Originally posted by americandingbat
Now, my question: What do we lose by saying there is nothing we can know with absolute certainty?
In my opinion, we lose nothing and gain everything.
Unfortunately, the field of modern "philosophy" is driven by professional scholars, who must publish and show they "know" things in order to
establish their credibility. Whole careers are built arguing over semantics, and disagreeing with philosophers that came before you. If you can
make a compelling argument, it doesnt really matter if it is a "straw man" argument, and you are arguing against a misconception of what an earlier
philosopher said or not. Odds are, at least some of your readers did not understand what that earlier philosopher was saying either, and if YOUR
description of what he said is understandable to them, they will run with it.
In fact, it often becomes a chain of straw men, with one philosopher saying, "he said this" and the next running with that and then elaborating. In
my opinion, this is what has happened to Plato. Plato gives you little exposition. He does not tell you "I believe this." But Aristotle did. So
many philosophers base their understanding of Plato on Aristotle's expositions. They never consider a few facts.
1) Aristotle was not chosen to run the Academy after Plato's death. After 20 odd years there, he was still not the successor.
2) Aristotle has been found to be pretty darn wrong about many of the things he gave expositions about.
3) Plato himself said; (he is speaking about Dionysios here, not Aristotle)
I hear also that he has since written about what he heard from me, composing what professes to be his own handbook, very different, so he says,
from the doctrines which he heard from me; but of its contents I know nothing; I know indeed that others have written on the same subjects; but who
they are, is more than they know themselves. Thus much at least, I can say about all writers, past or future, who say they know the things to which I
devote myself, whether by hearing the teaching of me or of others, or by their own discoveries-that according to my view it is not possible for them
to have any real skill in the matter. There neither is nor ever will be a treatise of mine on the subject. For it does not admit of exposition like
other branches of knowledge; but after much converse about the matter itself and a life lived together, suddenly a light, as it were, is kindled in
one soul by a flame that leaps to it from another, and thereafter sustains itself.
Plato, the consummate wordsmith and great thinker, analyzes why this is so briefly in this same letter. It is a very worthy letter to read, although
much of it is devoted to political events of his time, and only a small portion to philosophy itself. So here, he is basically saying that anyone who
understands his core philosophy would NOT give a written exposition of it. I would conclude from all of those bits of information that while
Aristotle was a very intelligent man, he did not really understand Plato's philosophy, and so any modern assumption about Plato's work based on
Aristotle should be considered highly suspect.
However, much of what we "know" about Plato IS derived from Aristotle's expositions. Plato himself was incredibly careful not to tell us what he
"knew." Instead, he leads us with question, after question, poking and prodding at the idea of knowledge. He constructs dialogs that show you the
art of continual questioning, but do not satisfy us with an "answer." His main protagonist, Socrates, repeatedly says that what makes him wisest
among all men, ( as the Oracle at Delphi had prophesied) was that he alone knew he did not know.
In modern terms, think about science. In any field of endeavor, the idea of "knowing" is held loosely by the best scientists, the innovators. They
are working assumptions until someone comes along and finds out more. And look at the fruits of science. How much of what we "knew" in the past is
now considered "false?" There are "rigid" believers in the sciences, and they do sometimes achieve academic success in their lifetimes, (as other
rigid thinkers like rigid knowing and Academia is full of rigid thinking) but they will not be the minds that history remembers. They will not be the
minds that progress us in our search for greater wisdom.
The minds that drive progress, and wisdom, are those who do NOT know. For whom the "love of wisdom" keeps them questioning, looking, and
discovering the whole of their lives. Do these minds use "knowing" in a utilitarian way? Of course. What they do not do is forget that they only
know that until they find out more. They are happy to have their "knowledge" uncovered as a mistake, for only there does their wisdom grow. The
minds that deal with the known take us no where, only the minds that traverse the unknown lead us to greater wisdom.
Some minds are uncomfortable on ground that is fluid and ever changing. They feel a psychological need to "lock it down" and "tie it up" they
need the security of an "absolute known" so that they can rest in the comfort of "understanding."
The world we live in is not like that, it is observably not so. We as beings are in constant motion, our thoughts change, our bodies change, there is
no solid "self" to identify with, though we try to create one. Even a mountain is in a state of constant change, though it is slow and invisible to
our eye most of the time. Our experience of life is constant change and insecurity, but the mind wants security and constancy. The "truth" of what
we can "know" in the world is evolution, change, but we want to "know" it in a concrete unchanging way. Ironic.