Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Is the origin of morality to be found in nature?

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

Richard Dawkins claims to have found the origin of moral behavior. After spending my entire life searching for the origin of morality, I eagerly read Dawkins’ account of morality’s origins. Following Charles Darwin's lead, he believes that morality did not originate in the heavens but instead originated in nature. He explains the origin of morality in terms of evolution. It is evolved behavior.

Evolution, I have been told, is based on the mechanism of natural selection. Nature selects behavior that enhances survival and reproduction. This behavior permeates through the population. Dawkins suggests that moral behavior, such as altruism, enhances survival. When people help other people, they in turn are helped. This enhances their chances of survivial. As a lover of wisdom, I crave clarity. So to satisfy the craving of this old man, let us express Dawkins’ argument in syllogistic form:

Premise #1: If I want to survive, I need others to act altruistically towards me

Premise #2: If I want others to act altruistically towards me, I need to act altruistically towards others

Premise #3: I want to survive

Conclusion: Therefore I should act altruistically towards others

This argument does indeed demonstrate that we should act altruistically — if, of course, we accept the premise that we want to survive. Dawkins then moves from this example to a new argument about how we explain the origin of morality. He argues that since the origin of moral behavior such as altruism can be found in evolution, there is no need to look to the gods for an explanation of morality. I have heard his supporters praise this conclusion as significant and revolutionary. Indeed it is a significant conclusion from a most admirable scientist. But the revolution occured many centuries before Dawkins’ birth.

I remember talking to an interesting young man at the court of Archon Basileus while awaiting my pre-trial hearing. This was back in Athens around 399 B.C.E. The young man's name was Euthyphro. During our discussion a seemingly simple question emerged—a question that, when answered, revealed the separation of the gods from morality. I shall put the question in terms familiar to people of this century: Are actions moral because God commands them; or does God command actions because they are moral? This question exposes a most interesting dilemma. There is no way to answer the question sensibly. If we suggest that actions are moral because God commands them, then moral goodness is arbitrary. God could command that torture is good, and it would thus be good. But would we not find such a commandment to be abhorrent and not the sort of thing God would command? On the other hand, if we answer that God only commands actions because they are moral, we find ourselves with a God that has to check some measure from beyond himself before issuing commands. Thus, God would not be the source of morality. He would be reduced to the deliverer of moral wisdom that he must, himself, seek out.

I would very much like to become Richard Dawkins’ student. I should like to ask him a question similar to the one I asked Euthyphro. Are actions moral because they evolved; or did they evolve because they are moral? Again, it seems to me that either way we have a problem. We certainly wouldn’t want to think that actions are moral just because they evolved. This answer suffers the same problem of arbitrariness that Euthyphro and I discovered all those years ago.

Let us return to the example of altruism to demonstrate the point. The argument does not tell us that altruism is morally praiseworthy. The fact that the behavior has evolved tells us nothing about its moral standing. Allow me to re-word the argument to demonstrate the point:

Premise #1: If I want to survive, I need to reduce competition for resources

Premise #2: If I want to reduce competition for resources, I need to kill my competitors

Premise #3: I want to survive

Conclusion: Therefore I should kill my competitors

This conclusion is enacted by many creatures on Earth. We may agree that it is biologically effective, but we surely would question whether killing our competitors is morally good. So the mere fact that behavior has evolved does not guarantee its moral worth. The reason the first version of the argument looks good is because we have reasoned that altruism is morally good prior to discovering an evolutionary explanation for it. The wise Dawkins agrees with this point. He tells us that he doesn't advocate a morality based on evolution. He has simply demonstrated that our moral behavior originated in evolution because it helps our survival.

Answering the question in the other way is also problematic. Suggesting that evolution produces behavior because it is moral implies that evolution acts with reason and moves towards external moral goals. If this were true, evolution would not, itself, explain the origin of morality. Besides, Richard Dawkins would remind us that evolution does not move towards end goals.

So what are we to conclude, my dear readers? Perhaps only this. The origin of morality is not to be found with the gods and it is not to be found in evolution. It is through reason that we identify moral goodness. As to where it originates, I fear I have no answer.

