12 angry people, philosophy and the perks of having a lot of housemates
Before you read this interview, I would first like to tell you the story behind it. This piece is the first instalment of our new series ‘Philosophy in the Everyday’. My plan and my task were simple: go out on Saturday, ask strangers some deep philosophical questions, type their responses out into an interview and deliver it to you in an entertaining manner. The weekend came and, like any respectable student, I was terribly sick. On top of that, again, like any respectable student, I embrace an unhealthy lifestyle, bad decisions and procrastination patterns. Fast-forward to Tuesday night, one night before the deadline for submitting my interview, I still had not done the job. I had had an interminable, full day, I was very cold and drained of all energy, and I was ready to simply make some interview responses up. Highly disreputable? Certainly; but I know you can all relate.
I put my slippers on, made some tea, buttered a slice of toast and went into the living room, lucky for me, I live in a house with twelve other people- meaning, the lounge is never empty. Two people were sharing a sofa, about to press play and binge-watch ‘Parks and Recreation’. I thought I might avail myself of the opportunity and conduct the interview in my own living room with my housemates instead. They agreed. Soon, more people started coming in and they all unsolicitedly engaged. The result was a heated, fun, profound and very broad debate, parts of which I wrote down.
I have decided to use this material because it is, I think, a very insightful overview of how various philosophical approaches and theories contrast in real life- in real people’s perspectives. Special thanks to my housemates, none of whom study for Philosophy related degrees, for offering me one of the most fruitful, amusing, and thought-provoking experiences.
1. What is the meaning of life?
Nicole: Kebab. No. Shawarma.
Brian: Self-discovery, self-improvement, and, under self-improvement, one of the key aspects would be constructing, modelling yourself to build better relationships with the people around you.
Peter: It was Viktor Frankl, I think, who said we, as humans, always need a purpose; I tend to agree with that. You might not always know what that purpose is, but we have a duty to look for one -or, better, to create one- nevertheless. Pfht, this is a difficult question. I don’t…yeah…are you saying this is anonymous?
2. What makes you, you?
Other people come into the room.
Brian: ‘You’ is a story you tell yourself. Everyone has a different version of you. “You” is just a construct. A construct of your mind. And oftentimes people get too caught up in this construct; that’s when anxiety and even depression emerge. You don’t actually exist; what you have is a projection of yourself created by you and by what you think others’ projection of you are. You have to detach yourself from this in order to stay sane.
Nicole: Not getting bored with myself.
Brian: What do you mean by that? How can you not get bored with yourself? It’s like trying not to get bored of washing the dishes every single moment of your life.
Nicole: Well, I think what makes me, me is exactly this ability to transform, to always surprise my own self and to keep changing. Paradoxically, I think it’s exactly this constant state of adjustment that makes me, me. Change is the only constant in life.
Charlotte walks into the room.
Peter: Em, you gotta answer a question in order to sit down with us. What makes you, you?
Charlotte: Probably all my genes / jeans.
Everyone else, reflecting: …
A few seconds later.
Peter: Oh, oh are you-
Matthew: Did you mean jeans or-
Brian: Are you talking about genes?
Peter: Ah, wow, that was a smart one.
Peter: I would second Brian and say you are what you think of yourself to be; this story you tell yourself. But, more than that, it is also a story that other people tell about yourself. That, in my opinion, also defines you to a large extent. See, one’s existence has two dimensions- one, a more subjective one- personal perspective; and another one that we regard as objective. How you relate to the world is a combination of both.
Charlotte: Yes, I agree with that.
Matthew: Doing what you love. If that means killing people that’s fine.
Everyone else: ???
Adrian walks into the room, is asked the same question.
Adrian: Easy. Atoms. Atoms make me, me.
Jay joins the group, same question.
Jay: My personality. My character is what defines me the most. My behaviour is determined by my personality, my deepest thoughts and future plans, my aspirations- these all make me up and they all rise from my personality.
Charlotte: My answer was funnier.
3. What is happiness?
Brian: Four things. Connection to self. Community. Passion. Purpose. Preferably they mix together.
