Sam Harris – An attempt at getting “ought” from “is”


Meditations of a 21st century incarnation of Socrates as composed by Brent Silby


On this cloudy winter’s day I have been meditating on a short argument recently presented by Sam Harris on his Facebook page. This popular thinker has, for some time, been attempting to reduce ethics to science, and he has recently put forward an argument which he believes succeeds in doing so. As someone who knows very little, I find myself drawn to people who make big knowledge claims. I am, as you know, especially interested in Ethics, so I eagerly read Harris’s argument.

Harris wants to show that ethics and values can be derived from facts about the world. If he succeeds in doing this, he will solve the famous is-ought problem. The is-ought problem suggests that no amount of knowledge about how the world happens to be can lead us to conclusions about how the world ought to be and how we ought to behave. Decisions about how we should behave may be informed by empirical facts, but ultimately they are based on values which do not seem to be derivable, in themselves, from empirical facts.

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A healthy economy means a healthy country?


Meditations of a 21st century incarnation of Socrates as composed by Brent Silby


Yesterday I found myself involved in a dialogue about the state of New Zealand. My interlocutor made the claim that the country’s previous government had left the country in a “healthy state”. I asked what he meant, and he responded by referring to an international report in which New Zealand’s economy was highly rated.

I have heard this talk before, but I find it confusing. If a sick man is in hospital and I ask the doctor about his health, does the doctor check the man’s bank account and pronounce him as healthy based on his wealth? Of course not. Yet when I ask people about this country they say it is in good health because the economy is strong. They don’t mention the homeless. They don’t mention hardship, poverty, or unemployment. They don’t mention pollution, water shortages, or violence. For them the country is healthy. Are they not as foolish as the doctor who determines his patient’s health by checking his financial situation?

Well, I questioned my friend about this and asked if there are any other measures of a country’s health. I am sad to report that my friend stood steadfast in his view that New Zealand is a healthy country because it is in a good economic state.

— Socrates

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The dialogues about guns


Meditations of a 21st century incarnation of Socrates as composed by Brent Silby


My friends, you will not be surprised to learn that I have continued to engage in dialogues about the ownership of guns. In a recent dialogue my friend argued that reducing gun ownership will not reduce murder rates as desired. I questioned him about this and helped him to formulate his argument more precisely.

The first version of his argument took this form:

P1. (premise) If human nature is such that people will always seek to murder each other then reducing guns in society will not lower the murder rate

P2. (premise) Human nature is such that people will always seek to murder each other

C. (conclusion) Therefore, we should not reduce guns in society

But because the conclusion did not follow from the premises, we reformulated his argument as follows:

P1. (premise) If human nature is such that people will always seek to murder each other then reducing guns in society will not lower the murder rate

P2. (premise) Human nature is such that people will always seek to murder each other

C1. (conclusion) Therefore, reducing guns in society will not lower the murder rate

P3. (premise) If reducing guns in society will not lower the murder rate, then we should not reduce guns in society

C2. (conclusion) Therefore, we should not reduce guns in society

Although this version is valid, I was not convinced because I found premise number one to be questionable. As expressed in the argument, it seems to assume that human nature guarantees human action. I asked my friend to consider the following equivalent premise: if human nature is such that people will always seek to eat sugar then reducing the amount of candy available will not lower rates of sugar consumption. He agreed that this conditional is questionable.

Next, I asked him to consider this equivalent premise: If human nature is such that people will always seek to reproduce, then restricting the right to reproduce will not lower birth rates.

This premise can be shown to be false by looking at China as a counter example. I have been told by reliable people that in recent history the Chinese government placed restrictions on birth rates. This restriction succeeded in lowering birthrates despite human nature.

Despite showing the problem with premise one by demonstrating the problem with logically equivalent conditionals, my friend would not concede. He was committed to the truth of the consequent of the conditional (reducing guns in society will not lower the murder rate).

We then discussed premise two. I found this to be in need of support because I am not sure that our human nature is such that people will always seek to murder other people. So I asked if it is possible that this tendency is a result of social forces rather than biological forces. By the gods, I said, if it is a socialization issue, then removing weapons from people may well help. My friend was not willing to concede to my point and he lost patience with me. So we agreed to adjourn our dialogue.

The issue you moderns face regarding gun ownership is complex. My hope is that by following logic, our common master, you will one day resolve these questions.

— Socrates

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Democracy


Meditations of a 21st century incarnation of Socrates as composed by Brent Silby


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

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Simulated Universe


Meditations of a 21st century incarnation of Socrates as composed by Brent Silby


You moderns are wonderfully entertaining. Almost everyone I talk to thinks that there is no God and that the universe exists for no reason. I can certainly understand some of the reasoning behind these beliefs, even though it seems strange to me. But what I find more strange is that this belief often exists alongside the acceptance of another possibility — the idea that this entire world was created by a super powerful species within a vast computer. Am I foolish to think there is a tension between these two beliefs? On the one hand is the denial of a creator with a purpose, and on the other is acceptance of the possibility of a creator with a purpose. I wonder if people will ever make their minds up.
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Knowledge and certainty


Meditations of a 21st century incarnation of Socrates as composed by Brent Silby


Questions about knowledge often arise in dialogues I have with friends. Yesterday I found myself involved in one such dialogue. Our examination began by trying to establish, with a level of certainty, what we could know about the room we were occupying. As our discussion progressed, we considered the question of knowledge from the point of view of other creatures. What, for example, can an insect know with certainty about the world?
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Am I a failure?

Meditations of a 21st century incarnation of Socrates as composed by Brent Silby


Over the course of many years (many more than I care to admit to) I have encountered people who have labelled themselves as “failures”. A most unfortunate label, which I find to be confusing because usually they are not failures.
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Why does my life matter?

It has been a fruitful few days. I have had the good fortune of dialoging with many people in the wise city of Christchurch. Just this morning I found my friend Emma, sitting at her usual table in Greg’s cafe. She was looking troubled, so I talked with her.

– Socrates

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Why philosophy should be verbal


Meditations of a 21st century incarnation of Socrates as composed by Brent Silby


Many of my friends have heard of my distaste for the written word. You may think it rather strange, then, that in my prison cell I wrote poetry. But notice that I wrote poetry and not philosophy. It is philosophy, the way I practice it, that is best done verbally.

You will be aware of some of my reasons. For one, the written word cannot be interrogated. You cannot ask it a question. The words never answer you. Written words give one the appearance of knowledge when none exists. By the gods, I cannot count how many times someone has quoted a passage from a written text, as if they have wisdom and understand the author’s words, yet a quick examination reveals that they do not know what they think they know. Your modern educators are familiar with this when reading student essays. You call it “cut n paste”.

But most importantly, I have found that philosophy is best practiced verbally because it involves examining one’s life. When one reads philosophy, it is very easy to put the book aside when it asks difficult questions. In reading, there is a detachment between the reader and the book. If philosophy is about examining the way we live, one must put one’s self on the line and front up to the elenchus (the style of dialogue I favor) and be willing to answer questions. I consider myself something of a gadfly — an annoying insect that won’t let up. My friends may want to walk away, but if the goal is to live the good life, and if this goal requires one to question the way one lives, then one should endure the questions. Difficulty in answering can show one where they need to focus their thoughts.

Now, my dear reader, again I will be accused of hypocrisy for writing this down. But a dialogue is possible in this forum. This is an invitation. And you may read many of my other recorded dialogues as an insight into what form a philosophical discussion takes. I have had many dialogues transcribed by my students and most are available.

To the examined life!

— Socrates

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