Tuesday, November 10, 2009


The Epicurean life is a life of patience, practice, and peace. All who follow this path are encouraged to seek out wisdom in every event they experience, extract that wisdom, and put it to use in their futures in the best way possible. No one is disregarded as incapable of philosophy; “…to say that the season for studying philosophy has not yet come, or that it is past and gone, is like saying that the season for happiness is not yet or that it is now no more…we must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed toward attaining it.”
Epicurus implored those who followed his teachings to live a simpler, more controlled lifestyle. Though his presentation of the good life has an Aristotelian perspective on the way in which one develops himself, his views on the gods and the spiritual nature of much of his commentary seem strangely eastern. He had no doubts that the gods exist, but almost seemed ashamed of the way that most humans viewed them, condemning that “he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believes about them is truly impious.” Only by showing respect, through a steadfast adherence to a life aimed at philosophy, can one come to have correct knowledge about the gods. This is also the way that one is able to come to wisdom and particularly some degree of equilibrium.
None of these qualities can be learned overnight; just as one must practice a violin, disc throwing, and mathematics in order to become skilled at each, one must also practice philosophy in order to become wise and truly happy. Once a person makes it to this stage, they will not worry for things they cannot control, especially death. “Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and when death is come, we are not.” Though he speaks clearly of death, this is a principle that can be applied to many other aspects of daily life.
Most of these are lessons by which I would try to live my life. Though I am very cautious about anyone who claims knowledge of gods, even the most intelligent and wise of people, the far reaching benefits of the rest of his beliefs are tremendous. To live a more simple, controlled lifestyle would benefit not only myself, but those whom I may influence in the future. It is natural to want to be in total self control, but many people do not always understand what that entails. This state of being means relinquishing many of ones personal desires. This isn’t to say that pleasure is lost, but it is much easier to be in control if you can be in command of the desires themselves.


Rationality seems to be something much more complicated than it is. In terms of humans, it is often held on high as the achievement of a highly developed, highly improbable, naturally selected species whose brain is much more evolved than any other. This first element for discourse is already apparent. The source from which these beliefs are derived is none other than the human brain itself. This is not to say that it is not the central necessity of a very complex, incredibly evolved organism: there is no denying that, after four billion years of chance and necessity culminating in our infinitely unlikely existence, we are something strange and wonderful, full of potential for both harm and prosperity. We merely must realize that at the core of this idea, it is actually the brain saying that the brain is the marvel of our universe: something is inherently relativistic in this.
The notion of rationality is strange. It seems more logical that decisions or actions made by any organism would need to be labeled by a large variety of complex factors. The actions of all organisms are always based on how their physiological structure is capable of reacting, what factors of their environment are affecting their actions, the entire history of the organisms experiences, especially with relation to any aspect of the current situation, not to mention how the creature has observed reactions of or learned how to react from others of its own kind, and a multitude of other computations that are likely to complicate the issue more(such as all other outside forces, factors, and other organisms). Basically, how can anyone claim to understand the actions of another organism? There is no way for anyone to be objective when we all have is a subjective perspective.


Arrogance has a negative connotation; its beholder believes he is deserving of respect and awe beyond what he is actually worthy of. This is the vice of deficiency to the virtue of humility. It accepts praise even when it is not earned, and makes decisions without a proper appraisal of potential consequences. Reckless in its intent, it aims at pleasure without any inquiry into the ethical viability of the acts it pursues. It lacks the basic ability to realize the importance of any individual worth. apart from its own. The counterpart to arrogance and vice of excess in this case is self-deprecation. Self-deprecating action presumes some inborn negative attitude toward the actor, resulting in an overabundance of unnecessary guilt and an inability to appreciate one’s own self worth. This renders the self-deprecator almost useless in his character, as he will be unable to make rational decisions with any sort of moral authority, unable to convince even himself.
Such a severe a lack of confidence cannot be proper to the virtuous person: thus the virtue that arises amidst these vices is that of humility. Humility is a trait which can be expressed in many situations, both social and personal in nature. When concerning oneself, it is the ability to correctly assess the potential moral weight held in ones actions. It neither exaggerates nor oversimplifies one’s personal value. Humility allows it’s possessor to correctly analyze his own ethical standing. When focused outward into social situations, humility is simply taking credit for your own actions, and nothing more or less so. The humble person will still be able to validate their actions, but they will insist that praise is unnecessary and sometimes even uncomfortable for them. They have acted in a way that they see as rightly directed at truth, and honoring them for this would seem silly, like admiring a healthy, educated adult’s ability to walk a straight line or use correct grammar. It might have been deserving the first few times they mastered these skills as children, but as it becomes their consistent state of existence, it is seen as less and less worthy of such response.

