Tools for philosophy

Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “Philosophy is not a theory, but an activity.” There are five essential branches of philosophical inquiry: Metaphysics  is the study of existence; Epistemology is the study of knowledge; Ethics is the study of proper action; Politics is the study of force in human affairs; and Esthetics is the study of art/beauty. You don’t need a college degree, or formal training, to engage in serious philosophical dialogue. Anyone who speculates about why innocents suffer while the greedy thrive is a philosopher. Anyone who questions dogma is a philosopher. Anyone who thinks for herself and explores alternatives to the conventional wisdom is a philosopher.

Philosophizing can happen in living rooms and on the street. When people seriously debate about abortion or capital punishment or taxation, they’re engaging in the activity of philosophy. As a philosopher you’re not obligated to come up with final answers or solutions, only to ask pertinent questions and make reasonable assertions. Philosophy isn’t a contest. It’s been called an interesting extended conversation that’s been going on for a long time. You needn’t identify yourself with any established “school of thought” (stoicism, Platonism, existentialism, etc.), but can be eclectic in your reasoning. I think of myself as a guerrilla ontologist, which I wrote about in two prior posts on “Agnosticism and certainty.”

One way  you can recognize that you’re talking to a philosopher is when you hear him say, “Define your terms.” It’s a basic tool that philosophers use. When someone asks me if I believe in God, my likely response is, “Define God.” Then we can talk. Real dialogue requires that we understand one another’s definitions of words, because most words don’t have absolute meanings. Another basic tool that philosophers use is formal logic, but that’s too complex a subject to get into here. Yet another is the three-step syllogism, such as the classic example: 1. All men are mortal. 2. I am a man. 3. Therefore, I am mortal.

Another helpful philosophical tool is the thought experiment. It’s a tool for changing your perspective, examining your values, or thinking outside the box of your preconceptions about an issue. It usually takes the form of a “what if ______?” question, followed by a question about what you would or could or should do in that situation. A classic example of a thought experiment is, “If your mother and your wife were both drowning and you could only save one of them, which one would you save, and why?”

Another classic thought experiment is the runaway streetcar scenario. What if you saw that a runaway streetcar was about to mow down five people in its path, and you were standing by a rail switch that would re-route the streetcar to a track where only one person would be killed. Would you throw the switch? Would your decision be different if  the five were strangers to you, and you knew and cared about the one person who would die because of your decision to throw the switch?

Under what circumstances you might kill someone is also a values question posed by the thought experiment: if you could go back in time and had the opportunity to kill Hitler before he rose to power, would you? What if he was only a baby? Thought experiments like these help you to examine your values. Examination of ones values (sometimes called values clarification) is a specific process: what do you value over what? Do you believe in absolute values? Certain Republicans have cast themselves as “values voters,” as if they held a copyright on values. Everyone has values, from the Pope to a Mafia don like Tony Soprano. We all value this over that when it comes down to making practical or moral decisions. I don’t believe that any ultimate authority exists, when it comes to what we understand as being real, or just. That’s one reason I consider myself to be a guerrilla ontologist.

Another helpful philosophical tool for English speakers who want to better understand the role of language in our thinking is E-Prime. E-Prime (which I wrote about in my post, “It’s only Monday if you think it is”) is English that omits all forms of “is.” Nobody suggests that E-Prime should replace English, but it’s a tool for understanding what “is” is in our thinking. The Aristotelean “is-of-equivalency” posits subjective things as objective things, creating an either/or dichotomy that need not apply. If an apple “is” sweet, it cannot be tart or sour. If one person in a room says that it’s hot and another says it’s not, one of them has to be wrong. If “is” is omitted, and one person says “I feel hot” and another says “I don’t,” there’s no conflict. Wars are fought over where, precisely, the border “is.”

Formulating sentences in E-Prime is an exercise in the activity of philosophy. It helps to make you aware of how language affects your worldview and your judgment. Here are some examples of English sentences and their E-Prime translations:  “He is a liar” becomes “He lies a lot.” “She is very pretty” becomes either “I find her very pretty” or “I’m attracted to her.” (That she “is” very pretty can be disputed; the two E-Prime alternatives cannot.) “He is the smartest man in the room” becomes “His intellect impresses me.” “Look! There’s a UFO” becomes “I can’t identify that flying object.”

The use of E-Prime eliminates subjective bias, or what I call the objectification of subjective experience. Try writing, or copying someone else’s writing, in E-Prime and see what you learn. I think that your philosophy will benefit from the activity. I describe this blog as a psychology blog, “with a side of philosophy.” More about the traps of language in my next post.

