Plato's Symposium (Anselm Feuerbach, 1873)
Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods. (1)
Knowledge is a slippery customer. History has shown us that progress requires us not only to investigate the world but also to approach this investigation with humility. This humility is born of the realisation that knowledge is like a ladder and while we may be definitely resting on a real rung of that ladder, there are still countless rungs above us and out of our view.
Not Visible versus Non Existent
Even the physical universe can be difficult to truly ‘know’. Sometimes we are unable to see a phenomenon itself – even with instruments – but we can see its effects. For example,
Electrons and other sub-atomic particles are too small to be observed directly, but physicists are able to infer their properties from the tracks they leave on photographic plates. (2)
If we have such difficulty with physical phenomena that can be relatively easily proven to exist at the very least, then what about human realities such as love and hope and sadness and courage and fear and faith?
We can now ‘prove’ the existence of emotions using sophisticated machinery but even so, we cannot, truly examine their reality with machinery. A brain-image of an emotion – let’s say fear – can show the parts of the brain involved but it cannot describe in any detail the exact nature of the individual’s fear or say what is causing it or why.
But everybody who has ever experienced a strong emotion like love or fear or anger or joy knows these emotions really do exist. So, what exactly is reality? Are the objects that we can see and feel and weigh and measure the only reality? If so, what about other objects that we haven’t discovered yet but will discover in the future – such as far away planets – are they not real? Do they only become real when we discover them?
It really does seem to be the case that – He, O men, is the wisest who, like Socrates, knows his wisdom is in truth worth nothing. (3)
Tomorrow – Unique Reality and the Unique Self
(1) Attributed to Albert Einstein
(2) Andre Kukla and Joel Walmsley, Mind – A Historical and Philosophical Introduction to the Major Theories, p.31
(3) Plato, The Apology, (22d-e), The Last Days of Socrates, Penguin Classics.