To B or not to B

Belief in the strict, simple constructs of philosophy can be a guiding force. Having a philosophy can provide one a sense of fulfillment, a discipline, a code, and a foundation for a way to live through the extensive knowledge of the various minds of philosophy. A student of the mind can delve so deeply in a philosopher’s thoughts, or philosophical thought in general, that they can eventually reach a point where they believe they have an answer for everything that plagues them in life. For most of us, however, philosophy simply provides a plan ‘B’ in life.

philosophy“Renowned philosophers have never helped me!” say those that don’t believe philosophers can ever provide a decent plan B. “They are not specific enough.”

But some of the times they get close. Some of the times they get so close it can be frustrating. It would be one thing if they said nothing, but some of the times they get so close to the heart of all that ails us that it almost feels like they’re tantalizing us with their brilliance. They write something that captures our attention, and then they further that original thought with another thought that brings us kicking and screaming to a point of identification. It’s almost as if they read our minds when they wrote that, we think. They’re pouring our heart out. We’re breathless with anticipation. We’re turning the pages of their book so quickly that we’re getting paper cuts.

“Yes!” we scream. “Ohmycreator yes! That’s it! Sing it to me sista!”  

Then, we arrive at the solution, if there ever was one, and we think we somehow got lost in the weeds, somewhere along the line. We retrace our steps, we turn back two of three pages, then twenty to thirty, and we can’t find where we lost the point. “What did he say?” we ask, and we hate ourselves for asking that. We hate it, because it reveals us as one of those that don’t understand. It lowers our ego just a tad, but we know that that philosopher was onto something —in some form of English that we barely understood— that left us hanging off the cliff, because we just didn’t understand their proposed solution. Somehow or another they didn’t do anything but correctly identify the problem without attempting a solution. We didn’t exactly drop off the cliff with disappointment, but the philosopher didn’t quite help us off it either. Not in the manner we thought they would when they swam so close to our Sun. What happened?

A scene from the television series Taxi captures this dilemma perfectly. In the scene, the character Latka is experiences a multiple personality disorder. Latka assumes a number of personalities in the episode, until he assumes another character’s persona. He assumes the Alex Reager characteristics, and he believes he’s Alex Reager in every way, shape, and form. Latka reaches a point, in this disorder, where he’s figured out a solution to all that ails Alex, and he says so in a counseling session. He does so by listing all the flaws with Alex’s character, flaws Alex confirms, until Latka states that he’s found a solution to all that ails this Alex persona. This captures Alex’s attention. “It was so simple!” Latka says with an anticipatory Alex goading him on. “It was staring me in the face the whole time!” To each progression, Alex nears the Latka character saying: “Yes, ohmycreator yes!” until the two are inches away from one another with Alex panting in anticipation. Much to Alex’s disappointment, Latka snaps out of the personality disorder just short of revealing the solution, and he turns back into Latka. At that point, Alex begins griping Latka by the face, screaming at him to go back to being Alex for one more minute when Latka says: “Alex you’re squeezing me!”

The answer to the frustrations most agnostic consumers experience with philosophy, say philosophy students, is that it would be impossible for a philosopher to provide specific solutions to all of your individual problems. The purpose of philosophy, they would say, is to lead their subject into asking questions that they may have never considered before, to give them another viewpoint on their problems, and to provide its adherents an all-encompassing blueprint for life that the reader can use to interpret and relate to their individual problems. The purpose is to get the consumer to thinking different.  The purpose is to get us thinking.

Why do we do the things we do? Why do we make choices and decisions in life? How do we make them? Who is affected by our decisions, and do we factor them into our decision making process? The purpose of philosophy is to get us to ask these questions and other questions of ourselves. Only by asking ourselves questions can we ever arrive at an answer that may suit our individual needs. Philosophy requires extensive participation. It requires active listening, and reading, and most of the solutions one finds in life will not be specifically lined up for the reader. Don’t take it out on philosophers, students of philosophy will say, if you are too lazy to interpret and relate such concepts and propositions to your life.

