Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Mailbag Monday: An Assortment of Questions



Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers' questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don't quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to philosophybro@gmail.com with 'Mailbag Monday' in the subject line.

This week, I'm diving into the Monday Mailbag, which contains the questions for Mailbag Monday; I'll answer readers' shorter questions, questions that don't require a full post; these questions usually go neglected in favor of longer treatments of interesting questions. Well not today, kids.
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Daniel writes,

Hey Bro, I was wondering - how far back does philosophy go exactly? I mean, was there ever a first bro who stood up and said "That's it, I'm gonna philosophize up in this bitch", or does it stretch back to the unknown mists of prebrostory? If the latter, who is the earliest philosobro we have records of?
Well, Aristotle wrote a bunch of stuff about his predecessors, and we pretty much depend on that work to tell us about anyone pre-Socrates. He identifies Thales of Miletus as the very first Greek philosopher. Now, Thales, uh, he thought everything was made of water, so his ideas weren't particularly influential. However, his methods were. Before Thales, everyone in Greece was like, "Obviously, the gods!" And that wasn't just their explanation for crazy shit like the origin of the universe and the source of the weather. They explained everything like that. How does bread rise? Thanks, gods, for intervening in my oven. Thales was the first bro to be like, "Knock it off, you fucking assclowns, we can figure this shit out for real." Which was a revolutionary idea, the idea that maybe we shouldn't just, you know, invoke the gods and call it a day.
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David writes,

As I journey through this fucking crazy life, I'm continually changing. Lately, my schtick has been boldness: doing exactly what I want, saying how I truly feel, and moreover not giving a fuck what people think. My question is this: is it a greater good to be true to yourself or to dilute the truth in consideration of others?

David, this is as much a bro question as it is a philosophy question. In fact, I think it's almost entirely a bro question. Like you said, you're constantly changing - what exactly does "true to yourself" mean, if you're different than you were a year ago? Are you being true to ten-year-old you? Maybe ten-year-old you would have really liked that bro you just told to fuck off, who knows?
Look, obviously if someone is a toxic influence on your life, then you should tell them that and cut them off. But if you can be diplomatic, if 'diluting the truth' does accomplish your goal without burning a bridge, that seems like a greater good to me in a utilitarian scheme. I mean, what if you're wrong, and you're actually the asshole in a given situation? Boldness is great. But even Aristotle knew not to confuse boldness with rashness. I think Wheaton's Law is an excellent guide for the bold: don't be a dick. 
It's one thing to not care what other people think, it's another to actively alienate people. Sometimes, other people's opinions are a useful guide to action, even if you don't give them the final word; if everyone thinks "hey fuck that guy" then maybe it would be okay to consider changing how you relate to them.
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Brandon writes,
Do you think we can imagine the unimaginable?
No.
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Kevin writes,
What the hell is Postmodernism?? 

Yes.
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BronyCray writes,

So I read The Republic in my college last semester, and we get to discussing Socrates' idea of the Noble Lie. The gist, as I understand it, is that this utopian society only works if everyone believes that they were born of earth and that they have metal souls and yada yada. Specifics aside, is this just a moral question of whether happiness and prosperity justifies dishonesty, or am I missing something?

I think that's the really important question about the Noble Lie. I mean, the Republic laid out The Republic is fucking incredible, if for no other reason than philosophers rule, which is so badass. So, some people believe some crazy shit about being born of the earth and whatnot. Big fucking deal - in return, they get fucking utopia. That's an incredibly low price of admission to the perfect society, especially when you don't know you're paying it, don't you think? It's a bit like the 'Noble Lie' that is shit like Manifest Destiny. God really intended America to be in exactly the shape it is now? Then why the fuck does he hate Michigan so much? But, you know, it brought people together. Nobly, or whatever.

Of course, not everyone thinks so, but there you have it. It's a pretty extreme claim as utilitarianism goes.

