Puzzles, Paradox, and Discovery

English: Russell's Teapot Español: Tetera de R...
English: Russell’s Teapot Español: Tetera de Russell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

– from 6 years ago; proving that the Philosophers’ Cafe is a tradition!

The Philosophers’ Cafe, a forum for intellectual discussion and enlightenment, held at Mrs. Riches Dinner Club in Nanaimo on Monday, began like no other; it began with a test!

Bob Lane, the speaker for the evening, was in fine form, asking his audience to digest more than their dinners.

After an energetic and colourful introduction, Bob told us to forget everything the moderator had just said; he then introduced the theme for his discussion: Paradox and Discovery, and began to administer his test.

“No talking,” Bob said. “And each question on the test will be asked once and only once.” As a former student of Bob’s, I was dreading what I thought would come next: “And wrongs will be subtracted from rights” I was waiting for him say; but he didn’t. The audience was up for the test – pens and paper came out – some used napkins – but we all began the same way: by trying to follow Bob’s deliberately twisted and convoluted tale of an airplane which goes off course, twice, and crashes on the Canada/US border. Question one: “Where do you bury the survivors?” Question two: “Who is closer to the baby bull – the mama bull or the papa bull?” Question three: “Draw a small cased “I” with a dot over it”. And finally number four began: “Imagine you are a bus driver…” Pens were heating up as the audience tried to keep track of the number of passengers getting on and off the bus, until, finally, Bob poses his question: “How old is the bus driver?”

There were a few “sharpies” in the audience who got all four questions right (me, included, but I had heard these puzzles previously in “Rhetoric and Reasoning” and epistemology classes, so I had a just a slight advantage over some of the others who were puzzling over these puzzles for the first time). The puzzles were just the warm-up, for what was to follow, however.

Bob suggested that we look at philosophy as a process of Paradox and Discovery. “Puzzles” he said, “are at the heart of philosophy and of science”. Then, he read us: “The Swirl” – a verbal paradox first suggested by pragmatist William James, in which we try to determine if, in circling a tree, we “go around” the squirrel, while the squirrel “goes around” the tree. Feeling a little dizzy? Puzzled perhaps? There’s more.

Following the warm-up puzzles, Bob poses another question; this one is not on the test: “How do you know that you are NOT a brain in a vat on Venus?” In an attempt to solve the puzzle, and remove some puzzled looks from puzzled faces, Bob reviewed DescartesMeditations on First Philosophy in which Descartes proposes puzzles of his own.

Suppose there’s an evil genius bent on deceiving you. Everything you thought to be true would be false. One member of the audience asked: “Does it matter that we can be deceived?” Bob’s answer, after a short clarification of what he meant by describing Descartes’ skepticism as “corrosive,” (the way in which Descartes systematically erodes every day beliefs) was a clear and succinct: “You can’t hold false beliefs”.

In attempt to to assist those who were truly puzzled, by this point in the discussion, moderator, and sometimes mediator,  reminded us of Neo, the hero of the sci-fi movie: The MATRIX, and his reality. “Our senses or perceptions are not the same for everybody” said one audience member. And, I think unbeknownst to himself, a Criminologist solved the philosophical problem of solipsism, by arguing that we have “shared experiences of reality, although our experiences are of different colours, shades, or hues”. “Truth corrodes – truth is arbitrary” said the same audience member who had earlier asked: “does it matter?”

Moderator’s answer: “It matters (at least sometimes) when we say: Truth, or Really”.

“Reality and truth turn the cranks of philosophers” Bob said.

And he closed with Russell’s Teapot:

“If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”

And in case we digested the discussion thus far, Bob offered us dessert by giving Richard Dawkins the last word:

“The reason organized religion merits outright hostility is that, unlike belief in Russell’s teapot, religion is powerful, influential, tax-exempt and systematically passed on to children too young to defend themselves. Children are not compelled to spend their formative years memorizing loony books about teapots. Government-subsidized schools don’t exclude children whose parents prefer the wrong shape of teapot. Teapot-believers don’t stone teapot-unbelievers, teapot-apostates, teapot-heretics and teapot-blasphemers to death. Mothers don’t warn their sons off marrying teapot-shiksas whose parents believe in three teapots rather than one. People who put the milk in first don’t knee-cap those who put the tea in first.”

I enjoyed much more than my tea at the Philosopher’s Cafe. But I’m still puzzled – and I guess, as a Philosopher (not a scientist), that’s the way it should be!!

Thanks, Bob. As usual, it was more than good; it was great!

[Photo credit:
Erik M. Lane, BS, BSc]

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Assholes – a theory

Inspired by Aaron James’ New York Times bestseller of the same name, Assholes investigates the breeding grounds of contemporary ‘asshole culture’ — and locates signs of civility in an otherwise rude-n-nasty universe.

Venturing into predominantly male domain, Walker moves from Ivy League frat clubs to the bratty princedoms of Silicon Valley and bear pits of international finance. Why do assholes thrive in certain environments? What explains their perverse appeal? And how do they keep getting elected!

Learn more here.

Philosophers’ Café

Any new ones for the summer?


Having recently participated in a lively philosophers’ café I started thinking about the history of these informal gatherings which are aimed at a broad public for the discussion of social issues, moral problems, epistemology and the like. I suppose in some way they are a spinoff from Old Socrates who walked around Athens engaging citizens in philosophical discussions.

I have been involved since my SFU days when, with Dale Beyerstein, I participated in a few on the mainland. And then we had several over the years at VIU. [ Here, or here] In BC it looks like SFU is the mother of the cafés:

SFU’s Philosophers’ Café is a series of informal public discussions in the heart of our communities. Since 1998, this award-winning program has engaged the interests of scholars, seniors, students, philosophers, and non-philosophers through stimulating dialogue and the passionate exchange of ideas.

All cafés are free…

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