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“Philosophy isn’t practical, like growing food or building houses, so people say it is useless. In one sense those basic tasks are much more important, it’s true, because we couldn’t live without them… We eat to live, but we live to think. And also to fall in love, play games and listen to music, of course. Remember that the practical things are only about freeing us up to live: they’re not the point of life.”

That’s from If Minds Had Toes, by Lucy Eyre. It’s a wonderful book that works as a sort of advertising campaign for the subject of philosophy (which, let’s face it, is dismissed as a waste of time by a whole lot of people) while also being funny, imaginative and intensely thought-provoking. I wouldn’t quite rate it RREHR, but perhaps just a notch lower, as EM-BGIB: Educated Minds should have a Basic Grasp of the Ideas in this Book… Yeah, that’s not catching on, is it?

'If Minds Had Toes' a simply-written, but intriguing tale of a 15 year-old's introduction to the lofty ideas of philosophy

Anyway, quick summary: Socrates and Ludwig Wittgenstein – two giants of philosophy – are having an argument about whether knowing something about philosophy can actually make people happier. They decide to settle the matter with an experiment; they spend a few weeks guiding a fifteen-year-old boy, Ben, through the world of philosophy. Ben is introduced to timeless philosophical questions such as “Does the evidence of our eyes really tell us about the true nature of the world?” and “Is free will an illusion?”. And even though at first he would rather think about girls and football than that sort of thing, in the end, he does come away as a changed  person and has a new perspective on life. Socrates wins the bet and the “bad guy” Wittgenstein goes back to sulk in a corner somewhere.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), the bad boy of philosophy

In order to summarize one of the most interesting ideas expounded in the book, I decided to write a (short and inelegant) play. Here it is:

“What Am I”

A Short Play

Individual A: Hi there! I just wanted to ask you a simple question. What are you?

Individual B: Um, hey. You again. Well, since I know you’re not gonna leave me alone before I answer your stupid question – I’m a human being.

Individual A: But that doesn’t answer my question. That just places you in a category. It doesn’t tell me what you are. If I were an alien from outer space, who’d never even heard of Earth, do you think “I’m a human being” would tell me anything useful?

Individual B: Ugh. Fine. [Gestures towards himself/herself] This body, and everything in it, is me.

Individual A: [grabs B’s finger] What about this? Is this you?

Individual B: Sure, why not?

Individual A: So if I cut this off and sent it to France, would you say you had gone to France?

Individual B: Damn it, no! Only my whole body is me!

Individual A: So amputees aren’t complete human beings?

Individual B: Er, no, that’s not what I meant to say.

Individual A: Of course not. Let’s say you meant to say that your body is something very closely associated with you, but it’s not you. The most fundamental part of what you are is the part that you would recognize as you even in complete isolation. That’s why you wouldn’t consider a recently-dead corpse of your body to be you. So what about the stuff that’s in the particular part of your body that you call the brain? Your memories and experiences – are they what makes you you?

Individual B: [a little more interested now] Yeah, I guess that could be it. That must be it, right?

Individual A: Sorry, no, I don’t think so. We’re in murkier territory now, but I really don’t think it would be impossible to upload all your sensory and emotional data on to a computer’s hard disk (even if not now, in a decade or two). But that wouldn’t mean that you would become the computer, or that there’d be two yous.

Individual B: But, then…What the hell am I?… All that’s left is… I must have a non-physical, supernatural soul

Individual A: Thankfully, there’s a way to avoid that. But it’s not easy to grasp. You are not simply your past and your present, but also your future. You are a continuous event that spans a certain time period. This continuous event is made up of lots of little experiences. Even at the moment you are born, the experiences just before your death are a part of you. You are a pan-dimensional being, because your self-awareness transcends space and time.

Individual B: Whoaa. That is so cool. Philosophy rocks!

[Hugs and high-fives ensue…]

–The End–

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4 Comments

  1. My answer would have been “homo sapien” and if you were an alien I would imagine you would not understand English or Latin, so I am not sure where we would start. I do have to say that your definition of “What am I?” is interesting and something I could not have thought of.

    Today I had posted “Who am I?” which I later changed to “Where do I fit in the big picture” because I was trying to place myself in the Universe, in a similar way as Carl Sagan does in your About section. Though I feel he gets a bit sentimental about it and I prefer to leave it at just accepting what the numbers say.

    • I understand, of course, that talking to an alien life form would be extremely complicated, but my point is that even if we got them to understand the idea “homo sapien” that would mean being able to identify a group of around 7 billion creatures on this planet that are different from all the other millions of life forms here. It would mean, for instance, understanding that I have 206 bones and 500+ muscles, no tail or wings, etc. It’s an anatomical answer. But that’s the thing, we’re more than just our anatomy, right?

  2. I totally understand your answer, its just that my answer would still be the same, but I do think that you have an interesting pov. That we are a continuous event spanning a period of time in my opinion is a lateral thought (which I love), it would be interesting to ask a physicist like Richard Feynman what he thought of it 😉

    See, I like to think of the human as just another animal that walks this planet, and that we are something more or superior is in fact a problem (mental decease) of this specie. Anyway, I just wanted to appreciate your line of thinking and tell you where I stand.

    • You’re right, it would be pretty interesting to talk to a physicist or two about that :). And thanks for sharing your point of view. In case you’re at all interested, I’d suggest Bertrand Russell’s “An Outline of Philosophy” as another (but rather denser) introduction to the subject.


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  1. […] two posts back (“What Am I” – a short play) I mentioned the question “Does the evidence of our eyes tell us about the true nature of the […]

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