Following in Socrates’ steps: from natural science to moral philosophy

(Death of Socrates, by Jacques Louis David, 1787)

Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be a scientist. Early on, an astronomer. Family lore has it that such decision was reached when I was five years old, while watching the Apollo 11 Moon landing with my grandmother. (Interesting that I didn’t go for the more obvious thing: being an astronaut.) Carl Sagan influenced me when I was in middle school, and the 1976 landing of the Viking probes on Mars seemed to definitely settle my goals: I would become a planetologist!

But gradually, in high school, I became more and more enamored with biology, and eventually I pursued an academic career in evolutionary biology. Which worked out pretty well, resulting in four technical books and 88 technical papers over a span of over two decades.

Then, as I have recounted elsewhere, a mid-life crisis — both professional and personal — hit and I decided to shift focus. I went back to graduate school and got a PhD in philosophy, and ever since I’ve published in my new chosen field, both in philosophy of science and, more recently, in applied philosophy (chiefly, Stoicism). That also worked out pretty well, with three technical books and, so far, 75 technical papers. Plus an increasing number of books for the general public.

This unusual career trajectory has stunned and bemused a number of colleagues, but it is only recently that I discovered that, in a manner of speaking, I was simply following in the footsteps of Socrates — and yes, I’m full aware of how self-conceited that sounds, though it is most definitely not meant that way.

Here is what I’m talking about. The Phaedo is a Platonic dialogue dedicated to the subject of the immortality of the soul. Most importantly for my purposes here, it is the fourth and last dialogue of the tetralogy concerned with Socrates’ trial and execution (the others are Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito). The scene is set in the prison where Socrates awaits to drink the hemlock, and it is the last day of his life. Naturally, he is engaged in a deep philosophical conversation with a group of friends, including two visitors from Thebes: Cebes and Simmias.

Here is how Socrates explains his own evolution as a philosopher to Cebes (I do not have specific reference sections for the quotes, but you will find them all in this public domain version of the Phaedo, just do a text search):

“When I was young, Cebes, I had a prodigious desire to know that department of philosophy which is called the investigation of nature; to know the causes of things, and why a thing is and is created or destroyed appeared to me to be a lofty profession.”

Holy crap, I realized! Socrates is, in effect, telling Cebes that he started out as a natural philosopher (i.e., a scientist), before he became more interested in the parts of philosophy that deal with human affairs (i.e., ethics and politics). In fact, there is independent evidence that this was Socrates’ “career path,” so to speak, as he is presented in Aristophanes’ Clouds as a (absent-minded, literally with his head in the clouds) natural philosopher.

But why did Socrates make the shift? He allegedly was once asked why he seldom ventured out of town, to which he replied that by far the most interesting things were in town, not out. He meant human beings, their foibles, and what they strive for. That also has resonated with me for the past decade or so. I absolutely do not regret a minute spent studying gene-environment interactions in plants, which is what I did for most of my career as a biologist. But the older I got, the more I veered toward an interest into my fellow human beings, why we are doing what we are, and what we should be doing instead.

These days, though, there is much (misguided, I think) talk about science being the measure of all things. As opposed to the famous quip by Protagoras, a contemporary of Socrates, who said that:

“Man is the measure of all things—of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, IX.51-3)

Protagoras is often accused of espousing relativism, but that isn’t what he meant. He simply stated the obvious: human beings are the only animals capable of assigning “value” and “interest” to things, so everything is measured (by us) according to our own standards. When some of my science colleagues tell me that they are interested in, say, the sexual habits of an obscure species of moths that lives in the middle of Panama, they often justify devoting a lifetime and hundreds of thousands of dollars to such research on the grounds that it is “intrinsically” interesting. But there is no such thing. What they mean, rather, is that it is interesting to them.

In fact, I have been arguing for some time now that to think that science is the beginning and ending of all interesting questions is a form of scientism, a peculiar kind of hubris that affects the likes of, to mention just a few, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and a number of others (often, though not only, to be found among what was once referred to as the “new atheists”).

There is a fascinating philosophical defense of the notion that science is important, but not all-important, when it comes to understanding and navigating the world: Wilfrid Sellars’ so-called stereoscopic view. Let me explain. Sellars — arguably the most important modern philosopher you never heard of — articulated nothing less than a general view of the scope and purpose of philosophy itself. In the modern age, after the split between philosophy and natural science during the Scientific Revolution, the role of philosophy should be that of making sense of the contrast between what he called the scientific and the manifest images of the world.

The scientific image represents the world as understood through the lens of science, while the manifest image is the world as understood through commonsense. While the scientistic view is that the former should simply replace the latter, Sellars argued that this is not possible, because there are certain categories and concepts that do not find a place in scientific language, and yet are crucial to human life as we know it. 

He was referring to things like values and reasons, the sort of things that are nowhere to be found in, say, neuroscience or quantum mechanics, and that can only be tackled at higher levels of description, for instance in psychology. But psychology can only tell us how people think about values and give reasons for what they do. It cannot tell us whether they should espouse those values, or whether those reasons are cogent. Therefore, while science does enhance our understanding of the world, and philosophers would be foolish to ignore it, it does not encompass all that is meaningful and important to human beings. Indeed, concepts like “meaningful” and “important,” that is, evaluative concepts, are simply not scientific in the first place. That doesn’t mean we should, or even could, do away with them.

And here is the stunner: Socrates had already gotten there, almost two and a half millennia ago! In a later bit from the Phaedo he explains to Cebes why he moved away from natural philosophy. It’s a beautiful passage, and I’m going to quote it in full:

“What expectations I had formed, and how grievously was I disappointed! As I proceeded, I found my philosopher altogether forsaking mind or any other principle of order, but having recourse to air, and ether, and water, and other eccentricities. I might compare him to a person who began by maintaining generally that mind is the cause of the actions of Socrates, but who, when he endeavored to explain the causes of my several actions in detail, went on to show that I sit here because my body is made up of bones and muscles; and the bones, as he would say, are hard and have joints which divide them, and the muscles are elastic, and they cover the bones, which have also a covering or environment of flesh and skin which contains them; and as the bones are lifted at their joints by the contraction or relaxation of the muscles, I am able to bend my limbs, and this is why I am sitting here in a curved posture—that is what he would say, and he would have a similar explanation of my talking to you, which he would attribute to sound, and air, and hearing, and he would assign ten thousand other causes of the same sort, forgetting to mention the true cause, which is, that the Athenians have thought fit to condemn me, and accordingly I have thought it better and more right to remain here and undergo my sentence.”

This insight is incredible, and it ought to still teach us all a very important lesson. What Socrates is saying is that — using modern terminology — the level of description of biology and physiology is inadequate to provide a good explanation for why he is sitting in his cell, about to drink hemlock. It’s not that the scientific description is incorrect, but rather that it is (woefully) incomplete. Why? Because it is incapable of deploying concepts such as reasons and values, which are not part of the vocabulary of biology and philosophy.

The very same thing, of course, would happen if we tried to describe the scene at the level of quantum mechanics. Indeed, worse: while it is true that Socrates is made of quarks and other particles interacting according to the laws of physics, that level of description not only doesn’t differentiate between him and other people or animals, it doesn’t really distinguish him from rocks. If a level of description is incapable of giving us an account that differentiates between Socrates in prison and any other primate doing his business (biology), or between animate and inanimate objects (physics), then that level of description is inadequate, and may even be irrelevant, to the task at hand.

And since I, like Socrates, have become more interested in why people behave like the Athenians that condemned their own sage, and in learning how to be as much like Socrates as possible, I just had to say farewell to biology and wholeheartedly embrace philosophy.

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