- Harry Frankfurt - On Bullshit
- Harry Frankfurt - The Reasons of Love
- After the axial revolution, humans, as pioneered by Socrates and Plato become increasingly interested in the project of understanding how they operate. (“Know Thyself”)
- It’s no longer just important to understand nature because this just gives truth without transformation. (“Truth without relevance.”) Instead, the focus becomes how we can become wise or overcome self-deception, or how to become a good person.
Welcome again to awakening from the meaning crisis. This is episode four. So last time we discussed the axial revolution and in particular how it moved into ancient Israel. We talked about the advent of the psycho-technology of time as cosmic history, as a narrative in which there is an open future and in which your actions – the moral quality of your actions – can determine that future in which you participate, along with God, in the creation of that future. This brings with it the idea of progress, more progress, the increase in justice. And this is how we move from the last real world to the more real world. For the ancient Israelites it’s understood as a journey through time and space. Historically, we talked about the kind of God that the God of the Bible is; how he is, in fact, the god of this open future. And particularly he intervenes at moments of KAIROS – turning points where he tries to bring people back on course.
We talked about the sense of faith as the sense of being on course; to be able to sense how history is flowing and unfolding; how you are participating in that story how you are shaping it and being shaped by it in a tightly reciprocal manner, and that SIN is the deviation from that and what is needed is to wake us back up to bring us back on course and we talked about how the prophets represented that and they represent, increasingly, that vision – that Axial vision of the moral redemption of history. We then turned to look at how the Axial revolution was coming into ancient Greece and in particular two figures. We’re looking at the figures of Pythagoras and Socrates. Last time we talked about Pythagoras and how he represents an exaptation of that shamanic behavior of altering your state of consciousness, entering into something like soul flight, but how for Pythagoras that had been allied with the psycho-technology that was being emphasized in Greece: Rational argumentation to discovery of rational patterns in the world and Pythagoras of course is famous for discovering that music can be expressed mathematically: he is at least associated, his school, with things like the Pythagorean theorem; this idea that we can enhance our capacity to pick up on the real patterns in the world even if those are not readily apparent to us. And by coming into a direct awareness of those patterns, through our rational insight and faculties, we can transform ourselves.
And Pythagoras changes the shamanic soul flight into a release, a freedom from imprisonment in this world which he represented as being imprisoned in the body and we fly free and so soul flight has been turned into a radical kind of self transcendence in which we are liberating ourselves from the illusory world as we more and more conform to the rational patterns that dictate the structure of reality. The other person who is going to figure in is – in fact figures even more largely in the Axial revolution in ancient Greece – is the figure of Socrates. Socrates and Pythagoras are gonna be the two most important influences on Plato and if you were to put Western civilization on to two feet, the one foot is the Bible the other foot is the works of Plato.
So Socrates is a very unusual figure. There are as many interpretations of Socrates as there are of people like Jesus. Even in his time there are many difference Socratic movements groups of people who claim to be adherents and disciples of Socrates. He is an enigmatic, interesting, provocative and maddeningly frustrating figure to try and get clear on. So I want it understood that when I’m talking about Socrates I’m talking about a particular interpretation that I share with other people. I think it can be well argued for. But, as I said, whether or not this was the full historical Socrates it’s very hard to know and in some sense this isn’t that relevant because it’s the Socrates I’m going to talk about that has become part of the cognitive and existential grammar of the West.
So getting into the figure of Socrates is kind of interesting. A good way to start is to see how provocative a person he was… is to do his biography. So, as many of you probably know, ancient Greece was the world in which people believed they could speak to the God through oracles. The oracles were human, or otherwise natural phenomena, that represented how the gods were speaking to humanity. One of the most important oracles is at Delphi and I’ve been to Delphi. If you get a chance at some point in your life, go to Delphi. It will really put the zap on your brain because the way the landscape as organized, really does have a transformative impact on your consciousness and your sense of self and your sense of place in the world.
So the situation, the site of Delphi is itself very transformative. What would happen is a woman, Pythia, would sit in a cave or something similar to it – again the “cave”. Always the caves! Like the association with shamanism. Remember that shamanism is associated with cave art; ritual practices taking place in caves like Pythagoras – so, she’s in a cave, she’s sitting on a tripod. There might be some intoxicating gases in there. She’s eating perhaps eucalyptus leaves. She’s probably going into some kind of psychedelic trance state – that seems plausible. And then what happens is people would – because that is a cross-cultural thing: We find that people are thought to have access to the gods by being able to enter into altered states of consciousness – So what would happen is people would come in, they would bring their questions, they would pose questions to Pythia. She would then speak on behalf of the gods and then after speaking on behalf of the gods the people around her would… there would be males who would interpret what she had to say!
