Online addiction

By Socrates

Last week I met an interesting young person 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.

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I must agree with my boss

By Socrates

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

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Examination pressure

By Socrates

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

 

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Road Rage

By Socrates
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 like examine their response 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.

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What is knowledge?

By Socrates

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.

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Beauty treatment


By Socrates
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. However, 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

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Happiness at the mall?

By Socrates

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

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Sam Harris and Free Will

By Socrates

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

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Is the origin of morality to be found in nature?

By Socrates

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 be thus be good. By Zeus, 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 similar question 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 others 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

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Science, what it can’t tell us about morality


By Socrates

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 have finally 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 Hercules, 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

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