Monday, November 12, 2012

The Big Whimper of Modern Philosophy

The Big Bang Theory and Philosophy: Rock, Paper, Scissors, Aristotle, Locke by Dean A. Kowalski, editor (John Wiley & Sons, 2012). 

The book is not a total loss: some interesting points, tidbits of knowledge, and some amusement are to be found.  If you love the show, you can probably stand most of this book. Overall, this was a big whimper.

These seventeen essays come mostly from professors of philosophy.  It is part of a “pop culture and philosophy” series that includes South Park and Philosophy, and The Big Lebowsky and Philosophy, among 28 titles, with more announced, including The Simpsons and Philosophy.  The non-judgmental range of titles is internally consistent with the post-modernist presentations in this book.  

The book starts out well with “Aristotle on Sheldon Cooper: Ancient Greek Meets Modern Geek” by Greg Littman (professor of philosophy at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville).  “Should you live like Sheldon Cooper? Think hard because you don’t have the luxury of not making a choice.  Fourteen billion years after the Big Bang, evolution has finally produced a type of animal, human beings, that must choose how it will live.”  From there, entropy takes over and the observations, opinions, and “thoughts” have less potential.

Chapter 2 by editor Dean A. Kowalski does draw on The Nicomachean Ethics to analyze whether and to what extent Sheldon Cooper and the others are, indeed, friends.  In discussing science – as important to this show as alcohol was to Cheers – Jonathan Lawhead (doctoral candidate at Berkeley) taught me something I that I did not know: the word “science” was coined by William Whewell in 1834 for the activities previously called “natural philosophy.”  In point of fact (though Lawhead himself fails to note this) capitalism made science possible.  That explains the largely anti-science, anti-scientist slant of these essays.  The anti-capitalist assumptions center on the character of Stuart the comic book store owner, whom Adolphus Mackonis assumes is necessarily beneath the physicists in his grasp of truth (Chapter 12: "I am Afraid You Couldn’t be More Wrong"). 

None of the authors seems to appreciate why the show is so successful.  As philosophers (a few social scientists), they generally sneer at knowledge and those who pursue it.

Grad student W. Scott Clifton attempts to explain why it is permissible to laugh at Sheldon.  Clifton misses the laughter directed at (and with) all of the characters.  Clifton accepts the pseudo-science which places “Asperger’s Syndrome” on a continuum leading to “autism.”  (Dr. Hans Asperger was an Austrian nazi whose work was approved by the US military occupation of Germany because the Army intelligence interrogators thought that it was perfectly all right to socialize “little professors” by marching them through the woods singing songs just like the Boy Scouts they all were.)

To W. Scott Clifton, the question must be whether it is moral to laugh at Sheldon (Leonard, Raj, and the others), because he cannot see us laughing with them.  This ignorance is also reflected in Janelle Pötzsch’s essay on Wittgenstein.  Sheldon is supposedly an object of our derisive humor when he insists on literal meanings of common phrases.  “How have you been,” Penny asks.  Sheldon replies: “Well, my existence is a continuum, so I’ve been what I am at each point in the implied time period.”  For Pötzsch the obvious humor is that Sheldon Cooper misunderstands the common phrases of social engagement.  In point of fact, the humor here is that “normal” people (personified by Penny) do not understand the ambiguities they parrot when they echo what they hear without analyzing the content.  “The four corners of the Earth… sunrise, sunset …to catch a cold…to fall in love…”  (War on terror… war on drugs… homeland security… Patriot Act… public education… majority rule… guaranteed health care… family values… common sense... the five senses...)

In Chapter 9 CUNY philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci says that the humor comes from the fact that the boys attempt to apply the methods of science to all of life and life’s problems.  But that is not the case.  The humor comes from their means of application, as when the Three Stooges labor as plumbers or build a (functioning) airplane.  The task is valid – science works – but it is only that the boys are self-limited -- as are we all – or it would not be funny.  Humor is only another path to catharsis.  For catharsis to happen, you must be able to see yourself in the place of the hero. 

