The Humility of Socrates and Science: A Good Way Forward
Aristotle’s work, -gotcha Professor Thurston- Politics, still holds us to the questions of what is a successful government, what are fair power structures, how does human happiness and virtue play into a successful government, and his teacher’s Plato’s ever-resounding question, what is the Good?
And the history of politics is resound with good and bad answers, times of human progress and stability and times of great human suffering. We seem to be all of the above in the 21st century. An editorial note-I question our human intelligence for taking these 3000 years or so and still not getting it right.
But somewhere in all that shadow a sunlight has been a quietly shining through. I notice this light in one individual, Socrates, and in one human endeavor, science. Socrates stands for the best of our human nature and science stands for the best of human endeavor, as curiosity, exploration, and knowledge-building. Socrates’ story lags in most moments of history and science’s story is always filtered through religion and political ideals. Shadows cast by the very human nature Socrates and science can enrich and enlighten.
First, to the light and shadow of human nature as understood through Socrates. Socrates for me is the epitome of human humility, and a human humility that opens space for a safe and honest and integral dialogue. If Socrates is human humility, he understands the limits of our human mind in seeking knowledge, and in the process of seeking knowledge, humility plays the role of setting safe boundaries and creating a space of ambient respect. As a philosophy student/ teacher of, I have found 2 different personality types in the field. They break around the figure of Socrates. The first, my camp, is that Socrates was true to his word that we do not know as a very basic ingredient of human nature. The second camp is about using Socrates not as a figure of deep, human humility but of the “hey, I am really way smarter than you but I’ll pretend to have an authentic dialogue with you about really important stuff, but only to show you how really smart I am.”
This is the camp that sends Plato and Aristotle on the misdirected trailhead of patriarchy and philosophical hubris. But good news here-there are now at least 2 generations of feminist philosophers remaking the signage for our hiking trails into goodness, truth, and beauty. We try really hard here at OCCC to have those teachers in philosophy and humanities who teach from genuine humility-that learning is a dialogue and an experience between persons who have to work hard together to get at the really good stuff of education like goodness, truth, and beauty. Humility that is:
- An understanding that the big questions are experienced only through the fair and respectful disposition of all involved-and I mean ALL-gender, race, social class, wealth, ideals-ALL is flattened and equalized and respected in the learning space and sharing and dialogue of what is good, true, and beautiful
- A core attitude that everyone is worthy of being heard but, too, that everyone is responsible to respond fairly to the factual and the reasonable (go OCCC composition classes!)
- Kind to others because we are all fallible minds and hearts in a big forest of truth and knowledge and necessary compromise
I believe this humility must ground us in our individual agency in the big world and that this humility is the core driver of a best in humanity-science. Science shows off its humility everyday (fun to be ironic sometimes!). Its humility is the scientific method, the high demands of peer reviewed research, the ever- driving need for better instrumentation and measurement, and international sharing of data and conversation that marks science as a true and fair manifestation of knowledge-seeking. My students and I had a very wonderful journey in the history of Science class this semester in the human drive for knowledge. Lots of light in the evolution of medical knowledge, the deep underpinnings of knowing almost all of the physical/chemical/E=MC^ of our universe. Knowing the earth’s dynamics that make our home, the species that collaborate with us in making life, our tiny but magnificent place in the expanding universe all are the result of our scientific endeavors.
Hats off to our Science, Engineering, and Mathematics students and faculty! In many ways, our true philosophers. In contrast to the light that science has given, our History of Science class noticed some shadow, too: great egoists in the history of science, great insights snatched up for military and industrial/consumer use, great discoveries of healing not shared evenly throughout societies. Even at our best in humanity, we find ourselves back to the experience of living with so much light an so much shadow. What are we to do? Navigating life with humility is an important answer. The genuine Socrates who taught us to listen and reason and share the ignorance and wisdom that mark us as homo sapiens.
I love the fact that the history of science begins with the Pre-Socrates. Just the name is so right on! Those incredible persons who before the high moral questions of Socrates ask into a way to know nature and to know the stars. Thales, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, my guy Empedocles. Left foot the pre-Socratics, right foot Socrates, we have been given the feet to stand with head held high, with ego low, as we blaze the trails of goodness, truth, and beauty. Trail blazing has its pitfalls and dangers for sure. The pitfall of “I’m smarter and better than you” and the danger of “My ideas are best for you” and “my weapons are bigger than your weapons” all happen outside the binding pathways of humility.
I think, what does a Socrates humility look like for us mere mortals in an everyday kind of life (and as reflected by the methods of science)? Perhaps:
- A belief and effort in gaining a good education
- A disposition that I am no better or no worse than another
- Understanding that learning is a great gift and adventure and that discussing/compromising on ideas is at the heart of our human progress
- Being kind to all (species) sets all else in balance
- To know thyself is a moral imperative in using the measure and modicum of our humility
War, civil division, inflation, the suffering of the poor and dispossessed, good heavens! Can it be their solutions are the small moments of human humility and scientific light?
By the way, you can find the best model of Socrates in Plato’s ‘Apology’. There, he reminds us that the Good is worth all of our efforts, sacrifices, and collaborations. The best happens when we are in this together.
Go Humanities! …. & Science!
Professor Carl Sagan Morrow