Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

What I’ve learned from a crackpot philosopher

I think, therefore I exist. Steve Patterson is pushing the boundaries of this as much as he can. And he's happier for it.

I’m not entirely sure now how I landed on Indiegogo, a crowdfunding website. It allows people to solicit funds for an idea, a charity or a start-up, in return for a modest fee. For whatever reason, “Fund Jason Brenan’s review of Crackpot Philosophy", got my attention. Whatever in the world is that supposed to mean, I wondered, and looked closer.

The man seeking to raise funds turned out to be someone called Steve Patterson—a name I was unfamiliar with. By way of an overview of the project, he writes: “Is it worth your time to read philosophy that is published outside of academia? Dr Jason Brennan says it’s not worth his time, and he would need to be paid $1,000 to read my book. I’m taking him up on the offer."

To add perspective, he introduces himself: “I’m Steve Patterson, and I’m a philosopher working outside of academia. For the past couple years, I’ve been publishing articles, videos, books, and I’ve been traveling the world, interviewing professors from elite universities about big ideas."

“To Professor Jason Brennan, that’s not good enough. He says he needs $1,000 to even read my book, but if I pay him, he’ll also write a 1,200-word review that he will try to publish in an academic journal. So, this campaign is to raise the necessary funds he needs to read and review Square One: The Foundations of Knowledge."

I didn’t know what to make of it. Questions popped instead. Who is this man? What is he? Cocky? Arrogant? Amusing? 

Whatever he be, 33 people had already committed to back the project and Patterson had raised $1,060. He had outstripped his target. In return for which backers would get a signed copy of his book, now available in e-book and paperback formats on Amazon as well.

This had me intrigued further still and led me to his website. Contrary to what I first assumed, it wasn’t built just to promote his book. While it is available for purchase there, it turns out that it is a place where Patterson explores different ideas. 

So, on the one hand, there are his personal observations and arguments on various themes. To cite but just once instance, the significance of preciseness in language and how it can cause rifts. 

A post on the difference between gender and sex, how should it be used and why its misuse has created a rift between liberals and traditionalists got my attention. There was a reason.

It was only last week that I had posed what I thought a rather innocent question on Facebook. There was an article headlined “The Retro Wife". I couldn’t make sense of it, and wondered what my friends, particularly the women, may think of, because it took a view of feminism I was unfamiliar with. 

A few friends I know of well tore me to shreds in private for being an ignoramus and even having spent time on such “blah". I apologized. In hindsight, I need not have. Because all I did was ask a question to which I had no answer. What could possibly be wrong with that? But that is an aside. 

On the other hand, interesting conversations with some of the finest contemporary minds of our times on various themes reside as podcasts on Patterson’s website. 

All he asks is that if you like what he does, you contribute whatever you think appropriate. And if you think it unviable, that’s all right by him as well.

This was beginning to get interesting. What could his motivations be? Just before I crashed out, I dropped him an email from an address on his website, tagged him on Twitter as well and asked if he’d be open to a conversation. 

A few hours later, he got back to me, and sent a PDF of his book too, indicating he would be interested to engage. And a little later, the both of us were on Skype. 

Turns out he is American, but now in New Zealand. Because he is continuing his Socratic journey. “I have sold all of my stuff, purchased some high-quality tech equipment, and will be travelling the world interviewing intellectuals across the globe. I will be talking with people from every background—philosophers, pastors, political theorists, mathematicians, monks, physicists, theologians, economists and anybody else I can learn from."

“I am focusing on essential questions, and I’ve no desire to waste time chatting about fluffy nonsense. I want to hear the best case for mysticism from a Hindu; the clearest explanation of consciousness from a Buddhist; the most rigorous defences of empiricism and rationalism from Western philosophers; and I want to examine the foundations of the great religions. There are numerous issues I think are critically important, and I will be free to pursue them all."

“My ideas will be put to the test. I do not pretend to be unbiased. I am a philosopher with a well-developed world view and passionately-held beliefs, but I am willing to learn and be corrected. As I’ve written about before, the world of ideas woefully lacks a feedback mechanism to determine whether our ideas are true or false. But this method—getting outside of the ivory tower, libraries, and insular echo-chambers—seems like the best approach."

“I am inspired by the story of Socrates, and I intend this to be a continuation of his work. He had philosophic dialogues with intellectuals thousands of years ago, but unfortunately for the rest of us, he didn’t have a microphone. I do, and I’ve also got the internet, which means that everybody can join, participate, and learn from the journey."

For a moment, I thought I could see Professor Brenan’s point. Either this man is delusional and a crackpot, or somebody very interesting whom I cannot fathom. And I told him that in as many words. Because, at first glance, I thought I could see a few dichotomies.

• What I thought I could hear was the voice of someone from the First World in search of nirvana or the truth or whatever it may be! How often have I heard this one before? Haven’t all of us in our part of the world seen animals, beginning with rock stars from the 1960s travelling to India and Nepal, in search of nirvana even as they chant Om, smoke pot, strum the guitar and hold that by now clichéd poster “Make Love, Not War"? Incidentally, Patterson preaches love as well. Does that make him a hippie?

• Then there was another obvious one. That on the one hand he claims to disdain academia. But his calling card to fame and the reason people like to get on his show, by his own admission, are because there are other famous people of distinction from academia on his show. What does that make him? A hypocrite? 