So, the thing about being an oracle is that if you want to stay in business, you don’t want to give clear answers! So if I come to an oracle and I ask a specific question, I don’t want to give a specific answer. I think there’s a very good reason for that. I don’t think that people actually can foresee the future in any kind of supernatural manner. So typically if you go to an oracle and say “Should I marry Cassandra?” You’ll get an answer or something like: “Sometimes the Spring comes early!”. Or “should I invest in this project?”. You’ll get an answer like “sometimes the squirrels do not gather too many nuts!”. You don’t know what to make of this. And it might provoke an insight in you, it might provoke a reflection in you. And whether or not events go one way or the other you can often retrospectively reinterpret them as having been consonant with the Delphic oracle. So the Oracle seems to be providing foresightful information, but usually of course it’s not.
So, what happens is a bunch of Socrates’s friends – he’s already famous when we “meet” him in his biography – a bunch of Socrates’ friends decide to go to the Oracle and ask the oracle a question about Socrates. So they make the trek to Delphi and in my mind I sort of picture this almost like half jokingly! That they want to see what kind of crazy answer they’re going to get from the Oracle about Socrates. So they go all the way up to the Oracle and then they pose their question. And the question they pose is “Is there anyone wiser than Socrates?”, and what they’re looking for, or perhaps not what they’re looking for, what they’re expecting is some very cryptic, obscure answer. Like “the snow melts farther in the south!” or some bizarre answer. And instead they get this answer: “No! There’s no human being wiser than Socrates!” Crystal clear Answer! And so you can imagine how shocked they are!!
So they travel back of course to relate this story to Socrates and here’s something telling. First of all, that’s just telling in and of itself, that the Delphic Oracle would give such a clear answer! Now it’s a qualified answer: There’s no ‘human being’ wiser than Socrates. But, when they go back to Socrates, Socrates’ response is also profound. Interesting. So if we’re honest… If we’re honest and we found out from some sacred authority that we are very wise, most of us would be very self-congratulatory. Like “yeah! I knew it!!”. And how do I know that? Because one of the most persistent biases we have is that people believe they’re above average intelligence. And of course most people must be wrong about that, because most people have, well, average intelligence! But if you ask anybody “is your intelligence average?” They will tell you “No, I have above average intelligence”. More so of course even for ideas such as wisdom. But Socrates isn’t self-congratulatory. He doesn’t say “yep, I knew it all along! There’s the confirmation I so want!”. Now that’s really telling in of itself because – to quote a friend of mine LEO FERRARO – we are entering the age of “confirmation porn” in which people are continuously seeking confirmation from their beliefs and part of what’s going on to the meaning crisis, and the ever expansion of bullshit in our society, is precisely because we have technologically enhanced through social media our capacity for gratifying our bias for confirmation.
We’ll talk about this later, but we all carry a terrific bias called the “confirmation bias” in which we seek information that confirms our beliefs and we tend to avoid information that challenges it. And part of what is going wrong right now in our culture is that through a lot of factors that are endemic to the meeting crisis we are accelerating and exacerbating our propensity for falling into the confirmation bias. And I think that’s what my friend Leo means by “confirmation porn”. We have a kind of pornography – if we take pornography to mean the gratuitous and unmorally justified satisfaction of a desire, then we are living in an age of confirmation porn.
Socrates is a corrective to that. Here is a great temptation. He is presented the word of God that he is wise – wiser than anyone else. And rather than accepting it and giving into that confirmation bias, his immediate response is to challenge it. The challenge is tricky for Socrates. Socrates is no atheist, although he’s gonna be charged with athiesm when he’s put on trial, but he does believe in the gods. He’s gonna do something very important about the gods. He’s going to transform the Greek gods into moral exemplars. But what that means for Socrates is the gods can’t lie. The gods can’t lie. For Socrates, and this is one of the ways he’s going to transform the understanding of the gods and Plato along with him, the Greek gods as they are represented in standard Greek myths aren’t very accurate portrayals because those gods lie and they cheat and they betray… Zeus cheats on his wife etc… But for Socrates, and this is part of the Axial revolution, the gods represent moral exemplars. They represent ways in which we can self transcend and morally improve. So for Socrates it’s therefore axiomatic that the gods can’t lie to him. So the gods are telling the truth. This wedding – and this is something we’re going to come back to: the way the Greeks wed Divinity to reality, that truth and sacredness are bound up together – is gonna be really pivotal. Think about how much we separate those two in our culture. But for Socrates they are inter-penetrating. So the gods can’t lie. They have to be disclosures of the truth. But on the other hand, Socrates has significant and profound self-knowledge. One of the things I have tattooed on my back is “Know Thyself”. It was inscribed at the Delphic Oracle, but Socrates makes it his personal slogan. For life.
