Tyler Cowen, Socrates, and How To Be Suspicious of Stories

Tyler Cowen, Socrates, and How To Be Suspicious of Stories January 11, 2012

This is a funny, insightful, and thought provokingly paradoxical 16 minute must-see talk from Tyler Cowen, wherein he talks about the dangers of both believing and telling ourselves stories and narratives. He details numerous of the ways that stories exploit and exacerbate our cognitive biases. I won’t repeat his numerous gems below but to explore their implications.

It is easy right away to see how numerous religions are positively built around story-based thinking. Sacred texts of stories, oral legends, and ritual performances of stories are far more fundamental to religions than any propositional beliefs developed through conceptual and logical analysis. Theology is driven primarily by the task of translating stories into propositions. And all the cognitive biases and oversimplifications that are built into stories get built into the structure of the resulting systems of belief.

But this is obvious to us atheists. The harder questions we should be asking ourselves is how do we as atheists tell ourselves simplistic myths that flatter ourselves, demonize our enemies, and conveniently evade the complexities of life?

And, secondly, is there any way to honestly compete with the storytellers in the public marketplace of ideas? Must we inevitably tell stories? Are there ways to tell true stories, which Cowen does not give enough attention to? Are there stories besides “good and evil” stories that we can start telling? How can our thinking and our presentations gain a formal structure which is a genuine alternative to the highly dualistic religious storytelling the Abrahamic faiths frequently engage in? How can we avoid being dualists just like them, with just an opposite devil and an opposite god?

Forgive me for telling a story that comes to mind in this context. Forgive me that it will, as Cowen warns, implicitly have a streak of dualism to it. One of the things that is most fascinating about Plato’s writings and the story of Socrates is the tension between dialectic and storytelling. The Euthyphro is a prime example. In that dialogue, Euthyphro justifies his actions in terms of a story about the gods which indicates to him what the pious thing to do is. Euthyphro basically conceives of ethics as acting like the gods do in the stories.

Socrates demands from Euthyphro a different kind of reason for what he does. Specifically Socrates demands a clear conceptual distinction about what the essence of a pious action is so that Euthyphro’s action could be assessed to see if it has that essence. Euthyphro, famously, fails repeatedly to back up his stories with clear, logically consistent, conceptual distinctions which can vindicate him. Each proposal is dialectically destroyed by Socrates’s questions.

But though Socrates’s dialectical method of reasoning perpetually undermines the neatness of narratives, Plato also has Socrates turn to stories again and again. Socrates derives his ideas through rigorous dialectical processes but then makes them clear and memorable through stories. And, quite controversially, he even suggests explicitly in The Republic that the philosophers, who he thinks should rule the city because of their devotion to dialectically discovering truth, should convey their knowledge and their laws to the people in the form of easily grasped mythic stories, presented as though they were literal truths, which would prevent the people from questioning the philosophers’ wisdom, to their own detriment.

Many of us do not trust the story that the elite thinkers and power players have the right to tell such “noble lies”. Yet we must also appreciate and take seriously how much successfully reaching the human mind inevitably requires storytelling, and so we need to be good storytellers even as we may not want to falsify in any way. This means being good rhetoricians, obviously, but it also means learning how to tell stories using more tools than simply words—like practices, symbols, and the structures of communities, as religions have known and enormously successfully done for millennia.

The challenge for those of us who are trained in dialectical and/or scientific methods for deriving ideas, and who want at all costs to avoid telling lies even when conveying our truths, is to keep our inevitable simplifications of complex ideas into narratives, structurally, logically, conceptually, and factually true while being forced to compete with those who will shamelessly say anything for a good story or their own control.

I have written much more about noble lies in my post A Critique of Noble Lies and the “Theologies” They Create.

For more on Euthyphro and The Republic, Plato’s dialogues and ancient philosophy in general, check out this podcast series.

Your Thoughts?

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