Wednesday, August 25, 2004


IN John Allen Paulos's book 'I think therefore I laugh: An alternative approach to Philosophy', he is inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein's statement that one can write a comprehensive Philosophy book consisting of jokes alone. If you get the joke, you get the philosophical point. After reading this book, I tend to agree. If we really think about it, it's surprising how many jokes we crack everyday; mundane, sophisticated, derogatory, or otherwise, mostly at the expense of others. Many of these jokes are downright stupid, and we are aware of that. Now in this book, Paulos explains why they illustrate important points of philosophy. And in doing so, he sure gives us a rollicking, rib-tickling time. Paulos weaves an extremely entertaining web of anectodes, humor, and language puzzles, each time demonstrating a central philosophical point. In doing so, he also pays due homage to more or less most famous classic and contemporary philosophers including Russell, Wittgenstein, Hempel, Dewey, Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Hume, Descartes, Kant, Quine and Popper, among others. He uses examples from daily life, indicating the paradoxes we unknowingly indulge in during our everyday hustle- bustle. He inspires us to look about for such examples, and most importantly have a good laugh about them.

Case in point. Today, I started to read the manual of a computer program named SYBYL which I am supposed to learn. All of you will know how mind numbingly unforgiving a manual reading session can be. However, my spirits were immediately uplifted when, on the first page of the manual, I saw the following typed statement:
I got the joke; I got the paradox. I laughed- thanks to Paulos.

Highlights of the book include a hilarious dialogue between two most unlikely men: Bertrand Russell and Groucho Marx, trapped in an elevator on a 'virtual' level in the Empire State Building. Their conversation is completely nonsensical, each talking from his unique point of view. But just like Lewis Carroll's nonsense, it makes perfect sense. All through the book, Paulos uses two proverbial scapegoats, George and Martha, to illustrate the finer points of philosophical thought through seemingly idiotic, bizzare and generally hilarious conversations. In doing so, he touches upon reductionism, syllogism, sylligism, opportunism, and most of the other famous "isms". A few examples:

Everybody loves a lover
George does not love himself
Hence George does not love Martha

Illogical as the above argument looks, by the rules of logic, Paulos explains that it makes perfect sense. Or consider this "Proof that God exists"

1. God exists
2. Both these statements are false.

Welcome to the world of paradoxes! Some thorny thinking convinces us that irrespective of whether the second statement is true or false, the first statement HAS to be true. In fact, you can substitute any statement in place of the first one (For example, 'George Bush was in love with Elizabeth Taylor'). The second one will guarantee that it's true.
How about this one. Its a chilly winter night and Martha meets George in front of his house.

Martha: George, what are you doing?
George: Oh, I am looking for my car keys. I lost them near that bush there.
Martha: So why aren't you looking for them there?
George: Because its brighter here and I can see better.

Some of the examples are outright stupid, great examples of PJs that all of us crack sometime or the other.

Martha: That's the last straw! I have had enough of this. I wash my hands of the whole business.
George: A good idea. You can wash your neck too.

Paulos says that this dialogue actually demonstrates an important philosophical principle.

The title of the third section is: "The Titl of This Section Contains Three Erors"
Can you spot them? If yes, you would have unearthed a very important philosophical 'classification of classes or sets', having deep implications for math and logic.

Another examples of this 'classification of classes':
'Robert Benchley once remarked, "There may be said to be two classes of people in the world; those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not." He should have added paradoxically that he belongs to the latter class.

I could go on and on! But I don't want to give away the wonder of the book. It is a truly refreshing read, for the sheer reason that it shows us how we can constantly laugh at others, life, and most importantly ourselves, and have an educational experience doing it. I think it would be a fascinating experience for us to glance around everyday, and have a look at the idiosynchracies that we indulge in, the jokes that we crack, and the criticisms that we dispense, and endure, knowingly and unknowingly demonstrating philosophical insights. Paulos tried to convince us that there is more to daily life than we think, and that philosophy need not be a separate 'subject' to be studied. It is a part of our everyday where-withal and exemplified in all its glory in all our relationships. I had a ball of a time reading this book, and I think that you will too.


Blogger Hirak said...

I was reading GEB- Hofstadter. I guess you must have read it already. Quite in the same sort of humourous lines as the book you describe.
He uses Achilles and the Tortoise instead of George and Martha to get his point across.

7:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay .. after reading this extensive review (or should I say advertorial?) .. I am inspired enough to seek out and read the book ... will do .. sometime soon.

- anya

11:26 AM  

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