Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Pests in the natural world

The southern part of New Zealand is a unique blend of natural forest and farmland. Farmers have, over the decades, transformed large parts of the land into vast grassy sheep farms. But much natural forest remains and I was told that it is at risk due to the action of exotic pests such as possums and deer.

A farmer I dialogued with explained that the deer population is growing and this is a problem because they destroy native forests. He, therefore, goes on hunting trips with friends. They shoot deer. It seems that maintaining the natural forest necessitates the killing of deer. For clarity, I asked my friend if this applies to any non-native animal that threatens the natural forest. He said yes. Indeed, they shoot many different types of animal. The argument runs as follows:

P1. (premise) Because the natural forest must be maintained, any non-native animal that threatens the forest must be killed.

P2. (premise) Deer is a non-native animal that threatens the forest.

C. (conclusion) Deer must be killed.

We can insert any pest into this argument. Premise one is of most interest to me. I confirmed with my friend again that this applies to any non-native animal, and he again made this confirmation. By Zeus, I said, are people not non-native animals? And do people not destroy natural forests to make farmland? We don't condone shooting people, so it seems that the argument does not apply to at least one non-native animal. Conveniently for us, that non-native exception is people.

My friend laughed as if I was most foolish and explained that of course people don't count. We have to destroy forest to make farms because we need to survive. I reminded him that the deer have to destroy forest because they also need to survive. I very much want to know why people are granted an exception.

My question has not yet been answered. I suppose we have given ourselves the god-like right to decide which animals live and die, and which animals are allowed to destroy the natural forests and which ones are not. It is good to be human.

-- Socrates

Happiness - The Lost Gypsy

During a recent tour of the magnificent southern island of New Zealand, I came across a small village named Papatowai. In the heart of the village sits a caravan named "The Lost Gypsy". It is run by a fine fellow by the name Blair, who seems to me to have found the key to happiness.

I have often argued that happiness is not to be found in material wealth and I have claimed that my own happiness is due, in part, to not desiring material possessions. One needs food, shelter, and friends, but beyond this, additional accumulation is unnecessary.

The Lost Gypsy lives a peaceful life. He tinkers with recycled material, turning them into curious works of art. As far as I can see, he has little need for material wealth and is content to make art and converse with passers by. It is a life of little stress.

People may argue that this is not a happy life because he has no money for the things we desire in these modern times, such as large televisions, sophisticated computers, big cars, and fashionable clothing. However, I think the desire for these luxuries steer us away from happiness. I shall present my meditation on this subject in syllogistic form:

P1. (premise) I believe that I need luxuries to attain happiness

P2. (premise) Because I believe I need luxuries to attain happiness, I am driven to obtain luxuries

P3. (premise) Because I am driven to obtain luxuries, I am upset when I don't obtain luxuries

P4. (premise) Because I am driven to obtain luxuries, I am anxious to obtain luxuries

P5. (premise) A luxury is only a luxury until a greater luxury is available

P6. (premise) Because I am driven to obtain luxuries and because luxuries are only luxuries until a greater luxury is available, I am constantly pushed forward to acquire greater luxuries

P7. (premise) Because I am constantly pushed forward to acquire greater luxuries, I experience anxiety and disappointment with what I have

P8. (premise) If I am anxious to obtain luxuries, or if I am upset about not obtaining luxuries, or if I am disappointed with what I have, then I am not happy

C1. (conclusion) I am not happy

C2. (conclusion) My belief that I need luxuries to attain happiness is false 

This argument does not tell us what we need to be happy. But if it is sound, it shows us that the pursuit of luxury gets in the way of happiness. As far as I can tell, The Lost Gypsy has shed the common belief that one needs luxuries to attain happiness, and thus he has removed an impediment to happiness which has allowed him to focus on other things. These have resulted in his happiness.

Still, as a closing thought, I wonder if the constant desire to find recycled material to create new art works may get in the way of true happiness for the gypsy.

