Monthly Archives: November 2017

What is knowledge?

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 and was recorded by my student, Plato. 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


Continue reading

Filed under Articles, Socratic Dialogues

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

Filed under Articles, Socrates' Meditations

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

Filed under Articles, Socrates' Meditations

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

Filed under Articles, Socrates' Meditations

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 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 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

Filed under Articles, Socrates' Meditations