There’s been some recent things written about this and I think they’ve largely reflected a misunderstanding of what Know thyself means… Know thyself doesn’t mean “become aware of your biography”. We all are prey to that and we have a culture that exacerbates that narcissism. We’d like to stroke the ego of our personal autobiography and store up treasured moments that we can point to for other people that indicate our uniqueness and our specialness and why the universe should specially take care of and pay attention to us.
That’s not what “Know thyself” means. It doesn’t mean that kind of stroking of your autobiographical ego. Know thyself is much more a kind of direct participatory knowing. It means understanding how you operate. It’s not – if I were to use a literary analogy – it’s not like your autobiography, it’s more like your owner’s manual. It’s how do you operate. What are the principles. What are the powers, perils. What are the constraints that are operating within you. Socrates, as we’ll see, thought that that kind of self knowledge was central. And this is the core of the axial revolution. The Axial revolution is this critical awareness and sense of responsibility of one’s own cognition.
So, on one hand the gods can’t lie when they say Socrates is the wisest human being. But on the other hand Socrates has deep self knowledge. He has Socratic self knowledge in which he is convinced that he is not wise. And he is not willing to give up on either one of those. And that’s a telling thing about him. That tells you something very central about him. He holds these two together: his existential self-knowledge and this disclosure from reality are going to… Neither one of them is going to be given a greater authority! They’re going to be held together. So now Socrates faces a personal dilemma: a dilemma that goes to the core of who and what he is. How can it be that he is the wisest human being when he knows that he is not wise?
So this is a very deep dilemma that he set for himself. It’s a kind of profound problem that he seeks to solve. And what that means is that Socrates starts on a quest. He starts on a quest of trying to determine how both of those things could be the case at the same time. Now the quest seems to have evolved very naturally into a way in which he interacted with those around him. What Socrates would do is he would go to people who claimed or were credited with being wise and he would ask them question. He invented, in fact, what has become known as the “Socratic method”, also known as “Elenchus”. The Socratic Method is a way of asking questions in order to try and draw somebody out.
We’ll talk a little bit more about Elenchus in a minute but first I want to talk about the two types of people that we have good reason to believe Socrates was interacting with and what that can tell us about the Socratic notion of wisdom. And we’re going to see how this Socratic notion of wisdom – this idea of self knowledge – is deeply bound up with how meaningful your life is. So, the two groups that Socrates, the two groups of people that were accredited as being wise, were “The philosophers” and “The Sophists” If you remember last time we talked about Pythagoras… Pythagoras actually invents the word “Philosophy”. It comes from two Greek words: “Philia” and “Sophia”.
This means “the friendship love of wisdom”. So, Pythagoras creates a community around him. You create a community – distributed cognition – in which you interact with other people in order to try and pursue wisdom. A philosopher is someone who, in concert with others, is a lover of wisdom. So Socrates is interacting with the philosophers and in particular one group of philosophers (The Natural Philosophers – written on board) that come before him. In fact Socrates is regarded as creating a revolution in philosophy precisely for how he differed from the natural philosophers. And he is also doing the Socratic method with the Sophists, and you can see that this also comes from Sophia: Wisdom. It’s where we get the word “sophisticated” from. The Sophists are also people who claim to be wise.
Now the natural philosophers are very interesting. The natural philosophers seem to represent a fundamental change in human cognition. So I’m going to take, as an example, one of the natural philosophers who is considered to be the first example of it – Thales. Now, because these guys are just as we’re coming out of the dark age and they pre-date Socrates sometimes by a hundred couple hundred years or thereabouts, a lot of what we have from them is very fragmentary. We don’t have very much. In fact you can put most of Thales’ philosophy into three lines; into three sentences. I once taught this to a course of mine and one of my students went out and made a T-shirt in which they’d put all of Daly’s philosophy on one T-shirt because that’s how fragmentary it is!
