3 Big Questions: Socrates, Twitter and AI

In Three Big Questions, we ask experts to reveal what their favourite philosopher can teach us about the future of tech.

Today we talk to Dr. Rick Benitez, Professor of Ancient Greek philosophy at the University of Sydney, about how Socrates can help us survive fake news and rethink social media.

1. Tell us about a philosopher that has particularly inspired you in your work or thinking?

The philosopher that has inspired me most is Socrates (469-499 BCE). Even in my daily life I often think, “What would Socrates do? What would Socrates say?” The answer is never quite what you would expect.  Socrates was born into a family of modest means in the unremarkable Athenian deme of Alopece, but he was prodigiously gifted, keenly inquisitive, insatiable in his thirst for knowledge, and intellectually scrupulous to the “nth” degree.

He did not assume the truth of any proposition, theory or perspective, but would ardently subject every view, including his own views, to severe examination.  In his youth he studied with the Sophists—itinerant teachers who came to Athens to discuss ethics, politics, natural philosophy, linguistics, poetry, mathematics and astronomy.  As he grew older he abandoned interest in most of these subjects in order to focus on ethics and politics.

From Prodicus he learned the art of verbal dialogue, which he developed into a form of cross-examination.  This approach to inquiry is still called “the Socratic method” today.

Socrates distinguished himself in military service during the Peloponnesian War, by organising a retreat at Potidaea when the Athenians were in danger of being routed, and by stoically enduring hardships during the siege of Delium.

After the War, he practiced philosophy with a vengeance, not for entertainment or aggrandisement, as was the wont of the Sophists, but, as he put it, to get people “to care for the best possible condition of their soul” (Apology 29e).

He is famous for having said that “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Apology 38a), “I only know that I know nothing” (an historic extrapolation from the more modest: “I am of little or no account in wisdom”, Apology 23b), and “no one willingly does wrong” (Gorgias 509d).  Taken together, these claims suggest that Socrates thought people tended to drift through life in pretentious ignorance, with the consequence of doing harm to themselves and others.

He compared himself to a stinging fly (Tabanus sulcifrons) that could wake people from their dogmatic slumber, but this “divine service” (as he called it, Apology 30e) was misinterpreted.  He was executed by the Athenian state after being convicted of impiety by a jury of 501 fellow citizens.


2. What about Socrates’ life and ideas do you think is particularly relevant for us today?

Socrates’ commitments to questioning and to intellectual humility are particularly relevant in the information age.  We assume that we know something when we have heard it, read it, googled it, wiki-ed it or youtubed it.

Re-tweeting or “liking” something, is a form of affirmation. (Paradoxically, it is an affirmation without any real commitment.) Socrates would regard re-tweeting and liking as intellectually lazy. He would urge us to be far more sceptical before forwarding the latest conspiracy theory, and far more circumspect about our likes and dislikes.

One of the things I admire most about Socrates is his openness to considering things—including the way one considers things—in new ways.  For him the status quo is not a settled matter: radical consciousness is possible, new paradigms are possible.  Even old wisdom can be rediscovered, appropriated and grounded through fresh reasoning.

It is not the case, however, that anything goes.  Vague, inconsistent, or self-contradictory views will not withstand the Socratic acid-test.  Superficial clap-trap that lacks any semblance of support will quickly fall by the wayside. Mere appeals to prejudice, fear, greed, or superstition will get nowhere.

Serious views, sincerely held, and meticulously challenged may survive for a long time.  For example, Socrates’ claims that “it is never right to do wrong to anyone, even in return for a wrong” (Crito 49c) and the related “it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong” (Gorgias 469b) seemed to him to have survived every examination during his whole life.

Even so, his maintaining these judgments was provisional, and he was always prepared to re-examine them. I like to think of Socrates’ inquiries as focused on “cooperative inquiry into matters of common concern” (this is the way one of my teachers used to put it).  Though Socrates challenges people’s thinking, his aim is cooperative: better understanding is in everyone’s interest.  And, contrary to what an ancient Comic poet says, Socrates does not quibble about the distance fleas can jump (Aristophanes, Clouds 143), unless that can shed light on a common concern.

Sculpture by Johnson Tsang

3. What kind of advice do you think Socrates would give us about digital technology today?

I was so keen to know what kind of advice Socrates might give us today that I started developing an AI version of him, called “Sokrates”, to do just that.

I’m working with a small research team that includes a designer, a programmer, a classicist and a philosopher. So far, our Sokrates cannot do much more than what a chat bot does.  Occasionally he asks a striking question or provides an oracular response.

For example, when I asked him whether pleasure was good, he responded, “How can you know whether something is good or bad when you have no experience of it?”  But then when you inquire what it would take to become wise, he says, “The current time is 11:47 am”. Clearly there is a lot of work to do.

One thing I hope our Digital Socrates Project achieves is to infuse the internet with Socratic uncertainty.  I don’t think AI can be truly intelligent until it recognises what it doesn’t know and how much it doesn’t know.

Dogmatic AI entities, it seems to me, are unlikely to be very good for our (or even their) future.  If artificial intelligence would engage in cooperative inquiry into matters of common concern, we might all fare better.

On other matters of digital technology, I think Socrates would have mixed views.  He would, I am sure, oppose the use of the internet as an excuse not to understand things. It is a repository of information, but it is not a substitute for our own memory or experience. Unexamined information is not worth believing.

Special thanks to Rick Benitez, PhD, Professor of Philosophy,
School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, The University of Sydney.  Rick taught at the Catholic University of America and the Smithsonian Institution before moving to Sydney in 1992. He has been a visiting professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem  and was was President of the Sydney Society of Literature and Aesthetics (1997-2004).

The Sokrates team: Hayden Toppeross, Sushil Kulkarni, and Aidan Nathan

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