Philosophers, Gummi Bears, and Truth

Audrey Thompson

Deanna at SWIP
Deanna at SWIP
Deanna at SWIP

We were working on our SWIP paper together last month, when Deanna stopped the proceedings. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I don’t think I’m tracking all that well. I have this headache.” When I expressed concern, she blamed it on Paul. “He gave me hemp cereal for breakfast this morning,” she said. “I think that that’s what gave me the headache. I don’t usually have cereal. Especially not hemp cereal.”

This was the first I had heard of hemp cereal, which surprised me, because if it is what your serious progressive eater is eating, my brother is bound to be one of its chief fans. Just a couple summers ago, I watched him spoon up rice cereal steeped in orange juice as if it were delicious. The aesthetic leap from rice cereal in orange juice to hemp cereal in mango-passion power soy drink does not seem to me at all great.

Deanna hastened to assure me that there was no THC in the hemp cereal. “This is special hemp,” she said. “They take all the THC out.”

I did not feel that I really needed this explanation, but I pretended to be very interested. My brother frequently offers me explanations for things that the ordinary person takes for granted. You learn to act thoughtful and reassured when your family asks courteously, “Would you like a Coke? There’s no cocaine in it.”

Like Deanna, Chuck is prone to concocting far-fetched explanations for headaches. “I think it’s the bread,” he’ll say. Later he will have a whole loaf of French bread without getting a headache, but this only proves that that particular loaf of bread does not contain the secret headache-inducing principle that the earlier slice of sourdough bread contained. It is all very complex and you would have to be a scientist to really understand.

I explained to Deanna that sometimes headaches just happen. Actually, I do not know that for a fact. For all I know, there really are hemp-cereal causes of headaches. When I told Ivan about Deanna’s headache, he was all for the hemp-cereal explanation. But then, Ivan is something of a cereal bigot; he is inclined to blame cereal for most of the ills of the world. Well, maybe not most. But a lot of them.

The reason I told Deanna that headaches sometimes just happen was to ease her out of that obsession mode wherein the source of the ailment is of significantly greater interest than curing it. “I don’t suppose you took any aspirin?” I asked.

It had not occurred to her to take aspirin. That didn’t surprise me. When you are busy blaming your headache on hemp cereal — however wrongheaded hemp cereal may be, and I am not for a moment suggesting that hemp cereal is not a cause of many of the world’s problems — you are too busy to think of taking aspirin.

I happen to know about this from the inside. Every decade or so, when I get a headache, I lose all sense of medical proportion. When I have a headache, it does not reassure me to realize that other people have had headaches and survived. It does not seem to me, under the circumstances, that what I have is, in fact, a headache. What it seems like — and remember that I am a doctor — is cancer of the head. It is all I can do not to phone my loved ones and say goodbye while there is still time. All I can think about is the pain, the helpless agony. I feel excruciatingly sorry for myself, along with everyone who might soon miss me. I can sit brooding like this for hours, unless Ivan happens to be there. If Ivan is there, he will say, “Here, let me give you something to cure that.” So far, aspirin has always cured my cancer. That is why they call it the miracle drug.

I am not the only one who obsesses over minor ailments. When my sister gets a stomach ache, her first thought is, “I knew this would happen someday and now it has finally arrived. Cancer of the stomach.” If she calls Mom for sympathy, Mom will ask her, “Have you made out your will?” Mom is not worried that Barb is dying; it is just a good opportunity to talk about wills. My parents have made many, many wills. In one of them, Chuck got eleven cheap telephones and a used foot cast. He would have gotten other things except that he is supposed to get all of his paintings back. Whereas Dad priced most things in his and Mom’s will at one dollar, he valued Chuck’s paintings and sketches at a thousand dollars apiece. Since there are a lot of sketches, Chuck was down for millions of dollars’ worth of stuff. Frankly, he was lucky to get the phones and foot cast thrown in.

Not everybody suffering from fatal headaches, cramps, and colds is saved by aspirin. Some people simply live with their pain. When it finally goes away, they assume that a miracle saved them. Whenever Dolores gets the flu, she tells Octavio, “I don’t know what it is, but I have a headache and my stomach is upset. I really don’t feel very well.”

