Philosophy McNuggets III

Copyright (c) 2009 by Kenny Felder

Still more thoughts too short to be their own essays, like the ones I posted in Philosophy McNuggets I and Philosophy McNuggets II.

I want to describe a situation that I periodically find myself in, and you can see if it sounds familiar.

I feel like I am under tremendous pressure to get things done, and I don't have nearly enough time. It's kind of like the feeling of being overwhelmingly busy, multiplied by 10, but with one very strange catch: I can't actually figure out anything to do. I feel like there are a hundred things that need doing, but when I think about what I should get done first, right now, nothing comes to mind.

It took me a long time, but I finally figured it out. That feeling means that there is one thing I need to do—one thing which, for some reason, I really don't want to do. It might involve making an unpleasant phone call, or installing an unfamiliar piece of software, or trying to fix something that I don't know how to fix. Whatever it is, it will not necessarily take a huge amount of time, but it does cause me huge discomfort to think about.

Once I identify that one thing and just get it out of the way, suddenly the pressure is gone, and I can calmly go about doing the other things that actually have to get done.

Rusty once commented that the mystics and sages are obviously lying when they say, "I have found the truth, but I can't tell you what it is; you have to find it for yourself." How convenient! If they had really found the truth, they could tell us!

Here's why Rusty is wrong.

Suppose I were to describe my house to you. "You walk in the front door, and you're in a small open foyer. To the left is a hallway, to the right is the living room, and in front is the kitchen. Now, if you go down the hallway, you pass two bedrooms on your left, and then..." As I'm talking, you're building an image in your mind, and the image is accurate, as far as it goes.

But then you come visit me. As you walk in the front door, you exclaim: "This isn't what I was picturing at all! Yes, everything is where you said it was—foyer, hallway, living room, kitchen, and so on—but I had a pretty vivid mental image and it looked quite different. Actually, I'm already starting to forget what it looked like." I tried my best to describe my house, and you tried your best to understand, but your imagination was quite different from the reality.

But here's where it gets more interesting. To whatever extent that your imagination was correct, it's because you've seen other American middle-class homes—so you know what a living room, kitchen, and bedroom look like. If the only dwellings you had ever seen were igloos, your mental picture would be even less accurate.

I hope that point is clear. What we do, with words, is conjure up in the listener's mind a new experience, built from the experiences that the listener has already had. The closer this new experience is to the listener's old experiences, the more accurate the result. If you try to describe "red" to a man who has been blind from birth, your failure will be much more profound.

Little wonder, then, that when people have an enlightenment experience—something totally outside our normal experience at the most fundamental level—they invariably exclaim, "Everything is one, just like you said. Absolute truth, beyond dualism. Life is an illusion. There is no self. The truth is always present, but I just didn't remember that I knew it." In short, they blurt out the exact same nonsense that their teachers have been saying to them for years. And then they follow it with: "But it isn't anything at all like I imagined. It's totally different. I had it completely wrong."

The Olympics could learn something from the X-Games.

Let's say you're watching the Olympic uneven parallel bars competition. Each girl does a routine, and she is judged on how difficult it was, how artistic, how beautiful, and so on. But if she puts one toe out of place, lands less than perfectly, or slips off a bar, she will certainly lose. As a result, each girl is motivated to choose a routine that is pretty difficult, but well within her abilities.

The rules for X-Games half-pipe skateboarders are similar, but with one little twist: each guy gets three tries to do his routine, and each of the three tries is scored, and only the best score counts. If he lands on his back twice, but manages the routine perfectly once, he's going to get a great score. As a result, he has to choose something very difficult—something he will probably mess up once or twice—because, after all, everyone else is going to.

If the Olympics would adopt a similar model for some of their competitions, the routines would immediately become more challenging and more interesting.

Ken Wilber commented once that the acid test of any ethical system is the lifeboat scenario. Sure, we'd all like to save everyone in the lifeboat. But the scenario forces you to pick some people to save, and some people to throw out, and that's when you start to see what a particular philosophy is really all about. That, to Wilber, is where it gets interesting.

I thought about it a while, and decided I don't agree. The most interesting ethical questions to me are not the ones where some reasonable people might choose Course-of-Action A, and other reasonable people might choose Course-of-Action B, and you have to strain your brain to decide which side you're on. The most interesting ethical questions to me are the ones where any reasonable person would select Course A, but I find myself doing Course B anyway. "Should I mow the lawn, or should I take nap? Either decision I make, I will feel fine tomorrow morning after a good night's sleep. And Joyce really wants that lawn mowed. Quite honestly, I can't think of a single good argument in favor of the nap.