The problem for most of philosophy’s agnostics is that most philosophical concepts are espoused in such an academic sense. The philosophies of Nietzsche, Kant, Sartre, Plato, Aristotle and Sophocles, and Freud and Jung might apply to the modern day, and they may be the greatest thoughts man has ever had, but getting to the nut of what they’re saying requires too much interpretation for most modern day consumers. Most of the philosophers listed here spoke, and wrote, in a more proper, less relatable form of English, if they spoke in English at all. They also spoke/wrote in a vague manner that would be, and could be, so open to interpretation that it seems they never said anything specific. Some regard this as brilliant in that a reader could interpret the words for their own needs. Others regard it as frustratingly vague for the same reason. If these others, these agnostic types, do attempt to subject a philosopher’s thoughts and ideas to their problems, they get slapped back by strict interpretations provided to them by a Philosophy professor. These strict interpretations may take the vagueness out of the material, but it also takes away the individual’s joy of forming a belief on the philosopher’s concepts that may differ from the professor’s. The professor gives a “correct” interpretation and pulls out a red pen on any student that goes off that trail. “I can see what you’re trying to say here,” the professor writes in red, “but it’s a lot more complicated than that.”

All of the philosophers listed here are much smarter than us, and they’ve developed some theories on the decisions and choices we make that could just blow our minds if we understood them properly. But those who teach and interpret their theories get a little too far into the weeds for most of us. They get too professorial, they talk over our heads, and they fail to relay their concepts to us. Philosophy is viewed by the eager, young minds thirsting for new knowledge, as overly complicated, or so narrow that it doesn’t apply to them, irrelevant in the modern era, and something to be studied for a test … Nothing more and nothing less. Philosophy and psychology doesn’t have to be this way.

Philosophy also doesn’t have to be that which is espoused by an egghead, hippie type that attempts to intimidate the listener with punctuation-less sentences that contain as many multi-syllabic words as the hippie can think up that are backed up by obscure quotes from a similar philosopher that was obscure 400 years ago. These people also get a lot of mileage out of telling a listener what philosophy is not, based on these obscure quotes and references, that exhaust you, until the reader is left with the empty feeling that it’s all too complicated for them to ever understand. We don’t want to admit such a thing though, so we just quietly walk away from philosophy with the idea that we’re just not smart enough to understand it. It shouldn’t be that way.

It should be the goal of all of those that love philosophy to carry the torch to the next generation. It should be their goal to drop the indulgence of proving their intelligence while proving their mastery of the subject matter at the same time. Combining these two appears to be too much for most philosophy lovers. They get so caught up trying to impress their peers that they forget to make the message appealing. They have a gift for draining the elemental gifts these philosophers have provided us right out of their lesson plans, but they don’t appear to care about the subject matter in this way. They appear to prefer the credo: “If no one knows what you’re talking about, no one can refute you.”

The question becomes how does one reach an audience of young computer-game, Google searchers with a limited attention span? Certain individuals in the entertainment milieus have done it in bite-sized morsels. They have used comedy to lubricate what is generally perceived to be the incomprehensible, rougher edges of philosophy, as witnessed in the episode of Taxi provided above. The clever minds of Taxi/Cheers fame, the writers of Seinfeld, and the Philosophy and… series of books have taken the relatively difficult concepts of Nietzsche, Kant, Sartre, Plato, Aristotle and Sophocles, and Freud and Jung and put them out to the mass consumers in comedic form to open the door to greater understanding. It can be done, in other words, and it should be done. A look through the best seller list, and the television ratings, shows that modern consumers are just as hungry for knowledge as they are entertainment, and the richest rewards lie out there for those that are able to do both in a highly skilled juggling act.

When our friends detail the plot line of such a comedy, and we inform them that it’s based on a philosopher’s concept, they’re intrigued. They may not care that it came from a man named Rousseau, and they may never turn around and read a single word of that man’s writings, but the idea that this man’s concept reached them intrigues them to learn more about the concept and the way it might affect their life. They may not have reached that concept in the manner a philosophy professor, or an uppity beatnik, would care for, but they still learned it, and their lives may eventually be all the better for it, and it may provide a window that once opened will be explored by eager young minds thirsting for knowledge.

The alternative to grasping these concepts, and subsequently living without a philosophical sense of life, is nihilism —the belief in nothing. Some nihilists even condemn atheists for their beliefs. Atheists may share the metaphysical belief that God doesn’t exist with nihilists, but where they divert is in the meaning of life. Atheists believe that one doesn’t have to believe in God for life to have meaning. Nihilism maintains that life has absolutely no meaning, purpose, or value, and the godfather of nihilism even went so far to write that Christianity may actually have more in common with atheism than nihilism does, based on the fact that Christians place less value on this life than they do the afterlife.

This absolute belief in nothing, when used in conversation, can be a contrarian tool that a self-proclaimed nihilist can use as a shield against attack. It may allow them to sit back with a smug smile while atheists and Christians attack one another with the mindset being that they may not believe in anything, but at least they’re not foolish enough to believe in something.