Nicole: Happiness is love. That is, of course, not to say that love is happiness, or at least not all the time; but happiness surely cannot be perceived without or separated from the idea of love.
Peter: There’s an increasingly large focus in modern literature by economists on the ‘economics of happiness’, a field created by one of Warwick’s professors Andrew Oswald. It aims to objectively measure happiness, translated, in my understanding, as ‘wellbeing’. If you ask people to rank their level of happiness on a scale, their score would relate to their feelings, of course, but, in part, or in general maybe, those feelings are determined by easily quantifiable factors that can even be put into a graph. Happiness is correlated and should be measured alongside the standard economic indicator of GDP- when unemployment rises, lower levels of happiness are reported. Thus some people become miserable because they lose their jobs and others become miserable in the fear of losing their jobs. So, in a nutshell, happiness is something we can measure and think of in objective terms; scales, job-satisfaction, regression equations. Things like that.
Charlotte: Don’t you think equating happiness with objective, calculated welfare kind of defeats the purpose of it all? Happiness, I think, should be about finding pleasure. It should be about your heart beating fast, about smiling uncontrollably, about impulses. Happiness is momentary. We can’t always be in a state of happiness.
4. Does our Universe exist? What is reality? How do you know (your) reality is real?
Peter: Oh, Descartes, right? I think therefore I am. There must be something, right? Otherwise, how do we exist?
Brian: If you take a scientific approach to it, it’s physics that tells us that our eyes and ears determine certain patterns of life. I think the reality we perceive with our senses is just layers of reality. Everything we perceive with our senses adds up, builds more and more layers. So we can only measure what we see, touch, smell- what we sense. And that is pretty much what reality presents itself to be for us. Also, continuing on the notion of physics- in quantum physics, when you observe something, you basically get atoms observing atoms, so by that extent you can sort of speculate that our reality is a projection of our conscience and, at the same time, something that is actually happening.
Nicole: Reality is what you feel now. What you experience now. It’s got to do with perception; it relies on what and how you feel towards what surrounds you, or what happens to you, or other people.
5. Does art matter? Is it important- why or why not?
Everyone, instantly: Yes, yes. Definitely yes.
Brian: Yes, it is important, in the sense that art is created; creation is an act of flourishing, and thus art is connected to your being happy. Anything you do can be art as long as a creative process is involved. Cooking can be art.
Matthew: Science is art, then?
Brian: Well, art is the idea of perfecting something. Science in the way it is taught in school is not creative. But when you are doing your own thing, yes, the result and the process of getting there can definitely be categorised as art.
Matthew: But you cannot really create something in science until you first learned a lot about it, theoretically. So, if, say, Maths can be an art, that means you can’t practise the mathematical art before having studied it thoroughly and for enough time so that you can finally create mathematical theories of your own- and no one guarantees that ever happens, but if you just paint something random, which you didn’t look for inspiration anywhere, that automatically makes your doodle art? That doesn’t sound very coherent or fair to me.
Adrian: Also, if you play guitar and play someone else’s song, you are saying that can never be art?
Brian: Well, it is very unlikely to perfectly replicate the original song. If it is not unoriginal, then yes, it can be art.
Matthew: You’re attempting to, though! Are you trying to say anything that is original is art; and anything that is slightly unoriginal is not? If yes, is anything these days art at all, really? It’s all inspired by some older techniques or styles after all. And even in the past, it was still inspired by something- by real landscapes or real people, for example.
Adrian: But surely it’s the same for sciences?
Brian: I argue that’s different. In sciences, they tell you to think for yourself, but in reality that’s not actually encouraged. If you manage to detach yourself from that mentality, it is art.
Matthew: In Maths, you can solve a problem in many different ways; if you do it your own way, would you say that’s art?
Brian: Maths is definitely more creative than other sciences, I agree. There is a pyramid of sciences- and Maths is at the top of it. Maths conceptualises physics, physics conceptualises chemistry, which conceptualises biology and so on. The more you move down the pyramid, less and less freedom is involved.
Adrian: I don’t know, your take is a bit problematic.
