So Little to Say in So Many Words

I just returned from a lecture in Philosophy of Language, which is a course I attend at my university. It’s a course in which the ideas of the “big thinkers” of 20th century analytical philosophy of language are dealt with. And although I find the topic very interesting, I couldn’t help but become annoyed by the overdose of irrelevant digressions of the lecturer. It made my thoughts wander off to a more fascinating – and less annoying – place.

Let me ask you: why do people use so many words while saying so damn little? Why do people seem to think that the most important “thing” in communication is for them to convey their message, and that they should do so regardless of how long their “elucidation” would become? Don’t people see that using more words, especially when saying the same thing in multiple ways, deflates the value of each of the words said? How can we – the listeners – know what’s relevant and what’s not if relevant and irrelevant words are mixed into one act of communication? Don’t people see that the use of more words increases the risk for the totality of words to convey a contradictory message? That more words implies more meanings, and that more meanings implies more opportunity for confusion to arise?

Being succinct in communicating your thoughts is harder than being elaborate. It is as Einstein once put it, “Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler”. Only by making things simple you can convey the core of what you mean to say. But it is often the fear of the second part of Einstein’s claim (of making things “too simple“) that makes us digress about – what could have been – a very simple idea. We believe that by showing the broadness of our vocabulary, we are able to show our true intelligence. But, to use another quote of Einstein, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. And that’s completely true. Only in the realms of academia, in which nuance and exceptions should be praised, is the use of “complex” terminology or digressions required – and therefore legitimized. But even then one should try to keep the number of words used at an absolute minimum.

That’s why I decide to end this article at this point. I could have written another 200 words but I don’t think the increase in the value of my message would weigh up against the extra words you’d have to read.

But what do you think?

Why Would You Ever Study Philosophy?

I am curious to know how many of the people reading this article studies – or has studied – philosophy. I guess the percentage is rather low. And that’s a pity. It truly is. Because although philosophy doesn’t necessarily make you a multimillionaire, it can give you a great sense of satisfaction. Getting down the most fundamental of fundamentals of your thinking, and slowly starting to see things make more and more sense, is pretty much like an orgasm to the mind; or, to put it less sex-oriented, like candy to the mind. Personally I believe that philosophy should be the number one course taught to children. Starting on high school, since primary school is for chasing girls…

I am not saying that philosophy is the ‘one and only discipline seeking for the truest of truths’. No, there are many more disciplines sharing this ambition. What I am saying, however, is that philosophy is an ‘activity – not a topic – that can be very helpful in thinking within the conceptual frameworks of any discipline around. You can compare it to riding a bike; riding a bike is useful in a wide variety of environments: the city, the forest, at a farm…You get it. That’s how it is with philosophy as well: no matter where you are situated, no matter whether you are a mathematician or a physicist: you will benefit from philosophy.

When people ask me, ‘What exactly is philosophy?’ I tell them – like a true philosopher – that there isn’t ‘some thing’ that can be called philosophy. Philosophy is not a subject: it’s a manner of thinking. A manner of thinking that can be applied irrespective of the particular subject at issue. That’s why well-known philosophers have been – or are – involved in so many different disciplines: one philosopher can ‘easily’ be involved with such apparently different subjects as the mind-body problem (psychology and neuroscience), rationality (economics) and scientific realism (physics, chemistry and more). That is because philosophy is a ‘system of thinking’ one can apply to the world; it’s an angle from which you look at the world.

Why am I telling you this? Well, I am telling you this because philosophy has truly changed my life. It has made me – I believe – a more respectful person: more understanding towards opposing points of view. It has forced me to think about why I believe what I do, which made me appreciate my beliefs much more. And I am convinced that – besides the intellectual merits – philosophy has a therapeutic value. By that I mean that philosophy can ease your mind when you feel lost; when you need a shoulder to cry on. Pretty much like music, but then aimed straight at the mind.

Use philosophy like a hammer for the mind; to hit the mind it in the right shape. The ‘right shape’? What does that mean? To be honest: I don’t know. But it sounds philosophical, doesn’t it?

But what do you think?

Happiness and Ignorance or Appreciation and Wisdom?

As John Stuart Mill said in his Utilitarianism,

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.

The question that immediately comes to mind after reading this quotation is: Is this true? Is wisdom truly worth more than satisfaction? Would someone truly rather be happy and ignorant than face the absurdity and meaningless of life, and thereby touching upon – what might – be the ‘true’ nature of our existence? In other words: a happy fool or an enlightened absurdist, what to choose?

You can look in the mirror every morning and think to yourself, ‘I’m going to be wiped from this earth within – at most – a few decades,’ ‘I don’t have a clue what I’m doing here, and I’ll probably never figure it out’ or ‘Does what I am about to do today contribute anything to the course of humanity?’ Each of these questions seems to come from a very reasonable reflection on life. Philosophy, being the human quest for wisdom, should not turn walk away from questions like these, even though they might turn out to be unanswerable or depressing. Philosophy is not a quest that should be focused on creating finished products, like carpentry or painting. Philosophy, like any attempt to obtain ‘the truth’, is a never-ending activity, whose value resides within calming down our feelings of despair. It might be comparable to drugs, but instead of deciding not to face the absurdity of life by lowering one’s state of consciousness, one tries to convince one’s consciousness that there must be a road to certainty; a road that one, in blinding naivety, hopes to stumble upon. This is the life of the absurdist.

