Sunday, December 29, 2019

Can you lose at life?

I have been carefully examining the language you moderns use in day-to-day life. As I am a slow learner, I have found myself confused in trying to understand how you view the world. It seems to me that you consider life to be a game that can be won or lost. You speak of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in life. And when someone ‘wins’ you often deem the win to be deserved. For example, I have heard people say that the rich deserve their wealth. And I suppose it follows that the poor also deserve their place in life.

But is this true? Can you win and lose at life? Is life akin to a game? We ancients didn’t speak that way. If someone was poor, we wouldn’t think of them as losing at life. Instead we would suggest that the will of Tyche, our god of fortune, had not been in their favor. The Romans also had a god of fortune. Their name for Tyche was Fortuna. She was depicted as holding a tiller by which she could shift one’s fortune. Because her actions were totally out of our control, we would suggest that the poor were ‘unfortunate’ rather than a losers at life.

Perhaps people who consider life a game will find this a strange way of talking. But it does depend upon what sort of game they consider life to be. Is it a game with well defined rules in which a person can win or lose by using their skill and intellect? Is life, for example, like a game of chess? If so, it may make sense to speak of winners and losers. We wouldn’t hesitate to say that the winner of a chess game deserves his win. After all, to win he must have played the game better than his opponent. And we presume that they started the game with an equal number of pieces and played by the same rules.

Would we use the same language to describe someone winning at a game of chance — for example, a slot machine or lottery? Would we suggest that someone who wins the lottery deserves the win? I don’t even think the word ‘win’ in games of chance means quite the same thing as it does in a game of chess. There is no skill involved in a game of chance. The outcome is totally in the hands of fortuna. I wonder if life is more like this than we care to believe.

Of course, we do need certain skills in life. But much of what happens in life is well beyond our control — including our position at birth. Is it not true that fortuna decides who is wealthy and who is poor at birth? And is it not true that this starting position can have a massive impact on a person’s life? If so, it would seem to be overstating things to suggest that a poor person is losing at life and deserve their position (if by ‘losing’ we mean in the sense of a game of chess rather than a game of chance).

I am interested in what would happen in society if we shifted our language. Rather than speaking of winners and losers in life, let us speak of those who are fortunate and those who are less fortunate. Seeing things in this way may prompt those who are fortunate to help the unfortunate more so than if they truly think they deserve to be ‘winning’ at life.

— Socrates

Friday, November 22, 2019

Does technology make us more intelligent?

I recently engaged a wise young man in a discussion about technology. He asserted that technology is making people more intelligent. As always, I was eager to learn more. The following is a recollection of part of our dialogue...

- Socrates

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Sombre Sports

This morning I noticed a sadness in the city. As it so happened, the country’s team did not win an important sporting game. I found it interesting to observe the extent to which people’s happiness was dependent upon the actions of a sporting team so many miles away. An event which we have no influence over. It is almost as if people are thinking that a loss is not how the world *should* be. Such a thought, accompanied by the reality of a loss seemed to result in a dissonance and a sense of loss and general sadness.
It seems to me that demanding that the world ought to be a certain way is guaranteed to produce disappointment. And demanding perfection from an imperfect sports team is rather foolish. There are no perfect sports teams, for if there were, sport would not exist.
Perhaps people should seek happiness in things they have more control over, like going for a walk and enjoying fresh air. Better than leaving it in the hands of Tyche or Fortuna.
— Socrates

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Agree to disagree?

My friends! Yesterday I was presented with a common response to a line of questioning. It is a response I have encountered many times during my long search for wisdom. And I believe it hinders our progress. During a dialogue with a friend, I was asked to “agree to disagree”.
We had been debating a certain metaphysical claim–a claim that I did not find entirely convincing. I had proceeded to examine the claim in the manner of which I am most familiar: by asking questions. My interlocutor had interpreted my questioning as a belief in the falsity of his claim–perhaps a belief in the opposite of his claim–and after finding himself unable to provide answers, he had suggested that we “agree to disagree” about the issue. I was unsure what he meant, but I took his request to mean that we abandon our dialogue. And so it was. We each walked away carrying with us our existing beliefs about the issue. But if, as implied by the request that we “agree to disagree”, we cannot both be right, one of us must be wrong. Which one? We may never know.
Now, if my friend is unable to convince me that his belief is true then either it is false or he needs more convincing arguments. Either way, progress could have been made by continuing our dialogue. Simply abandoning our discussion by suggesting that we “agree to disagree” seems to me to leave us no wiser than we were at the start of the dialogue.
I have, for my entire life, maintained that I know nothing. But like everyone else, I have beliefs. And many of those beliefs are likely to be false. It is through dialogue that I test my beliefs and the beliefs of others. And I do this to move closer to knowledge. If knowledge is good, then I claim that we should continue our discussions and not simply defer examination of important issues by suggesting that we “agree to disagree”.
— Socrates

