Define for me an opposite

Philosophical rant #2

Last night I was playing League of Legends with some of my friends when one of them failed a flash1 after which the enemy Olaf said “dat fail flash”. We were messing with the enemy team a lot in chat that game so I replied with
“but what is a fail flash”
“one that wasn’t necessary”
“what is necessity?”
“nothing”
“Therefore everything is a failure”
“True”
“And therefore there can be no success for success is the opposite of failure”
“Shut up Leona”
And we left it at that.*

Earlier the previous day I was also thinking about something along those lines but in the context of altruism. Altruism is a topic that often pops into my head because as a Catholic it was something that I was taught is a good thing – and a possible thing. However, after four years of high school religious studies and philosophy that seems to have become for me a questionable truth. Here is my reasoning:

Altruism is defined as the “disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.”2

If this is true then a true altruist receives no pleasure when doing a good act neither by choice nor passively. They cannot be happy that the affected is thankful, they cannot be happy that their actions did something good for anyone else, they cannot be happy even if they believed that their actions will bring them closer to a good afterlife. They are so selfless that in any situation they will put every other person ahead of themselves, they will help in any way possible, do any and all work for another person, however none of that will be for their own well-being as the true altruist would be unable to feel the pleasure. As Ayn Rand put it in “Atlas Shrugged”: “The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake”3. In short: they must be miserable.

Theoretically speaking, this definition of Altruism is possible but does is it realistic? When a person helps someone then expects a ‘thank you’, this is not altruistic. If someone does charity and expects to feel like they’ve done something good, that is not altruistic. This clip from Friends should explain my point

If we can do good actions, but cannot entirely detach pleasure and self-worth from a good action, then realistically altruism cannot exist. Yet, to a large extent we can call someone altruistic when they put someone else ahead of themselves at the RISK of their own happiness even if they receive a little back at the end. Therefore this could be defined as “Realistic Altruism” as opposed to “True Altruism”.

French anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, in his theory of Binary Opposition states that the common logic behind all cultures is the belief of the existence of opposites. Man and Woman, Dark and Light, Life and Death and so on. However, is this a realistic way to perceive the world or is it reductionist? Even if “Man” is described as biologically male there can still be a gray area. The Kleinfelter Syndrome4 is a genetic issue that gives the person an extra x or y chromosome. Therefore a Kleinfelter individual with have neither xx nor xy but xxy. Some males with the condition may grow breast tissues. This makes it so that a male with this condition is not a “True Male” yet he is also not a “True female”. However, if the person is mostly male (as Kleinfelter individuals are still phenotypically male or female), then they can be defined as “Realistically male”.

Having said all this, you might ask then whether any “True” description of an object exists. I believe yes, but only in theory. Just as I have discussed above that “True Altruism” is only theoretical but not “Realistic”, all other such descriptions of objects must also only be theoretical. In reality, most descriptions are more based on a spectrum than binary opposition. It is true that, with the gender example above, that a “True Male” can be defined as a male with xx chromosomes and therefore binary opposition must exist. However, culturally a “True Male” must also exhibit all the stereotypical traits of a male in order to be called a “True Man”. Taking this into consideration the binary opposition of Maleness and Femaleness must be a spectrum where a person is either more male or more female and is therefore called a male or a female (or nowadays one of the many words for physically male but not entirely culturally male etc.).

Similarly a “True” person of any culture must adhere to the stereotypical traits of the culture – for the stereotype is the extreme form of a group and therefore the unmistakably “True” form of the group. A stereotypical Chinese follows all the Chinese cultural rules, believes in a Chinese religion, has Chinese skin, a Chinese heritage, a Chinese look and speaks Chinese – Stereotypically speaking, this cannot be denied. However, this has never been the case in reality, as humans every single person thinks differently therefore even if I had two stereotypically “True” Chinese persons, they would still disagree on some matters. Therefore the one “True” Chinese form cannot exist. Plato would say that these “True” forms do exist and are simply beyond reach, I disagree and believe that they are all only theoretical.

