messing with Berkeley

Welcome to the fourth installment of “Messing with Philosophers.” Berkeley is the victim and I’m messing with his Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous. I think the arguments in these dialogues are more interesting when “God” is left out. An idea of God is not necessary for the arguments to work but is awkwardly used so that Berkeley can get the conclusion he wants. The conclusion I want doesn’t toss in God. This is actually something that interests me so I’ll probably stay closer to the text… sorry for the length.

You hear of an Irishman living down the street who supposedly holds the extravagant opinion that there is no material substance in the world. You hear that this man was once a famous philosopher and theologian until he lost his belief in God – he has since moved away from academics. Intrigued, you seek this man out.

You knock once on his door and the Irishman opens it immediately. He stands there with a torch in hand and brings it in proximity to your arm. You feel the heat and notice that a couple arm hairs have disappeared. “You’ve burned me!” “Come in, sit down.” He throws the torch in the fireplace and reflects on how clever he is for always waiting behind the door, ready to burn people. “Did it hurt?” “Yes of course it hurt, it is hot.” “Can you imagine perceiving that heat without a certain degree of pain?” “No.” “That heat existed but only because you perceived it, heat isn’t a quality of the fire.”

You start to introduce yourself, “my name is…” but he cuts you off by offering you tea. You accept and he brings a mug over that appears to be empty. While you are distracted by the empty mug he pokes you with a pin – a tiny drop of blood rolls down your arm. “Did it hurt?” Yes! What are you doing? That’s sharp!” He takes his seat once more – “heat is hot and pins are sharp because of the pain they afford you. Heat and sharpness are not qualities of substances, they exist only for you as a perceiving being.”

Worrying for your health you wonder if you should leave or stay. Still holding the pin he asks “do you agree that these sensations exist only in your mind, that heat exists only in your interaction with the fire and sharpness in your interaction with the pin? What if I say to you that the case is the same with regard to all sensible qualities and that they cannot be supposed to exist without your perceiving them?” Wanting to leave you look towards the door, the man across from you doesn’t seem to care whether or not you answer his questions.

“Eat this.” He hands you wormwood, “come on, eat it.” You eat it and exclaim, “it’s bitter.” “Now eat this” – he hands you a square of sugar. “Is it sweet?” “Yes.” He laughs. Feeling somehow offended you try to quell his laughter by saying, “but wormwood is always bitter, sugar always sweet.” You feel confident in asserting that bitterness is a quality of wormwood and sweetness a quality of sugar. He pokes you with the pin one more time. “Sharpness is not a quality of the pin, sweetness is not a quality of sugar – they are only immediate perceptions. Sugar is only sweet when you taste it and declare it so – tastes aren’t inherent in the food.” Once again a drop of blood runs down your arm.

“Follow me out to my patio.” You have come this far and decide to finish the game this old man is playing. He opens the door for you and allows you to step out onto the patio first. He takes advantage of his position behind you, quickly takes off one of his socks and covers your mouth and nose with it. The sock smells horrid and you are about to pass out. Before removing his hand and the sock he asks you a question, “is this smell inherent in the sock or does it exist for you as a perceiving mind?” You shake your head wildly in what you hope will be interpreted as a negative response. The sock is removed and you collapse on one of the chairs set out on the patio. The old man laughs again and puts his sock back on.

chihuahua.jpgRecovering from the sock affront you notice him putting a CD into a stereo sitting on a table. “No! Don’t push play! I get the hint already. Please!” Disappointed the old man puts the CD back in its case. He sits down, looks more relaxed and begins the conversation again: “corporeal bodies seem to be nothing else than a collection of sensible qualities, am I right?” You are too afraid to answer because you are unsure of the consequences of answering incorrectly. A chihuahua runs out on the patio and tries to jump on the lap of the old man – the old man doesn’t help the dog. “To you our chairs are of a normal size, they support our backs and provide comfort to our rears. To this dog these chairs are large, to a fly these chairs are rough, to a fish these chairs are dry. Are you right but the animals wrong?” The dog growls and runs off. “Try and think of motion or extension divested of sensible modes like fast and slow (etc.), great and small (etc.). Like sharpness and sweetness, motion and extension exist only in the mind.”

“Since you let me poke you, I’ll show you how to disappear. Close your eyes for about twenty seconds.” You do so and during these twenty seconds you cannot hear him, smell him or in any way perceive his existence. As soon as you open your eyes he says, “and I’m back!


messing with Aristotle

This is the third installment of my weekly “messing with philosophers” series. Today I’m messing with Aristotle’s idea of the Unmoved Mover and am throwing in a Platonic counter-argument that apparently went wrong – I’m taking more liberties with my subjects this time than before. I was thinking about naming the “Friends” – should I?