But there is another way to live. You could look in the mirror every morning and think to yourself, ‘I’ve got to hurry up, I’ve got to be at work at 8 o’clock,’ ‘I still have to tell John that he has to cook dinner tonight, since I will be home late’ and ‘Oh it’s Tuesday! That means that there will be soccer on television tonight!’ You could force yourself to try and turn off the existential, reflective part of your mind and commit to living the robotic or auto-pilot-like life. You could try to become immersed in the rat-race called life to such an extent that all of your thinking power is required just for sticking to your rat-race-like planning. There is no time for reflection; all your time is needed for action. Life consists of the ever recurring 9 to 5 cycles stringed together by knots of transient and superficial moments of happiness. This is the life of the fool.

The advantage of being a happy fool is that one, in contrast to the absurdist, is able to experience happiness, no matter how superficial this might be. The fool is able to get lost in the dopamine-flow triggered by the utterly irrelevant phenomena he finds interesting or amusing. He turns his back towards the absurdity of life; he lives his life the ‘normal’ way: the way (almost) everyone lives it. Moreover, it is the manner in which any animal on earth lives its life. And that’s exactly where the sadness kicks in. Since, we could ask ourselves, how ‘human’ is a life that doesn’t differ in any fundamental sense of the life of a pig? A life that is lived on cruise-control, only taken control of when our biological urges seem incapable of doing the job, when humans seem equal to mice? And even though we – in contrast to the mice – have the thinking power to live a different life at our disposal, we rather let our animal brains control our bodies: no thinking means good thinking.

And this is where the Socrates comes in. Although the Socrates realizes that he might not have chosen the hedonistic path to happiness, it is the outer part – the ‘human’ part – of his brain that gets freed from the shackles of social and biological conditioning; he takes control of his life. Happiness gets bypassed, and fulfillment is being striven for. And it is by accepting the inability of his mind to ever find the path to certainty that he enters a vicious circle that starts and ends with absurdity: the highest state of enlightenment attainable for the human mind. It is only in the absurdist spheres of consciousness that happiness can be judged for what it really is: an empty goal created to prolong the dominance of the animalistic parts of our brains.

Should we see it as our duty to enlighten ourselves, to reach the level of consciousness we can reach; a level that is filled with reflection on the absurdity of life? Or should we succumb under the temptation of hedonism, give up the analytic an logic reflection on ‘this thing called life’, and long for bursts of momentary happiness? What is the human way to live?

What do you think?

What Makes Someone Intelligent?

Who is more intelligent: (1) a construction worker voting for a progressive, responsible and tolerant party or (2) a mathematical whizkid working at a bank and voting for a party whose main goal it is to get rid of minorities? In other words: what is it that makes someone intelligent? Is it how good he is in calculating the inverse matrix of a particular order? Or is it how thoughtful he is about our community and whether or not he contributes to how we as a society might become a more loving/productive institution?

I recently had a discussion with a friend of mine who I believe belongs far more to category (2) than (1). He spoke to me about his discontent with pretty much every Moroccan around; including the ones he had never actually met. He considered it to be a good idea to send each and every Moroccan back to his country of origin.

In the same week I had a discussion with my uncle. My uncle is a very nice man – just like my friend by the way – and belongs far more to category (1) than (2). And although my uncle admitted to be rather slow in absorbing/processing information – reading, calculating etc. – he also told me the following: ‘Rob, you are free to do everything in life that you want to do. Truly. But please, promise me one thing: never ever vote for those discriminating parties. Ever. Will you?’

I ask you again: who is more intelligent?

Before we might be able to answer this question, we first have to explicate the notion of intelligence. I believe that someone’s intelligence ultimately comes down to his actions. Someone’s actions are, after all, the only objective criterium we have for judging what goes on in his mind. The fact that a friend of you might say, ‘I could have easily passed that English test if I hadn’t just started studying last night’ shows to me that – apparently – this person is not very intelligent. A truly intelligent person would have known better, right? And it is for the same reason that someone who is good in mathematics or physics, or any other discipline we usually associate with intelligence, is not necessarily intelligent. Look at the banking sector, I would say. Have those mathematical ‘geniuses‘ been acting very intelligently lately?

You could of course argue that I am mistaken the concept of intelligence for the concept of wisdom, where intelligence might be about the ‘processing power’ of one’s brain while wisdom might be about the reasonableness of one’s decisions. I would reply by saying that even the processing power of one’s brain can in the end only be judged by the manner in which the person acts. That is the only objective criterium we have for making any claims about that person’s intelligence. No matter how many areas of one’s brain turn yellow/green/red in a f-MRI scan, we are still unable to know the true processing power of the person’s brain. Maybe the person’s brain is just very inefficient, using a lot of brainpower for very little output. That is why the only true test of intelligence consists not of what one’s brain does, but what one does with his brain.

But what do you think?