— Socrates

Monday, October 30, 2017

Science, what it can't tell us about morality

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

How do I behave morally? This has been a central question in my search for wisdom. In recent discussions I have found that some people think that science can answer all questions relevant to human lives. This belief has been called "scientism" and is held in particularly high regard by people such as Sam Harris. But I am not sure it is true. Are all questions answerable by science? Can a scientist tell me how to behave morally? Let us look at how Sam Harris might answer this question.

Based on his writings, Harris is likely to answer the question in the affirmative -- yes, a scientist can tell me how to behave morally. If this is true, I may finally have found the wisdom I have been seeking since my time in Athens. Let us examine the argument he puts forward in his wonderful book "The Moral Landscape":

Premise #1: Morality is all about improving the well-being of conscious creatures

Premise #2: Scientific investigation reveals facts about the well-being of conscious creatures

Conclusion: Therefore scientific investigation reveals facts about what is objectively moral

This is deductively valid. Can Harris use science to answer my ancient question? Let us reword the argument with a specific example.

Premise #1: Morality is all about improving the well-being of conscious creatures

Premise #2: Scientific investigation reveals that altruism improves the well-being of conscious creatures

Conclusion: Therefore scientific investigation reveals that altruism is objectively moral

By Zeus, it appears that Sam Harris has used science to tell me what is moral. But appearances do not always reflect that which is true. To be sure, we must check the premises.

Premise 2 can be easily established through observation. Premise 1, on the other hand, defines what morality is about. Oh dear. I am now afraid that my question has remained unanswered. Harris suggests that science can tell me what is moral, but his argument only works if he starts with a definition of what is moral. That definition is assumed and was not established through science. Harris, therefore, has not explained how science can tell me how to behave morally. It is as if he is saying "Allow me to use science to tell you how to behave morally. But before we begin, we need to state up front that behaving morally is improving the well-being of conscious creatures".

Harris was promising, but he has not convinced me that science can answer my question. I shall continue my search for wisdom elsewhere.

-- Socrates

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Technology, the overstated route to happiness (a Socratic Dialogue)

In my search for wisdom I meet many people. As I converse with them I find that they all seek the same thing: happiness. But when I ask how they intend to achieve their goal of happiness, their answers reveal how elusive it is.

I was recently at a technology market. As I wandered through the exhibit tents, I was struck with what everyone seemed to be selling: happiness. Astonishingly this elusive thing seemed to be available for purchased at a technology market. Now I must be clear, the advertising didn't use the term "happiness". However this is clearly what they wanted people to think. I saw displays of people smiling and looking fulfilled, all thanks to their technological aids; iPads, robotic lawnmowers, automated vacuum cleaners, and software to remote control their house.

-- Socrates

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Einstein's formula for happiness

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

How does one achieve happiness? That has been one of the central questions driving my search for wisdom. I have argued that people who equate happiness with material gain will never actually achieve happiness. Many people disagree. They believe that more money and, by extension, more possessions will bring them happiness. But I wonder if I will ever meet anyone for whom this is true.

It may be true that buying a new product is accompanied by a good feeling. By Hercules, even I must admit to having experienced this. Natural philosophers who study the brain tell me that these feelings arise through the release of endorphins. Now we all know that such feelings are short lived. If I want to repeat the experience, I need to purchase something else. If this is happiness then happiness is fleeting and elusive. And this indicates to me that seeking happiness in this way will be relentless because I will be forever seeking out new products to reproduce those feelings. Happiness will be constantly slipping beyond by reach.

My solution was the realization that happiness is not to be found in material wealth. I took great pleasure in reminding everyone of this by walking around the Agora commenting that I did not need most of the product being sold. My search for happiness has lead me to the conclusion that all I need is good friends, a warm house, and food to eat. Freeing myself from excess material desire gives me more time to enjoy the world and engage in philosophy with friends. This is where happiness can be found.

