011 / Philosophy is Useless
May 30, 2021

About three years ago I quit twitter, facebook and instagram. I am happy about this, but I do feel at times that I am out of touch. That I don’t know what is going on with friends, with family, and with developments or trends in areas of my professional or personal life that I’m interested in. And at times I do miss the social aspect of social media–the messaging, conversations, the back and forth. 

But the longer that I stayed away from social media, I slowly discovered that it did not truly keep me in touch with those places or people. It only gave me the appearance of doing so. It was passive–things we’re literally served to me in a feed. I had to put no effort in, and what I used to feel was not connection, but distraction. What I was looking for was a real way to engage. This desire would be comparatively harder to satiate as the pandemic spread and lock-downs and social distancing also became part of my life in the Netherlands.

I do however secretly look at the twitter pages of a handful of people that I find interesting from time to time. In the summer last year, I randomly checked the pages of scholar and mathematician Nassim Taleb. I saw that he was recommending the online philosophy courses of one of his fellow Lebanese countrymen, Mahmoud Rasmi (aka Decaf Quest). This was during the beginning of Covid lock down, everything was closed, and we all were just getting used to working at home. I had time on my hands, so I quickly signed up.

The first week of Introduction to Philosophy course started with an explosion, literally. Mahmoud conducts the course from his home in Beirut. I had signed onto the zoom course from my apartment in the Netherlands, and I hadn’t heard about what happened yet. The topic of discussion was not what I expected, and I soon realised that people in the course who live in Beirut were clearly dealing with something more pressing. Luckily no one in the course was injured. In the midst of this literal life and death situation, Mahmoud was able to deftly recenter the conversation around the topic of the course–philosophy. 

The Decaf Quest course is a real-time interaction with people from all over the globe that I would otherwise never meet. It was the type of engagement that I was looking for, and although it was technologically enabled, it was fundamentally different from social media. I have to deal with the other people directly as humans, not avatars or twitter handles. I have to engage with their opinions and viewpoints. I can’t simply curate my twitter or instagram feed with a long list of things that more or less reinforce my existing viewpoint. 

Mahmoud does an excellent job of presenting the course material and topics in a way that is open ended and invites discussion. Background readings and in-depth references are always made available and it’s highly recommended to read those before each class, but it’s not required. The class is designed for people with busy lives, who are not philosophy majors, and who usually don’t have any background in philosophy at all. 

This is part of what makes it so profoundly interesting for me–the types of conversations we have about free will, the origin of sin, moral relativism, ethics in movies, futurism, the scientific method and so on are not the ones you would normally hear at a university. The viewpoints and perspectives are wide and varied. This is in part because of the geographical distribution of the course participants. Because Mahmoud is based in Beirut, a fair number of his students are from the same city as well, but if I think about the recent classes attended, there were participants from Switzerland, South America, Austria, the US, Saudi Arabia and the Netherlands, as well as other countries in the Middle East and Europe. 

For me it’s interesting to see people from a science, finance, business engineering, or business background engage with philosophy. Many stereotypes about people who work in these fields are overturned–they are incredibly perspicacious and insightful. Because the class is something they have chosen to do, and not something they get any sort of social or professional credit for, they are very upfront about their opinions. The class includes people from so many different social, ethnic and economic backgrounds, and all of us are automatically exposed to opinions we might not normally hear in our social circles or amongst our work colleagues, and we hear them in a humane and nuanced way that is simply not possible on twitter or instagram.  


Why philosophy, you may ask? Mahmoud himself insists that it is useless. I had an interest in philosophy since high school, but too often it was just something that made me feel smart  because I had read something sophisticated by Plato, Lacan, Sartre, Nietzsche or Deleuze. Later I’d become more interested in the Stoics, as well as eastern philosophers like Suzuki. Still, a crucial connection to my actual life was always missing.   

Not until my 30s did it click. philosophy became a way for me to think about what I was doing, what I did in the past, and what I’d like to do in the future. It wasn’t a set of rules to follow uncritically. It was a set of tools that I could use to examine my past actions. I could easily sample the experiences and approaches of philosophers from different cultures, schools of thought and historical periods and synthesize them into something that worked for me. I could put them into practice in my relationships with my friends and family, and in my professional life. 

The Decaf Quest courses are perfectly in line with this outlook. Mahmoud takes a socratic approach to his teaching, especially when compared academia and its rigid class structure and syllabus. Instead of following this dated pedagogical method, he makes philosophy relatable and practical, and figures out how to connect lessons from both ancient and contemporary philosophers to his students' everyday lives. 

The fact that Mahmoud organises the classes completely independently is also very important to me. As someone who has created independent artwork and publications for many years, I identify with the spirit that Mahmoud emanates through his work. He has something important to contribute, and he is doing it in a way where he retains control of what he can say and how he says it.

Before starting Decaf Quest, Mahmoud worked for seven years in different universities in Beirut. He always imagined that he would eventually find a full time teaching position and publish research papers. More or less the traditional route that you’d imagine for an academic. He also had a longer term plan of immigrating to Canada to find better economic opportunities. 

While he loved teaching, he did not want to constantly publish research papers, which is difficult to do in philosophy. Moreover, finding a full time job in Beirut was proving difficult to do. Mahmoud was stressed, and was not sure where to turn next. He had been toying with the idea of doing an online philosophy course for some time. The pandemic created an excellent opportunity to try out this experiment, and in May of 2020 he tweeted this offering out to the world.

Mahmoud's First Tweet.

People signed up. Opportunities began to present themselves. Mahmoud successfully widened the circle of the conversation, and he did it on his terms. Now he’s reconsidered his move to Canada, and began to explore a completely new set of options that have all revealed themselves because he chose to pursue a path different than the one that seemed set out before him.

I asked Mahmoud if he really thought philosophy was useless. “Do I believe that?” he responded, laughing. “No, but I can’t tell you what it’s for exactly. I can say it’s useful to think and read and explore and try to put yourself in other people’s shoes and to put yourself in dialogue with them. What matters is the personal spin you put on philosophy. I’m not saying this is the way to do things–I’m saying this is a way to things.” We concluded that philosophy is the soil in the garden, and that each of us will cultivate different varieties of plants and flowers in this soil. These different plants and flowers should serve different parts of your life, and allow you to imagine things from vantage points, and to create a garden that is uniquely yours, not one that comes straight out of any book.

Is philosophy a word that immediately makes you feel suspect? Or does it create a low-level stirring in your mind, making you a little bit uncomfortable but curious? Or are you someone that studied philosophy formally in college? If you are any of the above, I highly recommend Mahmoud’s courses. They are wide ranging and you’ll find yourself engaged in or listening to interesting conversations about topics ranging from economics, to ethics, religion, film, morality, biology, social media, art, love, and laughter on a weekly basis. It will be two hours a week you don’t spend on twitter, and you’ll be far better off for it. If that’s not useful, I don’t know what is. 

Please take a look at what Mahmoud has to offer. I’d love to see you in an upcoming class.  https://gumroad.com/a/517674099

Subscribe to The Random Embassy Papers