Knowledge unknown

One of the most widely held and yet heavily contested path of belief is one which includes the 3 O’s god: omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence. Omnibenevolence is an incredibly difficult quality to address. The problem lies within the structure of its definition. The Oxford English Dictionary simply states it as an unlimited or infinite disposition to do good. A philosophical definition might go further to describe it as moral perfection. But what is the nature of goodness, of moral perfection? Many different cultures would describe this feature in many diverse ways. While suicide is almost universally thought of as disreputable and unethical in American culture, many followers of traditional Japanese culture would characterize the act as honorable, given the proper circumstances. So we find that human designation of morality is often contradictory, and thus incomplete. It is quite probable that were we to somehow comprehend the perfect goodness of God, it would appear as something dissimilar from our own views. One such possibility is that what God finds to be perfectly good is the increase and consumption of knowledge. Were this to be the case, it would make total sense that He does not make himself known to us, as His presence would change the possibilities for the outcomes of any particular human situation.
Omniscience is not knowing everything, but knowing everything that can be known. For example, it cannot be known that a Unicorn exists, because the idea of a Unicorn is a creation of the human imagination. Even if, at some point in the future, against all odds of possibility, a creature was found on another planet that possessed all of the qualities our lore attributes to Unicorns, the being would still not be a Unicorn. Something that exists in nature cannot be one and the same with something that was created by imagination. Similarly, omnipotence is the power to everything that is possible, not the power to do anything. In an effort to discredit the likelihood of the existence of omnipotence, many ask “can God create a rock that he cannot lift?” This is an illogical question: God would neither be limited in his ability to create rocks of increasing weights, nor in his power to lift anything he creates. His incapacity to create a rock he cannot lift is a mute point; his power could not be constrained by a logical fallacy. The distinctions made here are incredibly important in realizing the potential for a single organism to possess these qualities.
One such position against the existence of the 3 O’s God is presented in John Schellenberg’s Divine Hiddenness argument. He contends that if a perfectly loving God exists, he would make available himself to all creatures capable of having a relationship with him. A person could not want a relationship with God if he does not believe in God, and a perfectly loving God would give those individuals willing to believe enough evidence to believe, yet there still exists non-resistant non-belief. Therefore, he concludes, “it is not the case that God exists.” Though somewhat of a stretch when defining a “perfectly loving God,” since as humans we cannot know the actual nature of God, his argument is logically sound. If someone accepts his description of God’s loving attribute, this would make perfect sense. It could be the case, however, that this opens up a Pandora’s Box of other questions, both for and against God’s existence.
In quantum physics, the observer is no longer external and neutral, but through the act of measurement he becomes himself a part of observed reality. If in an exact science, such as physics, the outcome of an experiment depends on the view of the observer, then what does this imply for other fields of human knowledge? This prevalent issue finds its origins in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle, which state that the more precisely the position of a particle is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa. Momentum is the product of the mass and velocity of a particle, each of which, along with its position in spacetime, are measurable qualities. By measuring any one of these properties, the observer naturally distorts the reality of the other two.
Another quality that is often ascribed to God is Omnipresence, or existence in all places at the same time. When arguing for or against the existence of god, his actual size, as understood in this way and in comparison to ourselves, is almost never taken into account. Instead of using philosophical debate to address the possibility of God, let us for a moment examine the physical probability, specifically considering our own size in relation to both the smallest and largest possible scientific measurement. In relation to quark particles, the smallest limit of our current scientific model, humans are approximately 1016 times larger-this means that a quark is 1/10,000,000,000,000,000 the size of a person. Conversely, at a distance of 1024 meters from any specific point on Earth, one would only be able to see hundreds of thousands of galaxies when looking in the direction of our planet.
Now, while attempting to mentally comprehend all of the above, imagine a being who somehow exists throughout, and possibly even beyond, our entire universe. If we consider how much larger than a quark a human being is, the size of God, relative to humans, would measure 109 times larger than humans are to quarks. This means that if a human was the size of a quark, God’s size would equal roughly two thirds that of the planet Jupiter. If God does in fact exist in this manner, his very presence in and around our universe would necessarily influence any and all of our actions. This could explain the need for divine hiddenness.
In the philosophical and religious world, there are always going to be intelligent, rational people who make strong, logical arguments both for and against the existence of a God. Furthermore, someone will always find fault in each of these positions, no matter how well written or logically deduced. Therefore, it makes no sense for any single person or group of people to say that they know, hands down, that there is or is not a God, not to mention what qualities he may or may not possess. Even with all of our abilities to measure, think about, and understand our reality, we must keep in mind the principle truth which Heisenberg realized, "What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning."

