Sunday, April 3, 2011

Drinking the Mortal Brew: The Future Is No Place To Place Your Better Days

"We are born once and cannot be born twice, but we must be no more for all time. Not being master of tomorrow, you nonetheless delay your happiness. Life is consumed by procrastination, and each of us dies without providing leisure time for himself"-
Epicurus, 6th Vatican Saying

The good wisdom gets passed around. Somebody in every culture and time is virtually guaranteed to either borrow the good stuff from another culture, or discover it for themselves and find a unique way to phrase it.

As a frequenter of atheist blogs, books, and youtube debates, I've run into the following point several times (paraphrased): 'If there was a huge calamity and mankind had to start from scratch with zero knowledge and memory of the past, and zero relics, all of the scientific laws would be discovered again. Religions may (and probably would) arise, but they would be different'. I'm too lazy to look up who originally made this point, but whoever it was was generally right; because religion is made up, any religions created in this calamity scenario would be unique to the ones we have now (because religion is man-made). I don't think they are wholly right, because I think there are true observations made by many religions. 'The Golden Rule' thing comes to mind. Since the good parts of religion are the result of anthropological pop-psychology--and since pop-psychology is based on anecdotal observation--some of the truths discovered by the contributors to the world's religions are bound to be true, even if only by accident.

This one by Epicurus is one of those truisms about the good life discovered by observing the human animal that would be discovered again if today and tomorrow were divided by a road paved by Cormac McCarthy.

Rabelais was the first to say 'Do What Thou Wilt', while Jesus--in summary--told us to 'Do What Thou Ought'. Epicurus--ever the moderate--comes down in the middle with 'Thou Ought to Do Some Of Those Things That Thou Wilt'. Except of course, Epicurus wasn't much of a 'Thou Shalt' kind of guy.

This saying--along with the carpe diem sayings of Jesus and Rabelais--can be taken as irresponsible 'eat,drink, and be merry' stuff, but in actuality, the irresponsible 'eat, drink, and be merry' stuff isn't so irresponsible either. Anything can be used as license by the irresponsible. The whole thrust is that we would be happier if we allowed ourselves time to stop storing up treasures in heaven, or kudos with the boss, and fully inhabit and appreciate a world that we would care to. While it's inevitable that we all will need to spend some time doing things that we may not want to do (working out, going to work on the odd Saturday, visiting with our in-laws), maintenance is part of the good life too. It's important that we save and plan ahead. It's also important that we not feel like we need to 'steal' time for ourselves.

The time we have is ours. The time we use to pursue things that bring us pleasure--the ultimate good--is not stolen time. Rather than thinking of the time you spend reading a mystery novel, tossing a ball with your kid, or drinking a beer and talking with your friends as some kind of gift from the system, think of it time spent as it should be.

By all means, you can find meaning in your work too; I do. But as Dr. Seuss so perfectly puts it, 'Life is a great balancing act'.

Leisure time isn't frivolous. That's one of the great sins perpetrated on America by the Puritans. Leisure time is no more frivolous than sleep and exercise, and it's just as necessary.


Andrew David King said...

No day but today--this "Carpe diem!" notion is an interesting one, something parroted much without any real consideration of what it means. But for atheists or any sort of nonbelievers this is the only theology (if I dare call it that) we have besides nihilism. Humanism, secular interests, and every other positive thing to derive itself not from a god but from human potential can be said to fall under this banner, I would argue.

I think the point about what would hypothetically happen if mankind started over from scratch is interesting, but flawed (as you pointed out) in a few ways. One, it's a thought experiment, always a hypothetical--it doesn't really get much more concrete until it happens. Secondly, I had an argument yesterday with my friend, who is a math major, about her ideas regarding the "purity" of mathematics (a system that exists independent of an observer, she posits, and within itself) as opposed to the "createdness" of literature. The whole epistemological mess is too long to post here, but my ultimate point was that both mathematics and literature are both projections of interpretations of reality back onto reality--i.e., what's ornithology to birds? Additionally, the argument that if X person hadn't lived Y book would have never existed whereas the laws of nature would have continued to exist perpetually falls flat for me--perhaps Y book would not have been written, but it is not the particular incarnation that matters so much as it is the ideas contained therein. And I think anyone would be hard-pressed to argue that there haven't been specific, nearly chartable movements in human consciousness (some dichotomous) as embodied in our literary tradition. I'm still not quite sure myself, but I'm afraid to too romantically view any theory of knowledge even in juxtaposition to religious interpretations of life. We don't want to just switch the idols on the altar.

