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Scott Adams and Philosophy 

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ISBN 978-0-8126-9977-7


xii + 244 pages


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Scott Adams and Philosophy

A Hole in the Fabric of Reality

Edited by Daniel Yim, Galen Foresman, and Robert Arp
Volume 118 in the Popular Culture and Philosophy® series

The Reality of Scott Adams

Some philosophers claim that you always know when you’re in a dream and when you’re awake. But 2016 was a year in which reality often took on a dreamlike quality.

You’d be walking along the street with a friend, engrossed in her phone, and she would suddenly turn and run down a sidestreet, shouting: “Hold on, I’ve gotta catch this magikarp!” This was the phenomenon of Pokémon GO. News reports told of people who walked off roofs or walked off piers, plummeting to their deaths, in pursuit of wild Pokémon. It hardly seems real, looking back now, but the casualties are still missing.

That wasn’t the only strange thing that year. The Cubs won the World Series! That seemed to violate some of the laws of physics and mathematics, perhaps even the most fundamental laws of metaphysics. Metaphysicians used to debate whether not winning was a necessary or merely a contingent property of the baseball team called the Chicago Cubs. Well, no they didn’t, if you take the boring old line that facts matter, but they might have done and they probably thought about it.

Oh yes, and then there was politics. Surely it was high time for a woman president! But, out of nowhere, there came a supernatural surge of support for Bernie Sanders, a dry-as-dust self-proclaimed “socialist,” and every trick in the book had to be used to fight off this infuriating challenger. Yes, a few tricks that weren’t in the book, too.

On the Republican side, rich entertainment was provided by the entry into the race of the joke candidate, Donald J. Trump. All the most authoritative experts agreed that Trump had absolutely no chance of winning the nomination. In a field of seventeen Republican claimants, Trump was always the center of attention, but obviously, once the field was narrowed, and it became a straight choice between Trump and some more serious candidate, Trump the politician would be flushed down the toilet bowl of history.

In years past, Trump the generic big-city pro-choice liberal had often been tagged as a likely future president, and had been pressed, sympathetically, on this issue by several celebrity media people including no less than Oprah Winfrey. But more recently Trump, following the lead of some of Hillary’s supporters in their 2008 primary battles against Obama, had become a proponent of the “birther” theory, that Barack Obama could not legally be president because he was not born in the United States. This gave Trump a different kind of image: a flaky conspiracy crank, pathetically out of the mainstream.

In his pursuit of the Republican nomination, Trump fulfilled the worst expectations—and kept winning. He said the most outrageous things, and wouldn’t apologize for them, but somehow, this didn’t drive away too many Republican primary voters, and he continued to win primaries. Even the release of an old tape in which Trump boasted that if you were a big celebrity, women would let you grab them by the pussy, somehow failed to dislodge him. Uncharacteristically, on this one occasion Trump issued an apology, and explained that his remark was “locker room talk.” He might have said it was “Game of Thrones talk,” for record millions of Americans were regularly imbibing this epic, filled with words and deeds amid which “grab them by the pussy” would have been way too mild to register even a flicker on the Richter Scale of outrage.

As Trump kept winning, some Democrats began to nurse a delicious fantasy: There was actually a chance Trump might be nominated as the Republican candidate! Then, naturally, Hillary could only win by the most colossal landslide.

One distinguished Republican after another came out as a “never Trumper.” So a substantial number of leading Republicans were solemnly pledged never to vote for Trump. Demonstrably, that must have sealed his inevitable doom.

Among the many experts who predicted Trump’s defeat was Nate Silver, who, especially with his best-selling book, The Signal and the Noise, had established himself as a household name for accurate, reliable scientific prediction. Silver pronounced the verdict of statistical science: Trump, with a probability of ninety-eight percent, would lose.

A few days later, Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, the world’s most popular cartoon strip, predicted that Trump had a ninety-eight percent chance of winning, yes winning, the presidency by a landslide. What?

Adams was politically an ultra-liberal, to the left of Bernie Sanders on most issues and no friend of Trump’s policies. Yet he was clearly bowled over and captivated by Trump’s personality and behavior. On his blog, Adams kept elaborating and expanding on his prediction of a Trump victory. The blog rapidly gained subscribers, including many Trump supporters, no doubt desperate for any word of hopeful encouragement.

Adams’s argument was that Trump was that rare thing, a Master Persuader. Adams claimed, and substantiated by detailed analysis, that the apparently wayward and irresponsible things said by Trump were really precisely calibrated “weapons-grade” persuasion technique.

Scott Adams was a trained hypnotist and an enthusiast for the popular “persuasion” literature headed up by Robert Cialdini. One of Adams’s key ideas is that people are, overwhelmingly, not rational. They make their most important decisions on purely emotional grounds, and then produce fake “rationalized” stories about why they made those decisions. As a result, when it comes to persuasion, facts really don’t matter.

