Marcus Aurelius on Politics

While reading through a new copy of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius today, I ran into a passage where Marcus actually talks a little bit about politics, along with some other interesting ideas.

I thought the passage had a lot of good stuff in it, so I decided to try and do a break down of what it says. The passage is packed with a variety topics and ideas, so I decided to compare a few different translations that I own to help me understand what Marcus might actually be saying here. These are simply my own thoughts on the matter, I am no expert.

Meditations 9.29 translated by George Long

The universal cause is like a winter torrent: it carries everything along with it. But how worthless are all these poor people who are engaged in matters political, and, as they suppose, are playing the philosopher! All drivellers.

Well then, man: do what nature now requires. Set thyself in motion, if it is in thy power, and do not look about thee to see if any one will observe it; nor yet expect Plato’s Republic: but be content if the smallest thing goes on well, and consider such an event to be no small matter.

For who can change men’s opinions? And without a change of opinions what else is there than the slavery of men who groan while they pretend to obey?

Come now and tell me of Alexander and Philip and Demetrius of Phalerum. They themselves shall judge whether they discovered what the common nature required, and trained themselves accordingly. But if they acted like tragedy heroes, no one has condemned me to imitate them.

Simple and modest is the work of philosophy. Draw me not aside to indolence and pride.

Meditations 9.29 translated by Robin Hard

The universal cause is a rushing torrent; it carries all things in its stream. How cheap are these creatures who turn to public affairs and, as they fondly imagine, act a philosopher’s part; like snotty children, one and all!

Tell me, my friend, what are you to do? Do what nature demands of you at this very moment. So set to work, if you are able, and do not look around you to see if anyone will notice. You should not hope for Plato’s ideal state, but be satisfied to make even the smallest advance, and regard such an outcome as nothing contemptible.

For who can change the convictions of others? And without that change of conviction, what else is there other than slavery of people who grumble away while making a show of obedience?

Go on, then, and talk to me of Alexander and Philip and Demetrius of Phalerum. If they saw what universal nature wishes and trained themselves accordingly, I will follow them; but if they merely strutted around like stage heroes, no one has condemned me to imitate them.

The work of philosophy is simple and modest; do not seduce me into vain ostentation.

Meditations 9.29 translated by Gregory Hays

The design of the world is like a flood, sweeping all before it. The foolishness of them-little men busy with affairs of state, with philosophy-or what they think of as philosophy. Nothing but phlegm and mucus.

-Well, then what? Do what nature demands. Get a move on-if you have it in you-and don’t worry whether anyone will give you credit for it. And don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress, and treat the outcome of it all as unimportant.

Who can change their minds? And without that change, what is there but groaning, slavery, a pretense of obedience?

Go on and cite Alexander, Philip, Demetrius of Phalerum. Whether they knew nature’s will and made themselves its student is for them to say. And if they preferred to play the king? Well, no one forced me to be their understudy.

The task of philosophy is modest and straightforward. Do not tempt me to presumption.

Breakdown

I am going to try to break down each part and summarize what I think Marucs is saying to himself here. The following marks will be used to indicate which translation came from which author.

GL – George Long | RH – Robin Hard | GH – Gregory Hays

The Universe

GL: The universal cause is like a winter torrent: it carries everything along with it.

RH: The universal cause is a rushing torrent; it carries all things in its stream.

GH: The design of the world is like a flood, sweeping all before it.

The universe is ruled by causality. Just as a rushing river or flood picks everything up and carries all away with it, so does the universe pick us up and carry us away with it, inside the never ending chain of cause and effect.

Politicians

GL: But how worthless are all these poor people who are engaged in matters political, and, as they suppose, are playing the philosopher! All drivellers.

RH: How cheap are these creatures who turn to public affairs and, as they fondly imagine, act a philosopher’s part; like snotty children, one and all!

GH: The foolishness of them-little men busy with affairs of state, with philosophy-or what they think of as philosophy. Nothing but phlegm and mucus.

These politicians, who are engaged in affairs of the state simply pretend to be philosophers themselves (back then philosophy was considered to be a way of living, not necessarily an academic pursuit, as many philosophies at that time considered virtue to be a key component of a good life).

The politicians do not realize the true nature of the universe, that to flourish they must act with virtue, they are  fools in this matter.

I think it is important to point out that Marucs is not saying that we should disengage from politics. Stoicism is largely a philosophy of action, and many Stoics in ancient time were indeed involved in politics, since it was through politics that they could make life better for themselves and others.

I think that Marcus is simply railing against these specific politicians that he has in mind who behave in this seemingly foolish way, pretending to be virtuous philosophers when they are not. Marcus himself probably had to deal with a lot of people like this as Emperor, which is why he is writing about it.

Do What You Can

GL: Well then, man: do what nature now requires. Set thyself in motion, if it is in thy power, and do not look about thee to see if any one will observe it; nor yet expect Plato’s Republic: but be content if the smallest thing goes on well, and consider such an event to be no small matter.

RH: Tell me, my friend, what are you to do? Do what nature demands of you at this very moment. So set to work, if you are able, and do not look around you to see if anyone will notice. You should not hope for Plato’s ideal state, but be satisfied to make even the smallest advance, and regard such an outcome as nothing contemptible.

GH: -Well, then what? Do what nature demands. Get a move on-if you have it in you-and don’t worry whether anyone will give you credit for it. And don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress, and treat the outcome of it all as unimportant.

Even if you must deal with politicians like that, you must do what nature demands of you (By nature Marcus means your best nature as a person, not your base animal nature. Your best nature is essentially acting with excellent character, or virtue).

You should act with virtue and do what is right, even if nobody is looking, even if you never get credit for it.

And do not be upset if your actions do not bring about Plato’s Republic (a Utopia), but be glad to even affect a small change in a positive direction. That positive action by itself is no small thing.

Focus on your actions, and not necessarily the final outcome, since what ends up happening is not fully within your control. All you can do it take what actions that you believe to be correct, with virtue as your guidepost.

Convictions of Others

GL: For who can change men’s opinions? And without a change of opinions what else is there than the slavery of men who groan while they pretend to obey?

RH: For who can change the convictions of others? And without that change of conviction, what else is there other than slavery of people who grumble away while making a show of obedience?

GH: Who can change their minds? And without that change, what is there but groaning, slavery, a pretense of obedience?

You cannot simply change the convictions and opinions of others. Only your actions are truly under your control, not the minds of other people.

And of those who act in opposition to their convictions, in obedience to another, there is only grumbling, slavery, and a surface showing of obedience. You should act according to your convictions not against them.

I think that Marcus again, is talking about the Politicians here, who simply make a show of obedience to him. I believe he is reminding himself that he cannot simply change their minds, but he should take what actions he believes to be right anyways.

Acting Like Others

GL: Come now and tell me of Alexander and Philip and Demetrius of Phalerum. They themselves shall judge whether they discovered what the common nature required, and trained themselves accordingly. But if they acted like tragedy heroes, no one has condemned me to imitate them.

RH: Go on, then, and talk to me of Alexander and Philip and Demetrius of Phalerum. If they saw what universal nature wishes and trained themselves accordingly, I will follow them; but if they merely strutted around like stage heroes, no one has condemned me to imitate them.

GH: Go on and cite Alexander, Philip, Demetrius of Phalerum. Whether they knew nature’s will and made themselves its student is for them to say. And if they preferred to play the king? Well, no one forced me to be their understudy.