Also, it's funny how out of touch America is with its backwards Puritan notions. Leisure time now is almost a holy activity, given by a perceived divine right, I would argue, if only for the fact that it feels good, like using shitloads of energy to power gadgets we don't use to do things we don't need. But that's a rant for another day. I've got to get up, get out, and do things.

Spencer Troxell said...

That someone might recreate themes found in Don Quixote in a post-calamity piece of literature is highly possible, but someone post-calamity re-writing Don Quixote is probably as likely to happen as a tornado whipping up a boeing 747 from a junkyard.

A person discovering that you end up with two pears after you pick the second one off the tree (1+1=2) is highly likely.

But themes and truths about behavior are different, and I address those in the post.

as far as projecting interpretations of perception, consider this excerpt from The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking:

"A few years ago the city council of Monza, Italy, barred pet owners from keeping goldfish in curved bowls. The measure's sponsor explained the measure in part by saying that it is cruel to keep a fish in a bowl with curved sides because, gazing out, the fish would have a distorted view of reality. But how do we know we have the true, undistorted picture of reality?

The goldfish view is not the same as our own, but goldfish could still formulate scientific laws governing the motion of the objects they observe outside their bowl. For example, due to the distortion, a freely moving object would be observed by the goldfish to move along a curved path. Nevertheless, the goldfish could formulate laws from their distorted frame of reference that would always hold true. Their laws would be more complicated than the laws in our frame, but simplicity is a matter of taste."

So, even though our perpsective may be skewed, we can still make observations about reality that connect to the actual order of things.

Andrew David King said...

I see what you're saying. My point is more that the circumstances dictating human discovery of these distorted "truths" (even if, as you are saying, they hold true for our stunted views forever, conceivably) is the same whether they be the perceived laws of math or the human necessity to make meaning out of surroundings. The fact that Don Quixote wouldn't recur in its exact form doesn't really argue against this--neither would Einstein's essay in which he articulates the Theory of Relativity be the same. I think we're getting too far away from a consideration of what different incarnations of communication about truth might look like after the fact: I would argue that in a post-calamity world both language and math, rudimentarily, are inevitable. And sure, somebody might do the 1+1=2 thing with pears, just as they might make a crude "yes" and "no" word, but I doubt that the similarities to present-day structures continue much further.

Back in the 1800s, the mathematician Gödel formulated that mathematics would never be a complete system--that it would forever expand to account for the indelible gaps in its view of the universe. I can't articulate what he said as articulately as he did, but the general point was that the further you get away from the concreteness of 1+1=2, the less likely things are to not only appear "objective" but to truly be objective.

All this being said, I want to believe, as you said, that we can still "make observations about reality that connect to the actual order of things." I think we just need to be conscious about the limitations and problems with those observations--we need to be conscious of the curve in the glass, if you will.

Spencer Troxell said...

The impulse that led Cervantes to write Don Quixote may be present in the post-calamity world, and some writer might echo some of his themes and characters, but Don Quixote will be lost. And yes, Einstein's essay will be lost too, but special relativity will still be there to be discovered (and conveyed in whatever fashion people post-calamity convey things).

But I agree with you, it's important to remember that we look at things through a variety of fishbowls; this skewed perspective may not do the best service to the truth, but it can give us some beautiful and interesting things to consider. It's also why science is so important.

Spencer Troxell said...

I should also add that it might be worth asking whether or not Cervantes intended to convey truth with Don Quixote, or whether he simply meant to convey Don Quixote, and some truth tagged along. Although I know there was an element of satire at the inception of Don Quixote--and satire and commentary appears all throughout it--the book is so much more than that.

Lodo Grdzak said...

Glad to have you back Spence.

For my own 2 cents, I really believe man's behavior is pre-determined far more than what we want to believe. If mankind and the world were to start all over, things would pretty-much look and playout exactly the same.Just different names and faces.

Spencer Troxell said...

Good to be back, Lodo. I'll be swinging by both yours and Willie's pad in the next couple of days. I know I've got some catching up to do, but I also know it will be worth my time.

I'm rapidly coming to accept a form of determinism myself, but you've got to be patient with me; Only 5 years or so ago I was still an evangelical christian, and I think I'm resistant to having my worldview changed too drastically over too short a period of time. The determinism I'm with right now states that we have free will within a certain set of parameters. It's like a multiple choice question on a test: our genes leave us free to choose from answers A, B, C, or D, but not E through Z. I can see the argument that if you had all the variables you could probably predict exactly which answer on the test a person will absolutely pick, but I've got some thinking and reading to do about free will and determinism still. I'm just now getting my beak wet on physics, so it may be awhile before I get around to realizing that I had no option but to eventually accept determinism.