From Plato to PayPal: When should we be convinced?

PayPal founder, Peter Thiel
PayPal founder, Peter Thiel

This is a facetious way to start a text, but I couldn’t help myself. A few months ago I went to a talk by the director of a strongly politically aligned institute. I remember two things from the talk: Firstly, that the speaker shouted everything he said, making me think he had over-incorporated some basic tenets of self-assertiveness. Secondly, that I was not particularly convinced by the arguments, though he seemed very convinced. Fortunately, he didn’t have much sway in the management of the world. Others do however, and unfortunately some of them are pretty sure about what they think.*
In an intriguing piece by The New Yorker, George Packer unpacks PayPal founder Peter Thiel, and reveals a futuristic dreamer, intimidatingly crisp thinker and ideologically convinced libertarian, a political position he has held since high-school. He believes also – though not necessarily with libertarians in general – that university education to some degree corrupts youth, and wastes time which could be spent on entrepreneurship. Packer claims that these views are shared by other Siliconites close to him, and recounts when he was scoffed at during a dinner party upon suggesting that reading classics might provide value not evidently found in a start-up environment.*

Unlike someone who tries to affect the world by swaying public opinion, Thiel doesn’t actually need to try very hard to defend his convictions

In accordance with his views Thiel has created a fellowship, funding young people who choose to create a start-up rather than go to university. By providing such a fellowship Thiel directly promotes something he believes to be good (entrepreneurship) and undermines something he believes to be bad (traditional education), both in line with his ideological stance. Unlike someone who tries to affect the world by swaying public opinion, Thiel doesn’t actually need to try very hard to defend his convictions, because he can make things come about in accordance with them without engaging in critical dialogue. In this Thiel is just an example of a powerful person who doesn’t necessarily need intellectual justification to influence the world, whether or not such justification can be given.
Thiel would likely argue that this is an unfair characterization and that he can argue quite strongly for his convictions, which Packer seems to confirm. Our favourite Athenian, Plato, would cynically respond that Thiel might well argue for his convictions, but it’s unlikely to be good enough. He writes in the Republic:*
“At present, those who study philosophy do so as young men… But just when they reach the hardest part they abandon it and are regarded as fully trained in philosophy. In later life…they think they should do this only as a sideline.”*
And of those who believe themselves to know more than they do he writes:*
“Won’t he be filled with impractical expectations and think himself capable of managing the affairs, not only of the Greeks, but of barbarians as well? And as a result, won’t he exalt himself to great heights and be brimming with pretension and pride that is empty and lacks understanding?”*

I wouldn’t go to the stake on Thiel wanting to manage the affairs of barbarians, but the general point comes across. The problem is that most views – especially more extreme ones – require more than a little reflection before the more available counterarguments stop coming. Unless you need to argue for your ideological position in order to shape the world in accordance with it, it’s easy to tell yourself that you’re right once you have convinced yourself, and then stop worrying about it and start acting.*
If we are at all justified in classifying Thiel as belonging to this category of Plato’s deceived hobby-philosophers, then at least he is in good company. Many people in history have acted on dubitable convictions; from the cult leader who inspires mass-suicide in his followers, to the boss who forces all employees to read the latest self-help book that changed his life. I might more controversially add Thatcher, Lenin and Cato the Elder – the Roman politician who finished all his speeches with ‘furthermore, I believe that Carthage must be destroyed’.*
Alright, so powerful prophets can steamroll humble philosopher-kings. This is perhaps not the scoop of the millennium. Is there anything we can do to stop Thiel from turning Silicon Valley into a real world Rapture – the libertarian underwater city from the game Bioshock? (Seriously though, he recently invested in Seasteading – a company aiming to make artificial islands outside the reach of government). Maybe not, but we can at least entertain ourselves by reflecting on what attitudes we should have towards our convictions, and what we might be justified in demanding of Thiel.*
Philosopher Karl Popper suggests some guidelines. He argues that we can never know when we’re right – because ‘truth is not manifest’ – and we should therefore never claim that our beliefs are anything more than tentative. Presumably this would make us less keen to change the world in any given ideological direction, as our convictions might change and we might then find ourselves having taken a right when we should have gone left, or vice versa.*

Plato’s advice to powerful people who don’t need to question their beliefs is the same as a teacher once gave me: ‘you need to think more’

One of the strongest and most powerful adherers to Popper’s principles is George Soros, the investor and philanthropist. As in a case of quite serious irony however, there are few people with ideological convictions who try so hard as to bring about change in accordance with them as Soros, seen in his promotion of the ‘open society’ argued for by Popper. While Thiel has a fellowship, Soros sponsored the Rose revolution in Georgia and the fall of Shevardnadze, which is not typical of someone who doesn’t think he’s pretty darn right. Soros is a good example that Popper’s principle is not entirely easy to stick by, to say the least.*
Plato himself provided a solution at the other end of the spectrum. Unlike Popper he argued that truth in all matters is indeed manifest at some point; it just takes a really long time to get there. More specifically around 30 years. Plato’s advice to powerful people who don’t need to question their beliefs is the same as a teacher once gave me: ‘you need to think more’. And his problem with Thiel would simply be that he hadn’t before he settled in his convictions.*
Now, there are – believe it or not – some problems with Plato’s view as well. Firstly, it is far from evident that we can ever get at absolute truth in matters of political ideology, for example. Secondly, 30 years is quite a long time to spend philosophizing if you aspire to ever do things after that, and there is some risk that you will be at a comparative disadvantage at achieving power once you finally leave the ivory tower. Thirdly, maybe we shouldn’t listen to a man who himself tried telling the powerful king of Sicily to think more, and barely escaped with his head in doing so.*
If the alternatives are so poor, can we really blame Thiel and Soros for acting on their convictions? Maybe not, but I believe we could, if we found that they were indeed unjustified. Specifically I believe that whether or not we can hope to reach some platonic form after a lifetime of contemplation, we can still stop and realize that there are often counterarguments which we haven’t met. Often these need to be taken seriously and our views amended accordingly, especially when power allows us not to do so. Or we could just shout, that seems to work for some.

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