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.



Is that really you?

Are you real?  Have you thought about it?

In these last few weeks, we talked about how matter and energy are real.  Well, there’s a good chance you are made of matter and energy.  I think I’m mostly dark matter but that’s mostly in my stomach.

You are also alive, and as a member of all things living you are real in the sense that life is real.  You are alive, right?

Since you’re reading this, it’s also likely that you are a person.  Last week we noticed how there are lots of things that people do that are unique to people, and not life in general.  So, as a people, you are also real.  Isn’t it great to be a human?

There’s one more reality.  It’s all you.  Totally.  Don’t believe me?  Then try this on for size.  Are you alone?  Check.  The NSA doesn’t count, but it doesn’t hurt to cover up your camera!  OK, now cough.  Once is enough.  You were the only person to hear you cough.  Was that cough real?

As a people, we know that people cough.  But that’s in general.  Your specific one-time-only cough came, and went.  We don’t have the technology to bring it back, even if you wanted.  My point is that your cough is real, only to you.

Ever have a dream?  Of course you have.  Sleep researchers are pretty sure everyone dreams regularly.  Did you ever remember a dream?  Probably, the odds are good on this one because it depends on when you wake from a sleep cycle.  Did anyone else ever have the exact same dream?  Of course not.  Yet, is your dream real?  Yes, but only to you.

And this is the last sort of reality.  It’s the reality of you.  You form your own little universe where what you experience, what you feel, what you think, is all real.  It’s real only to you.  The extent that you can get others to believe in YOUR reality is a testament to your powers of persuasion, like when you share your dreams.  But it’s still only your reality.

There you have it.  Many realities.  Now that we know this, we can be aware of which reality we are working in as we try to understand behavior.  There’s a handy way to keep them straight, but that’s for next week.

See you then.  Sweet dreams!



Real People

Let’s get real, people.  Literally.  We are people, and we are real, aren’t we?

Last few weeks we touched on the reality of matter and energy.  That’s the most basic kind of reality, because it’s been around for billions of years (almost 14!) and will be around for billions more.

The next level of reality was that of life itself.  Life is real.  It better be, because I hate to try and understand stuff that’s not real.  Now for the next level up.

People.  Humans.  Humanity.  Homo sapiens.  You and me.  We’re real, right?  We’re real because we’re alive, so we represent life, and we argued that life was real.  But there is also the possibility that there is a reality that is unique to people.  I’m fairly sure that there are a few things that we as people can do that other life can’t.  Making a very complex society for one.  Writing, and sometimes reading, for another.  How about regular cooking, or planning a dinner party?  What about this great internet thing?

It’s a higher level of reality.  The internet is real, because it’s here, and we’re using it.  It’s not easy to measure or put in a box because it’s a higher kind of reality.  In this reality, we are looking at things that are common to all people.  The internet is common to all people, or it soon will be!

What else is real, for people?  War, famine, hate, greed, slavery, duplicity, manipulation, demagoguery, and so many other disagreeable behaviors.  There is also idealism, love, cooperation, and art.  None of these, in a consistent, organized form, exists anywhere else but in the human world.

That’s really cool.  Really.  Or should I say, Reality.

Stay tuned.  There’s more.


Kind of Reality

Did you know that what we’re studying isn’t real?  Really!

Behavior, that is.  Not real, that is.  It’s kind of real, but not real at the same time.  Hold on a minute, I think I need to eat something.

That’s better – I have a clear head finally.  Garlic pesto pasta does the trick.  And it’s a good place to start our discussion.  My plate of pasta is real.  It’s real in the sense that I can touch it, weigh it, smell it, taste it (YUM!), and in all other ways document its properties such that other people can verify my measurements.  So if you were my guest (Come on over! You can bring the ice cream!) you could repeat my measurements and come to the same numbers – or close anyway.  We could take photographs and look at them years later, and still agree that what we see was, in fact, real.

This is physical reality.  It’s the best kind of reality, because it’s the kind that can hit you in the face if you’re not careful.  Well, best may not be the best word, but it is best because we can’t argue that my pasta wasn’t real.  The same goes for my stove, Parmesan cheese, and garlic.  They are real, physically real.

Can you guess what the other types of reality are?  Go ahead, we need something to talk about while we sip the last dregs of wine and have some of that ice cream.  Here are some hints.  The stove in my example is going to be real for a long long time.  The garlic and cheese, on the other hand, are only going to exist for a short time.

So send in those guesses!  In the meantime, I’m going downstairs for some of that pasta.  I firmly believe that a person can’t have too much garlic.  Unfortunately for my coworkers, I think they disagree!


Ancient Greek Atoms

Yet another fantastic episode of “Cosmos” starring NdGT, this one including Greek thinkers such as Thales and Democritus.  Neil also breathes a lot in this episode.  Sorry, I can’t explain it, you’ll have to watch.

If you missed this exciting episode, don’t worry, that’s what streaming is all about!  Here’s a quick two cent recap:  Thales argued that things we couldn’t explain (like thunder and lightning) weren’t capricious acts of gods, but natural and therefore understandable phenomena.  Democritus suggested that all things were made of fundamental building blocks called “atoms.”

It’s hard to overstate the importance of such great concepts, for they are central to our current understanding of nature.  But as students of behavior, we should also remember that when it comes to remembering our glorious intellectual history, we have more in common with preparing a holiday feast than confessing an honest recollection.

Have you ever gotten ready for having company coming over for dinner?  Clean the floors, wash the walls, get out the fine china and hide all the dirt, if you can.  Holding up our glorious history as if everything was neat and clean is exactly the same.  Once company is gone, we can let our home go back to ‘normal.’  And our history is also ‘normal,’ in the sense that we know Thales and Democritus did not have an easy time of it.  Their voices were one of many putting a wide variety of concepts forward.  And if we look at all their words (what’s left, anyway) to see what they truly said, we find that their concepts are much muddier than what NdGT would like us to believe.

And that’s ok, because that’s reality.  They didn’t live during a time of purity and perfect predictions, and neither do we.  What we need to learn from the ‘dirt’ of the past is that, even today, there may be a modern Thales or Democritus who is trying to lay the foundation of a better understanding of nature.  What we do have, that they did not, is the discipline of Science to help us separate the crazy ideas from the good ones.

That is, if Science is working as it should be.  Sometimes it doesn’t, but I’ll talk about that next week.  For now, let’s just breathe.

Ahhh. Ancient atoms!



Dreams, behave yourselves!

Did you dream?  Was it a long story complete with great camera angles, character development, wonderful scenery and meaningful symbolism?  My wife dreams like that.

Or was it more like my dream, a snippet of a scene, a weird dysfunctional reality where something is totally out of whack.  Crazy things like a staircase to nowhere, a car that turns into a tent, or running slowly away from some menace to suddenly find yourself flying above the roof tops?

Sleep research says we all dream.  Whether we remember it or not depends on when we wake up.  What I want to ask is this; does dreaming constitute behavior?  If it’s something we do, then it must be!

But if we dream and can’t remember it, did it really happen?  It sounds a lot like that damn tree that fell in the woods.  For some reason, philosophers have bad hearing because they ask, did it make a sound?

It all depends on what “sound” means to us.  If sound is energy dissipated in the form of compressed air in a certain frequency, then of course it does.  Silly philosopher.  But if sound means your ear capturing those air waves and registering them as energy from the same direction as the tree, then the answer is NO!

So, is dreaming behavior?  If no one is there to hear it, does it count?  Even if that person is you?

Dream about that!