Sophists were ancient Greek teachers who taught the art of persuading people. This could be for personal use, such as convincing someone to help you with something, or to influence a large group of people, such as in politics. The art of finding the best way to persuade someone is known as rhetoric.
It is interesting to see that the art of persuasion has always been an important skill for human beings since ancient times. We are social creatures with psychological biases, so knowing how to influence other people to help push your agenda forward can be critical in putting yourself one step ahead.
The famous Greek philosopher, Aristotle, wrote a clear, defining treatise of rhetoric in his book, simply titled Rhetoric, or Ars Rhetorica in Latin. In this book, he summarised the core of rhetoric as three principles: logos, pathos and ethos. Any good orator should be able to rely on all three of these to persuade their audience.
Logos is the appeal to logical reasoning. It is the rational, factual facet of your argument. Pathos is the appeal to your audience’s emotion. It is the passionate, heartfelt way you present your argument. Ethos is the appeal to your character. It is an establishment of why people should believe what you have to say, based on your moral character and history.
Out of all of these, which is most important? Some say logos is most important, because cold, hard facts should be used to determine the resolution of a debate. Some feel pathos is most important, because people are more likely to be swayed by emotion and passion as we have a tendency to be influenced too much by our monkey brain.
However, Aristotle claimed that the most important principle is ethos. You can make up facts and you can put on a performance to abuse the power of emotions. But ethos is hard to obtain: you have to live life nobly and honourably, guided by a moral compass. People have a tendency to trust the words of a virtuous person much more than someone who has a history of lying, cheating and in general, morally bankrupt.
Simply put, the secret to being persuasive is not the words you speak or the impassioned way that you deliver them, but your credibility.
Game theory is the study of using mathematical models to understand how rational decision-makers would strategically act in a given environment. One concept from game theory is that of the zero-sum game, where there is a finite amount of utility shared between players, meaning that if one person gains something, another must lose something to balance it out.
A classic example is a game of competitive sports, where there can be only one winner. For you to win, someone else must lose. A zero-sum game can have as few as two players (such as a singles tennis match) or many players (such as a game of poker, where every dollar you win is a dollar taken away from the other players).
From a young age, we see many examples of zero-sum games. We play sports and board games where there is a clear winner. We are marked on curve and compared to our classmates in exams. We compete for jobs and romantic partners. Competitiveness is driven into us and is sold as a survival skill.
This leads us to be prone to zero-sum thinking which can lead to many biases. Some studies show students acting more competitively and less inclined to help their peers if they were graded on a curve (e.g. percentiles), rather than grade categories (e.g. A, B, C). We think that if someone is a jack of all trades, they are masters of none, because surely no one can “have it all”. Many people oppose immigration because they believe that immigrants will take the finite number of jobs and houses. Some people negotiate aggressively in a deal, thinking that “your loss is my gain”. In severe cases, people may even sabotage others to increase their gains.
However, life is not always a zero-sum game. Game theory also describes non-zero-sum games, where the net balance of utility between all participants can be higher (or lesser) than zero. Simply put, in a non-zero-sum game, there can be more than one winner and sometimes, everyone can be a winner.
The best example of this is the mutual benefit born from cooperation. Zero-sum thinking may dictate that you must conquer your neighbouring tribe because they are your competition, but throughout history, cooperation, peace and harmony have prevailed as the winning strategy, because it results in greater net gain.
Happiness is also a non-zero-sum game, where just because someone else is happy, it does not take away from your happiness. But for some reason, some people cannot stand to watch others happy, or feel they must be happier than those around them. These people constantly try to “one-up” others, not recognising others’ happiness, or even sabotaging others and making them feel bad because they can’t stand to see other people be happier than them. This is an extremely toxic, unnecessary behaviour, that should be unacceptable in any kind of relationship, particularly between friends or family.
The far healthier behaviour is to be happy for others’ happiness, regardless of your life situation. This is why compassion is one of the keys for happiness. Realising that we can all find our own joy and contentness and help each other find happiness is a key step in being sustainably happy.
What is the meaning of life? This has been one of the greatest philosophical questions of all time, pondered by almost every human being at some stage in their life. In the early days, the meaning of life was simple: survive. We had to use all of our resources to feed and warm ourselves, while defending ourselves from the various creative ways nature can kill us. But as civilisation developed and we had more luxury of food, time and thought, we began to wonder more and more: why are we here?
