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Home  >  Socratic Discourses  >  Socratic Discourse 5

Socratic Discourse 5

In which the issue responsibility vs. privilege is being considered. The scene is a slightly dilapidated park within the city. The weather is favourable, thereby accentuating the variety of plants and animals existing in such an oasis.

S.   What always fascinates me is how any particular space, however infertile and hostile it may appear in the beginning, manages to produce its own quality as a habitat given sufficient time without a major disruption.
--   This is true! Does that mean then that even a critical and sometimes also cynical person such as you finds it miraculous to witness such rebirth, such a profusion of life, no matter what the odds against such a happening?

S.   If you use the word 'miraculous' as an expression of my own personal wonderment, then I fully admit to being taken in by this spectacle. However, if you mean to imply that I find the situation simply unexplainable and so resort to claims of fantasy and events not containable within the bounds of reason, then I have to disagree strongly!
--   But is it not a miracle that life should begin in a place like this? After all, if you remember, just a short time ago this happened to be a slab of concrete, bordered by broken stone and glass!

S.   Nevertheless, nature can be resilient, and quite evidently life has started here again - of course, it found support in the local council which ensured this spot would not be interfered with. Otherwise it could not have continued once it had begun.
--   Then isn't this the very wonder people are talking about? The origin of life, witnessed on so many occasions, recurring for ever and ever again? Even if you hold on to all your logic and reason, an event such as this must make you believe in a greater concept, overriding as it does momentary interactions and circumstances.

S.   I am not so sure...
--   Ah, then you do admit you are overcome by such a manifestation of beauty and harmony!

S.   You did not let me finish. I was going to say, "I'm not so sure which of your statements you want me to address first" - you see, there are a number of points you made, and they do not necessarily belong together. Firstly, you were enthusing over what you called the "origin of life", implying I suppose that somehow this small park we happen to sit in was instrumental in furnishing a certain manifestation of nature. Then you went on to provide a time frame by saying that such an operation is going on forever and ever.
--   Well, I did not mean the word "ever" quite literally; obviously, to say that life exists for all eternity is not appreciating the facts as we know them at this point in time.

S.   Oh yes, I am well aware of that. I recognise the meaning behind your statement. Nevertheless, the point I am making concerns itself not so much with the absolute fact of whatever arrangements of moments one attaches to the existence of life, but rather with the way in which you brought a state of matter, in this case exemplified by the description "life", together with its coming into being and combine it further with a certain cyclical version of itself, all of which you circumscribe as a miracle to be wondered at and to be admired.
--   All this is to be admired, is it not? A barren place, desolate and wanting, and then... the emergence of something beautiful, to multiply, to spread, and eventually to transform a desert into a special niche that one should preserve and visit!

S.   I do not for a moment dispute your right to enjoy a pleasant landscape, nor could I argue with the reason for your fervor. But consider the following: let us assume we have a pot of water in the room, boiling. Would the steam not rise to the ceiling and there precipitate in the form of droplets?
--   What are you getting at?

S.   And if we continued to boil this pot of water would not eventually the whole ceiling be covered with moisture, all coming from that selfsame pot?
--   Naturally, this is the order of things.

S.   So you agree that where there happened to be dryness before there will eventually be wetness, and soon water will be everywhere?
--   Of course.

S.   Can you say then that the water originated on the ceiling?
--   Definitely not. Everyone can see that it rose out of the pot in the form of steam.

S.   Quite so. Now let us assume the pot of boiling water was hidden from view and the steam coming from special vents opening into our room - this is conceivable, is it not?
--   You could have such an arrangement, yes.

S.   Then we would not be able to actually witness the boiling water itself, indeed the first inclination that something is going on would be the formation of droplets. Now remember, we agreed before that the appearance of water on the ceiling does not mean water itself is actually brought into being there; you still hold to the previous premise, don't you?
--   Yes, although in the first instance the connection between the pot and the steam rising up was only too clearly visible.

S.   True. But does the validity of an event depend on the number of witnesses present at that particular moment?
--   No, although you can have a certain difficulty explaining such an event.

S.   Of course; and that is why we must use logical conjecture in evaluating a situation if so required. In our case, the making of water is clearly a process beyond the everyday occurrence. In fact, I do not think such an event has happened before my eyes recently. Which of course is not to say it would be impossible; I am simply pointing out the uniqueness of such a procedure. The meager arrangement of our imaginary room with its bare ceiling does not seem to be the place where a substance like water is being manufactured. So, to say that simply because the source of this water is not immediately apparent, therefore it might not have come from somewhere after all is quite irrational.
--   This is all very clear to me, yet I do not see the connection between a simple thing like a pot of boiling water and a large issue such as life itself.