Watching the political game play out, Adams foresaw, not only that Trump would win the presidency, but that his victory would generate a serious mental health problem. Trump was about to “rip a hole in the fabric of reality.” The world was about to become darkly alien and incomprehensible to a big segment of Democratic voters. There would be massive emotional distress, “cognitive dissonance,” and “mass hysteria.” Some folks would need counseling help in coming to terms with what had happened, and Adams saw himself as providing that help in the form of a patient, lucid explanation of the Trump phenomenon. Adams was confident that in office Trump would moderate his policies and effectively govern as a centrist, but this wouldn’t placate all of the mentally disturbed Hillary supporters, who would continue to “hallucinate” that horrible Trump was doing horrible things.

Adams, a member of Mensa and long-time dissector of logical fallacies, saw in Trump a highly intelligent and superbly self-controlled individual with a formidable “talent stack.” The theory of the talent stack had been developed in Adams’s best-selling book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. In this work, Adams kicked aside many of the established platitudes of self-help manuals. He advised his readers to quit their day jobs. He favored “systems” over “goals.” In his theory of the talent stack, he argues that success most often comes not from being the absolute best at any one thing, but from being pretty good at a bunch of different things, which could be harnessed together for effectiveness.

Trump won the Republican nomination! Just how big a disaster was this for the Republican Party? Could the Party even survive? All the polls showed, what was obvious anyway, that Trump could only lose catastrophically in the general election . . .

Scott Adams was born in upstate New York in 1957. His family, like many American families, cherished the legend that they had some Native American ancestry, but a recent DNA test has shown this to be untrue. A childhood admirer of the Peanuts comic strip, Scott started drawing his own comics at age six, and won a drawing competition at age eleven. In his early twenties, having just got a degree in economics from Hartwick College, he bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco.

Adams went to work for Crocker National Bank and became a bank teller (twice held up at gunpoint), computer programmer, budget analyst, commercial lender, product manager, and supervisor, meanwhile working for his MBA degree from UC Berkeley, and creating Dilbert, which he couldn’t persuade anyone to publish.

He then moved to Pacific Bell, and at last sold his Dilbert cartoon to United Media, who managed to place it in a few publications, giving Adams a small addition to his income. He would get up at 4:00 A.M. to draw his cartoons, and then work a full day at Pacific Bell. Slowly, Dilbert became more popular, partly because Adams included his email address in the strip and paid close attention to feedback from fans, modifying the strip to give readers what they most appreciated.

Eventually Scott devoted himself full time to Dilbert and in 1996 published The Dilbert Principle, his first of several best-selling business books, applying the lessons of Dilbert to practical management.

In one irreverent experiment, by arrangement with the CEO of Logitech, Adams wore a wig and a false mustache to impersonate a topnotch business consultant. In this persona, he met with the company’s managers and persuaded them to adopt a mission statement that was so impossibly complicated it (quite deliberately) amounted to gibberish.

Scott Adams has written two fiction books on religion, God’s Debris (2001) and The Religion War (2004), followed by selections from his blog wisdom in Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain! (2007) and his how-to-succeed masterpiece How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big (2013).

In Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter (2017), Scott provides his own account of the 2016 election, his part in it, and his ideas on persuasion. He delivers interactive presentations on Periscope every day, and these are made available on YouTube.

Scott Adams is a provocative and challenging gadfly of popular culture, with a huge and curiously diverse fan following. His work and his ideas are worth examining and criticizing— through the filter of philosophy.

“For many years, Scott Adams has used Dilbert and his other writings as a way of getting at deeper truths. Scott Adams and Philosophy deconstructs Adams and allows readers to experience the real richness of his work. This is a volume for those who love Adams, those who despise him, and all those in between.”

— Jack Bowen, author of The Dream Weaver: One Boy’s Journey through the Landscape of Reality (2006)

“Scott Adams is a provocative thinker and the authors in this volume draw on Adams’s work to examine important cultural, political, and personal challenges that define our public discourse. Like Dilbert, the essays in this book use sharp wit and philosophical depth to help us make sense of our strange times.”

— Jamey Heit, author of Imagination and Meaning in Calvin and Hobbes (2012)

“Anyone who has worked in an office has taken some consolation (and delight) in Scott Adams’s devastatingly revealing satirical strip, Dilbert. Scott Adams and Philosophy is a brilliant philosophical exploration of Adams’s fertile thoughts on politics, truth, authority, and humor, and his hilarious look at the workplace of confused managers, ‘resourceful’ co-workers, customers, and more, in Dilbert.”

— Charles Taliaferro, author of The Golden Cord: A Short Book on the Secular and the Sacred (2012)

Daniel Yim is Professor of Philosophy and Department Chair at Bethel University in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He specializes in the epistemology of self-deception.

Galen Foresman is Associate Professor of Philosophy at North Carolina A&T State University, and co-author of The Critical Thinking Toolkit (2016).

Robert Arp is co-author of Critical Thinking: An Introduction to Reasoning Well (2011) and editor of The X-Files and Philosophy: The Truth Is In Here (2017).

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