From Philosophy

What is Anthropology to Anthropologists?

by 罗子禾

At a social event that took place not so long ago, I met a group of anthropologists, some of whom recently received their PhD’s. I have always thought that scientists are a strange bunch. They tend to not place so much value on monetary gains in life.

Instead, they spend their time digging up true and important assertions that further our understanding of the world around us and help us develop tech that makes life easier and more interesting.

However, they are exactly like the rest of us. They have coffee, go see their family, pay their bills, go hang out with friends, etc. I wanted to understand their life choices a little bit better. So, I asked them what anthropology was to each of them, and here are their answers…

The quiet and polite PhD candidate:
Whatever anthropology is, it’s attractive to me because of its depth. As a cultural anthropologist, I believe that everything, every behavior is reasonable or legitimate in its home environment. I’m not speaking of ethics here. I believe that stealing is morally wrong, but I get more attracted to the stories of why people do what they do. There’s always a reason, and that reason is almost always interesting to me.

The youngest PhD candidate at the table:
Anthropology taught me tolerance. The world is a big place and every one of us grows up only in a little corner of it. We are all accustomed to our own sets of traditions and norms, which are often regional. Anthropology is the thing that helps me rise above my own prejudices and faulty preconceptions.

The PhD graduate with a nice smile:
Anthropology is a way of thinking. It’s a set of rules and skills that helps me delve deeper when I think about things.

The extremely sociable PhD graduate:
Anthropology is a lifestyle. It’s a tool for me to understand other people better, including people around me. It’s that part of my life where I can unleash my passion for knowledge and scrutiny. As an anthropologist, I think critically about myself, especially about my values. Critical thinking at this level helps me jump out of traditions or social constructs and design my own way of life. Anthropology is my soul-searching journey.

The old professor:
When I was just starting my post-graduate education, I went against my sponsor’s wish and gave up economics to throw myself into anthropology. I did that because upon arriving in Japan, where I received my PhD, I was suddenly exposed to a whole new world. Unlike China at the time, a lot of people in Japan were bursting, no, imploding with original thought and the associated passion. Left wing extremists would hijack planes to go to North Korea and set up their resistance against the government. I just said to myself, how can I be an economist now that I’ve seen this? I want to understand it, explain it. Anthropology is what helps me understand and explain.

The poetic PhD candidate:
Anthropology is like a romantic partner. Don’t you guys think so? Anthropology, or rather, the idea of anthropology is quite romantic. There is an undeniable attraction between the field and the people studying it. Anthropology brings me ups and downs. It’s exactly like a life partner.

The new chair of the department:
Anthropology kind of became my identity at some point. Even though my job is 9 to 5, I don’t stop being an anthropologist after work. I may not have any work to do, but I’ll think about stuff. Once I started being an anthropologist, I became an anthropologist every second of every day. It’s an identity, or at least a lifestyle.

The composed PhD candidate:
Anthropology is a way to understand the world. It’s one of the fields of study that gives you fresh and interesting ways to think about the fundamental questions in life. Why am I here? What’s it all for? At the same time, anthropology, for me, is the platform that helps me get acquainted with other branches of science.

The happy PhD graduate:
Anthropology is that thing that helps me to come to terms with the coexistence of opposing thoughts and perspectives. What’s more, it’s also a path to change the public’s opinion or to convince people of things that I believe to be true or right.

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Time-Blind John (Part One)

Alan’s Contention

“John’s world would be pretty amazing.”

Without a concept of time, John’s memories would have no order. No logical sequence. Think about it, he wouldn’t even be able to logically establish that if he was a baby in this memory, it must have happened before that memory of him as an adult.

The concept of change, of time passing, would be lost. He would, of course, know it is him in the memory, because whenever he recalled a memory, he would literally live the experience again. And from that first person perspective, he would know that the little body is his.

I kind of imagine that John’s life would be a random jumping from one experience to another, without any connection, except that he is playing the lead role in each.

Just like when we smell something and it “takes us back”, I feel like such a memory jolt would literally take John back to that experience and he would live it, again. However, all of this would be happening in his head. Where would his body be?

Stuck in our time ordered reality, is my guess. So he would probably be zombie-like in our reality, but in his own, he would be living all sorts of experiences and creating new ones. He would be a living example of some extreme form of idealism, or a brain in a vat!

This is all disconcerting enough, but I think things would get worse for John, because I don’t think he would be able to tell the difference between reality and dreams. At first this seems incorrect. There is a certain logic to reality that is not followed in dreams and time concept or not, John would be able to tell. Like if a dancing dragon suddenly appeared and spoke to him. That doesn’t happen in “reality”, but we know that because of our time concept.

