Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Concept of Western Civilization

Articles have been flowing through the Internet today. This one looked very interesting to me: "The concept of 'Western Civilisation' is Past its Use-By Date". I encourage you, good reader, to examine carefully the article and its arguments.

The author, Catherine Coleborne, is promoting diversity in education and is concerned that the University of New South Wales is reviving its liberal arts and humanities programme. In my ignorance I found myself confused. I have always thought of humanities programmes as being well positioned to offer diverse education, so I thought it strange that Coleborne indicated a dichotomy between the two. Evidently Coleborne believes humanities programmes are based on a concept of Western Civilisation that neglects the contribution that non-western cultures have made to the world.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The True Life

Alcibiades and Socrates

An admirable man by the name Alain Badiou has written a remarkable book about a charge brought against me back in 399 B.C. I was charged with two heinous crimes: Atheism and Corrupting the youth. The first of those charges may be more precisely described as a refusal to acknowledge the offical gods of Athens, which I refuted by referring to my numerous discussions on the nature of piety.

The second charge was based, I think, on the need to find someone to blame for the behavior of certain people who caused much trouble for Athens -- Alcibiades, for example. He spent much time with me before betraying Athens to the Spartans. My accusers concluded that his betrayal was a result of my teachings. But I don't teach. I simply ask questions and as a result, people learn for themselves how to examine ideas that are generally accepted without question.

Because I thought that rather than corrupting, I had done service to Athens in helping youth learn how to think, I suggested that my punishment should be free food and accommodation for the rest of my life. The jury of 501 regular Athenians did not take kindly to this suggestion. We all know what happened. The decision was that I should be condemned to death.

So what were young people learning from me? Why did it upset the establishment? Alain Badiou has written a worthy book on this, a summary of which can be read here: Applying Socrates to Politics.

-- Socrates

Monday, November 27, 2017


There is a stereotype about philosophers in which we are depicted as without jobs and money. In my case this happens to be true. Apart from my service to the army, I never worked. And I have little money. But there are many philosophers who earn vast sums of money practicing their art. So the stereotype is faulty.

Stereotypes are based on faulty reasoning. Allow me to show you, my friends, the reasoning behind stereotypes.

P1. (premise) The people I know in group X have character trait Y

C1. (conclusion) Therefore, all people in group X have character trait Y

As wise readers you will see immediately that this generalized conclusion does not follow from the premise unless, of course, the person in question knows all the people in group X.

People base their stereotypes on inductive reasoning, which is something I am credited with inventing. My quest was to draw deductive conclusions. But deduction is based on premises which imply some pre-existing knowledge. Since I had very little knowledge, I needed to develop my premises through inductive reasoning. My method was interrogative. For example, when trying to understand the essence of virtue, I would question people about particulars known to embody virtue and what they had in common. I would then draw an inductive conclusion about the essence of the virtue. Essentially, inductive reasoning makes the move from specific examples to a generalized conclusion. Counter examples weaken inductive conclusions.

Here is an improved version of the argument:

P1. (premise) The people I know in group X have character trait Y

C1. (conclusion) Therefore, probably everyone in group X have character trait Y.

Notice, good reader, the use of the word "probably" in the conclusion. This is the signature of inductive reasoning. Probability rather than certainty is established, which makes this version of the argument better than the first version. Your modern science is based on inductive reasoning. For example, a scientist may claim that because every object heavier than air has been observed to fall to the ground when dropped, it is therefore very likely that all objects heavier than air will fall to the ground when dropped. Now, if the scientist observed this effect only three times, the reasoning would be weak. If the scientist had observed the effect a million times, the reasoning would be strong.

Let us return to the example of the out of work philosopher. Here is a common version of the argument:

P1. (premise) All the philosophers I know of have no jobs and no money

C1. (conclusion) Therefore, all philosophers have no jobs and no money

If we assume that this person does not know every philosopher, this is a weak argument. The conclusion is most unlikely to be true, even if the premise is true. This can be demonstrated by a single counter-example, John Smith, who works as a university philosopher earning a very handsome wage.

On the otherhand, the stereotype may be based on this argument:

P1. (premise) All the philosophers I know of have no jobs and no money

C1. (conclusion) Therefore, probably all philosophers have no jobs and no money

The strength of this inductive argument depends on how many philosophers the reasoner has met. If he or she had met most philosophers, then the argument would be strong. But this is unlikely. I am unsure how many philosophers there are, but since most universities have them, I think it is unlikely that the reasoner could have met most of them. And there may well be philosophers who are employed in other jobs, earning reasonable money. I believe this inductive conclusion is weak.