It’s a normal weekend as you lounge around with your friends and think about the party you have planned for tonight. Everyone is being lazy and unmotivated but you finally get around to dividing up the tasks for the day. Friend 1 and Friend 4 have to go to the store and buy food and drinks. Friend 2 must clean the yard. Friend 3 and you have to clean the inside of the house. Everyone leaves to begin their chores.
Friends 1 and 4 come back in the house and complain that the car won’t start. You tell them to deal with it themselves. They go back outside and find the car started and a girl standing not far from it. “Who is she?” She disappears without anyone seeing her move or disappear.

Friend 2 is cleaning the yard when a ball comes bouncing down the street. He sees a girl in the direction from which the ball came and yells, “don’t worry, I’ll get it!” He tries to catch the ball but it knocks him over, sending him rolling down the street until he hits a trash can – a cat runs out of the trash can.

After cleaning the house for a while you get tired and put your head down on your desk. You look up and see a cup of coffee and a girl standing beside you. You scream. “Who are you?” She doesn’t answer or move. You look for Friend 3 but when you both return she is gone. Friend 3 thinks you are being foolish and you drink the coffee.

Friend 3 looks at the dirty stove and isn’t sure how she’ll ever be able to get it clean. She goes to the closet to get some cleaning supplies. Inside the closet stands a girl with an awesome degreaser at her feet. Friend 3 takes the degreaser and runs back screaming to the kitchen.

Friend 2 comes walking up the street holding his ribs and sees the girl again, “sorry about your ball, I couldn’t find it.” The girl doesn’t respond, doesn’t move, doesn’t do anything.

The party has started and you are there with your friends and all of your friend’s friends. The party is incredibly dull and few people look like they are having a good time. Music starts playing and people start dancing – you look over to the stereo and see the girl. Friends 1-4 and yourself point in her direction and gasp, “its her!”.

uniform.jpgWhile still pointing and gasping Plato, in uniform, kicks the door open and is followed by Aristotle. The music stops, the dancing stops, the gasping stops and is replaced by shrieking. Aristotle warns the uniformed Plato, “don’t get too close!” Aristotle is not wearing a uniform and, therefore, cannot restrain Plato from doing what he wants. “I will prove you wrong, Aristotle!” belts Plato. “But you mustn’t, it is too dangerous.” Aristotle weeps.

Stunned, you watch with your friends as Plato approaches the girl. He asks her to move, paces back and forth in front of her, waves his hand in front of her eyes and becomes noticeably agitated. Plato grabs her by the shoulders and pushes – Aristotle’s weeping gets louder. The girl is forced to take a step backwards and Plato smiles. At that moment a hole in reality appears between the girl and Plato. Plato and the girl are sucked into the hole and you start to feel a pulling. Aristotle yells, “I’m so sorry. I tried to protect you from him!”

Friend 3 asks, “what is that hole?” Aristotle answers, “an infinite regress.”

messing with Rawls

festival.jpgI’m thinking about turning this “messing with philosophers” thing into a weekly occurrence – but I suppose that will depend on things, dangerous, time consuming things.

today, messing with Rawls means messing with his “veil of ignorance” which can be found in his book, A Theory of Justice.

You go to the fair with your friends. Your friends consist of males, females and people of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. In addition; one friend lifts weights, one friend is confined to a wheel chair, one friend is rich, one friend is poor. There are five of you and together you go to the fair.

You don’t always get along with this group of friends, they don’t always get along with each other and sometimes you wonder why you even bother. Nobody can decide which spectacular event at this fair they want to take part in and two friends consider going home. While returning from the restroom friend 2 notices John Rawls standing at the corner of a booth. The tall thin man is wearing a giant hat, has a long cane and a striped jacket. Friend 2 runs over to Rawls, hands him a five dollar bill and says, “I want to play!”

You are relieved that someone finally made a decision to do something, you fish out five dollars and you all follow your friend into Rawls’ small tent. Inside the tent are five small rooms set up so that they can be used privately. “Today we will be voting”, says Rawls, “but first you must wear these mysterious veils, my veils of ignorance.” Each friend enters a room and closes the curtain, you are the last to do so. Each friend screams as they put the veil on, you scream the loudest. You can no longer see, you no longer remember your name, your gender, the status of your health, your ethnicity, your view of God(s) – all you hear is Rawl’s voice and the confused mumbling of the others (were they friends?), you no longer understand their language. You try to swing your arms in panic but you’ve forgotten how, all you can do is listen to Rawls’ voice.

