← other entries


Dialogue on Socrates Doubting the Senses in Phaedo

22 August 2020

Paul: Did you enjoy Plato’s dialogue, Phaedo?

Thomas: I did. It is filled with ideas, most mentioned in passing. For example, Socrates, after sitting up in bed, says pain and pleasure are tied together like two creatures sharing a head. This, and many such comments, make it fun to read.

As a scientist, it struck me that Socrates—or Plato speaking as Socrates—thought true knowledge couldn’t come from the senses. He says: “The soul reasons best when none of the senses troubles it, neither hearing nor sight, nor pain nor pleasure, but when it is most by itself … if we are ever to have pure knowledge we must escape from the body and observe things in themselves with the soul by itself.”

Do you think he’s right?

Paul: In part. I could philosophize more if I worked less, and I could work less if I didn’t live in New York City. If not for its food, shows, and museums, I might not live in New York City. As he says, “it is the body and the care of it, to which we are enslaved, which compels us to acquire wealth, and all this makes us too busy to practice philosophy.”

Thomas: In your case, is the body to blame? You could afford to move to the countryside, eat simple foods, and spend most of your days reading. I think it’s your soul’s lack of willpower that keeps you in the city, siphoning away your time from philosophy.

Paul: You are a good friend and speak harshly but truly—at least of my soul. But in ancient Athens, the body must have been to blame more often than the soul. Our technological progress has made the body’s needs easier to meet.

Thomas: Agreed, but at least some Athenians had time to philosophize. Weren’t Socrates’ young followers rich aristocrats? They may have even had more time to philosophize than you do because they had slaves. Thus, isn’t it odd that Socrates blames on the senses?

Paul: I still think the body distracts most of us, but, even if you aren’t, Socrates had foundational reasons for distrusting the senses: “When we do get respite from the body and turn to some investigation, everywhere in our investigation the body is present and makes for confusion and fear, so that it prevents us from seeing the truth.”

Thomas: This is a better argument. I don’t deny that the body can confuse reason, but it can also aid reason. For example, I use writing to clarify my thoughts and supplement my memory, and good conversations give new ideas and unearth poor assumptions. Writing and conversation both require the body.

To reason alone in an armchair is to reason in circles. Too often the ideas birthed in this way are misleading and vague, disappointing when written down or shared with a friend. They are like garage-sale paintings that are beautiful from a distance but amateurish up close.

Paul: Writing and conversation may aid reason, but the same poor memory that makes writing useful is itself a bodily limitation. You are addressing the body’s limitations as best you can with the body, but maybe the soul could do better on its own.

Socrates surely thought the soul would reason differently than the body. The soul would not need a crutch like writing. The soul would even have senses of some sort, apart from and not limited by the body. This must be true since he expected to meet new friends and gods in heaven, and to live in a “beautiful dwelling place that is hard to describe clearly.” Without senses, how could he communicate with friends or dwell anywhere? What would there be to reason about besides math? Surely not justice, piety, or bravery—for how could a senseless soul, disconnected from the world and others, be any of these? No, Socrates must have thought the soul could still perceive and interact with the world around it.

Thomas: It is not clear from the text that Socrates believed these things, but assuming he did, how could he justify such mystical beliefs?

Paul: He had justifications, but they may not convince non-believers. Socrates knew what he wanted to be true, and he found reasons to justify it. He says this himself when he narrates young Socrates’ turn from the natural sciences to ethics: “I heard someone reading from a book of Anaxagoras, and saying that it is Mind that directs and is the cause of everything. I was delighted with this cause and it seemed to me good … This wonderful hope was dashed as I went on reading and saw that the man made no use of Mind, nor gave it any responsibility for the management of things, but mentioned as causes air and ether and water and many other strange things … since I was deprived and could neither discover it myself nor learn it from another, as a second best, I busied myself with the search for the cause.”

Socrates then exchanges the senses and induction for words and deduction. As he said: “I feared my soul would be altogether blinded if I looked at things with my eyes and tried to grasp them with each of my senses. So I thought I must take refuge in discussions and investigate the truth of things by means of words.”

The Plato recounts Socrates’ investigations with words in his early dialogues.

Socrates, or maybe Plato projecting onto Socrates, finds the forms—the ideal versions of things. I have not yet found a clear definition of the forms. Perhaps there isn’t one or can’t be one. “I assume the existence of a Beautiful, itself by itself, of a Good and a Great and all the rest. If you grant me these and agree that they exist, I hope to show you the cause as a result, and to find the soul to be immortal.”

