How many beans make five?

Geoffrey asked:

How many beans make five?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I’m cheating slightly because I asked this question. I realized only last night that there is a non-tautological answer which is incredibly simple. (And it’s not abitrary, like the number of beans in five ounces of beans — What type of beans? British or US ounces? And why ounces, not grams?)

Bear with me.

Here’s an example of a series that you might find in an IQ test: m, t, w, t, f, s, s… What’s the next letter? The answer? It’s m. You expend endless mental energy assigning numbers, counting the gaps between the letters but the answer has nothing to do with calculation. The letters stand for days in the week.

Here’s another one. How high is a Chinaman? (It’s supposedly not politically correct to tell a joke or even a riddle about race or nationality but at the present moment in time one can forgive a joke or riddle at the expense of the Chinese.) The answer in this case: That wasn’t a question. Hao Hi is a Chinaman. Or, to be politically correct, Hao Hi is a ‘Chinese Man’. Hao Hi is his name, and that wasn’t a question either. (Maybe you were thinking, ‘The Chinese are not that tall,’ etc. etc.)

This is about Philosophy. I said, ‘bear with me.’

How many beans make five? The answer is five, but as I said that answer is in fact not tautological. (Googling one finds the same thing over and over, that ‘He/ she knows how many beans make five’ means ‘He/ she knows his/ her stuff’, or ‘A bean, another bean, another bean, another bean, half a bean, and half a bean.’ Rubbish!)

Think LCDs. Well, you might say that question was asked long before LCDs but the principle is the same. Here’s a clue: Two beans make one, five beans make two, five beans make three, four beans make four… Et cetera. Get it now? Answer: There are seven cells in each digit in the LCD display on your Casio watch. How many beans or LCD cells does it take to make the numeral five? Yes, five. It takes five to make six, three to make seven, seven to make eight, five to make nine.

Crucially, five is tne minimum number of beans required to write a mark recognizable as the numeral ‘5’. That’s why the answer is not arbitrary. (You can if you want make ‘1’ out of one bean, ‘7’ out of two beans, etc. which look like the numerals they were intended to represent. )

Here’s one more example, from TV this time. There was a series on British TV around the 90s called ‘Jonathan Creek’. Locked room mysteries. (I talked about this in one of my recent videos.) In one episode an empty wardrobe was carried up three flights of stairs. Seconds later, when the wardrobe door was opened, the dead body of a woman fell out. How on earth did it get there? I won’t spoil your enjoyment by telling you the answer but it was brilliant, although in this case the script writer had more than one solution to choose from. The challenge in this case was to find any solution that wasn’t completely ridiculous.

In Philosophy one gets stuck on ‘problems’ and ‘questions’. And the problems are not solved, the questions are not answered because went looking in all the wrong places. You made a wrong assumption somewhere. And the answer was hidden in plain sight all along. If you’ve never had that experience then you haven’t finished your education in Philosophy however much you think you may know.

There’s no subject in the curriculum where lateral thinking is more important. Questioning our assumptions. I’m sceptical about the idea that you can do a course in lateral thinking (Edward De Bono, etc.) but he was most definitely on to something. Get off your doggy track. Think different. (That was an Apple advert.)

Here’s what I wrote in 1997:

Much has been made of the contrast between logical and creative approaches to problem solving, between ‘vertical’ and ‘lateral’ thinking. One of the most significant features of philosophical problem solving is the way that both approaches are closely integrated… The philosopher prizes equally the faculties of logic and vision, yet also learns to appreciate the completely unexpected move, the gift of serendipity.

(‘Why Study Philosophy?’

In just about every answer I’ve written recently I’ve talked about my riddle, which I call the ‘idiotic conundrum’. I might not have existed but someone exactly like me might have existed in my place. A lot of people don’t get this, and many of the rest either think they know the answer (I think they are wrong!) or they are not gripped, as I am. But then again, I could be the one who is in the wrong, but I just can’t see it. Can you?

One of the things that make a good philosopher is not getting stuck on idiotic conundrums. Do something else. Look at a different problem, anything. Think different. The answer to your conundrum may still come, when you are lying in bed, or brushing your teeth, or waiting at a red light. — I tell myself this, over and over, but as often happens one doesn’t heed one’s own advice…

What is philosophy?

Jabr asked:

What is Philosophy?

I want to come up with a definition of philosophy as succinct as the definition of physics as the study of the nature of matter and energy at the most fundamental levels using rational thinking, observations and experimentation.

If I would venture to arrive at an equally concise definition of philosophy, I would say it is using logic and critical thinking to study articulated thoughts and questions about anything plus the construction of good arguments to answer fundamental questions not dealt with by any other field of expertise.

