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Dear Socrates

Dear Socrates

Having traveled from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First Century 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,

You say you are dedicated to truth and wisdom, but in your dialogues you seem to be nothing but a skeptic. Do you believe in anything at all?

A. Believer

Dear Abie,

Let me tell you a story. You may recall that I now have a secret identity as a professor at a quaint metropolitan university. Well, one day I was teaching about the myths of ancient Greece and happened to compare them with some contemporary myths from your Bible. Instantly a hand shot up. One of my brighter students challenged my designation of Biblical stories as myths.

Naturally I was delighted, for here was an opportunity to dialogue. The book of Genesis being the case in point, I asked the student if he had some argument to back up his claim that evolution, rather than the Garden of Eden story, was the myth. It just so happened that he had. In fact, it had come from his biology teacher in high school, of all things, and it went like this:

It is an established fact of science that entropy increases in the universe. This means that, based only on natural laws and forces, there must be a continual loss of structure over time. But life is a highly structured phenomenon, and human life the most highly structured known. Therefore something supernatural was required to bring the various species into existence on the Earth.

Wonderful. I turned to the rest of the class and asked if anybody had any objection to the argument. There was silence. So I prompted further (giving myself time to think in the process!): Were all of the premises of the argument true? I asked. Being no scientist myself, not to mention a couple of thousand years and more behind the times, I was prepared to defer to anybody who was regarding matters of currently accepted scientific fact. But there seemed to be general assent to the assertions about entropy and life.

All the better. For my specialty is logic; and when there are nothing but true premises in an argument, the only remaining objection to the argument that could be made, aside from mere question-beggingness (where the conclusion merely repeats one of the premises), is that the conclusion does not logically follow from the premises. Having now been pushed into this corner, I was left to my own intellectual devices to find a way out. That is the kind of exercise I most relish!

“Let me ask you something,” I said. “This increase of entropy: Where exactly is it to be found? You only mention that it characterizes the universe. Does that mean in the universe as a whole, or in every one of its parts?” The student who had posed the argument was not quite certain how to deal with that question, but a physics-minded student in the class replied, “It’s true of any closed system.”

“And what is a closed system?” I further inquired of this student.

“One where there is no influx of energy.”

“Ah,” I continued, “I see; so since the universe as a whole apparently contains a constant amount of energy, entropy will increase therein. Let me ask you this, then: Since the conclusion of the argument we are examining is about life on Earth, is the Earth a closed system?”

That was the refutation, of course. The Sun constantly bathes the planet in new energy, thereby fueling evolution indefinitely. But when I looked back at the student who had proposed the argument, his eyes were fixed, possibly glazed (although I admit that could have been my imagination). Here was a person who was clearly capable of logical thinking and could follow the logic of this refutation of his argument; yet there would not be a peep of acknowledgment of this coming from him during the class, or afterward. Furthermore, I could only marvel that this argument had originated with a science teacher, and I began to wonder just what sort of high school the student had attended – a fundamentalist school, perhaps?

My point in relating this episode to you is just this: It seems to me that the student, while perfectly capable of logical thought, had a certain attitude towards it which vitiated its proper function. Apparently he conceived of logical argument as a tool for conversion, a mere instrument in the service of pre-established truths. The reason he was so ready with his argument when I had requested it was probably that he had been explicitly trained to proffer it when so challenged in his religious beliefs.

My own attitude towards logic, reasoning and dialogue is quite otherwise. To me they constitute the royal road to truth. I do have my convictions; but if somebody can demonstrate a flaw in the thinking that undergirds any one of them, I will take that to heart. Is that skepticism? I call it ‘rationality’.

As ever,


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