Lessons from Socrates Café

Lessons from Socrates Café

by Richard Bernstein, MD

As you might expect, I’ll begin with a question: What is Socrates Café?

Of course, most of us know it is a discussion among people who come to the Monday evening meetings or to Socrates on Sundays during the summer. The attendees select a question to explore by a vote and then discuss the agreed upon topic.

For example: What is love? Will there ever be world peace? Last month we discussed: “How do we know what we know?”

But what is the inner dynamic and the goal of 1-2 hour discussions? In the next 30 minutes, I’d like to share with you some of the many lessons I’VE learned from being a facilitator and participant in Socrates Cafes.

As many of you know, the process involves what Plato and others call dialectic, that is, discovering and testing knowledge through questions and responses from the other attendees. My role or Terri Karp’s role, when we are facilitators, is to keep exploring unexamined aspects of the topic and to make sure no one person dominates the dialogue. We keep the atmosphere safe and respectful, with an absolute rule that ideas, but not people, can be challenged and critiqued.

So how DO we know what we know?

Like an onion, we peel away layers of concepts buried within the question.

What kinds of things are knowable? What kinds of knowledge are there?
• Is our knowledge of arithmetic different from scientific knowledge of world of the observable phenomena?
• When we say we know about the life of Abraham Lincoln, is this knowledge the same as the math and empirical knowledge?
• When we say we know we are in love, what kind of knowledge is that?

What is love or what is the good involve definitional discussions, whereas other sessions often involve social policy or political issues. Yes others involve values, such as better or more ethical ways to achieve certain ends.

Whatever the category, I find that there is a kind of wonderful illusion often held by the discussants. While Socrates Cafe discussions begin with a question that hooks the majority of the attendees, the journey and goal are not to find the answer! So what is the process and how can it be the whetstone for sharpening our inquiring minds?

I believe what we’re all actually trying to do is get better at critically thinking about a subject. This is the generic goal underlying Socrates Cafes. OK, but what do we mean by critical thinking?

Clearly, the first step is to define a good question. And what is good question? One that is clear to all taking part in the discussion. Often the first part of the evening explores all or most of terms in the statement of the question so we can begin “on the same page.”

From there, we’re off to the races and the question is often pulled into as many directions as there are discussants. This is the beauty of diving and exploring new questions …or ancient questions. Everyone comes to Socrates with a unique set of life experiences and perspectives to analyze the question and to give examples and counter-examples that the question provokes.

If Socrates Café is successful, what seems like a simple and straightforward question like “Is abortion a woman’s right,” reveals previously unexamined nooks and twists and complications that may make us realize inconsistencies in our prior thinking about the subject. The best Socrates’ discussions leave people seeing the topic in a different light. This is quite thrilling and stimulating for most people. In addition, the discussions foster a real appreciation for the value of others’ ideas, especially those new perspectives which had never occurred to people before.

As I said, what underlies the process is learning to think more deeply. And a second aspect of critical thinking is listening to the reasons that others give to support their claims or arguments. Some are powerful and compelling, but others prompt further questioning. Is it that a seemingly ridiculous statement by the person across the room is not thoughtful, or am I not appreciating the genius and subtle reasoning underlying the person’s explanation? Let’s ask and see if we’re really understanding our fellow discussant…
So respectful inquiry helps everyone model how to dig deeper and leads everyone to a fuller examination of the various dimensions of the topic.
But what about the answer to the question? Is there a just war? Why can’t we all just get along?
What we begin to appreciate is that arriving or knowing THE answer is not possible in the way we know mathematical truth or scientific truths. Even in the case of scientific knowledge, we don’t know with certainty the way we know mathematical proofs. Issues of values and policy are even more indeterminate. Why? Because, the logic we use to try to answer the questions must recognize the probabilistic nature of our answers. We may propose new solutions to ameliorate the impact of long standing social dilemmas like poverty and crime. But we cannot know, in advance, or a priori, if our proposals will work as intended. We can agree that our intentions are noble, thoughtful and built on a process of consensus, but these do not guarantee the outcomes we would hope for. We cannot know all the factors (social, psychological, political, economic, etc.) that may derail our plans or create unintended and unwanted consequences. Nonetheless, by vigorous debate, deliberation and critical thinking, we can at least assure we’ve tried as well as humans can to have a positive impact in the indeterminate future.
What we can often notice during SCs is that logical fallacies may surface. Terri and my job as facilitators is to indirectly address these by gently questioning the reasoning of the person forwarding a claim based on such fallacies. We’ll highlight some common ones in a minute.
We may all agree that Obamacare will be good for America. But do we know this for sure? We may denigrate the Republicans for trying to undermine funding of healthcare reform and feel this is just their tendency to fight anything progressive and any new policy which the President and his party endorse. This approach is common and but counter to critical thinking, because it employs the ad hominem fallacy, that is, it substitutes an attack on a person or group of people rather than debating the strengths and weaknesses of their arguments. Demonizing and denigrating the opposition may be an attempt to discredit their argument but it is a false strategy by avoiding exploring the possible value or defects of their argument. This undermines the quality of the discussion itself.

