‘I think Plato probably wrote a story about Socrates’ — Says Atheist ‘Teacher’ of ‘Socratic Method’

‘I think Plato probably wrote a story about Socrates’ — Says Atheist ‘Teacher’ of ‘Socratic Method’

Several years ago I locked horns with Professor Peter Boghossian and his acolyte James Lindsay over Boghossian’s Manual for Creating Atheists, part of which involves using dialogue to get people to question where their faith comes from. Boghossian’s “Street Epistemology” method has been gaining steam, mostly led by one Anthony Magnabosco who takes video of these conversations and posts them on YouTube.

Magnabosco and Boghossian both call this a “Socratic Dialogue” sort of exchange. Which is why I was stunned — literally stopped cold, my jaw hanging open — when Magnabosco explained it this way at 1:07 in this explainer video: “I think Plato probably wrote a story about Socrates in which his main character, Socrates, was asking questions.”

No, it wasn’t “a story.” It was Plato’s entire work. Not mostly in the form of story, but unembellished dialogue instead.

And I don’t just “probably” “think” so. No one who’s ever even glanced at Plato could think so.

For perspective, think of someone saying, “I think J. K. Rowling probably wrote a story about Harry Potter, in which her main character, Potter, was doing some magic.”

Now imagine that person as someone who teaches Rowling’s imagery and themes.

Worldwide Teacher of Epistemology?

Magnabosco appears to have been teaching “Socratic dialogue” without ever having read a word of Plato. He probably hasn’t even read an informed word about Socrates; for it’s very difficult to write anything on the philosopher and create the impression he was a “main character” in a “story.”

I don’t know what’s more surprising: That he’s that ignorant of what he’s teaching, or that he was willing to display that ignorance in public. Or that no one involved in producing this video thought it was too ignorant to include.

He teaches workshops worldwide on this. Astonishing.

 

Sophistry, Actually

While I’m at it, I might as well mention another very strange thing in this video. He plays part of one of his Street Epistemology interventions, in which he asks a young woman if she would be holding her belief in the Holy Spirit if faith weren’t available as an option. She didn’t know how to answer. In a way I don’t blame her; she was probably approaching the conversation as if made some sense.

No one who had ever read a word of Plato could think a question like that had anything to do with Socratic dialogue.

She could have simply said “no.” Then she could have asked him, “If unbelief weren’t an option for you, would you still be an unbeliever?” For what Magnabosco was saying, in effect, was, “If it weren’t possible for your belief to be true, would you still believe it?”

Socrates wasn’t sophomoric that way. He wasn’t sophistical. This display was all of that, and worse. I could dissect it further, but this is plenty.

Note: Street epistemologists love denying it’s about promoting atheism. Watch the video to its end.

Image Credit(s): YouTube Screen Grab/Tom Gilson.

25 thoughts on “‘I think Plato probably wrote a story about Socrates’ — Says Atheist ‘Teacher’ of ‘Socratic Method’

  1. On a scale of 1 to 100, how high would you rate your confidence in that belief? What is the source of that confidence? How would you test that source’s reliability? Can you think of any alternate explanations? Have you ever taken the time to explore them?

  2. Feel free to answer them one at a time. 🙂

    I do apologize for spelling your name wrong. Had we had the discussion, though, one question at a time, you’d have found out your confidence was misplaced and your epistemology is faulty. I’m not doing it intentionally. I learned your name wrong the first time, and I have trouble getting the erroneous version out of my head. I get it right and I get it wrong at different times. Again, I apologize. I know a name is important.

  3. P.S. Best I can tell with search engine help, this is the second post I’ve done with your name misspelled. (The other, now corrected, was here.) If you know of another one I’ll make that correction there, too.

  4. Hey Tom,

    In your view what would be a good, non-threatening, friendly but also honest approach for these people to use?

  5. That’s a hard one to summarize. The point is to be friendly and honest. SEs are universally friendly, in all that I’ve seen, but they use straw-man definitions of faith and they tend to misunderstand the place of true evidence in Christianity.

    They do a service when they help believers realize they haven’t thought through their faith well enough. They do them a disservice when they aim the person toward the conclusion that therefore their faith is without any foundation. The person’s not knowing the evidence does not mean there is none.

    Worst of all, I think, is when they treat faith as an epistemology. It isn’t. It’s an attitude one takes toward that which one considers to be true, not a way in which one comes to consider it true.

  6. It seems like it would be best if SEs just didn’t assume any particular definition of faith and accepted whatever the other person’s definition was.