Obviously (and tragically) these philosophers do not see themselves as people of the mind, gaining, extending, and applying knowledge.  Rather, they are hooligans of the ivy tower, bullies who pick on nerds, only instead of hanging out in alleys and locker rooms, they occupy university classrooms. 

That those rooms are lighted, heated (or cooled), furnished and finished must seem to be some sort of metaphysical given to the writers of this anthology.  That without Sheldon, Leonard,  Amy, and the others--even Penny who brings them the food they do not prepare--they would be worse off than savages seems never to dawn upon them. 

This ignorance is not happenstance.  As Ayn Rand cogently pointed out time and again, philosophy has consequences.   Doctoral candidate in political philosophy Ruth E. Lowe displayed typical ignorance in Chapter 13 (on tolerance and toleration) when she says that “scientists told us the Earth was flat.”  They did not.  Moreover, numismatic evidence shows that ancient people knew that the Earth is a sphere. Likewise, Mackonis seems to think that if a statement is 80% likely to be true, then this somehow creates multivalued logic with an included middle, blanking out on the meaning of the claim that something is 80% likely means the claim is exactly that, and not .8 x .8 x .8 x… ad infinitum. The metaphysical altertive must be  A or non-A, even if A is a statement of probability with level of confidence and a margin of error.  

Previously on Necessary Facts:


  1. Michael:

    Great piece. I, too, am a fan, and initially wondered, "How can I find this so appealing, when on the surface, it seems to denigrate intellectuals, and especially, science?"

    My conclusion was, because it doesn't. One reason is, the utter innocence of the humor. It is not mean spirited in the least. There is an unmistakable kinf of innocence that permeates the writing. And in order for comedy to be genuinely funny, it must be based on some seed of truth.

    We tolerate over-normalization, resulting in an exploding DSM, especially in the area of autism. Have we really reached the point in normalization where an extraordinary -ability- to focus on excruciatingly complex details is now seen as a mental disease? Instead of classifying someone as 'autistic', is it too much for the Jr. High sensibilities of the Great Average that runs this tribe to simply conclude, 'Here is someone who is going to be good at things we can't even imagine, much less, execute?' Even if that does not include 'fitting in with the great mass of self-validating cool kids at this endless Jr. High we call "S"ociety?"

    You and I, am sure, have run into plenty of fellow software types who actually dream in code, who come across as lost in their own world sometimes, barely communicative, who are yet, highly talented. And I sense, because they readily do things that the other 28 kids in their past classes can't begin to do, the self-validation of all those B and C students demands of them that they categorize the able as fringe freaks, while they self-award normalcy status to their fellow perseverants(made that up: those who perseverate) on social connectivity as a means of depending on the ability of others for their survival.

    But, that is the nature of majority/minority dynamics. The majority, indeed, gets to define what is normal, when in fact, what it is defining is what is average.

    'Norm'al, however, sounds more upscale than average, and so, the marketing of average as normal.

    See, the average need to self validate themselves as still being exceptional even when clinging to their normalcy.

    I'd love to hear Sheldon's rap on that; But I haven't seen every episode, and he probably already has. I'm sure it was/would be funny.


  2. Prof. Gregory Browne emailed in this Comment:
    Nov. 12 Re: The Big Bang Theory

    I think that the primary butt of the humor in the show is not all 4 of the scientist friends, but only Sheldon. (Yes, the others are sometimes butts of jokes, even straightman Leonard, but straightmen and straight women are sometimes the butts of jokes in most comedies, to show that even sensible people are sometimes foolish, but this does not change the fact that they are (most of them) straightmen and straightwomen to which ever character or characters is the primary butt of the humor, and that is Sheldon--and to a lesser extent Howard and Raj, but they are straightmen compared to Sheldon.) Now Sheldon's comical flaw is that he is too specialized--specifically, too narrowly an abstract intellectual, so much so that it makes him out of touch with reality, outside his field of specialization. To some extent, his flaw--and Penny's much lesser flaw as someone who is not well-informed enough about science and other abstract intellectual matters--are the results of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy and related dichotomies, in separting reason, logic and abstract science from reality and from practical matters.


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