If Socrates Was Mostly Right, We Are Mostly Wrong

by John Colbeck


I suggest that Socrates was serious, and mostly right, in saying "I know nothing". That little bit of negative wisdom has surfaced many times in the history of ideas. If he is right, then we may be wrong to pursue knowledge. Believing in awareness of ignorance and uncertainty may be more important—a better state of mind for going on with—than thinking we have arrived at certain knowledge—a dead certain end. Socrates consistently led his opponents to a point of elenchus (awareness of self-contradiction) and aporeia. He believed that such a state was motivating towards learning and change. Perhaps we should aim to do the same and start from a commonly held precept of critical thinkers "Take nothing for granted" ? The loss of 'knowledge' would be far from a calamity: science, for instance, would be no less powerful, but more 'opening minded' if seen as a powerfully convincing, empowering network of mutually reinforcing theories and beliefs motivated by values, instead of the non-subjective system of externally, physically verifiable or testable 'knowledge' to which many positivists still aspire. The word 'belief' makes uncertainty openly, honestly explicit. If children are to think critically, they must be aware—we must alert them—to the prevalence of error. The thesis has infinite breadth: it cannot be completely justified unless I can justify it in all possible dimensions and domains. I shall discuss support for promoting a Socratic awareness of ignorance, mistakes, errors in three domains: in the history of ideas, the spirit, or attitude recurs often; in science and language (logic), universal statements can never be known to be completely true; in educating, the consequences of 'incompleteness' (uncertainty, partiality) are potentially motivating towards learning, for ever—eternal life-long learning—if we survive that long. It follows from the statement in my title that, if I am right, I am likely soon to find that I am wrong—not now, but perhaps tomorrow, in discussion. Modesty—willingness to change my mind and contra-dict myself—is in order.

"I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance." (Socrates) (note 1)
"Now ye say "We see", therefore your sin remaineth." (John 9, 41)
"Now, therefore, the axe is laid to the root of the tree." (Matthew 3, 10. )
My Predicament—A Thesis of Infinite Breadth Cannot Be Justified


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It is not my intention to read the whole of this paper. Its length is due to the infinite breadth of my task. That is similar to the task of an atheist seeking to justify her belief that God does not exist—that the word 'God' has no valid or valuable purpose. She has to consider all possible uses of the word 'God' before her task can be complete. I claim only to have shown that, over a wide, but still never to be exhausted range, common uses of the word 'knowledge', as justified, true belief, cannot be completely justified. We cannot expect justifications to be complete, only, perhaps, 'sufficient'. There are logical, or possibly psychological, blocks there. The word 'belief' would, in almost all cases, be more accurate and honest. When necessary, we would spell out, as honestly and openly as we can, the reasons supporting our beliefs and values. If I am under oath to speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, I must be silent. "So help me God" might be my only hope. This is one aspect in which our current uses of words are a prison or strait-jacket. To use them care-fully would silence us if the law requires us to tell universal or complete truths and nothing but those. The idea that we can 'see' only partially—incompletely and with unavoidable bias—would liberate us to say what we believe, hope and love—things that are true enough to act on, for now.

We neither need, nor can we have, more. What do we need more for?

To put that differently, if I want to make a generally true statement such as "Animals never kill within the species," I have to add "Well, hardly ever." Similarly, if I want to say "Never contradict y-ourself (never change y-our mind)" I have to add "Well, not too often and not too quickly, but not too seldom nor too slowly, either, just enough to be firm and flexible." There are no absolute rules, even in language, because it is we who make them.

If we had absolute rules, or items of verbal knowledge, they would be power-full prisons or 'masters', imposed by the power classes—us—on our selves. "The question is" said Humpty Dumpty "Which is to be master—that's all." (Carroll 1872, p. 124). Humpty Dumpty made the questionable assumption that someone or something—we or our words—must be master. Such "Which came first?" questions are not appropriate in evolutionary thinking: we and our words take it in turns to be 'master'. We invent words and they tend to make-create us what we be-come. Do we turn the words we invent into our own masters? We need not do that. Godel (1931) suggested that complete justification was never possible within a single language. I support that, in science also.


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My motivation for promoting Socrates' idea ("I know nothing") comes from my belief that it will improve children's motivation towards learning, and their active participation, in our joint, mutual education. I also think it would make war less likely, because our thinking in terms of 'either/or' logic—"There is no middle ground"—would be modified. You cannot want to learn, to compromise or to give way, if you think you already know.

Personal motivation towards learning is also considerably reduced if I think someone else already knows and can tell me. My 'contribution' then becomes a relatively passive one of receiving, as if from top down, with a container-like mind, open at the top, second-hand 'knowledge' from a knowing 'teacher' in authority. If Socrates is right, that is a dishonest exercise of power, corrupting, de-motivating. What is the point? A child is normally in no position to 'see' the 'end', or far point, of learning (are we?) Why learn? Children, mostly, arrive in school bright eyed, bushy tailed, curious and inquisitive. They leave more like adults. Is that an improvement? What do we do to them? What kind of 'nourishment' do we offer them to produce this effect?

But that is to anticipate. Before rushing to apply Socrates' wisdom I need to support it against critics of various kinds—too many kinds for my task ever to be completed. My aim in this introduction has been only to suggest that the consequences of my thesis are far from disastrous. We might adopt the motto "Know nothing; explore everything. Believe and value as much as you can. Extend y-our perspectives of values and beliefs to make them grow.

Motivation towards learning will increase: awareness of ignorance, uncertainty, incompleteness, is a necessary condition for wanting to learn. That idea was a large part of the eros motivating Socrates as an educator.

We learn (mainly) by becoming aware of mistakes, by trial and error. If that kind of learning is to occur, erring must be done—with experimental courage—and we must become aware of our mistakes. I cannot be aware of my own mistakes, at the time. But you can see mine; I may be able to 'see' yours. We need each other, each as 'Socrates'—a friendly enemy-opponent—to make progress in zig-zags via democratic, 'just', balanced, ratio-nal, equal, one-to-one dialogue and conflict, like his.

