Sunday, January 30, 2011

It's the clever ones you need to worry about...

Phew.  Lots of teaching at the moment so I'm not able to think very much about the sort of philosophical things I like to blog about.  But here's a gem of an argument from SE PH II, which we are reading in our Thursday seminars.  He's offering arguments against there being a kriterion  -- here, against 'human' being the answer to the question of the kriterion 'by whom...'.  He is here thinking about whether a particular type of person, the wise man, would be a good answer.  No, it turns out unsurprisingly... (PH II.42):

ἵνα δὲ καὶ κατὰ συγχώρησιν δῶμεν, ὅτι οὐδεὶς τοῦ ὑποτιθεμένου συνετοῦ συνετώτερος οὔτε ἔστιν οὔτε ἐγένετο οὔτε ἔσται, οὐδὲ ὣς πιστεύειν αὐτῷ προσήκει. ἐπεὶ γὰρ μάλιστα οἱ συνετοὶ φιλοῦσιν ἐν τῇ τῶν πραγμάτων κατασκευῇ τοῖς σαθροῖς παριστάμενοι πράγμασιν ὑγιῆ καὶ ἀληθῆ ταῦτα δοκεῖν εἶναι ποιεῖν, ὅταν τι λέγῃ οὗτος ὁ ἀγχίνους, οὐκ εἰσόμεθα πότερόν ποτε, ὡς ἔχει τὸ πρᾶγμα φύσει, οὕτω λέγει, ἢ ψεῦδος αὐτὸ ὑπάρχον ὡς ἀληθὲς παρίστησι καὶ ἡμᾶς πείθει φρονεῖν ὡς περὶ ἀληθοῦς, ἅτε δὴ συνετώτερος τῶν ἀνθρώπων ἁπάντων ὑπάρχων καὶ διὰ τοῦτο ὑφ' ἡμῶν ἐλέγχεσθαι μὴ δυνάμενος. οὐδὲ τούτῳ τοίνυν συγκαταθησόμεθα ὡς ἀληθῶς τὰ πράγματα κρίνοντι, διὰ τὸ οἷόν τε μὲν εἶναι αὐτὸν ἀληθῆ λέγειν, οἴεσθαι δ' ὅτι δι' ὑπερβολὴν ἀγχινοίας τὰ ψευδῆ τῶν πραγμάτων ὡς ἀληθῆ βουλόμενος παριστᾶν ἅ φησι λέγει. διὰ ταῦτα μὲν οὖν οὐδὲ τῷ τῶν ἁπάντων ἀγχινουστάτῳ δοκοῦντι ὑπάρχειν ἐν τῇ κρίσει τῶν πραγμάτων χρὴ πιστεύειν.

Here is Bury's translation:

And even should we grant, by way of concession, that no one either is, way, or will be more sagacious than our hypothetical sage, not even so is it proper to believe him.  For since it is the sagacious about all who, in the construction of their doctrines, love to champion unsound doctrines and to make them appear sound and true, whenever this sharp-witted person makes a statement we shall not know whether he is staring the matter as it really is, or whether he is defending as true what is really false and persuading us to think of it as something true, on the ground that he is more sagacious than all the other men and therefore incapable of being refuted by us.  So not even to this man will we assent, as one who judges matters truly, since though we suppose it possible that he speaks the truth, we also suppose that owing to his excessive cleverness he makes his statements with the object of defending false propositions as true.  Consequently, in the judgement of propositions we ought not to believe even the man who is thought to be the most clever of all.

I like this for two reasons.  First, I like the snide characterisation of smart arses who are so clever they take particular care to provide the most obscure and crazy conclusions as a sort of badge of honour: their intellect encourages them to take up perverse causes (I like the phrase 'excessive cleverness', ὑπερβολή ἀγχινοίας).  Second (and this is the better argument) Sextus does not need to insist that all smart-arses are in fact perverse or deceitful.  Rather, given that they are by definition smarter than us ( this is why they might be handy kriteria) we have no way of being sure whether they are telling the truth.  They may insist on their correctness, but how are we to be sure?  The rest of us are just not smart enough to be able to tell whether smart people are telling the truth.  The mere possibility that they might be deceitful is enough to throw everything they say under suspicions.  Now, you might want to try to argue that wisdom has some direct connection with veracity and benevolence but that too is quite a tall order.  And if you try to persuade me that you do have a good argument that I should believe because you're clever and have worked it out, then, I would feel a suspicion about that too...

1 comment:

RJR said...

I think that's very interesting, and it makes me think of an article by Oliver Burkeman in the Graun where he talked about recent suggestions by cognitive scientists that human rationality evolved not in order to discover truth but as a method of persuading others. Which would make it sensible to distrust anyone who's too good at reasoning, if the intrinsic purpose of human reasoning is manipulation. I'm not convinced by arguments that what our brain does naturally is therefore what we morally should do or something we are helpless to escape, obviously, but I still think it's a really interesting point, and it amuses me because as a hypothesis it sheds a new light on the rationality of which Dawkins is so proud.