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 demand 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

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Simulated Universe

You moderns are wonderfully entertaining. Almost everyone I talk to thinks that there is no God and that the universe exists for no reason. I can certainly understand some of the reasoning behind these beliefs, even though it seems strange to me. But what I find more strange is that this belief often exists alongside the acceptance of another possibility -- the idea that this entire world was created by a super powerful species within a vast computer. Am I foolish to think there is a tension between these two beliefs? On the one hand is the denial of a creator with a purpose, and on the other is acceptance of the possibility of a creator with a purpose. I wonder if people will ever make their minds up.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Knowledge and Certainty

Questions about knowledge often arise in dialogues I have with friends. Yesterday I found myself involved in one such dialogue. Our examination began by trying to establish, with a level of certainty, what we could know about the room we were occupying. As our discussion progressed, we considered the question of knowledge from the point of view of other creatures. What, for example, can an insect know with certainty about the world?

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Am I a total failure?

Over the course of many years (many more than I care to admit to) I have encountered people who have labelled themselves as "failures". A most unfortunate label, which I find to be confusing because usually they are not failures.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Why does my life matter? A Socratic Dialogue

It has been a fruitful few days. I have had the good fortune of dialoging with many people in the wise city of Christchurch. Just this morning I found my friend Emma, sitting at her usual table in Greg's cafe. She was looking troubled, so I talked with her.

- Socrates

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Why philosophy should be verbal

Many of my friends have heard of my distaste for the written word. You may think it rather strange, then, that in my prison cell I wrote poetry. But notice that I wrote poetry and not philosophy. It is philosophy, the way I practice it, that is best done verbally.

You will be aware of some of my reasons. For one, the written word cannot be interrogated. You cannot ask it a question. The words never answer you. Written words give one the appearance of knowledge when none exists. By the gods, I cannot count how many times someone has quoted a passage from a written text, as if they have wisdom and understand the author's words, yet a quick examination reveals that they do not know what they think they know. Your modern educators are familiar with this when reading student essays. You call it "cut n paste".

But most importantly, I have found that philosophy is best practiced verbally because it involves examining one's life. When one reads philosophy, it is very easy to put the book aside when it asks difficult questions. In reading, there is a detachment between the reader and the book. If philosophy is about examining the way we live, one must put one's self on the line and front up to the elenchus (the style of dialogue I favor) and be willing to answer questions. I consider myself something of a gadfly -- an annoying insect that won't let up. My friends may want to walk away, but if the goal is to live the good life, and if this goal requires one to question the way one lives, then one should endure the questions. Difficulty in answering can show one where they need to focus their thoughts.

Now, my dear reader, again I will be accused of hypocrisy for writing this down. But a dialogue is possible in this forum. This is an invitation. And you may read many of my other recorded dialogues as an insight into what form a philosophical discussion takes. I have had many dialogues transcribed by my students and most are available.

To the examined life!
-- Socrates

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Am I my body?

By Socrates

I am most fortunate, for I have many friends with whom I enjoy dialoguing. Recently I met Emma. My friend, Paul, introduced us and I now count her among my friends. Earlier today she and Paul invited me for coffee. As often happens, the topic of our talk moved towards an ultimate question, in this case: am I my body?

By the gods, this is a worthy question indeed. But it is not so easy to answer. Our dialogue was recorded and I will soon post the transcript here. In the meantime, good reader, I shall summarize our dialogue.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Trouble at work? (A Socratic Dialogue)

Bringing philosophy down from the heavens and giving it to the people has been my life's work. While many philosophical questions may seem abstract and irrelevant to every day life, philosophy can also be practiced by people who want to learn how to live well. I recently met a young person named Emma who was ruminating over a bad day at work. The following is my recollection of our dialogue.

-- Socrates

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Pest control (A Socratic Dialogue)

Wise readers, I recently meditated on a dialogue between myself and a farmer from the deep south of New Zealand. As I have come to do, I posted my meditation for you to read. And now I shall recall a short portion of our dialogue.

-- Socrates

Tuesday, January 9, 2018


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

A short article, "Could The Force Really Be With Us?", has appeared online. It outlines, briefly, panpyschism — the view that all matter has consciousness to varying degrees. This is opposed to the view generally accepted by you moderns that consciousness can only be generated in brains or things that act exactly like brains.

Panpsychism is growing in popularity and does, indeed, help solve some problems that the traditional approach in physics finds difficult. Is it true? By the gods I do not know. I have not the wisdom in such things, though I have historically held that the soul is something other than the body, so I am sympathetic to this view. I shall leave it to you to read the article yourself, and perhaps you may help teach this old man. My purpose here is not to defend panpsychism. My purpose is to outline a response to panpsychism, which seems common, and to point out one or two problems with the reasoning. This particular comment was found on a certain social media platform in response to a link to the article I have mentioned above.

Mr P said: "What nonsense. Eddington was a great scientist but he was primarily an astronomer and he died 74 years ago. Science has come a long way since then. In some areas he was an authority but when he moved beyond science his opinions were worth no more than anyone's.

To say that we know some matter has consciousness is extremely misleading. As far as we can tell, matter itself does not have consciousness. In a brain the electrical connections between objects of matter create consciousness in a way we are only now beginning to understand but to suggest matter itself is conscious is simply wrong. Therefore, any theory predicated upon that idea must be equally wrong.