Monday, October 19, 2009

Embracing Unaviodable Ignorance

The ambiguity of this reality is readily apparent, if only to those who are willing to admit and accept that truth. We have a necessarily narrow, subjective experience during our short lifespan. The first man in the western tradition to really embrace this realization is also the patriarch of Western Philosophy, the voice of Socrates as related by Plato. In Socrates dialogue with Meno, he goes about questioning Meno’s servant, apparently in order to solve a mathematical problem. The real intention of the discussion, however, is to illustrate for Meno that there is nothing shameful in lacking knowledge of a particular subject: in fact, it is most admirable to be aware of one’s own ignorance. When questioned, the servant gives his first answer quickly and surely, but quite soon comes to realize that he is having great difficulty finding the correct results, much more than he initially believed he would have. Socrates then turns his attention to Meno, observing that the servant “thought he knew, and answered confidently as if he did know, and did not think himself at a loss, but now he does think himself at a loss, and as he does not know, neither does he think he knows.” This profound expression speaks to the core value that Socrates held sacred: that human wisdom is the ability to understand our incredibly severe limitations of comprehension.
To clarify this position, take for instance the sight sensory apparatus. For most humans, sight is the most complex, dense, and useful sense for most activities and exercises in comprehension (thus the adage “seeing is believing”). Most people would describe sight as a vast tool for information gathering, and though this is relatively true for practical use, it is also not totally accurate. With respect to our other senses, for most people, sight definitely plays the biggest role in our experience. But the amount of information that it can translate is insanely minute in comparison to all of the possible visual information that could be experienced. The most obvious of the limitations to sight is that, of the entire electromagnetic scale, only a very minute portion is visible to humans. The waves visible to us are a very specific length, and those shorter and longer than our color spectrum will likely always remain unexperiencable to us. We may develop the technology to translate and better comprehend those waves, but we won’t be able to verify any direct visual experience of them. It is this lack of experiencability that speaks to the limitations of our senses.
Another dimension to the limitations of our sight is the magnitude or scope of our experience. For example, it will always be true that subatomic particles remain much too small for humans to see with the naked eye. It will never be the case that we will be able to visually experience them in the same way that we visually experience popcorn kernels or elephants, by looking directly at them with no technological help and comprehending their physical features. Likewise, we will also never be able to make the same claim with regard to whole galaxies: that is, we will neither be able to ever experience them on our particular scale of vision (such as the elephant or popcorn kernels), nor will we ever be able to make the claim that we experience (or lack the experience of) whole galaxies in the way we now experience (or lack the experience of) subatomic particles. In other words, because of our limitations of size, our visual scope will never be so large that we visually experience galaxies as entities too small for our naked eye comprehension. If this seems abstract, take for instance the visual experience of something the size of an insect. Think of what your normal visual experience of an apple is, and then imagine that you could somehow be shrunk down to the size of a small insect. Would your visual experience of that same apple be equivalent to the normal size experience? That is, would the apple take up the same portion of your visual scope at the same physical distance, say one foot away, or would all of the physical features of the apple remain the same to your experience? It seems necessary that the experience would be quite different, and it is the lack of experience of these differences, which exist at all possible sizes, that insinuate this very direct limitation.
There is one last restraint to visual experience that doesn’t as readily show itself. Ponder for a moment, if you will, at what particular point does your visual sensory apparatus focus? Or to put it another way, at what size (literal size, like a square millimeter, centimeter, larger or smaller) does your typical, everyday vision focus? As when one reads a word from a page, for example “apple,” where is the specific, particular focal point on the word? Is it on the entire letter “p” in the middle, on the central point of the letter “p” (the point where the arc of the “p” intersects the center of the vertical line of the letter “p”), on the entire word “apple,” or on some other wholly different size? There may or may not be a correct answer. Of course, our vision is capable of focusing on points large and small, but the problem lay in describing what percentage of the total visual scope constitutes the focal point. And even if this focal point can be directly described, the insinuation remains that the experience of all (or most) other densities of a focal point remains unexperienced by humans (not to mention experiencing multiple focal points simultaneously).
This is not a particularly clear issue, but it is apparent enough to show that the portion of possible experience in the universe that constitutes the entirety of possible human experience is incredibly small, with respect to the totality of all possible experiences in this universe.