Let’s talk about these three fragments because they reveal something very important. One is “All is the Moist”, the next is “The Load-Stone Has Psyche” (and this is important because this would “Psyche” which we now pronounce psyche is going to be the basis of the idea of psychology as a discipline) and finally “Everything is filled with gods” which sounds very pre-axial… almost shamanic! Now, what you have to pay attention to here is not ‘what’ Thales is saying, but what he says reveals about the kind of thinking he is creating. What does he mean by this: “all is the moist”? Of course there’s controversy about all of this because it’s fragmentary, it’s old. But given how other people in the ancient world, like Aristotle, followed up on this, a plausible interpretation is “everything is made out of water”. Everything is made out of water. Now that’s false! Everything isn’t made out of water. It’s not just scientifically false it’s kind of metaphysically false. Everything can’t be made out of water or we wouldn’t be able to identify water on its own! But put that aside. Think about this: what surrounds Ancient Greece? Water. We dig into the ground, what will you hit? Water. What falls from the sky? Water. What does everything need in order to live? Water. What can take the shape of any container you put it in? Water. So what I’m trying to get you to see is, although Thales’ idea is false, it’s highly rational. It’s highly plausible. What he’s doing is using his reason and his observation to come up with a plausible explanation of what the underlying substance is behind everything.
By the way, pay attention to this word (writes SUBSTANCE on the board)… this means “stands under”. Another metaphor. It’s related to lots of other words where we use “standing” to talk about… “understanding” for example! So, notice what he’s doing here. He’s not doing mythology. He’s not generating a narrative about some divine agent. He’s not saying this has happened because Zeus cheated on Herra and then Herra saught to… There is no story here! There’s no mythological narrative. There’s no divine agents involved. That’s not how he’s trying to explain or understand. Instead he’s doing a rational analysis based on observation and he’s trying to get at the underlying stuff that everything is made out of. Do you see what I’m showing you? What Thales is inventing – is there any other word for this? He’s inventing how to think scientifically. How this happens is obscure. But that’s what’s happening. He’s inventing the kind of thinking that we now – and I’m going to say it again – take it for granted as if it’s natural. But he’s inventing it!
What does this mean? “The Lodestone has Psyche”? So Lodestone is a natural form of magnet. What’s interesting about magnets is that they can move themselves and they can move other things around them. The original meaning of this is, of course, breath or wind but what it ultimately refers to and came to refer to is anything that’s living in the sense that it’s self moving. That it can move itself and that it can therefore cause other things to move. So I can move myself and therefore I can make other things move. The magnet can move itself and it can make other things move. I’m aware of Psyche (Psuke) within me. I see the magnet doing something similar and therefore I conclude that magnet and I both share Psyche (Suki).
He’s wrong! But that doesn’t matter. This is a plausible, rational argument. Here he is trying to get at what we would now call the underlying force behind things. Please remember that by the way. That Psyche (Psuke) originally means your capacity for being able to move yourself and make other things move. You may ask “well why does that become the word for mind?” Psychology/ mind/ psuke… because the mind is that part of you which you can most move. It is the most self moving part of you and it’s where all of your capacity to move other things starts. If I’m going to move this marker, my mind first moves itself and that drives me to move the marker. But that way of even thinking about me, so that I can start a science of the psyche starts with Thales. And what’s this: “Everything is filled with gods?” …this seems so scientific, John! …and then you’re throwing this at me! The gods! “Isn’t that a throwback to mythology?” I don’t think so. I don’t think so. Look what he’s doing here (points at the first two Thales philosophies on the board). Now, I need to introduce a term – I promised to try and keep the technicalities to a minimum – but we need a term here right. So “ontology” is the study of being; the structure of reality. Ontological analysis is when you use reasoning to try and get at the underlying structure of reality by getting at the underlying stuff and the underlying forces that are at work in it. So Thales is introducing the ontological analysis that drives the scientific revolution: what are scientists doing? They’re trying to get at the underlying stuff… they’re still trying to do it, right now! They’re trying to get at the underlying forces. They’re trying to see into the depths of reality. They’re engaging in “Ontological Depth Perception”. This doesn’t mean… “Physical”…., this doesn’t mean our normal perception into spatial depth. What I mean here is seeing with the mind into the depths of reality. “Ontological depth perception”.
Now once you get that he’s discovering this way – he’s discovering, he’s inventing this way of looking at the world that’s going to bleed into right here right now – think about how powerful that way must be. Think of the power in that vision! He gets an access to the depths of reality and what is he saying? That provokes awe. That provokes wonder. That gives him a sense of connecting to what is most real. It helps him to make the most sense of things. And that’s what it is to experience something as sacred. So this is powerful stuff.
Now, Socrates seems to have been influenced by a particular one of these natural philosophers called Anaxagoras who was in Athens just before Socrates. Anaxagoras declared that the sun wasn’t a god, for example, that it was a hot rock and he got into a lot of trouble for things like this! Socrates seems to have enjoyed… More than enjoy! …he seems to have been impressed by the Natural Philosophers commitment to getting at the truth. But ultimately Socrates…. he rejects this not because he rejects reasoned, rational analysis – he’s going to engage in that himself multiple times. Or argumentation his whole Socratic method, as we’ll see, is all about argumentation. What does he reject about the natural philosophers? They don’t help him with his axial project.