What do you think?

Answer by Hubertus Fremerey

Start from the most obvious difference of sciences and humanities: The sciences have an ideal object : To understand the true nature of nature as contained in the as yet unknown complete set of natural laws in the right mathematical formulation.

There is no comparable objective truth in the humanities. There is logic, but as the word says, logic is just the way we use words and arguments in the correct way, not the value of the content. To put it bluntly: You can utter complete nonsense in perfectly consistent and logically meaningful sentences. You can write great books of deep thoughts in hundreds of pages describing the nature and workings of God — even if God does not exist.

So, the first problem is to get form and content apart. In the sciences you try to re-construct “the” truth that is “out there”. But in the humanities you try to con-struct “a” truth that is only in the mind of the beholder.

Thinking means “to be free”. Thinking is a way of “world-making”! Mere facts are meaningless. We have to construct some frame of reference that gives meaning to the facts. In the case of Sherlock Holmes we assume that there has been a real crime, since there is a body. Thus what Sherlock does is: re-construct a deed in the way a scientist does. But in the case of the theologian it is not even clear whether there has been a crime and a body. So, what does a theologian try to show? He has not only to show us “how it happened”, he even has to show that there has happened anything at all.

In this way, the philosopher may try to show us that a certain state of human affairs is “un-just”. But to do that, the philosopher has first to define a concept of justice. Another philosopher may disagree and reject the definition of the first philosopher. There is no way to tell who is right.

You see the problem here: There are no objective criteria of justice. Justice is in the eye of the beholder. People may struggle for a “more just world”, but they need not agree on what this comes to. The same applies with progress, human dignity, mental sanity etc.. Philosophers are always trying to convince each other and themselves that a certain answer is good and meaningful, but they cannot prove it. It is just a matter of intellectual honesty, never more.

Philosophers try to build houses for humans to live in. There is no such thing a “the right house”. But there is “good craftsmanship” and “sloppiness” in building a house.

Logic does not help. You always need content. To know everything about good craftsmanship as a buildings-engineer does not get you a house. To be a good logician does not make you a good philosopher. To be good with colours does not make you a great painter. You cannot reduce philosophy to logic and methodologies. Those are technical preconditions only, not the work to be done. To be good at the piano does not make you a Beethoven.

Thus your question should be: What is expected of me as a philosopher? You should become able to counsel people on the many aspects of a problem to be solved. You should become an expert on good arguments and on the many faces of concepts. But you will never be able to tell anybody “the truth”. There is no such thing in philosophy. But there is ignorance and awareness, naivety and seasoned wisdom.

Philosophy is not science — and never will be. Socrates was right on this. Wittgenstein did not think otherwise. Philosophy belongs among the humanities.

Theory vs practice

Mia asked:

Why do some things work in theory but not in practice? Do some factors that practice include not accepted or included when forming a theory? Put simply, does putting a theory in practice always require values to be implemented, and if so, is this what can be a source of error in a theory, thus causing the disconnect?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

A look at the words ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ already tells you a little about the disconnect. Theory contains the notion of ‘god’ (theos) and could be rendered in English as “through the eyes of God”. This implies a perfection of vision which we humans don’t have, but aspire to — i.e. to some truths that are immutable and forever. Whereas ‘practice’ refers to activity, things being done. It reflects the real world, of course, namely the world of randomness and chances and intrinsic uncertainty; whereas theory is the view of a world that is law-abiding, bound to cycles and causes and wholly determined.

It is among others the idea that the universe evolved from a single point-like locus of expanding energy in the midst of nothing and followed a strict and ‘in principle’ calculable chain of events to attain its present state and its eventual return to nothingness (cf. Paul Davies, About Time). However, mapping the stars, galaxies and other visible features reveals no signs at all that the present state can (‘in principle’) be reversed, so that we would watch a movie in which all this matter and energy runs back to the so-called Big Bang and just disappears.

Maybe a simpler example can illustrate this discrepancy. You can draw a perfect circle with a compass and have it touching a perpendicular at an arbitrary point. Can we express this point as a simple number? No; it cannot be done. We cannot decompose the circular and straight lines into points, so that they meet at the juncture where each line has a point in common, Indeed, that’s where the problems lies.

I have just exemplified what reality is like. Innumerable features and processes resist our notion of an exact causality or exact definition. Reality is messy; it is only the similarity between one mess and another that makes it possible for creatures to adapt, cope with and anticipate a likely outcome.