 

At the Ministry of Mystery

Here’s the seventh and final installment of my Ministry Series:

 

I had searched long enough – too long – and was ready to give up on my quest for the Great Secret. Life without Meaning was too painful to endure, and I determined to go home and end my life by my own hand. I was parched with thirst, in a semi-delirium and near fainting. I only entered the government building to find a water fountain, to quench my thirst and find the strength to make it home. Inside, I asked a security guard where the nearest water was, and he pointed to a nearby door. I entered, slaked my thirst at the water fountain, and turned to leave.

A man in a trench coat and a slouch hat walked up to me. “Been looking for the Ministry of Mystery, have we?”

“But . . . how do you know?”

“Doesn’t matter. See, the thing is, it’s never in the same place twice. Finding it is . . . a matter of attitude. Just follow your nose, Bub. And believe.”

And then he was gone. I looked for him out in the hallway, but he was nowhere in sight. Only then did I notice the sign above the door: The Secretariat of Serendipity.

My head was suddenly, miraculously clear, my heart pounding: alive, alive, alive. I may have lost my Meaning, but I again found Hope. Back out on the street I felt the heat of the sun; studied with quicksilver awe the upturned faces of the members of a Cloud Counting Club as they stumbled past me on the sidewalk, unaware of their surroundings; followed my nose to a bakery, where I bought and ate a small cinnamon loaf; listened to the clang-buzz-tweet-roar-shuffle of city life. Looking as if with new eyes, I looked up and there it was: the ministry of Mystery – in a place where I had often looked and it had never been. I went inside.

There was only one person in the sparsely-furnished little office: a circus clown in full regalia, with a custard pie balanced on the fingertips of one hand. He beckoned mischievously with the other, and I crossed the room to face him. Beneath the face paint he looked – amazingly – like myself!

“Welcome, K.” he said in a voice just like my own. “I’ve been expecting you.”

“Expecting – you have? Who . . . who are you?”

“I am,” he replied, “the Truth.” He went on. “One day the village idiot was seen riding around lickety-split on his donkey, frantically looking for something. When people would ask him what he was looking for, he would reply, “I’m looking for my donkey!”

“Huh?”

“What you are looking for, bozo, is what is looking.”

“HUH?”

The clown looked deep into my eyes, soulful infinity in his gaze. “Remember,” he intoned, “who you really are.” And with that, he threw the pie in my face.

Food for thought.

 

And on that day I left Centre City, never to return. Up until then I had never really thought about the wider world wherein I now wander. I carry my few possessions in a sack, over my shoulder: wandering, working where there is work to be done, sojourning here and there when invited, getting to know new brothers and sisters, and loving the living of life. Pursuing the paradox now plain as the nose I follow throughout Homeland, singing my simple new song:

“My life is a quest, there’s a Grail I must claim.                                                                               (The Quest and the Grail are one-and-the-same.)”                                                                                                                                               ————————–

 

I’d love to hear from some of you who follow my blog what you think of my Ministry Series, and if you’d like to see more fiction on my blog. I’d thought the series to be complete, but am working on a new installment, “At the Ministry of Merchandise.” Thanks for reading!

Jeff Koob

 

 

 

At the Directorate of Dreams

Here’s my sixth installment (of seven) of my Ministry Series:

 

Wandering in a daze, for once unfocused in my quest for the Great Secret, I found myself – for the first time in my life – on the outskirts of Centre City. It had never seriously occurred to me that I could leave the city; but maybe the Truth I sought was not to be found in the cyclopean hives of bureaucracy and commerce. So I left the city on an untraveled road and soon came to a hill. I had read about hills in books: they were for climbing. And so I climbed.

High on the hill was a cave. Caves (I had read) were where hermits and wise men lived. So I entered the shallow cave, only to find a bearded old man in a white robe, sitting in blissful repose. “What do you want, my son?” he asked as I approached him.

“Please, sir . . . what’s the meaning of it all? What’s the Great Secret?”

“Son,” he replied, “you’re a dreamer.” And I fell out of bed.

So the next day I searched the Directory of Directorates, Bureaus, Ministries and Secretariats at the library, and then found my way to the Directorate of Dreams. The waiting room was crowded, so I  took a number then took a seat. After a few hours my number was called and I was directed to a numbered stall within a honeycomb of identical stalls, and sat down before the desk. A bookish, bespectacled young woman sat behind the desk, her hands clasped on her spotless blotter. “Now then, are you here to file a dream, to access a file, or to access an interpretation?”