You can tell me all about other supposedly great leaders of the past, only they can truly know if they had virtue in mind and acted accordingly. However, if it is true that they only pretended to be this way, I am not forced to behave in the same way that they did, even if others believe that they were great. I can act in accordance with virtue myself regardless of what others do.

How to Live

GL: Simple and modest is the work of philosophy. Draw me not aside to indolence and pride.

RH: The work of philosophy is simple and modest; do not seduce me into vain ostentation.

GH: The task of philosophy is modest and straightforward. Do not tempt me to presumption.

The task of philosophy it to teach us how to be virtuous life. It is a simple and modest way of life. There is no need for pride, laziness, or an excessive displays of wealth and luxury. This was probably a very important reminder for Marcus, considering he was Roman Emperor at the time.

Conclusion

A quick summary of what Marucs is saying overall in this passage would be:

  • Remember that the universe is change, and that we are a part of that change.
  • Regardless of who you have to deal with and what they think, act virtuously, do what is right. It does not matter if nobody sees you do it, or you receive no credit for it.
  • You will more than likely not be able to bring about a perfect outcome, but you must act anyways. Even a small change in the right direction is significant.
  • You do not have to act like your predecessors simply because others deem  them to be great. Act with virtue regardless of what others have done or said before. If you do find a good role model though, you should follow that path as well.
  • The task of philosophy is to live a modest, straightforward, and virtuous life. Do not be tempted by pride, laziness, or excess. These things do not lead you to the good life.

I thought that overall this passage had much to say, and I found a lot of insightful ideas in it. Breaking it down, line by line like this, helped me to get a better understand of what Marcus was saying here, and forced me to think about how I might apply these ideas to my own life.

Hopefully you found that analysis of the passage insightful. If anything, maybe it helped you decide which translation of Meditations you would like to read most!

On Virtue

So last time we talked about Eudaimonia and how it essentially means having the best possible life that a human can have, full of happiness, contentment, and fulfillment. We also mentioned  that the Stoics believe that the best way to obtain Eudaimonia was to be virtuous.

The Stoics believed that virtue was both necessary and sufficient for a life of Eudaimonia. This differentiated them from many other Greek philosophical schools at the time who believed that virtue was necessary for a life of Eudaimonia. Other schools, such as the Peripatetics, believed that virtue was necessary for a good life, but that you also needed other things as well, such as friends, family, money, good food, etc…

So what did the Stoics mean by virtue? And how could virtue alone be sufficient for a good life?

What the Stoics really meant by virtue, aretewas something like excellence of character. There were four cardinal virtues that were required for excellence of character. These virtues were temperance, courage, justice, and practical wisdom. These virtues are very broad, and encompass a variety of sub virtues. Here is a general break down of the four cardinal virtues.

Practical wisdom – Understanding how to act and feel correctly. Includes good judgment, discretion, and resourcefulness. It is the all encompassing virtue, the other virtues are really just specific manifestations of practical wisdom.

Temperance – Knowing how to act and feel well in situations arousing other emotions such as desire, appetite, and lust. Includes propriety, sense of honor, and self-control. It is wisdom applied to matters of choice.

Courage – Knowing how to act and feel correctly in situations of danger, in facing things seen as fearful, especially death and disaster. Includes perseverance, confidence, and magnanimity. It is wisdom applied to endurance.

Justice – Knowing how to act and feel well in our relationships with other people, at individual, family or communal level. Knowing how to act generously and with positive benevolence, with friendship and affection. Includes piety, kindness, and sociability. It is wisdom applied to social living.

So essentially, if you have all of these virtues, and act on them correctly, you will live a good life. Sounds pretty good to me right?

But what about money, friends, family, pleasure, etc…?

Well, the Stoics thought that it would be nice to have these things, but they didn’t really think that they were necessary for a life of Eudaimonia, the good life. Why is this the case? This is because the Stoics classified these things as being outside of our control. The only thing that is fully within our control is how we act, essentially our character and our actions (they were compatibilists). If we allow ourselves to depend on externals for our happiness (money, pleasure, etc…), we will at some point become disappointed, or as Epictetus liked to say, we will become wretched. We will become anxious when we try to obtain these externals, and depressed when we fail. You should not rely on these externals for your happiness. Instead, you already have everything you need to live a good life full of joyfulness and tranquility, and that is a life of Virtue.

It is important to note that the Stoics did not forbid people from having money, friends, family, small pleasures, etc… they were not ascetics like the early Cynics were. They separated these thing into what they called preferred and dispreferred indifferents. It is ok to have and pursue these things (money, family, friends) as long as they do not detract from your ability to pursue a life of virtue. In pursuing these externals you must not turn to vice, the opposites of the virtues.

This is not an easy task to accomplish. The only one to fully accomplish this goal is considered to be a Stoic sage, and we are not even sure if such a person ever existed. Perhaps Socrates, Zeno, or Cato the younger are examples of sages, but we are not really sure. Consistently achieving these virtues is something that must be worked on every day, perhaps, for the rest of your life. And that is why we should all be prokoton, one who makes progress towards virtue.

And then, because I’m not naturally gifted, shall I therefore abandon all effort to do my best? Heaven forbid. Epictetus won’t be better than Socrates; but even if I’m not too bad, that is good enough for me.

– Epictetus, Discourses 1.2.35

For additional reading on Stoicism and virtue, I encourage you to read the r/Stoicism FAQ, the IEP entry on Stoicism,  and this blog post by Christopher Gill about the virtues. Much of the information in this particular blog post was pulled from these resources.

This will be my final post for 2016, so I wish all of you happy holidays and a eudaimonic new year!

On Eudaimonia

If you have poked around Greek philosophy texts at all, you have probably encountered the term Eudaimonia. This is an essential concept that we must wrap our heads around if we are to understand what the whole point of philosophy is (according to the Greeks).

I am no professor on Greek philosophy, and I can’t say that I know very much in the way of translating ancient Greek at all, so take what you are about to read here with a bit of skepticism.

The ancient Greek Philosophical schools were all about Eudaimonia. The Stoics, Skeptics, Cynics, Peripatetics, Epicureans, etc… They all pretty much agreed that Eudaimonia was the best thing ever, and that we should all pursue it. However they all disagreed on the best way to obtain it.

So what does Eudaimonia even mean? Well the term is often translated as “happiness”. That makes sense, everybody wants to be happy, but they might disagree about the best way the become happy, right? Now this is an ok definition, but it is still a little vague. A better translation of eudaimonia is often said to be “human flourishing”. Ok, that is a little different than happiness, and more specific in some ways but confusing in other ways. What does it really mean for a human to flourish?

If we say something like “wow, that new tree you just planted is really flourishing” we mean something along the lines of “that plant appears to be very healthy and is growing in an almost accelerated manner in its current environment”. Wow that explanation sounds like it was written by a robot huh?

Anyways, hopefully that helps us to unpack what we might mean by “human flourishing” a little, but we are still not quite there yet. I think there is still some ambiguity here, and that we can come up with a better definition.

Teleology

The ancient philosophers were largely working within the framework of Teleology. To quote Wikipedia “Teleology (from Greek telos, meaning end or purpose) is the philosophical study of nature by attempting to describe things in terms of their apparent purpose, directive principle, or goal”.

