Vol 1 - Chap 1

 

 

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  - The Marble Game -
 
By Geoffrey Wallace Brown, Ph.D.

  • Chapter 1

   1.

Good morning.   Welcome to Philosophy 133.

This year is different from other years because your instructor has found what philosophers have been searching for for 2,500 years, and he is going to share it with you.

Normally we would begin this class with the ethical theories of John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Sigmund Freud.  But since I have found what these men were all looking for, and since this is the last year I will be teaching this class, it seems advisable to deviate from the normal procedure.

I want each of you to understand at the beginning of this class that I have been carted off to a psychiatric ward for what I have taught.  I have been fired from my job for what I have taught.  And I have no doubt whatsoever, that, if effective, I will be murdered for what I have to say.

People are known for their love of truth.

You will understand very clearly by the end of this class why these things are so.  If I can find the language to say to you what I know to be true you will also see why they murdered my two favorite teachers - Christ and Socrates.  You will also understand why these two fellows didn't mind at all laying down their lives for what they taught: because they saw that there was something ever so much more important than what we call "human life" going on, and they were willing to pay any price to share that knowledge with people who wanted to know about it.

In this class language will seem to be our tool of exchange in our pursuit of truth.  It is not; or at least not in any ordinary accepted sense.  Philosophy is there as something for us to use to get above.  Metaphors are the only way to get there, and it takes a willingness to let go of literal understanding to find out what is going on.  Sooner or later the pains of literalness become so great that they force us to let go anyway.

Not only is this a class in Philosophy it is a class in Ethics.  The philosopher's question has always been, "What is real?"  The ethical question has always been, "What is good?"  The fantastic thing to see is the utterly unbreakable link between the two questions and their answers.  Ethics, although a minor branch in academic Philosophy today, does hold the keys to the kingdom after all.

I think you should know that I was raised in a small town in the state of Montana.  One of the many lies we were unwittingly taught in school is that truth has to be separated from the man who is speaking it.  We don't live that way, which is a reflection of our intuition that what is being said has very much to do with the guy who is saying it.

You can begin to see why I got fired from my job of teaching in a small liberal arts college.

There was a sign in a bar not too far from where l lived that said, "No dogs or Indians."  Our favorite thing in high school was getting drunk.  Not doing anything particularly, just getting drunk.  When the war in Vietnam came along I managed to avoid it by having a duodenal ulcer.  My son lives without his father.

Ethical questions have very much to do with the nature of reality.

The problem we face in philosophy is the same problem we face everywhere else: people are always coming at us with the truth.  My mother was always telling me the truth.   In fact I became a philosopher at my mother’s knee, with questions like, "Why?" and "How come?"  I realize now that I was just getting good training for later in life when everybody would be telling me the truth, and nobody agreed with anybody else, except that everybody agreed with the guy with the biggest club.

My own conscious pursuit of truth began in the first grade.  The first grade was divided into two groups.  One group, the robins, walked around with a sign on their shirts that said, "I am a good helper."  The other group, the bluebirds, had two members in it; we walked around with signs that said, "I am not a good helper."  The other guy in that group is off flying commercial jets now, and I am still puzzling about why I am not a good helper.

Having touched on ethical goodness and truth in our discussion thus far perhaps we should turn our attention to love.  No analysis of human reality is complete without this highly unacademic topic.  I was watching the Johnny Carson show last night, and he was reading some letters sent in on the meaning of love.  One of them defined love as "caring for your pregnant wife when you have had a vasectomy."  A six-year-old girl said that it was "streaking together when you are alone." A teenager said it was a half hour kiss.

Love, of course, is the fiber of human life.  Even God is Love, appearances notwithstanding, or so says the apostle John.  My own encounter with love goes back to the third grade.  The playground in our grade school was half dirt, half asphalt.  I was a fairly large kid for my grade and the other kids liked to get me to attack them.  When I would go for it they would pounce on me and I was finished.  One day they were dragging me around the muddy part of the playground by my heels, chanting that I was the "mud man."  When the bell rang everyone scattered for class.  When I arrived at the door my teacher told me to go home, that I was a mess.  When I got home my mother wouldn’t let me in.  I was covered with mud.


