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Action and the Soul

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Clayton Posted: Wed, Nov 30 2011 2:38 AM

I have to post this even though it is in ultra-rough-draft form... I will never sleep if I don't get it posted! I have been chiseling at these ideas since I first posted my article on law over a year ago. I recently stumbled across Epicurus and his philosophies and that was what really brought everything into focus for me. The ideas presented here are related to the ideas I presented on law here (latest draft I've posted to the forum).

 

Action and the Soul

 

This article is not about intangible entities, such as ghosts or deities, whether they exist or what their nature is. Rather, I have in mind the “soul” in its metaphorical sense. To borrow the terminology of Ludwig von Mises, I will be employing methodological dualism throughout this study. My soul is me, it is the “I” in “I want to be happy.” It is whatever is “looking at” the stream of incoming sensory data that comprises my experience of the world.

 

In examining the soul, I want to address the question: how can I be happy in the deepest and fullest sense of the word? This is a big question. It is the kind of question that has been fielded almost exclusively by religion and theology, not science. However, I believe we can apply the methods of science to begin to answer this question. I think we can do better than shrug our shoulders or appeal to mysticism in attempting to answer this question. Of course, the idea that ethics can be a science is highly contentious. I will adopt the position of Henry Hazlitt in his book The Foundations of Morality:

 

I will content myself here with pointing out that ethics is not a science in the sense in which that word is applied to the physical sciences—to the determination of matters of objective fact, or to the establishment of scientific laws which enable us to make exact predictions. But ethics is entitled to be called a science if we mean by this a systematic inquiry conducted by rational rules. It is not a mere chaos. It is not just a matter of opinion, in which one person's opinion is as good as another's, or in which one statement is as true or as false or as "meaningless" or as unverifiable as another; in which neither rational induction nor deduction nor the principles of investigation or logic play any part. If by science, in short, we mean simply rational inquiry aiming to arrive at a unified and systematized body of deductions and conclusions, then ethics is a science.

 

(Introduction)

 

Most of us pursue our own happiness without a great deal of introspection. After all, the pursuit of happiness is completely instinctual. However, if we intend to apply a methodical (scientific) approach to the matter, we must do more than simply rely on gut impulses.

 

An instinctive, irreflective knowledge of the processes of nature will doubtless always precede the scientific, conscious apprehension, or investigation, of phenomena. The former is the outcome of the relation in which the processes of nature stand to the satisfaction of our wants. The acquisition of the most elementary truth does not devolve upon the individual alone: it is pre-effected in the development of the race.

 

Ernst Mach – Introduction to The Science of Mechanics

 

I will tentatively begin the discussion with the word “happiness” with the understanding that this word is very imprecise and overloaded. It conveys the general meaning well enough to get things started.

 

The methodology I will employ in this article is two-fold – I will approach the problem simultaneously from two distinct methodologies belonging to two distinct (yet related) fields of science. The first methodology I will apply comes from the Austrian tradition of economics and is called praxeology. Praxeology works by beginning with a small number of truths about the human condition and human nature that are so obvious they cannot be denied and then deducing useful conclusions from these truths. Praxeology is a deductive method.

 

The second methodology I will apply comes from the natural sciences, in particular, evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology uses a hybrid of basic truths about the human condition and human nature combined with scientific evidence to derive hypothetical scenarios of human evolution that further illuminate human nature beyond that which could be determined from deduction alone. Evolutionary psychology is an inductive method.

 

Both praxeology and evolutionary psychology begin with the idea – unpopular nowadays – that humans have a nature. In particular, the idea of human nature is that humans have innate predispositions which they do not choose to have and may not be able to thwart even with conscious effort. If human beings have a nature then they are not übermenschen. They are not capable of reshaping themselves into anything they want to be. There are limits to their capacity to reason, to accurately perceive the world and to alter themselves and the world around them to suit their objectives.

 

Mises comments on the idea of human nature specifically as it relates to the idea of natural law.

 

… first, … a nature-given order of things exists to which man must adjust his actions if he wants to succeed. Second: the only means available to man for the cognizance of this order is thinking and reasoning, and no existing social institution is exempt from being examined and appraised by discursive reasoning. Third: there is no standard available for appraising any mode of acting either of individuals or of groups of individuals but that of the effects produced by such action.

 

Theory & History ch. 3.4

 

Any idea of measuring happiness should be banished immediately – happiness is a subjective state of mind and the conditions for happiness vary from individual to individual or even from time to time for the same individual.

 

Introspection and the Soul

 

One of the first tools of analysis is to break up the problem under study into smaller pieces along natural boundaries; for example, we separate left from right when dissecting an animal exhibiting bilateral symmetry or we separate the heavens (astronomy) from the terrestrial (geography) or sea animals from land animals, and so on.

 

I have chosen to break up the problem of the soul into three pieces. The first piece is perception. The second piece is cognition. The third piece is valuation or appetite.

 

This separation is based on introspection and is different from that employed in neuroscience, psychology or even the philosophy of cognition because the methodology employed in this article is primarily deductive. It should be understood that this division is no less arbitrary (in an ultimate sense) than those divisions employed in other fields and, therefore, cannot possibly conflict with them.

 

Perception can be further divided into two pieces, sense perception and memory perception. Sense perception is everything which comprises my awareness of the “now”, that is, the present. Memory perception is everything which comprises my awareness of the past.

 

Cognition is the “inner voice” that is capable of reasoning through difficult problems, drawing conclusions, constructing hypotheses based on perception, predicting the future and identifying patterns in the historical past, among other things.

 

Desire or appetite is the hunger pang that motivates action. If the soul was comprised solely of perception and cognition, the human being would be no different than a calculating device that idly waits for instructions and programming.

 

The soul can also be divided along the dimension of time; past (memory perception), present (sense perception) and future (cognition as it relates to prediction).

 

In this division, I have not overlooked the will. However, the will is not properly a piece or component of the soul. Rather, when we speak of the “the will” we are employing a hypostatic metaphor, as when we speak of “Time itself.” The will is not a thing. The will is the action or motion of the soul, which is the subject of study.

 

Starting Point

 

The soul itself is the ultimate starting point.

 

The soul as it relates to memory perception is ultimate. It is conceivable that I am misremembering the past and that the world has, as a matter of fact, unfolded differently than I remember it unfolding. However, even if this were the case, I have no means to perceive the mistake. Hence, I have no choice but to proceed as if my memories are, in fact, genuine.

 

The soul as it relates to sense perception is ultimate. The famous thought experiment of the “brain in a vat” illustrates this problem – what if you are not what you think you are but are, instead, a brain in a vat of warm saline water hooked up to some mad scientist’s supercomputer that is simulating the world around you? This is a conceivable situation. However, even if this were the case, I would have no means to perceive the mistake. Hence, I have no choice but to take my sense perceptions at face value. Descartes’ cogito argument or any other argument cannot imbue me with any greater confidence because I could make such arguments even if I were a brain in a vat.

 

The soul as it relates to cognition is ultimate. It is conceivable that my brain is unreliable and deduces false conclusions from true premises or fails to perceive the glaring inconsistencies in the axioms with which it operates. However, even if this were the case, I could not perceive the mistake since the sole means I have to diagnose it – my reasoning – is the very thing that is compromised. Every argument by which I am convinced is cognized to be true only insofar as I comprehend it and I believe that its axioms are consistent and its deductions are valid. There is no external cognitive reference outside of myself to which I can appeal to perceive the faults in my own cognitive abilities.

 

Whatever its origin, every belief I may have about theology or neurology or mathematics or cosmology or quantum physics must stand judgment before the throne of my own cognition and my own perceptions. I cannot have certainty through proxy, which is the fallacy of any appeal to authority. Certainty or even confidence is a state of mind not a fact residing within a physical object or within an abstract idea or within the mind of someone else.

 

Finally, the soul as it relates to valuation is ultimate. This is a sub-species of the brain-in-a-vat problem. It is conceivable that I am the subject of a grand hoax and that my values and desires come from a source external to myself or are really aligned against my own true interests. Nevertheless, I could never perceive the mistake since I only come to know my desires and appetites through their immediate effect on my state of mind. There is no external reference outside of myself to which I can appeal to perceive the mistakes in my valuations.

 

It is conceivable that I am expected or required by a deity or the Universe to act according to the desires and wishes of all mankind or all living things or the Universe or the deity himself, instead of acting according to my own desires. However, no matter how fervently I try to shrug off my appetites and adopt the desires and wishes of something or someone outside myself, I can only do so as a fulfillment of my desire or appetite of acting according to the wishes of that thing outside myself. That is, when I act on behalf of others, I act by virtue of my desire to fulfill the desires of others. Even if I obey God’s command to stop desiring some sinful experience, it is only because I more strongly desire the peace of mind that comes from being in good standing with God than I desire the forbidden pleasures of the sinful experience.

 

The vast majority of philosophy gives way to fear; fear of being incorrect, fear of having an incomplete understanding of life and the world, fear that we may be inadvertently doing wrong, and so on. Fear is one of the greatest impediments to the soul’s happiness. The burden does not rest on me to persuade you that your soul is its own highest court of appeal. Recognizing the fact that your own mind, your own senses and your own appetites are their own ultimate criterion whose judgments are not contingent upon any higher court of appeal is nothing but the abolition of fear from one’s mind and soul. Facing this fact is a matter of self-improvement not a question of logical debate.

 

Protagoras famously said, Man is the measure of all things. Slightly re-stated (to capture his meaning in modern language), no proposition can be more certain than that Self is the measure of all things. The truth of any other proposition can only be judged by virtue of the fact that this proposition is true. The compromise of conviction of belief in the truth of this proposition in one’s own mind cripples one’s ability to think about oneself, about one’s peers and about the natural world and is always the result of fear.

 

Asocial Action

 

Imagine Robinson Crusoe stranded alone on a deserted island. He has the width and breadth of the island to himself. There are plants and animals on the island which he may eat in order to survive. There is fresh water to drink. Because there are no other humans on the island, the problem of proper social behavior does not arise.

 

How should Crusoe act? What should he do? How should he spend his time?

 

Epicurus’s answer is that Crusoe should seek pleasure and avoid pain.

 

The truth of the position that pleasure is the ultimate good will most readily appear from the following illustration. Let us imagine a man living in the continuous enjoyment of numerous and vivid pleasures alike of body and of mind, undisturbed either by the presence or by the prospect of pain: what possible state of existence could we describe as being more excellent or more desirable? … Let him never suffer the pleasures of the past to fade away, but constantly renew their enjoyment in recollection, and his lot will be one which will not admit of further improvement.

