Socrates’s Mistake

How do I dare say this about the greatest teacher who ever lived?

I wouldn’t have applied for the job of Socrates, Two, if he hadn’t overlooked this subject.

In his defense, he didn’t so much as overlook it as have a much larger issue to deal with first: teaching us how to learn about the natural world.  The Golden age of Greece had great insights, but they weren’t insightful enough to invent and use engines, electricity, and airplanes.

Socrates gave us the tools necessary to learn about the natural world.  That learning gave us the tools needed to start the scientific and industrial revolutions.  Those revolutions gave us engines, electricity, and airplanes.  That’s how deep his teaching went.  Not bad.

The problem he avoided was behavior.  Socrates left it off the table.  By doing that, he was implicitly teaching that our behavior was something beyond nature, something we couldn’t study using the tools of logic and measurement.

Bull s***.

You heard it right.  I who never swear said this in the strongest, most emphatic terms I can imagine.

Behavior is natural.  We have tools to study natural phenomena.  If we don’t study behavior, humanity is doomed.  And here is the final shocker.

Socrates knew this.

He had many things to teach.  A good teacher only teaches one thing at a time.  A good teacher only teaches as fast as his students can absorb that knowledge.  Socrates was a good teacher.

Socrates knew his students believed in Gods.  He knew society was very protective of their gods.  And the gods were a very popular cause of behavior.  Much craziness was sourced directly to those denizens of Olympus.

If Socrates interfered with the gods, it meant he couldn’t teach them about the rest of the natural world.  So he stayed away from behavior.

Socrates knew that a true study of behavior as a property of nature would also mean denial of gods, any gods.  He also knew his students weren’t ready for that.

Most modern people still aren’t ready.  Here we are, almost 2500 years later and it’s hard to go anywhere in this world without bumping into someone’s god.

That was Socrates’s mistake, an intentional one.  For if we are to truly study behavior in a scientific manner, we must consider ourselves part of the natural world.  We must deny the supernatural in all its forms.

After all, if there are deities that control everything including our fates, then what’s the point?

Putting it another way: You got God?  Party time!

 

Socrates, 2

I angered my friend by asking questions, too too many questions.

Most people don’t like that.

Most people are done learning early in life.  Some are done by the time they’re teenagers.  Some wait until they’ve finished school.  Others will fade as their hair changes color.

A few never stop.

Socrates never stopped.

He was going full tilt all the way to the end.  He was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens almost 2500 years ago.  He insisted on a trial, was convicted of sedition and sentenced to death at the age of 60.

His legacy was his students; and they had his methods, his conclusions, and most importantly, his enthusiasm for questions.

Today we live in a larger world by every possible measure.  Socrates would have marveled at the size, power, and speed of everything we take for granted.  Yet his questions are as powerful today as they were then.

In fact, they are more powerful.  For one important feature we have today that Socrates didn’t have then; information about how people behave in great detail.  We have access to thoughts, desires, and choices far beyond the simple toga-toting times of Athens.

It’s time for the sequel to Socrates.  In this day and age we are used to sequels, and even sequels of sequels.  Why not a sequel to the greatest teacher who ever lived?

I’m applying for the job.

I’ve got lots of questions, a good handle on the use of logical reasoning, and a fairly open set of assumptions and biases.

Additionally, I’m familiar with many of the modern disciplines, scientific methodology, and many of the technical tools available.

There it is, friends.  I am applying for the position of Socrates, too.  The sequel.

I’m affordable, work from home, require little supervision, and have a fairly decent sense of humor.

I’m also open to shortening the job title a tad.

How about,

Tusok?

 

Challenges of Socrates

I angered my best friend today by suggesting a better way to take a picture.  In all fairness, it would have been a gorgeous picture of a dandelion ball covered in delicate frost, with a fiery orange maple tree as the background.

Instead of a picture, I got an earful.  She said:

“You’re constantly challenging me, and it’s tiring.  I’m not the only one who thinks so.”