2.

In Philosophy we are interested in the difference between appearance and reality.  Distinguishing between appearance and reality ultimately comes down to a matter of moral courage, which is the basic value that the study of philosophy has to teach.  I call it ruthless self-honesty.  You have nothing to lose but the lies that claim your thought.

I like the existentialists best for honesty.

Self-honesty may seem like a matter of face-to-the-wind, come-what-may, I-will-be-true-to-myself.  Actually it is most often a potted plant.  It is what we come home to that is quietly and secretly alive in our thought.  It is what I know and keep alive irrespective of what goes on in the world around me.

Being able to distinguish appearance from reality is mainly a matter of being able to identify hypnotic illusions that people are caught up in.  I call them marble games.  We can do this best only when we know what is real.  The goal of philosophy is to find out what is real, and the amazing thing is.....there really is something that is real, and the existentialists are wrong.

We are not here in life to play marble games; we are here to hike.  Sometimes we stumble across people who are playing marble games, and they will do absolutely anything to convince us that their marble games are what is really going on.  Sometimes we fall for it and forget.  But sooner or later we are forced to leave the game we got conned into playing and resume what we are here to do-—to hike, get in shape, and discover what is real.

Sometimes, when all our marbles have been won away from us, we feel like the jig is up and we have Lost.  But right there, in the midst of that despair, as we stand up and brush the dust off, we can remember that we were not there to play marble games after all, and that something ever so much better is going on that we can resume and enjoy more freely for the experience.

Making these distinctions requires what I call moral courage.  It takes guts to look at a person you love and refuse to play his marble game as the price for his affection.  It requires steady courage to leave a job that is destroying the time you have to hike.  But it requires the most strength of all to change a conception of life that is one big marble game.

The only way to do that is to return to wherever you keep your potted plant, and know that there is something much better going on.

In the seventeenth century a fellow named Rene Descartes, who is now called "the father of modern philosophy," tried to find just one thing that he knew for sure.  If he could find just one humble little thing that he knew with absolute certainty he could build a beautiful structure of reality upon it.

He tried everything he could think of.  Oh God did he try.  He finally came up with the observation that he could doubt everything anybody said, but he couldn’t doubt the fact that he was sitting there doubting.

This seemed a modest enough claim, which ultimately took the form of the statement, "I think, therefore I am." This he knew for absolute certain sure.  Right?  Wrong.  What does the word "I" refer to?  What is the process of thinking all about?  What does it mean to exist?  He made his little assertion as if all these questions had already been answered, when in fact they are just what everybody wants to know about.

So it goes in philosophy.  You make one dinky little mistake at the beginning and you might as well build your glorious system of the universe on a pile of marbles.

Descartes’ intuition that the answer lay in methodology was correct, but he had the wrong sense of methodology.  Descartes’ mistake came from insisting and demanding, instead of listening and watching.

Ethics is the key to ontology because it teaches humility.  The reason that philosophical systems so rarely come anything close to reality is because the accepted method of learning and teaching philosophy generates a mental set of total arrogance.  If you want to see what is going on, you have to get yourself out of the way and find a mental place where you can watch.  This simply cannot be done when you are arguing, either offensively or defensively.  If you are trying to make a point, if you have a sense that there is a "you" there trying to make a point, something is there to cloud your perception of the ontological reality that is right at hand.

Rightly seen, Descartes’ modest little assertion, "I cannot doubt that I am here doubting," is a sweetly perfumed lie, a hypnotic illusion that seeks ever so seductively to get in the door.  But the little dream "I think, therefore I am" turns into a nightmare as soon as you let it in and invite it to sit down in your home.  It leads very quickly into the existential terror that there has to be meaning in life and there isn’t any.

As soon as you start looking at things from the point of view of self—-who am I?  What am I doing here?  What is the meaning of my life?  The little friend you let in the door becomes a dragon in your living room.  No matter how compellingly obvious the humble little assertion "I think, therefore I am" may seem to be, it is false and a dead end street.  In fact, it is an alley with a bunch of thugs at the end of it waiting to beat you up.