I have been inspired there by Chantal Mouffe's (2000) book The Democratic Paradox. She suggests that the essence, or driving force, of democracy is not a striving for a dead, uniform consensus but a determination to keep alive an agonistic (but not hostile, ant-agonistic) conflict. Seen in its most general terms, this is the conflict of autos with and against nomos, chaos with and against order (cosmos), freedoms with and against authorities (executive forms of power, organization, hierarchy). In philosophy, I think Socrates' method of one-to-one dialogue expresses that democratic aim in an ideal, just, balanced, ratio-nal speech situation of agonistic conflict between friendly equals. Our present organization of education does not exemplify that spirit. Burton Mack (1993, p. 116) suggests that, in their market-place dialogues, Socrates, the Cynics and Jesus can be seen as playing similar humorous games of 'gotcha' with their opponents. Children could en-joy those—put joy into them. So could adults.

Support From Prevalence In The History Of Ideas

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Socrates' statement was far from new. It occurs in the Tao-te Ching, in a Sanskrit verse, in Genesis and, later, in The New Testament (several times) probably in many other sources. Some sources are listed in Note 1.

If knowledge is (a kind of) power, as Foucault suggests (note 2), and if power tends to corrupt, as Lord Acton suggests (note 3), then the pursuit of knowledge is (can be seen in part as) leading towards corruption! That little sequence needs only to be partially true (incompletely true and with bias) to make it worth examining more closely to see what is true and what is false about it.

If Socrates is mostly right, as I believe, no statement (including, of course, this one) can ever be known to be (justified as) true completely and without bias. Well, hardly ever, to be on the safe side.

Only people can make statements. Persons are the only possible subjects of the verb 'to state'. The most arrogant statements are rarely made in an individual's own name. Usually some other 'higher' authority is 'humbly' claimed, inauthentically. Sometimes 'the economy', 'the constitution' or 'Reason' is said to 'demand'. There are always people (unseen and undeclared) behind these demands. We need to see who they are.

To give only two examples of the possibility of reversing the conventional wisdom of authorities, we often hear (from authorities) the slogan "No freedom without responsibility." What do the 'authors' want to say? Freedom is downplayed; responsibility (which 'we'—authorities—have and represent) comes first. The statement can be reversed: "There can be no responsibilities without freedoms." I cannot feel responsible, or be held responsible, for decisions in which I had no part. Both slogans are partly true—about equally, but differently, half true. Democracy needs both.

Another common statement is "ESP is all imagination." What is the meaning or 'thrust' under this statement? Both ESP and imagination are denigrated by someone with real, hard, objective, verifiable common sense? Again, the statement can be reversed. "All imagination is ESP—extra-sensory, minds eyes and ears perceptions." And very 'real' and powerful too! We are more directly aware of events in our 'minds' than of anything else. All our motivations come from them. Before we 'see' a table, a great deal of 'processing' has to go on in our physical eyes, nerve pathways and brain to 'interpret' and integrate the mass of confusing 'external' sense inputs bombarding us. We 'see' with our mind's eyes.

The 'chaos' of sense impressions has to be reduced to 'order' before we can re-cognise a table. We must have 'cognised' and seen one before. Then we can organize and say (out again) "Ah! 'Table'." Then, in order to mediate my meaning to someone else, a similar organizing process has to go on in the other person's mind and body. We do not 'see'—not even objects—only with our physical eyes but also in our minds' 'eyes'. Our physical eyes, alone, are blind. Our minds, without physical eyes, would also be blind? I am not sure about that.

All meanings (intentions of persons) are mediated by imagining. Communicating is something which happens between two or more minds.

Hence the fallibility of communication in 'words'. The match between words, non-words and conceivings in our minds is never perfect, one-to-one correspondence. That awareness should, in all modesty, limit our confidence in saying "I know," and "I re-cognize." It takes at least two to achieve that.

In order to 'understand' another person completely, I would have to 'become' that person completely. In order to move in that direction (of understanding more) I have to imagine myself as that person (Confucius: "Imagine that my heart was yours.") (note 4) On the one hand, that process can never be complete (exploring learning must be life-long—eternal). On the other hand it is not easy to see any limits to the extent to which we can go on, move or travel towards fuller and fuller understanding of others as our selves.

Through two-way dialogue (I want to call it two-way intercourse, not one-way discourse) we can exchange more and more pieces of our hearts and minds. When we do that, the giver does not lose what she gives but multiplies it by dividing and sharing, much as living cells multiply themselves by dividing and growing. Even mathematics is reversible.

I find Socrates' supporters impressive, but I must first deal with two kinds of critic; those who claim that the statement is self-refuting and others who suggest that he did not 'really' mean it: he was speaking ironically or with dramatic, didactic purpose (like a top-down 'teacher?), as an actor.

"The Statement Refutes Itself" "Does he know that he doesn't know?"

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Was Socrates hoist with his own petard—blown up by his own bomb?

One of Socrates' own most powerfully persuasive techniques was 'elenchus'—to show his opponent that what he thought he knew contained a self-contradiction. If I say, as I largely do want to say, "Knowledge does not exist." my Socratic opponent can say "Do you know that?" Or, more carefully, "Are you sure about that?" It is not easy to answer either "Yes" or "No", so I say "Yes, in part, and no in part."

I do not expect to know anything more than partially (incompletely and with bias). As I said in my opening paragraph, my position is similar, in one respect, to that of an atheist seeking to justify a statement that "God does not exist." I take that to be equivalent to "The word 'God' has no valid or valuable use." Scientists used the words 'phlogiston' and 'the aether' for many years before they 'discovered' that the words no longer referred to anything they believed to 'ex-ist', 'out there' in physical space-time. They concluded that "The aether, and phlogiston, do not ex-ist, out there."

We might note, however, that, instead of 'phlogiston', conceived as some kind of invisible, material stuff which passes from hot bodies to cold ones, we now believe that it is 'energy' which so passes. With the advent of relativity, we also believe that energy and mass are inter-convertible—so 'phlogiston' now = 'mass-energy', and 'the aether' = 'free space'. The latter turns out to be far from 'empty'. My point is that an opponent of the 'atheist' can always say "Are you sure? What is the concept of 'God' in which you do not believe? Have you considered all the possible uses of the word 'God' which may be suggested in future?" Justification cannot be completed.

