Monday, April 17, 2017

Privileged Presumption—Part 2

What began this blog posting on privileged presumption was an occasion in which I recently caught myself exhibiting a dose of hubris, when I caught myself looking upon the ancient Greeks a bit disdainfully. I have recently taken a couple of online courses on ancient Greece and am currently reading a book on ancient Greek philosophy. I often find it a struggle to grasp the dense thinking and teachings of Greek philosophers from 2500 years ago, such as Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, and others. Their era was very different, in so many ways. It is a big challenge for scholars to translate early Greek prose into an understandable style of English that faithfully captures the intentions of those ancient philosophers. In addition, I sometimes struggle comprehending the mores and beliefs of those ancient societies.
Many of the Greeks whose writings we have from that period were well-to-do and lived a life of leisure, which gave them lots of time to sit around and ponder the mysteries of the human mind, as well as the nature of the universe. It was a time when the first Greek (and thus western) scientists appeared, although they didn't call themselves that, since the word “science” didn't really come into use until the 17th century. If anything, they called themselves natural philosophers, because they were seeking a better understanding of the natural world, and scientific experimentation was virtually unknown, so they philosophized. Their crucial offering to human knowledge was to usher in an era which replaced the antics of the gods in people's minds with the actions of Mother Nature.
That initiation of scientific thought was a foundational development in the progress of Homo sapiens. Prior to the time of these first natural philosophers coming onto the scene, the accepted explanation for many events that occurred was that the gods did it. An earthquake or flood or tornado? It must be that the gods are pissed off at people and were punishing them. Have a good food crop or experience victory in battle? It must be that the gods liked us and graced us with favor. The Jewish Bible (Old Testament) is full of these kind of happenings which are attributed to God. Similarly, all sorts of personal tragedy or good fortune—disease, death, good health, wealth—were attributed to the gods. The deities either were upset with me and punished me, or thought I deserved a favor and rewarded me.
Then came those first Greek scientists: Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides, etc., beginning around 600 BCE. They all contended that no, the gods did not act to harm or help us; the gods had better things to do. Moreover, events were neither supernatural nor inexplicable—they were natural. It is how the world unfolds, and furthermore, it is possible even to learn how these events happen. For example, if you're sick, maybe you ate something nasty. If your child died, maybe a disease caused it. If your army won the war, maybe it was because of superior battle plans. No rain for the last month? Weather patterns must have caused it.
The main point of these ancient scientists was that there is a perfectly natural cause for these things. So the natural philosopher's job is to do some deep thinking—and maybe even run a few primitive experiments—and see if those causes can't be discovered. We should put effort into ferreting out the causes, rather than trying to appease the gods, they taught.
And that's just what they did; they investigated. They were breaking new ground; exploring new territory—without the benefit of much prior knowledge of the natural world. They invented new ideas and derived new hypotheses. It is to be expected that they stumbled a few times. They certainly disagreed with each other and engaged in endless debates. But they began the process of scientific thought.
So let's get back to my own case of recently falling prey to elitist hubristic thinking. Many years ago, while in middle school, I learned that those ancient Greeks, in their attempt to understand the natural world, decided that everything in the universe was constituted of four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. Even as an adolescent I knew that this was wrong. Hey, there are actually over 100 elements, and the periodic table exquisitely and logically lays it all out. In fact, those four Greek elements aren't elements at all, since they really are chemical compounds or molecules made up of several kinds of basic elements.
Without realizing it, I had slowly developed a slightly aloof attitude towards those Greeks of yore. It's such an easy trap to fall into. In fact, we need to put effort into avoiding feeling superior to ancient peoples or to those in the contemporary world who are “less developed” than we are. As I've pondered our propensity to look down upon those less knowledgeable than we are, I think about how folks in the future will look back at our follies and wonder how we could have been so foolish. How harsh will they someday be judging us?
I think there are numerous areas in which our future offspring will be inclined to disdain who we were, what we believed, and what we did. Causing climate change will undoubtedly top the list. But they'll also be scratching their heads over other foolish actions and beliefs of ours, such as racism, great wealth inequality, nuclear weapons, rampant capitalism, pollution, over population, habitat destruction, nationalism, and others. They will wonder why it was that the 20th and 21st century humans could have been so muddle headed and blind.
One of the most astute ideas introduced by those ancient Greek scientists was that we humans are, like all animals, part of nature. We are not separate from and perched atop all the world's critters, like the gods may be. We are not removed from all those animals, or fundamentally superior to them, despite the power of our minds. We may be capable of godlike behavior, and our potential is amazing, but even the ancient Greeks understood that we emerged from the natural world and were an integral part of it. Some 2500 years later, it'd be cause for celebration if we elitist, hubristic moderns understood that simple truth. Let's climb down from our privileged presumptive pedestal and exhibit a little well-deserved humility.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Spring Beauties