Ouch.  That really hurt.  I didn’t realize it, and I certainly don’t want to anger her, or you.

I started to ask: what do you mean by constant?  who others?

But she instantly corrected me by explaining questions are challenges.

Now I’m crushed.  It’s been hours since the frosty ball-of-fluff incident, and I’m crushed.

What’s worst is the very essence of my being is what she finds annoying.  I’m not worried about our relationship, there’s plenty more for us to base that upon, but it does mean;

No more questions.

Which brings us to the reason for today’s post, and the purpose of this site.

It’s all about questions.   Asking questions is the very essence of learning.  If my friend finds me annoying, what do my other friends, relations, and even YOU think?

Perhaps all of them, and you, are also annoyed.

For that I’m a little sorry.  Sorry because I would rather intrigue and please you so that you would press on and think these questions through on your own.  Also sorry because the alternative means we won’t learn, and future history will be the same as past history.

Which brings us to Socrates.

He lives about 2500 years ago, and was the greatest teacher in history.

How great was he?  His teachings created philosophical schools that have lasted up to today.  Second, he was able to teach using questions, allowing the student to reach the proper conclusion based on their own current knowledge.  Third, his teachings about objective definitions and the use of logic eventually led to the Renaissance; the scientific and industrial revolutions.

It’s quite possible that if it weren’t for Socrates we’d still be living in the Dark Ages, fighting Holy Wars, and travel around the world using nothing but wind-powered ships.

It took 2000 years for that message to get through.  All because he wasn’t afraid to challenge his students.

 

Religion. Defined.

Fasten your seat belt, this is going to be a fun one.

It wouldn’t be necessary except for two things.

One: There is a lot of religion-tossing going on with our politicians, as they use it to get elected, and also use it to justify their ongoing war with “terrorism” and religious zealots.

Two: We don’t agree on what religion is.  This wouldn’t be a problem if every culture on Earth would simply sacrifice a bowl of leaves (in season, sprinkled with olive oil and salt) on the altar of the Earth Mother.  Preferably only upon the rising of the full moon.

So, because of number one, and because we DON’T do number two, we have to do number three.

Three: Religion is.

It’s a start, isn’t it?  You see, that’s the problem.  There is no good definition of religion.  I’m going to give one before the end, but it won’t create universal agreement, let alone happiness.  But it’ll work for our purposes.

As a young human, chances are you were exposed to some kind of religion.  Do this on a certain day.  Dress up.  Act nice.  Say these words.  Meet with all these strangers and chant.  Sacrifice this goat.

Well, maybe not that last item.  Animal sacrifice went out of fashion some time ago.  Mostly.

However, that’s the point.  Our practical application of “religion” has changed, because we as a species have changed.

A good definition isn’t going to change.  We invented religion, and it has stayed with us for a long time.  Therefore it must be good for something.  Perhaps if we ponder its positives, we can define it more easily.

Religion is good for:

  • managing and leading groups of people, even very large groups;
  • helping “young” minds comprehend their place in the kosmos;
  • maintaining behaviors (a culture) ensuring group survival.

That should be enough for our purposes.  You’ll find that when you add more, it really becomes part of one of these big three benefits.

So, what’s the definition?

Religion is:

The explicit expression of a set of behaviors that keep an individual as part of a group.

Now for some explaining.  Notice there is nothing in the definition about one or more deities, a higher power, an afterlife, a pre-life, or anything about buildings or prophets.  Nothing.  That’s because some religions don’t have these things.  Yet people belong and worship and propagate their set of behaviors.  They have religion.  It just doesn’t look like yours, or mine.

There is nothing about managing the group, or leading it using priests, mullahs, or rabbis.  Because not all religions have these administrative components.  There’s a good chance that any priesthood, by any name, arose out of necessity.  Like symbiotic parasites, they continue to infect any major religion with the few benefits they provide.  Let’s face it, they can also be the cause of many of the abuses we currently see.