Now the point of theory: We can easily square the circle with an algebraic formula. But formulae are concepts, mental things, not things we find in the world outside of our heads. The moment we put numbers into the formula, reality bites us again!

Let me quote another typical specimen: weather prediction. Even if we could trace the trajectory of every atom in the clouds there is insufficient information to project their paths into the future with certainty, because of the complexity of their interactions. Computers add to this uncertainty with their rounding off problem (i.e. rounding up or down necessarily gives us two divergent paths at an infinitude of instants). If you attend to the weather watch you will know that you rarely read “rain coming”, but mostly “x% chance of rain”.

One could multiply examples like this from all walks of life which teach us that practical reality is full of motions and features which we can mostly grasp only in terms of probability. Our own evolutionary growth has bestowed such ‘probability instincts’ on us, enabling us to survive unpleasant surprises. But this is not theory. Theory seeks certainty; it tries to catch the eternal momentary stillness in the welter of motions and changes. Even my explanations above can do no more than convey hints. But the gist of it, I hope, comes through, that theory is important for us to understand and articulate propositions of what we are up against in the empirical world we live in. That’s excellent in terms of technological progress. But in practice we rely mostly on experience and intuition, which are not quantifiable to such exactitude that every value in our theories can be called correct. In a word, your surmise that the source of error causes the disconnect is spot on. Which assumes, of course, as in the above specimens, that error is unavoidable: Humanum errare est.

The concept of malice

Chris asked:

What would drive a person to hurt another intentionally?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

On the face of this, it seems a rather odd question. People hurt other people all the time, for a variety of reasons. One example would be if two people are competing for a resource. It might be food. That can be a zero sum game. If one person gets the food the other starves. Knowing this, and facing the prospect of starvation yourself, you might well act in your own self-interest, with the inevitable consequence that someone else suffers.

Of course, you might say, ‘Why not share’, and that’s a perfectly good question. But many people don’t, or won’t. Because they are selfish. The question to ask here is not, ‘Why be selfish’ but rather ‘Why be unselfish’. How does altruism arise? What is its motivation?

However, your question is different. There is a critical difference between doing an act, for whatever reason, that you know will result in hurt — your ‘second intention’ — and intentionally causing hurt. In the latter case, the reason is deliberately to cause harm, or hurt. But why would anyone want to do this?

One possible explanation would be along the lines proposed by the biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene (1976). We hurt others in order to punish, and we punish as a means of adjusting the behaviour of the other person, a strategy that is built into our genes. He argues that between pure self-interest and pure altruism there is a more effective strategy in evolutionary terms, which he calls ‘the grudger’. If you don’t reciprocate my generous action towards you — for example, scratching your back — then I will look for a means to punish, pay you back for your selfishness.

Somehow, this leaves me cold. When you think of acts of terrible revenge, deliberately done to innocents, the rationale of ‘punishing’ somehow doesn’t cover it. Like the bombing of Dresden, the 75th anniversary of which occurred yesterday. Many people who had endured the Blitz cheered, despite knowing that thousands upon thousands of innocent children would have been amongst the dead, burned to a crisp in the fire storm.

— The horror of it.

An analytic psychotherapist that I know once recommeded a book to me, The Tyranny of Malice by Joseph Berke (1988). The author makes the case that there are deep reasons, accounted for by Kleinian psychoanalytic theory, why human beings like to hurt, why we sometimes act with malice. I don’t know whether the theory is true. I’m not a psychotherapist or a follower of Klein. But the very fact that a theory is needed here shows something: what it shows is simply that you have asked a very good question, the answer to which is very far from clear.

Another work which has had a considerable impact on psychoanalytic theory is Ian D. Suttie The Origins of Love and Hate published in 1935, after his death that same year. Over the years following the Great War, Suttie was involved in an ongoing debate with Freud, rejecting the latter’s theory of the ‘death drive’.

It may very well be the case that we need to look elsewhere than philosophy, to an empirically based theory of human nature. The philosophical point is in recognizing that gritty fact.

Plato’s cave and the shadows of reality

Abdullah asked:

Plato will argue that what is “outside the cave” are the true realities – Ideas which are eternal and unchanging, and that when we reflect we have access to these Forms, and that the Forms are therefore what we can know for certain, while the shadows in the cave are mere illusions, and con only yield opinion, a very low form of knowledge indeed.

What might you think of such a scheme?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I would first of all say to you, Abdullah, that in philosophy one must be extra careful with words, because we humans have only a few means of intercommunication possible to us. We can speak and sing, paint and sculpt. The best way is evidently, if we can use one means of expression helping to illuminate the same communication in different ways.

