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The Socrates Software
An Autodialectical System
In an earlier post I outlined what encyclopedias (even modern ones like Wikipedia) are missing, the abilities and limitations of human teachers and how autodialectics refers to any attempt to automate dialectical reasoning thereby overcoming those limitations, expanding those abilities and providing encyclopedias with what they’ve been missing.
Attempts to automate reasoning are not new and have been around since circa 1970-80 with the development of inference engines as components for expert systems. Since then a variety of automated reasoning systems have been created. I coined the term autodialectics to refer to the subset of attempts at automating dialectical reasoning, aiming to augment human intelligence, in the spirit of Douglas Engelbart and philosophers of antiquity.
I thought it made sense to name the field separately from my particular proposal in it, as a way to include or invite the attempts of others. However, starting with this post, I’ll begin presenting, in a series of posts with increasing detail, my particular proposal entitled Socrates, in honor of the archetypical philosopher and originator of the Socratic Method, which was fundamentally a form of dialectic.
I hope these posts will attract collaborators since I do not possess all the skills necessary to build Socrates in full. Before presenting the two basic system processes of Socrates, I want to inform potential collaborators of the software license that will be used for Socrates and say a few words about it.
Socrates, the Athenian who lived approximately between 469-399 BC, was the quintessential public philosopher. He did philosophy for free and with everyone “as much with ordinary people as he did with intellectuals and artists, citizens or strangers, irrespective of wealth or age”1. It would be dishonorable to associate a technology that bears his name with a license that goes against his spirit. Therefore Socrates will be published under a GNU General Public License, using version 3, which is fully compatible with the Creative Commons License (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Socrates: Basic System Processes
I will begin by presenting a simple case of someone using Socrates. For now, I will spare the reader of interface details so as to reduce clutter and facilitate a quick understanding of the main processes and components of the system2, expanding and defining their parts as the series progresses.
The ARP Process: Assertion, Reasoning and Peer-Review
A user, let’s call him Meno, inputs an assertion. The system responds by asking Meno to provide reasons for his assertion. When Meno is done providing reasons, the system prompts Meno to invite his friends to review his reasoning. His friends can supply additional reasons for Meno’s assertion or offer rebuttals to the reasons Meno provided. Meno in turn can respond to those rebuttals and so on.
The Autodialectical Process
The ARP process does not contain any autodialectical features. It merely facilitates the creation of an argument tree: what appears to the user as a diagram that starts from an assertion (the “seed”) and branches out with each reason and rebuttal inputted.
Things start getting interesting the next time a user inputs the same assertion as Meno. Let’s say another user, Lysis, does that. Here’s what happens:
When Lysis inputs the same assertion (A1), the system responds by inquiring whether Lysis holds A1 because of the reasons Meno and his friends had inputted for A1 in the past or some other reason. This allows Lysis to choose whether he holds A1 for existing reasons in the system or input new ones.
Once Lysis finishes choosing or adding reasons, the system asks him whether he has considered an existing rebuttal in the system (Rebuttal 1) for one of the reasons he chose (Reason 1). Lysis can respond to the rebuttal by offering a response (Response 1). When finished, the system prompts him to invite his friends to review his reasoning and add their own reasons, rebuttals or responses.
These are the two processes at the core of Socrates.
So what’s the big deal?
Now that the two core processes of Socrates have been outlined, I believe it’s important, before getting into more technical details, to remind the reader of why constructing Socrates can be a very big deal. So this section takes a step back and provides a context and vision of what Socrates can be. Perhaps being familiar with this will make it easier to understand why certain features and/or directions of development will be chosen rather than others.
The world, the products, processes and systems we build and live in are not going to get simpler but more complex. Our advancements in technology, global production and modern living, in so-called developed nations, have come at a price, threatening the resources and climate of our planet and causing the planet’s sixth mass extinction, with scientists estimating that “we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day”3. Meanwhile, amendable ignorance still plays a role in violence, suffering, injustice, poverty and destruction around the world. There has never been a more urgent time for a faster universal diffusion of knowledge and wisdom. However, teachers are in short supply and can’t possibly meet the massive scale of global demand.
A system like Socrates can meet that demand. It can eventually become:
A free, accessible, universal repository of human knowledge, a dialectical encyclopedia that you can reason with or against.
A universal aid for all contentious disputes, quickly exposing ignorance and uncritical assertions via autodialectical processes powered by the wisdom of mankind.
A technology in which arguments from wise people of all times are united in one place, under a single format, a thread for everyone to follow and add to.
It can usher a revolution in education, bringing stale arguments in school textbooks back to life, learning from existing materials becoming an active rather than a passive affair.
If widely adopted it can be the place where individuals discover or prove their intellectual originality by having contributions be officially time-stamped.
To give a more specific application, imagine if all news articles on a single issue had a link to the same argument tree about it so that viewers could see the development of the arguments for every side. Or if a browser extension would scan news articles and reveal whether they contain new reasons or arguments compared to existing argument trees4.
Imagine how much time we would save, by inputting our arguments once and for all, then outsourcing our arguing to Socrates, just by sending the URL of the relevant assertion and letting Socrates argue for us instead of spending our precious time repeating the same arguments – and even receiving notifications on our phones whenever new reasons or rebuttals are submitted.
To be able to call at a moment’s notice the wisdom of humanity to defend or attack our convictions, discover where we stand in relation to it, how much ground we have to cover, where the envelope is and what it would take to push it, would be of such a service to mankind that, if accomplished, it will earn those who accomplish it the eternal respect of the human race, and a better chance for it to flourish rather than keep suffering from the unintended consequences of its own amendable ignorance.
If you’re interested in collaborating to build Socrates, feel free to contact me.
For example, when I say “The user inputs an assertion” I will not be specific whether he does that by typing into a text field or speaking to a microphone etc.