It's spring and the jonquils are out. Click to enlarge.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Privileged Presumption—Part 1

I was recently discussing with my wife the propensity for people who regard themselves as much better than average or are among the learned class to look down upon those who are less educated than they. It's a very common attitude of those who are literate, cultured, and/or intellectual. They often feel that they are among the privileged class and thus have the right to belittle and slight those who are not educated or are otherwise disempowered. Not content to just look down upon the less fortunate, the elite often feel entitled to tell the masses what to do—after all, their noble position places them at an advantage and the power that they wield enables them to take charge. The privileged ones know best, don't they?
My wife suggested the term “elitist hubris” to describe them. I've titled this post “Privileged Presumption,” as an alternative description (and I like to play with alliteration). Maybe the best example of this attitude over the last several hundred years is the way in which the West (Europe and the US) has dealt with aboriginal and undeveloped people all around the world. Encounters between Western people (who are largely white and powerful) and those less educated and primitive (who are often darker skinned and vulnerable) have most always exhibited some aspect of elitist hubris.
For example, when the Spanish Conquistadors entered the Americas in the 16th century, they regarded the Incas and Aztecs as inferior people who needed to be subdued and converted. When the European powers entered the African continent in that same time frame, they looked upon the natives there as savages who required domination. Similar events happened in Australia, the Middle East, and the Far East. It was repeated again and again: those with superior knowledge and power believed that they had the right to exert their will on “backwards” people—often under the justification that they were boosting the simple people into the civilized world.
There are two types of groups of people who tend to practice this process of privileged presumption and who often cooperate with each other: academics and the powerful. Those in power have the capacity to enforce their desires on those who are weak. The academics often provide the rationale for what those in power do, in exchange for protection and privileges. Those two groups form a complementary team that solidifies the superior position of both of them.
Another way we moderns sometimes practice elitist hubris is to look down upon people from the past, who did not have the benefit of our superior modern knowledge. It's easy to consider past beliefs and behavior as rather primitive, compared to our advanced knowledge of today. How could those simple people have thought that the sun circles the Earth? How could ancient people have believed in a pantheon of gods, when we know there's but one God? How could those naive people have believed that an amulet could cure disease? We know so much more today, and this knowledge can cause us to look upon the ancients as simplistic people, if not also rather foolish. We rarely pause to note how arrogant and elitist we are behaving, when we do this.

More on hubris next time...

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Slow Bumblebee

I found this bumblebee hanging around... not inclined to move very much, so it allowed me to get close to photo it. Was it ill? Was it satiated with spring nectar and thus lazy and happy? Click to enlarge.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Pleasure Yes, Pain No—Part 2