Maybe this will be a little easier to understand with a super overused example. Think of a knife. What is the purpose, or the telos, of a knife? The purpose of a knife is to cut things. A good knife cuts wells, while a bad knife cuts poorly.

So with this in mind how can we flesh out the idea of Eudaimonia? Well, as humans all of our action have some sort of goal or purpose. Why do people go to college? People go to College, so they can get a job, so that they can earn money, so that they can buy things, so that they can provide themselves with the materials that they think are required for a good life. So the end purpose of going to college is to have a good life. That is essentially the purpose of all of our actions isn’t it? We think, correctly or incorrectly, that our actions will lead us to have a good life.

Eudaimonia is that life that we are all seeking. It is a life full of happiness, contentment, and fulfillment. It is the best possible life that a human can have. So, now we have a definition I think that we can work with.

Eudaimonia – The best possible life that a human can have, full of happiness, contentment, and fulfillment.

So, if we define eudaimonia this way, and I ask you the question, “Do you want a life of Eudaimonia?” you are probably going to answer “Yes”.  I think you would be hard pressed to find someone you does not want a life defined as “the best possible life that a human can have”.

So what is the problem here? Well it turns out that people are going to disagree about how exactly you can go an obtain a life of Eudaimonia. Here is a really brief, and in no way sufficient, tongue in cheek caricature of how the different Greek philosophical schools thought a person could reach a life of Eudaimonia.

Cynics – Live an ascetic life, abandon all of your worldly possessions except for the absolutely bare minimum you need to live. Go against the flow of common social norms. Bark at people when they do something stupid, and don’t forget to hug cold statues while wearing little to no clothing. You must also do backwards moonwalks into large crowds of people to prove that you are “going against the flow” of Society.

Epicureans – Move away from everyone else to live in a commune with all your best friends and become a self sufficient community. Remember that the only good is pleasure and the only bad is pain. And by pleasure I mean adding one piece cheese to you daily meal which consists of just a little wine and bread. Also don’t forget to tend to your garden, you gotta have one even if you don’t like plants.

Skeptics – We are troubled throughout life because we make incorrect judgments about what is good or bad for us. We become disappointed when our judgments do not match up with reality. The best way to alleviate this issue is to not make any judgments at all, about anything, ever. Is that the edge of a cliff over there? How can I be sure? I will suspend my judgement and walk over there anyways.

Peripatetics – The best human life consists of using reason, and being the best person you can possibly be. But you also kind of need money, friends, family, and good luck. So if you aren’t lucky, or are born into unfortunate circumstances, oh well, no Eudaimonia for you. Also don’t forget to walk around a lot and think about things.

Stoics – The best human life consists of using reason, and being the best person you can possibly be. You must be wise, courageous, temperate, and just. It doesn’t matter if you are a slave or an emperor. The only thing that matters are your own actions and your character. Because the only thing that matters are your actions, you can be happy all the time. Yes all the time, even if you are being tortured and your limbs are being hacked off one by one, you are happy. Also, the Stoic sage is the only one who can fully acquire a life of Eudaimonia, because he is the best person ever and always makes the right decisions. But this guy only appears once every ten thousand years, so you probably ain’t him. And by the way everyone else who is not a sage is insane, full of vice, and never acts correctly even if they copy the sage action for action.

And I chose to be a Stoic huh?

 

 

On Religion

Based on my previous blog posts it is probably not too difficult to guess my general position on religion. I am a De facto atheist. But what do I really mean by that? The words atheist, agnostic, and theist often have different meanings in different contexts, and can mean different things to different people. There are often debates about what the word ‘atheist’ actually means, along with how it is used in a societal and academic context.

So, what am I saying when I call myself a De facto atheist? Well, like many things in life, I consider a person’s religious belief to be best characterized as a spectrum of possibilities. Richard Dawkins popularized the spectrum of theistic probability which is what I am referring to here. The spectrum is defined as follows:

  • Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God.
    •  “I do not believe, I know.”
  • De facto theist. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent.
    • “I don’t know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.”
  • Leaning towards theism. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high.
    • “I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.”
  • Completely impartial. Exactly 50 per cent.
    • “God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.”
  • Leaning towards atheism. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low.
    • “I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical.”
  • De facto atheist. Very low probability, but short of zero.
    • “I don’t know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.”
  • Strong atheist.
    • “I know there is no God, with the same conviction that a Strong theist knows there is one.”

I personally feel that the statement,”I don’t know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.” describes my position on the matter fairly well.

However, there is another phrase which I also believe to describe my position, and that is “I remain unconvinced by the evidence or claims made by any of the world’s religions”. This was essentially said by Neil deGrasse Tyson in a podcast where he talked about why he doesn’t call himself an atheist. Neil would rather label himself as an agnostic over an atheist, due to the connotations associated with those words.

I am certainly sympathetic with that view, as I previously described myself as agnostic for very similar reasons. I did not like using the term atheist to describe myself, as people often took that to mean that I was a strong atheist, believing with conviction that there is no god, when that is not the case. However, referring to myself as agnostic caused confusion as well, as some people believed what I meant by agnostic was that “we can never truly know if God exists or not” or that “God’s existence and non-existence are equally probable” when that was not the case either.

I prefer the term De facto atheist because it provides a little more information than the word atheist by itself, and my cause extra discussion about what exactly I mean by the term. Also, I get to describe myself using Latin, and using Latin phrases is what all the cool kids do nowadays. Right?

Technical Terms

If we were to  fully flesh out how I would describe my belief in technical terms, I would consider myself to  be a friendly wide negative weak atheist. Wow, that is a lot of adjectives huh?  You can read more about these terms on the IEP and elsewhere on the Internet, but here is a quick summary for you.

Atheism can be narrow or wide in scope. The narrow atheist does not believe in the existence of God (an omnipotent- being).  A wide atheist does not believe that any gods exist, including but not limited to the traditional omnipotent-God, the Norse Gods, the Greek Gods, the Egyptian Gods, etc…

Negative atheism is the lack of a belief that God or gods exist, whereas positive atheism is to affirm the non-existence of God or Gods. The terms negative and positive are often used interchangeably with the words strong and weak, meaning essentially the same thing.

What about a friendly atheist. Now by friendly I don’t mean that I consider myself to be a friendly person who is also an atheist (although I certainly hope that to be the case). To quote the IEP again “The friendly atheist can grant that a theist may be justified or reasonable in believing in God, even though the atheist takes the theist’s conclusion to be false.” This has to deal with how we view knowledge (Epistomology), and whether beliefs can be rational, justified, and true or false. I recommend reading the IEP page to learn more if you are unfamiliar with these terms.

It has become a trend recently, that instead of calling oneself a weak or a strong atheist, people will call themselves an agnostic atheist  or a gnostic atheist, with the terms gnostic and agnostic referring to knowledge, while theism and atheism refer to belief. If I were to use these terms instead, I would be classified as an agnostic atheist. Personally I do not like using this format, as it is not the way in which philosophers typically use these terms. Perhaps this form was recently popularized because people were uncomfortable with using the terms strong, weak, positive, and negative to describe their positions?

Why?

So, why am I spending so much time talking about what the difference is between agnosticism and atheism, along with how it all applies to myself? Well, honestly this is a question that I have personally struggled with for a while. Looking for an answer to this question is essentially what lead me down the path of philosophy in the first place.