Finally, nothing in my definition says anything about long term survival.  It doesn’t have to, the religion takes care of that for me.  If the set of behaviors don’t account for current selective forces, then that religion won’t be along very long.  It’s okay, this happens.  Today’s current count of judeo-christian religions is somewhere in the thousands.  This includes all the variants of islam, for you islamaphobes out there.  Yes, it’s a modern religion based on the same precepts as Christianity.  Get over it.

And out of the many thousands of religions practiced today, I’m confident that many more have come and already gone through the ages.  It’s how we as people handle things in the natural world.

So there you have it.  Religion is expressed behaviors keeping YOU (or any individual) part of a group.

This means that your social club is a kind of religion.  This means your academic department or university class is a kind of religion.

It also means that sacrificing that bowl of leaves to the tree goddess is also a religion; as long as you aren’t doing it all by yourself.

That would be weird.

Comments?

 

Are you on “The List”

I had the pleasure of visiting a friend down in Appalachia country over the weekend.  It was a delight, the countryside was beautiful, and everyone I met was not only a character, but someone I could easily spend time with.

One gentleman worked for the fire department, and told me a few funny stories about the plight of being the last county to get any upgraded services.  Their dispatcher was still referring to the color of a barn’s roof in order to give the emergency vehicle directions.  The fact that it was the dead of night didn’t seem to register.  Luckily, they figured out where they were supposed to go, and got there in time.

The sad part about our conversation was that the local officials had circulated a special list to these gentlemen, and the instructions that they were not to disturb those people on the list.  The meaning was clear.  These were special persons in our community, and whatever they chose to do, it was your job to look the other way.

As a student of behavior, we want to fight the propensity to judge a person, or a society on its choices.  I can tell you that the gentleman relating this story to me thought the list was an injustice, but we didn’t discuss it in depth.

More to the point, it’s likely that only the high and mighty are on that list.  If you are rich and powerful, then you are above the law.  That is what “the list” represents.  And all too often history has recorded events where such people commit great crimes against society exactly because they feel they are above the law.

So, consider the list at this county level.  And think about whether there is a list in your county.  Is there a list in your state?  Perhaps such a list even exists at the national level.

Are YOU on that list?

 

Scientific Conservative

Wow, that’s a mouthful.

It’s supposed to summarize my political philosophy.

First off, I’m scientific.  This means we use the process of meticulous definition, measurement, and questioning all assumptions.  This means being open about methods, experiments and conclusions.

What do you get for being scientific?  You get the absolute best way to learn.  Yup.  You heard me right.  As far as learning is concerned, science gets the gold medal.  Every time.

Secondly, I’m conservative when it comes to changing something as complex as our society.  I don’t trust any of the politicians, I trust the lobbyists even less, and I barely trust individual citizens to think.  Perhaps you can see where I’m going with this.  Trust no one!  No trust!

What do I believe in?  Hard and fast data.  Facts.  A fact is something all of us agree upon.  That’s it.  If we don’t agree, then let’s figure out why using civilized dialog.

If Alice doesn’t agree with Bob about something, and it’s because she’s keeping her eyes closed, that’s her right.  But then Bob’s right to ignore Alice.

If Alice has her eyes open and has a great argument as to why she doesn’t agree, then that’s fine as well.  In this case, Bob and Alice and we will gather data together, or do an experiment that everyone agrees with ahead of time.

Will this process take much longer than what goes on today?  You bet!  And that’s what makes me a conservative!

It doesn’t mean I want to double the military or keep a hundred guns in my house or tell pregnant women what to do with their body up to the point where they give birth.  No.

Being a conservative means I take things as slowly as I can.  Being scientific means I make progress in a very specific manner.

So the next time your friends try to tag you for one party or another, and you want to throw them for a loop, let them know you’re of no party.  And that your political philosophy is scientific conservatism.  That will stop them in their tracks.  It’s been working for me for some time.

