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Philosophy, Schmilosophy

Nothing against David Bain, who looks like someone with a sense of humor, but this sort of thing is the reason I never formally studied philosophy. It’s my natural habitat — meandering on about things nobody else worries about — but there is just too much goddamn silliness involved.

Take these four “brain teasers” on the BBC on World Philosophy Day. They either have blindingly obvious answers or they’re purely theoretical and not worth the waste of neurons.

BBC Magazine: Four philosophical questions to make your brain hurt

Should we kill healthy people for their organs?

The question is followed by several scenarios in which you have to decide whether to save one life at the cost of several others. I’m sorry, but this question has been answered consistently throughout human history. Where might makes right, the powerful can sacrifice as many people as they want for as little cause as strikes their fancy. Where there is some kind of rule of law, the individual’s right to live is absolute and it doesn’t matter how many people die because they can’t get at somebody’s healthy bone marrow. The question doesn’t arise because the intelligent people who established the right to control one’s own person realized we can’t admit exceptions allowing some people to be sacrificed for others. Then it’s only a matter of time before nobody is left standing.

The “brain teaser” part of this silly scenario depends on artificially cross-linking a situation in which people do have a right to live and one where they don’t. Sorry. You can’t have both at once. That’s a fallacy in logic, not a brain teaser.

Are you the same person who started reading this article?

This one addresses the question of what is someone’s identity. A collection of cells, or DNA, or experiences, or what? This is an interesting and truly brain-teaser-y question . . . without a shred of practical application. It’s not a question that could ever have one answer, because it would depend on the person’s beliefs — religious, philosophical, or both. And what that answer is would once again not matter, because in the real world that question has been thoroughly answered. You’re a given body that other people can recognize and label. End of story.

Is that really a computer screen in front of you?

This goes back to Descartes’ issues with trusting his senses. The idea is that just because your senses present you with information, doesn’t mean the whole thing isn’t some huge con. You don’t really know what you’re seeing because you have no way of independently verifying what your senses tell you.

Again, true, but trivial. It has zero practical application. Nobody has ever or will ever live their lives based on the assumption that the real world doesn’t exist outside their heads. Well, they may, but they’ll be doing it inside an insane asylum. And somebody will have to do their possibly illusory laundry for them.

This is the sort of thing I mean when I say philosophy spirals into silliness. There are real questions to be addressed, such as how ideas shape perceptions and what that means for our notions of ourselves as rational beings. It has huge practical implications. How, for instance, do we really make decisions about voting for Presidents or finding genius? If Nobel prizes are handed out based even partly on our own ideas rather than purely on all the available evidence, we could be missing major, life-changing benefits. Instead of helping us straighten out our thinking on thought, perception, and reality, the philosophers are wasting their time on mirror games with computer screens.

Did you really choose to read this article?

The idea behind that question is that if you knew every other factor at work, you’d be able to predict any given event. It’s a false extrapolation to the future of the immutability of the past. You’re standing in Now, looking back, and if anything had been different, you would not be right where you are, doing exactly what you’re doing. That’s true.

But it does not follow that if you looked forward, the situation is the same. The essence of the future is that it hasn’t happened yet. One can assume it’s determined, but that’s all it is: an assumption. However, if you ignore the fact that you’ve just assumed it’s deterministic, you can then build some wild conclusions.

Now, of course, Fred didn’t really exist, so he didn’t really predict your every move. But the point is: he could have. You might object that modern physics tells us that there is a certain amount of fundamental randomness in the universe, and that this would have upset Fred’s predictions. But is this reassuring? Notice that, in ordinary life, it is precisely when people act unpredictably that we sometimes question whether they have acted freely and responsibly. So freewill begins to look incompatible both with causal determination and with randomness. None of us, then, ever do anything freely and responsibly.”

So, after mistake number one (“Fred’s” ability to predict the future assumes determinism, it doesn’t prove it), the next step is mistake number two: conflating physical concepts of randomness, the probabilistic nature of the physical world (which is not the same as randomness), and individuals behaving in ways outside of social norms (also not the same as randomness). We’ve gone from cast-iron determination of everything, to a nod toward randomness, which is confused with craziness, which we don’t like, so randomness is not where it’s at. However, without randomness there can be no free will, and the only other choice has to be total determinism. (For some reason there are only two choices. No nod this time to the fuzzy edges of a probabilistic universe.) Supposedly, this train of reasoning (using the term loosely) shows that none of us are free agents or, therefore, responsible for anything, no matter what we think.

That’s not a brain teaser either. That’s just a mess.

Bain also says

the point, when you reject a conclusion, is to diagnose where the argument for it goes wrong.

A tall order. There’s such an embarrassment of riches.

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