Peter: It’s so vague, the concept of art. It just has so many different facets, so many different interpretations. It’s hard to come up with an answer that brings all those perspectives together.
6. To what extent do you shape your own destiny? How much is down to fate?
Peter: We can’t really know whether or not we are determined by fate. But we might as well act like we did- there’s no better alternative anyway. We should, I think, work on the assumption that we have full control over our lives. There’s no way we could make any decisions if we did not work on that assumption.
Brian: There probably is a destiny, I am pretty sure of it actually. But, yeah, Peter put it eloquently- there’s no way to know. And another thing: destiny is a notion so out of time and space in my opinion, whereas our experience is defined by time and space; we cannot think outside those two coordinates.
Nicole: There is no fate. You create your own destiny. You get lucky or unlucky on your own. It is, I think, completely up to you to build a nice life, it’s up to you to decide to be happy or miserable, to react to different situations.
7. Okay, I have another one for you guys. I swear this is the last one. What happens after we die?
Dan: Literally nothing.
Peter: Massive DMT trip.
Jay: Consciousness breaks down and then you see nothing. It’s just like it was before you were born.
Matthew: You don’t know that though. You don’t know what happens after you die just like you cannot have a clue of what happened before your birth.
Brian: I believe in the idea of energy surviving for years after you die, sort of floating. Scientists have started demonstrating that energy exists and are looking for explanations on how it actually works.
Adrian: Do you believe in reincarnation?
Brian: I believe in karmic cycles, yes. It’s a matter of perspectives, and moral applications of life itself, and a method of overcoming certain challenges that life presents.
Matthew: Applying physical laws to philosophy, I am just not sure if that works in reality.
Adrian: You know, I think it can work, after all physics is the understanding of the universe, and philosophy is also an attempt at understanding the universe, so naturally they should come to the same conclusions.
Matthew: Yeah, but I mean philosophy is more concerned with the mind and the soul.
Adrian: Definitely, but those play a key role in our understanding of the universe- and into our idea of the universe in general.
Nicole: I think we have a certain conception of the afterlife because, historically, we know it to exist. Because it has, for so long, been accepted by humans that an afterlife exists, we do not even look back to ask ourselves, ‘Hold on, who says there has to be something after death at all?’
8. What do you contribute back to society?
Brian: Me. In a way, in small ways, in trying to be the best person I can be, the kindest person; apologising for the way I behave, just simple things, even smiling at someone on the street. Just being kind.
Nicole: To deal with your daily own tasks, the best way you can- that is the best contribution you can bring into society.
Peter: Trying to change society for the better. Making an active effort. Getting involved with other people- that’s the only way to bring about change. I mean obviously some other things, individual things like trying to be nice, are nice; they’re important, but not essential.
9. Does the soul exist? Where does the soul live?
Peter: I think it exists. But I don’t know where or how to locate it. Look at people who had brain damage, for example, and they still have their personality. I mean, if your personality is created through your experiences and you lose all your experiences, why do you still have the same personality?
Nicole: The soul lives within us. It’s something diffuse, I think, can’t really be located. After we die it lives in your children, we pass it on to them in a way, I think.
Dan: Scientology, yes, scientology explains it pretty well. It’s a religion, but it explains it, the idea of soul.
Charlotte: Scientology is not a religion!
Dan: It is.
Adrian: I mean, what is religion?
Dan: Values and morals that we as a society built and incorporated into a formalised set of rules or teachings. All religions were created. Take Muhammad for example.
Peter: Was Muhammad an artist then, Brian?
Matthew: Soul’s a currency.
Nicole: Quote from ‘The Walking Dead” incoming, guys. Ready? The soul lives in the people that remain.
Matthew: “Walking Dead”, that’s a good one.
10. What is beauty?
Charlotte: Something society constructs. Definitely.
Brian: Actually, I disagree completely. I think you are making a huge confusion between being what society regards as ‘hot’ and what is beautiful.
Nicole: In the eye of the beholder, always.
Brian: Beauty is something you don’t lose as you age.
Peter: I think there’s definitely a clear distinction between beauty and that ‘hotness’ you mentioned. The first is something purely aesthetic and aesthetically pure, whilst the latter has to do with lust only.