I grew up in a Protestant Christian household that attended church fairly regularly. Both of my parents were very involved in the church, both of them being deacons, and my father was acting Treasurer for the church for a while. After I went away to college and was exposed to more people with varying beliefs, I started to doubt what I had been taught by my family. It all just seemed to make less and less sense. After doing a lot of soul searching and contemplation for the past few years, I have essentially come to the conclusion that I have been elaborating upon throughout this post.

I also think this is a question that all people need to wrestle with an settle on in one form or another, as it becomes a pillar that supports and influences your world view.

The Stoics

This question was also important to the ancient Stoic philosophers. They essentially believed in pantheism, that God and the universe were one and the same, and that the universe is governed by rationality and providence. This puts me at odds with the ancient Stoics as I am not a pantheist, and I do not believe in providence.

There is also a debate within the Stoic community as to whether one can even consider themselves to be a Stoic while being an atheist, as belief in a rational universe along with providence was an essential part of Stoic philosophy as a whole. Many people have written on this topic elsewhere in much more detail, but essentially I agree that an atheist would not be able to consider themselves a Stoic, at least in the classical sense, and that you would become a different type of Stoic, with a different philosophical world view. I do think it is possible to retain the concepts found in Stoic Ethics without the need of a pantheistic view of the universe. However, that is something that I will go into, another time.

On the Meaning of Life

What is the meaning of life? You have probably heard this question before, perhaps you have even asked this question yourself. However there is an inherent problem with this question. It is very vague. This question could actually be asking a variety of things. Does life (at the cosmic scale) have a purpose? Does my life have a purpose? Are we here for a reason? For what reason am I living?

There are a variety of ways you can answer these questions. From my perspective, there is no overall grand purpose to life. There is no objective meaning that we can find. Life and the universe just happened randomly, with no overarching purpose or goal. If you are of a religious orientation, you probably disagree with me on this point. You would be inclined to think that God has given humans a purpose and meaning to their lives. However, for those of us that do not attribute the creation of the universe to a deity or cosmic energy, the seeming meaninglessness of life is something that we must grapple with.

This is an idea that makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable. That life just kind of happened, and there is no overall meaning to it. No guiding hand of providence. Humans are very good at recognizing patterns. Sometimes, we even fool ourselves into thinking that we see patterns when there actually are none. How many times have you seen a “sign” that helped you make a decision, or reflected back on the past and said, “oh, that must have been a sign of things to come”. It is very difficult for us to escape this story making mentality. This is how I personally view most religious attempts to answer this question.

The struggle in dealing with the meaningless of existence is encapsulated in the views of Absurdism, Existentialism, and Nihilism. These views, all to some degree, state that life has no objective meaning, but humans will forever look for meaning in a meaningless existence. We are all Sisyphus, forever pushing a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down again.

This is the Absurd that we rebel against in Absurdism. This is the freedom that liberates us in Nihilism. This is the blank canvas that we can use to craft our own meaning  in Existentialism.

As the philosopher Jean Paul Satre famously said, we are “condemned to freedom”. Having some freedom with some choices is nice, but having too many choices available can be a nightmare.

I am inclined to agree with the Existentialists here. Perhaps the Existential Nihilists to be specific? I too think that there is no objective meaning to life. In the first place we assign meaning to things, not the other way around.

Take a look at this sign. What does it mean?

deer-traffic-sign-x-w11-3

It means, ‘be careful of deer crossing the street in this area’. Why does it mean this? It means this because we have assigned this meaning to the sign and agreed upon it. Even these tiny little letters combined in a specific sequence on your screen that you are reading right now mean something to you. But they only mean something because we have assigned a meaning to them. The meaning did not magically exist beforehand. We assign meaning to things, not the other way around.

Existence precedes essence.
– Jean Paul Satre

Because we as humans assign meaning, we can craft our own individual meaning of life. Nobody is going to simply hand over the meaning of your life to you on a silver platter. It is something that you must search for and create yourself. How do we create our own meaning in life? I am not sure, I am still working on  that myself…

 

STOICON 2016

I was fortunate enough to attend STOICON this year, so I decided to do a write up about my thoughts and experiences from the event.

Arrival

Being a native New Yorker who currently lives in Brooklyn, it was pretty easy for me to hop on the subway and head down to where STOICON was being held, at the Houston Street Center in Lower Manhattan between Little Italy and East Village.

I had never been to the Houston Street Center before, the best way I can describe the center is that it almost feels like a YMCA. It has a large gym for basketball, a workout room with exercise equipment, and a few small classrooms scattered throughout the building.

dsc_0101Upon arriving at around 8:30am I was prompted by the organizers to find my name tag from those alphabetically sorted on a table. I was then told to insert my name tag into a plastic pouch, and was provided with an untied shoelace. Combine all three of these things together and you get yourself a lanyard!

This process seemed a little strange to me as I have been to my fair share of conventions before, such as PAX East and NYCC, where they tend to go all out with the lanyards and badges. I am sure doing it this way allowed the organizes to save money on materials, and provided an interesting exercise in knot tying for the attendees.

They had also printed out a very nice convention guide booklet which contained a schedule of the days activities along with mini bios of all the speakers. In addition it contained a page of Greek terms that might come up during the conference, as well a list of basic Stoic resources, on the web and elsewhere, that would be helpful for people who are new to Stoicism.

I was surprised that as I entered the convention, nobody checked my ticket. My guess here is that the organizers believed that anybody interested enough to attend a conference about Stoicism, where people would be talking about morality and virtue, would not be so immoral as to attempt to sneak in without paying, or steal somebody else’s name tag.

Convention Start

The convention itself was setup inside a large basketball court, with a podium up front, a projector, and seats laid out throughout the court floor. Massimo Pigliucci came up first to do a quick welcome and introduction, mentioning that there were about 330 attendees at the conference that day, ostensibly being the largest gathering of Stoics in all of history, an amusing fact to ponder.

From the beginning it seemed as if the Stoic gods, if there are any, were testing us. There were constant issues with the microphones and sound, making it difficult to hear many of the speakers at times throughout the conference. It was also very difficult to see many of the presentation slides due to the lighting in the room. I do think however, that everyone got through these issues fairly well, without anybody losing their cool. Stoicism at work!

Convention Morning

There were three speakers arranged to talk in the initial morning session, from 9am – 10:30am consisting of Donald Robertson, Julia Annas, and Bill Irvine. I found all of the speakers in this session to be interesting and engaging, as each approached Stoic philosophy from different perspectives.

Donald Robertson talked about Stoic Mindfulness and how it relates to many of the techniques practiced in CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and REBT (Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy).

Julia Annas approached the Stoic philosophy more directly, taking about how the Stoics viewed virtue and vice along with their ideal sage. She tackled the rather off-putting concept of how the Stoic philosophers say there are no degrees of virtue, you either wholly virtuous or wholly vicious, and explained why the Stoic philosophers thought of it that way. I found this talk helpful in resolving some of the common “Stoic Paradoxes” that come  up as you dig deeper into the philosophy.

William Irvine talked about using Stoic techniques, and applying them so that you could become an “insult pacifist”, basically somebody who is unperturbed by insults. He mentioned some of his own personal stories where he had been able to apply these ideas to his own life, and also mentioned stories where he had failed to live up to those standards. William’s speech was probably taken the most well received by the audience out of first few presentations due to the humor and personal perspective he provided.

