Ignorance

Tomorrow is a lot of travel — to Portland and back (1.5 hours each way) to bring my mom and niece to the airport as their stay ends, and then a few hours later to Boston and back (3.5 hours each way) to get Natasha’s brother and his son, who are flying in from Russia.

This week we spent two glorious days on Mt. Desert Island, staying in Bar Harbor and doing a quick tour of Acadia National Park.  The highlight was the lobster “tour” cruise.   It was perfect for Ryan and Dana, as they could see lobster traps being hauled in, the lobsters (and crabs) that had been caught, and could hold lobsters, star fish, sea cucumbers and other ocean life.  Ryan even got to drive the boat for awhile.   We swam at Sand Beach, hiked down Cadillac Mountain (Ryan’s first “real” hike — even if it was all down hill!), had a picnic, collected sea shells, and stayed in a hotel.   When the others were shopping at gift shops (not a favorite activity of mine), the boys and I played at a playground near the Bar Harbor YMCA, meeting some interesting people, including a woman from Russia (now living in Kazahkstan) who is vacationing with her husband, mother in law and two children (ages 3 and 6 mo.)

Alas, nerd that I am, I was thinking constantly about my next research project, and about a grant application I’m working on with others.  At one point of time to reflect while overlooking typical Acadia beauty, I realized that my research project is coalescing around the question that has hounded me since I was a child: why is the world the way it is?   What is the good life — how should I live?   Why do I seem to have a natural faith in the world, that all is somehow as it must be, and in all it’s good?

That natural faith is not something everyone shares; indeed, many people mock it, or have a strong natural pessimism.   Yet it is a part of me — I’m not sure why.

In some ways, we are like the ancient Greeks.  Myths and tradition formed their identity, but soon they discovered rational thought, and freed their minds from simply following past behavior.  They were the first known humanists, questioning their mythology and developing what at first was a liberal/critical relativism — sophism.   The sophists argued that there is no knowable truth, only human interpretations and perspectives on truth.  This form of skeptical relativism is both liberating and debasing.   It breaks one out of the hold of past traditions and religious beliefs, but cultivates a sense that all that matters is the self, and ones’ own fortunes.  The Sophists moved from a kind of liberal open mindedness to a base drive for individual success and opportunism.   Greek society became corrupt, and ultimately fell.

Socrates attacked Sophism and its moral relativism, giving an interesting take on the skepticism that drove sophist relativism.  He was skeptical too, but also skeptical of skepticism.   He (mostly through Plato and his writings) professed pure ignorance, tore apart every convention, and like the sophists seemed to show that there is no knowable truth — except one.  Unlike the sophists, he embraced the truth of our ignorance.

The Sophists took skepticism to a kind of selfish pragmatism.  If truth can’t be known, then anything goes — there is nothing holding you back.  Do what you want, as you want — as long as you can get away with it (and the Sophists will show you how), then it doesn’t matter.  Socrates took it to a different place.  If this skepticism leads one to recognize that we are truly ignorant (true wisdom), then one doesn’t assume that since we can’t figure out the truth then there isn’t one.

Have we really progressed since then?  Isn’t modern enlightenment thought up through post-modernism simply a replay of the Greek enlightenment through Sophism?   Isn’t modern humanism falling to the same pitfalls into which Greek humanism, and later Roman humanism fell?   And isn’t Socrates’ answer still valid — we can either cling to a faith (religious or secular — secular faith is ideology), say that nothing matters and anything goes, or admit ignorance?

And if we take the path of admitting ignorance, doesn’t that open up the possibility of the spiritual, the intuitional/emotional, the empathetic, and the artistic?  Doesn’t that suggest, in fact, that the rational might need to be balanced by sentiment?   Doesn’t analysis need to be balanced by art?   Does not the scientist need the poet?

Yet how do we find this balance?  How has the lack of balance led to our wars and economic crises?  Can we go somewhere other than blind faith (whether to religion or ideology) or secular humanism (nothing matters and what if it did, as John Cougar Mellencamp asked)?

Obviously, that’s a big question — far too big for a political scientist at a small rural Maine college to tackle in a research project.  Yet it’s the question that’s driven me in my life, and I must pursue it.

And speaking of  “driven,” given the amount of driving I need to do tomorrow, I’d best end this post now.