If I say, rashly, "Knowledge does not exist," I have a similar problem: someone may come up with a different concept of knowledge which is not among those which I have, if I am successful so far, demolished.

I have an additional, logical problem: if an opponent asks me "Are you sure?" Or "Do you know that?" I seem to be 'caught'—'gotcha!'

If I say "Yes," I appear both to confirm and to contradict my own statement, to speak against my self, to change my mind a bit too quickly.

If I say "No. I am not 100% sure of anything", then I am also consistent, but I appear to weaken my claim.

My answer has to be (third side of an either/or coin) "Yes and No. Yes, I am fairly sure. I have many reasons for my belief. And No, I am not completely sure. I don't expect certainty to be attainable. Certainty is not even desirable." I believe what I believe to be true—true enough to act on, for now. My assumptions today are my conclusions of yesterday. My conclusions, today, will be my assumptions tomorrow, always going out of date, continuously evolving.

Apart from the phrase 'a bit too quickly' it is surely not a bad thing to change my mind, to speak against my self, to contra-dict my self? It might be called flexibility, open- or, I prefer, opening-mindedness, willingness to recognise a mistake and to be, not only 'critical' but also—rare virtue—self-critical? I might then even arrogantly claim the virtue of humility or modesty? (note 5) Or would that be modestly confessing to the 'sin' (mistake) of arrogance? Is that another 'catch 22', 'either/or' question?

All 'either/or' coins have three sides. We tend to forget the edge, and thus to exclude the middles, where most of life goes on. This results in our tossing an 'either/or' coin and either going to war or cravenly surrendering to violence. "It's them or us, boys. There's no middle ground or compromise." Bush's (and bin Laden's) mistake is a philosophical one—of 'either/or' logic or "Thou shalt believe in my (kind of) God, not thy kind." One or other of us must be right. Not so. Neither, or both may be right—about equally, partially wrong. Noone is likely, ever, to be completely right. Awareness of that might have changed history.

Philosophers, religious leaders and educators—the power classes—are responsible for these war-producing mistakes which I call singular thinking, either/or logic. It stems from the belief that statements can be completely true or completely false. There are few, if any, such statements of more than local and temporary interest. Only human beings can make ststements and human beings are fallible.

Did He Mean It? Was He speaking Ironically? Did he 'really' know?

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Peter Abbs (1994), whose book The Educational Imperative has been an inspiring source for me, emphasizes, as I do, the way Socrates presses his opponent to the point of elenchus and aporeia.

Abbs gives some support to the 'only ironic' interpretation. In a section headed "The Role of Irony" (page 19), he writes:

At one level, even the honest confession of ignorance, so characteristic of Socrates, is duplex (deceptive?). When he applies the elenchus, he works with the skill of a surgeon cutting out a cancerous growth in his patient. And, indeed, he knows exactly what he is after. His ignorance is a classical mask, a persona, deliberately used to catch and destroy the vermin of received opinion.

Socrates is not here for us to ask him but, as it stands, this quote shows, I think, only that what Socrates "was after" was a state of elenchus—awareness of self-contradiction in what his opponent thought he knew.

His aim is negatively destructive of received opinion of all kinds. That applies equally to his own opinions. They are not 'knowledge'. Nietzsche (1886-94) meets this kind of criticism of his own similar views, head on.

Granted that this too is only interpretation—and you will be eager enough to make this objection? Well, so much the better.

I think Socrates might make the same reply. He clearly regards uncertainty, incompleteness and provisionality as healthier states of mind, more motivating towards learning, than thinking we know.

In the Meno, Plato has him say:

At least it seems that we have made him more likely to find out the truth ... And do you think he would ever have tried to discover the truth if he had not fallen into puzzlement? (Quoted in Abbs, p. 18)

This passage does imply that Socrates believes there is a 'the' truth to be discovered but I think it would be consistent in Socrates to suppose that this 'truth' is the 'fact' (thing made or done, concluded)—a direct awareness of his, our, everyone's, ignorance, blindness in leading the blind, uncertainty, partial 'knowledge'. In this, his view would coincide with the other sources of wisdom I have listed: "He who thinks he knows, doesn't know." (Tao-te Ching and a Sanskrit verse, Campbell, 1993, p. 65).

It can be claimed (I would claim) that every question of Socrates implies a statement which he is, by subtle implication, asserting. He who asks the questions is in control of the agenda, I would agree. If the question is accepted, so, often unawares and unconsciously, are the assumptions embedded in it.

I suspect that Socrates was aware of this and that this awareness dictated his adoption of a questioning attitude, or spirit, as the most powerful one.

But Socrates' questions, and the assertions they implied, are of a negative kind. They are (can be seen as) of the form "Are you sure? What about ... ?" The assertion implied is of a negative kind "I am not sure." He can be directly aware of (know about?) that uncertainty. Again, the relentless pointing is towards elenchus—awareness of not knowing, not being sure, as a desirable state of mind both, of course, for himself and for the other. His spirit was democratic, balanced, ratio-nal, self-critically aware.

He engaged in agonistic conflict in an ideal speech situation between equally (but differently) unknowing friend-opponents. His dialogues were physically non-violent, agonistic (not hostile and ant-agonistic) conflicts—games of 'gotcha', not war.

What matters now, in 2002, is not what Socrates, or Plato his 'author' 'really' meant—that is interesting but need not detain us unless we view Socrates as an authority to be followed. He would not wish that. We have to decide whether or not, or to what extent and in what senses, we believe the statement as we have it. What are we going to do about our belief?

If we can catch his 'spirit', or eros, I think we might see Socrates' method of equal, one-to-one dialogue and questioning as not child-centred, not adult-centred, not really 'centred' in a singular sense at all but 'de-centred', 'double or plural'-centred. His spirit is adult-child-in-equal-dialogue-centred (adults as children in a baby species—possibly the youngest babies in our cosmos—unlikely to be the oldest or wise, just yet.)