Instead, walk by that little alley and remember that potted plant.  What does "to thine own self be true" really mean?  Doesn’t it mean listening, watching, and waiting?  Who you are will become clear soon enough.  And it will be far, far better than any conception of life imaginable by Rene Descartes and his insistence and demanding from a human point of view.

The arrogance of this assertion, from "the father of modern philosophy," which entails the claim that the view of the universe be limited to a human perspective of it, is total and complete.  I am very grateful that it has the reward of being the nightmare it is.

On the other hand, if this conception of life is a marble game you really want to get into, I can recommend some excellent reading references: Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Fydor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea and No Exit, and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Will To Power.


3.

Where I grew up in Montana we would go on raft trips down the rivers.  A couple of guys would take a four-man rubber raft and go trout fishing with spinners.

The first thing about a raft trip that you have to deal with is the decision about whether or not you want to go.  If you decide to go, the night before you can’t sleep.  When you first wake up you have to fend off all the arguments that it is too much hassle.  Until you start moving and getting ready to go you aren’t quite sure that you really want to do it, even though you are hooked and you know you are going to anyway.

It’s cold out.  And you know you have to remember all that detail.  It will probably be a crummy day.  I feel like I might get sick.  I haven’t gone to the bathroom yet.

But then you remember.  There was the time I was going with my cousin.  We got down to the beach and blew up the raft and half of it blew up--literally--right there.  There are two compartments for air in a 4-man raft, and we had half a raft left.  What the hell, we had come this far....  So we threw the raft in the water, tied our junk on, and started down an unknown ten mile stretch of river next to which there was no road.  I got the worst case of hemorrhoids I’ve ever had straddling that raft, which was old and half-rotten, going down that river and hearing rapids around every corner.

The rivers we went down were fairly large and unforgiving.  They always killed people every year.  You had to have some idea of what you were doing to make it an enjoyable trip.  Especially if you wanted to catch fish.  We usually ended up turning our raft over at least once and catching a good batch of fish.

When you first put the raft into the water and take off--that is a landmark.  Feeling the river gently take you away from shore, and watching your car disappear as the current picks up and you go around the corner, and then realizing that you have put your trust in this river you are floating on...these feelings are the jumping off point.

To stop the new flurry of little arguments that come at you concerning the doubts over this insanity that you have embarked upon you quickly turn your attention to the river.  And then you get your butt in gear to pay full attention to the job at hand: fishing.  In the midst of all this activity you realize why you have come.  The realization in non-optional; it is unavoidable; it reaches up and grabs your thought and compels you to see and feel the absolute glory and power of that little moment in time.  And it does this in a totally silent way.

With that recognition the trust to relax and enjoy the bumps and curves and rocks is freely available.

Then, of course, it is time to have a smoke, because you are not quite sure just what is going on.  No, that’s not true.  What is going on is the business at hand: fishing.

Now fishing from a moving raft that you are supposed to control with a paddle going down a river is sport.  You come up to what has to be the best hole you have seen all year and you get maybe three shots at it.  That is if your buddy doesn’t out-finesse your cast and catch the giant fish you know is there.

All you can see in any direction is holes, and the concentration required to land your spinner in just the right spot is uncompromising, because your decision to go for one spot is a decision not to go for all the others.

"Son-of-a-bitch!"  This has got to be where I learned how to swear.  The tension in the air is so great that the only thing that seems to make sense when a fish strikes is an exclamation in the form of a swear word.

All you can hear while you are floating is the whir of reels, the plunking of lures, and the awesome quiet of the river.  You just begin to settle into a lulled sleep listening to the peace and power of your natural surroundings and....wham...."Son-of-a-bitch!"

He’s on.

"Are you sure?"

"You bet your sweet dingle I am, and he’s a monster."

From that point on it’s verbally quiet again because both partners know exactly what is going on.

Except for an occasional exclamation.  Which, after all, is just part of the natural surroundings.

When you get your first fish on board that is another landmark.  Because getting your fish on board is proof that you aren't skunked.  You can let down from this point on because the trip has been a success and you have proved whatever it was you came out to do.

Except that the river doesn’t let down.  The river is one of the best teachers of watching and listening.  You always keep an eye out for a fork or a riffle or a boulder.  And you always keep an ear out for....the rapids.

