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If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers

If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers

4.4 10
by Jack Bowen

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• If Ignorance Is Bliss, Why Aren’t More People Happy?
• Bottled Water Is for Suckers
• Clones Are People Too
• At Least the War on the Environment Is Going Well
• Don’t Believe Everything You Think


• If Ignorance Is Bliss, Why Aren’t More People Happy?
• Bottled Water Is for Suckers
• Clones Are People Too
• At Least the War on the Environment Is Going Well
• Don’t Believe Everything You Think
• The Revolution Will Be Tweeted
Long before blogs, tweets, and sound bites, people were telling the world how they felt in brief, blunt bursts of information plastered on the backs of their cars. Whether they’re political or religious, passionate or proud, controversial or corny, these brightly colored, boldly lettered mini manifestos are declarations of who we are, where we stand, and what we’d rather be doing. But as bestselling author and noted philosopher Jack Bowen reveals, there’s much more to the pop-culture phenomenon of bumper stickers than rolling one-liners and drive-by propaganda—no less, in fact, than a wise, funny, poignant, contentious, and truthful discourse on the human condition.
Mixing pop culture with the ideas of historically prominent philosophers and scientists, If You Can Read This exposes the deeper wisdom couched behind these slogans—or, as need be, exposes where they have gone wrong. If you brake for big ideas, now’s the time.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Library Journal
In his latest, author and philosophy teacher Bowen (A Journey Through the Landscape of Philosophy) has a nifty concept that's unfortunately derailed by an arch tone and a strong, if tacit, atheist subtext. Using popular bumper sticker slogans as a lens to explore philosophy, Bowen comes across some interesting questions-"What happens if a horse and cart runs over a chicken and egg?"-that he doesn't seem fully willing to explore; indeed, taking a cue from bumper stickers themselves, Bowen seems all to willing to run through his ideas as quickly as possible: "To put the cart before the horse and first divulge the solution, the chicken came first." Though they're perhaps meant to dazzle, Bowen's slaloming through philosophical concepts feel hurried, an attempt to convince readers he's right rather than foster thought. Bowen's book also suffers from anti-religion bias, which he never acknowledges outright but makes clear in repeated (and sometimes highly dubious) claims: "To update the scorecard tally: The Numbers Killed in the Name of: Religion: 1 million give or take. Nothing: 0." Further, virtually no theologians are mentioned; one bumper sticker, "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy," isn't even attributed to its proper source, Martin Luther. Bowen's concept is certainly a clever way to draw in laypeople, but his hubris and narrow-mindedness is a good way to turn them off. Illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From the Publisher
"A witty little book that explains how, and why, people tell the world what they're thinking from the pulpit of their bumper."  — USA TODAY 

"Imagine speeding along the freeway while your driver, Ludwig Wittgenstein, dissects and reassembles the bumper-sticker "wisdom" on passing cars. That’s the kind of trip it is to read If You Can Read This."—Tom Cathcart and Dan Klein, authors of Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar
"In the sense of being pregnant with meaning, this book has a baby on board."—Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great
“Readers may find themselves involved in fender benders once they realize how much fun it is to think about the messages in bumper stickers and start tailgating in order to read and analyze them. A fantastic contribution to philosophy as it occurs in the real world.”—John Perry, co-host of the nationally syndicated Philosophy Talk, professor emeritus of philosophy at Stanford University

"If you love twitter (and even if you don't), you're going to love Jack Bowen's insightful and hilarious romp through the pre-twitter world of bumper sticker sloganeering. On every page I had two reactions: (1) a vigorous horse laugh, and (2) a curious 'uh, I didn't know that.' Humor and insight: what more can you ask from a book? Sex. Yes, it has that too. Read this book."—Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist for Scientific American, author of Why People Believe Weird Things

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Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

Don't Label Me

We can pretty much blame this whole labeling problem on Plato. While he was certainly well intentioned, in the end he may have created more problems than he solved. Put simply, Plato attempted the most intensive labeling campaign known to humankind. He suggested that all individual things relate to, or participate in, their respective general class-what he called the universal "Form." Take the simple case of chairs. For Plato, every chair exemplifies the essence of chairness, which allows us to label such varying objects as backless wooden stools, and metal seats with backs, and legless, backless beanbags all as chairs. This eradicates the chaos of there being thousands of different things, and puts in their place just one sort of thing. Since they share the same label they must share some common trait.