Break Time

After the first three speakers had finished, we took a quick 15 minute break to get up, stretch, and walk around. During the break I noticed Matt Van Natta, author of the Immoderate Stoic blog as well as the Good Fortune podcast. I had listened to his podcast before, so it was cool to see him there. I was able to talk to him for a little while during the break time.

Convention Morning Part 2

After the break, we had another series of speakers setup to talk from 10:45am – 1pm. The speakers included Lawrence Becker, Debbie Joffe Ellis, Chris Gill, Cinzia Arruzza, and Jules Evans.

Lawrence Becker was unable to attend in person, so instead a Skype call was setup so that he could address everyone at the convention. As you might expect, there were issues initiating the Skype call, glitches with the audio skipping at times, and they were unable to get the video to work until about half way through the talk. It is difficult to pin down exactly what Lawrence talked about, as he bounced around from topic to topic, mentioning how Stoic philosophy is really an evolving philosophy, giving examples of Stoic philosophers, such as Posidonius, who took the philosophy in different directions at times.

Debbie Joffe Ellis  talked about her late husband, Albert Ellis, and how he used many ideas from the Stoic toolkit to develop REBT (Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy) which helped many people throughout his career. She also mentioned how he lived as a good example of how you should live, as he always sought to help others throughout his life even into his 90s while he was ill.

Christopher Gill talked about whether Stoicism conflicted with political activism in any way, with the conclusion being that Stocism actually encourages political activism instead of passivity which it is commonly misconstrued as suggesting. His speech felt very much like a good old fashioned college lecture, which makes sense since he is indeed a Philosophy Professor.

Cinzia Arruza talked about using enabling us to use Stoicism to take better care of ourselves, along with Stoic exercises in relationship to French Philosopher Michel Foucault. This lecture went beyond me at times, digging deep into Foucault, who I was not really familiar with. There were some helpful insights at times about inspecting your impressions, trying to evaluate your issues from different perspective (such as a cosmological perspective) and that often we much change ourselves internally before we can change the external world.

Jules Evans was probably the most lively of all the speakers, encouraging everyone to stand up, stretch, high five the person next to them, along with other shenanigans. Jules talked primarily about his own life experiences, how throughout and after college he ran into a lot of anxiety issues, discovered CBT which helped him to mitigate his anxiety issues quite a bit, and went on to discover how the root of CBT came from ancient Stoic philosophy.

Lunch Break

We were then dismissed from around 1:00pm to 2:30pm to go off and find lunch. I had scoped out some nearby pizza places before and ended up trying to get some food at Prince Street Pizza. Their spicy pepperoni squares were highly recommended so I decided to try that. They did not have any available when I showed up, but they gave me a waiting ticket (#5) and said that more should be ready in 10 minutes. I had some time to kill anyways so I figured it would be fine to wait.

About 10 minutes passed and a pepperoni pie finally came out. However, it was only enough to serve # 1 – 3 who arrived there before me. Apparently I would have to wait a little longer. It was now 1:55pm and I had been waiting for Pizza for at least 35 minutes. I decided that in-order to get back to the conference in time for the 2:30pm workshops, I might as well hand in my #5 ticket, forego the pepperoni pizza, and get something else. I ordered two slices of margherita pizza instead. After I had received and paid for my two slices I saw them pulling two pies of pepperoni pizza out of the oven. Again, it seemed as if the Stoic gods, if there are any, were testing me, or at least they had a sense of  humor. I basically went “oh well” and continued on with my margherita pizza, which was rather good anyways.

Workshops

There were 6 potential workshops to choose from that would last from  2:30pm – 4pm, and you had to sign up in advance to indicate which workshop you wanted to attend. I decided to attend Tim LeBon’s workshop titled “Trump for President? A Stoic response”.

The first great test of the workshop was finding it…I was able to find all the other workshops in the building but could not seem to find the specific one I wanted to attend. After wandering around for a few minutes I eventually bumped into Time LeBon, who also was confused and looking for the workshop room. Eventually we found a staff member who was able to direct us the workshop room, which ended up being on a different floor in a back room.

The room was pretty small, having enough space for about 16 charis. There were around 12 people in total attending Tim’s workshop. The patience of this group of Stoics was again tested, as there were many difficulties setting up the presentation. Tim had brought his own laptop with an HDMI cable, however the projectors they had only took VHS. The staff then brought in another laptop that had a VHS port, but Tim could not load his presentation on to the laptop, as it would not recognize his flash drive. Three different laptops and two flash drives later, we could still not get the presentation setup properly.

Eventually Tim realized that he had his presentation on his website, and was able to download it onto one of the working laptops. Unfortunately he only had it in pdf format, not power point, which made it a little awkward to present. Did I also mention that the projector was crooked the whole time? It was almost like being in an absurdist play where everything goes wrong. However, we did get through it and went on with Tim’s presentation.

To quickly summarize Tim’s presentation, we essentially did a bunch of negative visualization training. First we imagined what it might be like if Trump became President, imagined what moods and emotions we might feel at the time, as well as what we would feel like doing. Some emotions that people listed out were disappointment, fearfulness, and depression, along with taking actions such as hiding in your room under your bed to escape reality.

We then moved on to examine how a Stoic might react to the situation, taking into account what we could or could not change at that moment, and how we might use the Stoic virtues in ways that would be helpful. We could not change the fact that Trump was president, but we could change our reactions along with our actions. We could use the virtue of temperance to make sure that we do not go on an angry tirade, the virtue of courage to take action against decisions we disagree with, and practical wisdom to determine what actions we might take to lessen any potential damages that might occur due to a Trump presidency.

The idea here was that, if we visualize how we might react to the situation, and rehearse how we should behave after we have those reactions, we would be better equipped to deal with the situation if it did occur. Obviously these techniques can be used for any potentially upsetting situation, which was the main point of this workshop. You need not let your initial impressions dictate your reactions.

Keynote

After all the workshops were over, we all headed back to the gymnasium for the Keynote speech, which lasted from around 4:15pm to 5:15pm. The speaker this time was Ryan Holiday, who is probably one of the more well know speakers, since he has written a handful of books on various topics ranging from social media manipulation to overcoming obstacles in your life.

He told us how he personally encountered Stoicism back in college, by reading a copy of Marcus Aurelieus’s Meditations. After regaling us with a variety of Stoic quotes from Marcus, Seneca, and Epictetus he elaborated on his belief that Stoicism really is a philosophy for the common person, and the we should push it into the mainstream as much as possible, so that others may also benefit from it as we have.

He then talked about his new book The Daily Stoic which contains quotes from many of the great Stoic philosophers with detailed comments on each quote, the idea here being that every day you would read one page from the book and focus on that Stoic principle for the day. Ryan was also kind enough to give everyone at the conference a free copy of his new book, which was a nice surprise.

And thus ended my long day at STOICON.

Conclusion

If you are interesting in hearing what the speakers had to say for yourself, most of STOICON was live streamed and put on YouTube to watch here and here. The audio is not great at times, but I am sure you can use many of the techniques mentioned in this post to help you deal with it. You can also read more about what happened at STOICON on Massimo’s blog here.

In the end I would consider STOICON to have been a successful event. It was great to see the various perspectives that people approached Stoicism with, learn more about the Stoic philosophy as a whole, and to see the philosophy at work in action.

zenoillustration1
Zeno, founder of Stoicism

On Free Will

The philosophical debate on whether or not humans have free will has been going on for thousands of years. In this blog post I do not intend to settle the debate once and for all. People much smarter than me have already tried. Here I will simply  expound upon my own personal thoughts behind the concepts of causality, determinism, and free will.