We remember that we fell asleep or dropped acid, and so the dragon makes sense and is ordered into the dream category. But John has no time concept. No way of knowing when he dropped acid, and so the dancing dragon would appear as reality.

It then follows, that John would have access to his unlived future. How so, you ask?

Well, firstly John has no way of knowing whether he has lived or dreamed his experiences. He lives them all as if they are real. Secondly, before the accident John would have had dreams of the future. Memories, as it were, of what he will be like, what he will be doing. If he accessed these memories, and with the inability to separate dream from reality, John will “jump” into his future.

Of course, I have no idea if any of this is correct. Some of it seems pretty extreme, as if John bumps his head and becomes omniscient, but I don’t think that is my point.

I think my point is that John would be lost in his memories with no way of escaping.

He won’t be able to see tomorrow’s Power-ball numbers in our reality, but without a concept of time, he will be able to see those numbers and win the Powerball in his reality. He’ll be ‘sipping champagne when he’s thirsty in his reality, whilst lying still in a hospital bed in ours.

Hold on, but surely from time to time he would jump back into this reality… My head hurts.

Follow the dialogue and go to 罗子禾’s retort here.

Blank Canvas

by Alan Fleming

Philosophy is my passion. I know, I know, but it is not what you think. That image in your head of a slightly unhappy dude, with a grey cardigan and brown carpet tie, sitting alone in a corner reading some obscure text and rambling on and on about the thoughts of dead people is wildly inaccurate…

I don’t read obscure texts.

To be fair, I don’t read much philosophy at all any more. Partly I don’t have time, but partly I just don’t care for the opinions of professional philosophers anymore. That is not to say I don’t drop quotes from my list of legends, like Sartre, Nietzsche and Laozi, or dabble in some modern ideas from the land of the living, but rather that I prefer a purer form of thought now. A clean, free form that allows me to rid myself of labels and dogma and just think, for the sake of thinking.

Of course this is not without risk. My free form thinking could be as wildly inaccurate as your image of a lover of philosophy! But so what? Who cares if I get the details wrong? So what if quarks aren’t what I think they are or someone has discovered that the nature of water can be determined purely through an understanding of its chemical make-up? Or if my ideas are exactly the same as those of Wittgenstein or Quangzi? The fun and joy in thinking is not diminished, even if the end product is not so original or correct.

Just the other day I was rambling to some of my students about my latest breakthrough about the nature of memories and time stamps. I was in top form; excited, slightly over animated, my favorite brown tie swinging from side to side. The rant went something like this:

Our memories are a collection of experiences, real or imagined, stored in a time order in our heads. This time order, however, is not attached to the sense datum that assaults our senses and gives us the fodder for thoughts and memories. Nay! Sense datum and by extension our memories are free of the concept of time. We add the time.

There was a prolonged silence. Then one of my padawans spoke, “so what?” she said.

“So what!” I exclaimed, shaking my head in amazement.

If our memories have no independently attached time stamp then they are timeless. Which means, if, somehow, we managed to remove our concept of time, then our memories would be order-less. We wouldn’t be able to tell when our experiences occurred, nor could we separate them. In fact, we wouldn’t even be able to establish when now is, except that we are experiencing it… um… well… now. Which means, if we started recalling an event from our memory it would seem real. Like we were literally living it.


Don’t you see? This explains how the aliens in ‘Slaughterhouse-five’ knew everything that was, is and will be, and were able to jump between those ‘times’.

More silence as I caught my breath. Then the student, finally seeing my idea said, “wait, I get the past and present bit, but how can they see the future if the future hasn’t happened yet.”

A salient point, I thought, as I flushed with pride that this young philosopher actually understood what I was ranting about.

I don’t know exactly, but I think the future is whatever we want it to be. I have ‘memories’ of my future. Not experiences that I have lived, but dreams I have imagined of what my future life will be like. If this parallel universe were real and we could shed our concept of time, then unlived and lived experiences would be indistinguishable. Therefore, I would have access to everything that was, is and will be, albeit having no way to know reality from dream.

After making this last point, and feeling both excited and confused at what it all meant, I looked up to see one of the other students crying. Not an unusual reaction to one of my rants during break time when students are trying to catch up on homework. I asked her what was wrong and she said, “I can’t foresee anything in my future beyond falling short of my parents expectations. There is no success in my dreams, just disappointment.”

This amazingly intelligent human being was crying because she was worried that if she could make her future through dreams, her future would be terrible. How unbelievably sad. I almost starting crying with her.

