Philosophy is bullshit

A: Forget philosophy, my friend. Mathematics is the truth. For what philosophers, and other people who like to feel smart, do is merely to talk bullshit in a very refined and complicated way. However, their cleverness, the way that their ideas are expressed does not alter the contents of those ideas - they are still bullshit.

B: I agree that not all philosophers make sence. In fact I would be OK if you regard any philosopher’s writing as bullshit. But calling philosophy itself bullshit is just redefining the meaning of both words. Because you see, “bullshit” is something that does not make sense, and “philosophy”, if we look up the etymology, is the men’s quest toward’s wisdom and truth. So are you saying that the pursuit of wisdom does not make sense. For if you do, then it would deem this whole conversation meaningless.

A: I can be saying that, or I can be saying the opposite, for it does not make any difference when it comes to my point, which is precisely this, that nothing is true and makes sense inherently and all your propositions, even the ones that seem obvious to you and everyone else are actually just your’s and everyone else’s opinions and articulating these opinions in a way which suggests that they are more than just that is bullshit, in my book.

B: The second part of your proposition is correct - they are opinions, however the first one isn’t, for sense is inherent in the very definition of the words that we are using. Words such as “wisdom”, they are created for the simple reason to convey a certain piece of sense - a piece which is encoded in all of their uses. If you are not interested in wisdom, for example, and you do not think that knowing about wisdom is not good for you, you are free to express your opinion and say that everything written about wisdom is bullshit, you can even stop using the word altogether and forget that it exists. But you cannot say that the word has no meaning, because if two people use it in a conversation and are able to understand each other, then the object which the word signifies must exist, even if in the realm of the metaphysical.

A: What does it mean to understand each other?

B: Why it is simple. It means that one of them can find the thing that the other one says useful.

A: So to understand is to relate?

B: Yes.

A: Ah, you digged your own grave with this argument, my friend. Imagine, for example, a group of people who spent their life in a cave, as Plato once did. People who had never seen the world outside, and know only the insides of the cave which is their permanent accomodation. If they existed, those people would surely have a lot of thoughts, and would even make up words and concepts which to them would be just as familiar as the concept of wisdom is to you, but that would be virtually unknown to the rest of us. Now, imagine further a tragic incident in which the cave collapses and all these people are killed with noone having studied their peculiar culture or known the words and concepts that they invented. Now what if one of those people was a wannabe philosopher such as yourself and left some writings about his life and the life of his fellow men, which noone can understand. My question is, one, wouldn’t I be right to say that these writings are bullshit for me, and two, doesn’t that mean that they were bullshit to begin with?

B: The answers to your first question is “No” - even if you don’t have anything to do with a given person (and you can argue that all people don’t have anything to do with each other), what this person wrote can resonate to you through morphisms. One thing can play a given role in a given situation which I am facing and a different thing can play the same role in a completely different situation that you are facing. I can write about one, and from my writing I can help you with the other. The answer to the second question is, of course, also “No”, because no person can be the sole judge of what is and isn’t meaningful.

A: You are fast to say that I am wrong. But you know what you do is easy - anyone could find an imperfection in any argument. But you know what it is hard? Constructing an argument which has no such imperfections. And I have bad news for you - this is what you will have to do, if you want to win this.

B: How come?

A: Any object in our universe can either have some meaning or not have meaning, right. And in the beginning we established that objects are inherently non-meaningful, than inherently meaningful. So philosophy also does not have any inherent meaning also, right? Well, if it is so, then I believe that it us up to you to prove to me that we can attach some meaning to philosophy, and that it is worth it to do so, and that it is not up to me to disprove that proposition.

B: I agree. But before I begin I want you to tell me something.

A: Aha, so again me!

B: I would like you just to give me an example of something that has universal meaning. Just pick one of your favourite meaningful objects. And I will prove to you that philosophy, even badly written philosophy is just as meaningful and non-bullshit as this object.

A: Fine. You are probably relying on me to pick something complicated, so you can confuse me again with your fancy terminology. But I assure you that will not be the case. Observe - I pick the statement “one plus one equals two”.

B: OK, and what is the meaning of this statement.

A: You should go back to first grade, B. I believe I don’t have to explain that to you. It is understandable - you can explain it to everyone, even people living in different planets, and they will understand it, if they don’t already know it. It is useful: one of the statements contains two terms, the other contains just one, so you are simplifying the whole thing. And best of all, it is true, something which you cannot dispute.

B: How is “two” simpler than “one plus one”?

A: If you want to buy two packs of buble gum, one dollar each, you need two dollars, not “one plus one” dollars.

B: What if I want to buy one pack of buble gum plus one box of matches?

B: OK, forget about the simplicity. So the statement says that you can replace “one plus one” with “two” and the other way around and they’ll both be correct. So the two expressions mean the same thing. Here, there is one glass here, and there is one more glass there. So overall there are two glasses.

A: Don’t you merely describe the same configuration of objects in two different ways.

B: See, that is what I mean. You are talking bullshit. And you are hoping I would buy it, so you can produce more of it.

A: OK, let’s be more strict then. What does one plus one consists of? First you have the integers. One way to define them is how Peano does it - there is that special symbol 0 which indicates zero. And there is a operation which moves us upwards in the sequence - the operation that given a number returns his successor, so that 1 is actually. S(0), 2 is S(S(0)) and so on.

Then you define the + operation - one which merely replaces the 0 from the Peano representation of the first number with the peano representation of the second one, or the other way around.

Finally we can define = equality as denoting a relationship between any two terms which can be converted so they are the same as the other by successfully applying the operation. Thus 1 + 1 = 2.