 

Suppose on the other hand a person crushed beneath the heaviest load of mental and of bodily anguish to which humanity is liable. Grant him no hope of ultimate relief in view also give him no pleasure either present or in prospect. Can one describe or imagine a more pitiable state? If then a life full of pain is the thing most to be avoided, it follows that to live in pain is the highest evil; and this position implies that a life of pleasure is the ultimate good. In fact the mind possesses nothing in itself upon which it can rest as final. Every fear, every sorrow can be traced back to pain; there is no other thing besides pain which is of its own nature capable of causing either anxiety or distress.

 

Pleasure and pain moreover supply the motives of desire and of avoidance, and the springs of conduct generally. This being so, it clearly follows that actions are right and praiseworthy only as being a means to the attainment of a life of pleasure. But that which is not itself a means to anything else, but to which all else is a means, is what the Greeks term the Telos, the highest, ultimate or final Good. It must therefore be admitted that the Chief Good is to live agreeably.

 

Cicero (quoting the Epicurean Lucius Torquatus) - On Ends, (Section I.XII)

 

Mises clarifies the formal nature of Epicurean pleasure and pain in praxeology:

 

The idea that the incentive of human activity is always some uneasiness and its aim always to remove such uneasiness as far as possible, that is, to make the acting men feel happier, is the essence of the teachings of Eudaemonism and Hedonism. Epicurean ataraxia is that state of perfect happiness and contentment at which all human activity aims without ever wholly attaining it. In the face of the grandeur of this cognition it is of little avail only that many representatives of this philosophy failed to recognize the purely formal character of the notions pain and pleasure and gave them a material and carnal meaning.

 

Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (Chapter 1 Section 2)

 

To begin with, we must understand the ways in which satisfaction can arise. Satisfaction is a state of mind – the mental formalization of the Epicurean ataraxia – and can arise through a variety of means. First of all, it can arise without any perceptible cause. Sometimes, I feel happy for no apparent reason. Second, it can arise as the result of reflection on the past, that is, through memory perceptions. Third, it can arise as the result of sense perceptions, that is, the present experience of pleasurable sensation. Fourth, it can arise as the result of cognitive processes.

 

Unlike physical quantities such as space, time, air and so on, satisfaction is not scarce or bound by the rules of scarcity. In this sense, we can see that it is conceivable that satisfaction can be had at will. By contrast, it is not conceivable that a million diamonds can be had at will because diamonds are scarce; there are only so many of them and only by digging them out of the ground or persuading someone else to part with theirs can you have more.

 

Just as we can enjoy satisfaction for no apparent reason, wants can and often do arise for no apparent reason. However, wants do not solely arise from internal factors outside of one’s control. Wants can, in fact, be increased or decreased. Because of this, the nature and quantity of one’s wants lies at least partly within the realm of human action.

 

Epicurus argued that a man should seek to decrease his wants in order that it may be as easy as possible to be satisfied (happy):

 

Independence of outward things [is] a great good, not so as in all cases to use little, but so as to be contented with little if we have not much, being honestly persuaded that they have the sweetest enjoyment of luxury who stand least in need of it.

 

Letter to Menoeceus

 

In respect to what he believed were the primary afflictions that prevented people from being pleasantly situated, Epicurus taught what would later be termed the tetrapharmakos or “The Four-Part Cure”:

 

Don't fear god,

Don't worry about death;

What is good is easy to get, and

What is terrible is easy to endure

 

Philodemus, Herculaneum Papyrus

 

All four maxims are related to the elimination of anxiety about the prospect of future pain: pain inflicted by malevolent gods or Nature, pain suffered in a torturous afterlife, pain suffered by inability to meet one’s bodily needs and pain suffered by long and intense diseases.

 

The Epicurean view of attaining satisfaction is to reduce one’s wants, particularly by eliminating the anxiety that drives the creation of superfluous wants. To satisfy the gods, you must labor and purchase animals to sacrifice to satiate their wrath. To avoid a torturous afterlife and attain a blissful afterlife, you must forego pleasures and inflict pains upon yourself. To avoid suffering the humiliation of foregoing the luxuries of life, you must labor and purchase those luxuries before you die. And so on.

 

The first recommendation we can make to Crusoe is that he should seek to minimize his wants to those which he can reliably attain. The means by which he can attain this is a particular form of action, namely, psychological self-training. It is possible to shed a mental habit. For example, the habit of uttering curse words can be shed by repeatedly substituting a preferable word whenever the offending word manifests itself.

 

Whenever Crusoe thinks about the croissants he was accustomed to having before being stranded on the island, he can repeatedly think of the pleasure of eating the coconuts that are available to him instead until he has suppressed somewhat the memory of croissants which is causing him distress through the unsatisfied want. This subject warrants its own study and is only briefly touched here in cartoon form to illustrate that the means exist by which Crusoe can alter, to a degree, his own schedule of wants.

 

But in order to be happy, it is clearly not enough to simply want less. If he does not act, Crusoe will soon perish. In order to satisfy the wants which remain – whether as a matter of choice or not – Crusoe must employ means to achieve his ends and so achieve the ultimate end of ataraxia as described by Mises.

 

Praxeology – as a value-free science – scrupulously avoids recommendations regarding right ends. Mises says:

 

Praxeology is indifferent to the ultimate goals of action. Its findings are valid for all kinds of action irrespective of the ends aimed at. It is a science of means, not of ends. It applies the term happiness in a purely formal sense. In the praxeological terminology the proposition: man’s unique aim is to attain happiness, is tautological. It does not imply any statement about the state of affairs from which man expects happiness.

 

Human Action, Chapter 1 Section 2

 

At this point, we must augment the deductive method with inductive methods in order to give a non-arbitrary answer. We can begin to answer the question of what ends Crusoe should have by noting that we can exclude those ends which will bring him pain at the outset. Next, we ask among those ends which will not cause him pain, what should be their schedule? Here, we are not interested in the technical problem of survival which can be answered by any expert in survivalism, rather, we are interested in how Crusoe should order his schedule of wants so as to maximize his pleasure and satisfaction given that he is already able to survive.

 

In order to maximize his pleasure, Crusoe must resort to an inductive method. He must try varying his own schedule of wants in order to discover which ends he prefers to satisfy over others. We already instinctively do this without a second thought and adjust our wants over time without reflection. However, it is precisely this absence of deliberateness that limits the purely naturalistic approach to satisfying ends and which is at least partly responsible for our sometimes miserable failure to achieve ataraxia despite the fact that its attainment is always our ultimate aim.

 

We can finally make our final recommendation to Crusoe: he should eliminate ends which he can see from the outset will cause him pain and he must try varying his schedule of wants to see which ends to pursue in order to be most pleasantly situated. The goal of his search is to find the ends which bring the highest ratio[1] of satisfaction to dissatisfaction in the means required to attain them. This is a process of self-discovery.

 

However, there is more information available by which we can improve our recommendations to Crusoe. For example, we know that many types of mushrooms are poisonous and will cause severe suffering or death if Crusoe eats them. This kind of information was discovered through inductive methods – botanical study of plants and medical investigation of the human body and how plant toxins affect it.

 

We see that science can provide heuristics by which Crusoe can guide his blind search. A heuristic is invaluable in this regard. Just 10 different ends would result in nearly 4 million combinations and the world presents an innumerable set of possible ends. What is important to note is that science as it is used as a heuristic in the choice of ends is merely an elaboration of the process of individualistic self-discovery by the utilization of specialization and division-of-labor. In other words, the choice of ends is merely advised by scientific investigation and cannot be dictated or determined by it.

 

This is the mistake of Rothbard; he asserts that reason can prove the eating of poisonous mushrooms by Crusoe is immoral:

 

If Crusoe had eaten the mushrooms without learning of their poisonous effects, then his decision would have been incorrect-a possibly tragic error based on the fact that man is scarcely automatically determined to make correct decisions at all times. Hence, his lack of omniscience and his liability to error. If Crusoe, on the other hand, had known of the poison and eaten the mushrooms anyway-perhaps for "kicks" or from a very high time preference-then his decision would have been objectively immoral, an act deliberately set against his life and health. It may well be asked why life should be an objective ultimate value, why man should opt for life (in duration and quality) In reply, we may note that a proposition rises to the status of an axiom when he who denies it may be shown to be using it in the very course of the supposed refutation Now, any person participating in any sort of discussion, including one on values, is, by virtue of so participating, alive and affirming life. For if he were really opposed to life, he would have no business in such a discussion, indeed he would have no business continuing to be alive. Hence, the supposed opponent of life is really affirming it in the very process of his discussion, and hence the preservation and furtherance of one's life takes on the stature of an incontestable axiom.

 

Ethics of Liberty (Chapter 6)

 

If we faithfully follow the Misesean view of the purely formal nature of the Epicurean pleasure-pain dichotomy, then we can only describe pleasure as “good” or “moral” and pain as “bad” or “immoral” in a purely formal sense. These are just different ways to say “If Crusoe wants to stay alive, he should avoid the eating of mushrooms.” It does not mean that if he eats the mushrooms he has violated some kind of “Thou shalt not” dictum uttered by his Creator-Owner.

 

Either Rothbard really aims to establish ought from is and therefore has in view much more than the formal sense of “immoral” or he is being unclear. Either he means that Crusoe has really violated a law of human nature, a law which contains normative force, or he is equivocating norms with advice.

 

Human Nature

 

The task of developing detailed, specific recommendations to Crusoe in his search for happiness can be reduced to the specification of the attributes of human nature. I do not mean that once we have settled on certain facts about human nature that these facts are then determinative of the ends that Crusoe must choose. The fact of variation within humans means that any attribute of human nature in regards to right ends is subject to individual exceptions and outliers.

 

Crusoe can employ science in his search for the correct or best schedule of ends which will bring him closest to the condition of ataraxia but the deductive method fails because it can only take ends as givens, which are arbitrary. The science of evolutionary psychology is an inductive method which we can use to begin giving specific, detailed answers to the question, “What should Crusoe do?”

 

In their popular book, Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters, evolutionary psychologists Alan Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa lay the groundwork for the science of evolutionary psychology on four principles, each in contravention to what they call the Standard Social Science Model:

 

  1. People are animals… there is nothing special about humans… Evolutionary psychology recognizes that the same biological laws of evolution apply to humans as they do to all other species.
  2. There is nothing special about the human brain… the brain is just another body part, just like the hand or the pancreas. Just as millions of years of evolution have gradually shaped the hand or the pancreas to perform certain functions, so has evolution shaped the human brain to perform its function, which is solving adaptive problems to help humans survive and reproduce successfully… Evolution does not stop at the neck; it goes all the way up.
  3. Human nature is innate. Just as dogs are born with innate dog nature, and cats are born with innate cat nature, humans are born with innate human nature.
  4. Human behavior is the product of both innate human nature and the environment… both innate human nature, which the genes program, and the environment in which humans grow up are equally important determinants of behavior.

