My Father, the Philosopher
If it existed, then when I left for school and came back, it would still be there. If it was there today, then it would be there tomorrow. Right, Dad?
I touched the objects in the house. The bed and the Mickey Mouse light switch and the crumbling flower wallpaper. The Garbage Pail stickers. What about the office up in the attic? The porch? The sidewalk? I dashed over the slats, avoided the cracks.
My father smiled, pleased. “Well how can you know for sure? It’s just like Descartes’s bad dream. What proves we’re not all living in a dream?”
Descartes’s bad dream. What a lie. I bet Descartes loved his dream.
“Think about your first premise.”
“My first what?”
“Your first premise. Does it follow? If x, then p. Does touching something mean it exists? Are the conditions necessary and sufficient?”
If your father is a philosopher, then you should expect to lose many arguments. You will never lose “because life isn’t fair,” or because your dad “says so.” You will always lose on strict logical grounds.
For my friends and me, the best seats in my family’s station wagon were in the way-back. Sitting in the way-back, no parents could see us in the rearview mirror. When driving with friends, the absolute worst seat was in the front next to my dad. If I had to sit up there, then it was totally not OK for my friends to get the way-back.
But Adrianne and Christy widened their eyes when they asked him. “Can we sit in the way-back?”
I hated those faces. I knew what happened in the way-back. All the way at the other end of the station wagon, you make faces that are So Funny. You tell stories no one else is allowed to hear. By the time the car has stopped and you’ve piled out through the hatch, you two in the way-back are best friends and can forget about your friend who got stuck sitting in the way-front.
“Of course,” my father said when they asked.
“NO Way!” I said. “That’s not fair. I can’t sit back there, so they can’t either.”
“Who’s going to sit back there if they don’t?” my father asked.
“And where are you going to sit no matter where they sit?”
“In the front.”
“So how is it not fair? The improvement of their situation in no one way worsens your situation. It is fair.”
But my situation would be worsened. By the time we all got out of the car, I would be a blip in their collective, best friend memory.
“NO, IT’S NOT FAIR!”
“Adrianne. Christy. Get in the way-back. We’re leaving.”
And so I learned utilitarianism. The greatest good for the greatest number. The way-back for some, not for all.
My father’s philosopher friend Paul came over. He had a deep scratchy voice. He paced the room with both hands on his back and his belly pushed forward. A pose of intellectual authority. My father said Paul was “philosopher famous.”
Paul had a thought puzzle for me: A train with six people on board is hurtling toward imminent collision with a brick wall up ahead.
I was at the coffee table doing my homework. I looked up at Paul.
The train was gaining momentum, moving faster. It rocked back and forth along the tracks, becoming progressively more unbalanced.
Paul told me I was on the track, watching the train filled with six stricken faces as it gathered speed. I turned and looked at the brick wall just ahead, then back at the train. Collision was imminent. The six people were helpless.
“Can they jump out? Run for their lives? Save themselves?” I asked Paul.
No, he explained. They will surely die.
I looked down and saw a lever. By pulling up on the lever, the tracks will switch left. The train will be diverted onto another path, and all will be saved.
But, wait! It’s not so simple, Paul growled. Or was he smiling? You look over at the diverting track just as you are about to pull the lever. A lone man is lying along the tracks, unable to move. He cannot be alerted about what is to come, nor dragged away from the rail lines. There is no 911, no hero lurking in a maintenance closet, no third option.
I knew there was no third option without Paul reminding me. There is never a third option in thought experiments.
Do I: A) pull the lever and divert the train, thereby saving the six people’s lives but directly causing the death of one man?; or B) do nothing? Let the six people die but bear no responsibility for any individual death.
I looked up at Paul hesitantly. “Pull the lever.”
Paul paused. “OK.”
OK? OK! I was right? My answer wasn’t wrong? The people would be saved! Only one regrettable casualty to mourn. He shouldn’t have been lying on the tracks anyway.
Except Paul wasn’t finished. “Now imagine there’s no one on the other track, and no lever at all. There is a fat man on roller skates just about to pass in front of you beside the train tracks. If you push him onto the tracks, his body will break the train’s path. He will surely die from the impact and the six people on the train will surely be saved. What then?”
