There’s been a bit of discussion on philosophy (which pleases me, by the way), so I thought it was time to resurrect this one from the vault of Livejournal about 6 years ago, with a few minor edits.
How many philosophers does it take to change a light-bulb?
Pragmatist: Hey, if holding the bulb while four of your friends turn the chair makes you happy, then that is the right way to change a light-bulb for you.
Empiricist: We can’t know how to change a light-bulb, we can only know how it has been reportedly changed in the past. But we can make lists of how big it is, the wattage, the thickness of the glass, the composition of the filiment…
Thomist: When we examine the concept of “light-bulb” one requirement is that it light up. Hence, if it does not light up, it is not a light-bulb. If it is not a light-bulb there is no reason to change it.
Aristotelean: Changing of light-bulbs can be divided into: manipulation of the old bulb, and manipulation of the new bulb. Bulb manipulation, in turn, can be divided into: Turning motion, raising motion, dropping motion. We cannot understand motion.
Kantian: While having light is a categorical imperative, by understanding the light-bulb-in-itself, it becomes, for us, a new light-bulb, and thus there is no need to change it.
Platonist: The closer our light-bulb gets to the Ideal Light-bulb, the less it requires changing.
Dialectical Materialist: None. The light-bulb changes because of it’s own internal contradictions.
Skeptic: We can’t know if we’re changing the light-bulb. We can’t know if changing the light-bulb is an improvement. In fact, we can’t really know if it’s dark. Especially with the lights out.
Hegelian: A light-bulb that will not produce light is irrational. When the light-bulb becomes irrational, it ceases to exist; when the light bulb no longer exists, it is irrational. Insofar as a new light-bulb sheds light on the Absolute Idea, it becomes a rational light-bulb and comes into being as part of our striving for the categories of logic. Thus the transition: burned out bulb, to changing the bulb, to a working bulb, recapitulates the process of our thinking within the phenomenon of light, which in turns raises our minds to truth and freedom.
Positivist: If we cannot demonstrate mathematically the process of light-bulb changing, the bulb is not important. If we can, then the mathematical demonstration is sufficient for our purposes.
Post-structuralist: By rejecting neo-Enlightenment notions that privilege “light” (which privilege we find textually included in the subject narrative), we can conceptualize the relationship between optically-oriented envisioning and those signifiers that address interpretations of post-colonial modernism as an established text within the framework of which, intertextually, we are lead to reject any causal relationship between the operands and the motivators, thus redefining darkness on an individual basis that turns the meta-narrative into its own form of de-categorized photonic emission.
Memetics: The speed at which the notion “a burned out light-bulb should be replaced” has spread is inexplicable unless one looks at the idea itself.
Existentialist: Why change the light-bulb?
Once again I’ve come across the old saw, “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Most of us first encountered it in Orwell’s 1984, where it was used to avoid questions the author preferred not to address, but it predates that. I’m not sure, but I think the original form says authority instead of power. But what came to mind on this occasion was: why is this unscientific idea so attractive to certain layers, and what social role does it play?
The first question one must ask is, what does “corrupt” mean in this context? My American Heritage dictionary tells me that the verb, “to corrupt” means “to destroy or subvert the honesty or integrity of.” Presumably, if the line means anything at all, it means that power or authority destroys or subverts the honesty or integrity of the person who holds it.
But, with this definition, it is obvious that it is far from universal. History abounds with examples of individuals in power who were not corrupted in any meaningful way. The USA in particular is rich in examples: George Washington, who stepped down from his position of authority; Abraham Lincoln, who invariably put his duty as he saw it ahead of his personal desires; Malcom X, who, whatever his political limitations, attempted to convince with ideas rather than use his personal authority. Other cases that come to mind for me include Lenin, who never made any attempt to circumvent the soviets or the Central Committee, but instead always worked to convince others of the correctness of his policies; and Trotsky, who, at the time of Lenin’s death, was perfectly positioned to simply use the Red Army to take power. I’m sure most of you can find other examples without looking very hard.
No one who has expressed this idea has ever given the least hint of a scientific explanation for it. Is it something in the biological make-up of the human being? If so, what exactly? Where did it come from, how does it operate? Is it social? If so, again, what is the mechanism; what social forces cause this? Instead of an explanation, we get a truism, and one that doesn’t hold up empirically, much less theoretically.
So—why is it so ubiquitous? Any idea that persists, whether it is right or wrong, serves a social function. I think the function of this idea is the one that Orwell so skillfully used it for: to avoid dealing with difficult questions. That is, the tough question is not, “why is the individual holding power being evil,” but, “how did we find ourselves in a situation where a single individual HAS such power?” This latter question cannot, alas, be answered by a truism, but requires careful investigation of the circumstances: In Hitler’s case, for example, we have to look at the failure of the German revolutions of 1919 and 1923, the financial backing of the Nazis, &c. In the case of Stalin, we look at the condition of the Soviet Union after WWI, at the wars of intervention, at the failures of the revolutions in England, France, Hungary, and Poland. It is difficult, complicated, and can’t be expressed in a simple formula. However, if one can skip all of this by simply reciting a clever-sounding phrase, then one can avoid the hard work.
It’s so much easier that way. Provided one cares nothing for truth.
What if you could tell if someone could write about science just by peering at his genes? There has been speculation about the role of the hormone verbopressin in humans ever since we discovered that variations in where receptors for the hormone are expressed makes California neocons make up facts about presidents, but East Coast Fundamentalists write about Intelligent Design; verbopressin is related to the “giggle chemical” oreillytocin. Now it seems variations in a section of the gene coding for a verbopressin receptor in people help to determine whether a writer misrepresents scientific discoveries, or just makes things up.
Wasse Halum at the Geroginska Institute in Bucharest, Romania, and colleagues looked at the various forms of the gene coding for verbopressin receptor in 3 Romanian people, who were all bad writers. The researchers also investigated their spelling. They found that variation in a section of the gene called “IMl33t” were more likely to use insufficiently large samples, confuse their research, and make uncalled-for generalizations.
Not only that, men with two copies of IMl33t were more likely to pull random facts out of actual research and completely misinterpret them.
Given that everyone surveyed had been writing about science for at least a week, the team suggests that having multiple copies somehow contributes to writing problems anywhere near the Black Sea. Because the results were collected for a different study, the team couldn’t quiz the writers on whether they were actually familiar with their native language, says Halum.
It is not clear exactly how multiple copies of IMl33t affect expression of the verbopressin receptor, and our most confused syntax. And yet that’s the most interesting question, says someone I spoke with near the Xerox machine.
In some writers, the theory is that the brain has two “sensational” systems: one for writing for the mass media, and one for grant applications. In neocons and fundamentalists, receptors for the two systems sit at adjacent desks, so grant applications get a lot of attention, leading to government funded research into why the government shouldn’t fund research. To see if the same mechanism is at work in liberals will mean using deleted passages from editorials, to see if variations are linked to the number of copies of IMl33t.
IMl33t’s writing effects extend beyond writing about science. Earlier this year, the same gene section was shown to affect Fox News Broadcasts, linked to income from commercials. Another study found people with tin ears, linked to media tie-in novels, often have multiple copies of IMl33t.
Halum’s colleague Lich Paulenstein says the team’s next task is to test how a verbopressin suppository effects writer’s desires for long lunch breaks.
The probability of someone making a mathematical formulation on a non-mathematical subject is inversely proportional to its usefulness.