Maybe there is a way to create SciCon parties.  I’ll work on that one.

 

I Leggo My Ego

Everyone studies behavior, whether we like it or not.  We’ve been doing it since we were babies, watching parents and siblings very closely.

Today we watch our co-workers, our boss, our employees.  We watch those who feed us, and those we feed.

To truly get a deep understanding of what makes us tick, we have to open our minds to infinite possibilities.  The very way we are raised, and the haphazard methods we normally use to learn about behavior introduce bias into our understanding.

The only way to get rid of bias is to recognize it within ourselves and let it go.  Only then can we get a deep understanding of what makes others do what they do.

Getting rid of bias isn’t easy.  The first step is to get rid of our own sense of self-importance, our ego.  If we accept all others as being of value equal to our own, in a world that contains no judgments, then our ego is no longer a factor.

Without an ego there is no longer right or wrong, good from bad, and moral from immoral.  There is only, behavior.

Without an ego, we can begin to get a better idea as to what may be going on within someone else’s mind, even if that someone else is a wild animal or sports team.

So, let go of your ego.  Don’t throw it away, keep it close because it comes in handy at times.  But when you’re going to get serious about understanding behavior, put it aside; it only gets in the way.

 

Why study Behavior?

“You in the back.  Yes, you.  Blue shirt, chewing gum.  Why are you here?”  I used my gravelly voice.

She looked about, casting for help, and responded timidly.  “Because I want to study behavior?”

“I already know that.  This class is Behavior 101.  More to the point, why do YOU want to study behavior?”

She stared at her device, blankly, then looked up again with fear in her eyes.  I’ve seen that fear at the beginning of every single new class.

“I’m not sure?”  in the form of a question.

“You’re not sure?  Are you in the right body?”

The class tittered, giving me time to find her name.  I wandered across the stage for drama.

“Perhaps, Miriam, you have a boyfriend and you want to understand him?”

Her eyes widened, and she shook her head no.

“No?  Perhaps then you wish to learn why your mother always acts crazy with you?”

“Leave my mother out of this!”

“Miriam, do you want to save the planet?  Do you care about your unborn child?”

“Of course!”  Almost petulant.  Good, perhaps she had a backbone.  But a backbone can also be a weakness.  Best to test her now, rather than later.  I let the silence linger.

“Miriam, do you have a hidden agenda?

“What?  No!  I don’t think so.”

How do you feel about drug testing on cute little animals?

“Very much against it!”

“Mizz Miriam!”  I put as much fury into my face as I could without laughing.  Acting was the hardest part of my job, and I can’t write about it without smiling.

“Who made you God?”

“Professor!” she gasped.

“You, all by yourself, encouraged by your animal-loving friends, have already decided.  How can I trust you to learn the truth, if you already have the answer?”

“But they’re so cute.  How can hurting them possibly…?”

“Miriam, you might be right.  Perhaps it is cruel to hurt cute little animals.  But our job is to study behavior, not to judge it.  You have to learn to put your judgements away, and to study behavior with a completely open mind.  Do you understand?

“Maybe.”

“Miriam, are you the kind of person who distorts reality to fit your agenda?  Will you sacrifice logic and respect for others in order to achieve what YOU think is right?”

“I don’t know.”

“YOU … DON’T … KNOW?”  I bellowed this to the whole class because it was so important.

“Listen, all of you.  By the end of this semester, you will know why you’re here.  If it’s not to start understanding behavior, you will at least begin to see what it takes to understand behavior.  This road to knowledge is not for the greedy, or the weak.  You will be dissecting live specimens in this class, and that specimen is yourself.  If you have an agenda, you will fail.  If you have a problem with truth, you will fail.  If you have a bias or preconception of any kind, you will fail.”

I turned back to face Miriam again.  The poor thing was already trying to sneak out the back door.

“Miriam!” I bellowed.  She stopped and turned.

This time I smiled and asked her the ultimate question.