However, once we defined what 1 and 2 are and what + and = are using a precise set of rules, then by saying 1 + 1 = 2 (or s(0) + s(0) = s(s(0)) as we would put it in Peano’s terms) we are merely restating these rules in a little more complicated form. 1 + 1 = 2 is then a mere rearrangement of this very set of rules which make it meaningful. It is, as Wittgenstein calls it, a tautology. It may not tell us anything that is bullshit, but that is simply because it does not tell us anything at all! Hey, B, are you listening?

B: What? Oh, sorry I must have dosed off at some point.

A: At which point?

B: Does not matter, can you summarise your point in one sentence?

A: Yes. 1 + 1 does not say anything because both the objects and the ways with which they can be combined are defined upfront. You can effectively auto-generate a infinite list with all arithmetical statements, there will be nothing there which will tell you anything more than how do the rules work, and if you think about it you will see that although they are usable in some occasions in the real world, these rules are pretty arbitraty by themselves.

B: Hm, I never thought about it in that way.

A: Aha, this is starting to look like a real dialogue.


B: Every new idea is redefining the words that comprise it. So if a given word or in this case a mathematical operation is defined formally, that means that no ideas can be expressed using it.

A: But how are ideas expressed then? Obviously I cannot say anything using words which are not defined.

B: That is easy - using simple natural language, of course. The same language that we are using right now. Formal languages are useless, and jiberish is also, of course, useless, but natural languages have this weird balance between the two - a word is defined by a set of its uses, so every time you use the word you are effectively redefining it, even if only for the context of what you are saying, while at the same time using it. Formal language is precise - either A follows from B, or it does not. But in natural language the connection is rather more abstract - everything can be redefined to be connected to everything else from a given perspective. And that is why natural language can be used to say absolutely anything - it is usually the lowest (or rather the only) common denominator.

A: Yes, and that is the problem with it - many of the things that you can say are false.

B: No that is not true.

A: Ha, got you.

B: Well, OK, I guess you can say something that is false, but only when you look at it from a given perspective. For example, in intuitionistic logic False (with capital F) is a specific proposition and to say that a given proposition is false is the same as saying that it implies False (or in other words ¬A ↔ A → False). You can view the concept of false in natural language in the same way - it is just a word like any other. The difference is that in logic like I said in logic an arrow which connects two objects is either there or not. In natural language, though, the arrow is always there, the possibility of connecting two concepts is always there, the question is how weak (or strong) it is. For example when you say that philosophy is bullshit you are expressing the assertion that the Philosophy → Bullshit arrow is strong. Or rather, if you want to be more precise, you are saying that (Philosophy → Bullshit) B: Well, OK, I guess you can say something that is false, but only when you look at it from a given perspective. For example, in intuitionistic logic False (with capital F) is a specific proposition and to say that a given proposition is false is the same as saying that it implies False (or in other words ¬A ↔ A → False). You can view the concept of false in natural language in the same way - it is just a word like any other. The difference is that in logic like I said in logic an arrow which connects two objects is either there or not. In natural language, though, the arrow is always there, the possibility of connecting two concepts is always there, the question is how weak (or strong) it is. For example when you say that philosophy is bullshit you are expressing the assertion that the Philosophy → Bullshit arrow is strong. Or rather, if you want to be more precise, you are saying that (Philosophy → Bullshit) B: Well, OK, I guess you can say something that is false, but only when you look at it from a given perspective. For example, in intuitionistic logic False (with capital F) is a specific proposition and to say that a given proposition is false is the same as saying that it implies False (or in other words ¬A ↔ A → False). You can view the concept of false in natural language in the same way - it is just a word like any other. The difference is that in logic like I said in logic an arrow which connects two objects is either there or not. In natural language, though, the arrow is always there, the possibility of connecting two concepts is always there, the question is how weak (or strong) it is. For example when you say that philosophy is bullshit you are expressing the assertion that the Philosophy → Bullshit arrow is strong. Or rather, if you want to be more precise, you are saying that the arrows in(Philosophy → Bullshit) → True are strong. This is all context dependent of course. You can think of a context of a given word as a subset of the totality of its possible meanings, which is picked by the speaker when he is using it. A multitude of perspectives are possible, where none of them are really true, but 1 + 1 is not true either - it is just useful in a very large set of contexts.

Also, notice that the context is a set of usages. But if I am

A: Sorry, giving the topic of our conversations as an example was too meta for me and I blocked.

B: Sorry but there is no other way. This is, after all, a philosophical dialog about philosophy.

A: Philosophy? Can you even define “philosophy” in the context of what you are saying?

B: Sure. For me it is the practice of constructing such perspectives (or contextual systems if you will) using natural language and comparing them with one another in terms of their usefullness, as well as in terms of their aestetic qualities. It is the comparing aspect that really sets philosophy apart from mathematics and science. For example, in mathematics too you can also have multiple perspectives of what a number is, but you can rarely compare one of these perspectives from the context of the other. And you cannot argue about the aestetic qualities of each perspective, without entering the realm of philosophy.

Come to think about it, that is the principle upon which all human communication is based on, right? We adopt these philosophies based on which we make decisions for our life and then we compare them with one another to see whether ours is the most appropriate. These “philosophies” aren’t always complex or abstract or anything. For example the question of whether it is better to buy expensive stuff that is more durable than to buy cheap stuff that breaks easily actually a typical philosophical question - valid arguments can be made for both sides and although mundane, it is related to a surprising amount of other philosophical questions, such as the role of the material world in our life.

To say that philosophy is bullshit is, therefore, the same thing as saying that all human communication is pointless, because all communication is based on this principle. And the mere fact that you are saying “Philosophy is bullshit” means that you do not think that, otherwise you wouldn’t bother talking to me. Therefore philosophy is not bullshit.

A: I am still not convinced.

B: Fuck off.