St. Paul in Romans 7:15 gives my all-time favorite Bible quote: "What I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I."

And speaking of want to make yourself more sensitive to stereotyping? Start to watch the way Christians are portrayed in popular media. Mrs. Kim (Lane's mother) in "Gilmore Girls." Mrs. Pingleton (Penny's mother) in "Hairspray." Christians are always narrow-minded, often pushy, sometimes sadistic, and nearly always kind of stupid. When Buffy Summers wants her mother to try home-schooling, she argues, "It's not just for scary Christians any more." None of these examples is particularly interesting by itself, but if you start to see the trend—and also see how rare the counter-examples are—I think you'll be amazed that you never noticed it before.

Chess and Go are the greatest board games ever invented. What do I mean by that?

Let's say you put two chess players in a room, and they play ten games, taking turns being white. And let's say one of those players wins 9 out of 10 games. He will always win more or less 9 out of 10 games if these two players compete; he is that much better.

Now, take the winner, and put him in a competition with someone who will beat him 9 times out of 10. Then, take the winner of that, and find an opponent who will beat him 9 times out of 10...and so on. I'll bet, off the top of my head, that you could line up 25 people next to each other, such that each person in line would win 90% of the games against the person on his left. That, to me, is a measure of how good a game chess is. It's a quantitative measure of the richness of the game, of how much there is to learn.

Of course, no one in the world could beat me in 9 out of 10 games of tic-tac-toe, or of War. Some people could beat me in 9 out of 10 games of checkers, but I seriously doubt you could line up 25 people, or even ten. So checkers is richer than tic-tac-toe, but less so than chess.

I'm going to divide all chores into two basic categories. The first category is chores that take a fixed amount of time; the second category is chores whose time scales linearly. Here's what I mean by all that.

Sweeping the floor is a good example of the first category. Suppose you sweep the floor every day, and suppose it takes you 15 minutes to do so. On Monday, you are very busy, so you don't bother sweeping the floor. On Tuesday, you sweep the (now extra-dirty) floor, and it takes you...15 minutes, and the floor is clean again. Every time you skip floor-sweeping, you actually save yourself 15 minutes.

Doing the dishes goes in the second category. If you skip your 15 minutes on Monday, then the dishes are going to pile up. By Tuesday night, there are twice as many dishes as usual, so you will have to spend 30 minutes. Every time you skip dish-doing, you do not save yourself any time; you just move the time from one day to another.

This seems to me like a tremendously important distinction, and I don't know why I don't hear more people talking about it. When in a crunch, you should always skip the first kind of chore rather than the second.

Voter registration is always a popular "good-guy" cause. The more people who vote, so the theory goes, the more democratic our system really is. And if we could just go house-to-house and make them all vote, make sure that every single American checks one of these boxes whether he wants to or not, why, by golly, we'd be a great democracy then!

I don't buy it. When people vote without any particular knowledge, they hurt our democracy far more than they help it. Personally, I follow national politics at a low-to-medium level, but local politics not at all. Therefore, I do vote in some national elections, but I don't vote in local elections, even if I happen to be in the ballot box anyway. I hate to think that my vote, based on the literature I picked up outside the polling station, would cancel someone who has been following the issues for months.

Some people argue that if only the knowledgeable vote, then the government won't be properly representative. What about the rights of Ignorant-Americans? What Congressman would stand up for them if they didn't vote?

Here is my response. The ignorant vote encourages Congressmen to pander, which is completely different from representing their interests. If I want to court the ignorant vote, I'm going to fill my speeches with the right buzz-words ("peace" for the liberals, "family" for the conservatives, "justice" and "America" for everyone). It doesn't matter what I actually do, because they won't know about it anyway, right? You can't vote your own interests if you don't know the issues. If you voted for Obama because he happens to be tall, or because he happens to be black, or because he looks good and speaks eloquently, you aren't "enfranchised"—you're a sucker.

You're not alone, either. 2 out of 3 Presidential contests are won by the taller man. Because so many voters choose a candidate for superficial reasons, our electoral dialogue is reduced to sound bytes and innuendo. Candidates are terrified to say anything that won't fit on a bumper sticker; and if they do, the media won't report it. You probably remember Joe the Plumber and "that one," but can you articulate the differences between Obama and McCain's educational policies?