I could see him. I could see the fat man skating along in his hefty ignorance. He had not fallen on any track. He had not accidentally, conveniently, gotten in the way. The fat man’s face and wide neck were coming closer into view. Time was running out. And I was supposed to do it. I was supposed to push the fat man.
But surely that can’t be. Surely, it would be wrong to push a man to his death.
“Let the fat man pass?” I said. “Let the people on the train die?”
Paul and my father were quiet. We sat in the living room, just me, two philosophers and my inconsistent logic.
“Hmm…” Paul said. “That is what most people say.”
What most people say. The worst kind of wrong answer. I should have pushed the fat man.
If your father is a philosopher, your premises must support your conclusion. Then, maybe once or twice in a childhood filled with lost arguments, you will win. When you win, you win big.
In middle school, years later, I asked my father to buy me a computer. Concerned about family resources, he pointed out that if he bought me a computer, he would be obligated to buy my younger brother a computer.
I organized my premises. If I got a computer, then it in no way worsened my brother’s situation. He would be computer-less all the same.
He smiled and shook his head with feigned disapproval. He would never dispute a well-reasoned argument.
It is very cool to tell people your father is a philosopher. They think it is neat. Unusual. Intellectual. They already think you are just a little bit smarter than before you mentioned your father.
They want to ask you about your father’s work. They think he’s interested in big, worldly questions. The kinds of questions they’ve been thinking about for a while. The kinds of questions they have come to some really deep conclusions about. But he is not. The questions that they want the answers to, that they have the answers to—God, life after death, the Meaning of It All—those questions are uninteresting. The answers are all No, or (worse?) Don’t Assume the Conclusion.
Philosophy is not like learning the Vedas or the Tao of Pooh. It does not care for your big questions. It is not cool or hip. It does not think your Buddhist bracelet is interesting.
Philosophy is strict, serious, scientific. It is logical. It is like math. Please, when you meet my father, do not try to talk to him about philosophy. Yes, of course, he loves to talk philosophy. But you will want to talk to him about Foucault or sociology or you will not understand the nuance in Kant’s argument and I will have to change the subject. You will not realize that the argument hinges on a sentence that you did not underline.
Yes, yes. You’re correct. My father is a very nice man. No, you wouldn’t really mistake him for the kind of judgmental, exacting figure I’m describing. He would humor you, maybe even like you very much. He would invite you in. He would want to buy you lunch.
But you would miss the point. You are missing the point. I can’t listen to the fawning way you’ll ask him questions about his work. I can’t listen to the smack of your lips as you tell him with borrowed authority how interested you’ve gotten in psychoanalytic theory. I can’t listen to all the likes that will punctuate your sentences, because no one ever asked you, “If it’s ‘like’ something, what’s it like?”
You will be surprised because my father is unlike what you think a philosopher is like. He does not have a beard or a gravelly voice. He is glad to talk about the $5 Chinese lunch buffet. He does not seem like a man who thinks you don’t believe in God, even if you say you do. But that is because he is not listening to you like that: like a philosopher, like a teacher, like a father. I am.
Truth was of utmost importance to my father. Truth was a social contract.
I forged my report card in high school. It was the first quarter of 9th grade and I’d gotten my first C. But when I forged the first report card, I forgot that each quarter report card that followed would include the grades from the previous quarter. So then I had to print out a B+ again the next quarter to paste on top of the original C, and as long as I was doing that I better replace each new C or C- or C+ as well. By the fourth quarter, I arrived at the photocopy place with my print-out of tiny little letters and my scissors and I was exhausted.
I did not know much about forgery and while there might be more complicated iterations, I had chosen a fairly straightforward approach. I cut out letters from a printed piece of paper and pasted them into the tiny grade spot on the report card grid. Then I photocopied the entire paper, and when my father asked why report cards were being printed on such flimsy paper this year, I shrugged.
I was not much for arts and crafts and my method of forgery required a dexterity I did not have. Some of the letters were pasted on crooked, and some of the lines from the original report card grid were obscured by the pasted on paper.
Plus, the minus sign on the fake B- looked different than the minus sign on one of the real B-s. I stared at the paper and at the various letters I might cut out to try again, and knew I wasn’t going to do it. I was either going to sit on the steps in front of the photocopy place for the rest of my life or I was going to go home and confess.
