Saturday, May 18, 2024

Is it wise to argue with experts?


In recent years, I've noticed a growing tendency for people to argue with experts on topics they know little about. Is this wise? Undoubtedly, asking questions is a good thing. A well-constructed question can lead to a clearer explanation. Sometimes, a very well-constructed question may lead an expert to recognize an error in their own reasoning. But, does the asking of such questions make one an expert? I don't think so. Without expertise, one must provisionally accept the answers given by experts. Why? Because, one cannot tell whether or not the expert is correct without holding equivalent expert knowledge. So, I recommend asking questions that clarify assumptions, evidence, and implications. But let's not argue about matters beyond our own expertise.

Friday, April 19, 2024

Misinformation - knowing that we don't know


I have always been somewhat suspicious of the written word. Not so much because of the information conveyed by writing, but because of how it can be misused. For one, it can, in some ways, imprison knowledge. The information is there, but cannot be directly questioned. You may have some expertise in the subject and know that the words presented contain false information. But you cannot debate it. You cannot dialogue with it. You cannot help improve it. The words remain there, locked in place, impervious to criticism.

The other reason the written word causes concern is the way it can be misused. People read snippets of information such as misleading headlines, opinion pieces, or conclusions taken out of context, and then think they have knowledge. However, if they have no prior expertise in the subject, they cannot assess whether or not the information they are reading is reliable. Don’t we see this all the time on the internet? People with no specialist knowledge will read an article that concludes something they don’t like, then dismiss it. They will then engage in an extensive search for articles that contain conclusions they do like. And they will share the information contained in those articles, as if they, themselves, have expertise. This can be harmless in cases of personal taste preference. But in the domain of science and medicine, this can be damaging, and perhaps even lead to life-threatening decisions.

So, what is real wisdom? Is it skimming articles and cherry-picking favorable conclusions, and then masquerading as an expert? Or perhaps the wisest of us are the ones who comfortably admit the limitations of their knowledge.

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Winning at life

 My friends, have you noticed how often we hear people talking of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in life? It seems that many people consider life to be a game that can be won or lost. And when someone ‘wins’, we often deem that win to be well deserved. For example, people may say that the rich deserve their wealth. And I suppose people may also claim that the poor deserve their place in life.

But is this true? Can you win and lose at life? Is life akin to a game? In ancient Greece, people didn’t speak that way. If someone was poor, people wouldn’t think of them as losing at life. Instead they would suggest that the will of Tyche, the god of fortune, had not been working in their favor. The Romans also had a god of fortune. Her name 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, people would suggest that the poor were ‘unfortunate’ rather than 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. After all, we wouldn’t hesitate to say that the winner of a chess game deserves their win. To win they must have played better than their opponent. And, of course, we presume that they started the game with an equal number of pieces, and that they both 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 incorrect 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, shall we instead 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 (21c)

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Measure one's worth


We crave the approval of others. This seems to be part of the human condition. Everyone wants to be liked, and what better signs of approval are there than applause, trophies, and certificates? We finish our performance and glow as the crowd claps their hands. We adorn our shelves with our hard-won trophies and decorate our walls with certificates that prove our worthiness. All symbols of approval.

But after the crowd leaves the auditorium, their applause is nothing but a memory—an echo lost in time. Our certificates fade in the sun, slowly degrading to nothing. And our trophies tarnish as the years pass.

What does this tell us? Should we conclude that the approval of others is not worth seeking? Not at all. We need social relationships, and approval is better than disapproval or mere indifference. But we should put things in perspective. Aim to be the best person you can be, regardless of awards or applause. External validation does not last, and a life pursuing them for their own sake will never bring contentment. After all, there's always another certificate to be hung on the wall, and we may ask how many are required for fulfillment. Do they really matter?

Perhaps we should remind ourselves that happiness can be found in our actions rather than pieces of paper.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Care for the soul


My friend, have you noticed how much care we take when walking? Rightly so! After all, a foot, though small, carries us through the world. So, we avoid stepping on nails, and we walk around mud puddles. We protect this valuable possession. Yet, when it comes to the soul (or character), are we not just as vulnerable to missteps?

Is it not true, my friend, that as we walk through life, we risk stepping into superstitions, or tripping on fears that lie hidden in our path? Biases can cling to us like mud. Xenophobia, prejudice, and greed lurk around every corner, ready to damage our character, turning us into the very monsters we despise.

Insofar as it makes sense to watch our steps to avoid damaging our feet, should we not also tread carefully with our souls? Let us examine the paths we walk in life, the beliefs we hold, and the words we speak. For the unexamined life is not worth living. But the examined life can improve the worthiness of our character, and this can lead to a more just world.

- S

Saturday, June 17, 2023

Your Call to Adventure

Living is rough, like traveling across the sea. One minute all is calm, but then the storm sets in, and we get thrown about as the waves force us dangerously close to the jagged rocks of the shoreline.

How can we cope with the ups and downs of life? Should we hide? Should we avoid challenges? Some of the best stories involve heroes who accept the call to adventure. They don't hide. They assess the risks and take on the challenges of life. We can do this too. If we keep a steady mind, develop a strong sense of self, and build inner peace, we can become the adventurers in our own story.

