The Philosophy of the Obvious


Anyone who has messed around with Lego knows the seemingly insignificant, yellow, see-through Lego principle. Soon after we open a package of Lego, we put the larger pieces together. It probably has something to do with our need for immediate gratification and an underlying lack of intelligence, but we like to snap big pieces together. It gives us a false sense of accomplishment we find pleasing. At some point in the process, and it’s usually 3/4ths the way through, we recognize an error. One of the other larger pieces doesn’t snap into the larger structure quite right. We go back through the instructions and realize that in one of the earlier steps, we failed to attach a seemingly insignificant, yellow, see-through Lego properly. With some frustration, we realize we have disassemble the project, almost in total, to put that seemingly insignificant, yellow, see-through Lego on. In our frustration, we know that the designer Lego could’ve added a quarter inch protrusion to the larger piece to make the tiny, yellow Lego unnecessary. We might even say that aloud, but in the midst of our frustration, we recognize the Lego designer might have had a philosophical driver behind making the tiny, yellow piece so relevant.

In most real-world constructs, the little parts are as important as the big ones, and sometimes they’re more important. The spark plug might not be the smallest part on a car, for example, but if it’s not firing properly in a spark ignition system, proper combustion is not possible, and the car won’t run. Perhaps, the Lego designers wanted to teach their loyal customer base the kinesthetic knowledge inherent in the Heraclitus quote, “The unapparent connection is more powerful than the apparent one.”  

Unapparent connections are often so obvious that they were staring us in the face all along. If we learn to incorporate the seemingly insignificant, yellow, see-through Lego principle into our thought processes, and we disassemble and reassemble our larger thoughts accordingly, it might be possible to unlock other confusing and debilitating complexities that inhibit us.

Most of us view philosophy as the study of larger concepts and abstracts that govern human behavior. Philosophers call this the accurate and abstract philosophy. The other branch of philosophical thought is considered the easy and obvious philosophy. The latter, writes David Hume, “uses examples from everyday life so we can see the difference between right and wrong. He says that this type of philosophy is popular and follows from common sense, therefore there are rarely errors in it.” Some consider the easy and obvious philosophy, and the discovery of the obvious, a “Well yeah” and “Of course!” study. The second philosophy, the accurate and abstract philosophy, does not direct our behavior. Instead, it focuses on what causes that behavior and why we do the things we do and uses abstract reasoning to attempt to make sense of it.” The Group 3 Blog goes onto write, “that Hume says that since this area of philosophy does not use common sense, errors are made often and because of this, this area is sometimes rejected.”

“I deal with the obvious. I present, reiterate and glorify the obvious – because the obvious is what people need to be told,” Dale Carnegie. We have to imagine that as a young upstart, Carnegie didn’t put much focus on the obvious, and that he initially considered those smaller elements somewhat irrelevant and trivial. We can guess that he set out to find a mind-blowing concept regarding the general principles that govern human behavior to impress his peers, and the world in general. At some point in his studies, he realized the larger concepts don’t seem to fit quite right without the more obvious tenets, and he realized he needed to disassemble the larger concepts and reassembled them with the philosophical equivalent of the seemingly insignificant, yellow, see through Lego of the mind.

After he reached that point, we can guess Carnegie saw little-to-no reward for his modified thinking on a subject like, How to Make Friends and Influence People because he was just pointing out what was so obvious to everyone. He probably also learned that if he transmitted his version of the obvious philosophy properly, the recipients would assume they arrived at the conclusion on their own.    

“It takes a very unusual mind to undertake analysis of the obvious,” Alfred North Whitehead said. Most authors worry about insulting their readers by introducing concepts that are so obvious that the reader might view their writing as condescending. They also don’t want their readers to consider them authors who deal with matters so obvious that they’re not worth reading, so they qualify it in an almost apologetic manner, “This might seem so obvious as to be unworthy of discussion, but-.” If the author is cursed, or blessed, with an unusual mind, however, they consider the point in question so noteworthy that they need to explore it.  