Much of this info is taken from the Information Philosopher website and the book Free Will Scandal which I encourage you to look at if you are interested in this topic.

First I think we need to define a couple of terms to get started.

Causality

Causality is the basic idea that all events have causes. When every event is caused completely by prior events and their causes, it leads to the idea of determinism. A causal chain links all events to earlier events in a limitless sequence.

Determinism

Determinism is the idea that everything that happens, including all human actions, are completely determined by prior events. There is only one possible future, and it is completely predictable in principle, most famously by Laplace’s Supreme Intelligent Demon, assuming perfect knowledge of the positions, velocities, and forces for all the atoms in the void.

Indeterminism

Indeterminism is the idea that some events are uncaused, specifically that they are random accidents with only probabilistic outcomes.

Libertarianism

Libertarianism is a school of thought that says humans are free, not only from physical determinism, but from all the other diverse forms of determinism. Libertarians believe that strict determinism and freedom are incompatible. Most libertarians in the past have been mind/body dualists who, following René Descartes, explained human freedom by a separate mind substance that somehow manages to act indeterministically in the physical world. Religious libertarians say that God has given man a gift of freedom.

Free Will

Free Will is sometimes called Freedom of Action. Libertarian Free Will includes the availability of alternative possibilities and the ability to have done otherwise. How you define this term is tricky, as there can be various interpretations of the term, and depending on these interpretations, you may end up confirming or denying free will.

Thoughts on Determinism

Lets take a look at determinism first. Do I think that determinism is true? Well, no. At least, not in the sense of  pre-determinism, the idea that the entire past (as well as the future) was determined at the origin of the universe.

I think that there is potentially such a thing as self-caused events, or at the very least, a probabilistically caused event. Why do I think this? Well essentially, it is based off my interpretation of quantum mechanics. Based on our modern conception of physics, the Laws of Nature are not deterministic. They are probabilistic due to the underlying quantum mechanics that has replaced classical mechanics as the proper description of the universe’s fundamental particles. Probability is the explanation for alternative possibilities and unpredictable uncaused causes.

I believe that adequate determinism it the most apt way to describe our universe. This is the idea that macroscopic objects are adequately determined in their motions, giving rise to the appearance of strict causal determinism. Where as microscopic objects show the probabilistic consequences of indeterminism, due to quantum mechanics. These probabilistic effects usually average out in large objects, leading to the illusion of strict causal physical determinism, the powerful idea of deterministic laws of nature.

Essentially I think that ontological randomness (true randomness) does indeed exist, at the very least, on the microscopic or quantum level.

Even if you deny the idea quantum mechanics implies ontological randomness, I have a simpler, albeit more naive argument for you. Take a look at the chains of causality. If you follow the chain of causality all the way back to the beginning you need to ask yourself the question, well what caused that beginning? What created the first link in the chain? What is the primary cause?

Really, for me, the only thing that makes sense here is that we have an uncaused cause or a self-causing cause. If you really wanted to, you could say that this self-causing cause is God. This is the idea behind Artistotle’s “prime mover” or “unmoved mover”. I take this a step further and say, why stop at one prime mover? Why can there not be more than one? Why limit it to the very beginning of the causal chain? We could have uncaused causes filtered throughout chains of causality. This would then lead back to the idea of ontological randomness.

The universe is adequately determined, essentially meaning that there are both factors of determinism and indeterminism at play here.

Thoughts on Free Will

So how does the idea of adequate determinism fit in with the idea of free will? Well this really depends on how we define free will. You can define it as the ability to have done otherwise. Meaning that if you reset reality back to the exact state it was 5 minutes ago, before you made the decision to choose between vanilla and chocolate ice cream, you could actually make a different choice here.

A hard determinist would say that no matter how many times you rewind the clock, you will always make the same choice. You will always choose chocolate. Due to adequate determinism I say that, if you do rewind the clock, there will be some times that you choose chocolate and other times that you choose vanilla. To most people this change in choice is simply random, and not actually a case of free will. If I just randomly choose one flavor over another, it cannot be said that my choice here is really free. Technically though, I would say that this fulfills the requirement of ‘being able to do otherwise’.

Think that the criticism of the ice cream example, saying ‘that isn’t really free’, is a valid criticism based on that specific idea of free will. However I do not think that this idea of free will  gets us anywhere, as it does not actually exist in any real sense. We have a much more plausible idea of free will that we use on a day to day basis. When you go to sign a legal contract, and the witness asks you, “are you signing this contract of your own free will?”, and you say “yes”, this is essentially what we mean by free will, that you are free from outside coercion.

More specifically I would define free will as essentially being reasons responsive. What does this mean? Reasons-Responsiveness describes an agent who has the kind of control needed to initiate or originate an action. Being “reasons-responsive” and taking ownership of the action means the agent can say the action was “up to me.”

To put it a little more simply, you could say it literally means that you are response to other reasons. For example, lets pretend that you plan to go on a bike ride outside to exercise. Your reasons for this is that riding your bike will help you burn calories and become healthier. You then hear on the news that there is going to be a heavy thunderstorm outside in 15 minutes. Due to this, you decide to not go on your bike ride, and instead stay inside. In this case you were responsive to other reasons as to whether you should ride your bike or not. Therefore it can be said in this case that you exercised your free will.

Lets take the same case but modify it a bit. Pretend that you now have a diabolical fitness instructor that has brainwashed you into thinking that you must always ride your bike outside no matter what. Even though you hear on the news that there is going to be a heavy thunderstorm outside in 15 minutes, you will still go outside and ride your bike regardless. In this case, you were not response to other reasons, and it cannot be said that you exercised your free will.

Some people might think of this idea of free will as a type of cop out, but for me, this is the only concept of free will that really makes sense, and it useful to us as humans. This concept of free will is common to those who embrace compatibilismCompatibilism essentially argues that determinism is compatible with human freedom. This allows us to take responsibility for  our actions, including credit for the good and blame for the bad.

My full view on the matter is more accurately described as that of comprehensive compatibilism. You can read a whole lot more about comprehensive compatibilism in this PDF on page 385. The following is a simplified definition:

Comprehensive compatibilism is the belief that free will can be reconciled both with adequate determinism and with indeterminism. Free will is not a metaphysical mystery or gift of God. It evolved from a natural biophysical property of all organisms. Comprehensive compatibilists believe that normally actions are adequately determined by deliberations prior to a decision, including one’s character and values, one’s feelings and desires, in short, one’s reasons and motives. They believe that free will is reasons responsive. Comprehensive compatibilists put limits on both determinism and indeterminism. Pure chance, irreducible randomness, or quantum indeterminacy in the two-stage model of free will is limited in the first stage to generating alternative possibilities. But also note that sometimes we can “deliberately” choose to act randomly, when there is no obvious reason to do one thing rather than another.  Comprehensive compatibilists believe that humans are free from strict physical determinism, or pre-determinism, and all the other diverse forms of determinism. They accept the existence of ontological chance, but believe that when chance is the direct and primary cause of actions, it precludes agent control and moral responsibility.

Essentially, it is a complex two stage model of free will. In the first stage, ontological randomness is able to generate additional possibilities. This can be simply expressed as additional thoughts popping into your head, or changes in your memories as you try to recall them in-order to make a decision. Ontological randomness also ends up being a core component of creativity in the human mind. Then in the second stage, we use our adequately determined will to choose from these potential possibilities, or potential reasons. This in the end, give us free will.

