That Awkward Moment When People Think They’re Philosophers: I Don’t Think People Actually ‘Get’ Socrates


There is a quote attributed to Socrates often encountered in popular culture; it is sometimes referred to as the Socratic paradox: “I know that I know nothing.”

It is said that the quotation was spoken in response to the question, “Who is the wisest man in Greece?” Obviously, Socrates knew his own wisdom, but he would never admit to it.

We often meet people who claim expertise in some field or another, authenticating their knowledge with a formal degree. They may have studied a particular branch of a particular subject for a number of years in addition to experiential learning in the field. One might have published a number of articles and even books on the topic, or convened with other experts in annual conventions and regular discussions, and of course, we cannot deny the experience of such a person.

However, the thought that there are simply ideas outside the realm of human understanding strikes me rather frequently, and I have lately wondered if we overestimate our capacities as thinkers.

For example, we simply cannot comprehend the notion of infinity. Certainly, we can imagine something that continues without end. Even mathematically, we can grasp the concept, but we cannot truly delve into believing that there is no end. If the Universe is ever-expanding, or if it continues without boundaries or extremities, is there a living creature that can experience this?

We are not only limited by what we cannot do, but also by what we can do. We are beings who see what our eyes allow, and feel the emotions we are provided as dictated by our DNA. We are attracted to that which is biologically specified for us; anything else means we are faulty. Is it unusual to conjecture that perhaps others exist who can see, feel, and understand more — or differently — than we?

I often wonder if ‘life’ is a concept developed by humans. We define ‘living’ by the presence of cells, which are our basic structural, functional, and biological units and the smallest units of life that can replicate independently. Viruses are not living, but they can replicate; artificial intelligence may one day be able to replicate, and in some cases already possess that ability, but we do not classify either of these entities as ‘life.’ Could there be another type of life in the far reaches of the Universe — life that is not designated by cells or by human determinations? Is this beyond our conception?

I don’t intend to sound like a mock philosopher, but I think we often believe that we know all and are simply able to learn that which we do not. These fields in which we claim expertise may simply be concepts accessible only to humans — constructs of human society upon which we lay our intellectual foundations.

Perhaps in better understanding ourselves, as well as the world around us, it would do to recognize that intelligent life has its limits. We are only as smart as our bodies allow, which could have looked different thousands of years ago. To put it plainly: we owe ourselves more questions than we permit. Only then will we realize what Socrates has told us for centuries.