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Objective Good

My time over the last few months has been spent conversing with a variety of people. Many people make bold claims about a subject that I believe to be most important: ethics. The claims some people make are similar to the claims made by an old acquaintance of mine, Protagoras. Put simply, they are moral relativists, believing that there is no objective good and that matters of right or wrong are no more than personal opinion.
It seems to me that following this thought may lead to the view that the actions of people do not really matter. If there is no objective good, or right, or wrong, then we cannot say that it truly matters if a student cheats, or if thief steals property, or if a murderer goes on a killing spree. But when I make this proposal to the wise people with whom I converse, they object and declare that these things do matter. So what can we deduce from these two premises? Perhaps a tension in the relativist position. Let us take a closer look:
  1. If there is no objective good, or right, or wrong, then our actions do not matter
  2. Our actions do matter
  3. Therefore, there is an objective good, or right, or wrong
This argument is valid, but if one of the premises is false, it is unsound. So, is premise #2 true? Well, the people I have been dialoguing with believe that our actions do matter. So, they think premise #2 is true. If my friends maintain that there is no objective good, they must therefore refute premise #1. In other words, they need to show that it is false that if there is no objective good, or right, or wrong, then our actions do not matter. To do so, they need to find an example in which our actions matter and yet there is no way to objectively measure an action's goodness.
But if an action matters, then it must be good or bad, correct? Otherwise, it wouldn't matter. So finding an example in which our actions matter, while there is no way to measure an action's goodness, is to find an example in which our actions matter when there is no way to measure whether our actions matter. But we cannot find an example in which our actions matter if there is no way to measure whether our actions matter. So something may have gone wrong. Either the relativist position is problematic, or my reasoning is mistaken.
I shall continue my dialogues with my wise friends and allow them to educate me. I know nothing.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Thinking makes it so

Reading through some texts, I found an interesting passage. It appears in a play by an author named William Shakespeare. The quote reads: "There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so". This sounded familiar to me, and with good reason. A philosopher closer to my time named Seneca said the same thing. But what does it mean? It sounds suspiciously relativist and reminds me of a similar claim made by Protagoras, who lived during my time in Athens. He said "Man is the measure of all things", meaning that truth or falsity is dependent upon one's subjective point of view. Now, Seneca was not talking about objective truth. He was talking about moral action and values. And I agree with his statement, in a sense, but I do not agree with relativism. So I worry that there is tension in my beliefs. Consider this syllogism:

P1. (premise) If there is no objective good or bad, then good or bad is based on subjective thought

P2. (premise) There is no objective good or bad (Seneca)

C. (conclusion) Therefore, good or bad is based on subjective thought

But I think the conclusion is false. I have argued many times that moral good or bad is not subjective, which means it is objective:

P1. (premise) If there is no objective good or bad, then good or bad is based on subjective thought

P2. (premise) It is not true that good or bad is based on subjective thought

C. (conclusion) Therefore, there is objective good or bad.

So, I wonder what Seneca meant. How can I reconcile my belief that there is objective good and bad with his claim that "thinking makes it so"? Perhaps he was merely talking about the feelings we have towards certain events. An event may be objectively good or bad, but my feeling about the event is subjective. It is up to me to respond to the event. So I believe he meant that whether we feel angry or upset about an event is the result of our thinking about things.

-- Socrates.

** Update:
To answer a question that was posed "How do I know that the world is divided into objective and subjective things", I answer that I do not know. I know very little. But here I am analyzing the relativist's claim that there is no objective good and that good and bad are subjective. I am testing my beliefs against this claim. My beliefs are not yet knowledge.
- S


Saturday, June 23, 2018

Accounting for accountability

Meditations of a 21st century incarnation of Socrates as composed by Brent Silby



I have noticed that you moderns are constantly having to defend yourselves. It appears to happen in many workplaces -- even within the admirable teaching profession. But you don't use the word defence. You use the word accountability. Employers command that their workers are held to account for their time and actions. Accountability means being held to account. When a worker is in the process of being held to account, he or she is essentially defending his or her activity and use of time.

It seems to me that I shouldn't need to defend myself unless I am under attack or being accused of something. Therefore, implicit in modern accountability is accusation or attack. I am no stranger to this. My life ended after I failed to defend myself adequately to a jury of 501 citizens. They held me to account for my actions in Athens and found me guilty.

When I hear employed people talking about accountability in their workplace, I wonder about the nature of the accusation or attack that they must defend themselves against. Often it appears to relate to their use of time and the decisions they make. These poor workers are instructed to collect evidence to justify their activities because modern workplaces are built upon accountability. An implicit accusation exists against workers. Your workplaces seem to be based on low trust and suspicion.

