Chapter Ten – A Dream of Socrates

This odd little chapter is a sort of parable, I suppose. Deutsch recalls a conversation between Socrates and Hermes, although there are strong hints that Hermes was never there at all. The chapter is clever and funny, and takes some shots at Plato, suggesting that Plato’s famous “parable of the cave” is really just a misinterpretation of Socrates’ realization that our senses are imperfect instruments. But the two best moments for me are the following:

First, Hermes and Socrates discuss what sort of knowledge a god might impart (if any).

Hermes: How many are willing to criticize a god by the standards of reason and justice?

Socrates: [Ponders.] All who are just, I suppose. For how can anyone be just if he follows a god of whose moral rightness he is not persuaded? And how is it possible to be persuaded of someone’s moral rightness without first forming a view about which qualities are morally right?

This, of course, goes straight to my atheism, which in one sense is much less about factual knowledge of existence and much more about my own autonomy. I decide what is morally right, and I don’t allow that judgment to be handed down to me. I am that I am. (Yes, I realize what I just said.)

Better than that, though, is a later discussion about the source of knowledge.

Hermes: Remember when you all got lost on your way here from the ship? And why?

Socrates: It was because – as we realized with hindsight – we completely misunderstood the directions given to us by the captain.

Hermes: So, when you got the wrong idea of what he meant, despite having listened attentively to every word he said, where did that wrong idea come from? Not from him, presumably . . .

Socrates: I see. It must come from within ourselves. It must be a guess. Though until this moment, it had never even remotely occurred to me that I had been guessing.

Hermes: So why would you expect anything different happens when you do understand someone correctly?

And there it is. That is teaching. That is learning. As teachers, we can never just insert knowledge into our learners’ heads. Instead, our learners must always guess at our meaning. They must always formulate their own “maps”, just as Socrates created a (false) map in his head when he was given directions. If his map had been perfect, it would no less be his own creation. Whenever anyone teaches or learns anything, it must be a process of the learners guessing at the teacher’s meaning and creating that meaning anew within their own minds, like a structure rising from its raw materials. No wonder misconceptions are so prevalent! Rather than erasing misconceptions (and replacing them with better misconceptions), our jobs as teachers must be to help learners test and perfect their own existing structures, and thereby help them to discard and reshape misconceived ideas on their own! Beautiful.

Now it’s time to delve into the many worlds of quantum theory. Hold on to your eigenfunctions!