-- Socrates

Sunday, December 17, 2017

National Standards testing in New Zealand schools

I have happily made the wise nation of New Zealand my temporary home. The government has recently changed and, as expected, the new government is making changes to the education system. It seems that the way in which young people learn is determined by the ideology of the current government. In my foolishness I thought the way in which young people learn would remain the same regardless of the ideology of government.

Still, I was happy to read that the new government is removing National Standards testing. For the last few years young people have been subjected to frequent tests to determine how they perform against "standards" in numeracy and literacy. I do not know who set the standards and how they were set. Why was I happy to see this come to an end? Because it seems to me that attempting to fit students to pre-determined standards assumes that they are products to be constructed, which I do not believe to be the case. I have also heard that this focus has reduced time dedicated to learning in other areas of human endeavor such as the arts, humanities, science, and rational thinking.

There are, of course, people who disagree with me. I found the following comment in a social media page. It is public, so I believe it is reasonable to reproduce it -- though I will omit the author's name.

"Actually kids deserve standards instead of wittering on about cultural issues that mean nothing to those who try and pay lip service to. Why not ensure standards of basic literacy and numeracy are taught is an interesting way? Kids are lost in a swamp of method and cannot bloody spell. Phonic is a dirty word and science is boring at the primary levels. It is time to stop wasting 2 years at immediate and teach a curriculum worthy of a new generation."

I decided to respond to this person by summarizing his argument in premise / conclusion form.

P1. (premise) Kids either deserve standardized testing in literacy and numeracy OR learning about cultural issues (implication that it is one or the other).

P2. (premise) Kids are being taught too much method and cannot spell;

P3. (premise) Phonics are not used, and science is boring in primary school

C1. (conclusion) Therefore, (from P2 and P3) we should teach intermediate level students a curriculum worthy of a new generation

P4. (premise) A curriculum worthy of a new generation involves teaching literacy and numeracy in interesting ways

C2. (conclusion) Therefore, we should keep national standard testing in literacy and numeracy
I believe this accurately captures the argument. When presented in this form, we can examine the logic. So, my friends, what do we see here? No doubt you have seen that this argument is invalid. Conclusion (C1) does not follow from the premises. Additional work would be needed to deduce this conclusion. The author needs to include a premise to indicate that the current style of teaching spelling and science is failing because it is not suitable for this generation. That premise would need further support, of course.

Conclusion (C2) also does not follow deductively from the line of reasoning. The mistake is in the move the author makes from teaching to testing. We may agree that creatively teaching a range of subjects is important, but it does not follow that we should keep National Standard testing in literacy and numeracy. I think this small argument represents a common mistake in reasoning about National Standards. The mistake is the conflation of teaching with testing.

Wise readers and will also see that premise #1 does not connect to the rest of the argument; unless, of course, the author was assuming the truth of a suppressed premise such as: learning about cultural issues is not worthy of a new generation. This may be seen as a value judgement or a testable claim about the world. Either way, it is currently unsupported and therefore leaves the argument unconvincing.

In an attempt to progress my examination, I outlined the above in a reply to the person who made the comment. He has not yet responded.

-- Socrates

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Socrates on the Facebook

I have been enjoying dialogues with some worthy people. It reminds me of the Agora. You can join us if you so wish: Socrates on Facebook

Friday, December 15, 2017

The written word

I was never fond of the written word. Why? Because written thoughts are unable to be properly interrogated. Given my belief that the path to knowledge is through dialogue, the written word seems to me to represent something of a semblance of knowledge, but not knowledge itself.

I am also suspicious of people who pretend to have wisdom when they have read written thoughts. People are good at repeating what they have read. People may even give the appearance of great wisdom and knowledge where none exists.

Now, I may be accused of a hypocrisy in recording my thoughts in writing. But, dear reader, I think the manner in which I use the written word is different. With access to the author through this Internet, one can interrogate thoughts and ideas. Dialogue is possible. And this is what I have been enjoying today. I have been learning through dialogue.

Wisdom still eludes me, but I continue to seek it nonetheless.