 

The primary tool of evolutionary psychology (EP) is the search for culturally-universal behaviors. Human behavior clearly varies from individual to individual and from culture to culture. But those behaviors which humans exhibit in all cultures are likely to have a genetic basis since it is easier to believe that a behavior is the result of a single genetic factor than it is to believe that a behavior arose as an artifact of cultural conditioning, independently, in every culture.

 

The very fact that the brain and its component circuitry are so complex is part and parcel of the reason we should believe that complex human behavior has a genetic basis. The pioneers of evolutionary psychology – Leda Cosmides and John Tooby – explain why in their article Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer.

 

Because their genetic basis is universal and species-typical, the heritability of complex adaptations (of the eye, for example) is usually low, not high. Moreover, sexual recombination constrains the design of genetic systems, such that the genetic basis of any complex adaptation (such as a cognitive mechanism) must be universal and species-typical (Tooby and Cosmides, 1990b). This means the genetic basis for the human cognitive architecture is universal, creating what is sometimes called the psychic unity of humankind. The genetic shuffle of meiosis and sexual recombination can cause individuals to differ slightly in quantitative properties that do not disrupt the functioning of complex adaptations. But two individuals do not differ in personality or morphology because one has the genetic basis for a complex adaptation that the other lacks.

 

This idea is also reinforced by the principle that the human brain is just another organ – just as the variation in human behavior is not down to some people having more or different arms or more or different eyes than everyone else, so the variation in human behavior due to the brain is not the result of the presence or absence of complex brain circuits in some people.

 

A large part of the wiring in our brains is concerned with social interaction. It goes without saying that the largest source of dissatisfaction facing Crusoe alone on his deserted island is loneliness and isolation. The movie Castaway memorably illustrates the desperate loneliness of the main character who resorts to putting a face on a volleyball, naming it Wilson and speaking to it constantly in an implied dialogue.

 

To proceed any further in the investigation of how to attain happiness by choosing right ends, we must re-introduce the complicating factor of society.

 

Social Action

 

If there are other people on the island with Crusoe, the problem of choosing right ends is altered dramatically. In the case of asocial action, the problem of right and wrong as a matter of normative principle simply cannot arise. Crusoe’s avoidance of pain and seeking of pleasure are essentially amoral and the only sense in which pain can be called “immoral” or “evil” and pleasure can be called “moral” or “good” is purely formal. To say otherwise is to assert that there is a higher court of appeal than Crusoe’s own soul in judging the validity of his desires, which is a veiled attempt to impose fear onto Crusoe.

 

In the case of social action, however, norms enter the picture. It is a mistake to think of norms as arising from contemplation. Theft is not considered immoral because, a long time ago, philosophers sat down and thought about a society where theft is permitted and realized that such a society would break down. They expounded the idea that “theft is wrong” and the people found this persuasive and began to believe and teach their children “theft is wrong” and so it is today. This is a caricature of the ideological theory of morality.

 

Norms arise instead from interpersonal conflict. It is easy to see why this is the case. Imagine that Crusoe’s island has become a popular tourist attraction and is filled to the brim with people. By chance, it happens that no one ever comes into conflict with anyone else on the island. In this case, there is no difference for each individual than if he were completely alone on the island. That is, the question of right and wrong is merely the question of pleasure or pain. The problem of right and wrong as a matter of normative principles simply never arises.

 

When we reintroduce the possibility of conflict on the island, the question of how conflicts will be resolved arises. Regardless of who is right or wrong, the problem is that one individual’s chosen end involves obstructing one of the chosen ends of another individual. One individual can only be happy by frustrating another. Disputes arise whenever the chosen ends of two individuals come into conflict, that is, whenever the chosen ends of two individuals are mutually exclusive.

 

The purpose of a norm, then, is to determine who should get to pursue their end unobstructed and who should stand aside and accept the frustration of their chosen end. Once the purpose of a norm is understood, it is easy to see that most discussions of ethics and morality go astray right from the outset. A moral rule or norm doesn’t exist for its own sake. If it did, then we would be correct in suspecting that Crusoe is subject to moral rules even when he is completely alone on the island. A necessary condition for moral problems is the existence of two or more people pursuing mutually exclusive ends.

 

Note that if the parties to a conflict argue about it verbally, each is essentially asking the other to choose pain and forgo pleasure since the reason each has the end he has is to obtain pleasure and avoid pain. Stated nakedly, this argument is very unpersuasive. In fact, it is the most basic possible form of hypocrisy. “I will enjoy pleasure and escape pain but you must learn to accept pain and forsake pleasure, at least, in this instance.”

 

If everyone just always accepted pain and forsook pleasure to begin with, it might be imagined that such conflicts would never arise in the first place. Since everyone is always deferring to everyone else, no possibility of conflict can arise. However, if the would-be Utopian is making this argument to the other party in the course of the dispute, it is a transparently self-serving argument since, as we have just seen, this is what every party to a dispute is always arguing in the dispute: “Accept the pain, defer to my pleasure.”

 

When the dispute is so serious as to require arbitration, it becomes a matter of law which lies outside the scope of this article. But law is a natural extension of social norms – it differs in the magnitude of what is at stake and it differs in the specialization and division-of-labor involved in the settlement of the dispute.

 

As many disputes are settled between individuals, patterns arise in what sorts of behaviors result in what sorts of outcomes, that is, which party usually defers. However, unlike law – where the threat of potential violence always stands behind the verbal dispute – the threats employed in the process of settling non-legal disputes are less violent. The threats employed are those of public humiliation, snitching, nagging, guilt, family estrangement, hazing, petty vandalism, community shunning or ostracism, and so on. Since everyone but sociopaths finds these outcomes highly unpleasant, such threats can be effective even though they do not rise to the level of violent threats.

 

Because these retaliatory behaviors are present in every culture, we can safely conclude that the human brain must have circuitry that permits other humans to impose this wide array of negative feelings on the brain without the use of outright violence. The fact that these circuits exist attests to some process of evolution by which they came about.

 

What is important to note is that the threats are rarely actually carried out. The mere threat of humiliation or estrangement or shunning is usually enough to bring about the desired outcome. In fact, no explicit threat must be made in every case; the mere fact that the threat could be made may be sufficient to settle a dispute.

 

As individuals act, they are forced to weigh the satisfaction they expect to receive from a given end against the retaliation which may be taken against them by someone else as a result. The attainment of ends which leave an individual vulnerable to retaliation by another individual who has a mutually exclusive end becomes more onerous by virtue of the added risk of retaliation.

 

For example, suppose our caveman ancestors had brain circuitry that made them experience feelings of shame or humiliation when accused of something considered bad by their peers – such as wresting a rock out of someone else’s hand. Let us further say that Caveman Adam needs a rock to smash open some nuts. He is sitting next to Caveman Bob who already has a rock in his hand. Caveman Adam has two options. He can get up and walk out of the cave and look around for a rock – risking that a predator may pounce on him or he can simply wrest the rock that Caveman Bob is holding and use that.

 

If the circuitry did not exist in Caveman Adam’s brain that makes him feel ashamed when accused of something recognized to be “bad” by his peers, his obvious choice would be to simply wrest the rock out of Caveman Bob’s hand. To hell with the gossipers. But since Caveman Adam does have this circuitry, he must weigh the onerousness of peer disapproval against the onerousness of stepping out of the cave to find a rock of his own. The mere existence of the possibility that Caveman Bob can retaliate by exposing Caveman Adam’s bad behavior to the group alters Caveman Adam’s behavior.

 

I have only sketched this subject – the field of evolutionary psychology has filled in our understanding of how many of the specific norms which humans actually exhibit have arisen over the course of our evolutionary history. The point is that we are born into a pre-existing fabric of social norms and laws that alter the costs of acting to attain our ends vis-à-vis the costs that would obtain in the situation of asocial action and this fabric cannot be re-woven at will, even by political, social and academic leaders.

 

For the purposes of answering the question of how to be happy in the deepest and fullest sense, I will take the fabric of social norms to be an unalterable given.

 

Obstructions to Ataraxia

 

A stunted self-discovery process is the most dangerous obstruction to progressing toward ataraxia. The process of self-discovery is continual and if it is halted, not only is no further progress toward ataraxia possible but a process of regression sets in. All the other obstructions to ataraxia must be continually removed or else they begin to settle in.

 

The need for validation is an obstruction because it is mental fear. If you are seeking the meaning of the Universe or the purpose of your life, you are already in an unhealthy state of fear. Your life does not require validation and the Universe means whatever it means to you. If your soul is healthy and confident you will see that this is the case. If you do not see that this is the case then you need to develop courage and overcome the fears you have fallen prey to.

 

Guilt and regret are obstructions to ataraxia for the same reason: fear. Much of the guilt and fear that people experience has its source in myths. The cure to these fears is the study of nature which shows that the natural causes of natural phenomena are sufficient to explain them. This dispels mysticism and erroneous myths.

 

Isolation is an obstruction to ataraxia because humans are social creatures. As the science of evolutionary psychology shows, a large part of our brain is wired for social interaction. When we do not receive social interaction, we become stunted and withdrawn. Furthermore, family and friends form a natural social safety net which operates without the conditions of bureaucratic red tape and the impersonal indifference of public policy.

 

Servility and acquiescence to aggression are obstruct progress towards ataraxia because the suffering of preventable victimization at the hands of others is not only the material wealth which is lost but the mental anguish of being victimized.

 

Summary

 

The deliberative process of self-discovery is the most important part of finding happiness. It is the scientific method applied to one’s own schedule of wants. The right ends for engendering happiness within oneself can only be discovered through a process of trial and error. We can copy the success of others and change their ideas to suit our own needs but the ultimate test is whether a particular strategy does, in fact, make us happy.

 

It can be objected that the morals and friendships which are formed on the basis of such a process are insincere because they are only ever a means to an end, the end of increasing one’s own pleasure. That is, it is naked selfishness. However, this objection is insubstantial because any analysis of the question of how to be happy must, by construction, lay out the means by which happiness can be had. The only way to avoid this is to avoid analyzing the problem of how to be happy, that is, to halt the process of self-discovery or, at least, not attempt to refine it.

