On the very idea of a ‘senseless’ question

Claude asked:

Have there been any persons in the history of philosophy who believed that there was no such thing as a “senseless question”?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Do colourless green ideas sleep furiously? Or not? — I am quoting the famous example of a sentence (or question) that obeys the rules of English grammar but which we cannot make sense of, at least in a literal way. Of course (as one writer, John Hollander, demonstrated successfully in his poem ‘Coiled Alizarine’) you can compose a poem where the statement, ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously,’ does appear to make a kind of sense — ‘poetic sense’ — and in the context of the poem, one might tend to agree:

    Curiously deep
    The slumber of crimson thoughts
    While breathless
    In stodgy viridian
    Colorless green ideas sleep furiously

After all, a poem can be seen as a condensed argument (I’ve said the same about song lyrics in chapter 1 of my book ‘Philosophizer’) but I doubt whether anyone would seriously claim that the question concerning colourless green ideas has an answer which we are unable to discover owing to our limited cognitive abilities.

So far as I am aware, no philosopher has claimed that there is ‘no such thing as a senseless question,’ and that would be a difficult claim to defend, given the above example. However, one must bear in mind that this only became a live issue after philosophers like Wittgenstein or Carnap in the 20th century argued that many of the traditional ‘questions’ in the history of philosophy are, in fact, senseless. My view is that they were wrong. I don’t feel the least temptation to dismiss questions like, ‘Does God exist?’, ‘Is time real or unreal?’, ‘Is the universe composed of matter or ideas?’ as senseless, even though I would find it difficult to defend my position with anything resembling a ‘theory of meaning’ or a ‘criterion of meaningfulness’.

The point is that we don’t, in fact, have anything resembling a comprehensive theory of the way language works, or the way words succeed (or don’t succeed) in conveying ideas. Language is flexible, constantly in the process of being expanded, modified, sharpened. If you were to ask me how I know what I mean by some of the questions I have asked — like the question, ‘Could there be a universe exactly like the actual universe differing only in the fact that I am not GK?’ — my answer is no. I don’t know. And I say that without a hint of embarrassment. I have a strong feeling, or intuition, that I somehow ‘know’ what the question is getting at, but I would be at a loss to explain exactly how I know.

Frankly, I am tired (and bored) of professional philosophers making confident claims about the limits of meaning with nothing to back them up apart from a flimsy ‘theory’ — a hypothetical claim of the form, ‘If things were thus and so then other things would be such and such.’ One of the most blatant examples is the theory of materialism, but that’s a topic for another post.

So, no, the question, or possibility whether there are no ‘senseless’ questions (apart from contrived examples that do not even appear to make sense) hasn’t appeared in the history of Western philosophy, so far as I am aware, and really gets its point in response to claims by 20th philosophers like Wittgenstein et. al. I am happy to be nominated as ‘the’ philosopher who takes this view. If you know of any others, do let me know!

The chances of getting to Heaven

Jeffery asked:

“Are we there yet?” The canonical kids road trip question but applied in a Bayesian sense to ask why we are on the horrible side of an infinitely long afterlife in Paradise. Bayes might posit that the afterlife is a fictional delusion.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

There are philosophers going round who call themselves ‘Bayesians’. I’ve never quite understood what that means. Any formula (including Bayes’ method of calculating probabilities) is just a rule of thumb. We make statements about probability when there’s stuff we don’t know. Sometimes we know enough to be able to narrow down the possibilities to a manageable range — e.g. spinning a coin or throwing dice. At other times, it’s more like a shot in the dark.

There’s a great scene (a great send-up of probability calculations) in the 1998 movie ‘Croupier’ starring Clive Owen as ‘Jack Manfred’. Jack is considering whether to accept money from gangsters for doing an illegal act (I won’t give any spoilers). He goes through this rigmarole of adding and subtracting — he won’t spend the money, so he will still have it if he has to give it back, etc. etc. and comes up with a conclusion that the odds are favourable. The joke, or irony, is that Jack, an experienced croupier, ‘never gambles’, and regards gamblers with contempt. But of course, if he takes the money, he is gambling, and unlike roulette there is no logical or rational way to assess the odds.

