Last week’s blog: No brain surgery yet…
Brevity In Writing: Keep it simple stupid.
I want to include a short preface to this conversation with Lady HP, and the blogs to follow. These conversations happened, more or less, in the fashion described here. In the next few blogs until the end of the year explain how a 15 year old who had lost his father at the age of 11 came to grips with existence by working through what great thinkers thought. At the time I was seeking out as much information as I could on the subjects of life and death. It was learning from Lady HP how to write about these clearly that I learnt how to deal with mortality – mine and that of others.
I want the reader to know that some mistakes in my logic that follow in the text are as I made them at the time (hey, I was a kid). Lady HP taught me to be my own devil’s advocate in the process of writing an essay. I learned better how to defend and interpret the arguments of the other side. When you are speaking, things move very quickly. Providing evidence or quotable sources can be detrimental in rhetorical matters: it is better to win the audience. Being articulate and funny and going by not by what is generally known to be true, but rather, going by what is generally thought to be true – you can use this to your advantage when speaking, but not so much when you are writing.
In fact, oral discourses are often built on assumptions about what is ‘generally known to be true.’ That, of course, depends on your point of view… a lot of time, the more theatrical or the funnier you are or the more adept at word play you can neutralize negative opinion against your position and once that is done the audience can then be quickly won over. Gain the audience’s favor and win the day (ref. Socrates, or was that out of that Gladiator film?)
Once, I was in the national final of a particular debate. The subject was ‘Third World Debt: Crisis Real or Imagined’ (it was PC to still call it the third world back then).
Both finalists gave our opening statements. Having opened last, I waited for my opponent’s rebuttal. I knew exactly what angle he was going to use – the humanitarian angle – feel sorry for these poor souls and cancel the debts, the thinking went: No debt payments equals money for food and medicine. Sweet, but stupid.
In my rebuttal, however, I pointed out that most third world GDPs were still not capable of paying for food and medicine even if freed from the chains of debt. As I stated this sad fact, I held up in my left hand a letter, which I told the audience was from the General Secretary of the United Nations. This was an impressive document to bring out in a critical moment. I quoted the General Secretary, “that the massive write off of debt would cripple the third world’s ability to borrow in the future. And that that the future inability to borrow would see most third world countries without food or medicine.”
The debt problem needed compromise not absolution. Now, here is the point I am making about the difference between oratory and the written word: the paper in my hand could have been a plumber’s receipt (it wasn’t, it was actually from the General Secretary at the time, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar). However, in a written document I would have had to cite it as evidence and potentially provide the document for inspection.
In an essay, people tend to look more at the details of your evidence: sources that support your position, quotations etc. There is a much higher standard for written work: there shouldn’t be, but there is. Think about what a politician says in public versus what he will commit to paper or why someone like Rush Limbaugh can say the crap he does day in and day out). Readers have a higher expectation of truth. Even in fiction the writer must make the experience believable no matter how unbelievable for the reader.
I hope the reader gets from reading my blog, my story, that once you have decided on becoming something in life, to quote the great Scottish philosopher, R. Stewart, “never give up on a dream.”
The next day, I beat Lady HP to ‘my office’ by about ten minutes. The previous night I prepared my five points as she had asked me to do.
We greeted each other and I asked her about installing an espresso machine (I was referred to Larry – the other VP – and so that was a done deal and a bit of an unpexected bonus for Lady HP).
“So, did you do your homework?”
“Yes, of course, when don’t I?”
“Um, pretty much, any time you don’t feel like doing it.”
“I can’t help it that I have other responsibilities, businesses, political responsibilities…”
“Oh, get over yourself… Although, I am impressed by what you have accomplished at your age Perran, I will remind you, you still have so much to learn and as you get older there is a lot more competition for you to take on – life won’t be as easy as you find it now – and that is part of the reason we are here now. Larry and I believe in you and I hope you won’t let us down.”
“Okay, alright, here are the five points I wrote out last night.”
Lady HP then went about reading them:
First, both thought and doubt are not good evidence of existence - for a variety of reasons – for example, a condition or problem that results in an inability to think.
Second, the idea presented by Descartes originated tens of centuries earlier by none other than Aristotle but it is highly doubtful given his superior intellect that Aristotle missed cogito ergo sum, so I believe that Aristotle did consider it, but rejected it.
Third, perhaps the school of skepticism was not the best place to begin when establishing ideas of existence, perhaps there were more logical and less cerebral places to begin – like the Buddhist concept of nothingness. This would also seem to indicate that Descartes theory only moved Western philosophy and science forward – it likely did nothing for other regions or culture on either plane.
Four, animals do not think… therefore outside of human life – or the human animal as Descartes called it – is the only true source of existence. No thought is equal to no existence: ergo animals other than humans by Descartes definition do not exist. Does a tree make sound if it falls in a forest with nobody around to hear it fall? What really constitutes existence? Does a human, who is there in the woods when the tree falls but doesn’t know how to describe it in words, really not exist? He might imagine it as Bell postulated in images but does his inability to put it into words really negate his existence. (Does a woman exist if her husband is not there to hear her complain… only, one might be tempted to say, if he knew his wife was not going to read his blog).
Fifth, contrary to doubt (the actual French translation is I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am) proving existence, it is the very properties that affirm life that supply evidence of existence. It is the affirmation of our survival through adaptation and evolution that provides proof of our existence. It is by virtue of the things we make, not think, that we prove we exist… shit, piss, snot, blood, hair, pus, tears, nails etc.
Senses are more reliable than thought to establish existence – simply because some human animals are not capable of thought or doubt. A baby feels hunger and naturally looks for its mother’ breast. It poops without thought for where its diaper is: further evidence of irrefutable existence. In fact, from a mythological or theological position, Gods do none of the things I have just described. That is what separates us from the Gods and therefore defines us as human – Gods do not shit; human animals do.
When Lady HP had finished reading the points, she turned to me. I was looking all proud and arrogant, thinking I had done a good job and confidently knew what I was talking about.
"This is not what I asked you for at all.”
“What are you talking about? You asked for five points that underpin my
argument. Well, there they are.”
“Perran, you have given me five paragraphs! Do you understand the difference between a point, a phrase and a sentence?”
“Well, you can bullshit me if you want to…”
“Did you just say ‘bullshit’ to me?”
“Do you know or not?”
Instead of going for the straight forward and honest, ‘yes’… “well, a point is specific information on one subject; a phrase is a broken sentence, and a sentence is one complete thought…?”
“Hmm, well, that confirms what I thought. Perran, points are simple: to the point. One point that supports your argument. It is so short it isn’t even a phrase. A phrase gives a little more information but is usually missing a key element that makes it a complete sentence, ie a verb or a noun. A sentence must have both a subject and a predicate. Okay?”
I had the standard blank look on my face from when I am caught out (the Viscountess knows it well).
“Oh, dear God, it’s worse than I thought. Subject is a noun, predicate is a verb – unbelievable. So you are going to go home tonight and again write out five points that support your hypothesis that Descartes was incorrect about cogito ergo sum. Also your fifth point includes a conclusion. I don’t want to read any conclusions in your points tomorrow, please. Brevity Perran, brevity is key. I will see you tomorrow at the same time. Get it right this time.” Her disappointment was audible and visible.
She grabbed a piece of blank paper from one of the shelves and jotted down quickly:
Write this and only this – One sentence for your thesis. Under the thesis put five points of no more than 5 words for each.
She threw the paper across the table to me as she got up. “See you tomorrow then.”
“Alright then.” God, smart women are hard to please.
Pictures this week courtesy to the very well traveled Viscountess (the building site picture, what can I say, I am still waiting for an explanation).