Better never to have been?

By Socrates

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.

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Free education

By Socrates

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.

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Missing out on my promotion

By Socrates

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:

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The Concept of Western Civilization

By Socrates

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 she believes humanities programmes are based on a concept of Western Civilisation that neglects the contribution that non-western cultures have made to the world.

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The True Life

Alcibiades and Socrates

By 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

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Stereotypes

By Socrates

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

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Questioning famous people

By Socrates

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

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Death is nothing to fear

By Socrates

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.

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Screen addiction

By Socrates

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.

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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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