 

Part of the process of self-discovery is intuitive and part of it benefits from refinement. But it can also be retarded and there are people who benefit from retarding the self-discovery process of others. The motives of the person who is seeking to improve his or her life could not be more natural. It is the motives of those who implicitly advocate that others should live an unanalyzed life, by making them feel ashamed for thinking about how to be happy in life, which should be questioned.

 

In closing, it costs you nothing to share the scientific process of self-discovery with others so even the tiny benefits that will accrue to you in your life as society is improved over time are a net gain and lead to ataraxia – for yourself. You also reap the rewards of the empathic experience of seeing your friends and others improve their own lives. As you eradicate fear from your soul, you will more clearly see the benefits of cultivating a healthy respect for yourself, other people, all life and even the Universe itself and you will feel more motivated to share what you have learned with others.



[1] Note that “ratio” is not used in its quantitative or numerical sense but in a metaphorical sense by which an individual is able to mentally “trade off” between the onerousness of a given course of action and the expected utility of the end to be achieved by that course of action.

 

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Clayton replied on Wed, Nov 30 2011 11:06 AM

I know it's long but comments are welcome. :)

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z1235 replied on Wed, Nov 30 2011 6:15 PM

Clayton, excellent post. Hopefully I'll find some time soon to write a more meaningful feedback/response. 

 

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I gave this a quick read, and upon my one quick read it seems to be very close to what I have been harping on (and you even mentioned Protagoras, which is kind of crucial) - that when Austrian economics is merged with it's German brothers of subjectivism and "methodological hetrodoxy" (chiefly Max Stirner, Max Weber, Freud, and Heidegger - perhaps even Marx and Hilferding themselves to a degree) it becomes even more obvious as to what we are talking about.  Protagoras and Epicurus are kind of the forerunners of this - while Aristotle kind of bridges the whole thing together.

Still, even if I am wrong and misread, this should be submitted to the Mises daily.  It deserves to be published.  It may need some editting, but I don't think any major editing.  At least off my quick read

Hopefully Ill have enough time to look this article over a few more times within the next few weeks.

"As in a kaleidoscope, the constellation of forces operating in the system as a whole is ever changing." - Ludwig Lachmann

"When A Man Dies A World Goes Out of Existence"  - GLS Shackle

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Clayton replied on Wed, Nov 30 2011 6:37 PM

Aristotle kind of bridges the whole thing together

Can you expound on this? I don't know why but I've found what little I've read of Aristotle consistently off-putting.

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This would be a good ground 0 article:

http://ontology.buffalo.edu/smith/articles/menger.html

super quick: When you say something has a nature, is knowable, speak of perspectives, and reject uncertainty as a relevant concept I see this as an Aristotlean line.

Mind you, none of us will probably be full on Aristotleans (he has his flaws - ex: teleology is kind of an odd concept), but rather quasi/neo Aristotleans.

Also note: Menger, Rothbard, and Lachmann all had a very real Aristotlean quality about them - Mises is called a neo-Kantian, but that is really kind of an odd term - plus even if this is true,  this could be the whole "German subjectivism filtered through Aristotle" line I was talking about, as Kant is kind of the main starting point there.

MAJOR EDIT

"As in a kaleidoscope, the constellation of forces operating in the system as a whole is ever changing." - Ludwig Lachmann

"When A Man Dies A World Goes Out of Existence"  - GLS Shackle

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AJ replied on Wed, Nov 30 2011 10:36 PM

There are a lot of good points here, Clayton, but it is pretty massive and I lost track of where you were going by the time I reached the end. I remember thinking that there was a lot that you can dissolve off by taking the tack that action=pain and inaction=pleasure, as well as incorporating a time preference analysis. Action=wishing=desire=pain. Living the "good life" (sloppily called objectively moral/good by some) essentially amount to have a low time preference, though I think such a eudaimonia approach is too simplistic; I'm merely trying to characterize that approach here.

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Clayton replied on Wed, Nov 30 2011 11:24 PM

Thanks for the feedback, AJ. It is massive and the fat needs to be trimmed off (part of the editing process) so your feedback on this is helpful.

This is the outline of my reasoning:

- Problem: How can I best be happy (what are "right ends")?

(interlude on the nature of the self, in order to establish the self's ultimate authority to determine what is its own right ends, i.e. highest pleasure or highest good.)

- Solution:

a) Don't cultivate desires you cannot satisfy (for most people, this means lower your expectations) because unsatisfied wants result in pain, not pleasure (frustrated ends, futile action). This can be accomplished by suppressing your superfluous desires - this is not completely unlike what Epicurus taught.

b) Apply an inductive process of self-discovery to refine the schedule of your remaining wants (attainable ends), advised by science.

I should clarify in the article that "advised by science" doesn't mean living from one Journal of Health study to the next, like many WASPs do... eggs are bad for you, eggs are good for you, eggs are bad for you again, etc. Rather, it means "advised by human experience" which includes specialized scientific study to the extent that it is relevant to daily life. Take this primal diet stuff... the basic idea is that the human body is best adapted to eat in a way similar to what our ancestors spent the majority of evolutionary history eating and live in a way physiologically similar to the way our ancestors lived.

The important point is the inductive feedback loop... try something (based on your own and others' experience), keep what works, discard what doesn't and iterate.

This is a deliberative process of exploring the conditions for one's own pleasure (happiness, ataraxia).

I also need to clean up the language regarding ataraxia... it is not an attainable state of being like nirvana, rather, it is a theoretical state-of-being in which action would cease (because unnecessary) as Mises explains in the quote in the article. Hence, we do not attain ataraxia, rather, we "move toward" or "progress toward" ataraxia.

I also wanted to talk about uncertainty as an obstruction to ataraxia. In fact, I think that uncertainty is a formal opposite of ataraxia. As Mises explains in HA, if man faced no uncertainty he could not act. Acting is choice in the face of uncertainty. Hence, ataraxia is increased in opposite proportion to uncertainty. Eliminating or reducing uncertainty from one's life is a primary means of approaching ataraxia. This is why people buy things like fire insurance and life insurance. By eliminating the anxiety associated with the uncertainty of life in these important regards, the individual attains a greater peace of mind and approaches ataraxia.

OK, I'll stop here.

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Gero replied on Thu, Dec 1 2011 1:24 AM

“My soul is me, it is the “I” in “I want to be happy.” It is whatever is “looking at” the stream of incoming sensory data that comprises my experience of the world.”

Why not say self instead of soul?

“In examining the soul, I want to address the question: how can I be happy in the deepest and fullest sense of the word?”

Since this is a rough draft and you are covering a lot of material, maybe this excerpt is relevant: “Even if equalizing human happiness is a goal, which I oppose for liberty is my ultimate value, economist William A. Niskanen said, ‘Consider the following example. One young man is healthy and handsome, spends his days on the beach, has his pick of young women companions, and makes $10,000 a year by busing tables in the evening. Another young man is confined to a wheelchair, has congenital body odor, has never had an intimate relationship, and, with no other life, makes $100,000 a year as an expert computer programmer. In this case, who is worse off? Who should redistribute what to whom and how?’ The relationship between money and happiness has been debated for likely as long as money has existed. What typically happens is a new car, computer, home, or other product is initially exciting, but that happiness fades showing that one’s newly acquired stuff only elicits temporary happiness. Human happiness is affected by comparison to one’s peers: one’s friends, family, coworkers, and former schoolmates. If one is less wealthy than one’s peers, one is likely to be less happy than one’s peers, but if one is equally wealthy with one’s peers, then happiness levels are about equal. Economist Robert H. Frank said, ‘Studies consistently find, for example, that when the incomes of everyone in a community grow over time, conventional measures of well-being show little change. Many critics of economic growth interpret this finding to imply that continued economic growth should no longer be a policy goal in developed countries. They argue that if money buys happiness, it is relative, not absolute, income that matters. As incomes grow, people quickly adapt to their new circumstances, showing no enduring gains in measured happiness. Growth makes the poor happier in low-income countries, critics concede, but not in developed countries, where those at the bottom continue to experience relative deprivation. All true. But these statements do not imply that economic growth no longer matters in wealthy countries. The reason, in a nutshell, is that happiness and welfare, though related, are very different things. Growth enables us to expand medical research and other activities that clearly enhance human welfare but have little effect on measured happiness levels . . . The fact that people adapt quickly to new circumstances, good or bad, is just a design feature of the brain’s motivational system. The fact that a paraplegic may continue to be happy does not imply that his condition has not reduced his welfare. Indeed, many well-adjusted paraplegics report that they would undergo surgery entailing substantial risk of death if doing so promised to restore their mobility. Similarly, the fact that people may adapt quickly to higher incomes says nothing about whether economic growth makes them better off.’”

“Any idea of measuring happiness should be banished immediately”

Maybe in the future technology will be good enough that it can measure the brain chemicals that cause happiness.

You use the phrase “is ultimate”. I think that means irreducible or very important. I still understand your argument, but I may not understand that phrase.

“Because there are no other humans on the island, the problem of proper social behavior does not arise.”

He could keep a pet which means a type of social relationship, but I understand your point.

“Unlike physical quantities such as space, time, air and so on, satisfaction is not scarce or bound by the rules of scarcity.”

A drug addict can get immense pleasure, but eventually the brain requires increasingly large doses to achieve the same effect. In other words, the pleasure chemicals in the brain seem bound by scarcity. This could change with future technology, but at the moment that assertion seems true.

In the case of asocial action, the problem of right and wrong as a matter of normative principle simply cannot arise.”

Believers in animal rights may disagree. Libertarians have argued on this forum over animal rights.

“I also need to clean up the language regarding ataraxia... it is not an attainable state of being like nirvana, rather, it is a theoretical state-of-being in which action would cease (because unnecessary) as Mises explains in the quote in the article. Hence, we do not attain ataraxia, rather, we "move toward" or "progress toward" ataraxia.”

Isn’t ataraxia a fancy way of saying contentment?

“As Mises explains in HA, if man faced no uncertainty he could not act.”

Imagine Robinson Crusoe is alone on your imaginary island, but that he is omniscient: he knows everything about the island, himself, and the planet the island is a part of. Since he knows all the facts of the world, does that mean he is paralyzed or that he is just better informed in making his choices?

My criticisms are minor. Your overall point seems solid.

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Clayton replied on Thu, Dec 1 2011 1:55 AM

Why not say self instead of soul?

Because I think what we mean when we use the word "soul" is more like what it is that I'm trying to analyze than what we mean when we use the word "self." While they are almost synonymous, "self" has a connotation more like the "id" in Freudian theory. The soul, on the other hand, is more broad and refers to "everything about me that doesn't seem to be just another piece of my physiology."

