5000 B.C. and Other Philosophical Fantasies, by Raymond Smullyan


5000 B.C. and Other Philosophical Fantasies, from 1983, is not an easy book to summarize or categorize.

The author, Raymond Smullyan, is a philosopher who specializes in logic and a mathematician, but also a conjurer, a professional-level musician (concert pianist), and any number of other interesting and impressive things.

He strikes me as the kind of person who spent considerable time in academia not as a life but to augment his life. That is, someone who already had established beliefs, values, and interests, and was fully capable of making a living in multiple ways and traveling comfortably and successfully in circles outside of academia, and decided he had much to learn and much to contribute by also experiencing academia.

5000 B.C. and Other Philosophical Fantasies is a hodgepodge of essays of varying styles and purposes. It’s puzzles and riddles, humor, layman-friendly restatements of classic philosophical ideas and debates, anecdotes from his life, and more. Though no doubt it makes points intended to be taken seriously, most of it is wry and breezy in tone.

The pieces are all quite short, as is the book. Maybe I can give a little better sense of the book by talking a bit about each of the essays.

Why Are You Truthful? is a mock dialogue amongst a group of people who all have chosen to be truthful in life, but are all over the board as far as why. A questioner (labeled “Moralist”) asks each one to justify why they have opted for truthfulness, and they explain.

Smullyan favors the dialogue form in multiple of his pieces, by the way, maybe just as his little homage to a hallowed philosophical tradition (see Plato, Berkeley, Hume, and numerous others). It’s a device that enables him to present multiple viewpoints in a way that is perhaps more entertaining and understandable to most readers than if these positions were summarized in a more conventional textbook manner.

The answers of the truth tellers range from classic philosophical justifications (e.g., Kantian ethics, utilitarianism) to the most simplistic of religious responses, to Zen-type riddle or analogy responses, to flippant or humorous responses, to some that I suppose are some combination of two or more of these. Sometimes the Moralist follows up to try to get some clarification or to challenge one of these folks, and sometimes not, where there doesn’t seem to be any discernible rhyme or reason as to when and why. That is, it doesn’t appear he is more likely to argue with or want more from those who give the most (or least) plausible responses, or the most (or least) serious, complex, controversial, or common, etc. responses.

It’s mildly interesting and at times funny, and I suppose it could help someone new to philosophy to get some sense of the types of moral justifications philosophers and others have come up with throughout history for being truthful, but it’s not as if any of these positions are argued for (or against) in any kind of thorough way.

A Puzzle, which is a piece of only about one page in length, is a brain teaser sort of logic puzzle, with which the book abounds. As is the case with most of the riddles in the book, it is a “liar’s paradox” sort of “this guy always tells the truth, this guy always lies, what would you ask them if you wanted to find out…?” puzzle.

(I paused at each of the puzzles and made some effort to figure them out. But I didn’t diagram them or anything like that. If I couldn’t get them in a matter of seconds—though I suppose for a couple I took up to about a minute—then I looked at the answer and moved on. I had a mixed record of success. This first one is one I did not get, though it’s pretty simple when you see the answer, and I’m almost sure I would have gotten it if it had appeared later in the book after I’d gotten more of a sense of how these are put together and what form the answers tend to take.)

Miscellaneous Fragments is pretty much what it sounds like, an assortment of very short items (typically a paragraph or so), really a microcosm of the book as a whole. This chapter includes many more logic puzzles. (I got about half of them, again not spending more than a tiny amount of time trying to think them through.)

In several of the items in this chapter, he discusses various paradoxes, but a lot of his alleged paradoxes and such are pretty easily explainable. There’s only something paradoxical (or puzzling, or profound) about them if you take them completely literally. Sure, you could say that in itself illustrates a philosophical point of some importance—that interpreting language requires a sensitivity to nuance, ambiguity, dry humor, metaphor, etc.—but these strike me as mostly throwaway lines included for laughs, to keep the book light and entertaining.

For example, he reprints a list of computer scientist Saul Gorn’s collected sentences that “somehow manage to defeat themselves.” Among them are “Before I begin speaking, there is something I would like to say,” and “If you’re not prejudiced, you just don’t understand!” Certainly there is something superficially self-contradictory about these statements—comically so—but is it really that hard to understand what the person is trying to say?