Now the rapids aren’t as fearful as they might sound.  You can always get out of the river and walk around them.  And, you know that they can’t be that bad or you would have heard about it.  But when you hear that sound around the corner you do put your pole away, get straightened around, and pick up your paddle, no matter how tempting the holes may be.

When you see the results of a slight miscalculation on your part or your buddy’s, and neither of you is exactly sure who is supposed to be upstream and who downstream as you go through them; and you watch your fish float away as the boat fills up with water from the whirlpool you just got sucked into....

I like the narrow canyons that have boulders in the middle, where you decide to go around it one way, and your buddy decides for the other.  The biggest fish I ever caught I lost to one of those.

Once you have really been taught the majesty of the river, the lesson in humility is not forgotten; and you spend the rest of your raft trip entirely glad to be alive and enjoying just floating.  The fishing is clearly an amusing secondary pastime.

At about this point it becomes clear that you aren’t taking the river anywhere; it is taking you somewhere.  This is a very peaceful landmark.

There are two kinds of days at this point, too.  There are hot days, where you can dry off and warm up as you float along.  And then there are the days when you start waiting to get to your other car.  In either case, my experience with the river is that you are fully prepared by the end of the trip to pull your raft out and load up and go home.


4.

This class is going on a raft trip.

I live in an Indian village in northeastern Montana now.  I was preparing my lecture for today and strolled outside to smell the fresh morning air and listen to the wind for a minute when I spotted the Fossum Gravel and Excavating Company gravel truck, full of sand and stuck in a mud puddle.  The streets aren’t paved in this town so that can become a problem.  I don’t know what kind of problems you are working with today, but keeping a gravel truck loaded with sand from getting stuck in the mud is something that requires total loving care.  One dinky little mistake and you've tied up everybody and everything on the job.  You develop quite a relationship with what we call an inanimate piece of equipment as you coax and nudge and whisper and silently, silently plead.

Suppose, for a moment, that your total preoccupation with your own problem is what created your problem in the first place.  Literally.

What got me fired from the college I have been working for was each person’s coming at each situation from his own point of view.  This accordingly blinds each person to the realities at hand.  There is one and only one enemy in such a situation: fear.

If I can find the words to show you that there is absolutely nothing to be afraid of...anywhere...at all...from anyone...by anything...whatsoever, then you can approach any situation with complete freedom, ease, and love.  The common enemy we all share is fear; and that is the enemy we are going to destroy in this class.

Fear is the granddaddy of all hypnotic illusions.  Fear is what everybody is working on--the shrinks, the doctors, the educators, the politicians, the guy bringing home the paycheck, and, most importantly, the mother.

The trouble is that nobody really understands fear; the reason for this is that there is nothing to understand.  Fear is a hypnotic dream and every attempt to explain it will inevitably fail.  Every attempt to explain it, to give it laws and causes, is an attempt to make a reality out of a dream.  The efforts to explain the reasons and causes for fear are like blowing up a balloon and holding the air in with your fingers shut tight.  Sooner or later it gets so painful you have to let go, and all the air whistles out, and the balloon goes down to the little piece of rubber it always was.  Then you think you have to blow up another one, preferably a difference size, color, and shape for diversity, to make a reality out of the causes for fear.

I saw that movie about Clark Gable and Carol Lombard on the tube last night.  It was the story about how these two people were willing to sacrifice their movie careers for the love they had between them.  A large effort was mounted to destroy their careers by the righteous folks in the movie industry, because he was still married to a lady who would not give him a divorce.  You could watch the power of that love unfold in the movie: nothing that the Hollywood community could throw at them was going to destroy that love, and they threw everything, including a court trial.

Socrates had a love like that for his students.  They killed Socrates, you know, for "corrupting the minds of his students."

They nailed that other fellow up on a cross for what he knew and said, and even more for his love.

The challenge to your love comes in extremely concrete ways.  For me it was during my first year of teaching, in 1970.  I visited the apartment of some of our senior Philosophy majors, and as I walked in they were passing around a joint.  The challenge of love is that it always presents you with decisions.

They asked me if I wanted a toke and I smiled benevolently, and sort of looked at it like I wanted to, but shook my head no.

