Friday, August 10, 2012

The Big Bang Theory and Philosophy -- A Review


THE BIG BANG THEORY AND PHILOSOPHY: Rock, Paper, Scissors, Aristotle, Locke (The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series).  Edited by Dean A. Kowalski.  Series edited by William Irwin.  Hoboken, NJ:  John Wiley & Sons, 2012.  X + 278 pages.


If you are a fan of The Big Bang Theory (TV show not the scientific theory) --and I am a fan -- then this book is for you.  Well, if you really hate philosophy then you may not like the book, which could mean that Sheldon Cooper wouldn’t like the book.  After all, Sheldon sees no purpose for the humanities.  Still, if you’re a fan you’ll like the book, at least I did. 

The Big Bang Theory and Philosophy is the latest volume in an ongoing series of books that explore philosophy, an academic discipline that can be rather esoteric, abstract, and even dry (if you had my philosophy professor that is), through the lens of popular culture.   Other volumes make use of South Park, Harry Potter, Arrested Development, and Twilight, just to name a few.   By making use of popular culture icons, the series brings to life the kinds of questions that philosophy seeks to address – the “big questions,” such as what is real and how we should behave.  At the same time, this book offers something different from a typical philosophy textbook.  Dean Kowalski writes:
Rarely do philosophy books explore whether comic book-wielding geeks can lead the good life, or whether they can know enough science to tear the mask off nature and stare at the face of God.  Rarer still are explorations into how socially awkward, Superhero-loving brainiacs meaningfully interact with down-to-earth beauties from India or the Cheesecake Factory.  (p. 2).
In this volume, which utilizes The Big Bang Theory, is comprised of seventeen chapters, divided into five sections.  Part One looks at Aristotle, Part Two examines ethics, Part Three looks into science and religion, while Part Four explores language and meaning, and finally in Part Five the essays look at aspects of the human experience.  In addition, the book includes an Episode Compendium that lists episodes by year and date of airing so you can place the episodes discussed in their chronological context.   

Although there is structure to the book (five distinct sections), the authors, most of whom are either philosophy professors or graduate students, appear to have considerable freedom in framing their essays and choosing topics.  Although the first three essays, all of which deal with Aristotle, address philosophy as a discipline, the other sections cover the full range of topics.  It’s important to understand that each of the essays stands on its own, so you as the reader can pick and choose what you wish to read, when you want to read.   You don’t have to know a lot of philosophy to enjoy the book, but it helps to be familiar with the show and its characters.  If you’re into the Family Guy instead of The Big Bang Theory, you might want to read that volume!
  
 Topics that are explored range from Aristotle’s understanding of friendship to the nature of evil (“But Is Wil Wheaton Evil?), scientism to Wittgenstein and language games, religion to gender.  Readers get drawn into the discussion without feeling overwhelmed.  You’ll also have an opportunity to discern whether it is appropriate to laugh at Sheldon.  The answer is yes, but you'll have to read to find out why!

For the most part the authors of these essays understand that the audience is composed of persons who aren’t “philosophy geeks.”  But, the intended audience is persons who want to develop a better understanding of philosophy, and just happen to be fans of the show.

As one might suspect the central character in the book is Sheldon Cooper, even as he is the center of the show itself.  Sheldon provides a useful foil, especially since he has certain idiosyncrasies, including a strong belief that he is right and that the pursuit of truth is something to be engaged in with full vigor with science as the arbiter of truth (even as his mother does the same with Jesus as her guide).    

Although Sheldon has a major role in the book, all of the characters, including Leonard, Howard, and Raj, including the mothers of the four male characters as well as Bernadette, Amy Farrah Fowler, and Leslie Winkle, appear.  With Sheldon at the center, another character who figures prominently is Penny – often as a foil to Sheldon.  One of the more interesting essays (at least to me) is that of Nicholas Evans who uses the relationship of Penny and Sheldon to illustrate “growth through difference.”  In Evans’s interpretation, over the course of time the relationship between these two characters has a life expanding/life changing affect on both.  Of course, one can’t ignore the insightful discussion of mothers and sons as developed by Ashley Barkman.  It is illuminating to discover how the mother-son relationship may have helped create the idiosyncrasies of each character, including their seeming inability to move into true adulthood (remember they spend a lot of time at the comic book store).
 
Philosophy can be a rather dry subject, but thankfully there are books like this one that explains philosophical terms and ideas even as it entertains.   If you’re looking for a straight discussion of philosophy try reading Frederick Copleston’s The History of Philosophy, but if you’re open to learning in a fun environment try this book.   Just remember that this book is first of all a study of philosophy geared to the non-specialist.  The by-product of the book is that you will deepen your understanding of and engagement with the characters in these shows.

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