In the first case, imagine someone set to give a prepared talk or lecture of some kind. And before he begins that formal talk he wants to make an announcement about parking, or turning off cell phones, or whether he will be taking questions after the talk or whatever. Yeah, smart aleck, he has to talk in order to make any such announcements or utter any such introductory remarks, which contradicts the “before I begin speaking” part, but come on.

As to the second one, I would assume it means something like: “In order to understand a point of view different from your own, it’s good to try to empathically put yourself in the frame of mind of the kind of person who has the opinions and attitudes you disagree with. Like if you tend to be liberal on most social issues, and so you find attitudes of prejudice repugnant, where someone tends to assess individuals too much on their group membership and what (mostly derogatory) generalizations about said group he has internalized over the years, it’s going to be hard for you to get where he’s coming from if you don’t think about how the world looks to someone who has had the kind of life experiences that he has, and who has come under the kind of influences from family and mass media and such that he has.”

Sometimes language use is sloppy—or pithy—and superficial self-contradictions are apparent only.

I’m certainly not saying that Smullyan somehow doesn’t get that, but some of his “Oh isn’t it something how quirky and scatterbrained folks can be!” stuff didn’t get much from me beyond a momentary smile at best, or a yawn.

I don’t want to come across as too critical, though. The teaching anecdotes and such in Miscellaneous Fragments are often funny.

And there are some worthwhile serious points in the piece as well. For example, his point against Pascal’s Wager is basically one of the two main criticisms I always presented of it when teaching Introduction to Philosophy classes way back when.

Then there’s his account of his exchange with a solipsist, which reminds me very much of an incident from my college years. Our philosophy professor, another student, and I were chatting after class, and the student said in a slightly puzzled tone, “So, solipsism means only I exist?” I retorted, “No, solipsism means only I exist.” (As I recall, the professor’s response was along the lines of a delighted “Yes! Precisely the problem with solipsism!”)

A Query is Smullyan’s take on the question of whether it is better to naturally be goodhearted and instinctively treat people well and act morally and such without having to overcome any impulse toward evil, or to have to wrestle with temptation and sin and overcome those parts of you that aren’t so keen on being good all the time. He quotes some on each side (e.g., Meister Eckhart likes overcoming the evil within; Benjamin Franklin prefers the battle not be necessary), and declares his agreement with those who think it better to act morally without having to struggle to do so.

It’s an interesting question, and there’s a lot I could say about it, a lot of different directions I could go in a discussion of it, but I’ll try to keep my remarks a lot briefer than they could be.

As with so many questions in philosophy, much of the work in coming up with an answer to it involves first explicating the question itself. “Better” is ambiguous in this context, and how exactly we interpret that term and the question as a whole may well lead to different answers.

I suppose one sense in which it might be “better” to be naturally good is it sounds more stable and reliable. Kind of like the difference between someone who just naturally has zero attraction to alcohol and someone who has overcome a serious alcohol problem and been “clean and sober” for an extended period. I’m more confident that the person who has never had any interest in alcohol will avoid suddenly becoming a drunk than the person who has seemingly overcome his addiction, since falling off the wagon really isn’t an uncommon phenomena.

How about “better” in the sense of “more admirable”? In that case, I’d have to go with the person who lives a kindly, moral life in spite of a natural disposition toward sadism or selfishness or whatever, over the person who has never had any inclination to do anything other than act morally.

Though Smullyan doesn’t mention it explicitly, this obviously connects to the issue of free will. What makes me disinclined to praise the instinctively good person is that a puppy or a robot can just as accurately be described as “not having a mean bone in his body.” I’m more inclined to admire someone for something if that something constitutes an achievement rather than something that’s just always been in their nature, and all else being equal the degree of my admiration is proportional to the degree of effort that that achievement took.

Unless someone could have done otherwise—especially if doing otherwise is something they in some sense were drawn to or wanted—then their doing what they should is no big deal.