One must be cautious in accepting reasoning that leads to stereotypes. Even if the conclusion happens to be true, the reasoning must be treated as suspect and the reasoner interrogated.

-- Socrates

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Questioning famous people

In this morning's news feed I saw someone ask: "what would it be to have a Socrates nowadays questioning famous people?" What would it be, indeed? Would it help people understand justice? Would it help people achieve happiness? Would it help people to become virtuous? Since somehow surviving my death in 399BC I have continued to question people, both famous and otherwise. It is my intention to learn as much from them as I hope they learn from me. Whether my dialogues have actually helped people, I am unsure. But I continue, nonetheless.

Back to the question: "what would it be to have a Socrates nowadays questioning famous people?" Is the assumption that only I can ask effective questions? This assumption surely is unjustified. Many people I have met are skilled at asking questions and identifying faulty reasoning. Questioning people is not an activity exclusive to me. We can all do it, and I encourage everyone to do it.

-- Socrates

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Death is nothing to fear

Death. The forbidden topic. It is forbidden, I think, because it is feared. You moderns, much like we ancients, do everything you can to avoid death. You alter your bodies to appear younger, you spend a fortune on medical treatments, and your scientists research life extension -- as if death is a disease that can be cured. But it cannot be cured, and although I have no real wisdom, I know enough to realize that accepting the inevitability of death is wise. I also believe that the wise person does not fear death.

Do people fear death because they have knowledge of what death is like? I do not know how they could acquire such knowledge. Perhaps they think they know what death is like. But that is uncertain. Death may be the end of the soul. Or it could be, as many religious people think, the transportation of the soul to a new life. What that life is like, no-one can know. Either way, we do not know what happens to the soul at death. I ask people, do you fear going to a movie you have never seen? They say "no". I ask, do you fear eating at a new restaurant? They say "no". And yet, I suggest, you fear death. Is it not merely another unknown, just as the unseen movie and the new restaurant are unknowns? They agree to this point, so I ask, is it wise to fear the unknown? And they concede that it is not wise. What happens at death is unknown so it is not wise to fear it.

But people say they fear missing out on living. That is why they fear death. To this I ask, do you feel fearful about the time of non-living prior to your birth? They reply that they have no such fear. So I ask, why do they fear the time of non-living in the future? Is it not the same after all? By Zeus, this is a difficult question for people to answer. They seem to rate the loss of their own life highly. They do not fear the time before birth because they had not yet experienced life. The time after living, however, is a loss of something they had. But, I remind them, that if the soul survives, then there is no loss. And if the soul is destroyed, they do not experience the loss. So there is nothing to fear.

Perhaps it is the anticipation of death that people fear. When they realize that life is finite, they ruminate on it and become fearful as the end approaches. I ask people, do you fear the end of a symphony when you are half-way through? They say "no". This is of no surprise. The wise person enjoys the symphony and is not fearful that the symphony will end. Would we not be wise to treat life in the same way?

We all experience something like death every day. It happens when we go to sleep. During a dreamless sleep we are in a state of seeming non-existence. Now, we do not fear going to sleep at night, therefore we do not fear seeming non-existence. So why do we fear death? When I pose this question to people, they tell me that the situation is different. When they go to sleep they know they will awaken, but they do not know they will awaken after death. I respond by asking, do you really know you will wake up after going to sleep? People will often accept that they don't know it, but it is likely. So people believe they will awaken after sleeping and therefore they do not fear sleep in the same way that they fear death. Why? Because they believe they will not awaken after dying. I must, at this point, refer back to our earlier point about knowledge. No-one knows they will not wake up after death, because no-one knows what happens to the soul after death. Nevertheless, I ask people how they feel about waking up each morning. Most people want to go back to sleep. People are most remarkable creatures. They don't fear sleep because they know they will wake up. Yet, upon waking they want nothing more than to go back to sleep. On the other hand, people fear death because they believe they will not wake up and will continue to sleep.

Is it better to be at risk of harm or at no risk of harm? The answer to this question will lead us to a conclusion about whether or not death should be feared. Let us assume that death is the end of suffering. Let us assume that no harm can come to someone after death. Now, if it is better to be at no risk of harm and if no harm can come to one after death, then death should not be feared.