To round off: back to the first point of failure and success. If nothing is necessary, then everything is a failure; but if everything is a failure, then there can be no success (as success is the binary opposite of failure). This is unrealistic as we define some actions such as ‘becoming rich’, ‘achieving good results’ and ‘winning’ as being ‘successful actions’. However, you cannot be infinitely rich, your results are never a true reflection of being best at every single activity and you cannot ‘win’ in the best way. Therefore, success is also just a theoretical description that we place onto an action or a person. A successful person is someone who, within the spectrum of success and failure, achieves more success than failure and vice versa for a failed person.

I hope that any readers have enjoyed this post, if interested please spark some debate in the comments.

~tmx.

Notes:
1. Flash: a skill in League of Legends where the character teleports a short distance to the cursor. Easily to mess up if not careful.
2. Taken from: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/altruism
3. Biddle, C. (n.d.). Atlast Shrugged and Ayn Rand’s Morality of Egoism. The Objective Standard.
4. More information see: http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/klinefelter-syndrome
*. If anyone is interested, the match history is here, sadly I don’t have access to the conversation history: http://matchhistory.na.leagueoflegends.com/en/#match-details/NA1/1506656456/41873578

Story of my life: language is arbitrary

https://composingphilosophy.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/a3099-sign2.png
Once upon a couple of years ago, I studied IGCSE Psychology and I fondly remember one lesson when my teacher, Ms Bower, show her middle finger up to the entire class. It was a lesson about body language and we were discussing physical symbols in cultures, we raised points about the soles of your feet or a thumbs up being derogatory in some cultures then someone mentioned the finger. Ms. Bower asked us to be specific, obviously enjoying the unease in the room as every student glanced around sheepishly, no one dared to do the actual action as we didn’t want to flip her over. So she did it to us instead.

“What this?” She says with her mouth as her hand says fuck you “it’s just a finger!”

I think this moment was important to me because I often thought, even before then, about why we have to follow some social concepts but never did I expect someone older than me (and hence should follow strictly these ideals) to tell me, in an academic scenario, that we only follow them because we believe them. It’s just a finger. It means fuck you. But it’s just a finger.

A couple of years later my English teacher, Ms Bruce, made a similar point but this time in linguistic terms. First lesson of English and she tries to get us to define “language”, no easy task. She defined it as “Arbitrary symbols that we attach meaning to”, her point being that if enough people use a word to mean something then a meaning is attached to the word. She made a point of saying that if we got enough people to start calling ‘tables’ ‘Olivers’ (one of our classmates, he wasn’t too impressed by the joke), the object ‘table’ would be known as ‘Oliver’ instead of ‘table’.

To some people this seems to be a huge mindfuck. A table is a table, a table is not an Oliver. That is true but the object of a table does not have to be called a table, in every language the words that describe objects are different. In German a table is einen Tisch, in Cantonese it’s pronounced ‘toi’; yet all these words mean the same object. On this simple premise it seems obvious that language is relative to culture, language is arbitrary, there is no supernatural dictionary that defined words before they came into being. Not to make an existential point about human existence but as Satre said “Existence precedes essence”, in a linguistic sense anyway.

It’s interesting then that many people seem to be ignorant of this point. If you’ve read my previous post “Cups of Poison Tea” (if not you can find it here: https://composingphilosophy.wordpress.com/2014/06/08/cups-of-poison-tea/), the point of drinking the poison tea being the only polite thing to do is an extension of language being treated as having objective meaning, which I also said in that post I find rather short sighted. Having said that, that post was not about language so all these are loose interpretations. However, say that I offered one of my Western friends a cup of tea and they refused it saying they don’t like tea; do I get angry that they do not conform to my cultural expectations of social language? Ridiculous.

The point of this post I guess hasn’t been so much to explore new ideas, as some of my posts try to do but rather just to write a bit about my experiences and why I have the ideas I have now. I do like sharing these little stories, maybe I should do that more.

tmx

image from: https://composingphilosophy.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/a3099-sign2.png