When we are babies, the world revolves around us. Parents exist to feed us, what we see are the extension of our minds and what we cannot see does not exist. This belief carries on to adulthood somewhat. We see this in old beliefs that the universe revolves around the Earth, and religions telling us that everything on Earth was created for mankind. The concepts of destiny and divine will provided us with purpose in this world. We felt important and valuable because we felt that we were part of something greater and our lives mattered.
But as science developed, we came to learn that the universe does not exist for us. Things don’t happen because they are scripted as an intricate chain reaction as part of a grand story; they just happen thanks to random chance. Biology teaches us that life is a product of a series of accidents and mistakes, to create better adapted beings. Statistics teaches us that we are not special; just a point on a bell curve. Psychology teaches us how flawed we are in interpreting cause and effect, thanks to our brain’s tendency of seeking patterns resulting in cognitive biases.
In short, there is a real possibility that there is no meaning of life. We are simply happy accidents amidst the course of the universe’s timeline.
Yet we cling to the idea that we need to find our purpose. We cannot bear the thought that we have no celestial guidance as we navigate through life, or that our choices and actions play no role in how the world spins on. We fear that without purpose, we are worthless. The thought that life is meaningless invokes existential dread and we wonder what’s the point of doing anything in life.
However, consider the opposite. If we are not bound by fate or some calling, then our lives are truly ours. We are not chess pieces following every instruction of an unseen player. Instead, we have the freedom to make our own choices and write the story of our lives however we want. This is no doubt scary, because we have little guidance along this journey. Nevertheless, it is our story, our choices, our life.
Instead of lamenting that we serve no purpose, we can create our own purpose. We won the lottery and got to experience consciousness. How will you use that gift? Will you waste it away by doing nothing, or will you make the most of it by enjoying it? If we don’t have some mission to accomplish, then we can use our time to enjoy our passions (given that it does not harm anyone) and challenge ourselves to be better people.
The pursuit of happiness, to be the best version of yourself, to help others lead a happier life… However you want to make use of your life, as long as you are content with it and accept that it is your choice, that is the true meaning of life. Hopefully, it is something positive and constructive, rather than something harmful or something that you would regret in your final moments.
You are not worthless because you have no purpose. You are priceless because there are no expectations or plans or predestined path for you. Life is like a blank canvas with little restriction on what you can do with it. You might as well get the most value from it by painting the best damn picture you can – something for you to smile upon and be proud of, while inspiring others to paint their own beautiful pictures.
If time travel was possible and you could go back in time to change one thing in the past, what would you change?
Would you try to change the world by attempting to kill Hitler before World War 2 starts? Would you buy stock of a company you know is doing extremely well in the present? Would you take a leap of faith that you never did, such as asking out someone you didn’t have the courage to, or moving to a city that you always wanted to live in?
If we ignored the numerous hypothetical troubles that come with time travel, such as the grandfather paradox and chaos theory, the possibilities seem endless. This is because hindsight is 20/20 and we have a tendency to obsess over roads not taken and missed opportunities. Even though we cannot change the past, we lament how if we had the choice, we’d make so many changes to make our present and future better.
Now ask yourself this question: if you from the future could travel back in time to now, what changes do you think they’d want to try to make? The thing with time is that it marches on linearly, making every moment a past of the future. A major difference in this scenario is that unlike the first scenario, we actually have the power to change in the present and the future.
So whenever you catch yourself regretting how life would be different if you had made different choices in the past, change your frame of mind. Instead, consider what changes you could make now to make your future self have less regrets. Maybe it is treating yourself (within reasonable limits), or finally taking that trip you always dreamed of, or taking a chance on something you are unsure or anxious about, or keeping resolutions on living a healthy, better life.
Although physics (currently) dictates that time travel is impossible, our minds have the power to travel in time virtually from the future to now, letting us make choices and take actions so we can live with less regrets.
We now live in the Digital Age. We take photos with our digital cameras, letting us take thousands of photos as we can easily delete photos that did not turn out well. We write emails on our computers, where we often type and retype, proofreading and editing until we have perfectly sculpted our message. We bombard each other with messages that package complex words and feelings into neat little abbreviations and emoticons.
Going digital has, without a doubt, made our lives easier. Digital is exact and fast, while being easily editable thanks to existing only in virtual space. But what is the price of convenience? Did we lose something in the process?