“It sounds like you have the flu,” Octavio will say.

“No, it’s not that,” Dolores will respond. “I don’t know what it is, but it feels awful.” Two days later her symptoms will be gone. “You know that headache I said that I had?” Dolores will say. “I think it must all have been in my head; I actually feel just fine.”

“You feel fine now because you got over it. You had the flu but now it’s out of your system,” Octavio will say.

“No, it wasn’t the flu,” Dolores will say. She doesn’t believe in the flu. “I think it must just have been in my head. Or maybe a miracle happened.”

Dolores and Octavio are both doctors.

Deanna is on her way to being a doctor. Our kind of doctor. A philosophical doctor, rather than a medical doctor. Unfortunately, a Ph.D. can only get you so far in curing your personal diseases. I have explained this to Frank, to no avail. Frank is a philosopher. Although he has both a sister and a mother who are nurses, he prefers to self-diagnose. “This knee is falling apart,” he will say. “I think I will exercise it to strengthen it.” When I ask him, “Is that what your doctor says to do?” — very sympathetically, I might add — Frank tells me there is no sense in asking the doctor anything because he really has no choice in the matter. It would be a mistake to consult his mother, Frank adds. “She is like you. She knows nothing at all about illness. She has never even had a cough. It is useless to ask her anything. She is not very empathetic.” “I wasn’t thinking of empathy so much as medical knowledge,” I tell him. “It seems like actual knowledge could come in handy.” Eventually Frank entrusted his knee surgery to a medical doctor with a lengthy personal history of illness and general discomfort.

I might point out that while Esther and I are generally healthy, it is not at all true that we have no physical complaints. And it is a filthy lie that we are non-empathetic. We are almost angelically empathetic, particularly given that we have no real idea as to what the other person is talking about or if it is at all true. Personally, I always treat other people’s ailments as if they were quite probably real ailments.

Deanna has a sister who is a medical doctor and another one who is a lawyer. This seems to me almost unbelievably handy, although for all I know it may not be. I assume that it is, however. From time to time I pester Ivan about not being a doctor. “Why couldn’t you have been a doctor?” I complain. “Then I would know if these cramps in my leg are cancer or not.”

“They’re not cancer,” Ivan will say, “and you would hate it if I were a doctor. You know that.”

“I would only hate it if you were always a doctor,” I correct him. “It would not bother me if you were sometimes a doctor. Why can’t you moonlight?”

It is lucky that Deanna’s headache turned out not to be fatal, because we need a lot more time to finish our paper. Some weeks after the hemp headache, Deanna said, “This paper is hard. I don’t see how we are going to be done writing it before the conference.”

“We won’t,” I agreed. “We will need at least two more years.” Still, we did get a version of the paper finished in time for the conference — finished if you stretch the concept of “finished” to include “not finished.” We were not completely, literally finished in that we didn’t have an ending to the paper. Actually, we did have an ending, but it was incompatible with our other ending.

We did what film makers do when they have two endings that do not agree with one another. We left it ambiguous. We invited members of the audience to supply their own endings. We did not mean this in the artistic, open-ended way that film makers do, however, when they ask people to mull over various alternative endings in their imagination. We meant it more literally. We hoped people would raise their hands and say, “Here is a good ending for your paper.” There was a certain reluctance on the part of our audience to do that.

It is good that I took some pictures of the audience, so we would know who to blame.



The folks at SWIP were not used to having paparazzi around, so I had to scale back my activities quite a bit. Whereas people in Utah are accustomed to seeing me with a camera — along with Olin, who is following in my footsteps — other people get nervous.

Olin likes being a photographer
Olin the paparazzi Olin the paparazzi Olin the paparazzi

Olin avoiding the limelight
Olin does not care for being the subject

When I say that folks here in Utah are used to my having the camera with me, I don’t mean that they like it, necessarily. Some of them do, some of them don’t. If they don’t, they try to be polite about it. “Dr. Thompson,” Matt says — Matt is one of two people in the world who call me Dr. Thompson — “I see you’ve got that damned camera with you again.” Matt has not been all that lucky about the pictures I have taken of him. The ones I took at the NCUR conference mostly appear to have been taken from an enormous distance by a photographer primarily interested in walls, ceilings, and the backs of people’s heads.