All is not lost! I said slightly too loudly.

Your experiences would not suddenly become fixed once your concept of time was shed. They would still be as fluid as they are now. New memories would form, new dreams can be had. There is still and always will be hope. Just because right now, in this pressure cooker that is the final years of high school for an Asian student, you feel lost and unable to conjure a positive outcome does not mean one is not possible. If we can shed ourselves of our concept of time, we can definitely shed ourselves of our parent’s bullshit.

“But we can’t shed our concept of time.” She replied.

Student 1 : Teacher 0.

She was right, of course. We can’t, at least not easily. Which implies that we are stuck in our artificially time structured reality, and by logical extension, our parent’s unrealistic expectations.

I was overcome with despondency, which, in my experience is a wonderful catalyst for breakthroughs! And as if on cue, I had a eureka moment.

We don’t need to shed our concept of time to have access to all that was, is and will be. We still have it, with or without the time concept. Our memories are just like a deck of cards. They have no pre-set order, but rather, the order is added by the dealers shuffle or the game itself. With or without the order the cards are the same. Our memories are no different. I can conjure any future I want, as long as the card is in the deck! And, because of the fluid nature of our mental deck, pretty much anything and everything is possible.

Naturally, my time concept is going to tell me all sorts of things about past, present and future and probably about reality and dreams, but so what. I have survived nearly 4 decades listening to unhelpful inner voices, this is just another to ignore.

Just like your parents unrealistic expectations, I said. Don’t allow yourself to be trapped in the dealers pattern, break free and conjure up a new future filled with wonder and hope.

We both smiled.

You see SIX I see NINE.

A Rule of Thumb Inspired by Rudolf Carnap

 by Johnny

One day, I was striking up an interesting conversation with a friend about laws. We looked into the diversity of laws, viz. laws differ from region to region, from country to country, from era to era. We shared a moment of silent admiration after our shared realization that ages of legal and moral laws were all products of human actions.

It’s funny that humans authored this intricate and enormous system of rules and norms, but we can’t seem to escape the banality of our lives.

All of a sudden, my friend said: “You know, even though humans wrote all these laws. The credit goes to God.”

“Here we go.” I muttered.

“No, man, look. Where did intelligence come from? Where did moral intuitions come from? Intelligence and moral intuitions are teleologically meaningful things. They are meant for something. Like helping us establish and further our pursuit of truth and goodness.

It’s natural to think that they exist by the design of a creator. If you see a watch on the beach, would you think it’s more likely that some watchmaker fashioned it or would you prefer to think that the watch formed naturally? I’m allowing the possibility of a watch forming naturally. It is indeed possible, however remotely.

But I choose to believe that something as intricate as a watch, which clearly has a specific purpose, is the product of thoughtful design. Now, would you really rather believe that intelligence and moral intuition formed naturally?”

“A scenario of intelligence and moral intuitions forming naturally, by means of mutations and natural selection is actually more plausible. My narrative tells a much fuller story. Check it:

The origin of intelligence is just one or a few mutations. Before you say your creator is behind mutation, there is a full bio-physics story that explains how a mutation occurs as well. Let’s leave that aside for now.

The genes of intelligence get added to the gene pool and get passed onto future generations. This ability turned out to be advantageous or even the key to survival in a lot of situations. So intelligence and its corresponding genes stayed in a lot of species’ gene pools rather stably, until hominids began consuming cooked foods, which, in time, increased brain capacity and gave intelligence a huge boost.

So, to answer your question, yes, I’d much prefer believing that intelligence formed naturally, rather than by the design of some creator, of which I see no evidence. The same goes for moral intuitions; there is a full narrative that does not involve a creator.”.

Our stimulating conversation eventually turned into a repartee, and it could have gone a lot worse if we weren’t friends.

Too many of us get lured into these disagreements, which trap everybody in an atmosphere of anger and rashness, and nobody ever gets convinced. Then, perhaps we shouldn’t wantonly get into these arguments.

A Christian, who praises Jesus for her fruitful day, shouldn’t be met with my scorn if I asked about her day; if I wanted to convince an atheist, empiricist good-samaritan to come with me to a Hare Krishna soup kitchen, and he says no, I can either try to persuade him by making the case that humanitarian work is humanitarian work with or without religious branding, or I could move on to the next person.

Barring extreme situations, there is really no need to discuss a person’s narrative of life, the cosmos, or anything, unless the narratives are the topic that is agreed upon.

Make maximal use of what agreements you can solicit, and tolerate other people’s alternative narrative.