Before the Digital Age, we used film cameras that required careful photography as we had a limited number of shots per roll of film. We wrote handwritten letters, where we had to give considerable thought to what we were going to write before even picking up the pen, lest we waste another sheet of paper. If we wanted to say something important to someone we cared about, we would do it face to face, or at least over a phone call, where our body language and voice gave off subtle nuances about how we truly felt.
As cumbersome as this sounds, the value of analog is that it focusses on quality, not quantity. We no longer have photo albums that summarise a whole year (or even childhood) in just dozens of carefully curated photos. Instead, we have albums full of hundreds of pictures per day, which we rarely review because there are too many to go through.
The worst consequence of going digital is that our words have lost weight and substance. We throw words at each other like paper planes because we feel compelled to reply in some way. We think less about our choice of words because they are a dime a dozen, yet we overanalyse the meaning of what others say in a message because we have no other cues such as body language. We become hurt by hollow words and emoticons devoid of feeling and personality.
We are still analog. We cannot treat each other like photos that can be taken en masse then culled, or a word document that can be freely edited. We should put more care into the things we say to each other – with more thought, feeling and personality – to avoid hurting each other so much.
Imagine the following situation. There are five people working on a railroad. Unfortunately, a train is travelling down the track at the same time. Neither the conductor nor the workers are aware that a crash is coming. You are the only person that knows. Next to you is a switch that will change the tracks so that the train diverts and misses the five people, but the second track also has one worker working on it. Here is the dilemma: do you pull the switch to save the five workers at the cost of the one worker?
But now consider a similar yet different situation. Instead of a switch, this time you are standing next to a very large man on a bridge overhanging the tracks. The only way to save the five people on the track is to push the large man on to the tracks, slowing the train down and giving the five workers enough time to escape harm.
Mathematically, the end result is the same: one person is sacrificed so that five people live. But when presented the two scenarios, the majority of people will say they would not push the large man, even though they were willing to pull the switch in the first situation.
This is a complex ethical problem as the rational, logical choice may not necessarily be the “morally right” choice. It directly conflicts with our natural and cultural belief that we should not kill members of our own species. The slippery slope argument also applies here, as if you can argue that killing one man to save five people is correct, then what’s to stop us from sacrificing one person to harvest their organs to save the lives of many people awaiting organ transplants?
Although the original problem was developed to explore the morality of utilitarianism, we are now living in a time where the trolley problem has become an actual logistical issue. The issue lies with self-driving cars. Self-driving cars should theoretically dramatically reduce road traffic accidents as it removes human error such as drink driving and inattention as the cause of crashes. However, if a situation was to arise where the car senses that it is about to collide into a pedestrian (or five), what does it do? Does it swerve to avoid the pedestrian and put the passengers’ lives at risk? How does a computer decide what the morally right choice is?
A computer is designed to make calculated, rational decisions. Mathematically, it may deem that swerving and crashing into a tree – endangering the life of its sole passenger – is the logical choice to prevent hitting five people on the road. But then who would buy a car that willingly sacrifices its passengers’ lives for the greater good?
Technology is advancing at a staggering rate and we are facing ethical dilemmas that we have never had to consider before. It is our job to discuss and explore these issues ahead of time so that we can prevent irresponsible use of technology in the future.
No matter how special you may be, there is one universal truth: we will all die someday. It may be in fifty years’ time, or it could be tomorrow. But nonetheless, we all have to eventually face our mortality. Memento mori, which is Latin for “remember you must die”, is the philosophy of being mindful of this fact.
It may sound morbid to ponder one’s own mortality day by day. However, the true meaning of memento mori is not to live anxiously fearing that death may be around every corner. Instead, it teaches us to not take life for granted, as it is finite and will end someday.
Many of us stress about the future so much that we cannot enjoy the present. We are ambitious: always aiming higher, to reach a higher position, to gain more wealth and to attain pleasure. But we forget that on our deathbed, none of these material things matter. What matters is whether you will be able to look back on your life and say that you truly lived with little regrets.
That said, it is okay to fear death. It is human nature to fear the unknown. Instead, we can harness our fear of death to live a fuller life. Fear is a poison that prevents us from seizing the day. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of judgement… But when we compare it to the weight of our inevitable demise, it is nothing. Although we are all afraid of dying, the vast majority of us are able to live without the fear of death interfering with our day-to-day lives. Therefore, unless death is an immediate consequence of your actions, nothing should make you afraid of trying.
