Navigating the Oceans of Obfuscation: Lessons from the Ancients
Born of society’s unchecked obsession with technology, the use of various forms of social media as platforms to voice opinions and share ‘information’ has resulted in a myriad of unforeseen consequences. It is important to remember that all the information we take in from the outside world tends to have an affect in our perception of reality, whether said information is true or false is beside the point. So, in the age of fake news, divisive rhetoric, corporate influence, unverified sources, mainstream media agendas and social media voicing millions of individual opinions, how do we know who or what to believe? If we aim to be consistent in our actions and constructive in our decisions, we must do our best to be critical of the information we receive before we allow it to influence our thoughts, alter our beliefs and guide our behaviors. Lucky for us, philosophers have been dealing with issues like these for thousands of years, and by learning the methods of thought developed by some of the greatest minds in history, we can better address the situations we encounter.
The definition of impression, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is:
‘an idea, feeling, or opinion about something or someone, especially one formed without conscious thought or on the basis of little evidence.’ ②
The various forms of media we encounter on a daily basis give us particular impressions of things, often framing the story in a way that gives certain things more emphasis than others, which has an effect in the way we interpret them. Framing an article or interview is a common tactic utilized by mainstream media and there are plenty of historical examples where the media sources which were owned and operated by individuals whose interests were aligned with government agendas, were successful in demonizing any dissenting opinions that they considered a threat to their profits. We still see this in today’s media: the fact that all media sources are owned by five or six men and their industrial armies, we should think about how much of what we know has been learned through the media and what we can truly claim to know in the first place.
Epistemology- The branch of philosophy devoted to the analysis of what constitutes knowledge, examining its sources, validity, whether it is truly attainable and why these things matter.
According to epistemologists, there are (at least)4 sources of knowledge:
Senses- Plato proposed that they can not truly be trusted. Many Western philosophies follow in this view, including the Stoics, the Idealists, the Skeptics, and is also largely recognized as the concept of maya, which is prominent in several Eastern philosophies, such as Hinduism and Jainism.
Reason- The faculties of the mind, once given the foundations from which to build, can allow us to reach further understanding of many things. Two forms of reasoning are Deduction, using what we already know to draw further conclusions about its relationship to other things; and Induction, developing general hypotheses to explain a set of facts, which are subject to change with the addition of new facts.
Intuition- Although not officially acknowledged by mainstream science, there are many cases in which intuition, or the subconscious process of decision making often performed instantaneously, is attributed. Most of us have likely experienced that ‘gut feeling’ which informed our decision, or an instinctual reaction that was either intuition or sheer luck at some point in our lives.
Knowledge from others- Hearsay, we are offered information from an endless number of sources but how can we trust them? These are a few methods developed by some of the greatest minds of ancient times.
Trivium- The trivium is the name given to the 3 subjects comprising the foundation of the liberal arts, the essential subjects expected of any and all free men in ancient times, these 3 subjects comprise the foundations of our abilities to learn and think effectively, they include:
Grammar- “Discovering and ordering facts of reality, comprises the basis for systematic Knowledge.”③ Grammar allows us to recognize and discern between things and their categories, enabling communication between individuals about the external world we share. This is where the world is experienced, the stimulus occurs and the sensations are felt.
Logic- “Developing the faculty of reason in establishing valid relationships among facts yields basis for systematic understanding.”③ After learning and recognizing the categories and classifications of things in the world, we can reflect on their relationship to other things, interpreting their functions or other qualities they possess. This is where questions are formed, problems are solved and processing occurs.
Rhetoric- “Applying knowledge and understanding expressively comprises Wisdom or, in other words, it is systematically usable knowledge and understanding.”③ Once we have interpreted the experience and have come to an understanding of the experience, we generate a response and send it into the external world.
These three subjects were the fundamentals of classical education dating back to at least Athens, as we know by Plato’s dialogues. The term trivium was attributed to the subjects during the middle ages. The symbol of the trivium depicts an equilateral triangle with one corner pointed downward and the other two corners in a straight horizontal on top, with a line going horizontally through the middle. This separation represents the barrier separating the external and internal worlds and explains the relationship and occurrence for each step. The first, grammar, is the categorization of the external world which is taken inward where we analyze and interpret the information, and respond or react externally after we understand what is occurring.
Elenchus- The central idea of the Socratic method, the cooperative ‘question and answer’ exchange with the goal of reaching a greater understanding of our own thoughts, searching for the root of our ideals and beliefs, and improving and modifying them based upon what we find.