If doing poorly in school had seemed like an affront to my father already (I’d made sure that my fake grades still reflected my progressive academic deterioration, since I didn’t want any surprises when three years later I didn’t get into any good colleges), revelation of my complicated deception shook my father to his very parental core. He took a few minutes to wrap his mind around what I had done. In the interim, I apologized, I told him how terribly guilty I felt. He cut me off. My confession had been a product of laziness, not regret. The only thing worse than the lie was lying about the lie, and the lie itself was already terrible.
Then for three days he didn’t speak to me.
When he did start speaking to me again, it was because he had little choice. I was still his daughter. He was appalled that he had to punish me, but since he couldn’t trust that I would be in any way moved by his disgust, he also had to do things like ground me and restrict my phone privileges. Enforce punishment. The menial labor of parenting. It was embarrassing.
Then he slowly got over it. Because he had to. Because I was his daughter. I had annihilated his trust in me. And it didn’t matter. He still had to take me back.
I had forced him into a bind between what was right — leaving me to rot in the ethical cesspool I’d dove into head first — and what was necessary: raising me and clothing me and sheltering and caring about me.
A year after the report card fiasco, my father published an article called “Lying, Deceiving or Falsely Implicating.” He considered whether there is a justified moral distinction between lying and deception. He was so worried about lying, that he was also worried about deception masquerading as not-lying.
Deceiving suggests a moral effort. The desire to avoid lying. Effort may actually make the deceiver worse. “It encourages deviousness and a legalistic attempt to get away with what one can,” he wrote. The very act of trying to evade the moral responsibility of lying, of stepping up and committing the outright immoral act of lying—may make one even more immoral.
In the case of my report card then, there was no question that I had outright lied. But maybe this meant on the ladder of terrible people, I was still one rung up from those who deceived. A victory.
If your father is a philosopher then you should expect to see some version of your at-home altercations elevated to a moral academic question. If your father is a philosopher, this should not be misconstrued as a “coping mechanism.”
At my father’s surprise 60th birthday party, my mother asked me to give a toast. I was older now, 25. And I should have been poised and articulate. There was plenty to say. This is my father. He is a loving parent, a great friend, an honest man. A hiking enthusiast. A willing giver of rides to the airport. Generous with money. Unmaterialistic, though not militantly so.
He walked into the restaurant where everyone had gathered, and he was surprised. He kept putting his hand to his forehead and saying, “I just can’t believe this.” So many old and new friends everywhere he looked. Some I knew, some I barely recognized, some I’d never met.
He was recovering from pinkeye and his eyes were red-rimmed. He was not well but so happy.
When it came time for the toasts, he stood against a pipe that ran from the tin ceiling to the floor of the restaurant, waiting, palming his cheek, saying “Oh, boy.”
I meant to make a few jokes, nods in his direction, warm smiles. “Look how happy he is to have you all here,” I might begin. “His eyes are full of infection, and joy. No artifice about him at all.
I guess you’re pretty impressed that he decided to become a volunteer EMT at the age of 50 out of a sense of civic duty. Also, when I was in middle school, he brought me my forgotten lunch bag at least twice a week. He does a lot of favors and he never holds them against people.
My father is a brave man. He is not scared of most logical conclusions. If a fat man on roller skates could save a train full of people, a bus full of people, a burning building full of people, he would surely kill the fat man.
Still, though, I cannot finish my last 10 minutes on a treadmill without worrying about Zeno’s paradox and the line that can be cut infinitely in half and so never really ends. I watch the treadmill reader count down. Every 10 seconds seems endless. I sweat and pant and become very concerned that in this instance my 10 minutes will go on forever, always getting shorter and shorter and yet never really ending.
My father wears corduroy jackets with arm pads to school. He hates when people say “I feel like” when they mean “I think that.” He is terribly impressed with people of elite pedigree. He speaks admiringly of your children attending highly-ranked graduate programs in math and science.
He loves Jim Carrey and not in an ironic way. He drops his ‘R’s at the end of words ending in R and he adds ‘R’s to words ending in vowels. He buys non-fat half ‘n’ half. When, after hosting a dinner party, you, his culturally well-rounded friends request regular coffee, he ignores you and makes decaf.