S.   You do not? Compare the thing we called "life" with the other thing we call water. In both cases we were observing a place previously devoid of both. Then, after a certain amount of time, we witnessed the emergence of life and water; one in our park here, the other on the ceiling. This is how the situation progressed, did it not?
--   Now I see what you are driving at! It is wrong to speak of the "origin" of life as such, since just like in the case of our water, it did not really "originate" at all, but was merely transferred from one place to another, similar to the water droplets: they first turned into steam due to the act of boiling, began moving, and finally settled somewhere else, only to revert back to their erstwhile form, liquid water.

S.   Exactly! Therefore, to speak of the "origin" of something, simply because we are observing the emergence of a particular manifestation, when the quintessence of that very thing had existed all along, is quite false. And yet, there are many issues in which arguments are being raised endlessly because the logical connection between transformation, specificity, and, indeed, plain visibility, is not appreciated. To speak of an "origin" of life in a case like this is plainly fallacious; life is not originating but is simply continuous, having been brought in from somewhere else, and if it were formulated from something previously not life-like then we could describe ourselves as truly honoured members of the human race, since it befell us to observe a process which has puzzled mankind throughout history!
--   Then the underlying point of your argument is really the need for dealing correctly with the cause-and-effect relationship as it presents itself.

S.   Precisely. You could say that this is at the bottom of most logical progressions in thought.
--   I think one would have to agree with you. But you were talking about other aspects of my previous words which to you did not seem to fit together. What were these?

S.   I am not certain of their validity. And when I began to express my uncertainty you interpreted that as a sign of reluctance in relation to my own position. In any case, I am referring to your desire that such beauty should be preserved. Now, while I am not going to argue about the general meaning of your wish - no aesthetically aware person would want this park to be destroyed - I am questioning how your ambition would stand up in the new light which we have been able to throw on the facts so far.
--   Are you saying there is a valid argument for not preserving beauty and all this what we call life? Come now, surely you have landed yourself in a contradiction there!

S.   Have I? Let us construct a further thought experiment, you seem to be fond of these.
--   You are right! One can make up anything one likes, not being concerned with the usual restrictions that apply to reality!

S.   Not "anything" at all! Only when one detail attaches to the next in flawless logic - you must never forget that! But let us proceed. We have agreed that the emergence of plants and animals in this park contributes to our well-being for various reasons: beauty, the establishment of an eco-system, could be some of them. Without going into too much detail there, we can accept the basic and common value of such an environment. We can agree on that, can't we?
--   Of course, this is what we have been talking about all along.

S.   Fine. Then we come to the question of how such a system might establish itself. One way for this to happen would be to offer the area of this park to chance, to leave it alone undisturbed, and wait for the seedlings to be carried in by the wind, the water, and subsequently for the animals to discover that there is a place where they may find shelter and sustenance. But this takes time, so possessing the knowledge of gardening we could speed up this process by applying the seeds ourselves, taking over the action of the wind and the rain in a more speedy, targeted fashion. This would be all for the better, don't you think?
--   Naturally; it is the normal way in which these things are done.

S.   And now we approach the centre of the argument. Suppose that we, as botanists, are engaged in the distribution and planting of these seeds and seedlings. And let us further assume that we abide by a set of rules in which the things one can and cannot do are laid down very strictly - all with the ultimate welfare of our charges in mind. That would mean for instance that the destruction of a grown plant, or animal for that matter, is totally out of the question. Such a code is quite feasible, isn't it?
--   It is indeed, and I wish our gardeners would in fact observe such a code! How many times are trees felled and habitats destroyed for no other reason than a change in certain policies.

S.   However, the question is not as easy at it seems. The task of the gardener is to provide a place like this with the abundance we so desire and welcome once it is established. But he has to bring in the seeds in from somewhere! Remember, he is not allowed to destroy a plant in the process, but what about the seeds? Imagine seeds falling out of a bag, off a vehicle; these things do happen. Should we extend the person's responsibility to the seeds then as well? In fact charge our poor gardener with manslaughter perhaps every time one of these tiny things is lost, going by the assumption that since they do not end up within the confines of their final destination they would go to waste and die?
--   This would be a rather harsh interpretation; one cannot blame the gardener for carrying out his profession, especially once the results of his efforts are becoming clear - you do take this into consideration, don't you?