The idea of being encouraged to question and contradict adult 'teachers' might appeal to children as en-joy-able? We can put joy into it? Cheek and magisterial pomposity are impossible between equals—friends?

To put that another way, I don't think Socrates would want his pupils to be passively 'open'-minded—image of a dustbin with the lid off, or of a loft-y mind with the trap-door open—ready to be stuffed, like clone-dummies, with second hand 'knowledge', worn out ideas and things for storage or disposal. It was that 'clutter' and 'baggage' of old 'knowledge' gathering dust in loft-y minds that he (and later Jesus) wanted to clear away.

He would want his pupils to become (or continue to be, as when they arrived in school) actively opening minded, exploring-minded, inquisitive, questioning, inquiring, contra-dicting received wisdoms of all kinds including, especially, their own—self-contra-dicting, self-criticising.

"Know nothing; explore everything, question and contradict, on principle, in turn," might have been his motto?

This resonates, perhaps in an unexpected way, with the precept "Take nothing (permanently) for granted." Start from nothing as your first premise and move in all directions away from that—away from nihilism. Believe and value as much as you can (there will be empirical limitations there). Extend your horizons, your networks of beliefs and values, to make them grow. No moral or epistemological judging-bullying!

At first sight this raises a difficulty: there can be no conclusions without making assumptions, adopting premises. If our premises are to be reduced to 'nothing' we can draw no conclusions. Paralysis of all choosing, deciding, acting must result? Not so. We do not want or need final conclusions or ends (let alone final analyses or final solutions), in order to live and move—only ability and motivation to go on. Today's assumptions are yesterday's conclusions, that's all. They are always going out of date, like us.

For that—going on—we do need beliefs (with varying degrees of confidence) hopes and values or loves (St Paul's three, 1 Corinthians 13, 13) in order to live and be motivated to act, move, con-verse. We do not need nor, if Socrates is right, can we have, 'knowledge' (beliefs which are completely justified as true).

The consequences are quite different from paralysis—the opposite of it. We are 'totally free' (logically) to move in any and every direction we can choose, love or value. Nothing, or no thing, is the most liberal first premise or starting point possible, to move away from. The logical 'end' of all backwards 'Why' chains of reasoning is a regress towards nothing. I reject, as narcissistically self-deceptive, the solutions in which an arbitrary 'reason-stopper', or 'regress-stopper' is chosen as to be valued for 'it's own sake, but I must leave that argument here, for discussion orally. There are no premises or starting points in ethics or epistemology to be 'found' ex-isting (being out there) in externally observable space-time, only in people.

Such assumptions and premises as we have are chosen, constructed or built in, in-herent, in us, in people. Things don't make, have in themselves or adopt, assumptions, values and beliefs; we do that kind of thing. We are agents the subjects of intentional, doing verbs. We are responsible for 'doings', for meaning (wanting to say), intending, believing, choosing and valuing—especially for choosing words.

The word 'premise' has a useful double meaning here. Our 'premises' or assumptions are necessary, unavoidable if we wish to draw conclusions, choose actions or beliefs—if we want to live and act. They are our 'house-premises', not made of bricks or stone but built in to us like the shell of a tortoise. His mobile home or premises is organically part of him, definitive of the kind of animal he is. (Sorry! Our tortoise happens to be male.) We cannot, any more than a tortoise can lose his shell, get rid of all our premises and still live, act or use reasoning. Our value-premises are our reasons. We rather rarely know exactly what they 'really really', 'fundamentally' are. We can't get outside ourselves, to look back in, at our own 'mental shell'.

Basically, at bottom, in the last analysis, in the end, fundamentally, in the limit, the sky's the limit, and there's no sky (and no 'bottom' either).

Wherever I try to go, even, or especially, in imagination, my 'self, ego, shell' (I sometimes call it my eggo-shell (note 6)), obstinately insists on coming with me, doing the imagining. Self-reference is unavoidable. What does happen, however, is that my tortoise-like 'shell' grows with me. I can adopt more and more values and beliefs. These will always have the provisional status of assumptions not yet falsified or proved to have adverse consequences, like extinction (return back to nothing) or suffering (destruction of values). My personal death is 'only' recycling. Extinction of a whole species, or of my family of life-kind, might be different—I am not sure. Recycling, resurrection, re-carnation might still be possible.

What I can believe and value, in a long term or eternal perspective, is subject to severe empirical constraints. Instead of too-busily 'haring about' (losing the race by going to mental sleep while driving at 'high' (?) speed in my body-mind-world), worrying about "To be, or not to be?" I can relax. I can 'simply' become, more becomingly, what I already am—a slower, steadier-moving tortoise or an an ugly duckling. I like it. "Me? A swan? With wings? Go on!" Why not? Reality often overtakes science fiction.

One of many questions to which we do not know the answer is "What is impossible? Various expressions of impossibility have gone out of date "Crying for the moon." "The sky's the limit" "Pigs might fly" Genetic modification will make that possible? Could I become an angel? Or a swan? The problems are now 'only' technological to achieve the miracles of transformation for which, formerly, wizards and witches were famous.

Rewording the Statement "I know nothing", or "Nobody knows."

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To ease discussion in modern terms, I want to rephrase Socrates:

"No statement (including, of course, this one) can be known to be completely true, for everyone, everywhere, for ever." More briefly "There are no universal truths." Indian sages, pressed by their king to come up with a universal statement came back with "These things too shall pass away." (note 7) Heraclitus would have agreed.

Even Karl Popper—objectivist and positivist philosopher of science—accepted that universal statements could never be verified, proved or tested. He thought that they could be falsified, negatively. I disagree. Since the falsifying statement would have to be verifiable, it too will be based on assumptions and, in the jargon, 'theory laden'. I must leave that argument hanging, content with the impossibility (strictly, the very low probability, now, here) of 'knowing' a universal statement to be true.

The most confident beliefs we have are those which, despite rigorous testing, have not yet been falsified. They have lasted. They are not, and can never be, more than partially justified (partial justifications are important for many now, here purposes) until we have been everyone, everywhere, for ever. Until then, everything is 'sub-judice' and 'pre-judice'—judging too early. "In the final analysis ... " is always premature. So are "In the end ...", "Basically ...", and "Fundamentally ... ". They seem to trip easily off our tongues.

