Believe it or not, I’ve had a lot of interesting experiences with homeless people. One time I was in the middle of a run in the park with my cross country team when a shady character in his mid fifties burst out of the woods and offered to stand on his head for $5. Taken aback, we all stopped on the spot and exchanged glances. He seemed harmless enough, so we went around emptying our pockets. Frankly any amount of money is a tall order for a group of people in running shorts, but somehow we were able to scrounge up about forty cents all together. The man took our change and gleefully stood on his head anyways. Then he bounded off back into the woods without a word.
Another time I was circling a parking lot when a shabby young man approached my car and asked me for change. I rolled down the window and handed him a couple quarters. He hurriedly stuffed the change in his breast pocket and I thought that was the end of it. To my surprise he lurched in through my driver’s side window, torso and all, to grab a second helping from my center console.
One unbelievable story makes for an entertaining anecdote. Two and you have a whole storytelling routine on your hands. Three– three is when people start to think you’re bullshitting. I do have a third homeless story, and while it is just as strange as the last two, the most unbelievable thing about this one is in how profound the impact was on me.
This whole debacle started with a simple family trip to the Barnes and Noble. My parents, eager to escape the great Hurricane Florence calamity that recently submerged their town, headed up to pay my brother and I a visit with our youngest sibling in tow. My youngest brother had recently suffered a rather dismal birthday puttering out of our neighborhood in a motorboat like a refugee. When they were finally able to drive their cars out a proper celebration was in order.
After we all met up and enjoyed a few burritos, we decided to kill some time at the local bookstore as is Frederick tradition. We all filed into the Barnes and Noble and fanned out to our favorite sections. My mother made a beeline to the psychology and management section. My youngest brother went to teen fantasy. My middle brother flocked to the sports section, my father history and biography, and I to science and technology.
Almost immediately I took note of a highly disheveled and fidgety man casually sipping from a plastic cup of water and leaning up against the shelves as if he owned the place and wanted all the women there to know it. I nodded to him and proceeded to peruse the collection of books. I found one on REST APIs in the programming section that seemed interesting. Briefly I began to wonder whose decision it was to start picking animals for the covers of all these O’Rielly tech books. Then this fellow began asking me questions.
“I’ve been thinking about going into biomedical engineering myself, actually,” he said, nodding to the wording on my college t-shirt. “Any advice?” You have to understand that this man did not have the bright gleam of ambition in his eye. On the contrary his eyes reflected a mix of abject insanity and exhaustion to match his unkempt appearance. I swallowed, then gave him the best advice I could. I talked about how I went to UNC and though I’m really happy with my degree he might want to look at a traditional engineering school if he was really wanting to work in the field. A medical campus affords some interesting possibilities for those on the pre-medical side, but not much in the way of engineering career experience. He paused and considered this. Then he shifted his weight like a man about to launch into a really long-winded conversation. He was.
Over the course of the next 20 minutes this man proceeded to unload on me all about his midlife crisis five years ago. Apparently at the ripe age of 37 he “woke up” suddenly dumbfounded that nobody around him was putting any effort towards conquering their mortality. That’s why he wanted a biomedical engineering degree. To cheat death itself.
What followed wasn’t so much a conversation as a scattered monologue. He barely let me get a word in edgewise, but man did he touch all the philosophical bases. He questioned whether or not the brain can be cloned, and if that would be electronically or biologically. He posited a probabilistic approach to the question of whether religion is worth believing. He dabbled in the ethics of citizen science and debated whether or not conjuring a mental image of something constitutes its existence. He even explained to me why language itself is surely a parasite that replicates, mutates, and controls the minds of humans. At one point he started talking about the likelihood of aliens and that we all might be living in a simulation. He kept saying that he was gonna tie this all back around, but honestly I was trying my best to hear him out and he lost me. I think the bottom line was this man was highly curious about the finality of our existence and how he should go about leading the charge to circumvent it.
It was an altogether surreal experience, but as it turns out the strangest thing about our conversation was how much I genuinely enjoyed it. Sure, he was twitchy, mentally unhinged, and smelled unpleasant, but beneath the surface was a genuinely curious man who wanted to think big instead of merely pointing out obvious things like the rest of the population. “It’s hot out today.” “You got a haircut, didn’t you?” “I hate Mondays” These are things normal people say to each other all the time. If anything the people that go around mindlessly spewing objective facts should be the crazy people. This guy just wanted to have a deep, fulfilling conversation and I can’t fault him for that in the slightest.
