Category Archives: Socrates’ Meditations

I was once told that I am the wisest among men. This, I find to be an astounding assertion. It surely cannot be true. So I search the internet in the hope of finding someone wiser than myself. For I am not wise. I know nothing.

In these blog posts I examine the arguments of those who claim wisdom.
– Socrates

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 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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Am I my body?

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

I am most fortunate, for I have many friends with whom I enjoy dialoguing. Recently I met Emma. My friend, Paul, introduced us and I now count her among my friends. Earlier today she and Paul invited me for coffee. As often happens, the topic of our talk moved towards an ultimate question, in this case: am I my body?

By the gods, this is a worthy question indeed. But it is not so easy to answer. Our dialogue was recorded and I will soon post the transcript here. In the meantime, good reader, I shall summarize our dialogue.
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Meditations of a 21st century incarnation of Socrates as composed by Brent Silby

A short article, “Could The Force Really Be With Us?“, has appeared online. It outlines, briefly, panpyschism — the view that all matter has consciousness to varying degrees. This is opposed to the view generally accepted by you moderns that consciousness can only be generated in brains or things that act exactly like brains.

Panpsychism is growing in popularity and does, indeed, help solve some problems that the traditional approach in physics finds difficult. Is it true? By the gods I do not know. I have not the wisdom in such things, though I have historically held that the soul is something other than the body, so I am sympathetic to this view. I shall leave it to you to read the article yourself, and perhaps you may help teach this old man. My purpose here is not to defend panpsychism. My purpose is to outline a response to panpsychism, which seems common, and to point out one or two problems with the reasoning. This particular comment was found on a certain social media platform in response to a link to the article I have mentioned above.

Mr P said: “What nonsense. Eddington was a great scientist but he was primarily an astronomer and he died 74 years ago. Science has come a long way since then. In some areas he was an authority but when he moved beyond science his opinions were worth no more than anyone’s.

To say that we know some matter has consciousness is extremely misleading. As far as we can tell, matter itself does not have consciousness. In a brain the electrical connections between objects of matter create consciousness in a way we are only now beginning to understand but to suggest matter itself is conscious is simply wrong. Therefore, any theory predicated upon that idea must be equally wrong.

Jedi are attractive fiction but in our search for progress I think mankind can do better than inventing another religion. The existing ones haven’t done much to further humanity’s search for knowledge.

As a lover of wisdom I was reluctant to accept this forceful statement without examination, so I responded to Mr P, first by outlining his argument:

P1. (premise) As far as we can tell, matter itself does not have consciousness.

P2. (premise) In a brain the electrical connections between objects of matter create consciousness in a way we are only now beginning to understand

C. (conclusion) Therefore, to suggest matter itself is conscious is simply wrong and any theory predicated upon that idea must be equally wrong.

I then commented that his conclusion doesn’t appear to follow from the premises. As stated, the conclusion is too strong given the uncertainty of premise #1. Furthermore, I said, I am not sure that premise #2 (if it is true) would help the argument work, unless the argument included an additional premise, e.g:

P3. (premise) electrical connections between objects of matter are the ONLY means by which consciousness can be generated.

Mr P would need an argument to support this premise. But the argument may still remain unconvincing. I went on to ask, even if we accept the truth of this premise, is it not the case that there are electrical interactions at play within items of matter other than brains? Is it not possible that these may also generate consciousness?

So, I suggested to Mr P that to fix his argument, he should:
1. Rework premise #1 and provide support.
2. Somehow show that premise #2 is true. To do that he would need evidence that the consciousness in brains is actually generated by electrical connections between neurons. This premise should be fairly easy to support.
3. Include additional premise #3 (as offered above) with a supporting argument or evidence.
4. Show that the only type of matter with electrical connections that can generate consciousness is neuronal matter.

Thus far I have not received a response from Mr P. I hope I have helped him develop a stronger argument.

— Socrates

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The Argument from Evil – What would God do?

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

A recent dialogue with my friend, Paul, left both of us puzzled. You may recall that we examined the so-called Argument from Evil as presented on the Stanford University website. We concluded that the Argument from Evil does not succeed in demonstrating the non-existence of God. Paul, however, remains convinced that God does not exist.

A key point in our dialogue involved the notion of omnipotence. How far does omnipotence extend? Paul agreed that an all-powerful God would work within the realm of logical possibility. In other words, logically absurd questions such as “can God make a moveable unmovable object” or “can God make a square circle” sit beyond the scope of what we would expect from God.

Paul also agreed, somewhat reluctantly, that because humans have freewill the world must contain the possibility of pain and suffering. He even more reluctantly agreed that a world containing the possibility of compassion is of higher moral value than a world with no compassion, and because pain and suffering prompts compassion, this is the world a morally perfect being would create.

But we were far from settled and earlier today, by heaven, Paul came back to revisit the notion of omnipotence — truly a sticking point in the argument. He suggested that an all-powerful being could, indeed, create a world that contains no pain and suffering while also maintaining the moral value that compassion brings to this world. I said that pain and suffering might be inevitable because sometimes earthquakes occur, volcanoes erupt, and objects from the heavens (you call them meteors) occasionally fall to the ground. But he said that an all-powerful God could create a universe in which these things don’t happen. My response was to ask: how? Perhaps these things are needed if we are to have a stable world.

Paul was unconvinced and asserted that God could do it, even if we don’t know how he could do it. I responded that it is very easy to make such assertions and that I could just as easily respond by asserting that God wouldn’t create such a world because it would be disastrous, even if we don’t understand why. But Paul was relentless — “surely he could”, “surely he must”, “surely that’s what he would do”. Surely, surely, surely. Despite his passion, I am not so sure.

I pointed out that rather than telling me what an omnipotent God would do, instead he was telling me what he, as an omnipotent human, would do. But he only has human knowledge and his decisions are based upon that knowledge. Is it not possible that omniscience might lead to different decisions? He did not answer that question. He returned to his early assertion: surely God could.

So, there it remains — neither of us convinced by each others’ arguments. I am not convinced that the argument from evil succeeds, and Paul is not convinced that my objections refute the argument. So we must start afresh, back at the beginning, another day.

— Socrates

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Philosophy matters: Socrates versus Nietzsche

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

Greetings my friends,
I found the above image on a social media page named “Philosophy Matters”. Now, from what I understand, Nietzsche did indeed call me ugly. But more to the point, he did not agree with my methodology. This disagreement, he expressed, in a fashion that differs from my own point-to-point logic. Perhaps referral to my appearance was metaphorical, or rhetorical — a way to underpin his thoughts about my philosophy. Or perhaps it is what people call an ad-hominem attack.

Would I tell Nietzsche his life is not worth living, even if examined? By the gods, I do not know. It is unlikely he would allow me to examine his life in my usual way — the purpose of which is to help one focus less on bodily desires and more on reason in order to tend to one’s soul and do what’s right, which is the road to happiness. Nietzsche disagreed with this, so it is possible that I may conclude that his life is not worth living.

Back to the image. I wonder why this was posted on “Philosophy Matters” with no accompanying text. It does not look like love of wisdom to me. If philosophy does indeed matter, should we not represent it accurately? Then again, perhaps it is just a joke.

— Socrates

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Pests in the natural world

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

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

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Happiness – The Lost Gypsy

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

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


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National Standards testing in New Zealand schools

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

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

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