an old man from jersey explains: philosophy


So I was sitting on the front steps to my apartment building the other day watching the people walk by when this kid comes up to me and says, “Hey mister.”

I say, “What do you want, kid?”

He says, “Can you explain philosophy to me?”

I think about it for a minute, and then I ask him, “Where do you want me to start from?”

“From the beginning.” The kid says.

So I think about it some more and decide this is the first thing a kid needs to understand about philosophy.

“In the beginning humans were just dumb animals shivering in the cold, unable to speak or build tools, and all we did all day was look for something to eat and someone to fu…aall in love with. Ugh Hmmph. Our minds were raw awareness and emotion.

Over generations though our brains grew, and as our brains grew they got better at thinking. We figured out how to communicate, make tools, devise strategy, form complex relationships, create art, that kind of stuff.

Once we were able to pass on knowledge from generation to generation by word of mouth and especially by writing our knowledge started to compound. After that…”

“Hey, what’s this have to do with anything?”
“Seriously, kid? Let me finish my story, and you might find out a thing or three.”

“Sorry.”

“You’re gonna be if you interrupt me again. Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah.

Try to imagine what life was like for those human beings who were alive just after we learned to talk and write but before history began. They were completely lost and bewildered by the universe. Nothing made sense. What’s the sun? What is lightening? How are babies made? Why do we get sick? What happens after death? They had all these questions with no answers. So people started asking questions.”

“So philosophers are people who ask questions. Got it. Thanks. I’ll see ya later.”

“Hold your horses, kid. Get back here. Yeah, philosophers are people who ask questions, but that’s oversimplified to the point of being wrong.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, anyone who builds a house is a carpenter, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, anyone can nail a few boards together and make a roof over their head, but if you did that you’d end up with a dilapidated shanty that’s going to fall down and kill you in your sleep. It takes a lot more to be a proper carpenter and make a proper house. Same thing with philosophers. Want me to explain?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“There’s a good boy. You’ll go far if you can exercise a little curiosity and patience.

So, as I was sayin’, people started asking questions about the universe. ‘What’s this?’ ‘Why does this happen that way?’ ‘What happens if I do this?’ Yadda yadda yadda.”

“But the sun and lightening and getting sick and all that’s science. You’re talking about scientists, not philosophers.”

“Hey, weren’t you the one who said you didn’t know what a philosopher is? I’m trying to tell you.

In the early days we didn’t distinguish between philosophers, scientists, psychologists, mathematicians and whatever else. There were just people who were trying to get it all figured out. The people who were trying to get it figured out where philosophers.

Only problem was that they weren’t very good at it. They were like shitty carpenters trying to build a house. So they came up with a lot of shoddy explanations for things like, thunder is made by giants in the sky shouting. Sickness is caused by evil spirits. The universe was created in six days, and bad things happen because a naked lady in a magical garden ate a magical apple given to her by a talking snake…”

“Wait a minute! You’re talking bad about Jesus. And that’s not philosophy. That’s religion. And you said philosophers were scientists, not preachers. My mom says…”

“I know what your mom says. At least, I can guess. But your both wrong, and I haven’t contradicted myself. Religion was invented by philosophers using what little knowledge they had to make sense of the world around them. Sometimes they did it with good intentions. Sometimes they did it with selfish intentions that hurt other people. That’s water under the bridge at this point. The point is that they were trying to find truth and make sense of life. They just weren’t very good at it.

Anyone who asks questions in the search for truth is a philosopher, but only the people who follow solid, useful rules when asking questions are real philosophers in the same sense that only the people who build houses using solid, useful rules are real carpenters. You see how I’m actually going somewhere with this? I’m not jerking your chain here.

And just like with a house, the most important thing to figure out first is how to make the foundation. The second most important thing is the structure. Then there’s the functional details, then the aesthetic details. Then, once you’ve mastered the fundamentals you can start getting theoretical with your designs because only then are you not going to build some piece of crap that’s going to fall down. Again, it’s the same thing with human beings’ understanding of the universe and life. Good philosophers ask and answer the most important, fundamental questions first.

Anyway, the first philosophers were theologians…that’s people who make up religions or more accurately, mythology. Then, as human knowledge improved theologians lagged behind in solid truth seeking and scientists took up where they left off. Once scientists answered the most fundamental questions and coming up with math, physics, chemistry, astronomy, and what have you then the latest brand of philosophers turned their attention to psychology, sociology, anthropology and metaphysics.”

