Here comes one of my favourite stories:
One day a businessman came to the Oracle of Delphi, looking for advice in important matters. The actual matter at hand is not known, but it is unlikely that he was on a spiritual quest but rather had questions about business strategy. As McKinsey and its competitors had not yet been invented, he had to make do with the Oracle of Delphi.
Well, the Oracle did not even go into trance upon hearing his question. She answered right away: ”You have to ride to Athens, to see Socrates. He is the wisest man of Greece.“ So off he rode. In Athens, he managed to meet Socrates, sitting in front of his house, recovering from yet another fight with his wife Xanthippe.
The businessman came straight to the point: ”The Oracle of Delphi has sent me to see you. She told me that you are the wisest man in Greece. I have the following question: …“ He did not get any further, as Socrates looked at him with a mild gaze and just said:
„I know that I know nothing.“,
got up, and returned into his house, hoping that by then his wife had calmed down again.
Whereupon the businessman became angry and rode over more than 100 kilometers back to Delphi, stormed into the temple of the Oracle and confronted her angrily: ”Do you know what he said to me? Your Socrates? He said only one sentence: ‚I know that I know nothing.’“
He looked at the Oracle furiously. To his surprise, the Oracle smiled happily and said: ”See? I told you so: the wisest man of Greece.“
Relative or absolute truth?
Why do I share this story with you? Because I find it important that we remind ourselves constantly that we can only access a relative truth.
It is also important to know that we all have the tendency to take what we think, believe, feel as an absolute truth. In reality, it is just that: what we think, believe, feel. A more or less justifiable conviction, in the best case a relative truth. The person who has firmly realized that is wise just like Socrates.
The next time when we are totally convinced that we are clearly right in our beliefs, and that the other person is wrong, it might be helpful to remember Socrates: ”I know that I know nothing.“ Through this, I also realize how relative my conviction is (as is – but to realize that is m u c h easier – the conviction of the other person.)
Up to this point, this discussion has been very philosophical. What are the practical consequences? If I know that I know nothing – how shall I act, how shall I judge, how shall I decide?
To think or not to think?
In such a situation, you and I have (at least) two alternatives:
If I am unsure about what is correct, I can look to someone who from my perspective has no doubt or who does not permit herself or himself any doubt. This person relieves me of my ignorance (and my uncertainty):
Donald Trump has said, the Pope has said, Hitler has said, Drosten has said, Merkel has said … – and suddenly I have a direction, I know what is right for me. By doing so, I might forget that Trump, the Pope, Drosten, and Merkel are also only human beings, for whom the same sentence holds true. Since they hold positions as leaders they have to decide to take a position. The first may base it on his gut or his favourite news channel, the next on the teachings of the Catholic Church, the third one on his scientific education and the fourth on her scientific education combined with the Protestant values that she was raised with.
The second alternative is much more difficult: I need to reflect, to think on my own. I evaluate on my own. Again and again. Knowing about my not knowing absolutely. It is better to I make my own mistakes than those of others.
What does it mean to reflect, to think?
Part of it is to observe and to be open beyond our own narrow horizon. (One of the reasons why I am a fan of learning a foreign language is exactly that: I am forced to go deeper into another culture, and by doing so, I hopefully stop assuming that my own culture is the center of the universe). Intuition is also one important part of it – what does my gut tell me, my instinct.
Another part of reflecting is of course also to look at the ”facts“ – and to develop your own feeling about which facts deserve the name, and which are just ”fake news“.
The probable is more probable than the improbable
Claims that are based on facts that can be independently verified have a higher probability of being closer to reality than some wild conspiracy theories.
If, for example, I have to watch or read that during the first wave of COVID-19 infections in Bergamo, Italy, lorries are needed to transport the high number of cadavers to the crematoriums, that emergency tents have to be set up in Central Park in the highly developed city of New York in order to somehow maintain care for patients with severecases – then this should make me think about what this might mean. Even if we had not yet experienced this ourselves in Germany.
One hypothesis is obvious: a new infectious agent has jumped over the barrier between humans and animals which is extremely infectious but not extremely deadly. It has spread around the globe. When the rates of infection become too high, an entire healthcare system might break down – and as a consequence at some point also the economy. In order to prevent this, certain measures have to be taken, some of them for the first time, to delay the spread of this virus as long as possible, until more is known about it, more treatment options are available and maybe even a vaccination becomes available. Some of the measures will work well, others not. Without trying things out and then adapting on the go, one cannot proceed in such unforeseen situations.
Of course, one can also adopt the second hypothesis: maybe there is an infectious agent, maybe not. In any event, democratically elected governments now have the unique chance to take rights away from their citizens, to subdue them, in order to create a dictatorship and so on and so on.
How will I decide between these two hypotheses?
”I know that I know nothing.“ is not really helpful at this point. This would allow me to live out all my fears, my frustrations, all the emotions that I have. It would allow me to react to the loss of the normality that had been known to me in a way that fortunately only a small minority are doing: with aggression, wild conspiracy theories or fantasies of grandeur: suddenly I am one of the few who is able to connect the dots correctly – and all of a sudden I know that all of this has been masterminded by Bill Gates …
Or I use my brain for critical thinking and reflect which alternative is more probable, which alternative provides a better explanation for the facts at hand – and also, if the facts that are presented to me are really facts.
Man errs as long as he aspires
Knowing about my own and others‘ fallibility, I can judge, decide, and I can act. In fact, I have to act. Life is action.
If I realize after a while that I have made a mistake, then I have to correct it. It is just useful to know that my convictions are just my convictions. Then I can check them against reality – and develop them further in a hopefully constructive exchange with others.
A good option is also to wonder: “What damage happens, if I – or the experts who I trust – am wrong?” Last not least, it is useful to check whether my action will follow the golden rule: “Do I act towards others as I would like them to act towards myself?”
Still, God’s phrase in the prologue to Faust holds true for all of us: ”Man errs as long as he aspires.“ Which is not meant to stop us from aspiring.