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  1. #1 by John H. on June 19, 2009 - 12:28

    Thoughtful post aside, I feel compelled to leave some travel advice…why not spend the day in Portland? Or better yet, Boston? Maybe get an early start on your research, or just have fun with the kids in the big city…that sounds like too much time on the highway 😉

  2. #2 by Mike Lovell on June 19, 2009 - 16:33

    “Obviously, that’s a big question — far too big for a political scientist at a small rural Maine college to tackle in a research project. Yet it’s the question that’s driven me in my life, and I must pursue it”

    I think the latter sentence here basically cancels out any excuse made by the former. Oftentimes, that which is deemed to big by many, is the one thing that solely drives another to pursue it… even if the importance of the issue only lies with he who pursued it, and to noone else.

  3. #3 by renaissanceguy on June 21, 2009 - 02:03

    Scott, very good thoughts. Yes, I think our modern thought-life parallels that of the Greeks. Good observation.

    May I suggest that the answer lies in a return to Aristotelian rather than Platonic philosophy? Aristotle’s emphasis on balance and his realistic view of politics seems more correct to me. Aristotle stressed the local community and a balance in society as opposed to Plato’s concept of a ruling class of philosophers who could craft the perfect society.

  4. #4 by Scott Erb on June 21, 2009 - 03:10

    John, the travel went fine. The thing was the timing — my mom was leaving in the AM, so I took the boys to Portland and we went to Chuck E. Cheese’s afterwards, but the flight to Boston didn’t get in until near Midnight, so the boys couldn’t really go along…we got in ultimately at 3:40 AM, but all in all, it wasn’t so bad.

    Mike – yes, I agree. I’m lucky enough to have a job where I can investigate my interests and have it coalesce with what I do. And I’m not at a publish or perish institution so if I just improve my knowledge and teaching, that’s good enough. Of course, I’d like a book that would get me a guest shot with Jon Stewart, Glenn Beck, and Larry King 🙂

    RG, Aristotle is the man with practical politics, the golden mean, different types of regimes and the like. Ultimately, though, I am an idealist more than a realist in terms of philosophy (not to be confused with political idealism). I think ideas are the stuff of the universe, and that that ethics transcends material and even rational human thought. I do not think humans are smart enough, nor do we have enough information, to make sound conclusions on ethics and values with a primarily materialist/secular approach to life. Plato, Plotinus, Augustine, and other idealists like and Bishop Berkeley (and empiricists like Locke and Hume) are more persuasive to me. It seems to me that rational materialist/secular thought ultimately leads to skepticism and a kind of nihilism that undercuts society. Plato was trying to find a third way between traditional Greek values (religion, tradition,etc.) and the rise of rational/secular humanism (the Sophists being the pinnacle). I don’t think we’ve yet figured out how to do that. I am not going to try to be quite so ambitious, I think I want to connect current crises in politics and social life with the overly materialist/rational direction of the enlightenment. I’m not going to try to be a philosopher, but instead look at intellectual history and philosophy through a political lens in a way I don’t think is done too often.

    At least, that’s the plan. But as I read and dig into this more, I might end up changing my mind about a lot of things.

  5. #5 by henitsirk on June 22, 2009 - 19:48

    If I start thinking about how we’re just recapitulating the philosophical problems of the ancient Greeks and Romans, I get very pessimistic indeed! I like to think that humanity is progressing, perhaps over a timescale beyond one person’s apprehension, but still progressing.

    Certainly we could look at democracy and human rights as an advancement that has spread fairly widely throughout the world. Reading about the struggles in Iran, Turkey, and other countries (including the US, of course) gives me hope, in that at least people can *have* these struggles and are not simply oppressed or ignorant of the possibilities.

  6. #6 by Scott Erb on June 22, 2009 - 23:12

    Today in summer experience, incoming first year students were discussing some of the articles, and we got to talking about ethics. The class made a strong argument that all is opinion, there is no such thing as truth, just what we believe. Their argument almost exactly mirrored the Sophist argument from ancient Greece:relativistic, individualistic, and focused on learning for the sake of pursuit of personal interests. I then brought up the Platonic alternative, and noted that the class is the same place the Greeks were 2500 years ago. One student said, “if we can’t get anywhere in 2500 years, maybe we should just stop.” He has a point (and there is a school of thought making that argument — Richard Rorty and the neo-pragmatists.) Maybe we shouldn’t worry about trying to “get it right,” but find a way to make choices which we find worthy.

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