Socrates – Put commonsense at the centre of his thinking. Commonsense is a culmination of what we know and what we can see occurs from experience. This has changed markedly since the time of the ancient philosophers.
Today we have created a detailed understanding of science. It makes your head reel when you consider what we now know.
For instance, we even know what the universe looked like 13 billion years ago; in fact, we have pictures showing small parts of the universe at that time. We can also ‘see’ down to the infinitesimal size of a atom and we try to predict the smallest parts of matter and test these predictions with massively powerful machines (Cern et al). We understand and use atomic principles to create energy and have even created a small sun and a tiny black hole.
We already use quantum principles (even though no one seems to be able to explain them) in technological processes such as cryptography, tunneling microscopes and there is evidence that a bird's navigation system uses them also.
As for life itself, We now know all the main building blocks of nature, (DNA, amino acids, proteins), and that all life comes from one single point in time. From our understanding of genetics we have already created a living bacterium from the building blocks of DNA.
Our technical progress has been simply staggering and continues to be so. Perhaps, just as important, is that it seems we do not need to makes sense of our technologies to apply them. Just as nature creates incomprehensible complexity from the simple information system using just DNA, we are beginning to create complexity that is also unfathomable.
For the ancient philosophers our current knowledge would have impacted their thinking, it would have widened what was considered controllable by a sentient species far beyond what seemed, (and was for thousands of years), immutable. Their knowledge was specific about many boundaries - everything lived and died, matter could not be created or destroyed, there were no magic solutions, the philosophers did not put any sway in the Gods either. They agreed however, that they knew little. And so turned their attentions in the main to how we should live and find happiness while enduring the inevitable issues that humans had encountered from time immemorial. These central tenets were often argued amongst themselves - how should we live with one another and find true 'happiness'.
From Democritus’s atom, Socrates questioning, through Plato’s ‘ideas’ and shadow universe, to Aristotle’s logic and scientific approach. The Sophists, the Cynics, the Stoicists, the Epicurists all had their view on society and how to live and gain ‘happiness’.
Today, man is no nearer reaching an answer to this puzzle. Presently, many humans are still so involved with 'staying alive' or enhancing their place within society, they take little time to consider 'happiness'. It is something that happens (or not) along their life's journey. This non-involved view will need to change as technology soon enables man to choose his life options without the pressures of striving to create sustenance and wealth.
Indeed, science has opened potential possibilities that will be the driving force behind renewed attempts to find an enduring answer. We shall consider some of these shortly, but you shall see, they change everything that the ancient philosophers thought was sensible to consider in attempting to answer this question, the doors to the future are soon to be flung open, nature itself, as we know it, is about to change.
It occurs to the modern thinker that there are perhaps three great issues facing the human race in the near future that have an overwhelming impact on this ‘happiness’ question.
Firstly - finite resources. Up to now the human race has relied on seemingly infinite resources from our planet. This is now fundamentally changing. To compensate, man shall need to significantly adjust his personal and societal values. Seeking happiness through ever increasing material possession shall not be possible. A major change in societal structure shall be required if we are to avoid the disharmony promised by our planets finite resources.
Secondly - bring on the Robot Slaves. Just as Greece and Rome depended on a two tier society with the human slaves being the bedrock of their economy and society, man will soon, (within several generations at most), return to societies based on economic output by (mechanical) slaves. Currently these robots are hidden away within manufacturing plants doing specific tasks. They will, as they improve, emerge to fill a wider and wider range of human activities that we rely on for our ‘wealth creation’.
Unlike human slaves their effectiveness and efficiency will depend only upon the finite resources available on the planet. (As they shall be able to manufacture themselves along with their power systems). Humans shall then have ‘all the time in the world’ to consider the ‘happiness’ question. You will also notice that this assumes a vital change to our economic and societal systems, from the current, mainly hierarchical system to some other societal form that enables the sharing of the immense wealth created by our machines.
Thirdly - following on from the advent of continuously improving slave machine technology, will be several inter-linked technologies offering immense possibilities for Humans. The initial non-sentient slave machines will give way to cleverer and cleverer machines. These thinking systems will provide the basis for both enhanced humans and virtual realities. The clever machines shall at some point become ‘sentient’ and humans shall need to deal with the philosophical consequence of this (perhaps as well as the physical consequences). The possibilities for enhancing ourselves with these intelligent systems shall occur through embedded technologies. This creates further dilemma for our modern philosophers, along with potential massive changes to humans across the planet. While this may seem like sc-fi today, all the building blocks of the science are already understood, practical technologies usually follow.
Along with non-human sentience, is the likely possibility of creating virtual environments. As these progress, the possibility of ‘living’ within such an environment becomes a possibility. In tomorrow’s world we may have to choose either perhaps live ‘forever’ within a virtual environment or stay within the real environment to live out our life. Along with this possibility is the clear potential of creating a virtual, non-human being that has sentience. Within a short historical period (3,000 years) humans would then have jumped from considering the merit of the Gods to being a creator of life ourselves, effectively being a god.
You will have not missed the relevance that if this can come to pass – then it may have already happened somewhere in our Universe by virtue of some other sentient creature, indeed our whole existence may be within a virtual Universe. Perhaps Plato's 'Myth of the Cave' was far sighted indeed.
With commonsense and a little historical perspective we can see that these coming issues present more profound philosophical questions than those faced even by our ancient philosophers. While they had little knowledge to build the foundations for their thinking, we shall soon be immersed within possibilities that even these great minds did not foresee.
Many of the questions shall be the same – how may we find happiness and shape society to enable this? Hopefully, we can achieve this quest, not just for the few, but for the majority of mankind including the sentient beings that we may create along the way.
Modern philosophers please step forward with your thinking.
Summary – The historical question of ‘happiness’ lies at the heart of the ancient philosophers' quest. This shall ‘soon’ become an inevitable issue for all human beings. Improving technology brings imminent and profound opportunities along with new dangers – can we all become the modern thinkers that will allow us to handle these opportunities to enable our happiness while handling the burden of playing god?