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.