The Attack on Truth – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Remember the great dialogue Euthyphro, in which Socrates, soon facing trial for impiety and corrupting youth, admonishes a callow young fellow for professing to know what “righteousness” is? Socrates demonstrates again and again that Euthyphro has no idea what he is talking about when he argues that it would be righteous for him to prosecute his own father for murder on the basis of some pretty shoddy evidence — and shows that Euthyphro cannot even define the meaning of the word. Socrates is adept at questioning and at verbal humiliation — his standard method throughout the dialogues — but not because he knows the answers. When challenged, Socrates always demurs. He has no wisdom, he says, but is only a kind of “midwife” who can help others to seek it. Even though the goal of philosophy is to find the truth, Socrates customarily professes ignorance.

Plato here teaches a central lesson about the philosopher’s search for knowledge, which has ramifications for any quest for true belief. The real enemy is not ignorance, doubt, or even disbelief. It is false knowledge. When we profess to know something even in the face of absent or contradicting evidence, that is when we stop looking for the truth. If we are ignorant, perhaps we will be motivated to learn. If we are skeptical, we can continue to search for answers. If we disbelieve, maybe others can convince us. And perhaps even if we are honestly wrong, and put forward a proposition that is open to refutation, we may learn something when our earlier belief is overthrown.

But when we choose to insulate ourselves from new ideas or evidence because we think that we already know what is true, that is when we are most likely to believe a falsehood. It is not mere disbelief that explains why truth is so often disrespected. It is one’s attitude.

Lee McIntyre, in The Attack on Truth – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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