MONKEY SHINES SO BRIGHT: Is Philosophy Useless?

gravestoneSome philosophers and scientists have said philosophy is useless. Several philosophers have declared philosophy dead after saying what they think is the last word. While people are serious fools, including philosophers and scientists, is the pursuit of wisdom useless?

Wisdom is the ability to reason, think critically, debate and gain greater perspective, different from simply acquiring knowledge or creating technology. Most people believe the world could use more wisdom, but most also believe it’s their neighbor who needs it.

schwinn excercise bikeWhen I was a kid, my sister and I thought my father’s exercise bike was the dumbest thing ever. He would pedal and pedal, and never get anywhere. We didn’t understand he was training. If you go to the gym and put all the equipment back when you’re done, someone could say you haven’t done anything. However, if you need to do anything, training seriously helps. Thinking about thinking and questioning ourselves and others is difficult to weigh in dollars or pounds, but it improves your mind and life.

All of this is obvious, particularly when some jerk argues with us about anything. Why then do some say philosophy is useless or dead?

SearlePhilosophy, like all subjects, is entrenched in institutions, and institutions aren’t always bastions of wisdom or freedom of thought. American and British Analytic Philosophy continuously says that we can say true things, science is real, and consciousness comes from somewhere, which never struck me as deep wisdom.


On the other hand, German and French Continental Philosophy has deep ideas but expresses them in an impenetrable forest of language that the average person can’t read or figure out how to use. Both schools have become specialized conversations among experts, and no one talks about helping the average person get wise.

aristotle-platoAcademics is also Eurocentric, so rather than gain a general and global understanding of human thought, philosophy departments ignore all but a small number of ancient Greek and modern European thinkers. Again and again the West is declared to be rational, although no one knows what rational is exactly and history makes this seem doubtful.

Earth_Eastern_HemisphereTo make philosophy more useful, we should study the whole history of human thought, make great ideas understandable, and use them to gain perspective. Like knowledge, there is no limit to wisdom, and it will always be valuable for improving ourselves and our fellow fools.


640px-Jester-_Joker CardWhy are people such fools? Why are we all, you and I included, so ignorant, hypocritical, and self-centered? We’ve landed on the moon, but millions still starve. Nukes and pollution threaten all known life. Are we designed to self-destruct? This great ape could use greater wisdom.

Anthropologists say that in the simplest cultures, when people screw up, first they are mocked. If they continue to screw up, they get the silent treatment, and if they screw up bad enough, they are kicked out of the tribe. We should mock humanity, without getting kicked out of the tribe, because we can always get wiser.

Orangutan TubLife is like a box of orangutans, which means, you pretty much know what you’re gonna get. Heraclitus, my favorite Greek philosopher, Zhuangzi, my favorite Chinese philosopher, and Nietzsche, my favorite German philosopher, enjoyed comparing us to apes to keep us humble and open to evolution, to becoming a greater ape.

nebulaHuman beings are the smartest thing found yet in the universe, and yet, we are idiots. We are DUMB…D. U. M. dumb! It truly takes an ape this smart to be this stupid. A Buddhist once said we are all insane, and few get much saner, which is a refreshingly honest perspective.

In Wonderland, the Cheshire Cat tells Alice, “We are all mad here!”, and explains that a dog wags its tail when it’s happy and growls when it’s angry, while a cat wags its tail when it’s angry and growls when it’s happy. Alice says that she calls it purring, not growling, and the cat says, “Call it whatever you like!”.

alice-through-the-looking-glassWhatever you believe, there is someone opposed to you who is crazy enough to think you are crazy. Is thought itself a form of insanity, the confusion of a dream with reality? It is certainly a useful hallucination, and you can use your illusion, much as Guns n’ Roses did in the 80s, but it doesn’t take any skill or smarts to believe what you think or are told.

Triceratops skeletonThe old way of being stupid is thinking religion makes you moral and loving compared to others. The new way of being stupid is thinking that science and technology make you rational and self-aware compared to others. Believe it or not, I believed in science when I was three years old, running around museums in a triceratops t-shirt, but I was not a genius boy for doing it.

Gorilla_gorilla_gorilla_01I’m not religious, but if you use religion to become a better person, I’m all for it, and I’m not a scientist, but if you use science to help others, then I’m all for it, but if you merely believe in the religion or science you were taught, that makes you nothing at all, certainly not a revolutionary who will be remembered. It is not believing or belonging, but questioning and changing, becoming a better person, a greater great ape, that makes you the greater ape.

MLK on Socrates

Martin Luther King JrI have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

Martin Luther King Jr., Letter From a Birmingham Jail

UNBOXED: Do the Ends Justify the Means?

Do the ends justify the means?  Is ethics about following the rules regardless of the consequences, or about helping ourselves and others even when we must break the rules?

53c7f-kantforpipesmokingImmanuel Kant argued that morals and laws should be followed universally, in all situations, times and places.  Kant says we should determine what the objective good is, and then never deviate from it regardless of the consequences.  Like the British sea captain who goes down with the ship, Kant believes we should always do our duty.

MillJohn Stuart Mill opposed Kant, and argued that morals and laws are merely tools we use to make ourselves and others happy.  Mill says that if we take the long term view and the social view, trying to produce as much happiness and prevent as much suffering as possible, we can change and break the rules however we like.  Like Robin Hood, Mill believes we should be ethical rather than merely moral, seeking genuine lasting happiness rather than merely following the law.

Both Kant and Mill agree that our desire to be ethical is unquestionably good in itself and that ethics must be securely grounded, but for Kant this means obedience to duty, while for Mill it means striving for happiness.  For Kant, if you start with good morals, you are being ethical regardless of the consequences.  For Mill, if you aim for good ends, you are being ethical regardless of following the rules.

kant mill

While Kant appreciates happiness, and Mill appreciates morals, Kant puts morals above happiness and Mill puts happiness above morals.  Kant says: Always follow principle, and you will hopefully be happy.  Mill says: Always follow happiness, for others as well as yourself, and you will hopefully be principled.

93bb7-yin2band2byanBoth positions have strengths and weaknesses.  Kant would not waver in the face of temptation, but Mill would change when the rules are wrong.  Kant gives us a fixed understanding, while Mill gives us adaptable reasoning.  Kant is better if we want to divide the good from the bad, but Mill is better if we want to see the good in the bad and the bad in the good.

Do the ends justify the means?  Sometimes yes, and sometimes no.  We can and should balance both positions to better understand the judgements and choices we make, defending as well as adapting to maintain and improve our lives.

UNBOXED: Again & Again & the Infinite

If I say that I walked and walked and walked,
you would think that I walked for a long time,
not that I walked three times.

If I say that I said something over and over,
again and again,
you would think that I said it an indefinite,
uncountable number of times.

To express the infinite and indefinite,
immeasurable and uncountable,
in bounded, countable words,
we simply repeat ourselves,
once or twice.

The infinite goes on and on.
We could measure and measure, but never measure it.
We could count and count, but never count it.
We could walk and walk, but never walk it.

If we could walk around the world,
we could walk and walk,
but never reach the ends of the earth,
walking endlessly in circles.

We can see the horizon going out of sight.
We can see and say that a circle has no end.
So, is this the infinite?
What about now…

Repeating ourselves, again and again,
we understand and express the endless.

(Inspired by Where Mathematics Comes From, by Lakoff and Nunuez)