It seems that a well known natural philosopher by the name of Einstein shares my view. After his stay at a hotel, he was short on cash and could not leave the bell boy a tip. Instead he left a note: "A calm and humble life will bring more happiness than the pursuit of success and the constant restlessness that comes with it." This is music to my ears.

The irony is that that this note has now been sold for $1.3 million, thus providing its former owner the fleeting illusion of happiness through material gain.

Here is a news article about the famous note: https://www.stuff.co.nz/world/middle-east/98236201/einsteins-formula-for-happiness-sells-for-nz19-million

-- Socrates

Monday, October 23, 2017

Pressure to buy product, disarmed through reason

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

The stoic philosophers have a similar outlook to my own. I remember once walking around the agora, smiling, and boldly declaring "look at all this product that I don't need". What was my point? Well, I wanted to remind people that much of the fear and stress we feel results from pressure to own more product. But we don't need all this product, and I was affirming that point. Here is a syllogism:

P1. If I realize that I don't need excess, then I won't fear missing out on excess.

P2. I have realized that I don't need excess

C1. Therefore, I don't fear missing out on excess (from P1, P2)

Thinking this way is liberating and I recommend it. But premise #2 is crucial. One needs to train oneself to realize that most product on sale is not needed. In doing so, we can extend the argument:

P3. Product that I don't need is excess to my need

P4. I do not need most of the product on sale in the mall

C2. Therefore, most product on sale in the mall is excess to my need (from P3, P4)

P5. If I don't fear missing out on excess and if most product on sale in the mall is excess to my need, then I should not feel pressured into buying more product from the mall

C3. Therefore, I should not feel pressured into buying more product (from C1, C2, P5)

This article summarizes some other stoic ideas.

-- Socrates

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Technology for happiness

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

Does technology bring happiness? This question has been the subject of a recent dialogue between myself and an eager technophile. A lover of technology and a lover of wisdom, searching for happiness. By the gods, what a pair.

The technophile's argument was based on the assumption that the reason for unhappiness is that the world does not conform to our desires. He suggested that technology can adjust the world to suit our desires, and thus bring happiness. For example, the cold of a long winter's night will make me unhappy. But this can be fixed by using the appropriate technology. To gain happiness I need to bend nature to suit my needs.

My technophile friend's argument can be summarized in this form:
P1. Because the reason for my unhappiness is that the world does not conform to my desires, if I want to be happy, I need to adjust the world to suit my desires

P2. I want to be happy

C1. Therefore, I need to adjust the world to suit my desires

P3. Technology is the means by which I adjust the world to suit my desires in order to achieve happiness

C2. Therefore, technology brings happiness
This argument is valid, but sadly my technophile friend seems to be in a most unfortunate position. To become happy, he needs to change objective reality. This, to me, seems to be a relentless undertaking. I think we can all agree that the world is imperfect. I think we can also agree that achieving perfection is a task suited only to the gods. My unfortunate friend may be able to alter small aspects of the world to provide a temporary feeling of happiness, but technological fixes don't last. Things break. Nature is unpredictable. If my friend's happiness requires that nature is bent to his will, I fear that he will never be truly happy.

Shall we take a look at the first premise in the technophile's reasoning. He believes that the reason for his unhappiness is that the world does not conform to his desires. I wonder if there is another way to look at this. Could it be that the reason for his unhappiness is his expectation that the world conforms to his desires, and yet it usually doesn't? If this is true, an easier road to happiness may be an adjustment of that expectation.

Back in Athens we believed that happiness could be achieved by conforming the soul to objective reality, as opposed to attempting to change reality to suit the soul. If my technophile friend can use wisdom and self control to adjust his desires to reality, he may find happiness more forthcoming. Of course, this is not to say that he shouldn't warm his house at night.

-- Socrates

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Nietzsche's birthday

Today is Nietzsche's birthday. He wasn't a big fan of my work. He even committed an ad hominem attack against me in his Twilight of the Idols. He tried to refute me by referring to my appearance, calling me the "lowest of the low" because of the way I look. It is true that I am not the most beautiful person on the exterior. But, as I always reminded people, the mere appearance of beauty is not necessarily the same as real beauty. That can only be found in the soul. I would, by extension, suggest that the external appearance of ugliness doesn't reflect the true nature of the person.