S.   Yes, I do. But consider the implications of the rules we have laid down. It is no use to establish a set of regulations only to find out that in order to carry out the actual endeavour they have to be continuously broken. Are the seeds equivalent to the plants they eventually will become? Or are they to be taken as a different form of life entirely and as such not subject to our morals at all?
--   This is indeed a difficult question, and I can see the relevance to our previous argument in which we discussed the "origin" of life. Taken in this context some people would try to establish the exact point at which life begins, and...

S.   ...and thereby extracting themselves from any further responsibility! Exactly. By arbitrarily defining the moment at which something that they accept as life begins, they abdicate their own selves from any fate that may befall that being under question prior to this particular moment. It is a rather easy way out, and one that is mostly used by those individuals whose beliefs are in the main irrational, following random concepts without a proper logical foundation. Why else would they favour a solution which is unaccountable to objective analysis? But we have already seen the fallacy of this position. Life as such is simply continuing all the time, and so this quality is inherent in everything we eventually connect with a mature example of our flora and fauna. Given then the continuance of a certain state of existence, we have to examine whether there are no other possibilities through which we can make a judgment as to the validity of one manifestation against another. In other words, could we establish a case in which our gardener could be absolved from dropping the seeds? After all, by one definition he is breaking the law, since life is being destroyed. The question remains: is one life worth more than another?
--   Put that way, it is an interesting proposition you have raised there. One could always say of course that a seed is a different thing from a grown plant, and since it is the plant we are after the importance of a seed would be diminished.

S.   Is that not a similar version of the "origin of life" problem? To say, it is the grown plant, looking like such and such, that concerns us here and not the seed because it does not conform to certain standards is similar to claiming life occurs now and not before because we don't accept the latter as truly alive. And having said that, who determines in the end what appearance is the appropriate one? Again we have hit upon the same problem, and we see that from a logical point of view such lines of thought are unworkable. No, we have to pursue a different path. First, let us establish the necessity of the gardener. Is such a person warranted?
--   Without a gardener the park would not come into being, at least not in the foreseeable future; it would be left entirely to chance.

S.   Correct. Then we agree that the purpose of a gardener is a valid one. Having established that we must examine the gardener's methods. Are they valid, responsible, efficient?
--   I think you are mostly referring to those few seeds which are lost. Of course, a person can be so careless as to loose most of them, in which case his action is hardly defensible. But this aside, I don't think the spilling of some seeds, no doubt a very small amount compared to the total being handled, constitutes a major offence.

S.   We can accept then such a reality. The gardener, a person who is sworn to have the welfare of all flora at heart, who is entrusted with the creation of a park using an assortment of many shrubs and flowers, can be expected in the course of his duty to forget one or the other seed; after all, it happens in the pursuance of a greater goal.
--   Does that mean then we judge a momentary carelessness by the end result the overall action will bring us? This seems hardly appropriate; I as a patient would very much reject the flippancy of a doctor, even if he had the best of intentions at the beginning of the operation!

S.   I did not mean that. We are not talking about an actual carelessness. What we mean to point out is the possibility of inherent injury in the pursuance of a certain action, without which such an action could not proceed. We could of course require our gardener to retrace his every step through the streets, looking for each and every seed spilled on the way. Hardly the stuff to enhance our park! In any case, all this simply underlines one thing: in order to establish a certain system, a particular amount of damage could possibly be done to those elements which eventually will evolve into the end product, the procuring of which had been our intention all along. The problem to be solved now remains this: can our gardener, or in general terms, can anyone justify the destruction of something which is clearly the precursor of something else, but remaining in a direct relationship with each other, so that the latter cannot exist without the former?
--   Well, this would depend on the basic value of whatever you happen to take as an example. For instance...

S.   No, no. We are back at the old argument regarding life. We simply cannot accept any approach which has at its basis a certain nomenclature alone. Whether we call it "life", define a certain shape, classify it according to its value, they all amount to the same problem, and that is they generate a logical fallacy. The answer lies somewhere different, and indeed it is rather simple once we pose the right questions. Have we not said that the establishment of the park is desirable?
--   Yes, that we did.

S.   And did we not agree that the intervention of the gardener is essential if this park should come into being?
--   True.