“So those old guys with pipes who talk about things nobody can understand are the real philosophers?”

“You tell me, kid.

No. Never mind. I’ll tell you.

After humans had been preserving and passing on knowledge for roughly 10,000 years there came a point where most of the cut and dry questions had been answered. That laid the foundation for certain thinkers with the money to afford an education and the time on their hands to sit around speculating on the nature of reality.

That, in and of itself, was a good thing. The only problem was that, like with mythology,  there were a lot of people who took these thinkers’ questions/conclusions as authoritative. So a lot of people stopped searching for truth in the fundamental sense and just regurgitated…”

“What’s regujidaded mean?”

“It means to throw up something you ate.”

“Oh.”

“Anyways, people started regurgitating these thinkers questions and answers over and over and over, and they got so caught up in reanalyzing these old questions that they never asked new questions and found new questions with new answers.”

“But if they were smart enough to understand all that stuff that nobody else understands then how come they weren’t smart enough to figure out that they were just rejugilating old stuff and not doing anything new and useful and answering the rest of the questions?”

“Good question, kid. You just might make a philosopher yet. I’ll tell ya why. Because of human nature.”

“Human nature?”

“Oh yeah, kid. Let me ask you a question. Do you respect your mother?”

“You bet I do.”

“Why?”

“Uh, because she’s my mom, duh.”

“Exactly. Now, I know your mother is a good woman, but you’d respect her no matter what because that’s what you’re supposed to do, right?”

“Yeah. Well, wait…”

“Nope. No backtracking. Then you’re just kidding yourself. The truth is that it’s in our instincts to respect our elders. It’s not usually right, because most of our elders are douche bags, but that’s the way it is. We grow up all of our lives hearing that this person or that person is the cat’s pajamas and we take it to be true. Then when anyone questions that person we assume the dissenter is stupid or crazy.

That’s what happened with the old philosphers’ ideas. They gained a social status of authority, and all of a sudden everyone assumed the ideas had actual authority. Plus, the people regurgitating these theories prided themselves with being open minded, logical and superior to nonthinkers so much that their arrogance blinded them to their ignorance.”

“So you’re saying they’re all stupid?”

“Hey, all I’m saying is this. The fact of the matter is that if any of the celebrities of modern philosophy found out how idolized, analyzed and defended they are today they’d shit a brick. Pardon my French. There’s no doubt in my mind that if they would have known what was going to happen to their work they would have thrown away everything they ever wrote and forced future generations to reinvent the wheel because that would be better than everyone spending several hundred years spinning their wheels.”

“…well…gosh. But if there’s still wheels to spin then they didn’t have it all figured out. If those guys didn’t have it all figured out and they were so smart then I’ll never have a chance of getting anything figured out.”

“Well, I guess you may as well just shit in your hand and give up, huh?”

“…”

“Kid, don’t sell yourself short. Can you ask a question?”

“…yeah.”

“Then you can be a philosopher. The key to becoming a real philosopher is the same as it was 10,000 years ago. All you have to do is ask yourself, ‘What is the biggest problem you’re facing today?’.”

“The biggest problem I’m facing today is my grades in school.”

“Then focus on that. If Galileo hadn’t focused on his school he might never have figured out that the earth isn’t the center of the universe.”

“But aren’t we supposed to ask the highest questions?”

“Never mind the obvious fact that we don’t know what the highest level questions are. If Galileo had got stuck on asking metaphysical questions once he finished school then he might never have figured out that the earth isn’t the center of the universe. Then we’d all still be worshiping mythology and locking our neighbors in giant metal masks for gossiping.”

“But…”

“No buts. Forget about the questions or answers your elders settled on.  Forget about what people think is smart. Try to answer the most immediately important questions. Once you’ve answered those you can move on to answering the next most immediately important questions. Build on truth after truth. That’s the only way you’ll ever be able to understand the highest truths. If you try to jump straight to the end you’re going to end up just as misguided as the fools who invented the mythological concept of sin.

Don’t let your search for truth get boxed in and suffocated by the canon of religious or academic dogmatists. Don’t be afraid to reinvent the wheel ,because it’s human nature to get stuck using broken wheels passed down from more primitive, ignorant and authoritarian generations. But no matter what you do, just remember this one thing…”

“What’s that?”

“Don’t tell your mother I told you any of this.”

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