On the other hand, when instead of thinking in the abstract I think about people I’ve known in real life, I realize that I really like and want in my life the naturally good folks. Like if you imagine some really kind, loving, nurturing soul—maybe your grandmother or whatever—someone who by all appearances just is super big-hearted and naturally cares for everyone in her life, I love people like that. I don’t need to first convince myself that Grandma is naturally something of a mean-spirited sort who through an act of will has suppressed that part of her nature because studying moral philosophy convinced her it’s obligatory to treat people well. I mean if I did find out that Grandma has had to overcome negative inclinations like that, like I say I would at some level regard her as more admirable, but people like Grandma trigger a fondness in me and a desire to have them in my life—and for that matter I would hope inspire a tendency in me to reciprocate their kindness—regardless of what they have or haven’t had to overcome to be as sweet as they are.

Another way to interpret the question would be “If you could take a pill or have some brain surgery or something that would eliminate any inclination in you that conflicts with feeling compassionate toward others and always preferring to act morally, would you choose it?” That’s tough, because again it comes down to the free will issue. Do I put the highest value on doing right, regardless of how my doing so comes about, or do I put a higher value on having free will, and the responsibility and dignity that comes with it, and being capable of choosing good or evil and having to make an effort to do good (and not always succeeding)?

In my gut I find myself preferring the latter—i.e., turning down the pill or surgery—but I’m not at all sure that if I really thought it through that that’s the side I’d remain on, or could articulate a convincing justification if I did.

It’s interesting that when this kind of issue comes up in connection with the “problem of evil” (the philosophical debate about whether an all-powerful, all-good God is compatible with all the imperfection, evil, suffering, etc. that exists around us), I tend to come out on the other side. That is, I think it’s a pretty lame rationalization to pretend that it’s better to have a world where people do all the sick and twisted bullshit they do than not, because allegedly the only way things wouldn’t be like that is if there were no free will. (I think there are considerations that might make the cases relevantly different and justify different responses, but I don’t want to explore that tangent here.)

Let’s move on.

Next up is Simplicus and the Tree—An Open Air Symposium, another piece written in dialogue form.

It opens with Simplicus making the simple observation “I am enjoying this tree.” That’s pretty much all we hear from him until the very end, because in between every type of philosopher has to give their epistemological take on what Simplicus’s statement really means.

It’s quite well done, a good introduction to various issues in the philosophy of language, epistemology, metaphysics, theology, etc. I’d say it’s a little better in that regard than Why Are You Truthful?.

I mean, yeah, it’s also funny and also a sort of a mockery of how philosophers can take even the most simple utterance and spin whole theories and debates out of it, but I don’t think that’s such a bad thing about philosophers. Analyzing language and trying to articulate more deeply what something means beyond its surface meaning is a worthwhile and interesting project, not instead of simply relaxing and enjoying the tree—and life—but in addition to. I’ve never been a big fan of the “Ahh, you think too much!” criticism.

An Epistemological Nightmare, also in dialogue form, tells the tale of a fellow who styles himself an “experimental epistemologist” who constructs a machine to measure brain activity, and who trusts the machine’s conclusions more than those obtained by introspection, including his own. That is, if he, or whoever is hooked up to the machine, thinks he perceives something as red, he takes that as a fallible hypothesis (not that it’s red, but that he thinks it’s red), and seeks confirmation or disconfirmation from the machine.

So is he insane to take the machine’s assessments as more reliable? Philosophers like Descartes would say that one can be certain of what is going on in one’s consciousness—since one has direct access to that—but that then there needs to be some kind of argument to establish any connection between that and the world outside one’s consciousness. Smullyan has playfully constructed a scenario that turns this seemingly common sense notion on its head, interpreting brain activity not just as correlated with or even in some sense identical to consciousness, but somehow privileged.

There are indeed philosophers—certain materialist philosophers I believe, though this isn’t an area of philosophy that I’m all that well-versed in so I’m kind of feeling my way here and relying on memories of long ago readings—who do tend to devalue, if not deny the existence of, self-consciousness, and contend that even all seemingly mental terms like “belief,” “emotion,” “will,” “desire,” etc. only make sense if they refer to something that is in principle externally, publicly observable, like behavior or brain states. So they might think there is nothing peculiar about the experimental epistemologist responding to someone saying “That looks red to me” with “No it doesn’t.”