 For the most part, our minds aren't built for such time-consuming ventures as thinking and introspection-instead, a quick glance, assigning of a label, and moving on to the next task better serves our primary interest: survival. This natural propensity to categorize begins in children as young as one year old, and for good reason, as a child's ability to correctly label "hot" and "not hot" serves as a helpful survival mechanism. Burn me again, shame on me for not properly labeling. Our brains are great survival machines, yet poor truth detectors. In our long evolutionary history, the quick-footed cousin escapes the pursuing lion while the deep thinker is removed from the evolutionary playground, likely thinking all the while how unfair life is. Labeling allows us to divide and conquer, which certainly beats the survival strategy of nitpick and surrender.

Author and "Scientist of Uncertainty" Nassim Taleb intuits the deeper problem with our habitual labeling, in that it "makes us think that we understand more than we actually do." He suggests that many of us have simply been referencing the wrong "user's manual" for our brains. This causes various problems. On the one hand, it impedes our ability to accurately view our surroundings. In our habit of incessantly labeling, we wrongly assume that these labels actually exist in some way, as part of the world. Additionally, this practice deadens our creativity. Boxing up various individuals and objects makes it harder to think outside of that so-called box. Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer refers to this as being "Trapped by categories." For example, an auto mechanic sees just another spring, while his wife looking in on him, free of his constructs of labels, sees a toy-thus, the famous Slinky was born. And lastly, in treating everything as an example of one universal class or label, we miss out on the beauty in the fringes of uniquely constructed items, or, more important, the unique quirks and character traits of individual people. The antique shop's set of bowls have their own individual flair while the department store's set are all the same, and are just like those of your neighbors, and their neighbors down the street. Where's the beauty in that?

The problems run deeper than those of a private nature, such as one's viewing the world incorrectly or lacking creativity. Labeling others affects both how we treat them and how they see themselves. An MIT study had their students rate a visiting professor, though before he lectured they each read a short bio of him-half the class reading that he was "a very warm person" and the other half, "a rather cold person." Not surprisingly, their post-lecture reviews of him almost exactly reflected the prejudices of the fictitious labels. And most teachers are familiar with the Pygmalion Effect in which others behave according to the labels assigned to them. As the infamous exercise of one elementary school teacher shows, when students are told that having blue eyes relates to greater aptitude, the "blueies" outperform the "brownies." Yet, when the teacher announces the following day that she mistakenly switched the categories, the performance of the "brownies" increases accordingly.

Clearly this labeling business, while often practical, can cause great conflict. Fortunately, the ancient Greek philosopher Eubulides of Miletus provides us with another option, highlighting the inexact nature of these human-made categories. Writing during the same time as Plato, he asks us to agree that a certain pile of sand constitutes a heap. Upon his removing a single grain, we unanimously concur that it remains a heap, since obviously, subtracting a single grain from a heap can't make it a non-heap. Clearly, though, by that logic he could repeatedly subtract a grain until only a barely visible few were left-certainly not a heap's-worth. This example forced the recognition of the fuzziness of language and of labels.

To compensate for this deficiency of the traditional either/or binary logic, in 1965 UC Berkeley computer scientist Lotfi Zadeh introduced "fuzzy logic." This allowed mathematicians and others to provide more pragmatic quantitative descriptions, thus avoiding the pitfalls of pigeonholing (and it also allowed us to call them "fuzzy"). For example, placing a lit match in an empty gas barrel should do no harm; but knowing the barrel was .9 empty provides a much more accurate description. So instead of labeling a sand-grain collection as a heap/non-heap it could be considered a .7 heap, and so on with labeling people as introverts, as children, as good or bad-because no one truly maintains all of one quality, and forcing people into such black-and-white categories doesn't let the beauty of their respective grays shine. Or as popular television show composer Matt Bowen sings, "If you see the world in black and white / You're missing out on all the beautiful colors."