Nihilists usually wage a philosophical war on believers, studying up on our beliefs, our philosophy, or our religion, until they reach a point where they can proudly claim to know our belief system better than we do, or at least those that believe the same as us. The latter is an important distinction to make, for most nihilists usually don’t single us out for their criticism. They may actually go so far as to single us out for support by saying that we’re not one of those they’re talking about, because we’re more open-minded, erudite, or one of the few that can speak about such a hot button issue rationally. Whatever guise they use to avoid further confrontation, they do so to complete their life’s mission of knocking everything everyone else believes in, by trying to keep it impersonal. To suggest that all nihilists operate in a nefarious manner with the sole goal of undermining belief, would be as incorrect as the comprehensive labels they attach to believers, but they do seek some sort of validation for their mindset from us the believers.

One of the reasons they need validation, is that when everything goes wrong in their life they know that they will be left with total devastation. The nihilist’s world exists on a precarious plane that there are certain truths that keeps them afloat. Most of their truths can be found in the routines of life: work, marriage, kids, friends, weekend fun, and politics. There is, however, no underlying foundation to nihilism, no meaning of life, no purpose, and no substantial reality in their lives to help them overcome a shakeup of one of these routines. There’s an old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes, and that cliché is based on the idea that in times of total devastation the human mind needs a plan B, a sense of life, a philosophy, a religion, or something to fall back on. Some say this need may actually be biological, or anatomical, but whatever the case is, it’s undeniable that we all need something to believe in, something greater than ourselves, and a plan B to fall back on when things don’t go as planned.

The Quantifiable Lightness of Being

Is one life more important than another? It depends on whom you ask, writes author Douglas Hofstadter. In his book, I am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter attempts to philosophically solve crisis and conflict by suggesting that all living beings have a soul. Certain beings, of course, have less of a soul than others, less of a recognition of being alive than other beings that he quantifies this through a series of ratings that leads to a scoring of that living being’s soul. For the purpose of quantifying these numbers in a display, he uses the term “light count” to describe an accumulation of a quantification we’ll call Hofstadters. Our term will be the over-arching term he uses to describe the quantifiable power of the soul.

LoopDouglas Hofstadter provides the reader what he calls a personal “consciousness cone” that he believes describes the level of consciousness a being has of its own existence. The adult human has 100 Hofstadters, for example, the dog has 80 Hofstadters, the rabbit has 60, the chicken has 50, the mosquito has 30, and the atom has zero Hofstadters. Hofstadter lists the atom at the bottom, as a result of the fact that the atom has the least sense of its own life, and the least sense of consciousness than any other life form, and at 100, the adult human has the most. He does not explain, however, how he can quantify that the rabbit has more of a sense of its own consciousness than the chicken does, or why he rates the bee over the mosquito. It’s left to the reader to believe that the author has very specific reasons for all the scores of the entries in his “consciousness cone” but it seems arbitrary in places.

The Hostadters given to adult humans are more relative than any other being however, for the adult human has more ability to increase their soul’s light count, and damage it, than any other being. Some humans, Hofstadter writes, can achieve a score higher than 100 Hofstadters, depending on how much meaning they bring to the definition of life, and the manner in which they changed the definition of life for others. Jesus of Nazareth and Mahatma Gandhi could be said to be two people that changed the definition many people have of life for the better, and they would achieve more than 100 on Hofstadter’s scale. Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Mao Tse Tung, on the other hand, diminished the value of life for many, and in general, through their mass slaughter, which basically means that if there is an afterlife, they would spend it rectifying the damage they did to life on Earth, and as a result they could be given a score less than zero.

If Hofstadter kept his scoring process broad in this manner, we might not have a problem with it in the macro or the micro, but like most modern philosophers he can’t help but bring modern politics into the discussion. He begins by begging the reader to understand that the term “the soul” he will refer to in future passages, is not “the soul” most normally associated with religion. This distinction is made, presumably, to allow Hofstadter to keep that foot in the collegial halls of academe he achieved with his first book. Hofstadter suggests that his version of the soul is more of a sense of consciousness, a lightness of being, a sense of self, and a sense of consciousness about their life. In Hofstadter’s definition of a soul, the dog has a soul, and that soul is more powerful than the mosquito’s, because the dog has more of a sense of its own life than a mosquito does, but it does not have the sense of life, or philosophy, that the adult human does.

