Socrates Dreams of Intelligent Design

Michael Katz teaches at Case Western Reserve University.
He has published a number of fictional Socratic dialogues.

His favorites are:

1988 Pherecydes’ fable. Syracuse Scholar 9: 79-84.
2005 Socrates and the wrestling exam. SubtleTea [Online]
2009 Socrates to himself. Philosophy Now 73:52-52
and Vocabula [Online]

Socrates Dreams of Intelligent Design

CORISCUS: Socrates, why are you carrying a weed?

SOCRATES: Hello, Coriscus. I like the blue color. I picked it to carry for the morning. Chicory flowers stay open only a short time, they’re awake before breakfast but asleep after lunch.

CORISCUS: Those flowers are everywhere. I’m always amazed that peddlers actually sell them here in the marketplace. I don’t know why anyone would buy something he could pick himself.

SOCRATES: People buy them because they’re such a pure sky-blue.

CORISCUS: They’re pretty but you can have them for the asking. Why do stall keepers think they can sell weeds? They might as well be selling dirt.

SOCRATES: Chicories are more beautiful than dirt. And, yes, chicories are everywhere. It is quite thoughtful of the gods to have lined the roads with beautiful blue flowers. Undoubtedly it’s Pan’s doing. He’s always fiddling with flowers and trees.

CORISCUS: Pan could use a bit of fiddling himself. His hair is matted and tangled and there are twigs in his beard and tears in his tunic. He’s rather a mess.

SOCRATES: That’s because he lives outdoors. His home is the woods and the caves. He’s restless. He wanders. He’s always poking into thickets, keeping an eye on animals. He repositions rocks in the streams. He arranges the wildflowers. Chicory is his favorite, so he lines the roads with it.

CORISCUS: It’s a nice story, Socrates, but logic shows that no “arranging” has been done here. Pan didn’t design any of this.


CORISCUS: Nobody arranged this clutter of wildflowers. It’s simply the natural order of things.

SOCRATES: How do you know?

CORISCUS: It’s obvious. I can prove it.

SOCRATES: Please do.

CORISCUS: Alright. Do you agree that chicory likes the sun?


CORISCUS: Would you agree that chicory is widespread in sunny areas?


CORISCUS: And because roadways are cleared areas, they are usually sunny?


CORISCUS: Then it stands to reason that we should find chicory lining the roadsides.

SOCRATES: This is your proof?


SOCRATES: What does it prove?

CORISCUS: I’m surprised I have to explain elementary reasoning to a philosopher. It proves that chicory will grow along roadsides naturally, without the help of Pan or anyone else.

SOCRATES: That is a very weak argument.


SOCRATES: Pan is a god, isn’t he?


SOCRATES: And he has a well-deserved reputation for being crafty?

CORISCUS: So I hear.

SOCRATES: If he wanted to, couldn’t Pan have arranged the chicory along the roads to look as if he hadn’t done it, to look as if the arrangement were natural and spontaneous?

CORISCUS: Well, I suppose anything is possible for the gods.

SOCRATES: But Coriscus, now you’re admitting that Pan could have arranged the chicory and simply made the arrangement look spontaneous. What is this? Don’t you believe your own proof?

CORISCUS: As usual, Socrates, you’re confusing matters. By introducing the gods, you aren’t helping us to understand the natural behavior of chicory.

SOCRATES: Why would we want to understand the behavior of chicory?

CORISCUS: Why? Well you tell me, old man. Isn’t this what philosophers do — try to understand things?

SOCRATES: Even a philosopher enjoys looking at flowers.

CORISCUS: Fine fine, Socrates, look at them all you wish. If you recall, I was only pointing out that you can look at chicory for free. You can even pick them for free. Whoever planted and arranged them is unconcerned with money and it’s insulting that stall keepers try to squeeze coins from our pockets to simply hand us our birthright.

SOCRATES: Did you say, “arranged by someone unconcerned with money”? And who might that someone be?

CORISCUS: Oh I don’t know. Nature. Or, if you prefer, Pan.

SOCRATES: I prefer Pan.


SOCRATES: I am quite certain that Pan does not think about money. But I wonder, Coriscus, do you think that Pan thinks about anything that he does?

CORISCUS: What do you mean?

SOCRATES: I am wondering whether Pan uses plans. Does he have a particular design in mind for the landscape? Or is he simply tossing chicory plants here and there absentmindedly?

