Thursday, December 29, 2016

Socrates' Test of Three

As we consider the meaning of the events of the past year, and contemplate the year to come, the week before New Year's is a good time to be philosophical. In that spirit, Agent 17 sends us a little story about the Socratic Test of Three.

The problem with information is that you never know what will turn out to be important. Take Socrates for example. In ancient Greece, Socrates was widely lauded for his wisdom, for his rational and reasoned view of the world. One day the great philosopher was wandering in contemplation when he was approached by an excited admirer. "Socrates! Socrates!", the man began. "There's something you should know about one of your students..."

"Wait a moment," Socrates replied. "Before you tell me, I'd like you to pass a little test. It's called the Test of Three."
"Test of Three?"
"That's correct," Socrates confirmed. "Before you talk to me about my student let's take a moment to test what you're going to say."

"The first test is Truth. Are you absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?"
"No," the man replied reluctantly. "Actually I just heard about it from another guy."
"All right," said Socrates. "So you don't really know if the information is true or not. Now let's try the second test, the test of Goodness. Is what you are about to tell me about my student something good?"
"Well, no," the man said sheepishly. "Not really."
"So," Socrates continued, "you want to tell me something bad about him even though you're not certain it's true?"
The man shrugged, embarrassed. "I thought you'd want to know..."
Socrates continued, "Okay. Then let me ask you this: Is what you want to tell me about my student going to be useful to me?"
The man shrugged again, "It depends, I suppose. I don't know."

"So," concluded Socrates, "you want to tell me something that you don't know is true, it's certainly not good information and may in fact be harmful to my student and friend, AND you don't know if it will even be useful to me. Why tell it to me at all? Why not just keep it to yourself until you are sure?"
The man nodded, ashamed at his impulsiveness. "You are wise, Socrates. I'm sorry to have bothered you."

This is the reason Socrates was a great philosopher and held in such high esteem.
It's also why Socrates never found out Plato was banging his wife.

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