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Epictetus and Uncertainty

March 7, 2011 1 comment

I found that most of our anxiety comes from the uncertainty of not knowing how things are going to turn out. Will I get a good score at the math test, or will I not? Will I get the promotion, or will I not? Will this paper be accepted, or will it not?

Of course, anxiety does not always take its roots in uncertainty. In some cases you can become unsettled by things that are certain to happen. Think of yourself in a situation where you are terribly ill and your doctor says that your death is inevitable, and that you will take leave of this world at so and so date, hour, and minute. How would you spend your time then when you know that it is certain that death is going to strike you? Wouldn’t you persistently repress for every minute of your remaining life the thought that you are going to die? Or better, think of yourself of possibly having a debilitating genetic disease, such as Huntington, and that you have the choice of undergoing a test that would establish whether you are sick or not. Would you then rather chose certainty over uncertainty in that case? Wouldn’t uncertainty at least offer the consolation that comes from hope?

But, our daily anxiety, anger, and worry does not come from such hugely significant events such as our death. Really,  most of our thoughts are quite simple in their goals. In an ordinary day it is likely that you would think about the flavor of a specific food or drink, about the superiors and subordinates at your job, about clothes and music, about how you are going to accomplish a minor task, about the book you are reading, about how incompetent are drivers in this city, about having the desire to sleep,  about how are you going to convey a trifling thought in a blogpost…the list is endless. Such thoughts are likely to bring a variety of emotions in us, some of which are hardly desirable. Epictetus offers a solution how we can decrease the influence of negative emotions:

The thief does not know wherein man’s good consists, but he thinks that it consist in having fine clothes, the very thing which you also think. Must he not then come and take them away? When you show a cake to greedy persons, and swallow it all yourself, do you expect them not to snatch it from you? Do not provoke them; do not have a window; do not air your clothes. I also lately had an iron lamp placed by the side of my household gods; hearing a noise at the door, I ran down, and found that the lamp had been carried off. I reflected that he who had taken the lamp had done nothing strange. What then? To-morrow, I said, you will find an earthen lamp; for a man only loses that which he has. I have lost my garment. The reason is that you had a garment. I have a pain in my head. Have you any pain in your horns? Why then are you troubled? For we only lose those things, we have only pains about those things, which we possess. (Epictetus; Discourses)

The quote must be understood in the context of Epictetus’ work. Epictetus was a stoic philosopher, meaning that he not only taught philosophy, he lived it. An important principle that he emphasized continuously is that of not being victims of the things we think we possess. Epictetus mentioned that when you lose something that is in your possession, you feel a sensation of emptiness, and maybe anger. Hence a thief who steals a lamp, manages to hurt you not only materially but also spiritually. Epictetus’ advice is that we can subdue that anger by not attaching ourselves to our possessions. Of course, this is not done in a day. It is accomplished through rigorous training. Also, Epictetus mentions in his work that getting overly-involved in things that cannot be changed wouldn’t  be of benefit to anyone After all, should you really be angry about a thief that you know will not be caught? Is that anger of any use when you cannot change anything?

Are you lucky?

January 29, 2011 Leave a comment

The issues related to distributive justice have bothered many of us . I assume that as long as you have the capacity for empathy, there was a time when you felt that the world is simply unjust. Nonetheless, when qualifying what inequalities are permitted to exist, there is a tendency to assume that as long as an individual is responsible for those inequalities, then it might be permissible for the world to be somewhat unjust. After all, if we consider that a meritocratic system is the best system available for distributive justice, then it would be unacceptable to grant rewards solely on the basis of chance. For example, we would perceive an unbalance when a person who has done nothing to achieve a reward is given the reward with no strings attached. As long as that person has no disadvantages arising from poor economic and social circumstances or physical and mental ailments, we expect him to work, either intellectually or manually, in order to achieve some welfare in his life. Thus, the lazy should have no claims for social and economic equality.

This view, also known as luck egalitarianism,  fits perfectly with many egalitarian philosophers, including Roemer and Cohen. Rewards must be given for the responsible choices people make, and any type of mishap caused by unmade decisions that are not under control, such as congenital disability, should be compensated. However, there is a problem: Luck egalitarianism is fluff as long as there is no resolution to the existence of free will. If there is no resolution to free will, then how can the doctrine of luck egalitarianism say for what choices should people be held responsible? Consider the case of homeless children in Odessa, Ukraine:

From left to right: Slavic Berestov, 12 years, Vladislav Bernicov, 12 years, and Janna Potapnekova, 14 years, smoking cigarettes in an underground sewerage. Source:http://censor.net.ua/ru/photo_news/view/151861/deti_odesskih_podzemeliyi_shokiruyuschiyi_fotoreportaj

If you look at these three children, can you hold them responsible for the situation they are in? Some of you would say that an unwanted child, born in a poor family, in circumstances that  encourage coolness and belligerence, has a higher likelihood of screwing up their lives, so they can probably be only partially responsible for who they are. Since luck egalitarianism aims at compensating people who had a large share of bad luck in their lives, it has to find a way that would discern between choice and non-choice, hence it has to inevitably deal with the problem of free will. Until a solution is found, it can be considered flawed on both metaphysical and practical levels.