Accept the call to adventure. Be your own hero.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Live as if your life is a gift

Imagine that you died this morning. All has come to an end. No more music; no more friendship or love; no more thought. It is gone. 

But, now imagine that by some miracle you are granted bonus time. You have your life back. How will you live it now? By arguing with strangers online? By spending countless hours at a job you don’t like? By obsessing over the accumulation of wealth? 

Perhaps a second chance would shift your focus to other priorities. Think about what they might be and live your life well.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Happiness - Short dialogue

OSCAR: Socrates, Socrates, slow down. Give me a chance to catch up. Where are you going in such a hurry?


SOCRATES: It is good to see you, my friend. I am on my way to listen to a political rhetorician. There is an election coming up, and I am eager to hear what the politicians have to say.


OSCAR: May I join you? I would like to talk.


SOCRATES: My fine fellow. You know I will never turn down an opportunity to dialogue. What’s on your mind?


OSCAR: I have been thinking about our recent conversations concerning happiness and wealth. You said that “money can’t buy happiness”, but I think that is not true. I think money can buy happiness.


SOCRATES: That is an interesting thought, Oscar. I would very much like to learn more. Can you provide an example to support your claim?


OSCAR: Certainly I can. I have bought a new TV, a phone, a laptop, a painting, a Lego model, and a great many other things that have made me happy.


SOCRATES: Would you mind showing me one of your products, so that I may see the happiness for myself?


OSCAR: Well, it so happens that I have one here in my backpack. I am taking it to show a friend.


[They stop walking and Oscar carefully pulls a Lego model from his bag]


OSCAR: Here you go, Socrates. Take a look at this model.


[Socrates examines the model]


SOCRATES: Can you confirm that this is an example of money buying happiness?


OSCAR: Yes, indeed it is.


SOCRATES: I must be blind in my old age. Can you please show me? Can you point to the happiness?


OSCAR: What do you mean?


SOCRATES: You claim that this is an example of happiness which you have bought with money. Well, where is it? All I see is a collection of plastic bricks. Can you point to the ‘happiness’ that you’ve purchased?


OSCAR: Are you acting deliberately foolish, Socrates? I can’t point to it. It’s a feeling. An experience. I felt a sense of happiness while working with the bricks.


SOCRATES: Is this feeling guaranteed when someone buys bricks?


OSCAR: No, of course not.


SOCRATES: Ah, I understand. So, would you agree that happiness is not a thing contained in the bricks. It comes from the person using the bricks—in this case, you?


OSCAR: It is as you say, Socrates.


SOCRATES: It seems, then, that money can buy pieces of plastic but not happiness itself. Something more is required to achieve happiness. Perhaps you could experience the same level of happiness by stacking pebbles or building sandcastles. Happiness is not a property of any of these things. Rather, it is a thing you create for yourself.


OSCAR: I must agree with your assessment Socrates. Perhaps you are right, after all. Money alone is no guarantee of happiness.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Action in the new year

2022 is coming to an end. As we enter the year 2023, we can be forgiven for thinking that things look rather bleak. The latest climate change forecasts are worrying. The pandemic continues to affect us as the virus evolves. And the war doesn’t seem to be coming to a quick end. 

Will things get better? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Time will tell. Still, we may ask ourselves, has there ever been a time in human history where we haven’t faced serious challenges? It seems that difficulty is nothing new. And we have, in the past, overcome our problems, so perhaps we will also solve our current issues. But we will not solve them with inaction.

Some people think our problems are too large. They think their individual actions cannot make an impact. Of course, if everyone thought that way, nothing would change. It is true that individuals cannot change the world, but they can make an influence - even if small. And collectively, these small influences can amount to a big result.

Some people think they needn’t bother because the scientists have got it all wrong. This is possible. After all, scientists have been wrong in the past. Though it seems unlikely in this case. Regardless, this thought shouldn’t compel us to relax and do nothing. The possibility, even if small, that scientists are right, should compel us to act. Why? Because the stakes are so high and the cost of acting is very low. It is far better to take low cost action now, and then find out that it was not needed than do nothing, and later discover that we have missed our opportunity and have a massive cost to pay - perhaps the cost of our very existence.

So, what can we do? Don’t wait for business to change. Business responds to the market. It follows the lead of people. Don’t wait for governments to change. They too follow the lead of the people. We can guide business and government by making small adjustments to our own lives. It may be as simple as eating less meat, or switching to a fuel-efficient car - even an electric car. Or taking public transport. This is a key to stoic philosophy. Focus on your own sphere of control. Then you know that you have done what you can.

Monday, December 26, 2022

Immortality - Will I be remembered?


Short reading from my Stoic Philosophy blog in which I write under the name of a fictional incarnation of Socrates. This piece is a reminder to focus on being a just and virtuous person in the present rather than focusing on the possibility of posthumous fame. Music excerpt: Mozart's 40th symphony in G minor, Second movement (Andante), performed by the Musopen Symphony For more stoic advice, follow: