July 2, 2002

· Obiter Dicta

Have you gotten the Ryan and Jacob email yet? It begins “There is something extremely wrong with every single person in this world. They seem to be part of a pointless simulation.” Then it continues to explain (ad nauseam) how 99.999999% of people in the world are fakes, except (coincidentally) the authors and a few others who will be clever enough to find their homepage. Well, here it is. Also here.

Oi. Let’s assume this isn’t an elaborate, pointless hoax. In that case, the lesson to be learned here is: Kids! This is what happens when you don’t read enough philosophy and social science! You read a little bit—- perhaps Ayn Rand or Robert Pirsig, or Gary Zukav, or possibly Richard Dawkins or Lenin or Hayek. But then you stop. Or else, you get sucked into the orbit of some group of disciples. Argh! Pretty soon it’s too late, and you’re on your way to becoming the worst kind of semi-informed autodidact. You become imbued with a terrifying certainty that this book (whichever one it was you read) holds the key to all the philosophical problems you can think of. So you don’t have to read any more. Or you only have to read more in the same vein. Or you read alternative views but with your mind already made up. It’s fun to be completely certain about everything: arguments are much more enjoyable when you already know the answers and are in no danger of having your mind changed about something.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve read those books myself. Some of them are very good—- important, even. They get under people’s skin for a reason. And you could be reading something cracked, evil or both. But avoiding the real schlock isn’t enough to keep your brain healthy. Latching on to one idea and agressively obsessing about it is generally a sign that you’re turning into a crank. Fortunately for me, I’m just a sociologist so I don’t get too much direct mail from wackos. In this respect, I’m a lot luckier than Laurie, who does analytic metaphysics and is routinely annoyed by random people who want her to read their theories of the universe.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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