Introduction to Philosophy

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Thursday, 09-07-17: Plato's Apology

Readings:

Synopsis:

Today we took our first quiz, which I should mention I owe to my esteemed colleague Selmer Bringsjord, director of the Rensselaer AI & Reasoning (RAIR) Lab. Recall the puzzle:

Suppose that there are four possible kinds of objects:

  • an unhappy dodecahedron
  • a happy dodecahedron
  • an unhappy cube
  • a happy cube

Further suppose that written on a hidden piece of paper is one of the attitudes (unhappy or happy) and one of the shapes (dodecahedron or cube). Consider the following definition:

An object is a THOG if and only if it has either the attitude written down, or the shape written down, but not both.

The unhappy dodecahedron is a THOG. Which of the other objects, if any, is a THOG?

The solution is straightfoward.

Since the unhappy dodecahedron is a THOG, either “unhappy” or “dodecahedron” is written down, but not both, following the definition of a 'THOG'. Hence either “unhappy” and “cube” are written down on the hidden piece of paper or “happy” and “dodecahedron” are written down instead, but we don't know which. The only thing we can do when faced with alternatives without knowing which obtains is to work through each and ever alternative:

1. Suppose "unhappy" and "cube" are written on the hidden piece of paper.

Can the unhappy cube be a THOG in this case? No, because both its attitude and shape would be written down, violating the definition of a THOG. Can the happy dodecahedron be a THOG in this case? No again, but this time it is because neither the attitude nor the shape are written down, which again violates the definition of a THOG. Can the happy cube be a THOG in this case? Well, yes, because "cube" is written down but not "happy". So if "unhappy" and "cube" are written on the hidden piece of paper, then the happy cube is a THOG. But we don't know if "unhappy" and "cube" is written on the the hidden piece of paper! Since the unhappy dodecahedron is a THOG, it could be that the piece of paper has on it instead "happy" and "dodecahedron".

2. Suppose "happy" and "dodecahedron" are written down on the hidden piece of paper.

Can the happy dodecahedron be a THOG in this case? No, because both its attitude and shape would be written down, violating the definition of a THOG. Can the unhappy cube be a THOG in this case? No, because neither its attitude nor its shape are written down on the hidden piece of paper, again violating the definition of a THOG. What about the happy cube? Since "happy" is written down but not"cube", it follows in this case also that the happy cube is a THOG.

So no matter which of the two available options turns out to be the case, the happy cube is a THOG. That is, if the unhappy dodecahedron is a THOG, the happy cube is one, too! This is the answer, and an explanation of how we determine it.

We then went on to discuss Plato's Apology. You should all read it, of course, if you have not already--which, sadly, is most of you. It's short, and fascinating. Yet the important part I wanted to focus on for our purposes was the story Socrates tells in his defense.

Socrates, you see, is in a bind. His friend returns from asking the Oracle at Delphi, "who is the wisest man in Athens" with an astonishingly un-oracular, straightfoward answer: "Socrates is the wisest man in Athens". Yet Socrates, a humble stone-mason who enjoys discussing various issues with friends, cannot picture himself the wisest man in Athens. It is preposterous. It is unbelievable. It is, to his mind, absurd.

So Socrates sets out to prove the Oracle wrong. He searches out all the wisest men of Athens--the politicians, the poets, and the craftsmen--to determine once and for all who is the wisest man of Athens. In questioning each of these wise men, Socrates discovers, much to his dismay, that

  1. Those who think they are wise, the politicians, don't really have the wisdom to which they claim. Upon examination Socrates learns that their supposed wisdom was a kind of conceit, wherein they deceived even themselves into thinking they had wisdom they really didn't.
  2. Those who produce wise and insightful things, like the poets, aren't in any better a position to understand the wisdom of what they've done than anyone else. Indeed, they themselves will frequently disavow any special wisdom about their own work.
  3. Those who make things that require wisdom--the craftsmen--do possess wisdom appropriate to their trade or craft, but then make the mistake of pretending that that wisdom carries over to everything else. So they end up being almost as much the pretenders to wisdom as the politicians.

To be sure, those who believe themselves wise but who are not, in fact, wise, are not lying, exactly. A lie you must know to be false, even as you tell others it. No, all of these people actually believe they know much more than they do not, in fact, know.

It dawns on Socrates, after much thought, that this is what the Oracle of Delphi meant: Socrates was the wisest man of Athens not because he knew more than anyone else, but because unlike everyone else, he alone knew that he did not know.

The start of wisdom, then, is understanding that what you think you know, you may not, in fact, know. It is this sense of grasping that you do not know what you think you know which is characteristic of philosophy. Philosophy starts in wonder. The ancient Greek would call it aporia, which is frequently translated as 'perplexity'.

Philosophy, if it is done well, sets us back on our heels. It startles us into recognizing that what we take for granted we know may not, or sometimes could not, be the case. It unsettles us and makes us take stock and work hard to gain what we think we lost, but never really had in the first place: Genuine understanding.

The upshot, then, is that we should welcome perplexity and recognize that it is not the end of wisdom: It is the beginning.

Put another way, shall we grok thogs? Then relish aporia we must.

We closed today by continuing our story on the Island of Knights and Knaves with another puzzle.

Now as you are discovering, it is one thing to grasp or understand a solution to a puzzle, quite another to be able to explain it yourself. Indeed, I would argue that you don't really understand something until you've had to explain it. Cudos to those brave enough to give a shot at explaining the solution to the class, but we've much work to do in this regard.