Atheist Rationalizations

January 17, 2011 2 comments

This post will be a long read for you. I spent more than a month unsuccessfully persuading myself not to write anything on this topic, but thoughts just kept pestering me to the degree that I could not focus on other, more important things.

Being godless does not come only from carefully considering the evidence on the existence of the supernatural and reaching the conclusion that since there is no evidence, then the claims on the existence of god are unsupported. It is common knowledge by now that you can be godless simply by being apathetic. You probably met individuals who resist the desire to be proselytized not because they can point fallacies in religious thinking, but because they do not care about metaphysical questions at all. For them the existence of god carries as much importance as the existence of unicorns. This message is not for them.

In my own time, I have done my own share of evangelizing. Although I was not committed to a church, I surely tried to convince others that believing in the Christian god is a good thing. Since the Orthodox Church in my country is known for its bigotry and corruption, it was not hard to persuade some people that you can believe in god without necessarily believing in a church. Of course, now, when I look back, I am embarrassed. I remember those moments when I was surreptitiously perusing Jehovah Witnesses’ books, or those where I was standing up in an auditorium of a church filled with two hundred to two-fifty people, mumbling words of a karaoke song from a screen, “O, Jesus please save me,” thinking about how crazy are the people in the front row with their raised hands, twirling as if in a Sufi-like dance. I remember the moment when my father called me during one of those Christian sermons, and asked me about the songs in the background, and how I had to answer, or better lie, that I was at a rock concert, certainly a place where a normal sixteen-year-old guy should be. I doubt that he believed me, since in a conversation that did not last more than one minute he asked me twice about the music, and who would ever believe that rock concerts are held at ten in the morning?

But this image of me as a believer did not describe me entirely. I was a believer only in the eyes of the unbelievers or agnostics or believers who went to church out of tradition, but who had little knowledge of the bible and history of religion. In the eyes of more avid Christians, however, I was at best an agnostic or an atheist who was yet noncommittal about his lack of belief. After all, I always asked controversial questions about all the rape, war, incest, and other things that are supposed to be sinful with which the Bible is replete. I had good conversations with these avid Christians, from which I learned that most of them did not read the Bible entirely, but have selectively taken mostly the good parts in it. Even pastors who led the sermons at some protestant churches, which in Moldova are called rudely “SEKTA,” a name that in the US would be attributed to Moonies, were reluctant to talk about the darker parts found in the Bible. That is when I understood how powerful the social bonding among protestant Christians is. I realized that many of them do not come to sermons only to hear the “Message,” but they come there because they can find supporting friends, who would be glad to help them with whatever spiritual or financial troubles they might have. They come and have a good conversation with like-minded people, and also feel good about themselves for leading a subjectively righteous life. Or they come there because the food is delicious, as it often happened and happens in my case.

Clearly, I have changed. I was an unaffiliated Christian, then an agnostic, and now I am atheist. I treaded the same road from belief to disbelief that many others  went on, but I know that this journey would have been bumpier and longer if someone challenged my belief in the existence of god. Why? Because whenever someone’s personal beliefs are challenged in a militant way, that someone will erect barriers that no amount of reason and persuasion can surmount. I remember the rare occasions when I met atheists, who were extremely polite and nice people, and how after conversing with them on matters of religion I would end up being more convinced that I was in the right and they were in the wrong. How else can you make your case in such an uneven debate, where you have to prove the existence of the nonexistent with rational arguments, but by ruefully maintaining your apologetic quackery? Unless you are a new-age creationist, such a Michael Behe or Gerald Schroeder, who conjures data in a mystical way, there is as much evidence you can provide for the existence of god as there is for the existence of crab-people.

Later, I got rid of the Pascal’s wager that you can find in his apologetic notes in the Pensees. I realized that persuading people to believe in a deity simply because the bets are lopsided is emotionally manipulative and undignified. “Well, you know,” says Pascal, “that if you do not believe in Santa, he might change his mind and not bring you anything for Christmas.”