Therefore the parable of the cave — the literary type of Plato’s discourse in this instance — comprises the transplantation of a philosophical conception into the artistic (poetical) medium of story telling, with a view to rendering the conception more readily comprehensible to intuition. The story illustrates some philosophical proposition which is extremely difficult to render without a special apparatus of technical terms; and you must now bear in mind that Plato had to make do with a very limited resource of such terminology — meaning, that he still relied to a large extent on the vocabulary spoken in the streets and the theatres, on the farm and in the households of the people.

In such circumstances, the plasticity of his intellect, equally capable of rigorous forms of analysis and poetical expression, is still to us a marvel to behold. But also an invitation to avoid reading too much (or too little) into his stories. His allegory of the cave is therefore not an exposition to be intended as a precise articulation, but a device which enlists the visual imagination of the reader, to make an appropriate connection to the discursive faculty and thereby to compensate for the dry and brittle theoretical type of discourse in which philosophical ideas are normally couched. (I might in parentheses point to the parable of sour grapes as another specimen of the transplantation of observable human foibles from a moralistic discourse into a neat poetical capsule).

At the same time as it does not disguise its limitations. And so the parable is not simply re-translatable back into the dry prose with which you describe it in your question. Not avoiding this danger, your description commits the fatal error of mis-stating the essence of the theory of forms and for thinking of it as a ‘scheme’. I consider it possible that you have not acquainted yourself with some other Platonic dialogues (e.g. Symposium, Phaedrus) that are indispensable for clarity on this subject matter. Therefore taking the three issues where you went wrong one by one, we have

“What is outside the cave are the true realities”. Outside there is the sunlight shining on the world of nature; but this is relevant only in the context that the cave is a place of shadows cast by the objects of nature. You forgot that this reality is already a world of secondary reality, i.e. the reality of the senses.

“When we reflect we have access to these forms”. This is altogether wrong. The whole point of forming a cast of guardians in this book (i.e. “philosopher-kings”) is that access to the reality of the forms is an exceptional state of mind, a momentary ecstasy of recognition ensuing upon deep study and resulting in an inspiration that can be made productive (e.g. by creating a new law to enhance justice in the state).

“Forms are therefore what we can know for certain”. We cannot know the forms at all, since as mentioned they are ecstatic visions. But we have the capacity of remembering such moments of insight and teaching the knowledge gained from it (source of Plato’s theory of recollection which resembles in some ways the theory of innate ideas that became fashionable in the early modern West).

In a word (to use another metaphor) with your assumptions are too quick off the block, like a sprinter starting to run before the umpire has fired his pistol. Or, in ordinary prose, you derived your conclusions from an illustrative metier and took it literally as a set of propositions. I hope you can see from the above why this leads to contradictions rather than a resolution!

Solving philosophy once and for all

Jose asked:

How likely is it that someone will solve philosophy as a whole within our lifetime?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Good question, Jose. I offer you four answers to choose from.

Number 1 is “unlikely”, for the simple reason that no-one could even attempt to describe such a solution or what it takes to accomplish it. Consider the related question you could have posed: “How likely is it that some scientist will write a cosmic equation in our lifetime that will fit on a T-shirt?” I suppose you know who expressed this sentiment, but the same limitations apply.

Number 2 is “maybe”, based on our knowledge of history, in which this sort of thing has already occurred several times. One could plausibly argue that Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant and maybe one or two others (e.g Descartes and Schopenhauer, who believed themselves to have accomplished it) are candidates for such honours, although obviously each only for a certain era. It’s just that at present the climate for the appearance of such a towering philosophical figure is singularly unpropitious. Check out Geoffrey Klempner’s response for a good account of the conditions that prevail today which work against the likelihood of an all-encompassing philosophy coming our way any time soon.

Number 3 is “no”, and alludes to the possibility that philosophy is already a living corpse and simply kept going on a life-support system provided by the academic establishment, who for reasons of their own don’t want to let go of a pretty good-looking history of achievement that seems to demand their continued engagement. This was more or less the opinion of Theodor Adorno, whose book Negative Dialectics begins with the sentence, “It seemed at one time [in the past] that philosophy was already obsolete; it was kept alive because we missed the appropriate moment for its actualisation”, i.e. making its continuation relevant. If we take this at face value, then philosophy is indeed a fossil now, which may be lovingly exhibited in a vitrine, but scarcely brought back to life again.

Finally Number 4, “no” again. If we are to believe Spengler, human cultural history goes through cycles, and we are near the end of one. But although the great philosophical syntheses tended to make their appearance on the declining slope of their civilisations, Spengler would argue that we’ve already been there and done it (and you don’t get two bites at the cherry).

