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A Socratic Path to Online Serenity

by Greg Gonzales

The Socratic Filter might be one of the best tools we have in this world of information overload. Each and every day, we’re bombarded with more information than we could ever memorize, use, or discuss later on. That information gently drops upon our brains, like a drop in a pond which ripples and changes the whole life of the pond ever-so minutely, so it’s important to mindfully decide which bits get our direct attention, and that includes our interactions with people with disagree with online. We could ignore those people, but we can also question them until they don’t have a good answer. Luckily, Socrates gave us a couple of techniques to break down beliefs and build bridges across disagreements.

One day, a friend visited Socrates to offer up some gossip (and I’ll abridge the story here for length). Before letting his friend speak on it, he asked, “Have you ensured that what you’re about to tell me is true?” The friend said no, he’d only overheard the gossip. Socrates then asked, “Is what you’re about to tell me something good, or kind?” The friend said no, quite the opposite. “So you don’t know it to be true, and you don’t know it to be good,” Socrates pointed out. “So is what you’re going to tell me useful or necessary to know?” Deflated, the friend said no. Socrates concluded, “If what you’re going to say is neither true, good, nor useful, please refrain from speaking at all.” At least one must apply, or it’s not worth sharing or listening to.

We should all be so discriminate with our words. Facts and truth are something we ought to share because we live in a democracy and because we all ought to learn more about the world we live in. Same can be said for the good things in life, even if they aren’t necessarily true, because we can grow and heal from them. For example, if a discovery next year proves Socrates was merely Plato’s invention, his stories would still bring us the same joy and wisdom they do now. Useful words ought to be revered, too, for their applications in our own lives. Not all useful ideas are good or known to be true, but they can still hold utilitarian value. To share something true, good, and/or useful is a service to all, whether through art or through a comment at the bottom of a hotly-debated article.

Socrates’s world and our world aren’t all that different when it comes to social and societal challenges we face on a daily basis. We understand that the world isn’t controlled by a set of incestuous gods now, but we still find ourselves shocked by support for flat Earth conspiracies and the millions of U.S. adults who think chocolate milk comes from brown cows. Those ideas are known to be false, they’re not good, and they aren’t useful. When faced with ideas that don’t pass the Socratic Filter, we just need to remember that “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing,” and begin questioning from there.

What I mean by questioning is Socratic Questioning, a technique of inquiry used in philosophy and even cognitive-behavioral therapy to break down beliefs into evidence and assumptions, to build complex thoughts and stronger viewpoints. The same technique can be applied online and for brewhouse debates, to deescalate the situation and even build a bridge through in-depth understanding of a fellow human.

Though there are multiple kinds of Socratic Questioning (six, actually, outlined here; they add up to a few main principles. The main idea is to question fundamental beliefs. We all have assumptions that build the foundations of our ideas and beliefs, but they should be questioned and recognized as such so they can be changed when reasonably challenged. If I think chocolate milk comes from brown cows, you might ask, “Then how does the chocolate get into the milk?” If I have to explain myself, I’m likely to uncover something absurd, and change course. Another principle is to never let any part of a person’s position or reasoning or evidence be a given. Everything has a source, and can and should be questioned. If someone claims an idea is true “because it’s in the Bible,” then we ought to ask why they think the Bible is unquestionably true. The second is to get the other person to consider and even explain other viewpoints. This gets the conversation outside the social safety bubble, off defense, outside the pop-culture framework, and into the dynamic marketplace of ideas. We ask how, we ask why — we investigate the views of others, rather than lambaste them for being wrong — and everyone walks away with a truer and more interesting version of the world.

Though I don’t pretend that all lines of questioning will result in Hands Across America 2, it’s pretty obvious that questions are better beginnings to cooperation and sanity than insults and silence.