My view about the afterlife would not be shared by most English-speaking philosophers. As a matter of logic (I would claim) there is no length of time after which it is no longer possible that I should exist, I mean the actual ‘me’ and not just someone with my memories. This has got nothing to do with traditional beliefs about heaven (or hell). Death is for ever, which means an infinite length of time. But every length of time is finite.

Heaven and hell are made-up stories. So is string theory, or the view that the universe has a sell-by date after which everything that exists will be annihilated. And the same is true of you or me. We don’t know and we don’t know what we don’t know. Anything is possible.

The best argument I know for heaven and hell is just the human belief in justice. It is intrinsically wrong that bad people escape punishment, or that the good suffer without relief. If you believe, really believe in justice then, for you, heaven and hell must exist in some form or other. But, of course, the whole notion of ‘justice’ (pace Socrates) is just another story.

My settled position would be close to the Greek sceptics. Not as a theoretical position but as a way of life. Don’t put your faith in anything. Make the best of what you have now, ‘horrible’ though it may be.

Controlling one’s thoughts

Samit asked:

Do I have a duty to control or change my thoughts for the purposes of
social harmony?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I will answer your question, Samit, by first challenging its implied assumption: that the reason why I have a duty to control or change my thoughts is that it ‘serves the purposes of social harmony’.

Let’s say that the date is 1934 and I am a German citizen who entertains the thought, ‘Hitler is a dangerous madman.’ Although I have not yet dared express this thought out loud, it has already prompted certain actions on my part that have begun to distance me from my Hitler-worshipping neighbours. Not enough, yet, to put me in danger of being arrested by the Gestapo — at least that is what I hope. But could it be argued that ‘social harmony’ (quote unquote) requires me to find ways to persuade myself that the Fuhrer is not so bad after all?

I don’t think so. The example of the trial of Socrates is the classic case where wrong is done in the name of social harmony. Socrates was accused of ‘corrupting the young’ and ‘impiety’, both charges he denied. All he did was to encourage the young people who followed him to think for themselves, to question their assumptions about the widely held beliefs of the day, including religious beliefs. But imagine that you are a parent and your son or daughter comes to you and tells you that the gods on Mount Olympus are not worthy of worship because of the bad example — infidelity, cruelty, revenge — they set to human beings. Where did this come from?, you ask. That evil, meddling Socrates!

I do have a duty to control or change my thoughts, when I am aware that these thoughts are prejudiced, for example, against a certain ethnic minority. I know that it’s not only wrong but factually incorrect to regard members of the minority in question as naturally lazy and stupid, but my reactions belie my knowledge. Let’s say it was the fault of my upbringing. I inherited my parents’ prejudices. The point is that here the reason why I have a duty to strive to overcome my prejudices is my better, ‘second thoughts’, rather than the bad consequences for the social fabric of my failure to overcome my inherited prejudices.

But how far does this go? Societies change. At the time of the Ancient Greeks, the notion of an Olympic Games for disabled persons — the ‘Paralympics’ — would have been regarded as repugnant and outrageous. The whole point of the Games, they would have said, is to celebrate human perfection. Then again, if you put this point to Aristotle, you might have succeeded in persuading the great philosopher at least to entertain the possibility that the specifically human ‘virtues’ of courage, technical skill and endurance are what really matter, and these are demonstrated equally by Olympians and Paralympians.

I am not going to presume to know what Aristotle would have said, although I suspect that 2500 years ago the very idea of a Paralympics would have been regarded as nonsensical and not worthy of discussion. Anyone who thought otherwise lacked common sense. Now we think differently.

The example I have just given is a case where we have a supposed duty not only to keep our thoughts to ourselves, but to strive to change them. If the Paralympics are on TV in the local bar, and customers are cheering a wheelchair race, for example, I am obliged to smile and cheer along with them and not put on a sour face. Pretending to smile or cheer isn’t enough.

I am talking about political correctness, of course. That’s a question you could have asked: do we have a duty to think in ways that are widely regarded in our society as ‘politically correct’?

My view is that there are cases where being politically correct is reasonable and fair, but also cases where it is close to ridiculous, if not downright evil. The Paralympics would be an example where most persons today would strongly disagree with the Ancient Greeks.
The truistic point is that attitudes change. We now see things differently. Unfortunately, there are persons — I call them the moral Gestapo — who would regard that truistic thought as ‘politically incorrect’.