Shouldn’t we avoid pre-judging the reasons offered by those serious thinkers who object to Obamacare? To create the best policies on complex issues like healthcare reform, we all need to consider the potential unintended negative consequences of such a major change in our insurance system. Have we considered the lack of effective means for controlling the costs of care once a much larger percent of Americans have insurance? Shouldn’t a fairer discussion of healthcare reform force politicians to explain how, if Massachusetts is struggling to control costs, and if this is the very model upon which Obamacare is built, will this model work on a larger scale?
So, one of the lessons here is to be more respectful of our adversaries. They just may have important questions on major policy debates, and we should open our minds to what they have to say. The danger of premature closure of our understanding of complex topics may be poorer policy decisions and costly missteps.
Now let’s take a look at common discussions we hear within our families, at parties, at work and even at …(gasp)! …Ethical Culture. Let’s see how you would think about them after applying some critical thinking lessons to them.

Try This: “Since God doesn’t exist, how can any reasonable person believe in God?”
This kind of reasoning actually suffers from what is called a circular reasoning. It posits what it is trying to establish, namely that it is irrational to believe in something that isn’t real. But what kind of existence do people of faith believe God has? Is reason the way to establish God’s existence or is there another way to know God that is not accessible to science or even reason? Is this what is called faith, and is faith totally irrational?

Now lets go deeper and look at the “faith” of Ethical Culture. Yes, I think we have faith, faith that by working to address social injustices, we can make the world a better place. We also have faith that by bringing out the best in others, we will bring out the best in ourselves.

Do we know these things with certainty or do we have hope (or have faith) that these aspects of ethical behavior will improve the world?
So in questioning the irrationality of faith, we must admit that we only have so much causal knowledge of reality to predict the consequences of our actions. BUT we believe and hope with reasonable conviction that pursuing the Good will result in a better outcome than not doing so. Is this totally rational? Is this not a bit of faith we aren’t quick to fess up to? Should we not be more understanding of the faith of other religions if we see their intentions are fundamentally humanistic and aimed at improving the world as much as our faith tries?
What about the issue of the right women to choose whether to have an abortion? We resent or at least strongly reject the arguments of pro-lifers who feel the unborn fetus has a right to life comparable to those already born, and therefore right to lifers feel that all abortions are immoral.

At a platform discussion about a year ago, we discussed the some of the complexities of the pro-life/pro-choice debate. If both camps hold that there is something sacred about life, especially human life, perhaps this is a ground for resolving the conflict. But what is meant by sacred and what is meant by human life? When does a potential human life have a claim on us that equals or exceeds the claim of the mother to abort for personal reasons at any time during the pregnancy? Is allowing any abortion represent a “slippery slope” to infanticide or should we permit infanticide under certain circumstances, as some ethicists, like Princeton’s Peter Singer, have argued? (By the way, the slippery slope can be another type of logical fallacy.)
Should we consider that perhaps it is neither the pro-life NOR the pro-choice position that should prevail unchallenged. We should want to avoid being trapped in a common error in critical thinking called the false dilemma. But what is the third option?

Often, we can achieve the most progress by taking what is best from both sides of the issue. This suggests that the country needs to continue to struggle with the question and offer more opportunities to hear strength of both sides of the argument. It is in the struggle and in the dialogue that we may hope to resolve the contentious debate that even the new Pope is finding destructive.