And so, scoring a generous quarter point for No. 2, the chance is an arithmetically slim expectancy of about 6% – not enough, I venture to say, to wager your life insurance on it!

Truth in the Western tradition

Derek asked:

I am 16 years old and teaching myself philosophy. I plan on becoming an cognitive experimental psychologist. I am currently developing my own philosophical thoughts and beliefs. I strongly believe that answering philosophical questions with logically sound, valid and truthful arguments that are without fallacies is most important. I got overwhelmed by attempting to answer a question of mine a few weeks back. Are human beings capable of knowing objective truth through our subjective experiences and if so, how much and what objective truth are we able to know? Any insight that you may have would be very appreciated because I do not even know how to begin to answer the question. I do not even know if it can be answered. Thank you for your time. It is much appreciated.

Answer by Björn Freter

I think — as my esteemed colleagues have also pointed out — it is not surprising that you are overwhelmed by those questions you discovered. They are indeed overwhelming. Being overwhelmed might even be a part of the human condition of a lot of human beings. Just consider of what Kant explains in the Preface to the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason:

“Human reason has the peculiar fate in one species of its cognitions that it is burdened with questions which it cannot dismiss, since they are given to it as problems by the nature of reason itself, but which it also cannot answer, since they transcend every capacity of human reason. Reason falls into this perplexity through no fault of its own. It begins from principles whose use is unavoidable in the course of experience and at the same time sufficiently warranted by it. With these principles it rises (as its nature also requires) ever higher, to more remote conditions. But since it becomes aware in this way that its business must always remain incomplete because the questions never cease, reason sees itself necessitated to take refuge in principles that overstep all possible use in experience, and yet seem so unsuspicious that even ordinary common sense agrees with them. But it thereby falls into obscurity and contradictions, from which it can indeed surmise that it must somewhere be proceeding on the ground of hidden errors; but it cannot discover them, for the principles on which it is proceeding, since they surpass the bounds of all experience, no longer recognize any touchstone of experience. The battlefield of these endless controversies is called metaphysics.” (Critique of Pure Reason A vii sq.)

Kant points out that the human reason by its very own nature desires more than it can achieve. According to Kant the foundational problem is a self-misunderstanding of the human reason. It tries to solve its practical problems with its theoretical capacities, but these theoretical capacities are unable to answer the inevitable human questions. This is why Kant wrote a Critique of Pure (which means here: Theoretical) Reason: It is a book that wants to discipline the theoretical reason, it is a call to order, an attempt to discipline to human reason using human reason. That was Kant’s approach to react to pretty much the same feeling you have described. I think, it might be helpful, it may even be a relief, to understand that you came across a foundational problem of philosophy — at least within the Western philosophical tradition.

The Critique of Pure Reason is, within the Western philosophical canon, one of the most influential works; its influence is still distinctly noticeable in contemporary discussions of cognitive capabilities, be it in the philosophical, the psychological or neurological approaches. I would strongly recommend to get familiar with this book. As much as you might disagree with its results, as much it might offer you a great opportunity to get a profound introduction into the foundations of Western epistemology. (It is important to add that Kant is a highly problematic thinker, who has made many many racist, sexist, antisemitic, homophobic and more superiorist remarks and, so far, not enough research has been conducted to determine the influence of these superiorist thoughts on Kant’s philosophical thinking, including his epistemological thinking.)

I would like to add that another, additional question could be important for your further philosophical undertakings. Why do you think “that answering philosophical questions with logically sound, valid and truthful arguments that are without fallacies is most important”? What kind of security, infallibility, certainty are you looking for and, again, why? There might be — surprisingly — deeply existential motive to be found here, the desire to find calmness within all the insecurity of the world. It seems important to be aware of this existential basis, it might make you biased to find a result if there is an unknown strong desire to have to find a result!

Within Western philosophical tradition, to my understanding, this desire was mostly openly discussed in the schools of Hellenism, most of all in Epicurus. His clear goal of philosophy was to reduce fear, and, if I may simplify somewhat, according to him, that could be regard true which would help to reduce fear. Here we can find an example where the existential problem of being lost in the insecurities of the world started to dominate epistemological issues. Epicurus seemed to care little about what can be known or not, it was more important that a piece of knowledge has had a certain existential, in or, other words, a calming effect. There might be nothing wrong with that concept of truth, but it also might be important to be aware of our human existential desires lurking in the background. And, I guess, it is a good thing, even should one not know what to do with these desires, to be aware of them!

I wish you all the best for your philosophical journey!