I do not know the ancient Greek word that Epicurus used for pain. Most contemporary writers just use the word pain. I still have a problem with that word, however, since I believe that we do not seek to avoid all types of pain. Do we not sometimes willingly take on pain in order to aid a loved one? If my spouse or my child is suffering from an affliction, would I not step in and risk some discomfort, in order to help them? 
And how about the pain of growth? There's wisdom in the old saw, “No pain, no gain.” I personally would not have benefited from a good career if I had shunned the pain of sleepless nights, while studying hard in college. How many people choose the pain of surgery, in order to correct some bodily disease? The list goes on.
What appears to be the key here, I believe, is that we seek to avoid unnecessary pain, or unjustified pain. Pain is unjust when someone consciously inflicts it on another. When that happens, we rightly feel the need to prevent or stop that kind of pain.
Then there is the unnecessary kind of pain that we needlessly inflict upon ourselves. This type of pain is often the result of foolish choices we've made in the past. At other times we experience unnecessary pain in the way that we react to events. If my mind is wandering as I walk around the house and I bump painfully into a door, I can needlessly increase my pain by also breaking a knuckle, if I get pissed off and take a foolish swing at the door.
So is there a better word than pain for those unpleasant experiences we wish to avoid? From my dictionary's thesaurus I think that the following words are good candidates: torment, misery, anguish, agony. Let me try the word “torment” on for size. It means “a severe form of suffering;” a kind of suffering that has no compensating value; it's for no good reason. It happens when someone (our ourselves) unfairly torment us.
Maybe I've belabored my point a bit excessively, but I do feel that this is a useful exercise in trying to overcome an unfortunate bias against Epicurus which our culture has absorbed, for a couple of millennia now. I'm going through this process in an attempt to counter a mental habit that I may have unconsciously developed: that Epicurus was a blatant hedonist who advocated living a life of sensual self-indulgence.
What's more, that bias can encourage us to reject the remainder of his philosophical teachings, which contain much wisdom. For example, Epicurus also taught that we need not be concerned with an afterlife, that we do not have to fear the gods, that we should surround ourselves with trustworthy friends, that even if we experience pain it seldom lasts long, and that the good life consists of seeking virtue and honesty. Maybe I'll write more on these other teachings in the future. It's good stuff.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Pleasure Yes, Pain No—Part 1

A number of philosophers over the last few millennia have advised us to make many of life's choices from the perspective of a very simple guideline: seek pleasure and avoid pain. One of the first proponents of this concept was Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher, living in the 4th century BCE, who established a school in Athens. Epicurus maintained that we have an innate drive within us to want to experience pleasure and to do what we can to escape pain. It's natural; we don't have to cogitate on it. All animals instinctively do it and we humans—just another animal—do it too.
Some two thousand years later a few Enlightenment philosophers were giving pretty much the same advice. Both Jeremy Bentham (18th century) and John Stuart Mill (19th century) founded the Utilitarian concept that it is nature's influence which drives humans to seek happiness and eschew pain. This simple directive very much appeals to me, yet I shy away from using the terms “pleasure” and “pain.” Why? For one, I'm aware that history has not been kind to Epicurus. Look in any dictionary and find that an “epicure” is one who “takes particular pleasure in fine food and drink.” An epicurean is one who is “devoted to sensual enjoyment.” Epicureanism “advocates hedonism.” So says the dictionary.
In the 2500 years since Epicurus walked the streets of ancient Athens, his pleasure/pain message has gotten distorted; which has discredited his wider teachings in many people's minds. In fact, his reputation was being dragged through Greek gutters even as he lived, as pernicious rumors were spread by opponents of his teachings. The slandering process transformed his message from a simple, beneficial one into one of debauchery and licentiousness. His ethical teaching unjustly became unfairly reviled in the eyes of many people, over the years.
Epicurus became portrayed as a sensual degenerate, but the fact is that he and his followers lived lives of simplicity and moderation. Their aim was to put attention to what is required of us to live morally, while avoiding all forms of over-indulgence. It's unfortunate that their message of temperateness became submerged.
There is no question that Epicurus' philosophy was largely discredited because people have chiseled his message into stone, by insisting on using those terms “pleasure” and “pain.” It's unfortunate that these English words have become the accepted translations for the Greek words that he used. In fact, the words pleasure and pain are well off Epicurus' original intent; they are even misleading. So, before I proceed, let me look for two English words which I think better capture the essence of what he meant.
The Greek word that Epicurus used to describe the absence of pain was ataraxia. Its meaning is an untroubledness of mind; a tranquility; or freedom from disturbance. It implies an ideal state of mind. A few alternative English words (from the thesaurus) that also capture the meaning of ataraxia are: contentment, fulfillment, happiness, and serenity. All of these words describe a state of mind that results from the examined life—very much in contrast to a shallow life of pleasure and entertainment. So when I ponder Epicurus' message, I think more along the lines of seeking tranquility and serenity, not pleasure.

More on Epicurus' message next time...

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Apollo 11 Returning

This photo is from NASA in 1969, as the Lunar Lander is returning to the orbiter, to then return to Earth, which is beautifully appearing in the background. Click to enlarge.