Maybe in the future technology will be good enough that it can measure the brain chemicals that cause happiness.

I don't think the release of pleasure chemicals is completely correlative with pleasure - see the above post where I talk about the inverse relationship between uncertainty and ataraxia.

You use the phrase “is ultimate”. I think that means irreducible or very important. I still understand your argument, but I may not understand that phrase.

I'll clarify in the next draft. I mean something more like "is the final standard of measure."

Isn’t ataraxia a fancy way of saying contentment?

Perhaps but what is nice about ataraxia is precisely the fact that it has no other connotations. "Contentment" "satisfaction" "pleasure" "happiness" all can be used to describe the theoretical state of no longer needing to act but they all also have similar meanings that can confound the discussion.

Since he knows all the facts of the world, does that mean he is paralyzed or that he is just better informed in making his choices?

He is not paralyzed. He must move and so on but he is not choosing, he's simply causing states of affairs to come about. He already knows from the outset the perfect choice to make at every moment. Remember, Mises identifies even rest as a kind of action... choosing not to alter one's present condition is also action (choice) so action is not the same thing as activity.

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AJ replied on Fri, Dec 2 2011 2:05 AM

Clayton:

This is the outline of my reasoning:

- Problem: How can I best be happy (what are "right ends")?

Here is where I'd incorporate a time preference analysis, and use it to clearly define what you mean by "happy." Or more precisely, when. Is it different from pleasure? You got into some first-person epistemology/introspection about memories and anticipations, which hints at a time preference analysis, but it didn't go all the way there.

We can sort of look at usage: "pleasure" is usually used to refer to a momentarily pleasant sensation, whereas if I am "happy that I have X" I am thinking in terms of gladness that I will be able to experience the pleasures of X in the future. The more we expect to get pleasure from something (or someone) consistently in the future, the more we want to use the word "happiness." This ties in with your/Mises's points about uncertainty.

Clayton:
Don't cultivate desires you cannot satisfy (for most people, this means lower your expectations) because unsatisfied wants result in pain, not pleasure (frustrated ends, futile action). This can be accomplished by suppressing your superfluous desires - this is not completely unlike what Epicurus taught.

That's one way, but an equally if not more important way is to be a winner. If you mention one it seems lopsided not to mention the other. Get rid of superfluous desires, yes, but also go after the really fruitful ones and learn to kick ass at it. 

What are the fruitful desires, the ones that keep on giving? For this, I believe we need a way of coherently talking about what is "natural" and what is "unnatural."* In terms of evolutionary psychology, natural generally means "what we are evolved for" or in this context, "what we are evolved to enjoy." Rand seemed to sweep the complexity of this question (see asterisk below) away by using the word "life" instead. Forgive the lewd example, but someone thinking in that vein might say, "Anal sex is immoral because normal genital sex is where it's at in terms of survival, reproduction, and life in general." I would say that they are confusing themselves with words into thinking the problem is cleaner than it is. It seems a lot clearer to say that anal sex is probably not what you're evolved to get pleasure from, especially in the overall context of the relationship. So although it may be more pleasurable in the short run, there is a lot less "fun" that could be had with the anus that with the vagina, long term, if you would just choose to curb your anal lust. I'm not saying this is true or not, but I'm trying to give an example of two purely pleasurable activities the pursuit of which might result in different long-term happiness levels. I didn't choose junk food versus proper food, because that is more an issue of time preference.

I'm trying to make a more subtle point than that: that even in the case of unmitigated pleasures, one could still be more fruitful in a "gift that keeps on giving" sense. You want to cultivate desires for gifts that keep on giving, and not for those that fizzle out quickly. However, this could be different for different people, and it's a game of prediction. One person might choose to cultivate a taste for classical music over pop since they believe it could make them happier for longer and in a deeper way, whereas another person might do the opposite because they argue that there is a limited pool of classical music that will eventually run out if you listen too much. A third person may argue that listening to music is ultimately (there's time preference again) a waste of time, because it gives you direct pleasure without netting you much of any benefit "in the real world" (read: not much benefit for the rest of your activities and rest of your life).

In the modern world, since we are so far removed from the environment we are evolved for, a huge part of getting consistent long-term pleasure (=happiness) consists in solving the "indicator problems" (as I. Ryan termed them). An indicator problem is a problem in which the you desire something even though it would be bad for you, like a donut. The idea is that the environment for which we are evolved, our desires would usually align pretty well with what was actually good for us (desire for sweet foods would correspond to the rare chance to eat very healthy fruits, etc.).

*Natural (adj.) - of or pertaining to [the result or product of] a long history of intense competition on a rich marketplace (in the metaphorical sense where applicable), culminating in a highly interconnected matrix of symbiotic, win-win relationships or interactions. Details here: http://mises.org/Community/forums/t/18619.aspx

Clayton:

I also need to clean up the language regarding ataraxia... it is not an attainable state of being like nirvana, rather, it is a theoretical state-of-being in which action would cease (because unnecessary) as Mises explains in the quote in the article.

Inaction just is pleasure, just is ataraxia. The reason I say this is that action is only wishing.

Suppose I wish to tear a receipt in half. I imagine it being torn in half, imagine a movie of me doing it, feel pain because it's not done yet, and then my body merely follows suit. But that last part - the actual physical action - is only incidental. Movement in the physical world has nothing to do with action from a first-person epistemological ("I could be a brain-in-a-vat," "this could all be a dream") perspective. Wishing itself is what action is, and wishing is equivalent to desire (pain at some state of affairs not obtaining), which just is what action is. The moment you desired it, the action has happened. The rest is incidental.

When you stop desiring - always momentarily - that is pleasure. No desire at this moment = no action at this moment = no wishing at this moment = no pain at this one little tiny moment. You could feel pain interspersed timewise with pleasure, but on a finer timescale there is no mixing, no concurrent pain and pleasure in one moment, any more than there is concurrent action and inaction in one moment. 

Mises sort of got this when he noted that wishing is action, but I don't know that he made the full connection. Also, to treat one objection I initially had to this, "Can't one feel pain without wishing for anything?" As a result of deep introspection, I do not think so. Pain just is the desire for a different state of affairs. If you can pull off the mental ninjutsu to see the electric blue bolts of pain streaking through you due to the dentist's drill as just fun light shows, you don't feel the pain anymore. Not only is all pain desire/wishing, all desire/wishing is pain. And desire/wishing just is action in the praxeological sense.

For pleasure, mutatis mutandis. Altogether:

Action=pain=wishing=desire. Inaction = pleasure = no wishing = no desire = (short-term) ataraxia. This makes sense evolutionarily as well, but that is unnecessary support because this is true as a matter of definition. It is just clarifying terms to dissolve some away.

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There is no external cognitive reference outside of myself to which I can appeal to perceive the faults in my own cognitive abilities.

I understood right now you are planning to slim the text down, not to expand on it, but maybe it's worth considering for a future work: it requires much less cognitive sophistication (and luck) to check a proof of a theorem than coming up with the proof in the first place. Much more people convinced themselves that Goedels theorems make sense than proved them (or equivalent ones) from scratch. I think this observation makes ultimacy of soul in cognition somewhat fuzzy. Then again, I might have misunderstood your point.

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Clayton replied on Fri, Dec 2 2011 5:28 PM

 

@Andris: I mean in the sense of proof-checking not de novo proof. Clearly, Godel was a "natural elite" of mathematics, one of a tiny pantheon of mathematical gods. So I don't mean it in a democratizing sense that "anyone can solve any problem that anyone else can" merely that "the act accepting/rejecting belief in a proposition cannot be outsourced". On the issue of proof-checking. it is fairly straightforward to mechanize the process (for example, using a proof checking computer program) using principles that are accessible to anyone possessing the intelligence of a 10th grader and willing to apply themselves to the issue, so proof-checking is very accessible.

Even more importantly, though, even for someone who is of sub-average intelligence, it is a fact of the structure of their subjective consciousness that they still have no other method to ascertain truth than on the basis of what they believe or don't believe. To the extent that their "proof-checking ability" is dysfunctional, this simply means they can be more easily duped, not that they can increase their certitude by polling those of higher intelligence. This is the root error of the new "consensus science" mumbo-jumbo.

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Clayton replied on Fri, Dec 2 2011 6:00 PM

The more we expect to get pleasure from something (or someone) consistently in the future, the more we want to use the word "happiness."

I don't consider time-preference to be a philosophically basic concept. Praxeologically, sure, nothing can be more obvious than that humans prefer the same good sooner than later. However, if you're trying to answer the question why this is the case, you have to look at what humans are, that is, how we are motivated by pain and pleasure and trading off between these with our cognitive capacity (predictions of future satisfactions to be had versus present pains).

That's one way, but an equally if not more important way is to be a winner. If you mention one it seems lopsided not to mention the other. Get rid of superfluous desires, yes, but also go after the really fruitful ones and learn to kick ass at it.

That's what I meant by the inductive process of self-discovery. That IS the positive side of the equation. The trouble is that you can't know a priori what is going to make you happiest. Will it make you happier to get married and have children at a young age and enjoy the unique thrills of parenthood, grand-parenthood etc. for as much of your life as possible? Or, is it better to defer as long as possible and get to know yourself and choose a mate very dearly? Or, is it better to forgo the headache of reproduction completely (Epicurus's advice)? I believe these kinds of irreversible decisions (something else I need to add discussion of) account for a lot of the dogmatic nature of tradition and morality. You only get one shot so you better make it count and so your only recourse in terms of "learning" is to look at how your predecessors' choices and try to see which ones worked and which ones did not.

You want to cultivate desires for gifts that keep on giving, and not for those that fizzle out quickly. However, this could be different for different people, and it's a game of prediction.

Good insight. This is what any sort of capital accumulation essentially is… giving up the short-term zing for a longer-term hum.

In the modern world, since we are so far removed from the environment we are evolved for, a huge part of getting consistent long-term pleasure

It’s interesting that you mentioned this in light of the pleasure/pain basis of action – there is a rat’s nest of intertwined issues here. Our brains are what enabled us to move out of the primitive state for which we are evolved and now we have to use our brains just to figure out how to find pleasure and avoid pain in this new state because our brains have created an environment which has zoomed so far ahead of our physiology. There was very little deliberative component to action in the primitive state because our whole body (including our brain) was already well-adapted to that environment. Now that we’ve created this environment that is quite alien to our brains, we have no choice but to utilize a deliberative process in pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain (that is, in acting).