  7. It would certainly be an improvement.

    I don’t keep real close tabs on what’s going on in SE, but from what I’ve seen, though, it’s committed to the view that faith is an epistemology. That means they tend to steer their questions in that direction,asking, for example, if it’s okay to “use faith to know things.” Or sometimes they’ll mix it up even worse, as in this clip above, asking whether a person would consider their belief true of faith weren’t available.

    The first error is a matter of fact. Atheist leaders, especially Peter Boghossian, founder of SE, have been purveying that misinformation persistently in spite of repeated explanations and corrections. It shows up in SE because atheism in general isn’t getting the picture.

    The second is pure sophism. The other great thing SE could do better would be to quit that completely.

    So although if they adopted your suggestion it would be better than it is now, I’d say it could be even better than that if they’d quit misdefining faith, and if they’d stop the sophistry.

  8. With all due respect, this post seems to be more about the use of the words “epistemology” and “faith” than about SE itself:

    “Worst of all, I think, is when they treat faith as an epistemology. It isn’t. It’s an attitude one takes toward that which one considers to be true, not a way in which one comes to consider it true.”

    In the SE videos I’ve seen, the practitioner usually asks what a person believes, and then how they came to consider that belief to be true, which is often how the discussion lands on “faith”. In other words, if there is a misunderstanding that this constitutes “epistemology”, it’s shared by both sides. So what difference does it really make, in practice?

    By the way, I too was confused by the bit about “not having faith available as an option”, so I found the original video, where it makes more sense in context (IMHO, may not have been the best snippet to have taken for a video promoting SE.)

  9. “By the way, I too was confused by the bit about “not having faith available as an option”, so I found the original video, where it makes more sense in context (IMHO, may not have been the best snippet to have taken for a video promoting SE.)“

    Jimbo,

    I am always experimenting with different verbiage during my talks. The words “If faith was not available to you as an option would you still be just as confident?” or “Is faith is a required component in order to be sure your belief is true?” was largely in response to complaints from critics that SE-ers appear to be (intentionaly or unintentionally) framing faith as a method when our interlocutor may not be using that word in that way at all.

    For anyone who looks into SE (there are a ton of videos examples online now) it should become evident that it is not debate or misrepresentation, but an honest exploration into what, why, and how and person concluded that something is true.

    And spoiler: SE is way more than engaging with Christians about their God belief.

  10. For example, your question, “If faith wasn’t available to you…” could only be asked by someone who would never listen to what Christian faith really is.

    You put people on the spot who have never thought things through before, and of course they won’t have a clear answer to this or other questions, it’s great if you help them to see they need to think more deeply or clearly. But to misconstrue so badly what faith is, after all this time, isn’t helping anyone.

    And to call it Socratic when you don’t even know what the term refers to, as you demonstrated in this video, is just sad.

  11. Anthony, I understood what you were getting at when I watched the whole video, and appreciate that there isn’t a set script for these kind of things. As I said it made sense when I saw it in context, which is the only reason I brought it up.

    Tom, you write:
    “You put people on the spot who have never thought things through before, and of course they won’t have a clear answer to this or other questions, it’s great if you help them to see they need to think more deeply or clearly.”

    Isn’t that really it in a nutshell? If someone claiming a belief in something has never thought that thing through before, how can that belief be justified? Can it really be called a “belief”?

  12. Do you have any beliefs that you would have a hard time justifying completely and in detail when you were unexpectedly put on the spot?

    Do you have any beliefs you would have a hard time justifying even with some warning?

    Answer: Everyone does.

  13. Certainly, I do, though not about anything as fundamental as my worldview (at least not since reaching age 15 or so.)

  14. Tom wrote: “Do you have any beliefs that you would have a hard time justifying completely and in detail when you were unexpectedly put on the spot?

    Do you have any beliefs you would have a hard time justifying even with some warning?”

    I believe everybody does. The real question is, should those beliefs remain unexamined?

  15. Limited to a few words, I’d probably say my worldview is agnostic, skeptical, scientific. I could tack on a few more adjectives but those three are most central.

    And to Nick’s question: to the extent that it’s practical, I think all beliefs are worth examining.

  16. I agree with you Tom,
    It is easy to make anyone look foolish if you walk up to them, point a camera in their face, and begin a philosophical cross-examination that they are unprepared for.

    But didn’t Socrates seek out the best and brightest in order to try to learn something by cross-examining them? SEs should seek out and dialogue with theologians, not the average laity. Something tells me that they wouldn’t be able to hold up their end of those conversations as well. They might even learn something.

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