These thoughts are based on my dialogues with people over the years. It seems that when carefully considered, wise people should not fear death. Still, we are human with human weaknesses.

-- Socrates

Monday, November 20, 2017

Screen addiction

You moderns have interesting problems. I have now read that your young people are at risk of being damaged due to an addiction to video screens. As a humble and slow user of this technology, I find it astounding that addiction would be a problem. Surely people would prefer to talk with each other face-to-face, walking the city streets, enjoying the sun. But perhaps that is something that only we ancients enjoyed.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Online addiction

Last week I met an interesting young person, named Ella, who was most distressed. She had been cut off from the Internet and this was causing her anxiety. Her Internet exile was imposed by her parents and her subsequent anxiety, it seems, resulted from her isolation from friends, who themselves remained online. I took it upon myself to help this young person examine her anxiety.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

I must agree with my boss

By the gods, how many times have I seen people following the lead of authority figures, I don't care to count. Sometimes authority figures are clever orators who can build agreement through carefully crafted rhetoric. We know these people as sophists. They make bad arguments look good and good arguments look bad.

But sometimes people follow the lead of authority figures even when they don't agree with the arguments. Rather than challenge the arguments, they turn a blind eye and feign agreement. By Zeus, I have even seen people become so accustomed to a bad argument that they come to agree with it.

My life has been dedicated to challenging bad arguments. Identifying faulty premises is the first step in finding an antidote to poor reasoning. I must admit, however, that this approach eventually led to my trial and subsequent penalty. Nevertheless, I have been commanded to continue my work and I shall do so by examining every day reasoning.

I met an intelligent person whose boss had convinced him that a certain workplace policy should be enacted. But he wasn't convinced through good argument. Rather, he was following his own behavioral reasoning based on this syllogism:

P1. (premise) If my boss believes that we should enact a new policy, then I should believe it too

P2. (premise) My boss believes we should enact a new policy

C. (conclusion) Therefore, I should believe it too.

Now, you are a wise reader and will no doubt find it confusing that anyone should follow behavioral reasoning such as this. But when we examine the reasoning more closely, we see that the first premise (P1) emerges from a prior deduction:

P1. (premise) I must have the approval of my boss

P2. (premise) If I must have the approval of my boss, then if my boss believes that we should enact a new policy, then I should believe it too

C. (conclusion) Therefore, if my boss believes that we should enact a new policy, then I should believe it too

This syllogism deduces the first premise of the main behavioral argument. So, good reader, you can see that my friend was agreeing with his boss because he believes he must have his boss's approval.

For clarity, let us construct the reasoning in full.

P1. (premise) I must have the approval of my boss

P2. (premise) If I must have the approval of my boss, then if my boss believes that we should enact a new policy, then I should believe it too

C1. (conclusion) Therefore, if my boss believes that we should enact a new policy, then I should believe it too (from P1, P2)

P3. (premise) My boss believes we should enact a new policy

C2. (conclusion) Therefore, I should believe it too (from C1, P3)

How can we help this unfortunate person? We can help by identifying weak or false premises. For example, premise 2 could very well be false. It is possible that my friend's boss might not approve of unquestioned agreement. He may prefer to be challenged and therefore approve of employees who can articulate weaknesses in a plan.

But the main problem my friend's reasoning is his first premise: I must have the approval of my boss. It may be true that he will gain his boss's approval, but in insisting that he must have approval, my friend puts at risk his ability to think for himself. He risks his soul being twisted into a new shape by someone else.

At a more fundamental level, the word "must" implies that approval is unconditional and that there is no other way the world can be. My friend must have his boss's approval. But surely his boss is free to decide for himself where he places his approval. There is no must, as if it is a universal law. I wonder what my friend would think if someone held him to the same demand: "you must approve of me".

Our stoic friends would remind us that we cannot control the thoughts of others. They choose for themselves where they place their approval. We can, however, control our own actions. Insofar as it is more rational to focus on the things one can control rather than the things one cannot control, my friend should focus on developing his own values and making his own decisions. This, to me, seems preferable than assimilating someone else's values in the hope of gaining approval.