“Let’s start the game.” You are given mental images of the five of you. You do not know which one you are – the image of the person in the wheel chair focuses for a second then a male, a female, male, female each with a different tone of skin. You are shown their bank accounts – the group consists of people both poor and rich. You are shown their religious affiliation through symbols. Your mind spins as you try and remember which one you are, you are unsuccessful.

“You will create the world you will return to and you will return to this world as you were. To create this world you need only to answer my questions.”

“Will men have more power than women, women more power than men?” Friend 1 wants to take advantage of this opportunity to create a world advantageous to “it”. “I want more power” thinks friend 1. “Am I male or female? I don’t know what I am anymore! If I say “men” and I turn out to be a woman… then I would have made a mistake.”

Rawls, “will this be a world that is dominated by one religious view?” Friend 2 imagines a world where one religious view is given favor while the others are looked down upon. Friend 2 tries to remember their own views on religion but can’t.

Rawls, “will this world be unfair to those with disabilities? Will poor people be unfairly treated and rich people given tax cuts? Will people with a certain tone of skin have more power?” Friend 3 tries to cheat and remove the veil, friend 3 is unsuccessful.

Each question comes as a mental image, waiting for an answer.

After each question is answered Rawls removes the veils one by one and one by one you scream as your memories come rushing back. Friend 4 peaks out the tent and yells, “this is the same world as before!” Rawls thanks you for participating and hands each of you a piece of paper. You ask, “what is this?” He answers, “your social contract.”

Your group leaves the tent an inseparable group of friends.

messing with Wittgenstein

today, messing with Wittgenstein means messing with his private language argument, specifically the example he uses in paragraph 293 of the Philosophical Investigations.

Imagine you are at a party with your friends and you gather in a circle. Each friend has a box with a their idea of a beetle inside. These boxes are private and no one friend can look into the box of the other. After everyone is satisfied with their box you start to have a conversation with your friends about beetles. Each friend participates in this conversation and each seems to have the same general understanding of what a beetle is, thus making the conversation possible. During this time the beetle in the box may change or may not depending on your reaction to the conversation. The conversation about the beetle continues for a hefty 10 minutes – all the while you and your friends are thinking that you are talking about what is in your boxes, that you have more or less the same thing in your box.

rhino.jpgTo amaze your guests you have invited Wittgenstein over to do his amazing party tricks. You ask him to enter the room after everyone has talked enough about beetles. After the applause dies down and people stop asking him what “Objects” are he announces with a wave of his hand that he will begin his performance. He walks up to friend number 1 and opens this friend’s box, revealing her private idea – a very large heinous beetle is displayed for all to see. He moves on to Friend 2 – a small harmless beetle falls out. Friend 3 – spotted, with two horns like a rhino. Friend 4 – a fly. Finally Wittgenstein moves to your box and everyone holds their breath as he reaches for the lid. You scream, “No!!!!” but it is too late, Wittgenstein has taken your box and shown everyone that it is in fact empty. You feel ashamed, you reconsider giving Wittgenstein his honorarium.

Certain that everyone in the crowd is confused about how they can have a conversation about beetles and yet have different ideas of beetles, Wittgenstein chuckles. Instead of beetles he tells you to fill your box with your idea of love, then of God, then of that certain pain you get in your stomach after eating too much – each time he lifts everyone’s box and varied incantations appear, even after long detailed conversations on each topic.

Friend 3 breaks down in a nervous fit, screaming that it can’t be true. The T-Shirt of Friend 4 begins to show dark sweat rings under the armpits and you, you are ashamed of your box. Seeing that his audience is primed for the grand finale Wittgenstein dims the lights and puts a flashlight under his chin. He yells, “stone!” Friend 1 runs off looking to bring W a stone. Friend 2 covers his head expecting a stone to fall from high. Friend 3 says, looking at a stone, “yes, it is.” Friend 4 thinks W has a sidekick dog named “Stone” that will come running around the corner. And you, you do nothing – you are confused.

He turns the lights back on and takes a bow. You and your friends are impressed, you break out in applause, you feel the urge to run and burn your Frege and Russell collections. Friend 2 suppresses a tear, Friend 3 can’t stop laughing, Friend 1 holds her stone, Friend 4, struck dumb, begins to drool, you – you open the window to try and get some fresh air. As you turn to thank W he hisses, swings his cloak in front of his body, turns into a bat and flies out the window. “Thanks for the language games!!” you yell after his fleeting form.

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