Final Thoughts

I hope you think that I have made a somewhat compelling case for comprehensive compatibilism. It has taken me much time, deliberation, research, and existential panic to decide that this conclusion makes sense to me.

I would also like to point out that the majority of modern day philosophers consider themselves to be compatibilists, and that indeed the ancient Stoic philosophers were  some of the earliest proponents of compatibilism.

I tried to keep the ideas in this post as simple as possible so that they might be accessible to people who are not as familiar with the free will debate. It is possible that in the process of keeping things simple, I have done a disservice to the complexity of certain ideas and viewpoints. Again I implore you to look into these ideas yourself, and see what conclusions you reach.

So, what is your take on free will?

On Climate Change

I have been re-considering a lot of my long held beliefs recently, and the idea of man made climate change appears to be next on on my list of beliefs that are in need of re-evaluation.

For a while I have held the belief that man made climate change is a real problem, and that we have to do something about it. Why did I hold this belief? Well, like many others I am sure, that simply seemed to be the consensus among the majority of people that I knew, along with what I was hearing from the media.

It also seemed to me that most people in my generation had the same opinion. Apparently that is true, 76% of the people in my generation believe that climate change is indeed a serious problem. You can read about the survey with this data here and here.

However, believing in something simply because the majority of the people you know also believe it, isn’t really the best way to go about things. I need more of a foundation for beliefs in matters such as this.

NASA

So I went off looking for some information on climate change. But where should I look for this info? Who should I trust? Well since I am an American citizen, one of the first organizations that popped into my mind was NASA. There are a bunch of scientists there, they have launched rockets into outer space, put people on the moon, they seem to know what they are doing, so lets take a look and see what they have to say.

Ok, so it looks like they have a whole page of evidence supporting climate change along with a page saying that the scientific consensus is in favor of man made climate change. On the page, NASA also mentions that 97% of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.

The 97% Consenses

This figure of 97% has been the rallying cry of many liberals, but it has also been largely questioned by conservatives. For example articles from the WSJ, Forbes, and the National Review question this figure. In general though, I have found much more recent support in favor of the 97% figure in general. The most recent study, done in 2016, seems to confirm this figure. You can read more about the scientific consensus on PolitifactFactCheck, and Wikipedia.

It is interesting to see that The Guardian posted an article in 2013 saying that the 97% figure appeared to be false, but they seem to have changed their position recently (or perhaps it is just the fact that the articles were written by two different journalists).

After looking into it this much, I am more inclined to agree with the 97% figure, but would say it really closer to a range of 90% – 97%. That is still a rather large majority of scientists though.

I have seen some people go so far as to say that, even though the majority of climate change scientists say that climate change is likely due to human actions, there is no guarantee that they are correct, that scientists as a whole have been wrong in the past about a lot of things, and they could be wrong this time.

This statement is technically correct. It is within the realm of possibility that the majority of scientists are mistaken. However, this is a very flawed argument for not believing in climate change. We should not believe people simple because there is a chance they are incorrect? What? Since when do we have 100% knowledge about anything? We could all just be brains floating around in a vat, attached to computers that simulate reality.

All we can really do is take the evidence that we have, figure out what is most probable, and continue forwards. If 90%+ of climate change scientists (experts) say that climate change over the past century is very likely due to human activities, I am going to have to side with them until proven otherwise.

IPCC

While browsing around the Internet and NASA’s pages, I found that NASA was citing a lot of material from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). I didn’t really know who they were so I looked them up. You can read about the IPCC on their website here. To take an excerpt from their page the IPCC  is:

The international body for assessing the science related to climate change. The IPCC was set up in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to provide policymakers with regular assessments of the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for adaptation and mitigation.

Those are some hefty credentials. To summarize once again the IPCC:

  1.  Was formed by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme.
  2. Was formed back in 1988.
  3. Was created to provide policymakers with regular assessments of the scientific basis of climate change.

Ok, these people are supposed to inform world leaders and governments about climate change, surely they can inform me. What do they have to say?

Well the IPCC gives a report about climate change every few years. What do the reports have to say? You can read a summary of their latest report here, which essentially says the following:

Human influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reductions in snow and ice, in global mean sea level rise, and in changes in some climate extremes. It is extremely likely (95-100% probability) that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.

I don’t know about you, but that seems like a fairly definitive answer to me.

How to Refute?

Even with all of this information that seems to be in favor of climate change, it is still possible to refute the claim. How would you do this? You would need to do the following.

  1. Prove that NASA is wrong, misinformed, or manipulating information.
  2. Prove that there is no majority consensus among climate scientists.
  3. Prove that the IPCC is wrong, misinformed, or manipulating information.

Well fancy that, the Daily Wire just wrote up an article that supposedly does all of that and more as of yesterday!

Personally, I believe there is more evidence to disprove refutation #2, as it appears to me that there actually is a scientific consensus in favor of man made climate change.

What about refutation #1? NASA?

Well, there have been some articles floating around saying that NASA has been fudging their temperature data to invoke a false man made climate warming narrative. You can read articles criticizing NASA on fudging their temperature data on The Washington Times and Fox News.

This however seems to not actually be the case, if you believe what is said by FactCheck and PolitiFact. This would indicate to me that the claims that NASA and other organizations are explicitly trying to manipulate temperature data is on the whole false.

What about refutation #3? The IPCC?

Well it seems like there was an email scandal with regards to the IPCC dubbed ‘Climate-gate’ where the IPCC had their emails hacked into and exposed. The contents of those emails seemed to indicate that scientists manipulated climate data and attempted to suppress critics. You can read about criticisms of the scandal on the Washington Post and the WSJ.

People were pretty upset by this scandal, and so were a lot of governments. In the end there were eight major investigations made into the scandal, and none of them found any wrongdoing. You can read more about the scientists being cleared of suspicion via articles at the NYT, BBC, FactCheck, and Nature.  There is also Wikipedia which has a nice breakdown and summary of  the entire event.

Conclusion

All of the evidence and sources that I have been able to find would seem to indicate that it is extremely likely that humans are the dominant cause climate change. This would mean that we need to make some changes to avoid environmental issues in the future.

I certainly don’t know everything, or even very much for that matter. But based on what I have learned here, I believe that this is a reasonable conclusion. What do you think? Is this a reasonable conclusion? Did I miss anything? Make some mistakes? If you find new evidence or better information, let me know!

If anyone can refute me-show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective-I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.

– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.21

 

On Physical Apperances

It is easy to become disillusioned with our appearances due to the constant barrage of media, advertising, and commercials that show us what “beautiful people” are supposed to look like.

Being exposed to this constantly can skew our view of reality. Due to this, we may become dissatisfied with our own looks, simply because we do not appear the way that the media, or perhaps even society, tells us to.

If you want to reset this depressed image that you have of yourself, go hang out at Penn Station in NYC, or any other public area that gets heavy foot traffic. Step to the side, and just watch people walk by for about 30 minutes. I  have done this myself while waiting for trains to arrive, and you will quickly come to realize, that pretty much all of us look fairly funky in some way.

The world is not made up of movie stars and models who look good 24/7 (primarily because they have a team of people who’s job it is to make sure  they look that way). The world is made up of common, everyday people, who dare I say, look a little strange. But the oddities of others can often be very charming in their own ways.