As I hope you see, beginning with a clear question leads to asking deeper questions and fearlessly considering what may even appear repugnant. By clear questions, we must be sure that we avoid key terms that may have widely different meanings for those engaging in the discussion. What are rights and on what basis can it be said that the unborn have rights?
In discussing age related social policy, such as social security, we need to decide who pays and who must contribute and when should benefits begin. We also need to know what is meant by middle-aged or elderly if these are used in the discussion. So Socrates Café involves clear questions, clarification of all key terms, and the relentless questions and tentative answers and respectful challenges to responses that lead the dialectic to more rewarding levels of understanding of what is at stake in any discussion of values and social policy.
Now we’ve covered a few key principles and hopefully they are clear. Let’s test how far we’ve come.
Suppose someone says: “Freedom of speech is for the common good because the unrestrained expression of opinions is in the best interest of all concerned.” What is the underlying logic or fallacy in reasoning here?
The argument really says that freedom of speech is for the common good because freedom of speech is for the common good. The claim simply restates the evidence. It reasons in a circle. The evidence proves the claim, the claim roves the evidence, and we don’t really advance our understanding at all.
Therefore, this is a CIRCULAR ARGUMENT
What about: The Bible is the inerrant word of God, because God only speaks the truth. How do we know? Repeatedly in the Bible, God tells us that the Bible consists of his words.
What is wrong with this argument?

Again, circular argument that commits the fallacy of vacuity. It doesn’t say anything new.

How about: An opponent of capital punishment says, “State sponsored murder only doubles the evil of the original crime.” What is wrong with this argument?
The fallacy of BEGGING THE QUESTION. What is begged in the statement is the assumption that capital punishment is state sponsored murder. That is something that the advocate ought to prove, not posit.

We often hear the fallacy of THE RED HERRING splashing around. If someone makes the following statement: “The growing federal budget deficit curtails our ability to meet important priorities,” and another person responds by saying, “Yes, and a tax cut gives people more control over their own money,” what’s wrong?
The problem here is that we’re not talking about whether people ought to have more control over their own money. The question of the issue is: What is the effect of the increase in deficit on our ability to meet important priorities. The response was irrelevant to the question and so represents a red herring and ignores the key point being discussed.
Two other common situations come up in various discussions among friends and family. “Don’t go there” and “I think everyone agrees that…” These two interjections set up an artificial barrier to explore or continue a discussion that may be worthwhile and productive. By accepting these two phrases without challenging them, we lose the opportunity to learn and expand our understanding.

Other fallacies involve appeals to authority or to tradition are other common ways that potentially fruitful discussions can be impeded. Consider: “Trust me, this doctor is terrific” or “We should definitely to this; it’s the way it’s always been done.”
In the 1950s, Life Magazine had cigarette ads with endorsement by ENT specialists who treat opera stars and proclaim how cigarettes are good for sore throats. Again, these inappropriate use of authorities (who should know better). Similarly, baseball stars endorsing Mr. Coffee coffeemakers is taking an expert in one field and trying to use them to another area in which they have no expertise.

What’s is true for one may not be true for the many is another common error. It is even seen in overgeneralizations made in scientific research papers that show, on average, a new therapy is not helpful. But subsequent sub-group analyses may show noticeable benefit for individuals with certain genetic makeup. Confusing cause and effect is the post-hoc fallacy (after the thing, therefore because of it). We may here praise for vitamin C as a terrific treatment of colds or preventative. But anecdotes do not make the case, and so we must always listen for correlations that do not establish causal relationships.

Having opened up the hood to understand what often goes on during Socrates Café, I hope we can learn, as I have, how to use dialectic to further our understanding of important definitional, value-based, social and political topics. Even without a final answer to our initial question, the to and fro of the discussion, the clarification and respectful challenges lead us all along a path to mining a topic, peeling back more layers of the onion and having fun in the process.

It is also important for us, as members of society, to respectfully challenge our politicians and school boards and others in positions of authority so that their decisions will more likely lead to better policies and outcomes for our community and nation. Socrates Café provides a toolkit of useful techniques for developing critical thinking and for avoiding common fallacies.
If we strive to make the world a better place and want to improve the quality of decision making in our democracy, we need more venues like Socrates Cafes. We should encourage our children, grandchildren and friends to join similar discussion groups that exist around the US and many other countries.

I’ve hope I’ve made my case, but, as I began with a question, let me now ask you to question, question and….question some more. (And I welcome your questions)

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