This suggests a prediction: in the long run, we should expect the usefulness of a deliberative process of self-discovery to decline. As generations pass, we will become more adapted to our environment even though we’ve made many changes to it.

In fact, (this is getting way off-topic…) I have a case example. There is a sport which is very popular with young men in the Middle East called “drifting”. Now, there are people who do drifting in the developed world but they tend to be the “street” people – less affluent. It’s actually wealthy kids who are doing this in the ME. I believe this could be a manifestation of the longer-term exposure of Anglo-Europeans to industrial machinery. As a population, perhaps we have a higher “safety margin” when dealing with mechanical equipment because those of our ancestors who liked to walk on the wild side with the mechanical presses or tractors or what-have-you were more likely to have been chewed up, spit out and not produce children. We’re more likely to be the descendants of the cautious workers who preferred to keep their hands away from the whirling gears.

Mises sort of got this when he noted that wishing is action, but I don't know that he made the full connection.

Yes, Mises specifically asserts that if there’s no uncertainty (no possibility of wishing), there can be no action so he fully connected the dots on this.

Also, to treat one objection I initially had to this, "Can't one feel pain without wishing for anything?" As a result of deep introspection, I do not think so. Pain just is the desire for a different state of affairs. If you can pull off the mental ninjutsu to see the electric blue bolts of pain streaking through you due to the dentist's drill as just fun light shows, you don't feel the pain anymore.

No, I disagree with this. Many of our wants are experienced involuntarily. I’ve had kidney stones twice. There is no amount of mental ninjutsu that will get you out of that pain. I puked my guts out and writhed on the floor in involuntary convulsions brought on by 11-on-a-scale-of-1-to-10 pain. So, I would say that intense physiological pain (as opposed to “pain in the formal sense” or “want”) is always* correlative with want in the formal sense but the two should always be kept conceptually distinct.

Clayton –

*Parents running into a burning building to grab their children excluded, etc.
 

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I don't know what made me think of this but does this model (perhaps revised a bit) come anything near what you are getting at?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs

As I said, there may be problems to Maslows overall approach , but does the general picture ball park what you thinking?

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Clayton replied on Mon, Dec 5 2011 12:29 AM

@vive: Yes, I learned about Maslow's hierarchy in PSY101 (that was a fun class, BTW, despite a lot of it being obvious BS).

There are some problems I see with Maslow's hierarchy. First, I am skeptical of the idea that human needs are hierarchical because this tends to imply that there is some kind of "objective" or absolute schedule of wants when it appears to me that people actually have a highly variable schedule of wants.

Second, while Maslow's observation that some wants are concealed until other wants are satisfied is true, this is only a symptom of the "ordinal ranking" of wants - at all times, you are pursuing the satisfaction of your most important want and this pursuit masks the other wants which you may have. To be specific, imagine a poor man who would like to learn philosophy but has to work 60 hours a week to feed himself and his family. His "higher" want is masked by his "lower" wants of food and shelter for himself and his family.

So, to the extent that the Maslow hierarchy is valid, it should really be tilted upside-down... the base of the pyramid are actually the wants that tend to be highest on most people's schedule of wants. Furthermore, if Epicurus is right that "what is good is easy to get", that is, that it is relatively easy to satisfy one's basic needs (food, shelter, clothing, etc.) then the "physiological" wants should be the narrowest point of the pyramid and the "self-actualization" should be the widest since there are the largest number of ways that a person might pursue the satisfaction of these more ephemeral wants.

The Epicurean advice to reduce one's wants by working to be a more easily satisfied person basically means reducing the height of Maslow's hierarchy for oneself. As noted by another poster, this can be interpreted as contrary to the "cosmopolitan capitalist" ethic, namely, the urge to work harder in order to experience higher and higher satisfactions (e.g. work longer hours and eat at finer restaurants, go to finer concerts, etc.) But I think this latter view makes the mistake of assuming that there is a fixed tradeoff between the disutility of labor and the increased satisfaction of leisure... that is, that less leisure time that is more highly pleasurable is always preferable to more leisure time that is less highly pleasurable and, thus, trading off leisure in order to labor more (and thus achieve more highly pleasurable leisure time) is always a net gain.

The flaw in the logic is obvious. If it were true, then we should all work all the time and never take leisure, until perhaps the final moments before death where we can experience an orgasmic expenditure of all our accumulated wealth in order to "cash in" on all that labor. A more holistic picture of life that incorporates the fact of uncertainty and the ease with which we can obtain pleasure with whatever level of wealth we have at our disposal would put a higher premium on more leisure time now over less leisure time (more pleasurable) later.

AJ is right that I need to spend some more time thinking about how time-preference fits into all of this.

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AJ replied on Mon, Dec 5 2011 7:44 AM

I hope to reply at more length later, but regarding time preference and pain/pleasure/action, this thread and this one have some relevant discussion.

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AJ replied on Tue, Dec 6 2011 2:49 AM

Also, posting this one from my phone so can't activate the link, but this might also be useful: http://lesswrong.com/lw/7yz/should_i_play_world_of_warcraft/4zds

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OK, finally got around to reading the OP. Great post, Clayton.

That being said, I don't think materialistic dualism (polyism?) is a mindset sufficient to eliminate suffering, which seems to be the distinction between Ataraxia and Nirvana that you are inferring in this post,

Clayton:
Yeah, it seems that ataraxia is a less literal version of nirvana. Whereas ataraxia is a state that we can merely get closer to, nirvana is a state we're supposed to really achieve.

Ultimately, the “soul” you mentioned would be the root cause of desire, and therefore suffering (I will refer to this “soul” as the “ego” from here on, since the “soul” to me is just our consciousness, which I distinguish form what I guess could be called the “discerning consciousness”, which is the “ego” to me.). Once one assumes a “self” and an “other”, we have begun the process of classification, from which all desire springs (pleasure/pain, good/evil, etc.).

All this isn't to say that we should lay in the sun until we shrivel and die, since without desire, we would not act. Desire to me implies an underlying cognitive process, i.e., conscious intent. Does it make sense to say that a squirrel has “desire”? Or a tree? Or the Sun? Or the Milky Way? I would say not.

As you've mentioned, humans have a nature, just like anything else. Also like everything else, we do not need to “think” in order to act (see breast crawl), if you allow “act” to be defined simply as physically existing in time and space. Once one has discovered their true nature (and therefore, the true nature of things), they can act through that nature, rather than “deciding” based on imperfect (and I would argue illusory) perception, cognition, and subsequent valuation.

I believe this is the Tao, or the “Way”. It is acting without acting,

Tao Te Ching:
The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
The named is the mother of myriad things
Thus, constantly without desire, one observes its essence
Constantly with desire, one observes its manifestations
These two emerge together but differ in name
The unity is said to be the mystery
Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders

Projecting this to a social situation, the non-conflict island you mentioned immediately struck me as similar to the biblical Eden, which is where man lived before he gained the knowledge of Good and Evil! As you describe here,

Clayton:
In this case, there is no difference for each individual than if he were completely alone on the island. That is, the question of right and wrong is merely the question of pleasure or pain. The problem of right and wrong as a matter of normative principles simply never arises.

There is simply no need for those concepts when you live in Paradise!

If it is true that everyone's ultimate aim is to end suffering, than it can be argued that everyone's desires should be uniform, and therefore there is some set of universally applicable norms that would satisfy the desires of any one individual.

Unfortunately, because of ignorance to the true nature of things (and therefore, themselves), people believe the illusory dualities their egos have created, causing secondary desires, which lead to conflict.

Eliminating ignorance eliminates conflict, granted the true ultimate end for everyone is the same (cessation of suffering), and the everyone itself is illusory. The self becomes all, the all becomes self. Material nothingness is nihilism, immaterial nothingness (double negative, so also simultaneously everything, or all) is the atman.

That's pretty much my main response, but as an aside, here's the Epicurean tetrapharmakos compared to Buddha's four noble truths:

Don't fear god,

Don't worry about death;

What is good is easy to get, and

What is terrible is easy to endure

Life is suffering

Suffering arises from attachment to desires

Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases

Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the eightfold path.

Amazing that they are essentially in agreement! All the sources of suffering in your life are of your own making. Eliminate them!

That was also the first time I've read Rothbard's argument for an normative ethic based on rationality. It seems to me that based upon this argument, life itself should also be considered immoral, since it will inevitably lead to death!

One more thing, you attribute guilt and fear to myths, yet insist that aversion to shaming, or exclusion (guilt and fear?) is a biological constant in humans. Care to explain that a bit more?


 

 

 

 

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Clayton replied on Sat, Dec 10 2011 3:41 PM

@Jackson: Thanks for the positive feedback.

Once one has discovered their true nature (and therefore, the true nature of things), they can act through that nature, rather than “deciding” based on imperfect (and I would argue illusory) perception, cognition, and subsequent valuation.

I disagree. We are born with a nature full and complete for the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA, as the evo psychs call it) which is roughly the period from 50kya to 8-10kya. Philosophy - and our verbal ancestors were, in principle, capable of engaging in philosophy - would have been an utterly useless waste of time. There was nothing to improve on... the circuitry in your brain you were born with was perfect for the environment in which you found yourself.

Philosophy for such a human would be like a modern runner having his femurs electively replaced by carbon fiber tubing simply because "it's stronger." The modern environment including the state of modern technology do not admit improvement on the physiology of the runner beyond that which can be attained through fitness, diet, and so on. The same was true of the brain of our ancestors circa 8kya.

I think this is a key point because it fundamentally alters the nature of pursuing ataraxia. We have a difficult time pursuing ataraxia not because life is so difficult. Modern life is too easy, your brain came into this world expecting something much, much more difficult. An example of how this manifests itself is the difficulty of most modern humans in maintaining basic physical fitness when their daily activity consists 80% of sitting: sitting in a car, sitting in front of a desk or bench, etc. Sitting is too easy and your body was not designed to sit, it was designed for constant, low-level exertion between explosive bursts of short-duration.

The fact that our environment has changed so dramatically is responsible for the fact that most of us now have to ponderously think about what to do and how to live, unlike our ancestors 8kya. No self-reflection was required for them. And self-reflection is onerous, as well. It is an onerous means to satisfy a want - the want to seamlessly and effortlessly integrate with our environment.

If it is true that everyone's ultimate aim is to end suffering, than it can be argued that everyone's desires should be uniform, and therefore there is some set of universally applicable norms that would satisfy the desires of any one individual.