Still, I am not a militant atheist. I know from my own experience that defending my lack of belief and attacking religious groups would only make things worse. That is why I do not support leading atheists like Dawkings, Hitchens, Dennet, Harris, and especially Silverman, although I share their line of reasoning when it comes to the existence of god. They have been promulgating a message of atheism for more than enough time, and I believe that their message has strengthened the lack of belief in atheists, but it has not added any use in persuading believers to let go of their irrationality. Even atheistic demotivators or motivators or whatever those black-framed photographs are called, with their cutting humor that mocks religion, are pandering to atheists and are reinforcing the faith of believers. Saying to a large group of people that they are foolish enough to believe in something that does not exist is a quite telling message, which is often met with aggressive responses. In order to show you how far people can go to rationalize their beliefs, let us look at an observational study described by Leon Festinger. Go Wiki:

Festinger and his associates read an interesting item in their local newspaper headlined “Prophecy from planet Clarion call to city: flee that flood.” A housewife from Chicago, given the name “Marian Keech” (real name: Dorothy Martin, later known as Sister Thedra), had mysteriously been given messages in her house in the form of “automatic writing” from alien beings on the planet Clarion. These messages revealed that the world would end in a great flood before dawn on December 21, 1954. The group of believers, headed by Keech, had taken strong behavioral steps to indicate their degree of commitment to the belief. They had left jobs, college, and spouses, and had given away money and possessions to prepare for their departure on the flying saucer, which was to rescue the group of true believers.

Of course, the end of the world did not happen, and many of us would assume that that would be it. What happened, however, is that most members rationalized their beliefs by claiming that their faith saved the world. Also, before the day of the supposed apocalypse, they preached their message reluctantly, while after the dis-confirmation, they became ardent missionaries, tirelessly maintaining their belief in aliens from the planet Clarion.

Does it, then, make sense to aggressively promote a message of disbelief, if the end result is the opposite of what atheists want?

Suicide Note

October 1, 2010 Leave a comment

Mitchell Heisman

Mitchell Heisman

Before I cause any unrest for those who are reading this post, I want you to know that the suicide note is not about me: It is about the person whose disaffected image you see on your left.

Mitchell Heisman died this September by shooting himself in front of a crowd of 20 people on the steps of Memorial Church of Harvard University.  Before his unfortunate finale,  he wrote a mortis manifesto of 1905 pages, outlining in it his views on philosophy, politics, history, religion, and science.

To some his legacy might seem superfluous ramblings, and they may consider his suicide as nothing more than a juvenile attempt to gain posthumous recognition. To be frank with you, I do not care what reasons or what despair brought him to consider ending his life. Thousands and millions die for the same reasons and through the same means as he did. Showing pittance for every death is beyond my capability.  I do, however, commiserate with his family, to whom the shock of his death must be an unendurable suffering.

Let me reiterate something. This post will not be about the Mitchell Heisman. My interest is solely in his work: Suicide Note.

Suicide Note is a powerful manifesto filled with extensive compendiums on a variety of topics. I have by no means read it all, although I am committed to slowly tread my way through it. Nevertheless, from the modicum of peruses that I’ve done so far, I believe that this work is phenomenal. I know that to many his abstruse and highly convoluted way of writing might be inaccessible. There is a reason for that. He, unlike most scholarly writers, did not always build his arguments from scratch. He revealed his thinking readily by cutting down all the necessary introductions. Hence, if you read his views on nihilism, you first have to get acquainted with the works of the major existential philosophers that came before him in order to understand what is he writing about.

Below you will find some excerpts that I found intriguing:

On Nihilism:

Uncertain of uncertainty, skeptical of skepticism, it seems that the most important question is whether there is an important question. The only serious question is whether there is anything to take seriously. What has previously been considered of value or importance appears as only an expression of myth, bias…error. (pg. 22)

There is a very popular opinion that choosing life is inherently superior to choosing death. This belief that life is inherently preferable to death is one of the most widespread superstitions. This bias constitutes one of the most obstinate mythologies of the human species. (pg. 22)

If the rational life leads to the nihilistic life, what are the consequences of a living intelligence whose highest organizing “principle” is this hypothetical nothingness?
What would it mean, in concrete terms, to live a rational life according the insight of the nihilistic? What would be the ultimate consequence of applying the hypothesis of unmeaning to every belief, every thought, every action, every emotion, every purpose, and every goal? To nausea, to fear, to love, to terror? (pg. 34)

On Nurture/Nature Debate:

When the nature/nurture issue is applied to fish or horses, it is generally assumed that nature — by nature —plays a stronger role than nurture in determining their behavior. This implies that human nature — by nature — is less determined by nature. Humans, then, are less determined by nature because humans are superior to nature — by nature. (pg. 130)

(I will have to agree with critics who believe his writing is a tad esoteric. The repetition of nature in several occasions is unnecessary. His ideas are clear, however.)

On Freedom

All political problems can be solved by slapping bumper stickers of “freedom” over them. But what is left when “the individual” stops hiding behind these abstractions of freedom? What if someone were to make the ridiculous blunder of asking: How do we use our freedom? Are there duties or moral imperatives justified along with these freedoms? What is right way to live? Anyone making a pilgrimage to the destination of Anglo-Saxon political philosophy with such questions, asked in their fullness, must realize that he or she has arrived at the wrong place. (pg. 873)

R.I.P.

The Website with his legacy: www.Suicidenote.info