It is my sincere belief that the people who promote political correctness even when it is ridiculous deserve to be called out, even at the cost of social disharmony.

What is a ‘game’?

Ciarán asked:

I found your page through your 2013 blog post here:

I have been searching for a succinct and elegant definition of the word ‘game’ for a few years, that covers all of the common usages of the term. I have read much of Wittgenstein, and found his responses unsatisfactory. But since you have also entertained the question, I wanted to ask you directly. What is a ‘game’?…

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I would like to expand on the answer I gave before, which referenced the real difference between a ‘heap’ and a ‘pile’, even though both terms have a vague application. A heap of books is different from a pile of books. But you could also have a disorderly jumble of books partially heaped and partially piled. Crucially, as I remarked in my previous answer, we have physical theories that account for the properties of heaps and of piles.

In the case of ‘games’, the first point to make is that a ‘game’ is something that one or more persons ‘play’. However, not all playing is ‘playing a game’. And therein lies one clue. For example, out of boredom I might twist a paperclip until it breaks in two. I am playing with the paper clip, but my play only becomes ‘playing a game’ when something is added. For example, looking to see if I can break the paperclip while holding my breath, or in an even number of twists, or faster than you can, etc.

Animals play. Do they ‘play games’? One can sometimes describe what your pet is doing as ‘playing a game’ but arguably the ‘game’ aspect is something you have added to what you observe. A game is only a game for the subject playing when that player has the capacity to form certain intentions. What these are, again, is vague.

The crucial point, however, is that, as in the case of heaps and piles, there is room for a theory of play. And I don’t mean ‘game theory’ although the fact that there is such a thing as game theory is related to this. Vegetables don’t play. Insects don’t play. But cats, dogs, monkeys etc. do. Why? What is the point (from an evolutionary perspective) of a monkey ‘playing’, as opposed to gathering food, exercising, competing for a mate etc.? One plausible answer is that, instinctively, members of the species, especially the young, ‘play’ at actions that later on will become ‘serious’ and more closely connected with survival. Mock fighting would be one example.

Again there is ‘theory’ about what it means for a human being to ‘play a game’. Game playing is a remarkable phenomenon. It’s something we do, that has a less direct connection to survival than other actions. Conceivably, there could be intelligent beings — AIs or Martians, perhaps — that completely lacked the concept of a ‘game’, or the capacity to understand what humans are doing when they ‘play games’.

None of the above could be used to provide logically ‘necessary and sufficient conditions’ for something’s being a game. This seems to me sufficient to meet Wittgenstein’s point. Yes, the concept of a ‘game’, like many concepts, has vague boundaries. There will be plenty of cases where we cannot say for sure that something is, or is not a ‘game’ (or ‘mere game’). But that is consistent with saying that we humans do have a grasp of the point of a game, or game playng. The word has a useful, indeed vital, function in the language, and anyone who understands English, say, will have a reasonable degree of confidence in how to use that word.

Earlier, I referenced ‘game theory’. As with many concepts, there are some things humans do that can be explained or described by game theory which are not, in fact, what we would call ‘games’. In these cases, the use of the word ‘game’ is understood through a metaphorical extension from its base meaning. You can play a nuclear ‘war game’, but that is different from conducting an actual nuclear war, even though both activities can be explained by, or are governed by, ‘game theory’ — as in the 1983 movie ‘War Games’. Wittgenstein’s highly original and fecund notion of ‘language games’ is a similar case of metaphorical extension. There are games we can literally play with words, like Scrabble, but this answer is not intended as a play or move in some game, although for Wittgenstein it is a ‘language game’ — or part of a language game — as are all cases of language usage.

The art of philosophizing

Ryan asked:

I am an English and Economics student but I’m incredibly interested in
philosophy. What is a good, easy place to start when beginning my
philosophical journey?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

There was a time — I am embarrassed to say — when I would have scoffed at the notion that there can be an ‘easy’ way to get into philosophy. The whole point about philosophy and its value is that it is difficult and not just some amusing pastime.

But I get it. I admit that I have on occasion resorted to reading easy introductions to certain philosophers in preference to their own original texts because I was working hard on other things in philosophy and needed some processed snacks to keep me going. For you, your university studies must take precedence. Of course.

