Science, Fiction, and Sophistication
by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu Editorial ISBN/ITEM#: 0702ELSFAS
Date: 28 January 2007 /
Most of us consider ourselves sophisticated, but few would consider ourselves sophists. Actually, few of us would even hazard a guess as to what sophistry is, though it sounds like a bad thing. But the funny thing is that you can't be one without the other, and if we're going to understand ourselves and the world around us, we need to make friends with our inner sophists, if only to keep them in their place. So, dear reader, prepare to drink the cool aid, which I promise isn't actually hemlock...and ask yourselves; R U Sophisticated? (image: Plato Smash Puny Sophists note: this is the Google translation of a Portuguese site...but it's pretty readable, if not actually right...which is ironic considering the subject of this essay - EL)
so·phis·ti·cat·ed /səˈfɪstɪˌkeɪtɪd/ –adjective: 1. (of a person, ideas, tastes, manners, etc.) altered by education, experience, etc., so as to be worldly-wise; not naive: a sophisticated young socialite; the sophisticated eye of a journalist. ("sophisticated." Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 28 Jan. 2007.
Though there are other usages for the term sophisticated, this one, lifted from Dictionary.com, is what I have in mind for the moment. Notice that it's not talking about true wisdom, but worldly-wisdom, not the true nature of things...but the way things are in context. You may remember Plato...famous Greek philosopher, the guy whom we cite for affection without lust ("platonic love"), and a bright lad preoccupied with the true nature of reality and the fact that we can't really see it with our senses. His most famous comments on the subject are that our vision of reality is like the image projected on the back of a cave, which is pretty apt, since our actual vision is created by the image projected on the back of our retinas. His point was that this representation of reality is a pretty poor substitute for the real thing, so we should be very wary of truths derived from anything but first principles. He then went sideways and decided that he could show that we could access true knowledge from metaphysical means, using rhetoric, if not hypnotic regression to prove that real knowledge was already part of us...but I digress. His main thrust was that he wanted ultimate knowledge or none at all. Now, Plato probably wouldn't have been surprised that after a few thousand years of peering into bits of glass for better focus of that cave image we'd be no closer to the meaning of life than he was, which was his point anyway.
But neither would he be very happy that the folks he railed against, a bunch called the Sophists, would have turned out to be so hard to shake off. In fact, it's my contention that you can't have civilization with out a certain degree of sophistry, and our whole enlightenment era eagerness to get down to the real meaning of things so we can make sense of it all is the mother of all red herrings. Taking apart cosmic clocks is a fine way to figure out how to build mechanical ones, but it's not very useful for helping humans find meaning in their lives. At the bottom of it all, "Why are we here?" is the wrong question. It's the naive question. The sophisticated question is more important, and it proceeds from what can be known to what comes next. "Given that I'm here...what do I do next?"
At the end of Jame's Blish's Cities in Flight saga, the various principles each stand alone at the end of this universe and the creation of the next. Each makes some choice about the nature of the reality they're about to give birth to. It's an arbitrary choice, but one that will have vast impact. Sophistry is fundamentally like that. Starting from an arbitrary premise, a sophist's argument winds around until it comes back to swallow its own tail, a trick you may remember from Heinlein's novel Glory Road. We're programmed to think that a logical tautology is a bad thing, and that false truths are evil things. But we live with false truths all the time. In fact, if we didn't, we'd be stymied. Plato was right that our brains aren't designed to access reality through our senses...but neither are they able to conjure it up from our unconscious. Which leave us with the need to create imperfect but useful rules of thumb in order to get by on a day to day basis. The acceptance of that, and the self knowledge that we're already doing it, is what sophistication is all about.
Maturity is the ability to embrace sophisticated knowledge when it has practical value...and to reject it when it doesn't. To either accept or reject it out of hand because it fails to proceed from first principles, that is to say, is logically provable, is equally naive.
In Neuromancer, William Gibson termed Cyberspace "a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions...in every nation..." He was right about that, which was pretty impressive considering that the internet hadn't actually arrived yet, but though he's given deserved credit for giving cyberspace form, it's vital that we recognize that this artificial structure we're living in...human society, is no less "a consensual hallucination" as cyberspace. It's the solid air that cartoon characters stand on after running off the cliff.
I'm not suggesting for a moment that we not unravel the nature of the universe. But while we do it, just remember that the only thing keeping us from falling to our not so comic deaths thousands of feet below is the maintenance of that hallucination. So, I'm choosing to operate on the belief that things are possible, because my real belief is that to do so makes it so, regardless of the fundamental truth of the matter.
Methinks the bard was close when he said that all the world is a stage...but more for his time than ours. Without a playwrite over us, today's world is more like a LARP...and unless we acknowledge that, it's hard for us to agree on the rules.