"Truth is the daughter, not of authority, but of time." (Bacon)

Support From Science—Physics

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To quote Abbs again (p.31), he observes that "In the Socratic tradition, all views are inherently problematic, especially at the beginning (equally at the ends, I think, conclusions and assumptions are mutually dependent. JC). The formulations of contemporary physics show that so-called common-sense views are, ironically, the most problematic of all."

Why 'ironically'? From Galileo's relativistic revolution onwards, every great revolution in science has required a radical overturning of common-sense assumptions and wisdoms. Tables of values get overturned.

Currently, as Stephen Hawking's (2001) book, The Universe in a Nutshellconvincingly shows, principles such as the uncertainty principle, complementarity, symmetry, reversibility and the probabilistic nature of scientific laws strongly suggest that the search for 'fundamentals', constants, certainty in knowledge is, while perhaps inherent in us, somehow a miss-taken aim. Scientific knowledge is not, and can never be complete because it is not static but moving and changing—evolving with us. The more we look 'out there' for fundamentals (particles in physics, statements in philosophy) the more they don't seem to be there. Perhaps a search for them is 'in here', inherent in us? Fundamental particles gave way to strings and now, in 'M' theory, to membranes or 'branes'.

We seem to be obliged, in trying to describe an electron, for instance, to see it in two apparently contradictory perspectives—now as a wave, in some respects, now as a bullet-like particle, in others. If we want something like a 'complete' description, we have to resort to another dimension or perspective altogether—mathematics—a wave equation which describes only the probabilities of finding 'the' electron at each particular distance from the nucleus of an atom. In this quantum-mechanical view the electron is pictured or modelled as a kind of 'probability cloud', denser (higher probability of finding it there) at some distances than at others. That suggests that we need at least three possible perspectives, dimensions or 'levels' (Hawking's term) of understanding. Current theories are suggesting ten or eleven dimensions.

Not one of the 'fundamental' particles of physics is, even in principle, directly observable. All are theoretical, imagined constructs. One of the most important, a photon, cannot be observed because, we believe, it is what we see with. Premises cannot be justified because they are what we justify with. Believing in photons, however, empowers us to make television sets and bounce signals off the moon. Only when we make, or believe in, assumptions can we act or proceed to a conclusion. Conclusions can never be 'final'; they are 'ongoing', continuously evolving, with us.

Imaginings—internal events—are real and powerful. They have physical, (but not reductive) counterparts in physical events in our hearts, minds and brains at the very small level, some of them probably at the quantum-mechanical level of probability and the uncertainty principle. But there may be a level below that. Hawking makes it clear that there are many levels of 'reality'.

Einstein's 'postulate' on which his General Theory of Relativity was based—the constancy of the speed of light—was first 'discovered' by James Clerk Maxwell. It was supported for many years by repeated observations. Last year, 2001, it was 'discovered' that the speed of light has probably not always been constant. What Einstein thought was his own greatest blunder—the 'cosmological constant'—is now thought not to have been a mistake (Hawking p. 21). Mistakes are frequent and fruitful.

If Socrates is right, neither Einstein nor Hawking is likely to be more than partially right. Hawking would agree. But several things seem clear:

  1. In order to show that Hawking is wrong, we first have to understand what he is saying.
  2. It will not be easy for non-scientists and non-mathematicians (nor even easy for the experts) fully to understand what Hawking, Einstein, Richard Feynman, James Clerk Maxwell and others say. The idea that there are many possible universes, for instance, may be shocking. On the day I was writing this paragraph, three scientists were explaining (BBC 2 'Horizon' 14 Feb 02) that there may be an infinite number of universes—another ancient idea revived (note 8). The 'anthropic principle' (p.85) is accepted by many scientists but not by all.

    "The anthropic principle says that the universe has to be more or less as we see it because if it were different, there wouldn't be anyone here to observe it."

    Earlier Hawking writes: "Yet according to Richard Feynman's idea of multiple histories, these uninhabited histories can have quite a high probability." I think 'models' might convey the idea more clearly than 'histories'; Hawking uses both words, with only slightly different meanings. On page 86, Hawking depicts some seventeen possible (models of) universes, including the model which, at present, provisionally, best fits our observations and theories. He later proposes a model which looks like a walnut shell—uneven, bumpy, roughly round.
  3. It is not difficult to understand the starting point of relativity: "What you see, and can see, depends on where you are." It may be slightly more difficult to accept that what you can see depends on who you are, but a glance at Hawking's book seems to convince a number of my friends that they "Can't make head or tail of it." I have tried to explain the theories of relativity at a higher level to intelligent philosophers—almost total failure.

But one further, simple stage is not difficult: it begins to give the flavour: "What you see depends on how you (think you) are moving." If you think you and the earth are stationary (ego-geo-centric perspective), you will 'see' the sun (and the moon and many stars) rise in the East and go down in the West. It is a perfectly satisfactory perspective for everyday purposes—but not for space-travel.

We do, and need to, adopt more than one perspective for different purposes and contexts.

The last point is important for my purpose here, since we do not know how we are moving—neither our direction, nor our speed—in absolute terms, only relative to some fixed point which we choose, adopt or 'fix' in a frame of reference. Relative to the centre of the earth, we are travelling at 1000 mph. Relative to the sun, at 60 000 mph. Both those 'points' chosen as 'fixed' for those measurements, are themselves moving in spiral spiral paths like ours, but around other moving 'centres'. Out there in space-time, there is neither 'up' nor 'down', East nor West, until we 'fix' something, like the Greenwich Meridian, by reference to which we can 'know' where we are on earth, and the local time of day. We can judge the latter (alone, for local purposes only) by the sun, using a sun-dial.

This does not lead to the ridiculous and unlivable idea of 'absolute relativism'. Some frames of reference are very much better than others (more comprehensive and com-prehendable, longer lasting, dependable.)