While this brings us closer to an accurate description of the world, it introduces a new practical challenge. Who gets the children's ticket price at the movies, .6 children and younger? The heap problem rears its head again as it forces us to distinguish between a .9 child and a .8, and it can't be just a matter of a day, an hour, or a minute.

 At the very least, an awareness of our habitual labeling can help overcome some of the personal and interpersonal angst that results, often unknowingly. And a balance of Plato's Chairness and Eubulides' Heaps might just provide a more accurate view of the self and the world around us. Because if the only tool one has is a hammer, then everything really does start to look like a nail. So go to the store and use the labels for that soup you'll be serving in your antique bowls-though just realize that while the cashier who sells it may ask, "Did you find everything okay?" just like all the others, they're also a little quirky, and somewhat introverted, and a tad childlike just like you.

 Size Does Matter

The same-sized "Large" soda of just ten years ago has since become a "Small." Actually, most fast-food chains have stopped even offering "Small" as an option, starting the bidding at "Medium"-or in the case of Starbucks, at a "Tall" and ending with the elusive "Venti" (Italian for "twenty," in reference to the number of ounces you get). 7-Eleven quickly surpassed everyone with their initial 32-ounce "Big Gulp"-three cans' worth of cola in one "serving"-only to soon dwarf that with their 44-ounce "Super Gulp" and the now 64-ounce "Double Gulp." This transformed their initial offering into a mere "Gulp," and dwarfed the initial McDonald's "Large" into a mere thimble's worth of the sugar-acid-caffeine elixir now overtaking other healthy options such as milk and water. Not to be outdone, ARCO offers "The Beast," coming in at 88 ounces, and causing cup-envy for all other pushers-Ronald McDonald ran out to buy a Hummer in order to compensate for his mere 42-ounce cup served to customers asking to "Super Size It."

Most of us intuit the objects and the space they occupy as absolutes. If you held a Tall coffee and then swapped it for a Venti, with you and your hand as an absolute, fixed reference point, the cups would appear to nearly double in size. As Isaac Newton suggested, a set frame of reference must exist to allow motion to be possible-if you're moving at sixty miles per hour and everything else around you is also, in the same direction, then what's the point? Thus, Archimedes held that if he could find just one fixed, immovable point, he could move the earth.

 German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz demonstrated the incorrectness of this idea, thus anticipating Einstein's theory of relativity. He has us imagine another universe exactly like our own that exists simultaneously yet with one small difference: everything has been shifted five feet to the left. If this were the case, all agree that there would be no conceivable difference between the two universes. Since shifting everything five feet to the left truly does not matter, then what does matter is not where the things are, but where they are relative to everything else.

 Returning to the philosophical playground, imagine now that every day everything doubled in size. So while your foot doubles in size, so does your shoe. And while your shoe is nine inches long, the ruler with which you measure it also doubles and thus the space between the end and the "9" doubles as well. As in the previous case, you would not discern this monumental change, thus demonstrating again the importance of relative size. Just imagine what that Venti latte would be like-it's a good thing your stomach would be doubling in size along with it.

 But in our current state of affairs, not everything doubles in size. As other bumper sticker wisdom surmises:

 Is the World Getting Smaller or Are We Just Getting Fatter?

 With America's obesity crisis, we may just be able to do the unthinkable here and actually link the relativistic view of space together with our previous discussion of soft-drink expansion. It may be no mistake that "size envy" explicitly mentions the sixth of the seven deadly sins. In our case here, it directly relates to the second sin, gluttony, conveniently derived from the Latin gluttire, "to gulp down"-one fast-food chain is not only envious of another's large cups, but this envy is driven by the gluttony of their customers. It is indicative of our culture of overindulgence and our need to constantly want more than we have, even when what we have is more than sufficient.

 In 1978, economist Richard Easterlin conducted a survey among adults. He asked them to pick items from a list that they "Would like to own" and then, on that same list, items they "Currently own." Sixteen years later, he corralled the same group and asked them the same questions with the same list. While they had nearly unanimously acquired all of the items on their respective "wish lists," instead of being satisfied they developed new items on the list previously not desired during the initial survey. Termed the "hedonic treadmill," it has become clear to economists and "happiness experts" alike that "more" does not necessitate "better."