I say, if we could get rid of all the random votes—if we could somehow filter out all the noise from people who vote because they heard a catchy slogan—if we could narrow it down to only voters who know where the candidates stand on a few important issues, why, by golly, we'd be a great democracy then!

I'm going to end this essay with a little observation that is not philosophical at all—purely practical—but it is on the very top of my list of "things I wish someone had told me years before someone actually did." It is what to do if you have a bad case of poison ivy.

When you have poison ivy, that horrible itch is the result of histamines that your body is producing. So, take a shower. Let the water fall on the rash. Then, start turning up the water temperature...hotter, hot as you can stand it. Spray that way-too-hot water on every part of your skin that itches.

What you will feel is indescribable. It feels a bit like the poison ivy itch, magnified by a hundred, which is pretty much what it is: hot water doesn't suppress the histamine reaction, it brings it all out at once. For me the sensation is intensely pleasurable, but even that is beside the point. The point is, once all those hista-meanies have come out, they are used up. You don't itch at all for hours. When the itch finally does return, of course, it's time to do it again.

This is not something I made up, by the way. Joyce found it in one of her many home-health type books that come from the American Medical Association. But for me, it has been a life-saver. If it is useful to you, think of it as a "thank-you" from me, for getting through all my philosophical rambling!

Hungry for more? Order an extra-large basket of Philosophy McNuggets IV!


From: Zachary Klughaupt
August 3, 2009

I liked your last set of "nuggets." Here are a couple of thoughts:

  1. At first I thought your point about chess was essentially an observation that nothing in chess depends on chance. No roll of the die, no ace to pick up instead of a deuce, not even much of an advantage to going first or second (I think). But I guess you can say the same thing about checkers. So maybe it's a combination of richness and leaving nothing to chance.

  2. Your point about voting reminded me of an article I read during the last election saying that voter ignorance is not the problem, because if voters were just ignorant then they'd still, based on pure luck, have a 50% chance (at least in a general election) of selecting the right candidate. But it's possible they're not just ignorant, but also prejudiced, fearful, small-minded, parochial, xenophobic...

  3. Also on the voting issue, your point begs the question "when do you know enough?" Because clearly it's not a black/white issue. There are all sorts of gradations of voter knowledge. And most people won't listen to you, and will continue to vote whether or not they know the issues. So let's say you decline to vote on a local issue because you don't know anything about it except what you read in literature you picked up that morning. The result won't be to leave the decision to people who followed the issue for months, but to leave the decision to people who didn't even bother reading the literature that morning.

  4. Again on the voting issue, where would you account for party affiliation and the values political parties generally stand for? I can't say I knew everything about every candidate I ever voted for, but I do know that Democrats are closer to me on most issues than Republicans. So usually I vote for the candidates I know, and among the candidates I don't know I pick the dems, because I know that if I had bothered to intensely study every candidate, I'd probably pick the Democrat. (an exception is New York state government, where I consistently voted against every incumbent, on the theory that the state govt. couldn't possibly get any worse).

From: Kenny Felder
August 3, 2009

I appreciate your comments, as always. In terms of chess, the luck vs. skill issue is part of it, but not as much as you would think. Tic-tac-toe has no luck, but scores very low by my definition. Bridge has a lot of luck, but would score quite high.

In terms of voting, I think that "prejudiced, fearful, small-minded" and other such epithets are often used to mean "people who don't agree with me." You think Israel should belong to the Jews? Why then, you're prejudiced against Palestinians. Oh, yeah? Well, you're prejudiced against Jews! And so it goes...I'm cheerfully willing to let people vote if their prejudices don't happen to line up with Kenny Felder's prejudices (of which I have many). But I want to keep out the people who cannot identify a single specific issue on which the candidates disagree. If the candidates took all the money they currently pour into bumper stickers that say "McCain/Palin" or "Obama/Biden," and put that money instead into position papers, the world would be a better place—even if it still elected people who don't agree with Kenny.

From: Barbara Soloman
August 3, 2009

I am totally in agreement on the impossibility of describing enlightenment—I don't know that your house example covers it all—it seems more like trying to explain sight to a blind person who has been blind since birth—no context at all.