We need a reference point, assumption, premise or line, like the Greewich Meridian: it is arbitrary, chosen, but necessary for navigating and time-keeping. The idea does lead to pluralism and complementarity: the need to adopt more than one perspective (to look from more than one place), for different purposes, in order to see more nearly 'all round' or 'whole'. There is no single 'view from everywhere', but many different views, from different now, heres (or nowheres?) 'God' is one and many, perhaps. Some adding up, or integration of these views in a growing network seems to be possible—more and more so—without foreseeable limit.

In the mean time (in the included middles, where most of life goes on), it seems that we give birth to our worlds (universe-models, for Hawking) by conceiving them in our concepts (models) AND our worlds give birth to us. We are both (part) creatures and (part) creators of our selves, evolving with our concepts, words, non-word-worlds and actions, in loops.

As before, we 'see' only partially—incompletely and with unavoidable biases. We cannot avoid all our biases: that would be to become a non-person. On the other hand we do seem to be able to be-come more and more aware of them, and so more free to choose and reject some (never all) of them.

The search for a single 'theory of everything' is still on: it is leading to some surprising changes. The 'big bang', it is being suggested, resulted from the collison of two other universes, creating ours. Ours is 'merely' one tiny bubble in a universe of universes—a multiverse.

Support From Science—Biology

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Scientists believe that we, and therefore our languages, have been 'created', grown up and evolved together by the inexorable (because tautological) 'logic', method or non-method of evolution by natural selection, "Try everything and see what survives."

It is characteristic of that apparently extravagant, wasteful process that a tree will drop millions of seeds of which only a tiny proportion will 'succeed' (become its heirs) in producing a new generation of trees. We might note, however, that the 'failures' are not wasted. They rot down to be recycled as 'food' (fertile compost of 'dead', but far from 'finally' dead, material) for the parent or other trees to live on. In nature's recycling economy, nothing (well, hardly anything?) is wasted. Atoms from the 'vanished' dinosaurs are re-incarnated in us. So is the idea of them. All men are mortal. Noone ever 'completely' dies.

If we adopt that 'model' for our language we should expect Socrates' statement to be very largely true. At any one time our language will contain more foolishnesses (seeds destined to die) than it will wisdoms destined to survive for even a thousand years, let alone for millions, less still eternally. Once we entertain the hypothesis that we may have almost everything almost completely wrong, examples spring up everywhere. Is the behaviour of Bush and bin Laden, for instance, not crazy? Would an observer from outer space not conclude "These people love war and killing each other. It makes their leaders popular. Animals seldom do that within the species. Women and children seem—mostly—more innocent, less powerful, less harm-full."? We seem to put many things—truths, religions, territory, things, money before people—even before their lives. Is that not putting carts before horses, before people, in the carts? In the case of money, religions and knowledge, we seem to put our creations before ourselves, their creators. Which, or, I prefer, who is to be master? Quis custodiet? No easy answers? Must there be masters and guardians?

Logical (Language Use) Support

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Several tautologies seem to support Socrates. We do not know what we do not know. So, among the things and people we do not know, there may always be a next Galileo or Einstein about to turn everything upside down again, asking us to believe ridiculous things. A Socratic approach would prepare us for that and avoid us exiling, crucifying, forcing him to recant or sending him to an asylum.

We cannot see what we cannot see. If we are at sea, our horizon recedes, like the Red Queen in 'Alice' (Carroll 1872 p. 34) with exactly the speed of our approach. Our 'sea' is multi-dimensional space-travel, both physically in the four dimensions of space time, and metaphorically in numerous 'human' dimensions of heart, mind, spirit, body and neighbour. In all those dimensions our horizons are limiting, now, here, but seemingly unlimited given infinite time.

With respect to my individual horizon or blinkers, extensions are possible via other people. They live outside my blinkers and beyond my horizons in many different directions and dimensions—in different 'worlds', minds and perspectives. So they can see what I cannot—my mistakes, for instance. I can extend my own perspective by adopting theirs—by becoming, in part, other people, as actors have to do. Drama is multi-dimensional educating. To under-stand is to under-study is to be-come, in imagination, the person impersonated. Not completely possible, but approachable without foreseeable limit.

It is not yet possible for us, human beings collectively, to escape the human tortoise-shell altogether. We cannot escape a 'human' perspective, it seems, even in imagination. Must we accept that limitation?

Imagine giving animals, plants and trees a voice and a vote, as authors of children's books often do. Might that not extend our narrowly, parochially human perspective a little? Might not our methods of farming and forestry be improved? Which species would be next for a 'cull'? Is such self-criticism, self-contra-diction, speaking against our selves, beyond our imagination? Might not a Cynic, cosmos-politan concept of 'citizenship' like that of Diogenes, (Branham 1996, p. 24) extend our human perspectives by showing us that they are narrow?

Being Honest With Children

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If what I am saying is anywhere near right, we should no longer pretend (claim) that what we are transmitting to children is knowledge—true beliefs which are justified and, as we imply, unquestionable. Sophisticated philosophers are aware (but often seem to forget) that all knowledge is corrigible but children are not aware of it and few, if any teachers alert them to the fact. That is perhaps well-intentioned but we know where a road paved by 'good' intentions leads. It is also dishonest. We need to look more care-fully where we are going in more, different, wider, longer term perspectives. Why can't we tell children that we don't know? Then we might deserve their trust.

One simple change would make the situation clear and more honest. In almost all cases, we could substitute the word 'believe' for 'know'. The word 'believe' makes explict the possibility of error, whereas 'know' implies the opposite. Science is a powerfully convincing, mutually supporting and reinforcing set of theories and beliefs which comprises, in Michael Polanyi's (1958, p. 404) words ".. everything in which we may be totally mistaken." An alternative change might be to insist that 'knowledge' is 'belief true enough to act on—true enough to be worth saying'. I think that raises more difficulties.

Two personal anecdotes may support my suggestion that this change would be beneficial—increasing children's motivation towards learning, as Socrates suggests. I was watching a student teaching a fourth year (year 10) class how a rocket is propelled forward by ejecting fuel backwards. In explaining this on the blackboard the student completely lost his way.

