On Thought Experiments, Pro Wrestling, and the Suspension of Disbelief

If you’ve read some of my older posts, then you know that as a young man, I was a big fan of professional wrestling.  I don’t think I’ve ever told this story, but I got homesick during my freshman year of college.  I hadn’t really watched wrestling since middle school, and I ran across the WWE’s Friday night show, Smackdown!, one random day and it took me away for a couple of hours.  So I quietly paid a little bit more attention to wrestling, because if it meant that I didn’t have to think and I could just be entertained, it was worth it to burn a couple of hours.

I kept on watching casually throughout college, and watching old matches on my laptop, much to the surprise of many college friends.  I can remember one buddy of mine walking into my room and he saw me watching a match with a wrestler named Kane performing, who wears red and black tights and he said, “Come on man, you watching a man in pajamas jump on another man in his draws!”  I laughed and thought to myself that he missed the mark completely, and that many will.

In an ironic twist, I pursued philosophy in undergrad and, because of my natural abilities, did very well and continued to pursue it.  I can remember many buddies of mine ridiculing my major (and in many ways, my lifestyle – being a philosopher by nature is how I always described it), calling it worthless, useless, made-up, just opinion, using imagination, not a real major –

SIDEBAR – If somebody can tell me what a real major is, I’d like to know.  Punk bastards.

BACK TO IT – and plenty of other (literally) ignorant comments about what philosophy is, does, aims to do, and ultimately they would, as I said it, shit on my major, comfortable that engineering, the hard and soft sciences, and plenty of other majors were real ones, and the one (well, one of the two) I chose was bullshit.  It was a bullshit major to them because you could (seemingly) write whatever you want to write and it’s right.  It wasn’t practical because they’d always ask, “what will you do with that?” with a sarcastic tone as if to say, “You can’t do shit with it – it’s not valuable in the world and you know it.”  Much like with my buddy and his comment on the pajamas, I thought to myself that they missed the mark completely and that many will.

In a weird way, professional wrestling and philosophy have more in common than we’d originally think.  Those who defend it will defend it to the death (note the “It’s Still Real To Me” man on the wrestling side of things) and are passionate about the importance of their business.  Both get charged up as being fake, or at the very least as not being legitimate.  Both used to be held in high esteem as being totally real – philosophy never really had a strong foothold in the U.S. (name 7 famous American canonical philosophers without looking anything up one day as an exercise) partly because the culture of this country has always been results and goal oriented with less and less emphasis on the intellectual world.  Philosophy fell out of its position of intellectual power as the hard sciences came around with the indefatigable “right” answers that philosophy couldn’t provide.  Pro wrestling originated as a carnival attraction where there’d be a wrestler who would take on all comers and if he couldn’t beat the guy, there’d be someone behind a curtain with a rod who would knock out the poor fellow to make sure the wrestler won.  Jump forward about 15-20 years from then, and wrestling consisted of “works,” which meant that they weren’t trying to hurt each other, just make it look like it, and “shoots,” where the two guys were really getting after it (but still entertaining the fans).  But the fans never knew that most of the time, these guys don’t have a problem with each other in real life – the fans thought it was all a shoot.  The bad guys and the good guys really didn’t like each other, they thought.  It was real to them, and the wrestlers did everything they could to keep it real for the fans.

In a very weird twist, I noticed one more connection – both philosophy and professional wrestling require you to suspend your disbelief in order to participate.  In philosophy more specifically, I’m talking about thought experiments.  In wrestling, the term is “kayfabe.”  I’ll give a couple of classic examples for both.

John Locke – The Prince and the Cobbler thought experiment.  When trying to give an account of personal identity in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke gives a thought experiment.  Imagine that there is both a prince and a cobbler, with distinctive habits and behaviors to both.  They go to sleep, and when they awake, the mind of the prince is in the body of the cobbler and the mind of the cobbler is in the body of the prince.  He’s trying to get us to wonder who is who and how we determine who is who (the question of identifying persons).

Jerry “The King” Lawler – During his famous 1982 feud with comedian Andy Kaufman, Lawler delivered two jumping piledrivers to Kaufman, who would be carried out on a stretcher and would play up (known as “selling”) his injury, making it look real, complete with hospital time, a neck brace and plenty of vitriol shown towards Lawler for his actions.

Look at the second example, Lawler and the piledrivers.  In case you haven’t seen a piledriver (which has been banned in the WWF/E since 2000, save for Undertaker and Kane), it’s a pretty dangerous looking move.  Like most wrestling throws/holds/etc., when done improperly people can get serious injuries.  Owen Hart breaking Stone Cold Steve Austin’s neck is one of the more famous examples of a piledriver gone wrong.

That move would ultimately cause the premature end to Austin’s career some 6 years later.  Meanwhile, if you or I did this to somebody, the cops would be called and we’d have all kinds of legal problems.  Inside the squared circle, it’s a legal move to perform.  This is an example of suspending our disbelief.  Another example, albeit even more…well, just look.

Again, clearly if this were to happen outside of the arena, police would (rightfully) be called and there would be all kinds of problems with this.  I’m going to assume they’re obvious to everybody why doing something like that to somebody for real would be an issue.  But we watch that, we’re aghast that it happened, but nobody called the police because in order to participate, it has to be that it’s real, but not REALLY real.

Back to the first example, Locke and the Prince/Cobbler.  Sure, we can imagine this scenario – the mind of the prince and the mind of the body switch off, but we all can safely say that this isn’t real.  Our disbelief, however, is suspended so that we can carry out the thought experiment and think about if its our minds that make us who we are or if there’s another criterion that could be exercised.  If we’re hung up on the fact that this mind-swapping is unlikely to occur, we don’t get to the more salient point of the example regarding the problem of personal identity.

Suspending our disbelief allows thought experiments to work, particularly as the scenarios get more and more far-fetched (halving your brain and putting one half in another person; teletransporters out of Star Trek being used that effectively de-materialize you (kill you) and re-materialize you; a man waking up with the life memories of Guy Fawkes).  These things aren’t really happening, but you have to believe that they do happen in order to progress through the experiment and get a conclusion.

Speaking of conclusions, I’ve reached mine.