Thursday, September 24, 2009

Greek Philosophy – The Seeds of Doubt - Socrates (The History of Epistemology! - Part 3)

In this series, we explore epistemology, or “How do we know what we know?” I think such a question is as relevant as ever, especially given our culture’s fairly recent leanings toward postmodernism – the belief that traditional norms should be abandoned in favor of abstractness. Josh McDowell defines postmodernism as “a worldview characterized by the belief that truth doesn’t exist in any objective sense but is created rather than discovered.” In other words, a postmodernist would claim that truth is a variable, and that it is relative to each individual who attempts to discover it. In the postmodern world, there is the potential for more than one truth.

Is truth relative, or is it an absolute? And does it matter? Read on…
So far, we have seen that absolute truth does exist and can be known, this being the truth revealed by the Creator – God. To nearly all men before 500 BC, truth was either based in God the Creator or it was based in pagan beliefs. Up to this point, men looked to a deity of some sort to find the ultimate answers.

We’ve also seen Pontius Pilate respond to Jesus intimations about what is absolute with his question, “What is truth?” Did Pilate create this question on his own, or was he influenced by the times?

The time period around 500 BC seems to be pivotal. It was around this time that man began to consider himself wise. Many began to question the idea of what knowledge truly was and where it came from. For the first time, the answers did not always lie in God or some other deity. This belief began to take root within the ancient Greek culture. Three notable philosophers – Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle – played a major role in the shift that led to the Age of Enlightenment, later leading to Modernism, and which sowed the seeds of the Postmodern era that we live in today.

Socrates (469-399 BC) was the first of the three great Greek philosophers. His influence started the Greek society toward several generations of questioning truth and how it is derived. Indeed, the “Socratic method” was named for him – in which a person begins asking question after question in order to gain an understanding of an issue. This in itself is not a bad thing, as long as one looks for the real source of right and truth on the subject. But it is a strong characteristic of Modernism, where science rules – and science has often been wrong, as history has shown. Socrates once said, "I know you won't believe me, but the highest form of Human Excellence is to question oneself and others." This was a new concept at the time. It should seem very familiar to us today, as the seeds of Postmodernism lie in that very concept.

Socrates believed that evil was not a choice that a person made purposefully, but rather, each man spent his life trying to find “the Good”, with some being more successful than others. When he was condemned to choose between exile or death, Socrates chose to drink hemlock. Making his final statement to the jury who condemned him for philosophical heresy, his famous last words to them were, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” This is not a bad statement to go out with, but again, what truth would Socrates have judged a life against? His statement seems noble, but if it’s made simply for the sake of appearing noble, without an appeal to the real absolute truth, was it worthwhile?

Curiously, Socrates was known for asking many questions, but he did not necessarily answer them. His glory was in the ability to ask and ask and ask – without necessarily feeling the need to reply. Compare this to Jesus, who lived less than 500 years later and who was not afraid to answer the questioning crowds, often referring to absolute truth as his source and beginning with the words, “Truly, truly, I say unto you…” We see in the ancient Greeks the tendency to question things just for the pleasure of questioning – not necessarily with an eye toward discovering real truth. Socrates’ influence was passed on to his student, Plato, who developed a much more rigid approach to epistemology. Plato’s philosophy is the next topic in this series.
Next in the series...

Back to the start of the Epistemology series…