(stay tuned!)

 

You want to study what?

The guidance counselor screwed his face into a Picasso print.

Behavior,” I said.

There is no such major.  How about psychology?

Sure, sounds good.  Does psychology study organizations?”

Sure, there’s Industrial Organizational Psychology, and Organizational Behavior.

Great, and do they teach you how to lead people?”

No.  For that there’s Business.  And maybe Military Science.

That sounds good too.  Does they also teach what’s best for the nation?”

No, not necessarily, that would be Political Science, or maybe Philosophy.  You could study those.

Great!  Do they emphasize history, and other cultures?”

Not so much.  You could study History.

But what of also studying other cultures, both those that still exist today, and those that are extinct?”

Well, for those you could use some Anthropology, Archaeology, and maybe some Ethnology for variety.

“Now you’re talking!  And will those disciplines help me understand the big picture, the grand forces that help define success versus failure, growth versus death?”

That’s a tall order.  No, for that you should get into economics.  Yes, you’d make a great economist.

That’s pretty cool.  I’d like to be an economist.  They get to be on TV all the time.  Do economists also deal with what makes people really care about?  Things like the meaning of life, where we come from, what this all means?  You know, like what happens when we die, that sort of stuff?”

Well, no, for that you should really be studying Religion.  You could become a priest, or rabbi, or mullah.

I’m okay with that, too.  After all, people give you lots of stuff.  But will I also be able to study all the rules that people should live by in order to always be safe, respectful, and kind to each other?  Are there enough religious rules to make everybody always kind to each other?”

Not quite.  For that you’re probably going to have to study Law.  Yes, the law is all about the rules that govern how we deal with each other.  Yes, I can definitely see you as a lawyer.

Nice.  My father always wanted me to be a lawyer.  Maybe I could be a great trial lawyer.  Yeah, I’ll be a prosecutor and take on creeps!”

The counselor looked at me with a sigh of relief.

Good, I’ll put you down for trial law, he said.

He started typing away, but was thinking aloud…

First, you should start learning psychology…

 

 

50 shades of self-loathing

There’s a popular book and movie running around at the moment that features a young woman being sexually manipulated.  The fact that he’s a older man is not important for now, because the subject of today’s observation is the fictional young woman. [1]

Many cultures have ways of keeping themselves organized.  The British have always been good about tracking their families; what schools they go to, what lands they own, what titles their ancestors have carried.  In Britain, you can be part of the nobility and upper class, or an ordinary person without status.  How they indicate this is both obvious and secret.  Obvious signs of status might be your title, or your school tie, or the fact that you live on an estate.  Secret signs might be the very way you pronounce “heredity” or “worcestershire.”

Signs of status are more numerous in India, where the caste system has been in effect for thousands of years, well before England even spoke English.  And in Japan, there is a very well engineered caste system embodied in the language itself!  Women speak to each other differently than men speak to each other, speaking to elders is different, and speaking within your social rank is different from speaking up or down in rank.

Now we have a popular fictional character submitting to acts of sexual stimulation for another person, and as a culture we find this acceptable.  What does it say about us?

It says that a new form of status expectation is forming.  It reinforces the stereotypes of young versus old and woman versus man.  It re-emphasizes the importance of sex as part of that relationship, and sends an unambiguous signal to everyone that these are considered acceptable behaviors.

As an indifferent observer, I’m not going to label these developments “good” or “bad.”  They simply exist, and whether or not society is a better place because of them will be for others to decide.

But as a parent and husband, I choose to teach and reinforce self-respect and confidence in my daughter and wife.  They never need to bow or pretend for anyone.  They stand equal with anyone on this planet, including the queen.

And in this there is no grey – only black and white.

 

 

[1]  Spoiler alert: I know nothing about this story, and don’t have enough popular culture curiosity to find out.  I do know it makes older women giggle and whisper among themselves.  And I’ve read the first few paragraphs on wikipedia.