An Old Man From Jersey Explains: Philosophy

This is a mini-series of comics about a naive but curious ten-year-old boy who pesters a crude but wise old man while he sits on the steps to their dingy New Jersey apartment building trying to read the newspaper.

 

An old man sits on the steps to his dingy New Jersey apartment reading a newspaper. A naive but curious ten year old boy stands on the grass nearby pestering him with questions.

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll also like these:

 

An Old Man From Jersey Explains Life
The Meaning of Life
How to Think Like a Genius
Knowledge and Learning
Biker Philosophy
My Tweets About Philosophy 

TRANSCRIPT

 

KID

Hey, mister!

OLD MAN

What do you want, kid?

KID

Can you explain philosophy to me?

OLD MAN

Where do you want me to start from?

KID

From the beginning.

OLD MAN

In the beginning, humans were just like all the other dumb animals shivering in the cold, unable to speak or build tools. all we did all day was look for something to eat and someone to fu…aall in love with.  Over generations though, our brains grew, and as our brains grew they got better at thinking. We figured out how to communicate, make tools, devise strategy, form complex relationships, create art, that kind of stuff.

KID

OMG! What does this have to do with anything?

OLD MAN

You wanted me to start at the beginning. So that’s what’s happening. Now try to imagine what life was like for those human beings who were alive just after we learned to talk and write but before history began. They were completely lost and bewildered by the universe. Nothing made sense. What’s the sun? What’s lightning? How are babies made? Why do we get sick? What happens after death? They had all these questions with no answers. So people started asking questions.

KID

So philosophers are people who ask questions?

OLD MAN

Yeah, but that’s oversimplified near the point of being wrong.

KID

What’s that supposed to mean?

OLD MAN

So anybody who builds a house is a carpenter, right?

KID

Sounds about right.

OLD MAN

Well, anyone can nail a few boards together and make a roof over their head, but if you did that you’d end up with a dilapidated shanty that’s going to fall down and kill you in your sleep. It takes a lot more to be a proper carpenter and make a proper house.

KID

I see where you’re going with this. A  philosopher is someone who got a P.H.d. in philosophy and has been published professionally!

OLD MAN

So there weren’t any philosophers before humans invented the P.H.D. or the printing press?

KID

How else can you prove you’re a philosopher?

OLD MAN

Are the only real fighters the ones who win sponsored championship fights?

KID

I guess you can make a living as a fighter without being a household name.

OLD MAN

Are the only real fighters the ones who get paid?

KID

So you’re saying anyone who seriously devotes their life to asking questions about the nature of life and the universe is a philosopher?

OLD MAN

Yeah, but don’t you want to hear the rest of the story?

KID

Well, Veggie Tales doesn’t start for another hour. So I guess I got time to hear this.

OLD MAN

So back in the day, thousands of years before the invention of the printing press, people had all these simple questions about the universe like, “why does it rain?” but they didn’t know all the variables in the equation. So they came up with the best answers they could using the variables they had.

KID

Hold on. Why are we talking about figuring out why rain falls? That’s a scientific question, not a philosophical one.

OLD MAN

You can get a P.H.D. in science. Do you know what P.H.D. stands for?

KID

No.

OLD MAN

It stands for “philosophiae doctor” or “Doctor of philosophy.”

KID

Can’t you get a p.h.d. in religion? Does that mean anyone who asks religious questions is a philosopher too?

OLD MAN

I was just getting to that. Before the discovery of the periodic table of elements, philosophers deduced that rain was caused by magic, monsters and invisible sky people.

KID

How does that make religion philosophy?

OLD MAN

…the same way slapping together a children’s clubhouse out of junk is carpentry. It wouldn’t be incorrect to say that religion, which is just a more flattering word for mythology, was man’s first attempt at philosophy.

KID

So where did philosophy go from there?

OLD MAN

Back when humans didn’t know anything about the universe, any question you asked about pretty much anything was groundbreaking, and we hadn’t divided the body of human knowledge into categories like astronomy, medicine, geology, microbiology, physics, etc.

KID

So it was all just lumped under theoretical philosophy?

OLD MAN

Exactly, and it was pretty chaotic. Alchemists were trying to turn poop into gold. Barbers doubled as doctors. Politicians consulted oracles.

KID

What changed?

OLD MAN

Eventually, humans started noticing patterns in the universe. The moon, stars, and sun moved predictably. Certain medicines worked on certain ailments. Fortune tellers were recognized as frauds, and people noticed prayer worked as effectively as random chance. So people developed a systematic method of analyzing the universe and testing hypotheses for truth.

KID

So philosophy created science. I never thought of it that way before. So if philosophy splintered into science, math, medicine and all that then what do professional philosophers do these days?

OLD MAN

Nowadays they try to answer the questions that don’t fit in any of the boxes the philosophers of yesteryear compartmentalized the universe into. Some of the questions they ask may not even have answers.

KID

That doesn’t sound very useful.

OLD MAN

Does philosophy have to be useful?

KID

Isn’t sitting around congratulating yourself all day for thinking about useless things the same as mental masturbation?

OLD MAN

I can’t disprove that, but the point is moot anyway. Philosophy is useful for lots of things.

KID

Are there any other professions that dogmatically defend their right to be empirically useless while insisting they’re vitally useful?

OLD MAN

…religion?

KID

That reminds me. If theologians study books written by dead prophets to get their P.H.D. in religion then what do philosophers study to get their P.H.D. in philosophy?

OLD MAN

They study logic…and professionally published books written by dead philosophers who had P.H.D.s or some equivalent.

KID

How much time do they spend constantly rehashing the same old tired and suspiciously archaic ideas?

OLD MAN

…all I can say is, some more than others.

KID

Let me come at this from another angle. If I read the whole bible ten times will that make me a Christian?

OLD MAN

…not in and of itself, no.

KID

What if I get a piece of paper saying I studied all those people?

OLD MAN

Give me $70,000, and I’ll give you a piece of paper saying you’re the queen of the universe.

KID

So what do I have to do to prove I’m a real philosopher?

OLD MAN

Take a step back. Life isn’t about proving you’re a philosopher.

KID

So what’s life about then?

OLD MAN

For someone who doesn’t know why you’re here or what you should be doing now that you’re here, life is about using what you’ve got to get life figured out to the best of your ability to live your life as well as possible and leave the world a better place for future humans to do even better for themselves in.

KID

Great! Now give me step by step instructions on how to do that.

OLD MAN

If you believe everything I tell you then you’ll be a follower. If you put everything you learn to the test of truth and continue positing your own questions, answering them and challenging them then you’ll be a philosopher.

KID

So which questions should I start with?

OLD MAN

I’d start by asking myself what the most important question I can ask myself is and then work down from there.

KID

So when do I get to start congratulating myself for asking useless questions and rubbing in other people’s faces how I can quote more archaic books than them?

OLD MAN

You’ll have to use your own discretion to balance that between how much time you have in this life, how much suffering is in the world and how much you care about solving the real world problems that cause people to suffer.

KID

One last question. If I have the mental capacity to solve real-world problems and help people, does that mean I have an obligation to?

OLD MAN

Good question. You may make a philosopher yet.

Liked it? Help spread wisdom. Support The Wise Sloth on Patreon.

Leave a Reply