-- Socrates

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Is it better never to have been?

My friends, you may have read my recent meditation on David Benatar's book, Better Never To Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. If you have not, please do so here. My meditation includes a link to an article by the wise Elizabeth Harman in which she refutes Benatar.

It is raining this evening and I again find myself meditating on Benatar's book. He argues that because of the harm people experience in life, it is better to not bring people into existence. I have been thinking about the joys and pleasure that people experience in life and I wonder if these outweigh the harms. If so, Benatar's main premise will be refuted.

Benatar addresses this thought himself. He thinks that the harms we experience are constant throughout life. We live a life of pain. However, he thinks that we downplay the pain and suffering we experience throughout our lives. He thinks our minds have been evolved such that we focus on the good and forget the bad. Effectively the joy of life is something of an illusion--or a lie. And why does this lie exist? To drive us to reproduce. It is connected to this theory of evolution that you moderns have developed.

It seems that Benatar is trying to tell us something like: despite what you think, life is painful. You think you're happy, but that feeling is a biological trick. You really live miserable lives and so will everyone you bring into existence. Because this is bad, you should not bring anyone into existence.

But I wonder if there is another way to look at this. If people feel happy and joyful, doesn't that show that somehow they manage to overcome pain, either through evolved behavior or careful thought and reflection. And if overcoming pain, no matter how, results in a happy life, is that not good? And is that not something that should be experienced? Perhaps people should be brought into existence so that they too can learn how to become happy.

-- Socrates

Monday, December 11, 2017

Is it just to kill animals for meat? (a short Socratic Dialogue)

I am most fortunate to be continuing to examine life. Here is a partial transcript of a recent dialogue in which we examined our treatment of animals. To my shame, this is something I never analyzed back in Athens.
-- Socrates

SOCRATES: Would a just person cause unnecessary pain?

MARY: No, of course not.

SOCRATES: As you are wise and knowledgeable, can you please tell me, is it true that people can live long healthy lives without eating meat?

MARY: Yes, this is true.

SOCRATES: Must it not follow that eating meat is unnecessary in terms of helping people live long and healthy lives?

MARY: Yes, that follows, Socrates.

SOCRATES: Can we therefore agree that if eating meat is unnecessary in terms of helping people live long and healthy lives, then killing animals for meat is unnecessary.

MARY: That is a reasonable conclusion.

SOCRATES: Now tell me, is it not true that killing animals causes them pain?

MARY: It seems to be true.

SOCRATES: Then it must follow that killing animals causes them unnecessary pain.

MARY: Yes.

SOCRATES: But we have agreed that a just person does not cause unnecessary pain, so it must follow that killing animals for meat is unjust.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Better Never To Have Been?

David Benatar has written a book called Better Never To Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. In this remarkable book, Benatar argues that because bringing a person into existence causes them harm, we should not procreate.

Elizabeth Harman has written a wise response to Benatar. Her admirable paper can be read online here: Critical Study - David Benatar. Better Never To Have Been. I recommend that you read her work, my friends. Myself, I am eager to learn and will do so by examining Benatar's main argument directly.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Free education

By the gods, almost every day I find myself confused trying to understand the problems you moderns face. The wise country of New Zealand recently announced that students will receive a free year of university education. This, to me, is a triumph of modern society. To be able to offer its people free education surely is the sign of a successful country. But people are complaining about it. People think this is a big problem. Why? Because the free education will be paid for by the government, which means it is made possible through taxation. And many people don't want to be paying for other people's education. They think people who want an education should pay for it themselves.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Missing out on my promotion

Practical philosophy, my friends, is a worthy pursuit. By using the techniques of philosophical reasoning, practical philosophy can help people see their life problems in a different light. Yesterday I was conversing with someone who had missed out on a job promotion. My friend was feeling a mix of anger and depression. She had deduced that failing to gain her promotion meant that she, herself, was a failure. Her reasoning was straight forward and deductively valid, though unsound:

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

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:

-- 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:

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?