Child: Why is the sky blue?

Parent: Because of the way sunlight passes through Earth’s atmosphere.

Child: What’s an atmosphere?

Parent: It’s like a thin blanket placed around a planet. Ours is made of air.

Child: Why is there an atmosphere?

Parent: You know what? I don’t know.

You may have heard such a dialogue between a parent and a child before. You may have even been lucky enough to experience it first-hand already. Or rather unlucky, depending on who you ask. Most people describe the experience as annoying or unpleasant. That’s not surprising. The child, in his or her relentless pursuit towards making sense of the world, comes to you for answers. The child is eager to learn, and therefore starts probing your knowledge for useful insights into how the world works. In the process, he or she might uncover important gaps or inconsistencies in your knowledge, which can range from uncomfortable to embarassing.

A famous person who went around asking such questions (and annoying people in the process) was Socrates. The ancient greek philosopher would walk around and start asking people trivial questions. However, he would systematically follow up with more and more questions, trying to probe the other’s reasoning for inconsistencies.

Socrates: With what is rhetoric concerned?

Gorgias: With discourse.

Socrates: What sort of discourse, Gorgias — such discourse as would teach the sick under what treatment they might get well?

Gorgias: No.

Socrates: Then rhetoric does not treat of all kinds of discourse?

Gorgias: Certainly not.

Socrates: And yet rhetoric makes men able to speak?

Gorgias: Yes.

Socrates: And to understand that about which they speak?

Gorgias: Of course.

Socrates: Come, then, and let us see what we really mean about rhetoric…

Unfortunately, going around and annoying people with a never-ending onslaught of questions got him put on trial and eventually killed. However, the Socratic method eventually became the basis for many techniques of critical thinking. By using a systematic way of posing questions aimed at bringing to light the assumptions and thought process behind a statement, the Socratic method became a timeless tool for helping people think more clearly.

The reason why those sequences of questions are annoying is that they uncover gaps and inconsistencies in our knowledge. If ignorance is bliss, the Socratic method is misery. We evolved to perceive consistency as pleasant and inconsistency as painful. But the very reason why the Socratic method is painful is also why it is so incredibly powerful. Bringing the discrepancies in your knowledge to light is an important first step in becoming aware of them, so that you can eventually fix them. We should be honest with ourselves regarding our knowledge, because only then will we be able to develop it effectively. We should make a habit out of going beyond the cognitive dissonance of being challenged and slowly improve our reasoning.

An honest man is always a child. — Socrates

Therefore, the Socratic method consists of posing tough questions, but what kind of questions specifically? We could classify those based on their goal. For example, a question might be designed to challenge assumptions, like “Is this always the case?” or “Why do you think that this assumption holds here?”. Other questions might be asked to make you think about alternative ways to approach a problem, like “Can you look at this in another way?” or “What is the counter-argument?”. Yet other questions might help you explore consequences, like “If this was indeed the case, what would be the implications?” or “What would be the result of this?”. All these questions challenge your knowledge in one way or another. And they’re quite effective, which is why we still extensively use Socrates’ practices across countless fields.

If you think about it, the questions themselves are not that complex. You probably had no trouble understanding what they mean. Therefore, we have in our hands a set of tools which are not only very powerful, but they’re also very simple to understand and use. The difficult part in harnessing the Socratic method is not in creating thought-provoking questions, but rather in creating the right context for the dialogue to manifest effectively. You don’t need domain-specific knowledge yourself in order to challenge domain-specific knowledge.

This brings up an opportunity: what if we could create a tool for thinking based on the Socratic method? Building it would be rather straight-forward, because posing these questions is simple. What matters is the context that is being created, the conversation. Even better, there’s already a mature class of tools designed to hold conversations with people. We call them chatbots.

A session with a Socratic chatbot would unfold as follows. Whenever you’re in for a critical thinking exercise, you would open up a chat with it and tell it what you think. This could be a concept you’re trying to grasp, a societal problem you’re trying to solve, a personal issue you’re trying to tackle, or anything you are trying to get a better grasp on. Then, the chatbot would answer with plain questions designed to challenge your thinking, shift your attention to alternative perspectives, and look for evidence. In other words, it would guide you in thinking critically.

User: The sky is blue.

Chatbot: What makes you think that’s the case?

User: Personal observation.

Chatbot: Is this always the case?

User: Yes, others report similar observations.

Chatbot: What is the underlying cause of this?

User: Maybe it’s the sunlight that’s being reflected off the oceans and back into the sky.

Chatbot: Is this always the case?

User: Not really, because the sky is blue even in the middle of the countryside, far from the sea.

Chatbot: Can you look at this in another way?

User: Maybe it’s because of the water in our atmosphere.

Chatbot: If this was indeed the case, what would be the implications?

User: The sky wouldn’t be blue in places that are extremely dry, like the desert. But the sky is also blue in there, so yeah.

Chatbot: Is this always the case?

User: I mean, I’ve never heard of the sky not being blue in the desert.

Chatbot: Can you look at this in another way?

User: Maybe it’s because of the way sunlight interacts with our atmosphere.

Chatbot: Is there evidence to support this?

User: Well, white light interacts with a prism in funny ways, so maybe that’s what’s happening here as well.

Chatbot: Can you elaborate on that?

User: Maybe the atmosphere is sort of acting like a giant prism, making the sky seem blue.

Having the chatbot simply spit out random questions from a tiny collection might get repetitive. A more pleasant conversation partner might require adding more powerful natural language processing capabilities. This would make the chatbot able to pose questions which include your messages as context, like in the dialogues at the beginning. Instead of responding with predefined strings, it would use templates which adapt to the topic of discussion.

User: The sky is blue.

Chatbot: What makes you think that the sky is blue?

User: Personal observation.

Chatbot: Is it always the case that the sky is blue?

User: Yes, others report similar observations.

Of course, we wouldn’t expect such chatbots to exhibit intelligent behavior. That isn’t their purpose, and would be far beyond their capabilities. However, even such an algorithmic agent could still prove useful, because, as we’ve seen before, one could challenge the subject at hand without having a grasp on it. The real value of such a chatbot would be in probing your own knowledge, the knowledge of the interlocutor, in a more systematic manner. And even if the conversation becomes a bit clumsy at times, this doesn’t diminish its value.

What would you discuss with such a chatbot? How far would the discussion go? Those are intriguing questions waiting for answers.