It became obvious that 'teacher' himself did not understand the problem. Far from this being the disaster he felt it was, it had electrifying effects on the class's motivation. Hands went up all over the place from pupils making suggestions about how it might 'work'. "If he doesn't know, we can have a go," was the feeling.

At the end of the lesson the student came up to me, despairingly wiping his brow, "I suppose I have failed, haven't I?" I suggested that, by accident, he had probably given one of the best lessons of his life. Many more pupils were motivated about the problem than would have been the case if he had 'competently', 'effectively', in clear, cut and dried fashion, explained the operation of Newton's third law in driving a rocket. They began to puzzle and think, sharing the student's feeling of elenchus. They would arrive at a satisfactory explanation in the next lesson. Their puzzled involvement would make them 'ready' for that, and more likely to remember it. His mistake was a happy accident, or 'Serendipity'.

The other case comes from intentional application of the idea. In my own, often repeated experiment I used to assert with every class when I first met them, the obvious fact of observation—that the sun and the moon 'go round' our earth, following roughly the same path, every 24 hours. It regularly produced sometimes angry feelings of elenchus in eleven-year olds. One boy angrily asserted the conventional view. I asked him "Why on earth do you think that?" He replied, still angrily, "It's a scientific fact."

After acting that part (they thought I had gone mad) with another class, it was three months later that a girl came up to me in the local library and said "What was the answer about why we think the earth goes round the sun?" She wanted to know and to pump me, instead of my pumping her! I counted that a success. She knew that she did not know and she cared about that. Few adults can answer the question. What you can understand depends on who you are—and on your 'readiness' to hear, listen and learn—all of those actively.

'The' answer, incidentally, is that we have a theoretical belief in Galileo's model of our solar system. Noone has yet gone outside our solar system to look back in and 'see' what Galileo imagined and we now believe in, confidently—a sun-centred model of our 'tiny' solar system. Imaginings are real and powerful. We have more direct, internal awareness of them than of external objects such as tables.

I was interested to find a similar suggestion for alerting students to the prevalence of errors in teachings and text-books in Neil Postman's (1996) The End of Education (p. 117)

Our awareness of objects is highly indirect, mediated by events in our physical eyes, optic nerves and neural pathways to brains—in our minds' eyes and ears perceptions—extra-sensory perceptions. It is also mediated by our 'expectations'—what we are 'ready and prepared', or 'trained' in our specialisms and languages, to see. Presented with Wittgenstein's 'duck-rabbit' a child who had never seen a rabbit could 'see' (recognize) only a duck. If she had seen neither, she could not 're-cognize' either.

We try, with inadequate, mediating words, to ex-press those internal expectations, imaginings, feelings, perceptions. "Words say so ill what the heart feels so well." (Victor Hugo).

If we are to learn by trial and error, mostly error, erring must be done. Children must be allowed, even encouraged, to explore, experiment, make mistakes, criticise our beliefs and their own, and to re-cognize mistakes. It is our main, and largely negative, method of making progress in alternating zig-zags and evolutionary spirals. It is also honest.

If we imagine the consequences of giving children a voice and a vote, we might expect more emphasis and time to be devoted to 'play-time', food, lunch-hour, games, sports and, generally, 'en-joy-ment'—putting joy into activities. Would that be disastrous? For whom would it be disastrous? Is it not at least possible that, for many children we make the miss-take of giving them (force-feeding them with) too much information?

We might also expect children to suggest that we focus, with more ratio-nal balance, on adult forms of 'bullying' in adult play-grounds. They might, instinctively, with some resentment at 'unfairness', see with Lord Acton that "Executive power and authority in adults corrupt thinking." Executive power leads towards adult forms of bullying. War, government, industrial and school management and class-room 'management' provide countless examples. I think children can probably detect those (but not describe them in sophisticated terms), rather more easily (because less uncomfortably for them) than adults. In their playgrounds they are 'only' copying us, in ours. We are their exemplars. Who else? If power tends to corrupt, the most powerful individuals and nations will be most corrupt.

Another aspect of being honest with children is that we should alert them to the frequently misleading nature of words and our own uses of them. All words are metaphors of the form 'A' is 'B', moving in more than one perspective. In a language perspective, a word is 'only' a word—powerless. But a word always stands, or moves, for a non-word. Unless 'A' and 'B' are exact synonyms, and exact synonyms are rare, such a metaphor is always, if seen literally, a lie or, I prefer, 'untrue'. (I reserve the word 'lie' for a deliberate, aware untruth.) A metaphor may, intentionally or unawares, be a 'true' lie or a misleading one, depending on interpretations, usually plural, of the meanings under or behind, the metaphor—depending on how it is under-stood.

That—the unavoidably ambiguous and metaphorical nature of language—is another reason why no statement can be known to be completely true. It takes two, and imagination, to create-communicate meanings. We need to alert children to this and to 'train' them to detect the assumptions under uses of words—to under-stand, not merely the surface, literal meanings of words but also, behind them, the purposes and assumptions of the individuals or groups habitually using them. That is never completely possible but there are no obvious limits to progress.

If we want meanings in life, we need to focus on people and what they 'want to say' (French veut dire). Words are not people; they do not 'want to say'—anything. In particular, we need to train children to "Question the question" because every question folds in, usually unstated, assumptions.

A favourite example of mine is "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" Few adults, even now, apart from trained biologists, can deal with that question by questioning the false assumptions in the question. They have not been trained to question questions. Question the inquisitor. Those assumptions are pre-Darwin and evolution in their mind-set. The two singular 'the's expose the fallacy of either/or, singular thinking mind-sets and the persistence of a 'sudden creation' story from Genesis.