-- Socrates

Monday, November 13, 2017

Examination pressure

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

Examinations are designed to probe student knowledge. I have read that the brain treats assessments, appraisals, and performance evaluations in the same way. As a threat. The interesting thing about a threat is that it triggers either one of two responses: fight or flight. Last week I had the fortune of dialoguing with a student who was experiencing the threat of an impending examination. I was eager to learn about the cause of the fight or flight response and the associated anxiety.

The student in question was anxious and was feeling immense pressure to perform well. She said that she had to get an A+ on her examination because her future studies depend on good grades. For her, it would be terrible to get less than an A+ , and a complete catastrophe to fail the exam. This student was in a most unfortunate predicament. But she didn't realize that she was a victim of her own reasoning:

P1. (premise) I must never fail an exam

P2. (premise) If I must never fail an exam, failing this one would be a catastrophe

C1. (conclusion) Therefore, failing this exam would be a catastrophe

This reasoning is simple but misguided. In her first premise, she is suggesting that the world must be such that she never fails exams. Her use of the word "must" suggests a level of control over the world that is reserved for the gods. I suggested an alternative wording: I prefer that I don't fail exams. In stating a preference rather than demanding that the world conforms to a desire, the student may find a reduction pressure.

I also talked with the student about her second premise. Would failing this exam really be a catastrophe? I asked if she could re-take the exam at another time. She said that it would, indeed, be possible to sit the exam the following year, which indicated to me that failing wouldn't be a catastrophe. An inconvenience, sure. But a catastrophe, not really.

Still, the student was not convinced. So I asked what else might happen if she failed her exam. The poor student talked about her parents and friends, and was clearly worried that they would think negatively of her if she failed her exam. Not only was she worried about failing the exam because it might impact on her future study, she was also worried that she would lose the approval of her friends and family. Her reasoning took the following form:

P1. (premise) If I don't have the approval of my friends and family, then I am not worthy

P2. (premise) If I fail my exam I won't have the approval of my friends and family

C1. (conclusion) Therefore, if I fail my exam, I am not worthy.

It is no wonder the student was anxious. She had done herself a great harm by forming this unsound deduction. So we discussed her first premise. I asked about her life outside of school. As it happens, she is an artist and also helps care for homeless animals. These are worthy endeavours. Her actions make her worthy, not the opinions of other people. After further discussion, it was revealed that her parents and friends are proud of the work she does with animals. And they love her art. Bringing this to the surface disarmed her second premise. She has the approval of her friends and family regardless of her performance in exams.

I am uncertain how much help I was able to provide to the student. But I can report that she appeared more relaxed about her exam after we talked.

-- Socrates

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Road Rage (a Socratic Dialogue)

How can people deal with real life situations with wisdom? This question is at the heart of the stoic philosophy and is a natural extension to my own search for wisdom. I have maintained that philosophy should be available to the people rather than remaining with the gods. It is the art of living. So in addition to interrogating people about values, justice, and ethics, I examine their responses to life issues. I am not a teacher, but through dialogue I hope to help people learn how to question their own lives.

Last week I encountered a car accident. The driver who was at fault seemed remorseful. So I took it upon my self to talk to this poor fellow.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

What is knowledge? (a Socratic Dialogue)

Composed by Brent Silby

Over the years I have had many conversations with many people. You would be surprised how often certain issues resurface. My relatively recent dialogue with Thomas and Paul bore a remarkable resemblance to a dialogue I had back in Athens. My memory may be fading, but I remember the dialogue. It was with a worthy fellow by the name Theaetetus. The following is a transcript of my dialogue with Thomas and Paul in which we question the nature of knowledge, just as Theaetetus and I did all those years ago.

-- Socrates

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Beauty treatment

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

Alcibiades once confused the appearance of beauty with real beauty. He was well known for his physical beauty and he surely turned his appearance to his advantage. That was back in Athens. I did my best to help him to see that physical beauty does not guarantee true beauty. I fear my words fell on deaf ears. And it seems that people are still making the same mistake -- spending small fortunes on fixing their physical appearance, as if that can make them more beautiful. They are focusing on the wrong thing.

Allow me to present my case in premise / conclusion syllogistic form:

P1. A person has either true beauty or true ugliness

P2. In human affairs, true ugliness is found in doing harm

P3. Having the appearance of beauty does not guarantee the a person will do no harm

C1. Therefore, the appearance of beauty does not guarantee that a person is not truly ugly (from P2, P3)

P4. A just person (i.e. a morally good person) does no harm

C2. Therefore, a just person is not truly ugly (from P2, P4)

C3. Therefore, a just person is truly beautiful (from P1, C2)

C4. Therefore, true beauty is not to be found in in the physical appearance but in moral goodness (from C1, C3)

This, my admirable friends, indicates to me that the path to true beauty is not to be found in adjusting one's physical appearance through cosmetic enhancements. Rather, the path to true beauty is found in adjusting one's soul and becoming a morally good and just person.