The backs of people’s heads

At SWIP, I took a picture of a ceiling all by itself. “Extreme Photography,” I call it.

SWIP ceiling

The bad pictures were not really my fault. Ivan had taken the digital camera with him to his ancient Maya conference, so I had to use the other camera. Ivan took the digital camera on the grounds, first, that the Maya conference was a much longer conference than SWIP, which is true, and, second, that it is his digital camera, which is hardly true at all. It depends on what you mean by “truth.”

Setting aside the broader question of Truth, there is the more immediate question of facts. The fact is that while Ivan was in Austin at his conference, I took seven rolls of pictures — four before the SWIP conference and three in East Lansing. During Ivan’s first week at the Maya conference, he took exactly three pictures. When I sent him email criticizing this state of affairs, he told me that he planned to take a lot more photographs during the second week. In particular, he planned to take three or four pictures of some of the buildings on campus, provided that the weather was nice. When the pictures of the buildings turned out fuzzy, he blamed the camera.

I35 Room 125

Ivan disputes these facts, and it is possible that they are open to interpretation. Personally, I like my facts straight up, but some people prefer their facts to have that bubbly quality. It is ironic, in view of my strict adherence to facts or, alternatively, truth, that my own sister challenges not only my ability to wield facts competently but my very acquaintance with facts. Yesterday, Barb sent me a Virginia Woolf quotation in which, speaking of her sister, Woolf wrote that “she invents all sorts of answers, never having known very accurately about facts.” It was so interesting, Barb said, that Woolf would feel about her sister much the way she herself does about me.

If Barbara got out and about more, she’d see that acquaintance with facts is so rare that in some locales the so-called “facts” are almost totally made up. For example, the hotel where Deanna and I stayed in East Lansing advertised a free shuttle van to take you from the airport to the hotel. When I called the hotel from the airport to ask for a ride on the shuttle, they asked if I could I take a cab instead; they would pay for it. I went outside to catch a cab.

There were no cabs. After about five minutes, I asked a man in a uniform if there were likely to be cabs coming round. He looked dubious. “If you want a cab,” he said, “it would really be best to call. If you want them to show up for sure, I mean.” I could use the courtesy phone inside, he said.

Since I felt that I did want the cab to show up for sure, I went to use the courtesy phone, which turned out to have no phone book and no place for a phone book. It was a phone for people who had memorized whatever number they wanted to call. It was not a phone for first-time visitors to Lansing. Possibly there aren’t a lot of them.

I went to ask for help from the man at the information desk. He was a very nice man, earnest and helpful. I asked him if he could call me a cab.

“There are cabs outside, you know,” he said.

“I assumed there would be,” I said, “but there aren’t. So I thought I had better call for one.”

“They don’t look like cabs. They look like shuttles,” he said carefully. “You might not have noticed them.”

“I would have noticed them,” I assured him. “There were no cabs, no cars, no shuttles, no vehicles of any persuasion. There was nothing,” I said.

“Nothing that looked like a shuttle?” he probed delicately. He tried to be helpful, but in the end I had to share a cab with a man who had reserved his cab in advance. He offered to have me dropped off first, but I said, “It’s probably better if I get dropped off second; the hotel is going to pay for my cab fare and I don’t know if that gets complicated. They are supposed to have a shuttle but they told me to take a cab.”

“Do they have a shuttle? Really? I’ve never seen it,” said the man.

“Oh, they have one, but you don’t see it too often,” said the cabbie. “We pick up most of their fares. It’s a pretty regular income for us.”

This seems to me to speak deeply of the elasticity of facts in Michigan. Is there a hotel shuttle or isn’t there? If there is, why have so few people seen it? Also, when a hotel advertises free shuttle service but instead pays for everyone’s cab fare, how does that get balanced on the hotel’s books?