Lastly, memento mori is a reminder of the temporary, impermanent nature of the human condition. Any moment could be our last, no matter how banal it may be. A brief phone call with your loved ones arguing about something petty may be the last conversation you have with them. It is a well-known fact that the human brain remembers the first and last things or events the most (primacy and recency). When you remember that death awaits all of us, every moment becomes a little bit more precious. We start paying more detail to how wonderful life is and how fortunate we are to have loved ones in our lives.
Remember you must die; you might as well make the most of life before then. Or as Ferris Bueller put it:
“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
The famous Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment illustrates the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics. Quantum physics is an extremely complicated field of study, but the gist of the Copenhagen interpretation is that a probability remains in a superposition – that is a state where many possibilities exist at the same time – until it is observed, when it collapses into a certain state.
For example, imagine a cat that is locked in a box sealed with a vial of poison, that is set to break open only 50% of the time. Until the box is opened, we do not know if the cat has been killed by poison or not. Therefore, the cat can be said to be both alive and dead at the same time (Erwin Schrödinger initially devised the experiment to mock the Copenhagen interpretation).
There is a fascinating theory that takes this strange thought experiment one step further. Another interpretation of quantum physics is the Everett many-worlds interpretation. This explains that instead of the wavefunction collapsing (i.e. producing a single result such as alive or dead) on observation, two parallel universes are created instead: one universe where the cat died and another universe where the cat is still alive. Essentially, it states there are infinite universes containing every permutation of possibilities that can exist and that whenever a probability is observed, we enter a specific universe.
This is a very confusing concept to grasp, so let us return to the cat in the box. According to the Copenhagen interpretation, the cat has a 50% chance of surviving the experiment the first time. From then on, the chance of the cat being dead grows exponentially with every experiment. However, according to the many-worlds interpretation, no matter how many experiments we perform, there always will be a universe where the cat miraculously survived each one. From the cat’s perspective, it would not know of the universe if it had died. Therefore, the only universe where the cat is able to tell this story to its friends at the end of the day is one where it survives every single experiment
Now let us apply that to our own lives. Imagine that you are crossing the road and a bus is about to hit you. If there is even a 1% chance you might survive this event, your quantum self will move to a universe where it is possible (otherwise you would be dead and your consciousness ceases to exist). By extrapolation, you can never really die as a version of you will forever live on, beating improbable odds until a point where there are literally no possible universes you could be alive.
Quantum immortality is a thought experiment that relies on the many-worlds interpretation. However, it is also extremely difficult to prove wrong. The only way you could confirm this is if you attempted to kill yourself over and over (quantum suicide) and failed each time. But if you were wrong, you would die and not be able to tell anyone. Ergo, you cannot rule out the possibility that you will live forever.
The scariest part of the theory is not that you are potentially immortal. It is that quantum immortality does not account for your well-being – just your consciousness. If an accident were to leave you horribly disfigured but alert, it would still satisfy quantum immortality. You could be trapped in a motionless body for the rest of eternity, unable to communicate to anyone. Yet quantum immortality will keep you alive, forever and ever.
A famous theory in philosophy is the anthropic principle, which argues that the reason the various physical constants and laws of nature are consistent with an environment that can support life is because if life were impossible, no life would be able to observe the universe. Simply put, it argues that the reason the universe seems so improbably perfectly tuned for us to exist in it, is that we exist to observe it.
What if we applied a similar theory to modern world history? Since the advent of nuclear weapons, we now have the capability of destroying human civilisation with the push of a button. There have been so many incidents in the past century where international tensions and mistakes have nearly resulted in thermonuclear war, such as during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, through improbable coincidences (and the moral fibre of certain heroes), we continue to live on as a species.
But perhaps history only seems so full of coincidences because we are still alive to study it. For our reality to exist, human beings have had to resist the urge to annihilate themselves. Ergo, the longer we live through the Atomic Age, the stranger our reality becomes, as otherwise we would have been wiped out. Zach Weinersmith calls this the anthroponuclear multiple worlds theory.
So perhaps this explains why we are seeing crazier and crazier stories on the news as of late. As in any other sensible timeline, we would all be dead.