last, nor, on the other hand, that all assumptions are equally resistant to criticism.

Thus, it is not miracles as such that leave me cold, but the flimsiness of the evidence put forward for them. Let the believers in miracles be as insistent as they like; I only care whether they are willing to engage me in dialogue. My background and personality may indeed explain my preferences, but it so happens that my main allegiance is to truth, even if it turns out to be grim. Is it not too much of a coincidence, you imply, that – yes, as a matter of fact, both of my parents had a skeptical turn of mind as well? My reply: If it is true that we are subject to causality, which I won’t deny, then it makes perfect sense that those who have an uncompromising commitment to critical inquiry are likely to have been reared by others who did also. [Editor’s note: The Anthropic Principle meets the Genetic Fallacy.] I consider myself fortunate to have been one such.

Yours as ever,


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