Brohoof.
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Buy Me A Bus writes,
Can consciousness be conclusively and exhaustively defined? And if so, what would it's definition be? And using this definition (or lack there of) could computers be conscious?  
Well, uh... maybe. Possibly. Some bros, notably Daniel Dennett, believe that consciousness is just an illusion anyway, so any definition will be wrong. Other bros think it's a thing, but can't seem to agree on what. And honestly, it's probably one of those words we use to describe a concept that historically doesn't have very clear boundaries, like mind or game or intelligence or Poland. Several bros have proposed definitions that are exhaustive of what they believe consciousness is, but they're probably all talking about slightly different things. If I had a conclusive, exhaustive definition, I wouldn't be doing this shit, I'd be teaching kindergarten and gardening in my spare time. Computers, an equally open question. It depends on whose definition of "consciousness" you go by - John Searle's is probably the most famous rejection of computer consciousness.
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Ben writes,
listen up great prophet Brohammed, a few hipster friends of mine have been telling me that all philosophy is mental masturbation, I was like fuck that shit, and laid the smack down on their bitch ass, but i'm curious what would philosophers have to say to an accusation like that?

Obviously, most of them would be unamused by such shenanigans. But your hipster "friends" do have a few allies in philosophy. Wittgenstein thought that philosophical problems just arose out of us fucking around with words. Words don't develop to describe precisely defined concepts, they're often fuzzy and unclear. But when we try to pin them down and say, "What exactly is going on here?" shit gets out of hand. But all philosophy can really do is lay out the confusion, point to the root of it; it can't actually solve problems, it just sort of describes them.
Richard Rorty had an even stronger notion of philosophy-as-masturbation, and he left professional philosophy to become a professor of the humanities in general. He really thought people were basically just making up unsolvable problems that had no real ramifications whatsoever.
But of course, not everyone agrees with that bleak assessment.
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That's it for today! Some resources for further inquiry:

Aristotle's Metaphysics is where he discusses Thales and his beliefs, as well as several of Thales' intellectual heirs.


The Noble Lie is an idea we get from Republic along with Socrates' vision of the perfect city-state.


The rather boldly-titled Consciousness Explained is Dennett's treatise on what exactly the thing we call 'consciousness' is. It is significantly longer than the paragraph I have given the question above. Also, much more rigorous. Regrettably, it contains fewer instances of 'fuck'.


In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein lays out the case that philosophical problems derive exclusively from oddities in natural language. In Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty likewise discusses how several of the problems of philosophy come from a fuzzy understanding of concepts we wish we had a firmer grasp on.








11 comments:

  1. Pretty nice stuff, dude. Also... What the fuck does mental masturbation even mean?

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  2. Best post ever... Quite a lot of god in there, and i especially like the way that you lumped the entire country of Poland in with ambiguous concepts. Well done PhilBro, you truly are a Bro amongst Philosophers.

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  3. I especially liked, "What the hell is Postmodernism??"

    Yes.

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  4. I'm pretty sure no one actually knows what Postmodernism is.

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  5. That Postmodernisnm anwser is gold.
    Also that consciousness question got me thinking again on just what the hell is it... does it actualy occupy space in the skull? How are thoughts created? Yeah electrical signals and shit, but how do they become words, images, etc? Stuff like this make me realize how similar we are to computers (or should I say the computers are similar to us since we created them?)
    Anyway,
    FUCK YEAH BROHOOF!!
    (using a Rainbow Dash Firefox persona right now)

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  6. You know, when we did the presocratics in History of Philosophy 1, we covered Thales and his whole "everything is water" theory, but pretty much elided over the whole "maybe we should try thinking" idea.

    Wow, and the guy also invented math.

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  7. Also, postmodernism is what comes after modernism, obviously.

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  8. If I had a conclusive, exhaustive definition, I wouldn't be doing this shit, I'd be teaching kindergarten and gardening in my spare time.

    Didn't Wittgenstein try that? Didn't work out so well for him.

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  9. @NemaVeze

    Only because his definitions were neither as conclusive nor as definitive as he'd once thought.

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  10. Can I help you produce a podcast? I'd listen. I mean, I'd have to because I'd be working on it.

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  11. brohoof right back, philisobrony

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