“You file dreams here? Catalogue them?”

“Where else would you expect dreams to be accounted for, if not here? Somebody has to do it, right?”

“Um, of  course. Well, I suppose I should file my dream first and then . . . maybe an interpretation? Is there a fee?”

“There’s no filing fee unless your dream is an Original. Do you suppose that your dream is . . . an Original?” Her tone was amused.

“I should think so.”

“They all think so, don’t you know. But you’d be surprised how rare a truly original dream is. I think we’ve about got them all by now. So tell me about your . . . original dream.”

“Well, first I dreamed that I was on the outskirts of the city.”

“Uh-huh, sounds like a D37 so far.”

“Er, and then I actually left the city. I was alone on the road.”

“Yes, clearly a D37TQ. Go on.”

“I came to a hill, and when I climbed it I found a cave.”

“Sir, what you had was a D37TQ, subtype RT95 – if there was a wise old man in the cave.”

“But . . . how did you know?”

“It’s all in the archetypes, sir. There is a finite distribution of discrete symbols in the human psyche. Although the permutations theoretically approach the infinite, true Originals are, as I said, very rare. So you asked him what . . . the meaning of life, perhaps?”

“Uh . . . something like that.”

“A subtype RT950, then. And what, pray, did he tell you?”

“That I’m a dreamer.”

“So there you have it.”

“Have what?”

“Well, you certainly won’t be needing an interpretation, now will you? No fee. Will that be all?”

“I suppose so . . . unless . . .”

“Unless what?”

“I don’t suppose you’d happen to know the Great Secret, would you?”

“Wrong agency, sir. Try the Ministry of Mystery. Oh, and would you be a dear and tell the secretary on your way out that I’m going on my lunch break? Good day.”

Leaving me lost in the lurch of my sad, solo search.

 

At the Ministry of Misery?

Here’s the fifth (of seven) installments in my Ministry Series:

 

My unending search for Truth, the Great Secret, at one point seemed pointless. I was in despair. The Ministry of Mystery wasn’t listed in the Directory of Directorates, Bureaus, Ministries and Secretariats, and I’d given up looking for it after uncounted days of asking around. Whomever I’d asked would tell me the same thing: “It’s a mystery.”

One day amid the long rows of giant government edifices, teeming bureaucratic beehives, I thought for a split second that I’d found it. But the sign, in fact, read “Ministry of Misery, Third Floor.” The thought came that perhaps they might help to unburden me.

My depression seemed to get worse with every step I climbed, and by the time I reached the third floor I was half-blind with tears. I stood at the threshold of the first office I came to and paused to compose myself before I entered.

The man behind the counter put down his rubber stamp when I approached, looking up at me quizzically.

“Hello,” I said with forced cheerfulness. “I need some information.”

The man forced a smile and said, “Hello, I need some information.”

My smile faded. “Um, what kind of information?” I asked, puzzled.

“Um, what kind of information?” he queried in an equally puzzled tone.

A wave of despair washed over me and tears ran afresh. “You see, I’ve lost my Meaning and I’m trying to get it back. I’m miserable. I thought maybe you . . .”

The man behind the counter wept silently. “You see,” he said, “I don’t know why you’re here and I’m trying to understand. I’m despondent. I hope maybe you . . .”

“Look here!” I barked, hands on hips, suddenly angry. “I’m a tax-paying citizen, and when I come to a government office for help I do not expect to be mocked!”

He put his hands on his hips and barked back, “Look here! I’m a government employee, just doing my job; and when I’m doing my job properly, I do not expect to be criticized!”

“But this isn’t the kind of treatment I would expect at the Ministry of Misery!” I expostulated.

“But this is precisely the kind of treatment you’d expect at the Ministry of  Mimicry!”

I stepped back and looked at the sign above the counter. “Sorry,” I mumbled, chagrined. “Good day.”

“Sorry. Good day,” he mumbled back.

The Ministry of Misery was in the office next door. I went in, but apparently one of the secretaries had just hanged herself in the copying room, and all the staff members were weeping inconsolably. So I left to meander moodily in the metropolitan maze.