A Mind-Body Fantasy continues along these same lines. Here Smullyan suggests an analogy to bring out the difference between common sense (or some would say naïve) dualists and the materialists who dispute that the mind can be any kind of non-physical thing.

Imagine, he says, a world in which colors and shapes are all perfectly correlated. So all red objects are spherical and vice versa, all green objects are cube-shaped and vice versa, etc. Some of the people in this world can perceive both color and shape, so they see every object as having both types of property. The rest of the people in this world are completely colorblind, so they see the shapes but they have no concept of this other type of property the objects supposedly have.

The people who aren’t colorblind are presumably like dualists, or like almost all of us, in that they see the physical world, including brains and bodies as obviously real, while also directly experiencing, or at least thinking they do, something non-physical by introspecting. The colorblind are the materialists who purport to understand only physical things, and to dismiss as confused or unhelpfully mystical any notion of non-physical mind or spirit.

The colorblind (i.e., the materialists) say that these alleged “colors” are presumably illusory, and that in any case they can have no practical import since even the people who claim to see them still categorize everything the same way. That is, there’s no advantage in identifying something as a red sphere if the category “red sphere” is always going to be identical to the category “sphere.”

Yeah, but the colors still exist, the non-colorblind would insist. Describing something as a red sphere is more complete and more accurate than just identifying it as a sphere, regardless of whether there is any practical difference.

It’s an interesting approach, and I think the analogy is reasonably accurate and helpful in clarifying the dispute between dualists and materialists. My one comment—and again, this is an area where I’m not all that confident of my footing—is that I don’t think materialists are somehow incapable of introspection, incapable of having the same kind of conscious experiences that other people do. I think it’s more a matter of how they interpret these experiences or how much weight they give them.

I think they would say that whatever data, whatever insight, introspection provides cannot be as reliable as externally observable physical objects and events. With physical reality, different people can compare and contrast their observations and come to a consensus—science is possible, in other words—whereas introspection is inescapably private and hence unavailable for scientific confirmation. It’s private in the sense that even if everyone is capable of introspection, what each person is perceiving when they introspect is different from what any other person is perceiving—I’m looking inside me, you’re looking inside you, etc. (Though Woody Allen did mention in one of his routines that he once flunked a metaphysics exam when the professor caught him looking into the soul of the boy sitting next to him.)

Some (Wittgenstein I think?, but don’t hold me to that) go so far as to say that anything allegedly perceived through introspection couldn’t even be described through language—and hence in a sense wouldn’t even be conceivable—because language itself has to be public. That is, word meanings are established through convention, and there can’t be a convention of one.

I don’t have a strong opinion on these matters—I’m more into moral and political philosophy—but I suppose I’m a common sense dualist. I’m still more confident of the stuff going on inside my consciousness—including the very fact that I’m conscious at all—than I am of any materialist notion that would purport to replace it.

Or as one of my undergraduate philosophy professors used to say, it always seemed to him that what the materialist philosophers and scientists were claiming is that they could successfully reduce what you’re looking at when you introspect to brain activity or some purely material stuff, but that he’d never come across an even minimally convincing materialist account of what’s doing the looking.

To Be or Not to Be is a brief piece about pessimistic philosophers like Schopenhauer. Smullyan thinks Schopenhauer’s pessimistic ideas are mostly not very well argued or convincing, and finds it disappointing that he is so much better known and more often read and assigned than Eduard Von Hartmann, who he thinks is a clearly superior pessimist.

As Smullyan summarizes him, Von Hartmann argued that life is pretty miserable all told, that there is no afterlife to look forward to for improvement, and that there also will not be improvement in this life through science and progress. So life sucks, and it always will.

Which raises the question of whether it wouldn’t be better just to commit suicide and be done with it. Von Hartmann contends that in some sense we are all connected as some universal spirit or collective unconscious, and that one infinitesimal part of that spirit killing itself wouldn’t help, that really what’s necessary is to somehow figure out how to annihilate the entire spirit to end all the suffering, and that the only chance of that ever happening is to stick around and do philosophy and science to see if we can ever figure out how the universal spirit could indeed bring about its own destruction.