If you have read any of Plato’s dialogues, you will likely recognize the process of Elenchus. By presenting his premises one-by-one, the other parties were often clueless as to the end goal of Socrates’ line of questions, and by accepting and agreeing with each premise, they were inadvertently accepting the truth of his argument’s conclusion. “To solve a problem, it would be broken down into a series of questions, the answers to which gradually distill the answer a person would seek.”④
Pyrrhonian Skepticism- The school of Hellenic philosophy known as Pyrrhonism, aimed on reaching the state of ataraxia, which they considered a state of tranquility and psychological stability characterized by ongoing freedom from distress and worry. This was achieved through the application of Epoche, or suspension of judgment/withholding from assent, toward all matters that are not self-evident. The suspension of judgments prevents us from suffering further as we are likely to experience from acting on the various (un)qualified judgments we are constantly making, and the opinions and beliefs they inspire. Sextus Empiricus was a Roman physician and philosopher and the source of nearly all of our knowledge of Pyrrhonism, since Pyrrho, like Socrates, did not write down a word of his own philosophy. In describing ataraxia, Empiricus explains,
“For the person who believes that something is by nature good or bad is constantly upset; when he does not possess the things that seem to be good, he thinks he is being tormented by things that are by nature bad, and he chases after the things he supposes to be good; then, when he gets these, he falls into still more torments because of irrational and immoderate exultation, and, fearing any change, he does absolutely everything in order not to lose the things that seem to him good. But the person who takes no position as to what is by nature good or bad neither avoids nor pursues intensely. As a result, he achieves ataraxia”⑤
“Whoever wants eudaimonia (to live well) must consider these three questions:
First, how are pragmata (ethical matters, affairs, topics) by nature?
Secondly, what attitude should we adopt towards them?
Thirdly, what will be the outcome for those who have this attitude?"⑥- Aristocles
Fallacies- A mistaken belief, especially one based on unsound argument. A failure in reasoning that renders an argument invalid. A fallacious argument may be misleading by appearing to be better than it really is. News channels and news programs, politicians and their talking points, advertisements; arguably the 3 most prominent media forms in our society, are LOADED with fallacies as you are likely aware, it is in our best interests to remain vigilant in our skepticism.
Method- The application of some of these ideas might help us in reaching a better understanding of the truth of things. To clarify, the trivium allows us to organize the information we experience, then process and understand its meaning before we respond or act upon it. Elenchus can help us question, reevaluate and reflect upon what we believe we know, and make adjustments and amendments as necessary; there is no harm done in admitting being wrong. The epoche of pyrrhonism allows us to reflect upon the information, consider what attitude we have toward them and what potential consequences we might expect for taking that stance, and decide whether to truly have a stance on the issue or not. Recognizing fallacies in the information presented to us allows us to avoid distractions and unnecessary distress, in order to focus on the real issues we are facing.
Here are some important questions to consider as we encounter information from some form of media:
1.Who- Who is providing this information? Who is it about? Who does it affect? Who stands to gain and/or lose from this content or its implications?
2. What- What is being said? Are they offering facts? Opinions? What are the implications resulting from the information and what benefit is being had in the spreading of said information?
3.Where- Where is the information presented? Publication? Public platform? Social Media? What are the political affiliations and ideologies of the media form and its owners?
4. When- When was the information released/presented? What could be the significance for the timing of its release?
5. Why- Why is this information being brought to light? Does the source share why they are coming forward? Why is it being broadcast through the particular media forms/sources covering it? Who is opposing or refuting its validity and why?
6. How- How is the information framed? How are the oppositional stances responding/reacting?
Good look and remain vigilant! (if you want.)
①- "Chris Marker On Plato's Allegory Of The Cave And The Myth Of Cinema." YouTube. N. 2018.
②- "Impression | Definition Of Impression In English By Oxford Dictionaries." Oxford Dictionaries | English. N. p., 2018. Web. 24 June 2018.
④- Gregory Vlastos. The Socratic Elenchus. Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy I, Oxford 1983, 27–58.
⑤- Sextus Empiricus. The Skeptic Way, Trans. Benson Mates, Book I, Ch. XII, "What Is the Goal of Skepticism?", p. 6
⑥- Beckwith, Christopher I. (2015). Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia. Princeton University Press. pp. 22–23