Next, Hofstadter suggests that those adult humans that would kill a man, via Capital Punishment, have less of a soul than those that abhor such activity.  This is particularly the case, suggests Hofstadter, if the death row inmate is screaming for his life in the “dead man walking” trip to the gas chamber.  So, if a “dead man walking” goes quietly, with lowered eyebrows, dark lighting, and a scary soundtrack, the people leading him to the gas chamber presumably have less to worry in their accumulation of Hofstadters in their light count.  One would think that Hofstadter would be point blank in his scale that if you take a life, with malice and forethought, you owe something to the general definition of the value of life that cannot be recovered, and you are destined to a less than zero existence, but for Hofstadter emotion, and remorse, appear to assist in giving you a greater “light count” than the unapologetic.  The latter half of this paragraph involves interpretation for Hofstadter makes no specific distinction between the two, except to say that the henchmen involved in the death sentence are the ones that suffer by scale.  The reader is also left to wonder if Hofstadter might be influenced by the theatrical drama some movies bring to the dead man walking scenario.

Hofstadter then suggests that a two-year-old child has less of a light count than a twenty-year-old, since that twenty-year-old has had more time to build the Hofstadters in their light count, but he writes that he does not tread lightly on the life of a two-year-old since we must recognize the potential that the two-year-old has of building Hofstadters throughout the course of their life versus the mosquito’s limited capacity to build them. By doing so, Hofstadter alludes to the suggestion that make the human embryo has no sense of its own life, and by Hofstadter’s unstated rationale it is then okay to abort them. [Editor’s Note: Hofstadter does not write the latter half of that conjunction, but deductive reasoning leads this writer to see that conclusion as obvious. Hofstadter also does not mention the potential for the potential acquisition the embryo may have in accumulating a light count in the manner he did with the two-year-old. The embryo, we can infer, is simply left at zero.]

There is also no mention of the potential diminishment of Hofstadters that the aborting mother may incur as a result of deciding to abort this potential light source.  This is a non-issue in Hofstadter’s narrative. With capital punishment Hofstadter draws disparities between those that would lead a screaming man to his death versus the ones that lead an unrepentant man to his death, but he doesn’t draw any distinctions between the women that would take the potential life that would be screaming if the woman gave it the chance to become a light source outside the womb, and the woman that allows the innocent, potential light source to live.  If his inconsistencies were a mere sin of omission, we would have nothing to write about, but Hofstadter dives right into the fray and develops hypocrisies that require analysis for their hypocritical lack of objectivity.  He fails to draw such lines of distinction along philosophical parallels, in other words, and he loses points in an objectivity count with these inconsistencies.

Hofstadter does have an interesting, and unique, take on the meaning of life.  Most readers will whole-heartedly agree with the general premise he outlines, but when he ventures out into the particulars that support this theory, the reader can’t help but think that Hofstadter’s key is less about teaching how to achieve a sense of philosophical purity and more about political proselytizing about the negligible affects of abortion on one’s soul, the detrimental affects capital punishment can have on the participants, and the detrimental affects eating other animals can have on humans.  (*No such points are deducted for other animals eating other animals with the asterisk notion that these animals are forgiven for not knowing what they do.)

The author informs us that one of the keys to living a life as compassionate as his for lower life forms, a level he imparts is defined by placing spiders one finds in one’s home outside the door, in a gentle, compassionate manner, is to celebrate, honor, and respect the idea that lower forms of life have a soul.  He implicitly states that you’ll know that you’ve achieved his level of heightened awareness if you’re so overcome by the infinite reserves of compassion in your system that you one day pass out as a result of handing a test gerbil to a research scientist for its use.  This revelation informs us, perhaps implicitly, that one of the keys to being wonderful, or accumulating a greater light count, involves not only performing charitable deeds, but publicly declaring them for the publicity one receives for doing so.  What’s the point of performing charitable deeds, in other words, if you cannot toot your own trumpet?

Some readers may find Hofstadter’s writing a breath of fresh air, and others may view it as nakedly transparent, but if Hofstadter’s purpose is to provide an objective view to import a sense of life, or philosophical view on the value of life, few can deny that it is inordinately subjected to his political views.  He informs us that he has found resolution to his own conflicts by being so compassionate that he is overwhelmed beyond his ability to retain consciousness, and that his concern for light counts and souls, both large and small, leads him to being a vegetarian that will not eat those light sources with greater potential for greater placement on his soul scale.  He leads us to believe that he is a man in tune with all political variables for resolving conflict, but in the end it is obvious that all of his philosophical peculiarities line up on one specific side of the philosophical aisle, and that he finds no sense of conflict there.