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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 claim that your main allegiance is to truth. Time and again you have told us that you do not care who is right or wrong when you are dialoguing with someone, only so long as you both advance toward understanding. However, just as frequently you seem to express your indifference to truth, especially when you are claiming your vast ignorance of various subjects and yet your ability to discern when someone is making sense. Would you please enlighten me about this apparent contradiction in your thinking?

Veritas

Dear Veritas,

I see what is bothering you, so let me explain. In truth I value truth above all else. But the problem is to figure out where truth lies (to use the odd English phrasing). I have discovered that the Forms are my great guide, for without even knowing whether somebody’s evidence is true, or indeed even when I know it is true, I am, with the help of the Forms, able to tell if the case makes no sense. For example, suppose Meletus argued as follows:

The Areopagus is a hill.

The Acropolis is a hill.

Therefore the Areopagus is the Acropolis.

Now, it happens that both of the premises of that argument are true, but the conclusion is false. Therefore something must be wrong with the argument. What is wrong is that it fails to conform to the Forms of logic. The argument is fallacious because it has the form:

a is p.

b is p.

Therefore a is b.

But this could not be a Form since the Forms are perfect and would never permit a false conclusion to be derived from true premises. So, even an argument having the same structure and not only true premises but also a true conclusion, would be invalid because it failed to instantiate a Form. For example:

Phosphorus sometimes rises just ahead of the sun.

Venus sometimes rises just ahead of the sun.

Therefore Phosphorus is Venus.

Here the conclusion is true, but it does not follow from the premises because, for all they tell us, Phosphorus might be Mercury, who also sometimes rises just ahead of the sun. This, then, is why I commonly extol the virtues of logic over truth; but if I were to speak more precisely or comprehensively, I would say that logic is powerful precisely because it is our surest pilot to avoid the shoals of falsehood on our voyage to truth.

I can, in addition, point to a more direct concern I have with truth, not only as the end I seek but even as a means (to more truth). You have no doubt noticed that I also speak a great deal about assumptions. In these pages (Issue 33) I once defined wisdom as the recognition that all of our knowledge is based on them. And when I suggested at my trial that the unexamined life is not worth living, it was our basic assumptions I had in mind as bearing continual scrutiny. Now I will put it this way: in order for us to know if a claim is true, we must know if the assumptions on which it is based are themselves true. For example, suppose Epicurus argued as follows:

Drinking alcohol is pleasurable.

Therefore drink as much alcohol as possible.

Now, if I were simply a logician, I would dismiss the argument as illogical because it has the form a therefore b. Obviously there could be any number of arguments with the same form but having a true premise and a false conclusion, for example, “2+2=4; therefore elephants have three trunks.” But such a criticism would be ridiculous since the more reasonable interpretation of Epicurus’s argument is that it contains a silent premise, in other words, an assumption. Therefore his argument is logical, thus:

a is p. (Drinking is pleasurable.)

If p then q. (If some activity is pleasurable, then you should engage in it as much as possible.)

Therefore a is q. (Drink as much as possible.)

So you see how an understanding of the logic of the Forms, which itself is not based on truth, reveals to us the way in which a typical argument is based on truth, namely, of something that had been merely presumed. The philosopher’s peculiar work is to point that out, then to question the presumption and engage the arguer in dialogue about its merit, that is, its truth, in order to determine whether it warrants the inference of which it is an essential part. In this example I have parodied Epicurus, for he himself would have rejected the silent premise, on the grounds that, although anything pleasurable is good, our goal is the best life; and the best life can only come about from the proper balancing of sometimes conflicting goods. Thus, drinking in excess is likely to deny us even better goods, such as early rising with an unmuddied head, stable human relationships, effective functioning in general, and a long and healthy life.

I hope I have persuaded you, then, that although I employ logic to decide if an argument is valid without reference to the truth of the premises and conclusion, logic does thereby tell me a lot about truth, and that’s why I use it. If an argument is invalid, I thereby know which truths, namely the spoken premises, are insufficiently relevant to the conclusion to establish its truth; while if an argument is valid, I thereby know which additional truths, namely the unspoken premises or assumptions, are required to secure the conclusion’s truth. Thus, it’s all about truth from beginning to end.

As ever, Socrates

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