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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,

There is something about you philosophers that puzzles me: you supposedly believe in being logical, but what you call ‘logical’ often seems to me to be just the opposite. For example, I was having a discussion with one of your bunch the other day about doing medical research on animals. My interlocutor was one of these ‘animal rights’ people, who I find to be quite silly at times. She opposes any such research on animals, especially when it might cause them pain. I pointed out to her that if you want to find a painkiller, you must first have someone in pain.

Well that set her off. Before I could bat an eyelash she was practically accusing me of being a Nazi. She said that even though my premise might be true ­­– that to test painkillers you need to have somebody in pain – it doesn’t follow that you are morally permitted to test painkillers on animals. Then she pointed out that the Nazis had no compunction about performing sadistic experiments on concentration camp in-mates in the name of medical science. “Yet today,” she insisted, “we would not countenance such things, even if it meant foregoing important research.”

Now here’s my complaint about the supposed logic of her argument, and of her way of arguing. Logic as I understand it is about the relevance of premises to a conclusion. But what do Nazis performing experiments on humans have to do with lab scientists doing experiments on animals? It seems to me that bringing that up is just a way of sneaking in an insult, or insinuating some emotional factor by association with Nazis into what should be a rational conversation. It’s a completely different topic, so isn’t it illogical rather than logical to mention it at all?

Dialectically yours,
Annica from Sweden

Dear Annica,

You raise a very interesting point. This is far from the first time I have been exposed to that complaint, however; my own interlocutors used to hurl it at me all the time!

I think I can explain what is going on quite simply. It all goes back to the Forms. If you have read Plato’s accounts of me, you may know that I rather fancy the idea of ideal archetypes, of which the furniture of the world is only an array of imperfect imitations. For example, if you draw a circle, even with a compass, it will be flawed, however slightly. Yet it cannot really be a circle unless it fits the perfect definition of ‘a curve that is always equidistant from a center’. In other words, that drawn circle must somehow partake of an ideal circle in order to be a circle at all. So any circle which our senses can perceive derives its identity and hence its very existence from something else; something more abstract, something more general, which applies to all circles of whatever size, color, composition, etc.

Since my day, the search for such defining perfect Forms, or ‘Ideas’ as they have also been called, has time and again been shown essential to the scientific quest for knowledge. In physics for example, one seeks the invariant structure underlying the infinite variety of natural phenomena. (This underlying invariance sometimes goes by the name ‘symmetry’.) For instance, two things which may seem utterly unlike, such as a coffee cup and a donut, turn out to be manifestations of an identical Form – in this case a shape called a ‘torus’ by topologists. In a similar way, magnetism and electricity have shown themselves to be different faces of a single force. Even space and time are deemed to have an ultimate unity, namely spacetime. Thus, a difference of aspect is no proof of a fundamental difference of substance. In fact, penetrating into the internal unity of two superficially different things may be the key to understanding their true nature.

Exactly that, I submit, is what is going on when philosophers argue a point about a particular entity by alluding to apparently different things. In the example that exercised you, a philosopher’s references to Nazis struck you as too different from animal experimentation to have any logical connection to them. But I rather suspect that what the philosopher had in mind was a deeper similarity. Thus, maybe the reason it was wrong for the Nazis to conduct the experiments they did was not that the experimental subjects were humans, but that they were capable of feeling pain. This sensibility they hold in common with all animals, including the ones experimented on by today’s scientists in medical laboratories. Perhaps what persuades the latter that it is all right to treat research animals as they do is that they spontaneously perceive the animals as “not like us”. But that is also what the Nazis believed justified their abominable treatment of ‘non-Aryans’.

The ultimate expression of the general notion I am trying to describe is indeed recognized today to be a form: none other than the humble symbolism of modern logic, where a mere x can stand for anything whatever in proving a point.

Therefore I append my X

your humble servant,


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