The Zen of Life and Death is the longest piece in the book, at 24 pages. It is one of the less playful, whimsical essays, one of the ones closest to what you might read in a philosophy journal. On the other hand, it’s still conversational and informal, kind of like many of Bertrand Russell’s writings.

The article is Smullyan’s reflections on death. Do we desire life after death? Does that make any belief in it suspect as wishful thinking? Do we fear passing out of existence entirely? Can we even conceive of our own nonexistence? Do we have a coherent notion of what life after death would even mean? If so, does the concept differ from person to person or culture to culture? Can science, or any rational assessment of available evidence, prove or disprove life after death, or at least justify a belief that life after death is probable or improbable?

Smullyan is skeptical of the typical attempts to disprove or render unlikely life after death, including dismissing beliefs in it based on explaining them away psychologically. He suspects that something about the very inquiry and most approaches to it may rest on some kind of conceptual confusion or mistaken presuppositions. Ultimately he decides that the most promising position on the matter would likely be a sort of Eastern philosophy one of not so much continuing to survive after your bodily death, but somehow transcending life and death entirely.

I found it an interesting piece, though the mystical stuff at the end lost me a little bit. Not that it’s terribly confusing, but more that he’s talking about notions that probably can’t be conveyed very well in ordinary language—maybe or maybe not because they’re meaningless.

So I’m still not quite sure what to think about death, though I appreciate his musings.

Smullyan introduces What Is There? with the warning that it is “a bit technical,” and gives the reader permission to skip it.

It does get a little dense, but I don’t think that’s because it’s super technical, but more because it mixes philosophy and satire (I think), with the border being fuzzy enough to be a bit confusing.

The piece is about the ontological argument for the existence of God, which is a famous proof in philosophy, or really a type of proof since many philosophers have offered different versions of it, including most famously Anselm and Descartes.

Smullyan offers several similar arguments, claiming they are “far better” than the well-known ones. He attributes them to various historical figures, like “the unknown Dutch theologian Van Dollard,” which I assume are fictitious. (That’s part of Smullyan’s humor in the book. Like Ambrose Bierce, he comes up with goofy or satirical lines and attributes them to made up people. Unfortunately, that too can be confusing, because I’m never quite sure if a certain name is phony like that or is simply someone I’ve never heard of. Luckily Google can help. There’s no Van Dollard, but the aforementioned Saul Gorn and Eduard Von Hartmann are real. Actually Von Hartmann was vaguely familiar to me, so that didn’t surprise me. Gorn, though, I thought was no better than 50-50 to be real.)

I think the idea is that these arguments are rather silly, and so that’s supposed to make clearer that the real ontological argument is as well.

The problem is the real ontological argument always struck me as silly to begin with, so this humorous way of establishing that is superfluous.

As far as I can tell, every version of the ontological argument uses the trick of including “existence” as one of the defining attributes of the word “God” (like being male and being unmarried are defining attributes of “bachelor”), thus making it logically impossible—allegedly—for God not to exist.

That you can’t use existence as a defining attribute like that is pretty obvious (though precisely why you can’t turns out to be a somewhat more interesting matter). What a lot of versions of the ontological argument then do is not directly define God as existing like that, but instead define the term with attributes like “perfection” or “that which no greater can be conceived” or the like, and then point out that in order to have such an attribute something would have to exist. But just embedding existence in some broader defining attribute like that does nothing to solve the problem that you can’t define something into existence.

In Dream or Reality?, also in dialogue form, Smullyan tackles the classic philosophical question of how we can know if the world is real.

He ends up taking the position that reality is relative in a way roughly analogous to how relativity has shown that space and time are relative. This results in a sort of hierarchy of reality. I probably won’t explain this quite how he means it, but I think the idea is that one world is more real than another if it feels more real to those who experience both.

Example: Our waking life takes place in a world that is more real relative to the world of our dreaming life, because based on certain factors of continuity and causally lawful behavior and such we feel far more confident in attributing reality to our waking world. In principle, though, it’s entirely possible that we will one day wake up in some other world and find out that the norm is to dream for decades at a time—and even at times dream that one is dreaming during that time—in which case we will presumably recognize that world as more real than our current lives.

So every world we experience is real to some degree insofar as it feels real to us at the time, and no world is real in an absolute sense, just as we now realize there is no absolute space.