The forms are the metaphysical foundation of Plato’s worldview. His belief in the soul, the afterlife, and his disdain for the body originate in the forms. He only argues for their existence tangentially: We know what equality is, yet we have never seen equality. “Do not equal stones and sticks sometimes, while remaining the same, appear to one to be equal and to another to be unequal?” The blobs of color that make up the objects are not reliable, but our mind produces the forms somehow, despite this unreliability. From this observation, it is clear the senses can’t be trusted.

“Philosophy then persuades the soul to withdraw from the senses in so far as it is not compelled to use them and bids the soul to gather itself together by itself, to trust only itself and whatever reality, existing by itself, the soul by itself understands, and not to consider as true whatever it examines by other means, for this is different in different circumstances and is sensible and visible, whereas what the soul itself sees is intelligible and invisible.”

Thomas: So Socrates didn’t have justifications for his mystical beliefs. He posits the forms to fulfill what he wanted to believe.

Paul: I wouldn’t characterize it that way. As I said, he provides tangential reasons to believe the forms exist. You may not accept them, but we all must begin building our worldviews with assumptions. We are thrown into the world at birth and need to reason about the world from within the world. How we reason, be it with the senses or with words, is dictated by what we believe to be the nature of the world. But we must use reason to form our beliefs about the nature of the world. Therefore, epistemology depends on metaphysics and metaphysics on epistemology. This circular dependency requires us to pick a starting place—to make an assumption. Where you start may determine where you end.

You may not like Socrates’ assumption, but such assumptions are unavoidable.

Thomas: Your analysis lets mystics believe whatever they want and equates reason with madness. Not all starting assumptions are equivalent. The scientific method’s effectiveness is made evident by humanity’s technological progress. In light of this, we can only say that Socrates was wrong to abandon the senses and the body. If he lived today, he would have abandoned the forms.

Paul: Are you so sure? What do you mean when you say, “it’s not rational?” What is this reason you speak of? Materialists assume there is only matter. Then you say the idea or form of a circle must only exist in the mind. Why? Because there is only matter, and this is more reasonable than positing an actual ideal circle! Then you claim that simpler ideas are more likely than complex ones. One can’t reason about how to reason.

Thomas: Why not? Your statement does what it says one can’t do! Besides, Socrates says the senses don’t lead to pure knowledge, but he ends the Phaedo with a mythical description of earth, filled with empirical claims. He says humans live below a sea of air, and that other beings live on the true surface of the earth. “We, who dwell in the hollows of it, are unaware of this and we think that we live above, on the surface of the earth. It is as if someone who lived deep down in the middle of the ocean thought he was living on its surface.”

It’s a beautiful and clever vision, and fits with his theory of ethics, since true surface dwellers are “pure, not eaten away or spoiled by decay and brine or corroded by the water and air which have flowed into the hollows here and bring ugliness and disease upon earth, stones, the other animals and plants.” However clever and beautiful, this vision is entirely wrong.

The armchair philosopher succeeded in fooling themselves into believing what they wanted using deduction. Induction and the senses are the surest way to correct such misguided thoughts.

Paul: Socrates made mistakes, and his final vision of the world—with the pure surface dwellers—was wrong in its details, but perhaps right in other ways.

He deserves credit for loving the truth and inviting correction. He was mystical, but not dogmatic. After his final vision, he said: “No sensible man would insist that these things are as I have described them, but I think it is fitting for a man to risk the belief—for the risk is a noble one—that this, or something like this, is true about our souls and their dwelling places, since the soul is evidently immortal, and a man should repeat this to himself as if it were an incantation.”

Is it such a great philosophical sin to desire a particular truth? Is Troy erased by an archaeologists’ hope? Or, contrarily, is the law of gravity true because Newton thought action-at-a-distance absurd? No, Troy and gravity are what they are. The scientist can no better divest their hopes and fears than can a judge their legislative sentiments.

Thomas: You are right to challenge my views—conversation is a great aid to reason. I may have judged Socrates too harshly. Our superior understanding of the world may make ideas seem silly, which once were convincing. Nobody can deny that Socrates deserves our respect.

Paul: I’m glad the discussion has been useful. I enjoyed it, although I need to go to make dinner. Shall we read Ion next?

Thomas: Yes, this will be our sixth dialogue—I’m not sure I will get through all of them. How has the city been?

Paul: Good—it is growing busier after the shutdown for the pandemic. I can hear honking cars again on the street.

Thomas: Great, have a nice evening.