Overthinking: Why Do We Make Easy Hard?

Overthinking: Why Do We Make Easy Hard? May 24, 2018

From the first day of Philosophy 101 in college in 1968, I knew that was the last thing I wanted to do with my life.

overthinking philosophy
“Brothers of the Cup.” Rorchach test type image that seems to show two identical faces facing each other and also an apparent cup (the white part). (Greg, Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

The professor launched the class by telling us the chair next to his desk was an illusion, and then proceeded to explain, ad nauseum, for reasons I’m pretty sure completely escaped most of us.

This kind of hair-splitting, naval-gazing, reality-bending self-absorption gets us nowhere in the real-world business of living, in my humble opinion. At best, it’s entertaining, but only if you happen to like that kind of intellectual cud-chewing. It doesn’t really seem to lead us toward richer, happier, less fantastical, more ethical lives. It just seems an end in itself for those so inclined.

For the rest of  us, it’s very arguably a monumental waste of time.

A case in point is the following paragraph from the Aeon e-zine essay “Is philosophy absurd? Only when you’re doing it right.” Aeon describes itself as a hub for “profound and provocative thinking.” To be fair, many of its essays, articles and other offerings are, indeed, profound and provocative. But this passage below could best be described as a paean to gratuitous overthinking:

The long …

“There’s something especially absurd about philosophers … The explanation for this might lie in the best-known philosophical account of absurdity, offered by Thomas Nagel in 1971. Nagel argued that when we sense that something – or everything – in life is absurd, we’re experiencing the clash of two perspectives from which to view the world. One is that of the engaged agent, seeing her life from the inside, with her heart vibrating in her chest. The other is that of the detached spectator, watching human activity coolly, as if from the distance of another planet. Nagel notes that it’s our nature to flip between these points of view. One moment we’re fully caught up in our mushroom-cultivation class, our infatuation with our sister’s husband or our intractable power struggle with Terri in accounting. The next moment, our mental tectonics shift and we see ourselves from an emotional remove, like a spirit hovering over its own body. It becomes evident to us that, ‘from the point of view of the Universe’, to use the 19th-century utilitarian Henry Sidgwick’s phrase, none of these things matter.”

Or the writer, Helena de Bres, an associate philosophy professor at Massachusetts’ storied Wellesley College, could far more easily have said something like this (with about 75% fewer words):

… and short of it

That the universe is fully unaware of our existence is irrelevant to the meaning of our lives. It is simply the unfeeling matrix of existence, the stage for our innate purposefulness. The only absurdity is what we do to ourselves and each other, not the fact that nature can’t know or care about any of it. We matter because we’re alive and mindful, not just insensibly present.”

But that would make philosophy classes unduly short. As de Bres herself admits in the essay, “overthinking is my profession.”

However, the rhetorical question remains: even if we granted, philosophically speaking, the apparent absurdity of human meaning in an unaware universe, would our species’ luxurious sense of meaning change one electron?

Actually, I’m afraid I might already be overthinking this.

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