I love your idea about the olympics—it seems awful to me that someone who has practiced for years can be eliminated by one false slip while under pressure that intense and get no second chance when that person may be able to do things no one else can.

I can think of arguments for taking the nap—maybe the next day after a good nights sleep you will feel the same but how about that evening. Also, why should someone else's wishes always come before your own—now of course I don't mean you should selfishly always put your own wishes first—but sometimes I think you should. This has been a battle for me all my life—I always want to please everyone and do what they want me to do and somehow I think that is wrong. It used to be part of my definition of "good" but there is something wrong with it. It disconnects you from yourself—you get to the place where you don't even know what you want to do or how you feel and it makes you "phony" because you can't even find yourself after a while.

The Christianity one is tricky—yes, there are lots of negative portrayls in media but there is still the fact that a major political player can't be an atheist and there was no "under God" in the pledge when I was a kid.

From: Michelle Williams
August 4, 2009

Your description of Rusty & enlightenment reminds me of marriage. I can't tell you how many people tried to describe what marriage is and is not from the time I was in my early teens until my wedding day. And much of what was said was completely true. But you don't KNOW what it is and is not until you're in it. It's not like those folks were wasting their breath—these things are good to hear even when they don't make sense at a deep level. But I can turn around and try to tell any single friend the same things and I know they won't get it. Not really. :-)

I'm not sure Romans 7:15 presents an interesting ethical question so much as an accurate description of human nature. I had an English teacher who tried to convince us that people always do what they think is best at the time. If you choose to take a nap, you're deciding that's what's best for you at that moment. I disagree. You even admit you can't find a compelling argument for taking a nap. Sometimes we do what's right. Sometimes we do what feels good or is easy, knowing full well it's not "right." Sometimes that matters more than other times. Joyce will likely either get over her concern about the tall grass or she'll mow it herself without deducting too much from your "relationship credit."

From: Kenny Felder
August 4, 2009

Sometimes we do what feels good or is easy, knowing full well it's not "right."

That's it! That's exactly what I'm trying to say! That is the most important and vexing issue.

From: Michelle Williams
August 4, 2009

I'm not sure why it's the most important or vexing issue. Because it's what causes us to buy a Starbucks coffee instead of donating that money to the poor?

From: Kenny Felder
August 4, 2009

Suppose someone said "Misha, I want you to hold up this 300-lb block. If you can't, thousands of people will die." So you do your best to hold it up, and you fail, and they die. I think most of us would agree that you are not responsible for their deaths. Of course, there are some people in the world who can hold up a 300-lb block, but you don't happen to be one of them.

Similarly, suppose someone says "Misha, here is an ethical dilemma: kill these five people, or those five?" So you think it through the best way you know how, and you reach a decision, and five people die. And then, in retrospect—with more facts, or more wisdom, or just the benefit of hindsight—you change your mind. I should have let the other five die. OK, but once again, you did the best you could, so you are not responsible.

The world of your English teacher, where we all do what we think is best, would be a perfect world. Granted, we would sometimes make mistakes, and sometimes fail to help people because we're just not up to the task. But how different it is when you look back and say "I knew the right thing to do, and I was fully capable of doing it, but I didn't": I was too lazy, too selfish, or whatever. Now you are really responsible.

To put it another way, all you can possibly ask of yourself—the only standard you can possibly use when evaluating yourself—is how well you did in living up to your own beliefs.

From: Michelle Williams
August 5, 2009

I see. I didn't get that out of your nugget at all. Your mom's right—it's all about balance. There's a reason you can only donate so much blood so often—so you can stay healthy enough to keep donating throughout a lifetime. Most of us never come close to pushing the balance on the really important things, though.

From: John Hanna
August 4, 2009

2 things on Chess

First: I used to believe that I could beat any man, woman, or machine at chess if I really buckled down. That is, if you took away the chess clock, and I decided that I really really really wanted to win a game, I could beat Deep Blue, or at least play it to a draw. I didn't mean just me either. As long as you had a rudimentary understanding of chess, and had all the time in the world, you could beat anyone; which is why the chess clock was invented. I don't believe that any more.

I know people who can beat me 9 times out of 10 at casual play, and I know people who can beat THEM 9 times out of 10 at casual play, and I've played them both. I could sort of tell how badly they're beating me, or at least be able to tell what I need to get better at to contend with them. Most importantly though, I could tell which one was the stronger player.

