Let’s all learn a little philosophy

Sullivan points to Mark Vanhoenacker on Slate discussing the challenges facing the field of philosophy – and, in particular, how philosophy is marketed. He says the key is embracing a core component of thinking philosophically: the thought experiment. His take:

Thought experiments (TXesTM, we’ll brand them) are the perfect philosophical consumer product for our age. The high they produce—a gratifying puzzlement, a perfectly framed issue, an “A-ha!” moment of insight into you and your society’s intuitions and contradictions—is quick and addictive. TXes are accessible and democratic, often by design. They strip out extraneous details and walk the user straight to the heart of a complicated issue. They’re much more democratic than science: By definition they don’t require a lab, special equipment, or any pesky numeracy skills. They’re easily remembered and shared (many fit into 140 characters). They’re fun on your own but wouldn’t be out of place at those dinner parties, either.

Jack Handy, of Saturday Night Live’s “Deep Thoughts,” understood the popular potential of a good TX. (“If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.”) The Trees of Handy share the halls of wisdom with the Ring of Gyges, in Plato’s Republic: Would we behave morally if we could be invisible at will? And the Ship of Theseus, associated with Plutarch. If we replace each plank of a ship, is it the same ship? (And what, asked Hobbes a little later, if we use the removed planks to build another ship?)

If such questions seem like, well, armchair philosophizing, many TXes are jarringly modern. Consider the questions raised for neuroscientists and artificial intelligence researchers by philosophical zombies: beings—and no jokes about Marketing majors, please—that act exactly like a conscious human but have no internal experience. Then there’s the brain in the vat (cueThe Matrix). But perhaps the most legendary modern TX is the Chinese Room. Imagine you’re in a room receiving messages in Chinese, a language you don’t speak. But you look up the symbols in a huge series of instruction manuals and write out replies in Chinese according to the instructions. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it:

“The human produces the appearance of understanding Chinese by following the symbol manipulating instructions, but does not thereby come to understand Chinese. Since a computer just does what the human does—manipulate symbols on the basis of their syntax alone—no computer, merely by following a program, comes to genuinely understand Chinese.”

So a computer will never “understand” Chinese—or anything else? Check out the fevered universe of incredibly fascinating replies.

For what it’s worth, there are a couple of popular, easy-to-access books around my desk which make for great coffee table books and conversation starters. One is The Pig That Wants to be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher, and another is This is Not a Book: Philosophical Games and Thought Experiments to Give Your Mind a Workout. I’ll try to tap into them from time to time to post a thought-provoking thought experiment (TX) here.

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