Then again, we all know about the harm that processed snacks can do to your health. Difficult as he is, it is better to read what Hegel says about Hegel — for example in his ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ or ‘Greater Logic’, or in their more condensed versions in his ‘Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences’ — than some academic commentator’s more or less conjectural or bastardized account.

Pursuing the food analogy, you need to keep your philosophical digestion in good working order. That can never happen if you look for all your thinking to be done for you. Your ‘interest’, if it is genuine, must involve willingness to take on hard work and a challenge — with the implication that you will inevitably come up against your own intellectual shortcomings. (‘A man’s got to know his limits,’ as Clint Eastwood’s ‘Dirty Harry’ character observes.)

When I set out to write my six Pathways to Philosophy back in 1995, I had the idea to write a different kind of ‘introduction’, one that required persistence to make any progress, but also rewarded the student at each stage of the course. After every three chapters there were six test questions to write essays on. Students who enrolled on the program received tutor feedback.

That program has now ended but the six texts are available in book form:

The Possible World Machine
Searching for the Soul
The First Philosophers
Language and the World
Reason, Values and Conduct
The Ultimate Nature of Things

I have written enough about these over the years so I am not going to add more here. Look for yourself. Like all my books, they are available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle eBook.

More recently, in my ‘Philosophizer’ trilogy (Philosophizer, Philosophizer’s Bible, The Idiotic Conundrum’) I have grappled with the question of what it is to be ‘interested’ in the questions of philosophy. How far down does this interest go?

My answer is: All the way or not at all. My view is black-and-white, while the answer you would get from most academic philosophers is some shade of grey. In my austere view, the ultimate questions of philosophy have never been solved and you or I are unlikely to solve them. Which is no reason to give up on the attempt.

It’s a paradox, of sorts. What exactly is it, that I am attempting to do — given my belief that such ‘attempts’ cannot ultimately succeed? The best answer I can give is that all this — the answers posted here, for example — is ‘testifying’, saying how things are from where I stand, here and now.

Don’t take my word for it. Decide for yourself. The Pathways Introductory Book List is a good place to start. You will need to read a lot before you have any sense of what you are looking for, or what kinds of philosophical texts are best suited to your intellectual appetite.

The story of my life

Lindsay asked:

Did the ancient philosophers write about telling one’s own story as a form of activism and means to social change?

I’m working on my MA in Counseling Psychology and writing my thesis, which is a narrative inquiry. In a sense, I’ll be helping my participants tell their stories and writing/publishing it to help therapists better understand my population (those in polyamorous relationships).

One of my sources* claims that telling one’s life story as a form of activism dates back to the Enlightenment. I know just enough philosophy to wonder if earlier rhetoricians addressed this. I remember that Aristotle wrote of the pathos of storytelling but don’t know if the power of telling one’s own story was addressed. Are there works that speak to this topic?

This is a tiny part of my methodology. I ask this question out of curiosity and a desire to more fully understand the power of telling one’s story as a means of healing, social change, and other positive outcomes. I’m also looking at using narrative therapy as my primary theoretical orientation in my therapy practice. So, helping people “restory” their lives to emphasize their strengths, etc to build confidence and help them heal from past trauma, etc. Reading suggestions are welcome!

*Lenart-Cheng, H., & Walker, D. (2011). Recent trends in using life stories for social and political activism. Biography, 34, 141-179.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Someday I’m going to write
The story of my life
I’ll tell about the night we met
And how my heart can’t forget
The way you smiled at me…

‘The Story of My Life’ (Bacharach and David, 1957)

I have a distinct memory as a youngster humming this pop song to myself as I explored wooded land near my home in Finchley, London. According to Wikipedia, the British cover version of the original USA release by Marty Robbins was a number 1 Hit for Michael Holliday in 1958. So that would put my age at 7 or 8, possibly a year or two older.

If you thought you would get the real story of the lyricist’s life, — this was an early production from the genius pairing of Burt Bacharach and Hal David who went on to write some of the most memorable songs of the 60s — you are likely to be disappointed. It turns out to be a classic (or cliched) heterosexual love story: Boy meets girl, boy and girl are separated, boy and girl reunited. As we learn from the chorus, (preceded by the girl backing group singing, ‘Bum-bum, bum, bum’),

The sorrow when our love was breaking up
The memory of a broken heart
But later on, the joy of making up
Never never more to part…

Even back then — I am confident this is not just fanciful construction on my part — I remember pondering with a feeling of giddy vertigo the momentous fact that my life was still before me. There were multiple paths stretching in different directions. The song had a flavour for me that was close to mystical. At the time, the boy-meets-girl aspect hardly figured. With the benefit of hindsight, there is more than a little irony in the all-too pat ‘love story’.