I am not saying that you should not care about the way you look at all. The way you dress, your appearances, do communicate a message about yourself to others. If you are wearing a t-shirt with your favorite video game character on it, you are saying to the world, “Hey everyone, I really like this video game!”, or if you are wearing shorts, flip flops, and sunglasses, you are saying “I am casual, relaxed, and ready to have some summer fun.”

Your appearances aren’t simply about “looking good”, if that was the case, we would be wearing fancy clothes such as tuxedos and ornate dresses all the time.

However, when you are choosing what to wear, you should keep this little idea in the back of your mind, “What I am trying to communicate to everyone today?”

 

On Utilitarianism

Most people are probably familiar with the idea of Utilitarianism. I have recently started to read about various moral theories, and I wanted to write down some of my thoughts about Utilitarianism in particular. You can read more about Utilitarianism here on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and decide for yourself. What follows is a simplified definition of Utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism

  1. A moral theory with the core belief that the purpose of morality is to make life better by increasing the amount of good things (such as pleasure and happiness) in the world and decreasing the amount of bad things (such as pain and unhappiness).
  2. The theory is based on consequentialism, meaning that an action is considered to be morally right or wrong depending solely on the effects of the action.

There are two distinct forms of Utilitarianism, there is Act Utilitarianism, and Rule Utilitarianism. An Act Utilitarian, takes the core ideas of Utilitarianism, and applies them directly to individual actions. This means that for an Act Utilitarian, an action is morally correct if it creates the most overall well-being (utility) compared to other potential actions. The Rule Utilitarian, instead, tries to create general rules that, when followed by everyone in society, create the largest amount of overall utility.

It might surprise you to learn that, for the most part, I reject Utilitarianism as a valid moral theory in both of these forms. I will now try to explain why.

Feeding People to the Lions

Lets say that we have a society, that contains some racial minority group. They make up 10% of the population. This minority group is frequently rounded up by the majority, thrown into a coliseum, and fed to hungry lions for their entertainment. In addition, the majority group in this society feels immense pleasure when they see somebody in the minority group being eaten by the lions. They also feel no remorse for the people being killed, for them this activity is no different than going to the movies to watch an entertaining summer blockbuster.

If we follow the core ideas of Utilitarianism here, they would say that this is situation is morally correct. The suffering of the minority group pales in comparison to the amount of pleasure and happiness that the majority receives.

Now at this point, some Utilitarians might object to this scenario, saying that these action do not in-fact benefit the society in the long run, as the majority will become desensitized to violence, leading them to commit atrocities against each other, decreasing overall happiness, or that the minority at some point could revolt, start a  war, and again, decrease overall utility.

Sure, that is possible and a potentially a realistic scenario, but lets say the the Government in this imaginary society has strict laws and programs in place, to the effect that such events would never unfold. The imaginary society can exist this way forever without any threat of collapse from within or without. In this situation, is it morally correct for them to continue to persecute this minority, simply because it produces the greatest amount of pleasure and utility? Most of us would say no, this is not correct, a society should not function this way.

Runaway Trolley

That example was a little extreme, let us try a simpler example. Imagine that there is a runaway trolley, barreling towards 4 people who are stuck on the track. You and another bystander, are observing the potential disaster from a bridge, overlooking the track that the train will pass through. They bystander is a rather large individual, and if you push him off the bridge, he will be hit by the trolley first, get caught between the trolley and the tracks, and stop it from running over the 4 other people, at the expense of the bystander’s life. You just saved 4 lives at the cost of one, was this the morally correct action?

Most people again, would say no here. The Utilitarian could say that, this action would not increase overall utility, because if it became the norm, then people would frequently fear for their lives when they are nearby strangers and runaway trolleys, decreasing overall happiness. Again, if we put ourselves in the idealized scenario where this decrease in utility does not occur, most people will agree that the of pushing the bystander off the bridge is not a morally correct action.

Liberty

The main issue with the above examples, is that Utilitarianism completely ignores an individual’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, as we would say in the United States. Utilitarian does not care about individual rights at all. It only cares about the benefit to society as a whole, at the expense of the individual. In a pure Utilitarian framework, you have a right to nothing.

Malicious Intent

Now imagine that you have a co-worker, Bob, and he has really been getting on your nerves lately. He works very hard, and takes all the promotions and raises that you feel belong to you, even though you have not worked nearly as hard or as competently as Bob. You finally snap in a fit of jealousy at Bob and decide to kill him by pushing him off the top of your office building.

The next day, it is discovered that Bob had plans the blow up the entire office building with everyone in it, essentially killing thousands of people. Was it morally correct for you to kill Bob, even though you had no clue about his plans? Are you a hero now?

Again most people are going to say no here. You had no clue about Bob’s plans, it was completely accidental that you ended up killing him before he could enact his plans. As far as you are concerned, it didn’t matter what he was going to do the next day, you just wanted him dead.

Utilitarianism does not care about your intent at all. If you accidentally end up increasing the overall utility for society out of malice or greed, great! Keep up the good work! In the same vein, if you accidentally ended up injuring your child, you are just as guilty as a potential criminal who would injure your child out of a sense of maliciousness. The only factor that matters, is the consequence of your action. Your intent does not factor into the equation.

The Future

Utilitarianism also asks, that you make predictions about the future. Since your intent to do good does not matter, and only the consequences of your action matter, you better hope that you are real good at predicting which actions will produce the greatest amount of utility for everyone.

I don’t know if you noticed, but it is really difficult to predict the future. I cannot even predict at what time I will wake up the next morning, let alone predict the consequences of my actions. I am not saying here that we should not try to predict the consequences of our actions at all. I am saying however, the it is inherently difficult to do such a thing, as often, the final results of our actions are out of our hands. We can try our best with the information that we have, but due to circumstances outside of our control, we may fail, or we may end up hurting people more than helping him, even though that was not our intent.

Subjectivity

Determining whether an action will produce greater overall utility is also a very subjective matter. It could be that right now, the action you took produced greater utility, but in the long run, it will produce greater overall suffering. The reverse is also true. Utilitarians themselves also often disagree about whether certain actions would indeed increase overall utility or not.

This is mainly true for act utilitarianism, but what about rule utilitarianism? I think that rule utilitarianism is essentially not much different than act utilitarianism, and that in the end, it crumbles back into the very subjective act utilitarianism. You could have a rule saying, always do x except when x does not provide maximum overall utility. To determine when x does not provide maximum overall utility however, you have to fall back on act utilitarianism. In the end, the two are not very different at all.

Conclusion

To summarize, my issues with Utilitarianism are as follows:

  1. It does not respect an individuals rights.
  2. It can easily be used to oppress minorities.
  3. It is only concerned with the result of an action, not the intent of an action.
  4. It asks you to predict the future, which is inherently difficult, and often, out of our full control.
  5. There is subjective disagreement over whether certain actions do indeed provide maximum utility or not, even among Utilitarians.

If you do consider yourself to be a Utilitarian, you could take the stance that feeding minorities to the Lions, and pushing people off bridges into runaway trolleys is the correct moral action, and that our common sense morality is simply misguided, that we are just being squeamish, and cannot face up to the reality of what the situation demands.

I disagree, I think that there are more competent moral theories out there that can free us from many of the problems that Utilitarianism has. However, I will save those ideas, for another time.