See the problem with the natural philosophers is they give you truth without transformation. They give you facts. They give you knowledge, but they do not indicate how you become wise. They do not indicate how you overcome self-deception. They do not indicate, as Socrates would say, “how to become a good person”. Now it’s interesting how much people say that even now, even today! Sometimes in clear ways that are helpful, sometimes in confused and mixed up ways which are unhelpful. But the idea that our scientific world view, while giving us all kinds of knowledge, does not in any way train us for wisdom, does not tell us how to become wise. Does not tell us how to transcend ourselves and become better people. This is a common complaint, and we’ll come back to it, about the scientific world view.
Socrates sees it even then. So here you have truth, but no relevance. (“TRUTH WITHOUT RELEVANCE” written on the board.) The truths that are discovered are not existentially relevant. They don’t matter. They don’t enable the cultivation of wisdom, the transformation and transcendence of the self. Now, Socrates’ is interacting with the Sophist, which is famous, is a lot more antagonistic. This, when he talks about his relation here, it’s much more the language – or the tone, at least that’s how I read it – of disappointment. He was expecting more, and he found less. Here, and it’s not clear how much this is Socrates and how much this is Plato who’s writing about Socrates, but here the relationship is much more antagonistic. Now who are the sophists? Well if you remember we talked about when the Axial Revolution is coming to Greece you get the emergence of democracy, and in Athens the democracy is direct democracy. Now before we get too far into this we don’t want to over glamorize this. Yes Athens is the beginning of democracy. But let’s remember, if I was a woman the last place I would want to do well in the ancient world is Ancient Athens! Ancient Athens treats its women horribly. Just horribly! Sparta treats its women better than Athens. Democracy is only for Athenian adult males. Women, foreigners, anybody else – even if they’re Greek – they’re not considered to be worthy of participation in the Democratic process. And it’s a direct democracy. Everybody files into the assembly and votes on everything.
What that means is, as I’ve already mentioned, your capacity for debate and argumentation is a route to power. This is why it developed so powerfully in ancient Athens. The better you are at arguing, the better you are at persuading other people, the more powerful and influential you will be. What happens is a group of people invent a new psycho-technology. They invent rhetoric. They invent ways of picking up on how language and cognition interact. They find standardised skills that can be practiced and developed so that you can influence people… Increase the chance that your language will change their mind.
The sophist were only concerned with teaching the skills. They basically separated the technology from any kind of moral commitment. So for example, a particular Sophist might go in the morning to this aristocrat and help him argue for why Athens should increase the number of ships in its Navy and in the afternoon go to this aristocrat and help him craft an argument as to why Athens should decrease the number of ships in the Navy. The Sophists didn’t care which was the case. What mattered was empowering the individual to win the argument. Now, how does this work and how can we relate it to our to our lives now? So basically a good way to think about this is the Sophists pick up on the fact that when we are communicating – we’re going to talk about this a lot later as we go on – we are being driven by what we find salient and relevant, not just by what we find true or believed to be the case. Remember that with the 9 dot problem what stands out to us, what’s relevant, shapes how we see things and how we understand them. So, let me give you a modern analog for how rhetoric works, a place where rhetoric is readily apparent. Advertising.
See, the point about advertisement is to make use of the way your brain will associate things, the way your brain finds certain things salient, make things seem highly relevant to you in order to manipulate your behavior. Now what’s telling about this and this is the point about the Sophist is how much that can happen in a way that is disconnected from whether or not it’s true. I mean you watch the beer commercial. And here it is, “here’s really attractive people. And they all get together and they’re all having a great time and it’s this beer and here’s the beautiful attractive people…” Go into an actual bar… That’s not like that! You’re not going to see the (uurrggggggggggh noise), the kind of broken down lives. Drunk people!