I wouldn't say "uniform" but there must be a universal set of constraints on the variation in people's ends. People's ends vary due to uncertainty and the fact of biological variation (which itself can be probably explained in terms of uncertainty).

ou attribute guilt and fear to myths, yet insist that aversion to shaming, or exclusion (guilt and fear?) is a biological constant in humans. Care to explain that a bit more?

I think you're referring to this:

Much of the guilt and fear that people experience has its source in myths. The cure to these fears is the study of nature which shows that the natural causes of natural phenomena are sufficient to explain them. This dispels mysticism and erroneous myths.

You will note that I used the weasel-word "much" and on purpose. Yes, there are valid fears - when your amygdala fires before you are even conscious of the fact that a tiger just roared behind your back and you "leap out of your skin", that's a 100% valid fear or, at least, it was 8kya (nowadays, you're most likely in a zoo).

Epicurus noted that natural wants are finite - your body will make you feel hungry, thirsty, inquisitive, sociable, etc. but that's it. It is the wants which you create yourself - artificial wants - which are unlimited. Natural fears and natural guilt do not require any honing or whetting... they are what they are and they are finite, limited. But the fear and guilt that arises from artificial sources from self-infliction of myths such as Hell or Onan (don't masturbate!) is unlimited and gratuitous. For the same reasons that you should whittle your wants down to those you can reasonably expect to satisfy, so you should whittle down your guilt and fear to those which are natural and useful to you within the social environment in which you live.

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Clayton:
The fact that our environment has changed so dramatically is responsible for the fact that most of us now have to ponderously think about what to do and how to live, unlike our ancestors 8kya. No self-reflection was required for them. And self-reflection is onerous, as well. It is an onerous means to satisfy a want - the want to seamlessly and effortlessly integrate with our environment.

I am struck by the irony of this statement.  Man was effortlessly integrated in his enviroment, then he got to thinking, alienating him from the world.  Now he thinks in order to re-establish that severed link!  I suppose that assumes the non-cognitive, or instinctual man had already grasped the Truth, which I am doubtful of (although I suspect the instinctual beings are closer than many of the cognitive ones due to our proclivity toward endless categorization).

Clayton:
Epicurus noted that natural wants are finite - your body will make you feel hungry, thirsty, inquisitive, sociable, etc. but that's it. It is the wants which you create yourself - artificial wants - which are unlimited. Natural fears and natural guilt do not require any honing or whetting... they are what they are and they are finite, limited. But the fear and guilt that arises from artificial sources from self-infliction of myths such as Hell or Onan (don't masturbate!) is unlimited and gratuitous. For the same reasons that you should whittle your wants down to those you can reasonably expect to satisfy, so you should whittle down your guilt and fear to those which are natural and useful to you within the social environment in which you live.

Yes!  The intrinsic human nature does provide for non-cognitive reactions to stimuli.  But I also think that this reductionist perspective on what constitutes our non-cognitive "nature", is a bit too vulgar,

Yoda:
Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.

Using your example, it can be inferred that even our ancestors had distinguished between themselves and the tiger, they knew the tiger was a threat to their survival (and subsequent procreation), and they knew this outcome was undesireable.  Hell, even paramecium know to flee an amoeba.  I would argue that these creatures have not realized their True nature, but do not care to either (as the first quoted passage explained), as it is a superfluous exercise to their immediate concerns (primarily survival and procreation).

As Genesis explains, man is in a unique position.  Sort of a demi-god between the instinctual and the divine.  So, we really can't regress back to the mindset of a purely instinctual being.  Biology has already determined we will be a thinking species.  We are left to "think our way out" of suffering, and achieve the second aspect of divinity, the fruit of the tree of life.  This is the ultimate goal of any philosophy, understanding to the point of divinity.  It is our consciousness breaking the illusory fetters of the physical world,

Jesus:
I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you."

It is ignorance which creates fear and doubt.  It is impossible to completely dispel these if one still clings to the false distinctions even the instinctual being makes in life.

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Malachi replied on Sun, Dec 11 2011 9:35 AM
Man was effortlessly integrated in his enviroment, then he got to thinking, alienating him from the world.
I have been following the discussion, I do not have much to add, but I did want to address this particular point. The time when man got to thinking "wrong" instead of thinking correctly is called the fall.

Genesis chapter 3

 1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”  2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”  4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

when all we knew was good, we did not have to use rational discourse and empirical verification to discern truth from falsehood.
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I agree for the most part, but I think that the course we now persue would bring us to a state of Divinity, which differs from a return to a non-cognitive state.

In other words, ignorance was bliss, but I consider complete understanding to be "more blissful".

As I stated, there is no turning back.  We are conscious beings.  As Clayton mentioned, the quest of philosophy is to maintain understanding while reintegrating with our True nature.  To "get back to the garden", so to speak.  I would go a step further, and claim the goal is to, "get to heaven", completeing our quest for divinity, our union with God.  Our abilities have granted us the knowledge of "good and evil", now we must also gain the knowledge of "Life" i.e., divinity.

Simply realizing our nature as an animal is not the ultimate end.  The mundane is not all that we are capable of.

Some mystic Christian sects  believe that the YAWH featured in the Old Testament was a jealous authoritarian overlord, the Demiurge, creating the material in order to rule over it, and clouding our realization of a higher union with the Godhead.

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Malachi replied on Sun, Dec 11 2011 10:50 AM
In other words, ignorance was bliss, but I consider complete understanding to be "more blissful".
thats why all of this is happening.
Simply realizing our nature as an animal is not the ultimate end.  The mundane is not all that we are capable of.
well put.
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Clayton replied on Sun, Dec 11 2011 12:08 PM

I am struck by the irony of this statement.  Man was effortlessly integrated in his enviroment, then he got to thinking, alienating him from the world. 

I didn't use the word "alienating". Humans (and many other species) are maladapted to the modern environment. This is not a result of changes within us, it is a result of the rapid changes in our environment (changes brought on by humans). Because humans are social beings, we are the species most affected by our own changes to the environment. Long before the Industrial Revolution our impact on the environment was already profound. We had created essentially new species of animals (domesticated species) and we had altered the survival pressures on many other species which we hunted.

Today, the modern human lives a daily life radically different from the daily life of his ancestors even just 200 years ago. Unless you are unusual, you are in a controlled climate 90+% of the time. You sit, stroll or engage in the most minor exertion during the day, certainly not enough to give your body proper exercise. You eat a diet that is radically different from what your ancestors ate. And on and on.

These changes mean that you have to actively "compensate" - if you have a sit-down job, you must go to the gym or find other ways to get exercise. If you work and live indoors 90+% of the time, you must go outside and strip down to get sufficient doses of sunshine, etc. The very fact that you are engaging in compensatory behavior is a sign of your maladaptedness to the modern environment. These kinds of compensatory behaviors are more obvious because they are physiological but the psychological compensation which you must do in order to adapt to your environment is no less real.

You were not born with a brain that expected to live in a climate-controlled, predator-free, processed-food environment. You were born with a brain that expected to hunt, be hunted, to work with and know a very small group of individuals from birth to death, and so on. The modern environment violates these expectations in many ways and this is why you have "think" through even the most basic things.

Now he thinks in order to re-establish that severed link!  I suppose that assumes the non-cognitive, or instinctual man had already grasped the Truth, which I am doubtful of (although I suspect the instinctual beings are closer than many of the cognitive ones due to our proclivity toward endless categorization).

I don't know what "the Truth" is and I don't see any profit to expending energy worrying about it.

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The modern environment violates these expectations in many ways and this is why you have "think" through even the most basic things.

Could you expand on this? What most "basic" actions need to be thought through? Is it really a necessity to "think" through them or is just stemming form a habit of thinking?

I don't know what "the Truth" is and I don't see any profit to expending energy worrying about it.

There's quite a concepts of what the truth is- although a common phrase is that all paths lead to "God" or the "Truth". The reason its can be so difficult to explain- as people like Sri Nisargadatta maharaj would put it- is because the "truth"  about one's own nature is not something conceptual or something that can be reached by expending energy to worry about it. Worrying or "thinking" about the truth is itself the obstacle to reaching it. The truth is to be reached by becoming detached from thoughts. Not a state where thinking doesn't happen- that's impossible and goes on by itself- but a state where there's no identification with them. 

 

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When I say "alienated", I mean in the sense of the "I" vs. the "not I".  The ego immediately alienates us from our surroundings.

Clayton:
I don't know what "the Truth" is and I don't see any profit to expending energy worrying about it.

And so, you shall suffer.

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Clayton replied on Sun, Dec 11 2011 6:10 PM

The ego immediately alienates us from our surroundings.

I'm not that familiar with Freudian theory so you're going to have to define your terms a bit more... but assuming this is the case, why is it a bad thing?

I don't know what "the Truth" is and I don't see any profit to expending energy worrying about it.

And so, you shall suffer.

OK, let me state it a little more strongly. There are true propositions. There are false propositions. But there is no such thing as the Truth (capital-T). I challenge you to prove me wrong. In fact, I won't even hold you to that high of a standard... just give me a good sketch outline of the reason I'm wrong (at least, that's what I think you're trying to say).

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Clayton replied on Sun, Dec 11 2011 6:15 PM

Could you expand on this? What most "basic" actions need to be thought through? Is it really a necessity to "think" through them or is just stemming form a habit of thinking?

Um, what to eat, what to do when you wake up and begin your day, etc. Pretty much nothing you do in a day is what your brain is wired to do without reflection.

The truth is to be reached by becoming detached from thoughts.

It seems we may be using conflicting definitions of the word "true". When I use the word "true" I mean it synonymously with propositional truth, which is its most common meaning. I think Wittgenstein said, Truth is the case in fact. Discussion of propositional truth presupposes active use of one's cognitive capacity. Hence, it's absurd to speak of truth absent cognition unless you have in mind a different sort of truth. Can you clarify?

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fakename replied on Sun, Dec 11 2011 7:51 PM

Clayton:

But there is no such thing as the Truth (capital-T).

Perhaps he means Platonic Truth, which exists because all true things have to participate in something which is of greater truth or else, one thing is of greater truth (intelligibility or abstractness) by virtue of something less true which is absurd. Also, if there was no Truth, then there would be no eternal truth -a truth that subsists regardless of the subject that apprehends it -that is no tautologies.

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By ego, I mean the "self", or the "I".  I'm not saying the alienation of the self from the other is a bad thing, but you seem to be treating it as one.  If the eliminaion of suffering is the end goal, than I would argue that this distinction is the root cause of that suffering.

Clayton:
There are true propositions. There are false propositions. But there is no such thing as the Truth (capital-T).