At the Ministry of Madness

Here’s the fourth installment (of seven) of my Ministry Series:

 

I never meant to seek the Ministry of Madness, but I suppose it had to happen sometime in my sometimes crazed pursuit of the supreme, serene Suchness that we all know, deep inside, is there. (But where?) It was on one of the many days  I spent seeking the elusive  Ministry of Mystery in Centre City’s massive maze of bureaucratic buildings. When I saw the arrow on the sign, “Ministry of Madness,” pointing down the corridor to the right, I instinctively went left. The first door I came to  simply had a question mark lettered on the frosted door glass.

I knocked. No answer. I tried the door handle and the door opened, pulling me through. Honest. The door closed behind me. The lettering on the door glass now read “Ministry of Madness,” only backwards. I blinked and the door was gone. I swear that’s how it happened, how I came to find myself in the waiting room of the Ministry of Madness.

I was not alone. A slack-faced angel (halo and all) shared the couch beneath the clock with a smiling alligator in a three-piece suit, and the Knave of Hearts, just like in the card deck. The hands on the clock moved rapidly in opposite directions. The walls were hairy and seemed to breathe. Mad Muzac leaked from unseen speakers. There was no door in sight.

“Would you kindly stop bombarding me with your Zenoid death rays?” the alligator asked politely. The angel giggled, drooling. The Knave mumbled something about a strawberry festival. “Take a number,” said a dwarf with teeth like knives, who was standing beside a water cooler filled with what appeared to be blood. “Or, better yet, have some pomegranate seeds.” Next to him, in a straight-backed chair, sat a little old lady dressed in black. Antlers protruded from her bonnet. She was knitting what looked like a shroud.

“But I don’t want a number! You see, I came in by mistake. I don’t want to be seen; I just want to find the exit!”

There was a moment of silence, and all eyes were on me. Then they began to chortle, cackle, howl, giggle – each adding to a cacophony of mad mirth. “By mistake!” roared the alligator. “No one comes here by mistake. You come by appointment!”

“If you don’t want to be seen,” howled the dwarf, “then disappear!”

“Find the exit?” cackled the horned granny.

“STRAWBERRY FESTIVAL!” roared the Knave, rising and advancing. He grabbed me by my collars and sputtered in my face, “Electricity is leaking from the wall sockets, causing sundry puppet mutations! Tidal slime emanations curdle imminent remedies! Noisome machine holograms cloud the aether with flux vibrations! And all you care about is your crusty CONSENSUS REALITY! Your Living Theatre! You think that’s where you’ll find your precious Secret?”

Either I or the room began to fade. “You know the secret?” I implored.

“Paf!” said Auntie Antlers.

“See you later,” intoned the ‘gator.

“Take a number, any number,” sneered the dwarf.

“Now that you know where to come, don’t be a stranger.” The vacant-eyed angel beckoned seductively.

And I found myself back in the Land of Laws, the Living Theatre, standing in the sterile street, still bereft of Meaning, all madness faded into the mundane.

It was on a Monday.

At the Secretariat of Salvation

Here is Part Three (of Seven) of my Ministry Series:

 

Still stymied in my search for the Secret, I stumbled into the Secretariat of Salvation. I had been wandering along Church Street, without a clue; and there, where Church meets State Street, it was. I walked onto the grounds through the pearly gates and entered the temple, thinking “perhaps it’s salvation that I’ve been seeking, for I am surely lost.”

It was easy to tell who was on the staff and who was not: the clerks were all garbed in black robes, solemnly bustling about in the labyrinth of partitioned workspaces that filled the vast, high-ceilinged chamber. I walked over to the Information counter and  “ahem”ed to get the attention of the robed clerk, who  was reading from a massive black-bound tome. He looked up, annoyed at my interruption.

“Uh, good book you’re reading there?” I asked.

“The best book. How, pray, may I be of service?”

“Well – you see, I’m trying to find the Great Secret, and I wondered -”

“There is no Great Secret! It’s all in The Book, as you would already know, if your parents had raised you right.”

“Um, salvation, then. How do I find salvation?”

“Naturally, by doing every day, in every way, that which pleaseth God.”

“But how can I know what will please . . . Him? Or is it Her?”

“HIM, infidel! Look, it’s all in The Book. Haven’t you heard of the Many Musts?” He proceeded to recite some from memory. “Thou must, perforce, address God by His True and Proper Name, which is ‘I Yam What I Yam.’ Thou must, perforce, worship God through His designated representatives, and give them money. Thou must, perforce, love God, no matter what He does to you.”