 Much of this has led to the concern that a focus on GDP-gross domestic product-as the primary indicator of a country's well-being has sidetracked us from what we really want, taxing the environment along the way in our incessant push to produce. Senator Robert Kennedy once highlighted that the GDP counts products like napalm and nuclear warheads, jails and cigarette advertising, but not children's health and quality of education, nor the strength of marriages or the compassion and joy felt by the citizens. He reminds us that the GDP "measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile." Instead, argues Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman, we could abandon this in exchange for the less quantitative but more accurate designator GNH-Gross National Happiness. We could gulp down fewer ounces of soda, trade in the hedonic treadmill for an actual jog in the park, and exchange products for happiness.

With a high GNH, we can imagine that the good ol' six-ounce cup of coffee of yore will suffice and that maybe size does matter after all-relatively speaking, of course.

 Why Do Psychics Have to Ask for Your Name?

 Probably because there's no such thing as psychic power. And because the more questions they ask, the more information they get, and the more knowledgeable they appear to their vulnerable victims. Though maybe it's because the person paying the money only wants to hear what they want to hear, regardless of the process.

Winner, winner, winner. As Skeptic magazine editor Michael Shermer notes, "Talking to the dead is easy. Getting the dead to talk back is hard."

A psychic was hired to write a specific reading unique to you the reader of this book in your hands. As one of the top psychics in the world, she knew who would buy each book (obviously) and thus could easily pinpoint your future-and don't worry if you borrowed/stole this book, the psychic knew you'd do that and acted accordingly. (Given that this reading would typically cost you twice what you paid for the book, I hope you find it a valuable gift.

 You are a thoughtful person to whom relationships are very meaningful. While you can be quite reserved, if with the right people you are rather outgoing. You know many people, but you have a core group of friends who play a big role in your life. Continue to explore those friendships. Keep your eyes open for opportunities arising in the next nine months to make a positive move in your current schooling or career. This will allow you to focus on your romantic life. Trust yourself and give your romantic relationship time to progress the way it was intended. You are a very lovable person. And allow yourself that time to read good books and to relax as this will be your important way to connect with the cosmos.

You likely noticed another tactic of the successful psychic: Make universally relevant, extremely general claims. Even contradictory claims to cover all of the bases, such as being both reserved and outgoing. Include schooling or career to let the reader choose which fits them. Since they're reading a book, mention how much they like reading books. And imagine instead that you had paid to read this and expected to discover truths about your life-you would make sure to find them. After all, we sure hate to be duped.

 But who really listens to psychics anyway? While it's hard to get a straight answer from any individual, someone is paying the billions of dollars that phone psychics bring in every year. All this despite any real proof or explanation. Except this one, from "psychic" Sylvia Browne-you may have seen her on afternoon talk shows counseling us on tragedies, attempting to solve murder cases, etc.-who earns $850 per thirty-minute phone call and explains that she can "psychically reach into your soul, pull out your chart, and then recite back to you those things you have already planned for yourself." Of course you don't need to be present for her to do this, as she is "just as good over the phone as in person." "Okay, before we get started, will that be Visa or MasterCard?" Really, you have to ask that?

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Meet the Author

Jack Bowen teaches philosophy at Menlo School in Atherton, California, and runs the Stanford Summer Philosophy Camp. He will be featured along with Richard Dawkins and Leonard Susskind in an upcoming documentary titled "The Nature of Existence." A charismatic presenter, he speaks frequently on philosophy-related subjects. His first book, a philosophical novel titled The Dream Weaver, was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller. He lives with his wife and his cat, Plato.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
* walks around*
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not done yet, but wanted to comment and say its worth the read; funny too
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I missed you!!!!!!!! Where should we talk? I have a spot. Go to "fort benton" all result.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Yes this is atlanta!!!!!!!!!!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Same as contest rules.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Avinash_Dixit More than 1 year ago
The philosophical analysis and commentary is lengthy, not especially enlightening, and on the whole mediocre. But many of the stickers are brilliant. There should have been more stickers, and they should have been allowed to speak for themselves.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It turned out more philosophical than I expected but did enjoy and share more than 90%. In todays environment it certainly adds enlightenment.