Now, my readers, you are wise and will no doubt question premise #1. Must it be either / or? Can a person not be partly beautiful and partly ugly? Indeed, this is a worthy question. I have argued elsewhere that a truly just person, and thus a truly beautiful person, does no harm and thus has a total lack of ugliness. For clarity we could reword premise #1 to read: A person has either true beauty or true ugliness or a mix of partial beauty and partial ugliness. Conclusion #2 would then be reworded to read: Therefore, a just person is not truly ugly and is not a mix of partial beauty and partial ugliness. The rest of the argument would follow and the conclusion would still be deduced.

My ancient Athenian friends made the mistake of confusing the appearance of beauty with true beauty. It seems that the mistake persists in this twenty first century culture in which I now find myself. By the gods I am committed to helping people see things differently, so I will continue to examine lives and offer reasoned arguments as an alternative to popular thinking.

-- Socrates

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Happiness at the shopping mall?

Yesterday I wandered through the shopping mall. It is like the Agora but it is indoors. As I walked through the mall I noticed something most peculiar. I was the only one smiling. Everyone else seemed to be under pressure, rushed, and frowning. People even looked sad after paying for the item they had chosen to purchase. And I thought shopping was supposed to make people happy.

If shopping makes people happy, and if people smile when they are happy, then I should expect people to be smiling at the mall. But this is not what I saw. So either shopping does not make people happy or people do not always smile when they are happy. I wonder which it is.

Myself, I was very happy. As I wandered around taking note of everything I did not need, I realized that it doesn't take much to be happy. Perhaps our focus on enriching our material wealth distracts us from enriching our souls. Perhaps this contributes to the elusiveness of happiness.

-- Socrates

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Sam Harris and Free Will

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

Sam Harris wrote a book called Free Will (2012). He argues that freewill is an illusion. A remarkable thought, by Zeus. Harris explains that because our choices are made for us by processes in our brain, we are not free. He asks: "Did I consciously choose coffee over tea? No. The choice was made for me by events in my brain that I, as the conscious witness of my thoughts and actions, could not inspect or influence."

His argument is straight forward:

Premise 1. If something makes all my decisions for me, then I am not free

Premise 2. My brain makes all my decisions for me

Conclusion. Therefore I am not free

I know that Harris is wise and is surely consistent in his thoughts. That’s why I am confused about this quote. In his artful writing, Harris has generated something of a contradiction. In suggesting that choices were made for him by his brain, he seems to view his "self”, or perhaps more accurately, his mind, as something other than the brain. He is not free because all his decisions are made by something other than himself—his brain. But Harris certainly does not appear to think the self and the brain are separate in his other writing.

Shall we attempt to reword his quote? I do not pretend to be as wise as Harris, so I must beg his forgiveness in my presumption that I can help. But let us reword his quote to align it with his view that the self is the brain, or perhaps more precisely, brain activity. So we will replace the terms “I” and “conscious withness” with “my brain”. The new quote reads: “Did my brain choose coffee over tea? No. The choice was made for my brain by events in my brain that my brain could not inspect or influence.” Worded this way, the problem of free will appears to vanish.

If Harris believes that the self is the brain, then I am my brain. So his argument looks like this:

Premise 1. If something makes all my decisions for me, then I am not free

Premise 2. My brain makes all my decisions for my brain

Premise 3. I am my brain

Conclusion 1. Therefore I make all my decisions for me

Conclusion 2. Therefore I am not free

To my old mind this looks confused. How can it be that I make all my own decisions and yet not be free? I shall therefore propose a new argument:

Premise 1. If something makes its own decisions, it is free

Premise 2. My brain makes its own decisions

Conclusion 1. Therefore my brain is free

Premise 3. I am my brain

Conclusion 2. Therefore I am free

Being unaccustomed to thinking of the mind and brain as the same thing, I may well be misguided in my argument. Nevertheless, I hope my humble thoughts have helped identify a contradiction in Sam Harris’s position.

— Socrates