P1. (premise) If we worked in high trust environments we wouldn't have to gather evidence to cover ourselves against implicit accusations against us.

P2. (premise) We do need to gather evidence to cover ourselves against implicit accusations against us.

C. (conclusion) We work in low trust environments


The more time I spend with you moderns, the more questions occur to me. I wonder whether basing work environments on accountability leads to happy workers who are willing to take risks, accept responsibility, and love their jobs; or whether it leads to nervous workers who play it safe, and dislike their jobs. What traits do employers desire in their workers? As an unknowledgeable man, I am eager to learn more.

-- Socrates

Friday, May 11, 2018

Sam Harris - an attempt at getting "Ought" from "Is"



On this cloudy winter's day I have been meditating on a short argument recently presented by Sam Harris on his Facebook page. This popular thinker has, for some time, been attempting to reduce ethics to science, and he has recently put forward an argument which he believes succeeds in doing so. As someone who knows very little, I find myself drawn to people who make big knowledge claims. I am, as you know, especially interested in Ethics, so I eagerly read Harris's argument.

Harris wants to show that ethics and values can be derived from facts about the world. If he succeeds in doing this, he will solve the famous is-ought problem. The is-ought problem suggests that no amount of knowledge about how the world happens to be can lead us to conclusions about how the world ought to be and how we ought to behave. Decisions about how we should behave may be informed by empirical facts, but ultimately they are based on values which do not seem to be derivable, in themselves, from empirical facts.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

A healthy economy means a healthy country?




Yesterday I found myself involved in a dialogue about the state of New Zealand. My interlocutor made the claim that the country's previous government had left the country in a "healthy state". I asked what he meant, and he responded by referring to an international report in which New Zealand's economy was highly rated.

I have heard this talk before, but I find it confusing. If a sick man is in hospital and I ask the doctor about his health, does the doctor check the man's bank account and pronounce him as healthy based on his wealth? Of course not. Yet when I ask people about this country they say it is in good health because the economy is strong. They don't mention the homeless. They don't mention hardship, poverty, or unemployment. They don't mention pollution, water shortages, or violence. For them the country is healthy. Are they not as foolish as the doctor who determines his patient's health by checking his financial situation?

Well, I questioned my friend about this and asked if there are any other measures of a country's health. I am sad to report that my friend stood steadfast in his view that New Zealand is a healthy country because it is in a good economic state.

-- Socrates

Saturday, March 31, 2018

The dialogues about guns




My friends, you will not be surprised to learn that I have continued to engage in dialogues about the ownership of guns. In a recent dialogue my friend argued that reducing gun ownership will not reduce murder rates as desired. I questioned him about this and helped him to formulate his argument more precisely. The first version of his argument took this form:

P1. (premise) If human nature is such that people will always seek to murder each other then reducing guns in society will not lower the murder rate

P2. (premise) Human nature is such that people will always seek to murder each other

C. (conclusion) Therefore, we should not reduce guns in society

But because the conclusion did not follow from the premises, we reformulated his argument as follows:

P1. (premise) If human nature is such that people will always seek to murder each other then reducing guns in society will not lower the murder rate

P2. (premise) Human nature is such that people will always seek to murder each other

C1. (conclusion) Therefore, reducing guns in society will not lower the murder rate

P3. (premise) If reducing guns in society will not lower the murder rate, then we should not reduce guns in society

C2. (conclusion) Therefore, we should not reduce guns in society

Although this version is valid, I was not convinced because I found premise number one to be questionable. As expressed in the argument, it seems to assume that human nature guarantees human action. I asked my friend to consider the following equivalent premise: if human nature is such that people will always seek to eat sugar then reducing the amount of candy available will not lower rates of sugar consumption. He agreed that this conditional is questionable.

Next, I asked him to consider this equivalent premise: If human nature is such that people will always seek to reproduce, then restricting the right to reproduce will not lower birth rates.

This premise can be shown to be false by looking at China as a counter example. I have been told by reliable people that in recent history the Chinese government placed restrictions on birth rates. This restriction succeeded in lowering birthrates despite human nature.

Despite showing the problem with premise one by demonstrating the problem with logically equivalent conditionals, my friend would not concede. He was committed to the truth of the consequent of the conditional (reducing guns in society will not lower the murder rate).

We then discussed premise two. I found this to be in need of support because I am not sure that our human nature is such that people will always seek to murder other people. So I asked if it is possible that this tendency is a result of social forces rather than biological forces. By the gods, I said, if it is a socialization issue, then removing weapons from people may well help. My friend was not willing to concede to my point and he lost patience with me. So we agreed to adjourn our dialogue.

The issue you moderns face regarding gun ownership is complex. My hope is that by following logic, our common master, you will one day resolve these questions.

-- Socrates