In a very subtle way that situation presented a fork in the road to me in my teaching career.  Which did I care about more: teaching my students, which required being close to them, or, the appearance of propriety, which required turning around and pretending not to see what they were doing?  I, of course, tried to weasel, and sit there benevolently pretending not to know what they were doing.

The trouble with people who are getting stoned, however, is that such subtle dilemmas elude their awareness and they want you to join in the fun.  I couldn’t very well take a drag of the marijuana they were smoking, on pain of violating my professional responsibility too far in the direction of being their buddy instead of their teacher.

So I ended up making my excuses and backing out of the whole situation having recognized, accepted, and joined what they were doing, jeopardizing my career, and having irritated and annoyed my senior philosophy major friends by not accepting their offer of hospitality, which put me above them in a place of superiority and pretentious distance.  One of them was to refer to me later in that highly political year as a limp-dick liberal.

I had lost on all counts.

More importantly, by listening to a very quiet voice within me I had inadvertently entered a path which was to carry me into a lifelong love and commitment to my students.  I am eternally grateful for the relationship I have with that voice.

By the end of my seven year career with my college there were rumors about how I preferred counseling to teaching, because my office was overflowing with students who wanted to talk.  There were flat statements that my teaching was not professional because my classes were overflowing with kids: the books and the grading were too easy, not enough scholarship on my part.  Perhaps most serious was the charge that I was psychiatrically unstable, because I had gotten so excited about what I was teaching that they hauled me off to the looney bin three years before.

The amazing thing about this rather common sort of experience is that the louder the arguments got for me to do the conventional, the clearer that silent sense became that what I was doing was right and good and should be followed through irrespective of the apparent consequences.  And boy the consequences came with the vengeance of a storm.

But that honest little voice inside of me kept after me: now I am a professional teacher.  I have only one professional responsibility and that is to my students.  Remain true to that.

Have you ever been sailing?  Well, when you sail a boat you have to do just the opposite of what your impulsive or fearful instincts tell you to do.  You have to set your course into the wind, not going down and away with it, no matter how hard it blows.  And you do this precisely to save the craft, not wreck it.  If you give in and go with the direction of the waves and the wind you are finished.  But if you set the direction at an angle to the wind and the waves, the way a sailboat is built, you can ride out most any storm.

Little metaphors like this may sound cheap in writing, but when you are in the middle of it they are the best thing to hang on to.

Well, the storm I was riding out was the hypnotic fear on the part of those around me, except my wife, who was in the galley, and whose worst complaint was seasickness.

I marveled at the similarity of the situation to that of Socrates and that other fellow, the one they nailed up to a cross.  And I could really see how anybody who understood the power of love would happily do the same.  You can literally feel yourself being lifted out of a desperately bad situation, with maiming, torturing, and killing going on all over the ground right below you.  The closest thing to it is like getting into a jet in an airport and feeling them close the doors and prepare for take-off, and then watching that baby lift you right off the runway up through the clouds and into the glorious blue sky.  Eternally grateful that all that garbage is behind you.


5.

As I indicated to you in our last lecture I am now living in a little Indian town in the state of Montana.

As I talk to you in these lectures I ask you to consider very carefully what that little pronoun "I" refers to when I use it.

I think you might enjoy some observations about this place.

Frazer, Montana, is located about 90 miles west of the North Dakota border and 90 miles south of the Canadian border.

I took a drive around town this morning to see what I could tell you about it, and the first thing I noticed was that somebody had dumped his garbage on top of his car.  Not the one he drives around in, but one of the several he has out in his yard that don’t work.

Frazer has a population of maybe a hundred and fifty people I would guess.  There is no way to tell for sure.  Some of the people living on the reservation are listed as living in cars.

The town is clearly dying.  The general store closed down, so did the gas station.  There is a bar, Hank’s Bar, if you are ever in town looking for it.  But it’s not open very often.  I understand that the owner drives around town and if you want something you flag him down, and he goes and gets it for you.

There is a little grocery store where you can pick up necessities.  It has a hitching post out in front of it.  Somebody painted it pink.