“Ah, pardon me, but how do I know who I’m to trust as His designated representatives, to help me find salvation. . . and who  I’m to give the money to, of course?”

“By their robes of Holy Office shall ye know them.”

“Okay, I think I have the first two down;  but about that third Must . . . I don’t understand. How can anybody command love? It seems to me that love is . . . a spontaneous response. Or a gift. I mean, you either feel it or you don’t. You can’t make yourself love . . . right?”

The clerk’s face reddened. “Thou treadeth on the border of heresy, Bub. We are talking about GOD, not just some vile sinner like yourself! If it says in His Book that you’d better love him, or suffer eternal torment, you’d just better love Him!”

“Okay, okay, I hear you. But . . . but if I’m a sinner – and I’m not suggesting that I’m not – how am I to know what is a sin?”

The clerk sighed. “Verily thou art enough to try the patience of Mope, son of Rube, whom God didst sorely test. I tell you, it’s all in The Book! 100% of the Truth. Everything, all here!” The thumped his copy for emphasis.

“But I’m still confused. It seems to me that the only real truth we can know is in our direct experience of the world. Anything we say or write about it only reflects the truth, it doesn’t contain it. It can’t. Right?”

The clerk’s eyes narrowed to slits. His voice was gravelly with emotion. “Bubba, are you saying that you know more about the Truth than GOD? Now, why would He have gone to all the trouble of dictating The Book to his holy ghost writers if just any poor shlub, such as yourself, could figure out the Truth for his own damned self?!”

“I . . . guess I see your point,” I said, although I really didn’t. I was getting a headache, like you get from thinking too long about where the universe ends. “Thanks for all your help.”

I turned and walked away, the clerk’s reflexive “God bless you” echoing hollowly in the huge high holy hall.

 

At the Secrecy Secretariat

Here is the second episode (of seven) of my Ministry Series:

 

Every time I inquired as to the location of the Secrecy Secretariat I got the same answer: it’s a secret. Burning, as I was, for knowledge of the Great Secret, I thought to start with smaller secrets and work my way up. I spent days feverishly searching the massive edifices that line Secretariat Street. Exhausted, almost ready to give up, I suddenly saw the sign on the door at the end of an endless corridor. The door was, of course, locked. No keyhole.

When I knocked, a voice responded, “What’s the password?” Defeated, I turned and walked away. Halfway down the corridor, I turned and strode back to the door, a desperate ploy in mind. I shouted “What’s the password?” The voice responded “It’s a secret!” Dejected and hopeless, I left.

All that night I racked my brain for a key to the door with no keyhole. Near dawn I finally drifted into sleep, then immediately came awake with (what I felt sure to be) the answer in mind. Soon after dawn I approached the door semi-confidently, and knocked. “What’s the password?” came the voice. “It’s a secret.” The door opened with a click.

At a desk before me sat a secretary, a woman who looked so extraordinarily ordinary that I knew I’d never recognize her in a crowd. “May I help you?” she asked helpfully. “You certainly may . . . if you can tell me, firstly, what sort of secrets you keep here, and  . . . why.” She looked at me as if at a stupid child. “Even if I knew any secrets, I wouldn’t go around telling people I knew them, now would I?” “Not even . . . secretly?” “Especially not secretly. One wouldn’t acquire secrets from the Secrecy Secretariat, now would one? One supposes one would give secrets to said Secretariat.” And she smiled her secretive smile.

“And if I were to, ah, tell you a secret . . . what would be done with it?” “That’s a secret.”  “Ah. Well, if you can’t tell me any secrets, perhaps you could direct me to someone who could.” “Even if I knew, ” she replied with mounting ire, “I couldn’t tell you!” “Um, but who do you think might be able to help me out? I mean, if you don’t know, it wouldn’t be like telling me a secret, right?” “Well, I should think perhaps the Secretary of Secrecy, but how should I know? I’m only the Secretary’s secretary.” “Well, might I speak to the Secretary, then?” “You might if you knew where his – or her –  office was, but –” “It’s a secret, I know.” “Precisely.”

I decided to try one more time. “Now, strictly speculation you understand; but if you were, in fact, the Secretary of Secrecy rather than the Secretary’s secretary, might you try to pass yourself off as your own secretary?” The glint in her ordinary eyes told me I’d gotten as far as I’d get here (precisely nowhere), even though I now knew that I’d been conversing with an entire Secretariat. We both said “It’s s secret” in unison and I left, secretly appreciating the Secretariat’s success at sustaining superb secrecy.