One possibility is that a hotel employee generates random spreadsheets that resemble a budget; whoever is in charge reads them and says to himself, “Well, that certainly looks like a budget. I am satisfied.” I am just guessing, but the business world is full of people who think that charts are facts.

Education is like that, too, actually. A lot of education professors draw arrows to prove how reliable their ideas are. Drawing arrows is a lot easier than explaining things — and it’s visual, so you can hardly get more true to life than that. When they teach or give talks, the professors use overheads and power point diagrams that look like this: teacher ➠➠➠ [education] ➠➠➠ learner.

“What’s with the arrows?” I asked a friend after she gave a talk full of arrows. “They provide a conceptual map,” she told me. “But if you are using them to explain things without words, then all we have are the arrows,” I objected. “All of the meaning is in the arrows, and we don’t know what the arrows mean.” What I really was trying to say was, “Use your words.” When Tommy was three, he would scream if he didn’t like how things were going and Barb would tell him, “Use your words, Tommy.” There is an important lesson here for software managers and education professors, although not necessarily for philosophers.

Many years ago, Ivan worked for a company that required all its programmers to generate their own individual PERT charts. A PERT chart refers to a “Program Evaluation Review Technique”; it is a bunch of boxes and circles and arrows that indicate that you plan things (❶➠➠❷) and then do them (❷➠➠❸) so that they eventuate in a product (❸➠➠❹).  In order to not be sued for copying the proprietary idea of drawing lines between numbers for profit, I have drawn a philosophical rather than a programming version of a PERT chart. PERT charts are supposed to be individualized, but in the case of philosophers an exception is made. Not only is the philosophical version so routine and universal that there is no need for personalized charts, but you really do not want philosophers to go into the excruciating detail that personalized charts permit. There is also such a thing as not using your words, or at least not so many of them.

Major philosophical breakthrough

In business, a PERT chart is supposed to tell you exactly what any team member is doing, thereby providing for complete accountability. Because everybody at this company had to spend so much time working up their PERT charts that no one had time to do any programming, one enterprising employee wrote a program to randomly generate individualized PERT charts. This freed up workers’ time to do their actual work, while giving upper management something to keep them occupied, so everyone was happy. Two decades later, the programmers are still using the same random PERT generator to turn in their reports.

Still, neither words nor arrows can fully capture Truth as other people see it. When you get right down to it, what the words and arrows often stand for is a lot of screaming or, alternatively, lip smacking. The last day that I was in East Lansing, Elizabeth, John, and Avery Moje and I went to an ice cream parlor on M.A.C. Avenue to get Avery some ice cream with sprinkles and gummi bears mashed into it. Avery is five. That is really all I can tell you about why she wanted gummi bears in her ice cream. The explanation is not going to get any clearer that that. There was a four-year-old boy in line behind us who told his mother that he wanted gummi bears in his ice cream, too. Trying to delay things long enough for reason to creep into the decision, his mother said, “Why don’t you look at all the choices before you decide?” The little boy looked at all the choices and then rapped determinedly on the glass where the gummi bears were displayed. He didn’t use his words, because words were pretty much extraneous to the situation. It would not have been worthwhile asking him to explain why he wanted gummi bears mashed into his ice cream. Either you do or you don’t. Words will not clarify anything.

Elizabeth, Avery and John

Sometimes it is a mistake to use words precisely because other people do understand them and passionately disagree with them. The man in front of us in the ice cream line had the kind of rout-out-the-Enemy views about movies that some people have about political dissidents. When John inquired about Ivan’s job, I asked him, “Have you seen Office Space? His job is kind of like that.” John and Elizabeth hadn’t seen the movie, so I explained, “It’s a Dilbert-type movie; it’s about life in the cubicle. It’s not a great movie, but it’s funny.”

The young man in front of us turned around. He bristled. “Office Space is a great movie,” he announced at large. “Totally great.”

We laughed at his firmness and I turned back to John and Elizabeth, saying, “It’s funny, anyway. You should see it.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that the young man was glaring at me; I turned my back more definitely, to suggest that this was a private conversation.