Now here’s the thing. You know that that’s not true. You know that!! If you went into a bar and you actually saw something like that happening… If, when you washed your hair with shampoo you were suddenly in the shampoo commercial, you’d worry about your sanity! You know it’s not true! It doesn’t matter! It makes certain stimuli salient to you. And so you buy the beer! You buy the shampoo! This is what I mean when I say your beliefs aren’t the only thing driving you. So this brings us to a notion I promised to come back to. And I want to use it technically. I’m not trying to be vulgar but this is important. This is the notion of “bullshit” and the classic work is by Harry Frankfurt on this. His essay “On Bullshit” is 20 years old now. Because Frankfurt is very interested in talking about the difference between somebody being a bullshit artist and somebody being a liar because they aren’t the same! They can overlap: a person can be both a liar and a bullshit artist. But let’s talk about pure cases. How does the liar work? The liar depends on your commitment to the truth. The liar tells you something. I’ll use “P” to represent some proposition: the liar says “P” to you, even though “NOT P” is the case because if he can convince you that “P” is the case you will change your behaviour because your behaviour is to some degree, significant degree, influenced by your commitment to the truth. If you believe “P” is true, that will change your behaviour. That’s how lying works! Lying depends on the fact that, in general, people are committed to the truth because, in general, people want to be in touch with reality. That’s not how bullshit works! See bullshit, unlike lying, works by making you disinterested, unconcerned with whether or not what is being said is true. When somebody is bullshitting you, they’re trying to get you to not find important or, “central”, how true the claim is. Instead they’re working in terms of the rhetoric. They’re trying to capture you in terms of how catchy it is! Like the advertiser. How salient it is, how much it grabs your attention.
So there was a famous example from this from The Simpsons. And The Simpsons has been on for a thousand years now, and I think it’s still on! So this is from a long time ago and at the time it seemed so almost absurdly ridiculous funny. But it turned out to be extremely, extremely prescient! Because the example is a political example. There are two aliens running for political office and they’re giving a speech to Americans. And I mean no insult to Americans, but I think we’re all aware of how what I’m going to say is relevant to American politics right now and the speech goes something like this: One of the aliens named Kang says “My fellow Americans, when I was young I dreamt of being a baseball! But now we must move forward not backwards, upwards twirling, twirling towards freedom!” And everybody cheers! Now it’s meaningless! It doesn’t mean anything! But he invokes youth, baseball. Moving forward, moving upward, twirling and freedom. And so if you’re an American you get this rush. You get this rush. That rush is these are all salient things. They’re highly relevant to you. You associate and identify with them. And so you’re swept up you’re caught up in it.
Now why does bullshit matter? Well part, as I said at the beginning, part of the way people articulate the meaning crisis is ‘there’s so much bullshit’ and it seems to be increasing. We are separating relevance and salience from truth. But there is a deeper reason and I think this is part of why it matters to Socrates. Look, you can’t – although we use this metaphor for self-deception, it’s actually not a good metaphor – you can’t lie to yourself! It makes no sense. Cognitive psychologists have been pointing – and philosophers – have been pointing this out. You can’t know “NOT P” and then say to yourself “but P!”, “But P!”. The trouble is you know that this is not the case “P” and so simply stating this to yourself doesn’t do anything. You can’t lie to yourself because you’re in possession of the truth. Did I just prove to you that self-deception is impossible. No, not at all. See, you can’t lie to yourself, but here’s what I would argue: You can bullshit yourself. Why? Because lying has to do with believing – I’m going to come back to this again and again. Look. Believing isn’t something you directly do.
Here I’ll show you. Pick a belief you would like to have. I would like to have the belief that everybody loves me. I don’t believe that. But I would like to truly have that belief. So what should I do. I should just believe. “Believe”. You see televangelists doing this; telling people “believe”! But you can’t! You can Hope that everybody loves you. You can wish that everybody loves you. But if I say “believe it”, you can’t do it. That’s not how belief works. It’s not a voluntary action. You can’t lie to yourself.
See, self-deception works in a different way. You know what you can do? You can bullshit yourself. How can you bullshit yourself? Because what you can do is direct your attention. If I say pay attention to this finger you can and you can also choose to pay attention to something. Now attention – and we’ll talk about this later and how central it is – there’s two sides to attention. You can direct your attention, for example if I say: “your left big toe” you’re paying attention to it, and suddenly it’s salient to you. When you pay attention to something, it makes it more salient. It stands out for you. But you know what else? Attention can also not only be directed by you to make things more salient, your attention can be caught! CLAP a sudden noise, and you turn, and you attend to it. It was salient and it captures your attention. So not only can you direct your attention, your attention can be captured by what you find salient. Notice what this means you can do. You can direct your attention to something and make it more salient. And because it’s more salient it will tend to capture your attention. And because you’re paying attention to it you make it more salient which means it will more likely capture your attention. Do you see what’s happening here? These two things feed on each other: I pay more attention to it. It becomes more salient. It becomes more salient. It gathers my attention. I pay more attention to it. I’m more likely to be attracted to it and it spins on itself in a self organizing manner until… your attention is attached to something. It’s super salient to you. It’s highly relevant to you and you lose the capacity to notice other things. That’s how you bullshit yourself. The salience and the catchyness of the stimulus has overtaken any concern you have for whether or not it’s true or represents reality.