Nietzsche didn't approve of my approach to philosophy. He thought dialogue was nothing more than cheap entertainment, and he disagreed with my reasoned approach to life--specifically my arguments about how to attain happiness through virtue.

It is a shame I never had the opportunity to engage in dialogue with Nietzsche. I would very much like to examine his thoughts...even if he thinks the elenchus method is cheap entertainment.
-- Socrates

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Gun ownership laws (a Socratic Dialogue)

The issue of gun ownership often comes up after reports of mass shootings. Recently there was a mass shooting in Las Vegas. This prompted a dialogue between myself and a gun enthusiast. The dialogue was documented by a friend of mine and appears below. As with many of my dialogues, this one ends in aporia. That means it ends inconclusively, at an impasse.

-- Socrates

Monday, October 9, 2017


This article (click here) outlines my reasons for "hating" democracy. Well, hate is a strong word. I never said I hated democracy--even if it did result in my death. Democracy allowed me the freedom to devote my life to philosophy, so I did benefit from it. Having said that, I certainly didn't care much for democracy back in Athens, and I still find it problematic. Why? Because it can result in unwise people leading the state. A clever demagogue can very easily convince the public to vote for his or her ideas by appealing to people's prejudices and desires rather than by using reasoned argument. They are like sophists. They make bad arguments look good and good arguments look bad. Their trick of the trade is rhetoric. So, their ideas get voted for (or in modern democracy they get elected to lead) for the wrong reasons. They may not have the wisdom to run the state. That's why I don't care for democracy.

-- Socrates

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Memory and the Internet

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

The written word is arguably the most significant invention in our history. But I always held it in suspicion. Back in Athens I argued that the written word can give people the illusion of knowledge when none exists. It is very easy to recite information from a written passage without understanding exactly what it says. I see this frequently when I use this new tool, the Internet. People respond to questions by copying passages of written text, but when probed, they reveal that they don't know what they have quoted.

Another reason for suspicion is that the written word is static. You can't interrogate it. If I read an item of information in a book, I cannot ask a question. The book sits there silent. I have always argued that learning best occurs through dialogue.

A third reason for my suspicion involves the impact writing has on memory. If I can off-load thoughts from my mind onto paper, or into the Internet, then I don't need to remember them. There are some contemporary philosophers such as Andy Clark and David Chalmers who claim that the very act of recording my memories in external devices actually extends my mind into those devices. This is an interesting idea, but I am not convinced. For one thing, memory in the traditional sense seems more dynamic a process than simply recording thoughts into a device. Memories tend to occur to me, bubbling up from below consciousness, at appropriate times. On the other hand, memories stored in devices need to be searched for intentionally. To access a stored memory I would need to have an idea of what I'm looking for prior to searching for it. The process, therefore, seems to maintain a separation between external device and my mind.

Astute readers will recognize a level of hypocrisy in my thoughts. I am criticizing the written word in writing. And although my historical work was verbal (I never used to write anything down), my arguments were recorded in written form by my students Plato and Xenophon. This criticism is justified. However, I am satisfied that to the extent that people can engage in dialogue with me beneath this article, there is a similarity to what I used to do. So my second complaint above targets books rather than Internet blogs. My other complaints are still relevant and are nicely outlined in this short article in the Philosophy Now publication: Memory and the Internet.

-- Socrates

Friday, October 6, 2017

Is this universe a simulation?

People who know me will know that I have put metaphysics to one side. I found it interesting, to be sure. But I decided to focus my efforts on questions of ethics and living well. That said, articles like this reawaken my interest in metaphysics.

Was this universe made by someone from outside? Back in my day, people thought the universe was eternal. Some people thought that it was a chaotic mess, made up of an infinite number of atoms, and that these were somehow ordered--either by accident or by some organizing force, which was contained within the universe. Then my student, Plato, described an organizing force that sits outside the universe.