One more example: "Time is money." Who says that, and why? What kinds of people are 'behind' it? What priority in values is implied? Time is to be saved, for the sake of money (the 'higher' priority)? There may be harmless aspects of the metaphor, but it represents, and serves, the interests of those who put money and material 'things' high on their priority list, if not top of it, as 'God'. We call them 'monetar-ists', Marx-ists (poor Marx!), 'New Right' theorists. "Money is the root of all progress." (note 9)

Working time does have to be paid for. So saving time saves, or even makes, more money. But the consequences, in time and motion study and relentless preoccupation with speed can have disastrous consequences for quality of life, even for life itself when a Titanic sinks or a roll-on-roll-off ferry rolls over. Money also, in some ways, saves time, by enabling me to buy cars and washing machines. Those seem to save me time but some of them seem only to enable me to, or make me, work harder and ever faster. The general effect of the saying is, I suspect, to make everyone work harder and faster and, often, to cut safety corners and hit icebergs—to put money first, before people and their time, their-our quality of life with our family or en-joy-ment—even before our own 'proper' lives—it is, in many respects, a miss-leading and miss-taken metaphor.

A mistake is an action, belief or value which has consequences we neither want nor intend. We learn from those—afterwards—when too many cars clog our own own roads and arteries. Perhaps we could say, in that sense, that we do have direct negative knowledge, or awareness of mistakes, when we 'sink' or hit our heads against brick walls. We cannot intend or want to act against our selves. It is less easy to be sure about positive 'success'. We cannot see the future, for sure.

How To Go On?

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As a rather old child, I do not 'know' any of this but I passionately believe it to be true (enough to act on), now, here. I fully expect—it follows from my thesis—that much of it will turn out to be wrong, in an eternal perspective. You will be able to show me where, much earlier than that, in dialogue, or by practical trial and error, with children. Preferably both.

All philosophy is work in progress—travelling for ever, I hope. My assumptions today are my conclusions of yesterday. These conclusions will be my assumptions for tomorrow. We are for ever going on our way—out of date. Our language is a beautiful old vintage car, about 2000 years old, pre-Einstein, pre-Darwin, pre-Socrates needing an MOT (Ministry of Transport inspection) and overhaul, more often.

Where are we going? We are going exploring? How will we go on? The question answers itself. We want to go on in a way, spirit, attitude that will enable or empower us in going on, to go on. We want to develop ways of living that will have eternal quality, lasting quality, 'great' quality—quality which will be trust-worthy—'there for us' and 'there for good'.

So long as we live, going on is inevitable, so relax and en-joy it—put joy into it and into each other. To improve a situation, improve people, including my self. To improve people, value them more, including my self, equally, as them, so that we be-come, more becomingly, 'us'.

If we believe in the (non-corrupt, non-corrupting, non-decaying but growing, lasting) power of unconditional, unlimited, criterionless loving then that believing (to believe is to act as if) will make it more power-full, and longer-lasting) little by little and bit by bit. Each time I act on it, it will be-come more lasting—it will have lasted one more time. That is almost a tautology. If I believe it (act on it), it will become more nearly true 'for good', each time I do act on it. We are responsible for choosing: respect for persons? Going the one mile of (implied reluctant, not wanting to?) 'duty'? Or, more than 'mere' respect—loving—and then freely, of my own will, doing what I like? Going with him twain? (Matthew 5, 41)

Roy Bhaskar, philosopher of science and critical realist, (2000) ends his book, From East to West: Odyssey of a Soul, with the words: "The hour for unconditional love has struck." I believe that, too. It works when, alas too seldom, I act on it.

Correspondence: John Colbeck, 7 Holland Way, Hayes, Kent, BR2 7DW, UK
Email: jcol@compuserve.com


Note 1

Sources for "Nobody knows":

Socrates: Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, Book 2, sect. 12.
I am grateful to Katsushige Katayama for references to versions of this.

The Tao-te Ching and a Sanskrit verse: "He who knows, doesn't know. He who knows that he doesn't know, knows." Quoted in Campbell (1988) p. 65.

The Old Testament: " ... of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest of thereof thou shalt surely die." (Genesis 2, 17) The fruit is poisonous. Do not aspire to knowledge (of good and evil). It causes most of the 'troubles' of humankind—spiritual death, banishment from Eden, judge-mentality, escape-goating, fig-leaves of deception in fear of moral blame and judgement, blood, toil, tears and sweat—war.

The New Testament:

"Now ye say "We see"; therefore your sin remaineth." John 9, 41. Therefore you don't 'see' that you (we all) are blind. We CANNOT see completely or clearly, only partially.

"Now, therefore the axe is laid to the root of the tree." (Matthew 3, 10. Luke 3, 9.) A radical revolution (I prefer revolition) is required.

"Judge not, that ye be not judged." (Matthew 7, 1, 2. Several others. It is a recurring theme.) Avoid moral judge-mentality. Do not use the word 'evil'. It escalates what you 'see'. (What you see is what you get—more of. The three wise monkeys.)

Nietzsche: "Truth is that kind of error without which a certain species of life could not live. The value for life is decisive." (Nietzsche 1885, WP 493) The theme is a persistently recurring one in Nietzsche in his later period. Kaufmann (1950-74) discusses it at some length, as do almost all commentators on Nietzsche.

Note 2

Anthony Sheridan (1980-84) quotes Foucault, from Mental illness and Psychology: "It might be said that all knowledge is linked to the essential forms of cruelty." Sheridan describes "... the conjunction of pouvoir-savoir, power-knowledge (as) the central axis of Foucault's later work." (Sheridan (1980-84) p. 8) The theme is prominent in, for instance Discipline and Punish (Surveiller et Punir, 1975). (Foucault, 1977). See also Bacon (1597) "For also knowledge itself is power."

Note 3

Lord Acton (1887) "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Note 4

Confucius (~496 BC) Quoted in Chang, Jung, Wild Swans

Note 5

I owe this idea to Nietzsche (1878) "Luke, 18:14 corrected. He that humbleth himself wills to be exalted." Luke (Authorized Version) has "Everyone that that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted."

Note 6

I owe 'Eggo-Prison' to a conversation with Tamsin Curno.

Note 7

I am grateful to Jeff Lewis for this example.

Note 8

Postman (1996, p. 113) quotes Giordano Bruno, Lucretius and Metrodorus as proposing "an infinity of worlds". Bruno was burnt alive for it.

Note 9

Ian Mcleod, would-be Tory chancellor of the exchequer, 1960s, from memory.


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