Jedi are attractive fiction but in our search for progress I think mankind can do better than inventing another religion. The existing ones haven't done much to further humanity's search for knowledge."

As a lover of wisdom I was reluctant to accept this forceful statement without examination, so I responded to Mr P, first by outlining his argument:

P1. (premise) As far as we can tell, matter itself does not have consciousness.

P2. (premise) In a brain the electrical connections between objects of matter create consciousness in a way we are only now beginning to understand

C. (conclusion) Therefore, to suggest matter itself is conscious is simply wrong and any theory predicated upon that idea must be equally wrong.

I then commented that his conclusion doesn't appear to follow from the premises. As stated, the conclusion is too strong given the uncertainty of premise #1. Furthermore, I said, I am not sure that premise #2 (if it is true) would help the argument work, unless the argument included an additional premise, e.g:

P3. (premise) electrical connections between objects of matter are the ONLY means by which consciousness can be generated.

Mr P would need an argument to support this premise. But the argument may still remain unconvincing. I went on to ask, even if we accept the truth of this premise, is it not the case that there are electrical interactions at play within items of matter other than brains? Is it not possible that these may also generate consciousness?

So, I suggested to Mr P that to fix his argument, he should:
1. Rework premise #1 and provide support.
2. Somehow show that premise #2 is true. To do that he would need evidence that the consciousness in brains is actually generated by electrical connections between neurons. This premise should be fairly easy to support.
3. Include additional premise #3 (as offered above) with a supporting argument or evidence.
4. Show that the only type of matter with electrical connections that can generate consciousness is neuronal matter.

Thus far I have not received a response from Mr P. I hope I have helped him develop a stronger argument.

-- Socrates

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Argument from Evil - What would God do?

A recent dialogue with my friend, Paul, left both of us puzzled. You may recall that we examined the so-called Argument from Evil as presented on the Stanford University website. We concluded that the Argument from Evil does not succeed in demonstrating the non-existence of God. Paul, however, remains convinced that God does not exist.

A key point in our dialogue involved the notion of omnipotence. How far does omnipotence extend? Paul agreed that an all-powerful God would work within the realm of logical possibility. In other words, logically absurd questions such as "can God make a moveable unmovable object" or "can God make a square circle" sit beyond the scope of what we would expect from God.

Paul also agreed, somewhat reluctantly, that because humans have freewill the world must contain the possibility of pain and suffering. He even more reluctantly agreed that a world containing the possibility of compassion is of higher moral value than a world with no compassion, and because pain and suffering prompts compassion, this is the world a morally perfect being would create.

But we were far from settled and earlier today, by heaven, Paul came back to revisit the notion of omnipotence -- truly a sticking point in the argument. He suggested that an all-powerful being could, indeed, create a world that contains no pain and suffering while also maintaining the moral value that compassion brings to this world. I said that pain and suffering might be inevitable because sometimes earthquakes occur, volcanoes erupt, and objects from the heavens (you call them meteors) occasionally fall to the ground. But he said that an all-powerful God could create a universe in which these things don't happen. My response was to ask: how? Perhaps these things are needed if we are to have a stable world.

Paul was unconvinced and asserted that God could do it, even if we don't know how he could do it. I responded that it is very easy to make such assertions and that I could just as easily respond by asserting that God wouldn't create such a world because it would be disastrous, even if we don't understand why. But Paul was relentless -- "surely he could", "surely he must", "surely that's what he would do". Surely, surely, surely. Despite his passion, I am not so sure.

I pointed out that rather than telling me what an omnipotent God would do, instead he was telling me what he, as an omnipotent human, would do. But he only has human knowledge and his decisions are based upon that knowledge. Is it not possible that omniscience might lead to different decisions? He did not answer that question. He returned to his early assertion: surely God could.

So, there it remains -- neither of us convinced by each others' arguments. I am not convinced that the argument from evil succeeds, and Paul is not convinced that my objections refute the argument. So we must start afresh, back at the beginning, another day.

-- Socrates

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Problem of Evil and the Existence of God (A Socratic Dialogue)

[PDF version]

My wonderful friend, Paul, visited me yesterday. He was most excited to share his proof that God does not exist. As it happens, he found his proof on the Stanford University Philosophy webpage. We sat together for the afternoon to examine his proof. It was a hot day. The following is a recollection of our dialogue.

-- Socrates

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Philosophy matters: Socrates versus Nietzsche

Greetings my friends,
I found the above image on a social media page named "Philosophy Matters". Now, from what I understand, Nietzsche did indeed call me ugly. But more to the point, he did not agree with my methodology. This disagreement, he expressed, in a fashion that differs from my own point-to-point logic. Perhaps referral to my appearance was metaphorical, or rhetorical -- a way to underpin his thoughts about my philosophy. Or perhaps it is what people call an ad-hominem attack.

Would I tell Nietzsche his life is not worth living, even if examined? By the gods, I do not know. It is unlikely he would allow me to examine his life in my usual way -- the purpose of which is to help one focus less on bodily desires and more on reason in order to tend to one's soul and do what's right, which is the road to happiness. Nietzsche disagreed with this, so it is possible that I may conclude that his life is not worth living.

Back to the image. I wonder why this was posted on "Philosophy Matters" with no accompanying text. It does not look like love of wisdom to me. If philosophy does indeed matter, should we not represent it accurately? Then again, perhaps it is just a joke.

-- Socrates