This is how you deceive yourself. So do you see – that’s why Socrates is going to be so antagonistic towards the Sophists. They are the opposite – the opposite – of the Axial revolution. They are the opposite of that rational self-knowledge; the attempt to overcome self-deception. The Sophist are promoting bullshit and when you promote bullshit you not only promote the deception of others, you make yourself more vulnerable to self-deception. You fall more and more prey to self-deception.
So the natural philosophers are “truth without relevance”. The Sophists, and their propensity for the promotion of bullshit, represent “relevance disconnected from truth”. So notice here they have the power to transform people, but they have disconnected it from the pursuit of the truth. These people can give us knowledge of the facts but do not facilitate self transformation. What Socrates wanted is he wanted both. He wanted individuals who knew how to pay attention in such a way that what they found salient helped them determine the truth and that the truth that they found help them to train their attention to find salience. Socrates wanted something like that. (DRAWS ENCOMPASING CIRCLE/CYCLE ON THE BOARD???)
So what he would do is he would go about questioning people. Maddening frustration. So Socrates would come up to somebody and say “well what are you doing here?”, “Oh I’m in the marketplace!”, “Well why are you in the marketplace?”, “Well I’m purchasing something!”, “Well why are you purchasing something?”, “Well I want to get these goods!”, “Well why do you want these goods?”, “Because they’ll make me happy?”! And then, then Socrates starts to “Oh, so you must know what happiness is?”, “Well happiness is pleasure Socrates, I guess! And these things give me pleasure!”. “But is it possible…” Socrates would ask “…to have pleasure and still find yourself in a horrible situation that you really dislike?”. “Well of course, Socrates, that’s possible!”
“Oh, so then happiness isn’t pleasure! You’re being coy with me! Tell me, tell me,” Socrates would say “…what is happiness?”, “Oh it’s, you know, it’s getting what’s most important to you!”, “Well that means that you have to have knowledge. Is it any kind of knowledge?”, “Well no it’s the knowledge of what’s important!”, “What’s truly important? Or what you only think is important?”, “I guess what’s truly important, Socrates!”, “OK, so, what’s that knowledge of what’s truly important called?”, “I guess that would be wisdom, Socrates!”, “Oh, so, in order to find happiness, you must have first cultivated wisdom! Tell me how you cultivate wisdom and what wisdom is….?” And the person goes “AAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!!”. They collapse! They get to this point where they can’t answer! They fall into a state called Aporia. People compared it to being stung by a stingray, or falling under a magician spell! You don’t know what’s going on!
Now here’s what… Now one thing you might say is “Well Socrates is just a skeptic. He’s trying to show people that they don’t know anything because he wants to show that the gods are right, that nobody has any wisdom etc..” That’s too simple! I think something more sophisticated is going on with Socrates. Socrates is trying to get you to realize… He’s incarnating the Axial revolution. He’s trying to get you to realize how much each one of us, myself included, how much we’re bullshitting ourselves all the time. Why? Because we pursue things, we find things salient to us, THERE: happiness, fame, it’s salient to us and we’re pursuing it… We’re putting our efforts into it way before we understand it. Way before we grasp the truths of it. We are always making ourselves susceptible to bullshit because we are being driven by powerful motivations that are salient to us that are greatly in excess of our understanding of their truth or reality. We are always, all of us, bullshitting ourselves. And the point about that… what that does is that provokes a reaction in people. It goes one of two ways: people either go “AAAARGH” and they don’t want to be shown that about themselves and they become angry at Socrates. Or, some people have an insight! They realize “Oh. Oh!!! I need to transform myself. I need to find a way to keep relevance and truth tracking each other. Enabling each other.”
And when Socrates realized that he was having this effect on people he had his answer to his dilemma. He knew how it was that the gods were not lying and he was the wisest of human beings. His answer was the following: He knew what he did not know! And we all say “I know what I don’t know. I made note of a lot of things…” No no no no! He knew in a way that allows you to directly, painfully confront your capacity for bullshiting yourself.
To really realize what you do not know is to realize “I am pursuing her and I don’t know what’s going on.” “I’m pursuing that and I don’t know what’s going on.” That’s what he’s talking about.