The 1999 sci-fi spoof movie ‘Galaxy Quest’ depicts the cast from a TV series similar to Star Trek encountering an alien race who lack any concept of fiction or even lying, and think that the TV episodes are recordings of ‘actual historical events’. Misunderstandings abound and there are many comedic moments. But there is a serious point here. Human beings are story tellers. This is a deep fact about the human psyche, not simply something to take for granted. (Wittgenstein is often quoted as making a remark to this effect, but I would be very surpriised indeed if he was the first philosopher to take notice of this phenomenon.)

The way you frame your question (in terms of the made-up verb ‘to restory’) suggests that recounting ‘the story of my life’ has a loose connection to datable, historical facts. At the same time, presumably there are limits imposed by reality. I can imagine myself as ‘the Man who fell from Mars’ — in my disputes with ‘academic’ philosophy this is something I have been tempted to do on occasion — but the sober truth is that I was born a human being on planet Earth.

How did the notion of telling a story come about? Is it because we dream? Domestic cats dream, according to owners’ anecdotal evidence. From an evolutionary perspective, the ability to ‘rehearse’ typical actions, like stalking or pouncing, can be seen as conferring a survival advantage over otherwise similar creatures that don’t dream. Then what are human dreams for? Why, supposing a connection here, do stories interest us or move us? Assuming that humans were not ‘designed’ by some higher being, it could just be an evolutionary accident, an unexpected benefit bestowed on creatures who had invented a language capable of converting subjective ‘memories’ into narratives.

The consequences of our having this accidental capacity, are indeed momentous.

Telling X’s story’ is something the Ancient Greeks did — for example, the contrasting pictures of Socrates by Plato and Xenophon. They also had a tradition of story-telling where the characters were presumed to be fictional. But who was Plato, what was his ‘story’? Why didn’t he tell us? The closest we get is Plato’s ‘7th Letter’ whose authenticity has been a subject of much dispute.

Aristotle notoriously argued that a ‘man’ (‘person’ if you prefer, although Aristotle had views about the differences between the sexes) cannot be called ‘happy’ until after he has died, and his achievements evaluated in a positive or negative light. The ‘happy’ cuckold whose wife has been deceiving him for years is a case in point. Or the terrible karaoke singer who is urged by his so-called ‘friends’ to demonstrate his ‘talents’ for their amusement.

You mention the Sophists. This suggests (to me) that you approve of the notion that ‘my story’ is mine and the truth, the real truth about me isn’t something that can conflict with my perception of how the events in my life string together. I am the best authority, regardless of what you say or how you perceive me. This seems to echo Protagoras, ‘Man is the measure of all things’ but arguably Protagoras was talking about differences between cultures — Greeks versus ‘Barbarians’ — rather than individual persons.

In Plato’s dialogue ‘Theaetetus’ Socrates offers an argument against what he takes to be Protagorean ‘relativism’, which makes the case that failing to distinguish ‘how things are’ from ‘how things seem to me’ leads to absurd consequences. If you go to a physician, you want to be told the truth about your condition, and you assume that you will get the right treatment for that condition. But I don’t think that this is something that Protagoras would have necessarily disputed. It was just some imaginary theory of Plato’s own concoction, a ‘straw man’ introduced into the dialogue to make a philosophical point.

I suspect that, as you say, personal narrative, confession is a ‘Modern’ idea, going back to thinkers like Montaigne and Rousseau. Yet even today, mainstream academic philosophers look askance at philosophical writing that departs from objectivity in the expression of the writer’s personal thoughts, feelings, recollections (as in, for example my ‘Philosophizer’ trilogy). However, I still believe in truth, the absolute truth — about the origin of the universe, or the nature of consciousness, or the whole panoply of unresolved problems and questions. The two modes of discourse can coexist, side by side, or even complement one another. I don’t see a conflict.