Bridling angrily, the young man persevered. “It is an awesome movie,” he said. “Totally awesome.” From then on, he never left our side. His girlfriend was just ahead of him in line, looking at ice cream and topping options, ordering, and finding a seat, but he himself never strayed more than five inches from us. Suspicious of my views, he went on waiting to hear whether, eventually, I was going to contradict him again. I think he wanted to turn me in somewhere.

After this, I may speak in code. Among other considerations, you never know when the FBI might be listening. Actually, I assume that the FBI is listening. Lately, there is an awful lot of tap, tap, tap on our home phone line. So far, I have not spoken in code on the phone. I am taking my cue from Boondocks. When the line begins to tap, I say, “Hello, FBI, welcome to our conversation. Today we will be discussing the fascism of the present regime.”

For all I know, though, it may be the CIA.

I hasten to point out to the FBI and the CIA that this story contains only small amounts of truth, in carefully controlled portions. As a doctor, I fully understand the danger of truths that have not been subjected to professional governmental scrutiny.

Even more vital are parental and auntly scrutiny.

Sometimes Ivan and I argue about how to rear Tom and Annika. Should they be engineers or should they be philosophers? We have not consulted their parents about this because we do not want to hear alternative points of view. Two points of view are already too many. For a while it looked like Annika and Tom were going to have to be hybrid philosopher-engineers, but this sounded kind of dangerous. Then we were starting to lean towards them both being plumbers, at least on weekends; we were having a lot of plumbing problems at the time, and my instinct when I am having medical or plumbing problems is to get a family member to develop the necessary professional knowledge and then come live with me. But after a while we were back to the engineer/philosopher divide. Frank sided with Ivan. The world does not need more philosophers, Frank said, which heaven knows is true. I never thought that the world needed more philosophers. I only thought that philosophy needed more Toms and Annikas. The discussion turned out to be moot, because Tom is going to be either a science fiction novelist or a physicist or a fifth-grade teacher and Annika might do something involving Jane Austen, rock music, and/or the Maya. For a while, though, it looked like she was going to be a philosopher.

Back when Annika was about six, I had gone to stay with her and Tom while their parents went on a trip; Barb and Joe put me in their room even though they weren’t leaving for a couple of days yet, and at around two in the morning, Annika climbed into bed with me. Since I am a light sleeper and Annika gave off massive quantities of heat, I put her back in her own bed. I was pleased to see that she went straight to sleep. The first or second summer that I stayed with the kids, Annika kept getting back out of her bed and coming into mine. Finally, I put her in her bed and then climbed in with her until she fell asleep. The next morning she asked me, “Did you climb into bed with me last night?” and when I said yes, she remarked politely but pointedly, “Don’t you have your own bed?” On this occasion, however, she stayed in her bed after I put her back in it.

The next morning, I asked Joe, “Does Annika often climb in bed with you and Barb?”

“Yes, she says that she’s scared,” Joe told me. Joe is a light sleeper, like me; I asked if he didn’t find it hard to sleep, with Annika in bed with them. He said, “Yes. I can’t sleep with her in the bed, so usually I just go get in her bed and sleep there instead.”

At the time, Annika was not noticeably afraid of anything, so this business of climbing into her parents’ bed every night struck me as suspicious. I asked her about it. “Oh, was that you in their bed?” she asked interestedly. “I wondered.” She went on to tell me, “I like to sleep with my mommy and daddy.”

“Did you know that it’s hard for your daddy to sleep when you climb into bed with him and your mommy?” I asked.

“Yes,” she answered. “He always goes and sleeps in my bed.”

“Then don’t you think you should sleep in your bed and let your daddy sleep in his?” I pressed.

“But I like sleeping with my mommy and daddy,” she objected. “And they let me,” she pointed out, adding, “I tell them I’m scared.”

“Is that the truth, though?” I asked.

She paused to look at me consideringly. “What is truth?” she asked.

The thing is, the world is awfully pressed for veterinarians.

What is Truth?


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