In Praise of Perplexity

Our world praises certainty. We must be confident even when we are unconfident. We call this self-confidence. For, the truism goes, if we don’t believe in ourselves, who will? That we shouldn’t believe in ourselves occurs to no one, though we spend so much of our time telling each other how others are completely wrong.

What we mean is that we should be self-confident. People that think like us should believe in themselves. Other people, however, should have a bit more humility. They are arrogant, or are narcissists, or fools.

If someone is full of facts and figures but are self-evidently wrong by our standards, they’re simply liars. After all, anyone who is self-confident but wrong must be deliberately trying to deceive the sheep they’re leading. They’re wolves wearing sheep’s clothing.

Thus, being confidently wrong is equated with lying, but being uncertain is equated with a lack of self-confidence and ego and there is no other way. You can be a confident liar, but never confidently uncertain.

Socrates, however, provides the third way: the paradox of self-confidence as uncertainty and uncertainty as a crucial step along the way of knowing.

Much of what we think we know, we do not. Socrates would call this “opinion”, or the ungrounded belief that things are the way that we believe they are. We may may be correct in saying that Chicago is south of Milwaukee, having never seen a map, and having learned this in school or in conversations with our peers. But we don’t know this, as a fact, if we haven’t traveled the road ourselves. This is what Socrates would call “true opinion”, an accident of having knowledge in accordance with reality — but not knowledge of reality, directly.

In the Meno, Socrates explores this precise question in a discussion about whether virtue can be taught. His discussion partner, Meno, wants to know if virtue can be taught. Socrates, however, is uncertain just what virtue is. Only in know what virtue is, as it is, can we really know if it can be taught. If we don’t know what a sunflower is, for example, we cannot have much of a discussion of how to grow it. Questions of soil, sunlight, and watering practices are irrelevant, since a sunflower might very well be a plasma explosion on the surface of the sun and, thus, questions of organic growth are simply nonsense.

Thus, Socrates begins reasoning with others from a state of perplexity. Meno, who was trained in traditional educational methods, begins in a state of certainty and assumes the very thing that he seeks because he is not sufficiently troubled by the issue. As a result, Socrates seeks to show Meno the way through his attempts to “teach” a slave boy how to calculate twice the area of a square.

Socrates, then, must begin the process of discovery by guiding Meno into a state of perplexity; any conversation that begins with one or another person assuming they know what they know cannot be a discussion. Instead, they must have an argument or a debate. Both are zero-sum games that result in a winner and a loser. Today, this means that both people conclude that they are the winner and that the other is the loser.

This is essentially what the Internet exists for to do: to convince people that they are the winners and the others are the losers.

Socrates attempts to show Meno this problem through his conversation with the slave boy. The slave boy begins with certainty. He is confident that he knows how to calculate the area of a square. But as a result of Socrates’ persistant questions, the slave boy comes to the conclusion that he does’t know how. “By Zeus!” he exclaims. “I do not know!”

“I do not know” is the beginning of knowledge, a state that we are generally unwilling to accept. This perplexity — or aphoria — enables us to actually know something and to actually have conversations with another person, for we become aware that we do not know.

Positioned within a realm of uncertainty, we can begin to seek certainty. We leave a false reality and enter a hazy realm of possibility. For the first time, we become aware of ourselves and our limitations and realize that we do not know what we once thought we knew.

Perplexity is typically associated with fear. It can be associated with cruelty, when a master of knowledge so turns his students around that they can’t believe in themselves — or much of anything. However, it doesn’t need to be. My children, when they are perplexed, become excited. They ask wild questions. They explore strange pathways. They’re enthused to discover a hidden world, full of meaning.

The fear of God is may be the beginning of wisdom, but the beginning of the fear of God is our proper alignment within our strange and veiled world — when we discover that we are not omniscient beings ourselves. Only then does the world open up to us together as it is.

Socrates does not leave the slave boy in the state of perplexity, but this perplexity is the starting point of knowing. We can only be free to choose when we know what is real. In a state of un-knowing, we lack freedom. Place a people in a darkened room and they cannot rightly choose. They can simply bumble around, breaking glasses and knocking down books, and once in a while find a useful tool. If they do not realize they are in the dark, they will never be given the free choice to select from the items in the room. Only when they realize that the room is dark, and they need light, can they begin to make rational choices — and only when the light goes on can they actually be free to choose.

Let’s change how we do things. Let’s come together in a state of perplexity, comfortable with uncertainty and probability.Lets be confident that the room is dark and actually have a conversation about that darkness. Perhaps, then, we might discover that someone has access to a dim light that might lead the way to another light and another light and another — and, perhaps, to enough light that we gain access to the world as it is.

Let’s praise perplexity. Let’s reason together rather than argue apart.

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash