Last modified on April 9, 2019, at 21:39

Socratic principle

The so-called Socratic principle can be expressed as imperative "follow the argument wherever it leads". It is an expression extracted from the Republic, the classic work by Plato, the disciple of Socrates.[note 1] The Socratic principle is demonstrably present also in the Old maxim of Sherlock Holmes in the homonymous famous classic novel Sherlock Holmes written by Arthur Conan Doyle. Asa Gray maintained that "a bias is very far from becoming a lover of science."[2]

Notable examples

  • The late world famous philosopher Antony Flew claimed that his departure from atheism was caused by consequent adherence to this principle.[3]
  • "I think the design is back on the table, we can’t explain these systems by natural law. And if we’re searching for truth, and they are in fact designed if we have to be design engineers to understand them, then I say what’s the problem? You go where the data lead you. And the implications? Yeah, they have profound metaphysical implications, but so be it." Scott Minnich, Molecular biologist University of Idaho[4]
  • cf. "Today we cannot see whether Schroedinger equation contains frogs, musical composers, or morality - or whether it does not. We cannot say whether something beyond it like God is needed, or not. And so we can all hold strong opinions either way." Feynman[5]
  • Edwin Hubble was criticised by John Hartnett for being biased[6] (thus effectively violating the Socratic principle) in his following type of statements in the paper The Observational Approach To Cosmology[7] (emphasis added):
    • "...The true distribution [of nebulae] must either be uniform or increase outward, leaving the observer in a unique position. But the unwelcome supposition of a favoured location must be avoided at all costs. Therefore, we accept the uniform distribution, and assume that space is sensibly transparent. Then the data from the surveys are simply and fully accounted for by the energy corrections alone - without the additional postulate of an expanding universe."
    • "...There must be no favoured location in the universe, no centre, no boundary; all must see the universe alike. And, in order to ensure this situation, the cosmologist, postulates spatial isotropy and spatial homogeneity, which is his way of stating that the universe must be pretty much alike everywhere and in all directions. The kinds of universes that would be compatible with the relativity principle and the assumption of homogeneity have been determined by intricate mathematical reasoning."
    • ...Thus the density of the nebular distribution increases outwards, symmetrically in all directions, leaving the observer in a unique position. Such a favoured position, of course, is intolerable; moreover, it represents a discrepancy with the theory, because the theory postulates homogeneity. Therefore, in order to restore homogeneity, and to escape the horror of a unique position[note 2], the departures from uniformity, which are introduced by the recession factors, must be compensated by the second term representing effects of spatial curvature.

Although not explicitly mentioning the Socratic principle, Richard Feynman effectually comments that the reluctance to adopt it and an effort to replace it with prejudice in case of a so called unique position of Earth in the universe stems barely from embarrassment and not scientific rigor (emphasis added): "I suspect that the assumption of uniformity of the universe reflects a prejudice born of a sequence of overthrows of geocentric ideas...It would be embarrassing to find, after stating that we live in an ordinary planet about an ordinary star in an ordinary galaxy, that our place in the universe is extraordinary[note 3] avoid embarrassment we cling to the hypothesis of uniformity".[9] Slovak mathematician Adam Roman maintains that scientists should base their research on starting point where except verifiable facts no biased a priori assumptions are made. Furthermore, scientists should bear the burden of proof in any case of reducing the set of explanatory possibilities. Narrowing down options requires proof from one who argues that this narrowing (such as "the theory postulates homogeneity"; a favoured intolerable; "we cling to the hypothesis of uniformity") should take place.[10] An argument where a priori assumptions (cf. "a... must be avoided at all costs... Therefore, we accept ..., and assume that ...") are masquerading as evidence for making conclusions ("the universe must be pretty much alike everywhere and in all directions") is in effect a form of circular reasoning.[11] If scientists had made biased a priori assumptions, there is little point in asking what conclusions they have derived.[12]


  1. Socrates didn't leave any writings, but Plato, his disciple, wrote a great deal about him, though these accounts may reflect as much Plato's thought as Socrates'.[1]
  2. Similar embarrassment known from history of science, or philosophy, respectively, and related to vacuum, was articulated by the famous expression "horror vacui."
  3. cf. "Most advocates do not defend their theses out of conviction that they are true, but rather because they once declared them to be true." (Georg Christoph Lichtenberg)[8]