• Not just that. He’s American and white. By any which yardstick, privileged in the current world order. Any time he chooses, he can go back to the land of milk and honey that people from most parts of the world aspire to. The only reason he can do what he can is because he is the outcome of a society and the thinkers who built it. 

I’d give an arm and leg to be in a place as he is, I told him. He heard me out. The both of us nodded gravely. And laughter broke out. No offence was taken and the walls came down. 

It was his turn to speak. His truth. He was home-schooled and “I grew up as a conservative. I am not a liberal. And I certainly, certainly am not a hippie. I am a realist who borders on pessimism," he told me. The sum and substance of our conversation touched upon pretty much everything under the sun boiled down to a few things.

“There is a thin line that divides arrogance and confidence," he said. “Arrogance comes naturally to those who are self-conscious. I used to be that way. My own confidence comes from pursuing with the truth, wherever it leads me to. And when I know I have the truth, I will state my position and with confidence. But I will change my mind, if somebody states it with a superior argument."

Eventually, the both of us agreed the purest pursuit is the pursuit of knowledge. And if that means questioning accepted wisdom, then I will do it. 

“But," he filed a caveat on the back of his experience, “the times we live in are such that questioning accepted wisdom is considered heresy and only two sides to any story exist. Any other version is to be condemned and buried." 

But because people like him ask questions, oftentimes, he is considered a crackpot in many quarters. “I am okay with people mocking me for a long period of time. I am willing to go with it. But I see this as a movement of a new type of intellectuals who will work outside of academia."

Is it scary?

“Yes, it is."

How do you know then you aren’t going down the garden path?

“Your beliefs have to be tested often. My current beliefs are very far away from where I started. Because I am confident, I put my beliefs to the test. I am not timid. That lands me in trouble. Even in my writing, I tend to write very strong words." 

By way of analogy, he spoke to me of jujitsu, a martial art he practises. “The only way you get better is by losing over and over again. You get immediate feedback by getting slapped. In the world of ideas, you don’t get feedback right away. You can write more words. So, you get away; many times poor ideas go unchallenged. My learning from this has translated into: Challenge everything."

In the real world, that meant he started out studying politics. Then moved into economics because his mind argued politics would not exist without economics. Some studies into economics later, his mind argued economic thought cannot exist without a philosophical framework. 

While Steve holds a bachelor's degree in philosophy as well, he says, “my experiences within academia were underwhelming, and after working with professors and students in my job in the non-profit world, I concluded that academia was not the place for people deeply interested in the world of ideas." 

So, he started to ask hard questions and attempted to answer them, stripping out all the jargon, in a language people outside the world of academia can understand and relate to. 

But could he make a living out of his passion? It sounded like a Quixotic quest. The early years were tough. His wife supported him while he gave up his job to research, write articles, set up a technology platform, think and build a one-man gig that is now his website. When he started, though, there were no names or funds to back him.

As for him being a hypocrite, his take was simple. In the beginning, he had no credentials. He had to establish it and to do that, he had to be pragmatic. The incremental cost of sending an email out to an accomplished individual was practically zero. If a few hit the mark and he asked them the right questions, it was only a matter of time before the scales would tilt in his favour. 

He was right. In the early days, his notes got the attention of some sympathetic and lonely souls in academia keen to talk of their work. They were intrigued as well by a single-man army with a camera, recorder and only earnestness on his side. Over time, he built credentials, traffic and now people are keen to engage with him. But it was hard work. “I had to do my homework."

His writing gained traction as well on the back of relentless hours of work. Much research later, he eschewed traditional publishing houses. Not for anything else, but because it was easier and more practical to break in. 

“Platforms like Amazon make it so easy to publish and I keep 70% of the royalties. It has upended the publishing business. This is not to suggest I will decline an offer from an established brand." 

He put that into perspective as well. Platforms like Amazon and Medium make it possible for anybody with access to the internet and aspirations to write to publish. But success depends on how hard you work, what you put out, how it is marketed, and what value you deliver. He was talking entrepreneurship. “I was learning, the hard way." 

It has now come to a point where he is comfortable, and between his wife and him, they can travel the world. They’ve given themselves some more time to explore different regions, including South-East Asia later this year. 

At some point though, they intend to go back home to their native US, have children and rear a family. But they will be richer in ways most of us cannot imagine.

I told him I’d give an arm and a leg to be where he is right now. He said he wouldn’t trade places. 

And what does that make him? 

“I am an entrepreneur in the world of ideas," he said.

At the end of this long conversation, my takeaways were rather straightforward. The man I was listening to was thinking of imaginative ways to create an institution on the back of his learnings. 

All of what he is putting out is being shared and distributed under the Creative Commons—the same license that makes platforms like Wikipedia as powerful as they are. 

All his posts are in the public domain. The books he writes and sent me a copy of are under the Creative Commons. That means they can be freely shared, reproduced and built upon. 

In fact, to popularize his earlier books, he looked up some BitTorrent sites and posted them there so people looking for free material could download his work. 

He is open to being challenged, is not easily intimidated, and, I admit, is confident. I’ve just about begun to read his book. It sounds promising, and I notice people are buying it as well.

I don’t know what Professor Jason Brenan thinks about him. At the time of writing this dispatch, a note to him seeking his comments and thoughts on Patterson’s challenge has not met with a response yet. If one comes, I’ll keep you posted.

Charles Assisi is co-founder of Founding Fuel Publishing

His Twitter handle is @c_assisi

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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