Zebrathink - Socrates: Likeness to Truth is Not Truth 
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Likeness to Truth is Not Truth

Socrates lived in ancient Athens - when it was still the cultural center of the region - before the Pelopponesian War where Sparta and its allies decimated Athens over 50 years of war (read the account by Thucydides).

Socrates walked the streets of Athens pissing people off by asking them to define what they meant by certain words and questioning their logic. Eventually the annoyed Athenians sentenced Socrates to death for allegedly corrupting the youth with his philosophy. But before that Socrates said:

Likeness to truth is not truth


So what does that mean? Making the weaker argument appear strong through rhetoric doesn’t make it strong. It could be directed at the Sophists who taught rhetoric for money and were disliked by most philosophers. Because philosophers were searching for the truth – not to persuade - and teaching for free.

So who are the Sophists today? It's perhaps people working in marketing departments of companies, political spin doctors and hedgefond managers (usually taking a large salary while underperforming the market).

So what is the truth? Can we even know anything for certain? Probably not but then we should admit that we don’t know the answer - but have an opinion. Socrates did this:

I know that I know nothing


Science today accepts that you can test for empirical evidence but that doesn't prove anything. You can spot a million white swans but the appearance of just one black swan will disprove the theory that all swans are white. So you can only disprove a theory with certainty – not prove it.

Today a lot of opinions are presented as "truth" or gospel. It happens a lot in Economics where statements like this:

Free markets with minimal regulation provides the best economic growth

Is an opinion (or theory) masquerading as truth, presented by the majority of Western Economists and politicians.

In the book "23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism" by Ha-Joon Chang he picks 23 economic subjects and argues the other side of it.

Concerning free markets some of the points are as follows: labour laws banning child labour is a regulation of the free market. But, nobody today would see the maltreatment of kids destroying their health working 24/7 in factories as inhibiting economic growth. Yet, when this legislation was first proposed, it was seen as an unwanted restriction of children’s rights to work and the free market. You can also argue that no markets are free at all, we have a ton of tariffs, regulation, subsidies and anti-trust laws.

Economics is so complex - and there's so many moving parts - that nobody knows exactly how everything works. But many economic theories are presented as if truth in the Western world. What's the truth? Nobody knows we're all just debating the best approach here, so let's call it what it is – an opinion.

Opinions seep into the language. Giving something either a positive sounding name - to make it appear beneficial - or a negative one. As an example take the term "Social dumping", that's cheaper labour displacing more expensive labour - which obviously is a mechanism of capitalism (and heavily restricted in all countries by immigration laws). But by giving it a negative sounding name it makes it look like something to be avoided at all costs.

Political spin is by no means new. Here's Plutarch explaining the concept in c. AD 46 Ancient Greece (Plutarch's Lives Volume 1):

Athenians have a way of softening the badness of a thing, by ingeniously giving it some pretty and innocent appellation, calling harlots, for example, mistresses, tributes customs, a garrison a guard, and the jail the chamber


So, don't lock yourself into just one view of a problem. Keep an open mind. Don't let your opinions become cement or you might end up not seeing the black swan swimming by because you are convinced all swans are white.

Michel De Montaigne always looked at an issue from many sides. He is the father of the Essay style of writing (just writing whatever you want in short pieces like a blog). Montaigne was also heavily influenced by Seneca's letters to Lucilius.

Montaigne has this essay: "On the uncertainty of judgement". The title may sound boring, but the essay is not. In it Montaigne argues first one point of view on the optimal strategy in war - and then immediately argues the other point of view. When I read his first point of view I thought it sounded plausible and correct, but when he argued the other side I immediately changed my mind. You can come up with many plausible explanations for the same thing, so don’t settle on accepting just one as being correct to the exclusion of all others.

Scipio thought it much better to go and attack his enemy's territories in Africa than to stay at home to defend his own and to fight him in Italy, and it succeeded well with him. But, on the contrary, Hannibal in the same war ruined himself by abandoning the conquest of a foreign country to go and defend his own.

-Michel De Montaigne

The obvious truth (hah, I just fell into that - my opinion on the matter) is that often there is no single correct answer and the situations are all relative and extremely complex. Many explanations will sound like the right explanation, and you'll likely accept the first one that is presented as the truth - unless you're also open to examine the next argument.

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