Charlotte: I maintain beauty is something created by the society. That’s why it’s beauty standards that change, not ‘hotness’ standards.
Adrian: Beauty? Completely subjective.
Brian: And I maintain beauty is simply misused as a concept.
Matthew: It’s not like an objective ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
Brian: Also, there are women who are not hot, but beautiful.
Nicole: Exactly, a woman with strong passions is beautiful even if she’s not physically attractive.
Brian: Right. Becoming more themselves, connecting to themselves- that makes women beautiful.
11. Why do you like the things you like?
Brian: Let me think about how to formulate this.
Nicole: Things that give you happiness.
Charlotte: Trial and error. Taking advice from other people. Take Brian for example, we recommended him to start painting because he liked Bob Ross- and he discovered he enjoys it a lot.
Adrian: Everyone loves Bob Ross.
Brian: I’m still thinking.
Peter: We have preferences and it doesn’t really matter where they come from. What matters is how we apply them. Just maximising the utility function.
Brian: Mixture of things ingrained psychologically. One, it’s the things you observe in your developmental phases- in your childhood. Then, as you grow up you define what you like through things that give you pleasure. And then, later on in life, you look for the things that are good for you.
12. If God is good, why is there so much evil in the world?
Brian: The confusion here stems from adopting a literal interpretation to what God is. If you judge God based on human values, he’s a horrific. But the key is not to judge him as if he were human; because, by all means, he is not. He can be understood to be human-like, but never human. I don’t think there’s a person who created the Universe; it’s more of an idea; life force that we find within ourselves and that manifests itself in mysterious ways. God is not someone controlling things- and therefore cannot be bad.
Matthew: God’s actually an asshole, to be fair.
Charlotte: No, God is good.
Matthew: Is he though? Have you read the Old Testament?
Charlotte: Many ways to argue- I just think ultimately we don’t know why there is good and bad in the world. God teaches us we need to handle the things we are given.
Dan: What is good and bad anyway if not just our perception?
Peter: My take on it would be- we were not there when God created the world, so, again, we can’t possibly know; key is, you should be more trusting of God, not question His ‘actions’.
Adrian: God is supposed to be an infinitely powerful entity because of His ability to create. But we also have the power to create, and in our minds we can create infinite universes. So if God’s infinitely powerful, so are we. And we’re not always good- our minds create ‘badness’ sometimes- anxieties, hatred, sadness. So why should he only create goodness?
13. If you could start a country from scratch, what would it be like?
Brian: It would emphasise personal responsibility; economically, it would be based on a notion of native interest: basically, you trust in money because you know people will accept your money if you give it to them. The idea is, something else, other than money; you have a certain thing and you have it in excess, and you can pass it on because you trust that others will provide for your needs when you need.
Peter: Money is trust.
Brian: The value of money comes from knowing that other people will accept it. Intrinsically, it has no value at all.
Peter: You’d have to replace money with something that has the quality of being rare, though. Like gold.
Peter: I’d develop it around the idea of sacred economics; trying to bridge the gap between people labelled as hippies and people who studied and know things about economic systems.
14. How far should governments go to prevent its citizens from causing harm to themselves?
Matthew: Don’t bother. It makes everyone’s lives easier. Other people’s actions, so long as they do not affect you, should not concern you- and even less the government.
Peter: As long as there are no externalities to it, it’s probably okay…
Nicole: They have to make sure that everybody has equal possibilities to call for help and reach out if they need to. Beyond that, it’s not up to them anymore.
‘Parks and Rec’ is finally on.
Discussion ends. Everyone forgets about the heated philosophical debate.
All names have been changed in the interest of anonymity
Interviewer: Ioana Manea, Second Year PPE
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‘Tuesday Night Chit Chat’ is a part of our new running series ‘Philosophy in the Everyday’ in which our Interview Coordinators are let loose into the wild to encourage people who may have never studied or come across Philosophy before to have their say on major philosophical questions. From cosy coffee shops to the streets of Coventry, Philosophy lives beyond the page of a textbook and can be found in our everyday lives.
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