Posers and Complicators

Philosophers study behavior.  Philosophy is behavior.  We study behavior.  Therefore we study philosophers.  Does this also make us philosophers?

To some degree the answer is yes.  Does this hurt?

It shouldn’t, because one of the greatest assets of becoming a student of behavior is that everything we study is a kind of mirror.  What we learn about others also teaches us something about ourselves.  Usually.

For instance, the study of mathematics is behavior.  But mathematics itself is not behavior.  Math, simply, is math.  It wouldn’t exist if humans didn’t exist, but the concepts underlying mathematics would.

As students of behavior, our study of the study of mathematics can be very interesting.  One of the most intriguing things to come out of math during the last century was something revealed by Kurt Gödel, and beautifully described by Douglas Hofstadter.  Simply, Gödel proved, mathematically, that we can’t fully understand a system from within that system.  We’ll talk more about this another day.

When we study philosophy as behavior, it becomes impossibly complex.  The problem isn’t the subject itself, but those pretending to ‘practice’ philosophy.  If you have ever been lucky enough to hear a live philosophical debate between experts, you may know what I mean.  There is nothing but misunderstanding, big words, long complicated threads of thought, and meandering statements without meaning that goes on forever.  If you want to experience the same sort of thing without as much of the boredom, visit any philosophical thread on the internet and try to follow along.

More importantly, there are never any conclusions.  Philosophers can’t know when they’ve come to a conclusion because none of them are even sure where they are.

Are these fighting words?  Do you disagree?  Let’s try an easy experiment.  Find any two philosophers – expert or not, it won’t matter.  And give them a philosophical term to define, in 25 words or less.  And let them do it separately.  Then compare the answers.  Are they going to be the same definition, or different?

I’m writing down my definition now.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurt_G%C3%B6del

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godel_escher_bach


I love the sofa

Philo-sophy = I love the sofa

Isn’t this what philosophy really means?  After all, it seems that almost all philosophical discussions take place in nice cushy locations with glasses of sherry or wine being passed about.  Sure, if you’re in school it’s going to be beer in the bar, but the situation is basically the same.  Safe and sound and comfortable.

Why not discuss philosophy when you are digging a ditch for water runoff?  Or restringing 12,000 volt power lines after they’ve been pulled down during a storm?  Or while practicing engine-out procedures in a single engine aircraft?

The answer is that philosophy doesn’t address real-life scenarios.  Philosophy prides itself on addressing issues that don’t matter.  At least they don’t matter today.

The problem with today’s philosophy is that there are issues that matter tomorrow, big issues that can result in our having a better world, or worse world.  And today’s philosophers don’t seem to be able to connect the dots between behaviors we execute today and those long-term implications.

The problem with today’s philosophers is that they are too comfortable.  It’s time to take their drinks away.  It’s time to push them off the sofa and out of the bar.  It’s time to make them get real jobs and still try to apply philosophy to our lives.

Or is it?  I forgot myself for a moment.  I’m supposed to be studying these philosophers, understanding them in the context of human behavior.  How they fit into society, and what their impact on that society may be.  Forgive me, Gentle Reader.

In that case, we must return to their habitat and observe them as they behave, naturally, on the sofa.

Where’s my sherry?


Closet Philosopher

Philosophy is the study of behavior.  True, it is the study of very specialized behaviors.  Philosophers study the nature of the universe, the underlying and unchanging nature of great concepts such as Justice and Truth and Right and Wrong.  But underlying and unifying all these concepts are people, you and me.  These are just very specialized aspects of you and me, therefore philosophers study behavior.

Philosophy is a behavior in its own right.  In order to do philosophy, you have to think about these things.  Thinking is behavior.  True, it’s the sneakiest form of behavior because we don’t (yet) have a way to see inside someone’s head to tell what they are thinking.  So when you see a lady lounging on the beach with a daiquiri in hand and you ask her what she’s doing, she can say “I working doing philosophy” and we would have to take her word for it.  It may be that she was thinking of something else, or may have even been napping (it’s impossible to see her eyes behind those big beautiful sunglasses and floppy hat), but there’s no way for us to know.

The reason we should study philosophy as behavior is because so many of us look towards philosophy in order to understand our world.  So many young people take philosophy courses in school, and so many other adults attempt to tackle philosophy when they have time.  But, as far as I can tell as of this writing, no one is making any great strides in understanding.  Everyone is still, just talking.

