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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 sometimes detect religious skepticism in your remarks, so I wonder what you think about recent scientific evidence that deep faith in God keeps people healthier, or helps them to heal faster?

Please understand the spirit in which I put this matter before you. I am not trying to persuade you to believe in God on the basis of empirical research. I appreciate that it would be fallacious to infer from the efficacy of faith or prayer to the existence of divine intervention. After all, just because somebody believes in something, and benefits from that belief, does not prove that the belief is true. I would feel better if I believed that I had just won a million pounds, even if my belief were mistaken.

What I really am curious about is how you would treat religious beliefs whose truth you questioned or denied, if they turned out to be good for people.

Faithfully yours,
A. Theist

Dear A.,

You present me with a pretty poser, but it is hardly a new one. Plato discussed something analogous in the Republic, although he put the words in my mouth. There he has me proposing an ‘opportune falsehood’ or a ‘noble lie’ by which people will secure their own welfare. The idea is that the vast majority of human beings are incapable of appreciating what is truly best for themselves and how to attain it, and so a certain ethical structure must be imposed on society for the good of all. And what more effective way to maintain this structure than to devise a fabulous doctrine which supports it, suitable to their level of intelligence, so that the people could believe it with all their heart?

Now, first, I would ask you to entertain a hearty skepticism regarding Plato’s attribution of such a proposal to me. Do you really believe that a true philosopher would be party to intentional mass delusion? A philosopher, as you know, is a lover of wisdom. I suppose one could quibble about wisdom not being the same as truth, but it does seem a stretch to divorce them completely, does it not? Your question, however, is about a more plausible separation, namely, between metaphysical truth and social good. Is it possible for those two to come into conflict, and if so, on whose side should we come down?

I would ask you also to be skeptical about the ‘scientific evidence’ to which you allude. I don’t mean to express any dissatisfaction with science itself; but the way science is promulgated to general society can be exactly akin to the way politics and morality often are; that is, by a ‘noble lie’ all its own. This is what is going on, I maintain, whenever science purports to be the sole road to truth, or, more modestly, when research results are put forward as definitive findings and ‘scientific facts’, as perhaps is the case here. Yes, it is true that the intelligence, education, and sheer time needed to properly assess scientific research may be beyond the ken of the average citizen; but what follows, it seems to me, is not that falsehoods should be perpetrated, but rather a healthy tentativeness: “All right, we will accept this, while waiting to hear more.”

Let us suppose, though, that the findings you report are as you reported them: That faith, prayer and other forms of religious practice and belief serve a beneficial purpose in human affairs. I am going beyond your suggestion to let it be the case overall. Even accounting for all the wars and other miseries religion has brought upon us, let us grant that on balance religion’s effects have been and will continue to be positive – or at least less negative than if the world lacked religion.

This is not implausible. One of the great intellectual pleasures I have experienced since returning to the surface of the world has been to study sociobiology. It now seems possible to explain the various phenomena of social life, including entrenched institutions such as religion, by reference to their function in human evolution. Thus, a gene is more likely to pass on genetic progeny if its owner belongs to a cooperative network of ‘guardians’, if I may call them thus, who in the human case are the run of human beings. Human society is kept in harness by a strong belief in an Almighty, which provides incentives to both personal happiness and group harmony. Without these incentives, humans would probably not be able to ‘carry on’, and hence the gene-line would be left defenseless, to die off.

In other words, it seems that nature herself has imposed a ‘noble lie’ on us all. First and foremost the ‘lie’ was nurtured for the sake of genes, but our psychological good has become caught up in it. This line of thought suggests that philosophy as a thorough-going love of truth may actually be a counter-evolutionary tendency. That might explain why philosophy has held on through human history only by the skin of its teeth!

To which I say: So be it. Who am I to fight biology? Perhaps I can no more help the ‘plight’ of myself to be so uncompromisingly dedicated to truth than I can help the ‘plight’ of humanity to be immersed in illusion. I do believe that ignorance is harmful to the soul and society, and I harbor my own faith that Truth takes us right up to Good, with no need of deceptive detours (albeit at times via stories, recognized as such). Plato got that bit right. But I hold these hypotheses, as I hold all hypotheses, tentatively.

As ever,


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