On one side of that is the Lions Club, where they serve hamburgers after basketball games.  On the other side is the Post Office.  When I first came to town the lady in charge of the Post Office had to see whether she had a box number for me, or whether I had to wait.  It costs 13 cents to send a letter first class from here, 32 cents air mail.

I don’t know what the ratio of Indian to White is, but I do know there are mighty few White people.  And most of them are here to teach in the school, which seems to be the main point of there being a town here.

The school here is supported by massive amounts of federal money.  The school district turned down their bond issue last year 2:1.  And still the school boasts a five-to-one ratio of students to teachers.  That seems like a lot of guilt to me.

Cars appear to be the big distraction for the local folks.  And I mean these babies are clunkers.  I am sure that no one in town has figured out that the muffler is a secret accessory located underneath.  One guy has a ’57 Chevy stationwagon, mounted on a four-wheel-drive truck chassis.  That’s kind of snazy, but a little high.  One guy has a blue Ford stationwagon, I can’t tell what year but it’s a giant.  He races by my place several times a day with a complete pack of dogs barking at the wheels.  One of those dogs is so hoarse he can only squeak.

The people here are kind of loose.

A fellow walks by every day on his way to buy a six-pack.  He is so drunk he almost continually falls down....but not quite.  I don't know how he does it.  He seems to have achieved the goal of a steady state of drunkenness, a rare prize in the world of booze.

My next-door neighbor's name is Oliver.  So far as I can make out there are three things in Oliver's life: baseball, basketball, and football.  He’s been on unemployment for the past year.  He was telling about how he was on this new job where they were building a bridge but he didn't know if he could stay on it.  They made you work.

Oliver is worried about theft and vandalism in the community.  Somebody stole a neighbor’s roto-tiller the other day.  The guy offered another fellow ten dollars to find it and steal it back.  The kids down the street stole my across-the-street neighbor's dog, a pedigreed St.  Bernard puppy.  They say it's theirs.  Actually, there was an argument about the dog, which my neighbor's family stole back, but it was so dirty that they couldn't tell whose it was.  So after they washed it they discovered the correct sex and identified the correct owner.

They really like guns around here.  There is a huge water tower on legs, that the sign on the highway that says "Frazer" sort of points to, when people driving on the highway wonder just what the sign does refer to.  They like to blast at the water tower with '22’s.  If the bullet hits above the water level it ricochets; if it hits below it goes through.  That's the general rule anyway.

Oliver's dogs keep walking by my house with antelope legs in their mouths.  I keep forgetting that it's not out of season on an Indian reservation.

What marks this place better than anything else, I suppose, is the train.  We are on what is called the Hi Line.  It is a straight shot in either direction, to Chicago going one way, and Seattle going the other.  And the train doesn't stop.

I don't know whether you feel left out of things, but it's an impressive display of how left out you really are to watch a fully loaded freight train whistle by at 80 mph.  The tracks lie parallel to the main street in town, and are about fifty yards from it.

In Montana we have the custom of erecting little white crosses at the scene of a fatal accident.  They stand off the roadbed as little reminders to the folks who are still driving and still alive.  There are four of those little crosses at the railroad crossing coming into town.  A couple of years ago a train took out a family in a car at the crossing.  They hadn't gotten around to putting in railroad-crossing lights yet.  There was just a sign.

My wife teaches at the school here.  She teaches science to the elementary, junior high, and high school kids, supporting me on my "sabbatical."

She tells me there is one and only one person in that school who commands the respect of the kids: the cook.

I've discovered why Indians are fat.  When you are that hungry, and have that many stray mouths to feeds you fill them up with starch.

The teaching opportunity here for my wife was fashioned in heaven, as was the phone call that got us here.  She says some of the kids have rickets.  Some of the high school students are so illiterate and such a threat that they keep passing them on.

There is one ultimate club that is used as the basis of school discipline.  Discipline is tricky because the kids don’t mind going to jail.  What they fear is being kicked off the basketball team, or having the season canceled.  Everybody and his pack of dogs plays basketball in this country.  As far as the kids are concerned basketball is the justification of school.  Which is why 40% of them drop out after the season is over.

I suspect that the attachment to basketball is linked to the fact that it regularly gets 40 degrees below zero around here in the winter, but I'm not sure.


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