“The more original a discovery, the more obvious it seems afterwards.” Arthur Koestler. Those who consider such discussions unworthy should ask themselves how many times they’ve discussed something so obvious that it was a complete waste of time, only to realize that that discussion modified their thinking on the issue. We could call this almost imperceptible progression an epiphany, unless we remain fixated on the image of an epiphany involving an inventor toiling away in a basement until they make that mind-altering, “Eureeka!” discovery. This definition of epiphany usually involves a light bulb above the recipient’s head. Epiphanies, like most matters, come in big and small packages. In this case, it involves seeing something a certain way for our whole lives, until we run into the unusual mind who sees it a little different.

Smaller epiphanies arrive when we view an obvious matter one way our whole life, only to see a small, obvious addition or contradiction to that way of thinking. It might be so obvious that we think we thought of it ourselves, and we make that imperceptible change that incorporates this line of thinking into ours, until we can no longer “unsee” it back to the way we saw it before. As Koestler says, we might view the obvious concept as so obvious after we hear it that we may never remember how we saw it before, if we never face a contradiction that exposes how we used to view it. In this sense, we could call this modification of our thinking on an issue an epiphany. Some epiphanies are small, as we said, but some are so tiny that we might never know we made a change. If we do, and we want to tell our world about it, they might consider it so obvious that they wonder how we didn’t see it before.

For some, obvious philosophy might be, as Alfred North Whitehead writes, “Familiar things happen and mankind does not bother about them.” It might be something that generates an, “Of course!” after reading. Obvious philosophy might also analyze the obvious in a way that we’ve never considered before. The careful study and processing of an obvious quote might eventually result in clarity on some complex concept that required obvious don’t-I-feel-stupid for never seeing it that way before. “Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication,” Leonardo da Vinci. “That’s the way things come clear. All of a sudden! And then you realize how obvious they’ve been all along,” Madeleine L’Engle. 

“There is nothing as deceptive as an obvious fact.” –Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

“No question is so difficult to answer as that to which the answer is obvious.” –George Bernard Shaw.

“The obvious is that which is never seen until someone expresses it.” –Kahlil Gibran

“Nothing evades our attention as persistently as that which is taken for granted.” –Gustav Ichheiser

“Because it’s familiar, a thing remains unknown.” –Hegel

“Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.” –Aldous Huxley

“The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something – because it is always before one’s eyes). The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all. Unless THAT fact has at some time struck him. And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.” –Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The best place to hide a needle is in a stack of needles.” –Robert Heinlein [Finding a needle in a haystack is difficult, but what about finding one in a stack of needles? That would be so obvious.]

“We are like people looking for something they have in their hands all the time; we’re looking in all directions except at the thing we want, which is probably why we haven’t found it.” –Plato

***

Yesterday, I thought I could help a friend with my version of the obvious philosophy. I did it before. I offered another friend some platitude on a crisis that they were experiencing. To my amazement, they used it, and it helped them. Drunk on this success, I later tried to help another friend in a similar vein. Today, I realized that I’m not the genius I thought I was, and that the best thing we can do is help those who are open to constructive criticism, our loved ones and ourselves.

The late sixties Star Trek crew sets foot on a foreign planet. They know a beast awaits them on this planet. The beast, in this case, is a large, red carnivorous flower. The guy in a red shirt (aka Redman) is the first to encounter the beast. As he attempts to perform some scientific readings on the flower, it shoots a tentacle out, captures Redman, and begins to devour him feet first. By the time the Star Trek crew happens upon Redman, he is in the flower up to his waist, and his reaction suggests that the pain involved in the flower’s digestion process is excruciating. When we witness the veins in the man’s forehead pulse, we immediately mistake for his agony, but it might be part of the flower’s digestion process. Captain Kirk is in the corner shielding Lieutenant Uhura from the scene and the man’s screaming, and the other players attempt to avoid looking at the scene. Spock steps forward and examines the episode from a relatively safe distance as the man screams in agony. “Fascinating,” Spock says. He then explains to the rest of the crew what he thinks the beast’s digestive process is doing to Redman. He does so using unemotional, scientific jargon.