I consider this statement to literally be nonsense, unless you are considering truth to be relative to the individual, which would make the concept of truth itself moot.

Clayton:
I challenge you to prove me wrong. In fact, I won't even hold you to that high of a standard... just give me a good sketch outline of the reason I'm wrong (at least, that's what I think you're trying to say).

If there is no Truth, how can I ever hope to "prove" anything?  Does it simply reduce to the ability of my sales pitch (proof) to sway you?

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Clayton replied on Sun, Dec 11 2011 10:10 PM

I'm a strong believer in separation of ontology and epistemology. The statement, "there is such a thing as THE TRUTH (angels sing in heaven as it is spoken)" is not an epistemological claim, it is an ontological claim. If you simply mean "there are true statements", then I agree. Truth is nothing except believability and is, indeed, relative to the individual because only the individual can perform the act of believing something to be true.

What I believe you are denoting by the name "the Truth" can also be termed the Absolute or, as mentioned by another poster, Platonic Truth. Direct treatment of the Absolute can only result in absurdities. Man's capacity for knowledge is limited; this is one of the few things we do know for sure. The Absolute is unlimited in every possible sense and, thus, we can only get it wrong when making claims about the Absolute beyond the limits of our knowledge. One of the things about the Absolute that lies beyond our knowledge is whether or how far the Absolute extends beyond our knowledge. Hence, any claim that the Absolute does exist is conceited, arbitrary and leads to absurdity.

There are true propositions. There are false propositions. But there is no such thing as the Truth (capital-T).

I consider this statement to literally be nonsense, unless you are considering truth to be relative to the individual, which would make the concept of truth itself moot.

Truth - as man can know it - is neither relative to the individual (as in, you can make up any truth you like) nor is it absolute, it's somewhere in between. Whatever true things we can discover, we can have confidence to be true. But we can only speculate about that which lies beyond our capacity to discover - even in principle. Speculation is not reason, it is speculation (arbitrary guessing).

If there is no Truth, how can I ever hope to "prove" anything?  Does it simply reduce to the ability of my sales pitch (proof) to sway you?

I'm not trying to be clever - I'm simply unsure what you mean when you speak of The Truth. Some people use it as a synonym for (their particular conception of) God. Some people use it as a synonym for the Universe itself. I simply do not know what sense you are using it in.

All of these conceptions of Truth fail on the same point: formal logic has shown us the boundaries of human knowledge. There is an infinite amount of truth (true propositions) which man simply cannot know, even in principle. Our knowledge of formal truth is an infinitesimal drop in an infinite ocean - and I'm not speaking poetically, I mean this rigorously (read almost anything by mathematician Gregory Chaitin or ask me and I'll explain). Of the infinite number of possible true axioms from which there are to choose, our choices are as arbitrary as any.

As if this were not bad enough, we can directly translate the limites of our knowledge into physical reality by simply constructing a computer whose operation is to compute these unknowable truths. So constructed, it is provably the case that we cannot - even in principle - predict the operation of such a device. In other words, we will have constructed a physical object whose long-run state cannot be predicted, even in principle, which renders false any claim to a physical Theory of Everything.

There is no Theory of Everything. There is no Absolute. There is no "final secret of knowledge" which, once known, contains all other knowledge within it. There is just our infinitesimal island of knowledge in an ocean of truth stretching off into the infinite horizons far beyond our capacity to see.

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Clayton replied on Sun, Dec 11 2011 10:25 PM

Perhaps he means Platonic Truth, which exists because all true things have to participate in something which is of greater truth or else, one thing is of greater truth (intelligibility or abstractness) by virtue of something less true which is absurd.

So, what is the greater truth in which Platonic Truth participates? Surely, it must participate in a greater truth, else, Platonic Truth itself would not be true, which seems problematic.

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fakename replied on Sun, Dec 11 2011 10:52 PM

So, what is the greater truth in which Platonic Truth participates? Surely, it must participate in a greater truth, else, Platonic Truth itself would not be true, which seems problematic.

 

IMO, I shouldn't have said "all truth participates" w/o an explanation. The argument implicitly rests on the understanding that that which is mutable is less real and implies something that is more real and immutable to move it. Now all the "earthly" truths are mutable so they need to be moved by, something that is immutable. And this is what is called participation.

From this the further objection "what does Truth participate in?" is circumvented by remembering that Truth is immutable and infinite by nature while truth participates in it.

Personally, I don't think that we can know all Truth either. At least, not until the eschaton.

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AJ replied on Mon, Dec 12 2011 2:30 AM

Gah! Tautologies are just artifacts of how definitions and sentence structure work. Logical truth in general is merely what follows from the premises, which itself is again solely determined by definitions and sentence structure. These thing have nothing to do with happiness or human action, other than the action of stringing sentences together. Now *outside* of logic, truth is an opinion and proof just means you convinced someone. Nothing too interesting going on there either. Finally, one more meaning of "true" is "reliably guides my actions toward pleasure and away from pain," but that is better called utility, not truth. In any case, there's nothing mystical-magical going on (Buddhist, Godelian, or otherwise). Unless you're a schoolmarm, none of this relates to the OP.

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Clayton - you have read the Parmenides no doubt?

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Clayton:
The statement, "there is such a thing as THE TRUTH (angels sing in heaven as it is spoken)" is not an epistemological claim, it is an ontological claim. If you simply mean "there are true statements", then I agree. Truth is nothing except believability and is, indeed, relative to the individual because only the individual can perform the act of believing something to be true.

So essentially you are claiming that there is no absolute Truth, just more or less convincing arguments?  How depressing, considering our noise machine can never match that of the State.

Clayton:
What I believe you are denoting by the name "the Truth" can also be termed the Absolute or, as mentioned by another poster, Platonic Truth. Direct treatment of the Absolute can only result in absurdities.

Absurd by what standard?  Perhaps these "absurdities" result from our cognitive limitations and ignorance, rather than faulty concepts.  That's like if I wore a welding mask and claimed the world around me was "too dark to see anything".

Clayton:
Man's capacity for knowledge is limited; this is one of the few things we do know for sure.

Man's knowledge, fine.  What of God's knowledge?  As I said in the previous post, my aim is to claim my divinity, not to remain a "man".  See Enlightenment.

Clayton:
any claim that the Absolute does exist is conceited, arbitrary and leads to absurdity.

Mmm, I would temper this statement a bit.  I'd say it's more like,

"any claim of understanding, knowledge, or comprehension of the Absolute is conceited, arbitrary and leads to absurdity."

Simply stating,

"I believe there is Truth."

I simply a statement of faith and preference, no better or worse than stating,

"I believe Truth does not exist, or if it does, we can never know it."

Clayton:
Truth - as man can know it - is neither relative to the individual (as in, you can make up any truth you like) nor is it absolute, it's somewhere in between. Whatever true things we can discover, we can have confidence to be true. But we can only speculate about that which lies beyond our capacity to discover - even in principle. Speculation is not reason, it is speculation (arbitrary guessing).

So, truth to you is neither "true" nor "false"?  Sounds like you want to have your cake and eat it too.  What is the foundation of this "confidence of discovery"?  Is this not arbitrary guessing about the validity of your perception?  I agree that speculation is not reason, but I would argue that you are begging the question by implying that reason is a superior method of validation than random guessing, which I would consider just as baseless a speculation than anything I've been throwing out there.

Clayton:
I'm not trying to be clever - I'm simply unsure what you mean when you speak of The Truth. Some people use it as a synonym for (their particular conception of) God. Some people use it as a synonym for the Universe itself. I simply do not know what sense you are using it in.

I believe you, Clay.  You are probably one of the most respected posters here, and I have never known you to be douchey or combative when posting.  I hope I am coming across the same way, because I am thouroughly enjoying this discussion, and think it has the potential to be a real learing moment (for me).

It is tough for me to acurately define "Truth" as I am treating it, since I consider it (as do you) as beyond our reckoning.  It is all, yet nothing, it is God, the Universe, anything and everything, yet nothingness, and void.  A dualistic, materialist mind immediately sees this as a contradiction, an absurdity.  This is why I stress the limits of this mindset, rather than the apparent self-refutation of non-dualism.

This concept is core to any sort of mysticism, regardless of the age, location, or the overlying belief system. Gnosticism, Medieval Mystic Christianity, Sufism, Kabbalah, Hemetic Alchemy, Neo-Platonism, Dionysian Mysteries, Buddhism, Taoism, the myriad mystic Hindu sects, the list goes on and on.

Clayton:
There is no Theory of Everything. There is no Absolute. There is no "final secret of knowledge" which, once known, contains all other knowledge within it. There is just our infinitesimal island of knowledge in an ocean of truth stretching off into the infinite horizons far beyond our capacity to see.

Or so you think... wink  Since this is all arbitrary, isn't it equally as likely that the IS an ultimate truth, and that man has the ability to realize it?

"What Stirner says is a word, a thought, a concept; what he means is no word, no thought, no concept. What he says is not what is meant, and what he means is unsayable." - Max Stirner, Stirner's Critics
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To relate all of this to the OP, treating "truth" as relative and Truth as unknowable, inevitably leads to the conclusion that,

"The end of suffering is unachievable in life."

This is the Existential Crisis in a nutshell.  As we strive towards satisfaction, the "truth" we are aiming for is constantly chaning, thus we are left to find Truth in what is considered to be a Truthless existence.  It is the fate of Sisyphus, attempting to accomplish what is an absurd, unachievable goal.

Both Camus' and the Epicurean conclusion seems to be,

"Learn to enjoy suffering."

Which to me is rather cold comfort.  I believe there is something more.

 

"What Stirner says is a word, a thought, a concept; what he means is no word, no thought, no concept. What he says is not what is meant, and what he means is unsayable." - Max Stirner, Stirner's Critics
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Clayton replied on Mon, Dec 12 2011 10:45 AM

"The end of suffering is unachievable in life."

What could be more certain than this? If you don't drink water, you will die within a few days. Want is the formalization of suffering (pain)... your want of water is biologically guaranteed to recur until the day you die. Ataraxia - the state of complete contentment where all action ceases - is unattainable, it is just a point on the compass which you are either moving towards or away from but to which you can never really arrive.

I'll address the other post after awhile.

Clayton -

http://voluntaryistreader.wordpress.com
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Clayton replied on Mon, Dec 12 2011 11:20 AM

@Aristippus: No, I have not. Let me be up-front that most of my philosophical knowledge is not built on original sources since I'm too impatient to read old philosophy that has been well-refuted even if it has other important building-blocks in it that still stand today. Do you recommend it?

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