Skip to content
Culture & Religion

Using Experimental Philosophy to Shift Perspective, with Jonathon Keats

Using Experimental Philosophy to Shift Perspective, with Jonathon Keats

Jonathon Keats introduces his workshop by listing the following five rules for looking at the world like an experimental philosopher:

1. Ask naive questions,

2. invert perceptions,

3. combine incompatible ideas,

4. remix metaphors,

5. and pursue paradox.

Ask Naive Questions to Shift Perspective, with Jonathon Keats

Jonathon Keats says growing out of childhood was “probably the worst thing that ever happened to us, certainly the most traumatic.” Even we re-enter states of naivete and wonder, our impulse as adults is to hide that precociousness from the outside work lest our peers interpreted it as immaturity or denseness. In this video, Keats explains why asking questions from this perspective helps us gain a new approach in solving the problems in our lives.

For example, Keats walks us through one of his most famous experiments, the Honeybee Ballet, which began as a simple naive question: “Could I choreograph a ballet for another species?” Keats then built from his absurd starting point, eventually exploring the not-so-absurd topic of “how we live within a world that is as complex as ours in harmony with other species.”

“It’s Pretty Weird When You See a Plant Enjoying a Gourmet Meal.”

In an example of turning an absurd inquiry into a philosophical exploration, Jonathon Keats once opened a restaurant for plants so that they could experience their own sort of five-course meal. The way he did it was by altering the ways the plants were exposed to nutrient-granting colors of light. By splitting the spectrum over time, Keats was able to “surprise” plants in the process of feeding them.

While no one would ever confuse Keats for Julia Child, he does offer a unique perspective on the joy of “cooking” for plants. His naive question (How can we let plants experience the excitement of good cuisine?) transformed into an exploration of the nature of humanity’s relationship with food as well as the overall question of what makes us human. Keats says this is just one example of how we can shift our perspective to tackle bigger philosophical questions.

Combine Incompatible Ideas to Shift Perspective, with Jonathon Keats

Keats explains how a thought experiment in which he attempts to genetically engineer God allowed him to create a situation in which science and religion become compatible. The experiment further opened up an exploration of where the two seemingly irreconcilable elements can be made to merge.

Remix Metaphors to Shift Perspective, with Jonathon Keats

When Jonathon Keats got married, he wanted to find a way to do it that was deeper than whatever sort of legal framework could be thrown his way by the United States government. He wanted to instead be married by a law of nature which, as he explains, is possible today thanks to advances in quantum physics.

As Keats explores this thought experiment, he explains the value of interpreting metaphors literally. Doing this, he says, will open up your mind to the workings of thought and language while shifting your perspective on myriad social normalities.

Pursue Paradox to Shift Perspective, with Jonathon Keats

“String theory is fascinating,” says experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, “for the fact that it reconciles quantum mechanics and general relativity, the two greatest explanations that we have of the fundamental forces of nature in the universe for the first time arguably, but with certain caveats.” He explains how string theory, by nature, is somewhat speculative. Also speculative is the real estate market, in particular the booming market where Keats lives in San Francisco. In this video, Keats explains a thought experiment in which he combined the two concepts to explore the ways in which paradoxical elements interact. Part of what he found was that, even though paradoxes feel like dead ends, there are ways to navigate out of them and perhaps even carve a new path of thought through them.


Up Next