Boghossian’s Street Epistemology: Not The Socratic Method

In his Manual for Creating Atheists, Peter Boghossian teaches atheists to confront religious believers with questions that he describes as Socratic in style and method. John Loftus reiterated that recently.

I think Socrates would have had a fit.

Here’s why. Method matters in so far as it is a method for accomplishing something in particular. If I were to publish a Brand New 21st-Century Method! you would hardly buy it without asking, method for what? Street Epistemology might have a Socratic style to it, but style in itself is nothing. What counts is what the interaction actually accomplishes. What did Socrates’ method strive to accomplish, and how did he use it?

Socrates’ Purposes and Method

First, Socrates asked questions to discover truth for himself. Considering himself ignorant, he probed for knowledge by asking it of others.

Second, since his “ignorance” was in fact wiser than the wisdom of his contemporaries, he asked questions to help his interlocutors understand the world better. Typically this was related to the knotty problems of virtue.

Third, his method almost always took the conversation to an elenchus, a point at which the person answering Socrates’ questions discovers that he doesn’t know as much as he thought he knew. This is a specific sort of realization. It isn’t, “I see now that I don’t know enough to answer that.” Rather it is, “What I thought I knew looking at it from one angle contradicts what I thought I knew looking from another angle.” It isn’t an elenchus without that discovery of a contradiction.

Following the elenchus the person is left confused about what they thought they knew, but confusion is never the point. Understanding is. Socrates typically leaves the discussion as confused as anyone else. He doesn’t claim to understand, either–but at least he’s on the quest.

I don’t know whether a dialogue must always, necessarily, include both a search for understanding and an elenchus to be classified as Socratic Method. I do know that this was Socrates’ method.

Motivating a Quest for Discovery

If Street Epistemology accomplishes anything related to the above, it’s this: Believers who are unsure of their reasons for faith become aware that they are unsure of their reasons for faith. Something of their personal psychology is unearthed.

This is fine, in fact I support it strongly. Believers in Christ can benefit from being motivated to search out reasons for faith; other religions’ believers might discover their faith really does lack reasons to support it. In other words, it’s fine because it can motivate the person to begin a quest for discovery. Jesus Christ took that approach often. The question here is whether it’s Socratic, though.

I’ve done a lot of organizational assessment and strategic planning in my career. I go into these engagements knowing relatively little about the organization’s business. I ask a lot of questions. When I leave, the people I’m consulting with know more about their business than they did when I arrived. It’s not because I brought knowledge in with me, it’s because I drew it out of them. That’s Socratic in style and in its attempt to discover something new about reality. It doesn’t usually involve any elenchus, though it could.

Street Epistemology’s Non-Socratic Method

Looking at what Boghossian says in his book, though, or at examples of SE on YouTube, I’ve found something very different going on. The typical SE interaction leaves the person at the point of their personal psychology of faith being unveiled. they discover they don’t know or can’t articulate good reasons for why they believe.* And that’s about all. It’s not a discovery about reality in general, but only about the person’s interior belief-psychology.

This may be Socratic in style, but if Socratic Method has anything to do with gaining wisdom or knowledge about reality, then SE isn’t Socratic Method at all.

Further, if there’s any elenchus in SE dialogue (a point where one runs into a logical contradiction in one’s own beliefs), based on what I’ve read and seen it’s something like this: “If I thought I could state my reasons for believing, I see now I have to conclude I’m wrong about that.”

Boghossian says this shows that faith is a poor epistemology (means for acquiring knowledge). On this he is simply mistaken. All it really shows is that some religious believers don’t know or cannot articulate good reasons for their belief.

*Sometimes it’s even more narrowly focused: the believer does not know or cannot articulate reasons to persuade someone else to believe.