That’s why there are so many closet philosophers.  We don’t like to admit it, but many of us (especially writers and other artists) are thinking about these sort of big questions.  And it’s our duty as students of behavior to put some of our tools to use in their behalf.  We certainly aren’t going to expect great philosophical insights.  But perhaps our observations can shed some light on the WAY philosophy is studied today, not upon philosophy itself.

Are you with me?  Alright then, let’s open that closet door and join the rest of society.


Philosopher’s Closet

Here’s a show stopper for you.  Philosophy is really the study of behavior.

“Oh, hey! Hold your horses!” you say.  “Who are you kidding?” you say.

Oh yes, Gentle Reader.  Bear with me but a few moments, and you may agree with what I suggest.  Let’s peek inside the Philosopher’s Closet and see exactly what kind of clothing she wears.

Ahh, I see the ever popular toga and flip flops, hanging right next to the dark three-piece suit.  On the shelf is the old goblet for hemlock, and it looks like a pipe box – but both haven’t been used for a long time.  No little black dresses, no high heels, a very practical wardrobe.  What about accessories?

I see a whole assortment of recently worn eyewear, so no lasik going on here.  And a lot of paper, some going back many centuries.  Obviously a lot of writing and talking going on.  Let’s look for that book of axioms and conclusions and see what it has to say.  There are a whole lot of great volumes littering the floor, covering every subject under the sun, but where are the conclusions of philosophy?  Here it is, lying on the floor next to some old tobacco.  A very thin notebook.  Let’s open it up.

Well, isn’t this interesting.  Not much in this.  Some lines about syllogisms, a little geometry and some higher math.  A nod to biology, and that’s it.  Next to all these other great volumes, this seems a bit too lean, doesn’t it?

It should.  Philosophy is an academic discipline and an art form that doesn’t directly produce anything we can measure, so far.  What they purport to study is what people do and think, and that’s behavior!

But what philosophy is in strictly functional terms is this; people talking about stuff.  People talking.  That’s behavior in itself, and that’s what we study.  They think they are talking about the meaning of life and great concepts such as Truth and Justice, but as far as the rest of us are concerned, they are only talking to themselves.

As students of behavior, we have to recognize this talking, and the entire art form that we call “Philosophy” as a particular kind of behavior.  So let’s ask this question; can we study it and find out what it’s all about?

I think, therefore we can.

Reality check

Reality this, reality that.  Who reality cares?

We have to care, if we are trying to understand ourselves.

Over the last few weeks we talked about the reality that never changes, matter and energy.  There’s the reality that is shared by all life, things that are born, and then die.  There’s the reality of people, brought to you by the same people who like to make love, and war.  And there’s the reality of yourself, the stuff that only you can know, like your inner thoughts.

Is there a handy or easy way to keep these straight so that I don’t have to go muddling about trying to remember what belongs where?  Let’s try this exercise.

Pretend we are studying your dreams.  And someone asks you, are your dreams real?  Of course they are, to you.  Are your dreams real to all people?  Here’s the test; make yourself disappear.  It’s only a thought experiment, so you can disappear to a luxury island where there’s beautiful servants waiting upon your every whim.  What happens to YOUR dreams though, relative to everyone else?  Of course you don’t care, because you’re getting your feet rubbed on that pristine beach.  But for the rest of us, your dreams are gone, long gone.  They aren’t real to us, because they disappeared when you disappeared.

What about dreams in general, are they real?  Since we’re talking about general dreams, what we’re saying is this; do dreams only exist in people?  Let’s find out and send all people to that same luxury island (it’s a big island) so that all other life is now devoid of people.  Now some of the animals may have dream-like stages, but since they can’t talk we won’t ever know if they are dreaming.  So dreams are only “real” in the sense that people are real.  Dreams in general represent a reality that is only common to people.

What about life and death?  Is it real?  It’s real as long as we are looking at things that live.  Take away all life, and you have something that looks like the moon.  There is no life on the moon, and there is no death.  Life and death, then, are only as real as the living things they represent.

And this is how to determine the degree of “realness” of anything we study.  Take yourself away, if it still exists, it’s more real than you.  Take people away, and if it still exists, it’s even “realer.”  Take all life away, and if it still exists, it’s as real as it gets.

Thanks for coming along.  Now let’s get real.  Let’s only study things that are real.