This idea caught on and has persisted. In the 13th Century Aquinas developed arguments in support of the idea, notably his second and third way. Recently, philosophers have continued to argue for the existence of an organizational force that sits outside the universe. These days they consider this force to be some sort of super-intelligent godlike civilization that has the ability to produce universes inside sophisticated computer systems. It seems that although the language has changed, the idea has remained much the same. A transcendent entity is needed to explain the existence of the universe.

Is it true? How would we know? Well, some natural philosophers (they are called physicists) have reason to believe that the universe is not the product of an external computer program. Here is a brief outline of their argument: https://cosmosmagazine.com/physics/physicists-find-we-re-not-living-in-a-computer-simulation.

Their argument can be described as a simple syllogism
P1. If it is physically impossible for a computer to store and compute information required to simulate all the particles in the universe, then the universe is not a computer simulation

P2. It is physically impossible for a computer to store and compute information required to simulate all the particles in the universe

C. Therefore, the universe is not a computer simulation
The argument is valid, but is it sound? Take a close look at premise #1. What are they assuming? They are assuming that facts about computers in this universe tell us something about computers in a possible parent universe. If our computers can't do it, then neither can computers in a parent universe. But this doesn't follow, does it? Our computers are constrained by the contingent laws of physics of our universe. Is there any reason to assume that the laws of physics in a parent universe will be the same as the laws of physics in our universe? If the answer to that question is "no", then premise #1 is disarmed and the argument is unsound.

So, if these researchers want to make a solid argument, they need to convince us that the laws of physics in a parent universe are necessarily the same as the laws of physics within our universe. They may indeed have an argument to this effect. But it is not mentioned in the article. Therefore, it seems to me that the possibility that this universe is a simulation can not yet be discarded. Our transcendent creators survive to appear in another argument.

-- Socrates

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Facebook and Plato

After all these years, people are still working through issues by referring to the writings of my most famous student, Plato. This pleases me. Much of what he wrote featured myself as lead character. While flattering, I need to come clean. I didn't actually say a lot of what Plato put in my mouth. His dialogues are not actual recordings of my discussions--though some of the early ones come close.

In this article (Would Plato Allow Facebook In His Republic), Jenni Jenkins asks what Plato would think of Facebook. Among other things, she refers to Plato's realm of forms. I never held the metaphysical view that there is an existing realm of forms. That is Plato's idea. But I do agree with some of his thoughts as outlined in this article. I particularly agree with his thoughts about truth relativism. These ideas, it seems to me, have been reinvigorated many times through the centuries. Relativism is seductive and it persistently reappears. And each time, philosophers examine again the nature of truth and reveal the internal paradox of relativism by asking the question: is it an objective truth that there is no objective truth?

Another point that I agree with is that when people are invisible, they will be more inclined to act badly. In the case of Facebook, people can act "invisibly", commenting on articles under false names, or even their own name but so far removed, they are essentially invisible.

The argument is simple:

P1. If I am invisible, then I am more inclined to act badly
P2. On Facebook I am invisible
C. Therefore, on Facebook I am more inclined to act badly

The argument is valid and it seems to be the case that P1 is true. But maybe this is due to ignorance. People who know me will recall that I always argued that people only commit bad acts out of ignorance. No-one thinks they are doing wrong when they act badly. They commit bad actions because they don't realize what they're doing is wrong. Was I wrong about this? Do people actually realize that they are doing harm to others when they post nasty comments? Or do people truly not realize that they are doing harm? Or is it possible that people realize they are doing harm, but think it is the right action to take?

This is an issue that clearly requires further examination.
-- Socrates

Monday, October 2, 2017

Inactivity can be a good thing

Back in Athens, I often found myself standing still, staring out towards the hills, not really looking at them but gazing through them. Sometimes I would stand motionless for hours. People thought I was mad. I have even read recent historical descriptions in which they claim my motionless gaze was caused by a neurological seizure. Really? Are people not allowed to stand motionless unless something is wrong?