Every single thing I hold against him—making sure I knew I was in the lowest reading group, not the highest; telling me I could get a hamster only if I wrote an essay on the hamster species first; giving me math problems to solve on Saturday morning was done to make me be better and smarter and nicer.
And you all know it too. You too are in awe of my father. How could someone be so devastatingly exacting and kind?
You too are thinking, it is baffling. It is infuriating. It is illogical.”
I did not say any of it, of course. That would be a terrible speech.
I got preliminary stage fright and didn’t prepare. I’d given a toast once before and it had not gone well. Instead, I spoke for under a minute. I tried to make one joke but I mumbled and didn’t make enough eye contact with the audience.
Then I stepped to the side and filmed everyone else’s toast. Everyone else was very funny. My father laughed and clapped.
Throughout the rest of the party, I acted as a reliable demi-host. At the end of the night, I helped load all the presents in the car. I hoped this made up for my crappy toast, for all the other ways I’d never even tried to rise above my worst inclinations. But I didn’t need my father to tell me that trying to “make it up” was a soft phrase, that hoping things can “make up” for other, dissimilar things, is a conflation.
Later, I learned I was wrong about the station wagon incident and where all the girls were allowed to sit. It wasn’t the way-back seat that I wanted. It wasn’t a seat I wanted at all.
My father tells me Adrianne wanted the seat up front next to him. I didn’t want her to have it. But I was already in my seat in the regular back, the bench seat. If Adrianne got to sit in the front seat that in no way worsened my position. Also, the front seat was the only seat left.
The “only seat left”? Impossible! It wasn’t my birthday. I don’t remember five girls crowded into the car —- three across the bench and two in the way, way-back and only one lone seat left at the front that I didn’t have the generosity to concede to Adrianne. Did I want her to be left behind in the driveway? Better she watch the car disappearing up the block than acquire the coveted (it was coveted?) seat next to my father? Adrianne didn’t even have a dad. And I wouldn’t let her sit next to mine?
No, I was not so sadistic a child.
I ought to give this one to my father. To have said, you’re right. You’re older. You must remember better. I was a child. But no, I’m younger. I remember better. It mattered so much more to me then who sat where.
I think I’m right, of course. There were three girls. And all I wanted was to be with them. My father’s version offers one kind of metaphor and mine another. Truth is not a metaphor, of course (big box Metaphor, small box Truth). Truth is. But metaphor may be a kind of truth (big box Truth, small box Metaphor). One kind. Not the best kind.
I choose my version anyway. I know what it felt like, what it was like like. I know when two competing arguments are, in a rare instance, equally matched.
I stayed by my father in his hospice bed for a while after his big nostrils had taken in their last sips of air. I thought about Zeno’s line that goes on forever in half-broken slices, until it doesn’t. I thought about the difference between the number zero and every single other number, which seemed like a related conundrum, even if my father would have told me no, it’s not. They’re completely different sets of problems.
Everything you multiply zero by equals zero. No number can be divided by any other number to arrive at zero. There’s this big gaping chasm between zero and one. It’s not even a chasm. It’s a different planet. A different solar system. A black hole. Zero spinning alone in its own self-contained impossibility.
My father got sicker and sicker for two years. His body got smaller, his speech got more halting. He slept a lot. But still he was greater than zero.
I didn’t realize how much closer .00000001 really is to 10,000, a million, 10,000 trillion. These numbers have 99% more in common than .00000001 and zero. Zero is like nothing else. Zero can’t even really be contemplated. You can’t point to zero objects. You can’t touch them. You can’t make a joke that zero laughs at. You can’t pull the blanket up to make sure zero isn’t cold, or bring zero a milkshake because the fat is good for zero.
I put my head on my father’s chest and left it there for a bit.
I went upstairs and laid down in my childhood bed, not wanting to see the people from the funeral home when they arrived to take my father. And then, when I did come back downstairs, the bed was empty. And that was that. Zero.
It was a number that defied logic. And yes, Dad, I know. I’m probably using the word “logic” incorrectly.
Emily Adler is a New York-based writer and editor. You can follow her @EmilyAnnAdler.