He might have been drugged or off his medication, sure, but a lot of the things this man was saying weren’t totally bananas. Cleaned up and restated, these are popular questions in philosophy. Is consciousness simply a natural result of having just the right kind of atoms next to each other, or is it more nuanced than that? That’s the mind-body problem. Does being able to conceive of a thing necessitate that it exists? Descartes wondered that. Are representations of a thing the same thing as that thing? Magritte painted that. Can we outsmart death with technology? That’s every third episode of Black Mirror. What about language, can it be viewed as a parasite? That’s actually a philosophical doctrine called Symbiosism and also pops up in meme theory. Approaching theism as a probabilistic situation? That’s Pascal’s Wager. There is a case for our known universe being a simulation, and the curious lack of aliens given the high probability of their existence constitutes the problem known as the Great Filter.
The sad truth is that this chance encounter was probably the most stimulating conversation I’ve had with another human being in years. It could even be the most stimulating conversation I ever have. Not because I don’t have enjoyable conversations on a regular basis, but because I hardly ever find myself in a conversation with anyone game to talk about big philosophical questions. Philosophy has always been that interesting corner of the internet or the library that I love to visit but can never really engage with in a real life social setting. I think much of that has to do with how philosophy is viewed in our society.
For the vast majority of my life discussions of philosophy were strictly taboo. They probably still are. For starters I grew up in a religious household and was deeply involved in my church. Religion has certainly shaped my life in many positive ways, but I have always hated that there are a lot of questions that are strictly off-limits. It wasn’t ever explicitly said, but I always got the feeling that discussions of morality or meaning outside the christian framework were going to end awkwardly. Of course I don’t think that religion itself is the problem, just that it inherently attracts a lot of people that are uncomfortable with bigger questions and would prefer to be told how they should think in these matters.
Of course people with myopic perspectives aren’t exclusive to religion– they are well represented in politics as well. It never ceases to amaze me how many folks spend their entire lives unaware that their core beliefs were simply put there by the people around them and continually ratified by inescapable confirmation bias. Religious people may pity you or judge you for asking a controversial question, but only over political beliefs will anyone truly hate you with every fiber of their being for what you think. It should really go without saying that this happens on both sides of the aisle even though they both tend to demonize one another. Try asking a southern conservative about the merits of immigration and I assure you that you will get no stronger a response than if you genuinely ask a millennial woman for their sources on the gender wage gap.
Stubborn people are frustrating, but there are also questions that are too big for even the most open-minded people to handle without passing judgement. Recently I began to take an interest in the problem of suicide. I have no history of depression, self-harm, or suicidal thoughts or tendencies. I simply find it an interesting question to ponder whether or not someone in their right, rational mind could ever decide that life isn’t worth living. As much comfort as it would be to think suicidal actions spring on people all at once like a heart attack, I can entertain the possibility that some people simply just don’t want to live and make an educated and rational decision to roll the dice on the void. Obviously this is a question that I’ll never be able to discuss with anyone without them immediately jumping to conclusions about my sanity and whether or not I’m a risk to myself. In reality, it’s nothing more than a question for an idle mind to chew on. Albert Camus seemed to think it was a question worth asking and jumps right in from the first sentence in his book The Myth of Sisyphus. Many other philosophers found it an interesting problem. But normal, everyday people? That’s not a question you can bring up without someone confining you to a padded room “for your own good.”
More than anything else this conversation with a crazy homeless man in the middle of a bookstore reminded me how thirsty I was for debate and speculation. Not the spoon-fed, TV talking-heads “here’s what the news means…” kind of speculation, but the wide-eyed spit-balling of crazy ideas about why things are. Thousands of years ago the Greeks found time to hang out, drink wine, and take the big questions head-on at regular symposia. In the age of modern science and technology, though, I fear that the ubiquity of accessibility to facts has exhausted our capacity for reason much the way I would guess our collective mental math skills have gone down the toilet. Curiosity tends to fester, to gnaw at you until you find an acceptable answer. When answers are always just a reflex away, I question how much power, if any, our collective curiosity still wields over us to make us think.
As I sit here, hunched over my computer mindlessly tapping away at my keyboard and cursing myself for not going to bed on time, I can’t help but wonder what my interlocutor is up to right now. Is he genuinely on a quest to cheat death? Is he lecturing to inanimate objects in the middle of the park on the minutia of the categorical imperative? Maybe he’s out there in the world legitimately struggling with some kind of addiction or mental illness. Perhaps he also has thought about our conversation in the days since and has considered some of my points.
You never know what a homeless person is capable of. Sure, they might be capable of violence. They also might be capable of philosophical discourse that’s barely passable as coherent. To my knowledge my friend Curt has never masturbated in public. He’s probably never lived in a clay tub, demolished currency, or pelted unsuspecting lecturers with raw chicken. I really doubt he’s ever called anyone’s mother a whore to their face. Curt’s kind of crazy is a lot less radical than Diogenes the Cynic was in Athens 2,400 years ago, but no less philosophical or fun.
We could all stand to be a little more willing to ask big questions. We could all stand to be a little more crazy.