We just got to the part of the history of western civilization in my Western Civ 1 class when Socrates shows up! Yay... I shouldn't be totally surprised, but I was, that when we discussed Socrates, phrases like "Greatest philosopher ever" and "Still extremely relevant today" were thrown around. I have some pretty strong contentions with that point, especially where Socrates fades into Plato, and the Western canonization of Essentialism and fundamental truths.
See, as the teacher told it, Socrates was the hero who freed Greece from the cynical Sophists, who believed there was no such thing as essential truth. Now, I will grant that it's possible to get pretty cynical on that premise. But I'm on the side of the Sophists -- at least, the ones who understood, if any of them did, that the point is humans don't have access to unrestrained truth, and that all we have to work with are narratives that are varyingly successful in describing and predicting the reality they attempt to describe and predict.
I brought this up with the teacher after class, and we had a fun discussion in which he asked me if I thought the Pythagorean theorem would go away if nobody knew about it, and I said "Yes." The fact that triangles have certain relationships to themselves wouldn't, but the Pythagorean theorem isn't an insight into the core truth of the universe -- it's a narrative we use to arrive at certain among those truths.
Which is why it's pretty cool that today's Idea Channel decided to help me out by talking about H.P. Lovecraft, Welcome to Nightvale, and the huge problem most people have with accepting that some things just aren't knowable. Whole video linked and embedded below, but I particularly want to emphasize this quote:
Philosopher Graham Harmon describes Lovecraft as a writer of gaps. A gap specifically between what we understand to be possible, and what the characters are experiencing in the stories, expressed by the gap in the existence of something and the ability of language to accurately and appropriately describe that thing.
Here, I also want to throw out another Idea Channel video, Is Math a Feature of the Universe or a Feature of Human Creation?
There are totally people who believe math is a real thing, as Mike addresses above. Personally, I think those people are nuts -- math is a narrative we use to describe things. "Math comes from the human brain, and nowhere else." Fictionalism ftw.
I will totally be sharing these videos with my professor. But first!
The thing about essentialism, whether mathematical, Platonic, Christian, political, whatever -- (well, one of the things. Well, one of the things, and the line about where it becomes and stops becoming a thing is fuzzy. There's no real essential truth about essentialism.) -- is that it encourages people to believe that everything should be relatively easy for humans to understand.
If we believe the Socratic claim that all knowledge is embedded in the human mind, and it just takes the right questions to unlock it, how do we ever understand Quantum Physics? How do we even approach the question, "Can language even describe some things?" How do we deal with incompleteness?
It also leads to a different, more cultural, problem: the danger of a single story.
In this point, I'm referring to an awesome TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a storyteller who grew up in Nigeria, embedded above. The point I want to draw here is that the simplification of narratives that Essentialists pursue is not just wrongheaded, irresponsible, and doomed to fail: it's also civilizationally corrosive and destructive.