This specific scene never happened on the show, but if it did, and I wrote it, I would focus on the Vulcan characteristics of Spock’s lineage, by depicting him as oblivious to Redman’s screaming. I might even have him swipe Bones’ scanner to conduct further scientific readings of the digestion process, and what the flower is doing to Redman’s body. I would have him look at the scanner, lift an eyebrow and repeat, “Fascinating,” as he walks away from the scene.

I might have Kirk and the rest of the crew aghast at Spock’s reaction. I might have Kirk confront Spock about his unwillingness to save Redman. “Captain, it was obvious, by the time we arrived that it was too late,” Spock would say. “If we hope to defeat this beast, we need the data necessary to understand it first.”

It’s obvious that if the Star Trek crew was going to survive the threat of the beast, they were going to need the data necessary to understand it first. The logical, Vulcan side knew this, even while Redman suffered, but why did Spock’s human side permit him to allow for human suffering to continue regardless of the overall benefits? Anyone who knows anything about Star Trek, knows Spock regularly faced the conflict of his nature. He was part human and part Vulcan. The Vulcan side of him viewed matters without sympathy, empathy, or any other human emotion, and the human side contained all of them above. The interesting contrast often played out when Spock was confronted in situations like these regarding how he should react. The human side probably wanted to save Redman, but the Vulcan, rational and unemotional side, won out, because he knew that the emotions of humans often play a role in their doom.

Spock’s Vulcan reaction, in this scene, displays the scientific approach we layman should pursue when studying our fellow man. The obvious logic is we cannot save everyone. By the time we encounter victims of their self-imposed downward spiral, it’s often too late to save them. Those of us who try, often hear “Who the hell are you?” from those we’re trying to help. More often than not, we don’t know what we’re talking about when we try to help others. We don’t know any more how to correct the course they’re on than they do, but when we watch others continue to flail about, we develop ideas how we might avoid a similar plight. Today I realized, we should do everything we can to help our fellow man, but most of them don’t think they need our help. The best thing we can do, while others scream in agony, is study them from an analytical, emotionless Vulcan perspective to try to use our obvious logic and obvious philosophies to avoid falling prey to what ails them.

***

Had I heeded the tenets of obvious logic, I wouldn’t have done the stupid thing I did yesterday. Yet, if I ever wanted to sleep again, I thought I had to do it. I knew it was wrong, and the corporation had a list of the consequences for such an action expressly stated in the employee handbook. My boss, and the HR department did not waste any time delivering the consequence. I paid a heavy price for doing something that was obviously stupid.

Today, I remembered the obvious advice one of my friends offered his son, “Don’t do stupid things.” I found that philosophy so obvious as to be hilarious. Would I have been able to avoid the pain and humiliation I experienced if someone told me to avoid doing stupid things when I was younger? Of course, but stupid things are what we do when we’re young. We jump from an unreasonable high for the adventure it promises, then we get hurt, and then we learn. We throw something at something, we get in trouble, and we learn from it. Some of the stupid things we do are impulsive, and some involve knowledge and forethought, but they all provide one vital component to maturity: lessons. Our elders and superiors tell us to avoid stupid things, but for some reason those lessons don’t stick as well as the lessons we learn on our own. Those who know how to advise children suggest that if we raise our children properly, we will help them avoid experiencing one-tenth the pain and humiliation we did. If we achieve this, we should consider our parenting a success. We know we all have to ride this merry-go-round on our own, in other words, and no advice is going to prevent us from doing stupid things. We might know these things are wrong, but we will do them anyway for reasons we might not be able to justify. The best we can do is teach them what to do in the aftermath.

Some of the best advice my dad passed along to me, when I experienced a crisis was, “Some of the times, you just have to take it on the chin.” If we don’t have a valid excuse for the stupid thing we did, in other words, don’t bother trying to dream up other excuses. Just take your medicine. 

The worst advice he passed along was, “Some of the times, you just have to take it on the chin, even when you know you’re right, because you didn’t got caught for all of the other stupid stuff you did.”

Even the most obvious philosophies and advice don’t work all of the time, but I think that’s obvious. 

For those who can’t leave well enough alone, the two lists of these great quotes can be found here and here to support your theories that a discussion of the obvious is not always a complete waste of time.