But I've also played a game against a master, and played a game against Fritz 11 (the machine that beat world Champion Vladimir Kramnik, available for just $60 dollars). Both beat me senseless. But for the life of me I couldn't tell which was better. The master conceded that Fritz was miles ahead of him, but I still had no idea. I couldn't conceive how player A could be that much better than player B, and I wouldn't be able to tell the difference until the game had been decided half an hour ago.

That proved to me that unless I got better before my game against Deep Blue, there would be levels upon levels upon levels of chess that I could just not understand.

Second: After I played against Fritz 11, I was intrigued about how good computers could get at chess, and from what I understood, computers today, are a bit better than the world champions. That said, I thought that soon computers would be able to play perfect chess. That is, a computer could map out every possible chess game and, upon seeing your move, be able to trace your move to a branch of the map where the computer could force a win or at least a draw. In theory this can be done. We can solve chess, but it isn't going to happen for a while.

According to the almighty wikipedia, there are roughly 10120 possible games of chess that can be played.(1) To understand how mind-bogglingly huge this number is, compare it to the number of particles in the observable universe, which is about 1080 (2). That means there are roughly 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (3) possible chess games corresponding to each particle in the observable universe.


  3. Division

From: Kenny Felder
August 4, 2009

I've seen those statistics. It seems to me that "number of possible chess games" is the wrong metric. "Number of reasonable chess positions" is much closer. You can eliminate many "unreasonable" ones that are technically possible and, while the number will still be huge, I think it will be many orders of magnitude lower than 10120.

By the way, you probably know that checkers has been "solved" by computer—another demonstration that, although it is a wonderful game, it is not as deep as chess.

From: Kerry Anthony
August 4, 2009

thanks for the ramblings—great way to start my day. something to obsess over besides wondering why i think the word "barrel" should have two Ls.

From: Richard Felder
August 4, 2009

I absolutely loved these gems...and I couldn't find a single thing I disagreed with in them. (Perhaps these two observations are related.)

From: Gary Felder
August 8, 2009

Certainly the one that grabbed my interest most was the ethics one, although I found several of the others interesting. (I like the chess one a lot as well.)

I think some of the comments are confusing a couple of issues. Yes, an ethical system should consider the agent's needs as well as others. I don't think I am ethically obligated to cut off my arm if that will prevent you from getting a hang-nail. So I think we should be careful to distinguish "doing what is right" from "doing what is selfless." I take your comments to refer to the issues where you've already taken your needs into account as best you could and concluded that, according to your ethical system, other needs outweigh them, and then you fail to act on that.

A couple other thoughts:

First, granted that (more or less by definition) we should always do what our ethical system demands, finding the balance of your needs and others' needs that defines that system is clearly not easy. Personally my starting premise is that all people's needs should be weighed equally, but the fact remains that I have a much deeper effect on myself than on most others. Likewise I have a bigger effect on my family than on others. So I don't think it's selfish of me to spend time with my kids, for example, even though other kids have as much or more general need for attention, because my attention has an especially big effect on my kids. On the other hand I do think I should devote some of my time to helping those in greater need and my kids will learn a valuable lesson from that, so it all gets tricky.

All of this connects to my other thought, which is that I don't think you should try to place all of the emphasis on whether or not you follow your ethical code. I think there are lots of important and interesting dilemmas of the other type, where you have to a make a tough decision about what is right. I read an editorial once that claimed that in almost every case we know what is right and the real question is whether or not we do it. That struck me at the time and the more I thought about it the more convinced I became that it simply isn't true. Not even approximately. Life is full of decisions where people try to decide whether to do the right thing but it's also full of decisions about what is right. So I think in a sense the real observation to be made here is more of the type that you made with the chores. Ethical dilemmas break into two very different categories—deciding what is right vs. trying to follow through on what you've decided—and people don't talk much about this distinction.

From: Kenny Felder
August 8, 2009

I agree completely with all three of your points. The only thing I would say is that, on your third point, I was precisely trying to make that distinction, but I was disagreeing with Ken Wilber who finds the "hard to decide" kind of ethical dilemma the most interesting, whereas I find the "easy to decide, hard to follow through" kind most interesting. But this isn't just a matter of aesthetics: I think it is the most interesting in the sense that I think it is both the most common, and the most important.

 Kenny Felder's Essays and Commentaries

 Send comments or questions to the author