I can’t say I find it all that convincing, but it’s not like I’ve really thought it through in detail and can articulate a refutation. But then I don’t fully understand the relativistic science stuff either, and am not sure how literally we are supposed to take that, as opposed to interpreting it as some sort of practical or methodological assumptions.

In Enlightened Solipsism, another piece written in dialogue form, Smullyan defends an Eastern religion notion that in some sense we are all the same being. Not identical in the strong sense that the Morning Star, the Evening Star, and Venus are identical, but the same in roughly the way we might say that you are the same person as you were when you were a child.

He finds this somehow easier to accept than any attempted solution of the “problem of other minds” that posits the common sense notion that everybody has their own individual mind. He says that if he did not go with this “universal mind” idea, then rather than accept that other people have their own minds, he would likely fall into solipsism as the only believable possibility.

It’s an interesting piece to a degree, but it’s the kind of thing that no one except a philosopher (and a few mystics I suppose, but who knows what they even mean by what they say, and how literally they mean it) would likely take seriously.

Next up is the title essay, 5000 B.C.

In this piece, Smullyan imagines a metaphysician from 5000 B.C. (that’s an anachronism already, by the way, since, as I understand it, “metaphysics” is a term that came into being when translators of Aristotle—millennia later—used it to refer to an untitled section of Aristotle’s writings that came, literally, “after The Physics”) who is deeply puzzled by the question of what holds the Earth up so that it does not plunge downward as other unsupported objects do.

The ancient metaphysician is unsatisfied by the answers he receives from his ancient peers, and then is even more frustrated when ancient versions of logical positivists, psychologists, and mystics insist either that his question is meaningless or that his being bothered by it is indicative of some ailment of his mind or soul.

He then time travels to the present, and learns about gravity and modern physics and such and so is able to answer his original question. The broader conclusion he draws is that while in a sense it turns out his question was, if not meaningless, then at least flawed (since it was based on an erroneous assumption that terms like “up” and “down” have some absolute, non-relativist meaning), had he not pursued it anyway he never would have been enlightened about the matter the way he was.

So just because a question is flawed doesn’t mean it should be dismissed, as it may turn out that only by seeking an answer to it can one learn enough to reformulate the question properly and answer it. Or even if one discovers that there is no way to save the question itself by reworking it, then perhaps one can still make valuable progress in learning about the general subject matter.

5000 B.C. and Other Philosophical Fantasies closes, appropriately enough, with Afterthoughts, wherein Smullyan, among other things, comments on where his sympathies lie in some of his dialogues among fictitious characters.

He suggests that a good approach to take when up against a philosophical theory (or any other idea, I suppose) that one disagrees with is to try to come up with an interpretation of it under which it would be true or at least more plausible. It often turns out, for instance, that some if not all of a disagreement is merely semantic—in other words that substantively two parties are saying the same thing, or at least saying things that are mutually compatible—but that those disagreeing may never know that if they don’t interpret each other’s claims sympathetically and seek some sense in which they might be true, rather than instinctively seeking to refute them.

I would imagine many readers—for instance, people who have no patience for philosophy or any kind of inquiries that strike them as pointlessly impractical—would find 5000 B.C. and Other Philosophical Fantasies of no appeal at all, while I could see many other readers absolutely loving the book due to its combining playfulness, unconventionality of form, and a conversational style (mostly) accessible to non-philosophers, with an intellectual earnestness about tackling some awfully weighty issues. It’s the kind of book that seems like it could have a real cult appeal to a narrow slice of the reading public, while not even appearing on the radar of most readers.

I feel like I’m maybe one of the comparatively few people in the middle. I enjoyed the book, and I found Smullyan a likable writer. He seems to genuinely love ideas, and to love people who love ideas, and it was nice to spend some time with him, and to spend some time revisiting classic philosophical issues that I mostly haven’t thought seriously about in decades. But the book didn’t reach me on a deep level, I thought the humor was hit or miss, and I wasn’t always sure I was understanding him or fully confident of when he was being serious versus when he was being sarcastic or satirical. It didn’t win me over to the extent that I’m now eager to read more from the same author, but on the other hand I wouldn’t rule out doing so.


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