  1. Norman L. Geisler and Ronald M. Brooks (1990). "6. Questions about Jesus Christ", When Skeptics Ask. Victor Books, Baker Books. ISBN 978-0-8010-7164-5. 
  2. Randal Hedtke (2010). Secrets of the Sixth Edition. Master Books, 68. ISBN 978-0-89051-597-6. 
  3. Antony Flew (2008). There is a God, How the world's most notorious atheist changed his mind. HarperOne, 22, 42, 75, 89. ISBN 978-0-06-133530-3. “he was obeying the the command that the Plato in the Republic attributes to Socrates: "We must follow the argument wherever it leads." ...This Socratic principle also formed the inspiration of Socratic Club, a group that was really at the center of what intellectual life there was in wartime Oxford. ...C.S. Lewis's Socratic Club was open for business during the heyday of the new philosophy, and the Socratic principle I saw exemplified there...This statement represents a major change of course for me, but it was nevertheless consistent with principle I have embraced since the beginning of my philosophical life - of following the argument no matter where it leads...When I finally came to recognize the existence of a God, it was not a paradigm shift, because my paradigm remains, as Plato in his Republic scripted his Socrates to insist: "We must follow the argument wherever it leads."” 
  4. Unlocking the mystery of life (Video/DVD) (English). Illustra Media (MMII(2002)).
  5. Feynman. "41", The Flow of Wet Water, The Feynman Lectures on Physics. 
  6. John Hartnett (2010). Hubble Bubble: Big Bang in Trouble (DVD), Creation Book Publishers. 
  7. Edwin Hubble (1937). The Observational Approach to Cosmology. Oxford University Press.
  8. Walter Krämer, Götz Trenkler (1998). Lexikon der populären Irrtümer: 500 kapitale Mißverständnisse, Vorurteile und Denkfehler von Abendrot bis Zeppelin Piper (in German). Piper Verlag GmbH. ISBN 9783492224468. 
  9. Richard Phillips Feynman et al. (2002). Feynman Lectures on Gravitation. Westview Press. ISBN 978-0813-340388. 
  10. Adam Roman (November 1, 2001). Kto má pravdu dokazovať? (Who should bear the burden of proof) (Slovak). Retrieved on June 7, 2013. “Ľudia pravdu iba zisťujú a dokazujú (ak sa im to darí). Isteže, pri objavení neočakávanej pravdy je bremeno dôkazu na nich: keď donedávna ani len nevedeli, čo je pravda, a teraz to zistili, s radosťou to oznámia celému svetu. Vedci k objavenej pravde radi pripoja aj dôkaz, aby im druhí rozumeli (a uverili, lenže to je už druhoradé: ak rozumieme, môžeme veriť). Ten, kto novú, doteraz nepoznanú pravdu objavil, ju rád a bez mučenia aj dokáže. ...Z toho všetkého už začína čitateľ tušiť, kto je povinný pravdu dokazovať: každý, kto ju odhalil, vychádzajúc z predpokladov, ktoré okrem každým overiteľných faktov nič a priori nepredpokladali. ...A máme tu druhé kritérium pre to, kto má znášať bremeno dôkazu: ten, kto tvrdí, že sa deje jedna z mnohých (apriórne rovnako pravdepodobných!) možností. Ak by niekto tvrdil, že mu pri hode kockou vypadne stále číslo šesť, tvrdil by, že sa uskutoční iba jedna zo šiestich možností a mal by preto dokázať, prečo akurát vypadne jedno číslo a nikdy nie ostatných päť. Pochopili ste? Zúženie možností si vyžaduje dôkaz od toho, kto tvrdí, že k tomu zúženiu dôjde. Ten, kto tvrdí, že môže vypadnúť hocaké číslo, nič dokazovať nemusí, lebo jeho tvrdenie nezavrhuje žiadne možnosti. Napríklad Pytagorova veta sa dokazuje preto, lebo tvrdí, že súčet plôch štvorcov nad odvesnami nie je hocaká plocha, ale akurát plocha štvorca nad preponou. Pytagorova veta, ako každé slušné matematické tvrdenie, zužuje apriórne možnosti, a preto sa musí dokázať. Každé pravdivé tvrdenie je zaujímavé práve preto, že zužuje možnosti. Poznávanie sveta stojí na tom, že vieme čo nie je možné. Pre malé dieťa je možné všetko, svet (rozumného) dospelého je už chudobnejší na možnosti.”
  11. Jonathan Wells (2011). "Assumptions masquerading as Evidence", The Myth of Junk DNA. Discovery Institute Press. ISBN 978-1-9365990-0-4. “The second form ... is a circular argument, because the conclusion is already stated in premises.” 
  12. David Berlinski (2009). "Was there a Big Bang?", The Deniable Darwin. Seattle, USA: Discovery Institute Press (reprinted from Commentary February 1998 by permission), 220. ISBN 978-0-9790141-2-3. 

See also