Now, many people think that Socrates just concluded that that’s it: ‘He didn’t know anything!’ No that’s not what Socrates is talking about. Socrates does claim to know things. You can imagine how Socrates pisses people off. So he is put on trial. In ancient Athens there isn’t a state that arrests you! One citizen accuses another, you’re brought on trial, you’re put in front of 500 men – it’s always men, remember? …very very very chauvinistic society – and then the accuser presents their case the defendant presents their case and then the jury votes on it!
So, Socrates was accused by people that he’d pissed off of athesism, which doesn’t mean “not believing in gods” it just means teaching strange gods, because as I mentioned he was concerned to make the gods moral exemplars. Now when Socrates is on trial, it becomes clear that they will let him go if he agrees to stop doing this philosophy stuff that he’s doing, stopps pissing people off! And then he utters something that’s very famous – and this is a statement of him deeply knowing something he says “The unexamined life is not worth living”. A Life in which there is no effort made to put these two (Truth machinery and Relevance machinery) together, is a life that is not worth living because it is a life – to use our terms, that is awash in bullshit – that is beset by self-deception and self-destructive behavior. So Socrates knows what makes a life meaningful. There is a kind of wisdom. Wisdom is to keep your truth machinery and your relevance machinery tightly coupled together so that you don’t bullshit yourself. Socrates famously claimed to know TA EROTIKA – we’re going to have to talk about this later because it comes from “erotic” and, for most of us, all you hear when you hear erotic is sexual. That’s not what Eros means. It’s a much more broader term in ancient Greece. What Socrates means is he “knows how to love well”! That doesn’t mean romantic love. What it means is Socrates knows what to care about.
He knows how to keep what he cares about (relevant/salient to him) with what’s real (truth). He would do things like walk into the marketplace and say “look at all the things I don’t need”. He’d say “How much time did you spend on fixing your hair this morning?”, “Oh, about 20 minutes!”. “How much on fixing yourself?”. Socrates knew what to find significant, what to find important, he knew how to properly care. He also compared himself to a midwife. He knew how to take that caring and that sense of what makes life meaningful – the cultivation of wisdom – and helped people draw out… Give birth to their better self. That’s why he compared himself to a midwife. This is what he knew. Socrates knew how reason and love go together. You might find it entertaining to know that Frankfurt, who I mentioned a few minutes ago, wrote a book called “The Reasons of Love”. What he also puts together; Reason and love. Things that we have been taught to keep as emphathetical to each other. For Socrates separating them – which our culture regularly and reliably does – is one of our greatest follies. They need to be interdependent and intertwined with each other. We need to rationally know what we should most care about.
So Socrates is put on trial. He’s found guilty. He just narrowly loses. So then after losing – and it looks like part of the reasons were political and he’s pissed off the powerful and all kinds of things… he associated with people that turned out to be corrupt – but he loses by a very narrow margin. And then what happens is each side proposes a penalty. The accusers propose death. That Socrates should be killed. And then this tells you something about Socrates. Socrates says the following. Practicing philosophy has cost me. I have to constantly work at it. It’s very demanding. I’m not wealthy. I’m dependent on other people. People attack me. It’s been very risky. The worst penalty could be for me to continue doing philosophy and in order to make that even worse the government should give me free housing and free food for the rest of my life! So as you can imagine, this pisses everybody off, and Socrates is found, in a much greater vote, he’s condemned to death. Now notice Socrates is so convinced that he has the right kind of “know thyself” – not autobiographical, but “this” (references board notes) that I’ve been talking about – he knows how he works and how to train it to transform it so that he cares well and reduces his capacity for self-deception. That he’s willing to die for it! He finds that meaning so important that he’s willing to die for it!
He’s a very interesting figure for that reason. But there’s also other important things we should know about Socrates. The shamanic is still in Socrates because he could do the following: He could stand in one place for 24 or even 48 hours meditating on his own thoughts. He was terrifically capable of controlling his body’s physiological reactions. He could drink a lot without getting drunk. He could go into battle in winter without any shoes on his feet. He was famously brave. He had this divine voice! Whenever he was about to do something wrong, he’d hear this voice that would tell him “don’t do it Socrates”. So once again you still find the shamanic has been carried into the Socratic in really important ways. We’re going to talk about later how those two are interwoven together.
Now, Socrates has many followers. But there’s one person who was present at the trial, but wasn’t present at his death. When he drinks the hemlock. And you know what… I got to sit in the spot in Athens that corresponds to where Socrates was probably imprisoned. At least that’s what they said! That person who was present at the trial and even offers to pay for Socrates’ release but is ill and not present at his death is Plato. And Plato, as I foreshadowed, is going to take Pythagoras and Socrates and put them together and advance even more significantly the Axial Revolution in ancient Greece. Thank you very much for your time.