S.   In other words, no gardener - no garden?
--   Naturally.

S.   And we did say that there is a code of ethics, formulated to the best of our knowledge, proven and confirmed, with an aim in mind that is concomitant with the purpose of this gardener, and also with our original intention?
--   Yes, yes; of course.

S.   Then if we assume, and suppose the gardener is worthy of such trust, that the whole procedure is handled with the best possible foresight and diligence, any losses and/or damage incurred during the operation is the best possible alternative to, we must now state, no park at all?
--   Provided all the safeguards are being observed, this would be the case.

S.   Then we must grant the gardener the freedom and the right to do as he pleases, since for the duration of that exercise he, and he alone, holds the power over the best possible outcome in his own hands. He deals with life continuous, but he also transforms it into something better; he manipulates the beginnings of an organism we all cherish and desire during a stage of that organism's development at which it is incapable of maintaining itself; once we have taken the step of entrusting a person with the expertise necessary for such a task we have to grant this person the autonomy to proceed unhindered. To do otherwise would negate totally the intent and value of any action previously taken. And that would be inconsistent with a reasoned approach.
--   But what if one were to take the stance of not wanting the gardener's interference at all? Would not the whole argument break down altogether?

S.   Indeed it would. And that is the reason I said, "once we have taken the step of entrusting a person with this expertise." If we were totally against any outside, or human intervention per se, then of course all those questions would not arise in the first place. Obviously, we would not have a park either.
--   Does the whole question only concern instances where a choice has been made from the outset? In our example the decision was made to have a park; what if we were dealing with a situation which exists already, whether we like it or not? It seems our range of decisions would rapidly diminish in such a case.

S.   You are quite right. Once the decision, regarding the park say, has been made, the train of thought continuing from that point in time onwards ought to follow the logic we have just identified. It matters not whether we find ourselves at such a point because we wilfully established ourselves there, or whether circumstances prompted us over which we have no control. The basis for everything that follows is the same. And it is easy to see why: the details surrounding the argument concern the activities of the person manipulating the object of desire (if we want to call it that) and the relevance of those are with the subsequent result, and not with the reason why this situation exists in he first place.
--   Why not?

S.   Because whatever a person such as the gardener may think or do, it will have absolutely no influence over an event which happened already. The only direction in which any action can go is forward in time. On the other hand, no matter what type of pre-condition exists which can trigger our subsequent intent, it will appear in one way and not another independently of any consecutive action taken. Therefore, to use the reason for a particular pre-condition as a basis for our argument is not valid. These two states of affairs are mutually neutral, that is they do not influence each other. This is why I began to object when you claimed there was a greater concept overriding momentary interactions and circumstances. One concept can be encompassing other sets of concepts, in which case they would be acting under a greater, general rule. But to use the word "overriding" implies a logical discrepancy, and this we cannot allow.
--   I understand this; after all, we are talking about logical sets arranged in the correct order. But I am not so sure I can think of an example of a definite pre-condition, as opposed to the idea of a park, which is a wish expressed wilfully.

S.   Oh, such a case is not as rare as would seem at first glance. Think of pregnancy for example: here we have a state of being, quite possibly inflicted upon an individual in an arbitrary manner, and as such it would be a condition which simply presents itself, no ifs and buts. What if a woman wants to terminate her pregnancy? Following our line of thinking she should be allowed to do so. Some people would refer to the reason for her pregnancy as a factor to be considered; but as we have seen there can be no valid argument supporting such an attitude. In other words, whether the woman conceived as a matter of happiness or despair, the right to her own decision would not be touched in either case.
--   Yes, I can see the logic applied in this way. However I doubt if many individuals would be exercising such a diligence in planning their moves, especially if the subject happens to be an emotive one.

S.   You are right; but does the law of reason, or indeed any law, diminish in its validity merely because it is not being observed?
--   Of course not.

S.   You are correct again. Although to be fair, I can think of certain special circumstances where on the surface at least a case could be made for a differing viewpoint. But this is the basis for another philosophical argument, clearly outside our present framework. Let it only be said that at the conclusion of such a discourse you still would arrive back at the outset: the validity of any law does not diminish with a decreased adherence. Nevertheless, it certainly would not hurt anyone going through the thought processes; after all, we can only master reality if we are capable of understanding its manifestations through reference to reason.

© Martin Wurzinger - see Terms of Use