CORISCUS: Who knows what goes on in the mind of a god?

SOCRATES: We might not be able to read his mind, but couldn’t we at least tell if his handiwork were based on a plan rather than on spontaneous whims?

CORISCUS: Yes, it would be obvious if there was a plan. A plan takes forethought. If Pan had a plan, his flowers and trees would form a design. They wouldn’t be dotted in haphazard clumps along the roads.

SOCRATES: Perhaps that is Pan’s plan. Perhaps Pan likes haphazard clumps.

CORISCUS: That’s no plan, at least it’s no godly design. Where is the artfulness? Where is the order? Where are any of the hallmarks of the work of a god?

SOCRATES: Let’s sit a moment here on this wall.

CORISCUS: Alright.

SOCRATES: It’s good to rest my legs. …
So, my friend, let me see if I understand you. You say that there are things in our world that are not made by the gods?

CORISCUS: Of course there are. The world is filled with things — clumps of dirt, broken twigs, and stones, rotted logs, insect-chewed leaves, decaying seaweed, and messy patches of chicory. No god would have had the time to fabricate and arrange all this debris. No god would want to.

SOCRATES: So some of the designs in our world are not made by the gods?

CORISCUS: Yes yes, I’ve just said this. The world is vast. Its details are uncountable. Even the ageless gods have not had the time to craft every single piece of it.

SOCRATES: Yet there are things that have been crafted by the gods?

CORISCUS: There are endless things, ingenious things, wondrous things. Things such as Zeus’s magnificent Court and Poseidon’s walls of Troy and all the gods’ gifts to mankind: olive trees, lyres, music. But you know all this, Socrates.

SOCRATES: Yes I do. So now, my friend, help me to see the big picture. Step back and tell me the general principle. By what sign can a person recognize the handiwork of a god?

CORISCUS: One sign is the intricacy of design. The gods are keener than men. Gods are more skillful and their designs are more intricate. Gods can weave awe-inspiring patterns. Could there be any doubt that it was a goddess who wove the net around the omphalos at Delphi? And only Athena could have sewn Hera’s robes. Or how about Hephaestus’s living gold handmaidens? They’re said to be stunning and glowing and seductive. No being other than Hephaestus himself could possibly have sculpted them.

SOCRATES: So, intricate design is the key?

CORISCUS: Yes, complex, ingenious, godly design. …
But now that I’m thinking about it, I can point out an even clearer criterion. Most of all, the gods’ creations are paragons of beauty. Just think of the Caves of Diras, winding endlessly, blue grotto after blue grotto, each dripping with crystal icicles!
If I must choose one unquestionable characteristic that identifies godly creations, I would say it is unsurpassed beauty.

SOCRATES: I agree.

CORISCUS: You agree?

SOCRATES: Yes. I agree that beauty is the hallmark of godly design.

CORISCUS: So, Socrates, do we suddenly think alike? I’m amazed — where does this convergence of opinion take us?

SOCRATES: Look around you. The chicory is a gorgeous blue tapestry. It’s luminous, and it’s beautiful. It must be the design of a god. And what god would have designed this chicoried landscape? It would be none other than the pasturer, the son of Hermes, the god of shepherds, flocks, and forests. It would be, of course, Pan.

CORISCUS: I grant you, the flowers are pretty. But in your dreams you have embroidered ragged patchwork fields into an ornate tunic woven by the gods.
It’s clear to me (and, I would suggest, to any rational Athenian) that these weeds have grown without a plan. The weedy fields have not been designed by anyone, neither man nor god. The arrangement of chicory weeds is just a reflection of the pattern of the sunshine. There is no intelligent design behind the wild landscape.

SOCRATES: I see great beauty.

CORISCUS: You are a romantic, Socrates, a lone dreamer. The reality is simply that blue flowers happen to be scattered among the weeds.

SOCRATES: I suppose I am a dreamer, but I’m not alone. Remember Homer’s verse:

And then Athena, the grey-eyed one,
Arose with grace and back she went
To Olympos’ towers, near to the golden sun
Where no chill rain, no errant snow
Stains the fresh baked clouds, aglow
In the endless blue,
Like vast fields of chicory flowers
Every morning new.

We dreamers can pick a weed and then, as Homer reminds us, we can carry a bit of Olympos with us everywhere we go.

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