Lost in a Fishbowl



Imagine you’re a parent.

This shouldn’t be hard for some of you. But now imagine your child, a young girl of about 5, has an amazing talent. She totally rocks at that fish game you play at carnivals.

Where at first you’re simply indulging in her delight at possibly winning a fish and then, before you know it, you find yourself driving home with your fish game prodigy daughter who is hauling ten individually bagged fish in her arms.

You stop at the animal store, pick up a tank, rocks and a few castles and cool decorations for your new army of tiny fish that your daughter has procured.

Once the fish are set up and in their new home you call and tell one of your best friends about your daughter’s amazing, but slightly odd, talent. Being your best friend, they of course want to bust your chops and minutes later something pops up on your Facebook page:

Fish Riddle

You’re a smart cookie so you figure out the answer but then something starts to nag at you as you stare back and forth between the post and your actual tank of ten little fish.

Things like these are meant solely for entertainment and aren’t meant to go deeper than what they are but through a philosopher’s eye we can learn something terribly important about life as we break down the simple answer.

Ok, first off, it says two of your fish drown. The official answer to this question says that fish can’t drown. This is, in fact, wrong. When humans drown we are deprived of oxygen because our lungs fill with water instead of air. Fish obtain their oxygen by filtering out the oxygen in the water around them. If for some reason they are deprived of oxygen and their lungs were to be filled with water, they would drown.

So, second thing they tell you is that four swim away. What exactly do they mean by ‘away’? This brings us to a very important skill in philosophy and in life. Defining what the words you use mean. This doesn’t mean every single word but a lot of times words can be open to interpretation. In this case ‘away’ can only mean so much since they’re in a tank. The word is meant to deceive you into thinking they’re gone but it could just very well mean they’re hiding in a castle or in some other portion of the tank not nearby. Being aware of the what you mean and what others may or may not mean with the words they choose can give you an upper hand in a disagreement (possibly by noticing someone’s trying to deceive you) or even just give you a leg up in a discussion in your relationship by realizing they chose a word that they didn’t quite mean (just don’t ask your wife what she means by ‘fat’ when she asks you if her dress makes her look fat).

Lastly, it says that three of your fish die. This is where misunderstandings can come up when we look critically at the wording. It says three die but they don’t explain if those two that miraculously drowned are counted among the three that are dead, so you could either have five dead or three dead where two of those drowned and the other one from natural causes. It also leaves open what happens to these particular dead fish. Are they taken immediately out of the tank? Are they left there, floating aimlessly? Perhaps they’re eaten by the other fish, as is a common occurrence.

After all this we come to the question of how many are left. Once again, we put on our philosopher’s hat and we ask what they mean by ‘left’. Perhaps it means, how many fish are in our sight or how many fish are still left living. Once again, we are meant to be deceived by wording. We hear the word ‘left’ and we are meant to immediately assume they mean that are still living based on the fact that they told us numbers pertaining to their deaths. But with a few moments of thought we come to realize they mean how many are left in the tank.

The answer they’re looking for is, of course, ten. They assume that even if they die, the fish are still in the tank and therefore you have ten fish left. But how do you even define what makes a fish? What if you believe in an afterlife and that fish have souls? Would you still consider a fish to be a fish without his fishy soul? Or what if, being left in the tank, as it’s implied, the dead fish are eaten? How much of a fish has to be left for it to still be considered a fish?

This is a common exercise in philosophy as it helps to remind us that we humans love labelling things. It’s in our nature to name, define and organize life into boxes but, as we saw in our first blog, things are rarely that simple.




I’m going to go on the assumption that most of you have seen the movie Finding Nemo. If you haven’t, you should, it’s a fun movie. Anyway, in that film the little clown fish Nemo’s mother is killed when he’s still a little fishy egg and Nemo’s left to grow up with his insecure and overbearing father.

In reality, when a dominant female clown fish dies a male will often change sex to take its place. Meaning that, in truth, Nemo’s dad should’ve become his new fish mommy. Most people won’t argue with you in saying that Nemo’s dad would now be considered his mom and yet we argue over this very thing every day in our human lives whenever someone identifies as a different gender or even goes the whole nine yards and obtains a sex change.

We’re left to ponder what it means to be a man or woman or even gender neutral. Suddenly these words, or more specifically these labels, need definitions because we get uncomfortable when something defies categorization. Some people may even be getting uncomfortable just because they’re starting to think about it or even because I brought it up.

Good. I want you uncomfortable. That’s how philosophy works. Better yet, it’s important to learn that sometimes you’re going to be uncomfortable and that’s okay. See, you’re not dying just because you can’t come up with a valid definition of what makes a man that can’t be argued with (believe me, there’s always a counter argument).

What’s more important is that you must learn that not everyone uses the same definition as you for everything. Even something seemingly simple like gender. And disagreements on definitions or just in general aren’t a bad thing. They create an opportunity for growth and conversation.

But what you must always be, no matter where you stand on anything, is respectful. If someone identifies as one gender or another or even no gender at all, be respectful of that. If someone believes in a god or gods that you don’t, be respectful. Even if someone thinks that Finding Nemo wasn’t that great of a movie, no matter how terribly wrong they are, be respectful.

Labels and definitions are incredibly helpful in many ways and being aware of what you mean and what others are trying to say can make any situation easier to deal with, but remember that they’re man-made. Life doesn’t fit into little boxes with perfect labels. And if we try to fit someone or something into a box because it makes us uncomfortable that it’s not labelled, that’s when people get hurt. So, if you come to a crossroads where someone thinks, feels or believes something you don’t, be respectful of them and their wishes. There’s never any reason to be mean or hurtful and it accomplishes nothing. Instead, remember that disagreements are opportunities to learn something new about yourself, the other person and world around you.