Morty’s Microverse

This clip shows how Rick is effectively god of a universe, and how he uses the sentient life in his “microverse” to work to power his “car” that he built. In the end, we see Rick struggling with a scientist from his microverse who has made himself god of a “miniverse,” basically the same thing only it fits inside the microverse, in a much smaller space. They are struggling with each other to get to Rick’s machine that takes him back to the “regular” universe (which happens to be only a parallel universe to the one he “normally” lives in).

What we ambitiously call the “universe” is splintered and shattered into universes parallel and universes contained. The struggle between Rick and this scientist, if we are given a moment to stop and think, is pretty pointless. Its true that because Rick wins the struggle, the scientist he struggles with has to return to powering Rick’s car or Rick will destroy their universe. Even though the struggle was ultimate a struggle for who is “god” of microverse, what about the god that created Rick’s “normal” universe? How is Ricks position any different, whatever universe he ends up in?

This is why godhood, at least in a way, isn’t much different from personhood. Obviously the scientist has an elevated position, both intellectually and socially, in order to be in a position to vie with Rick for godhood over Microverse. However, the status of godhood, once you’ve already reached the level of this scientist, isn’t worth struggling for anymore. There will always be a god over your “home” universe. And that is the universe you want to be in.

So what now? Godhood isn’t worth striving for, and being a genius scientist like Rick isn’t all its cracked up to be either, as an alcoholic who has little sense of faith, love, friendship or any kind of meaning of any other ideal. This is a case where being a genius just isn’t enough; it isn’t the ideal that people need. Rick needs happiness, a sense of fulfillment or soul-nourishment. Not another amazing gadget that bends all sense of reality. We come away, from a scientists point of view, feeling as though reality isn’t real. The current state of modern physics is similar, where there is no consensus about what “physical” even is any more.

Well a genius is a master of thinking, but not of thought. Rick can’t control what he thinks, but he is a master of producing amazing thoughts that turn into amazing technologies. If he could control what he thought, he would make himself happy. Controlling what you think is the greater mastery. In other words, there is something better than godhood. Somehow people have to be aware of what thoughts are about to manifest, and be able to either pick the best one, or think nothing at all.

And what about faith? Faith in god doesn’t make much sense in this context. I think faith in impermanence is a better bet. It is slightly pessimistic compared to putting your faith in Rick, but what it means is no matter how bad things are, they will eventually change. Rick qua god will die, even if that is a long time to microverse. Morty knows Ricks secret about microverse now, maybe faith in him is better, but faith in impermanence is much more reasonable. Godhood? impermanent. not worth striving for. Sent to hell? Impermanent. Even if a lot of collective faith is built up around a permanent hell, or more appropriately a permanent abyss, that faith will change. Yes, faith in impermanence can change into faith in permanence, but because it can change, faith in permanence will eventually change back into faith in impermanence. So faith in impermanence appeals to reason, and has a powerful upside, even in this thought-world of Rick and Morty.

The Title of the Song

Americans love justice because the talking heads keep telling us to love justice; not forgiveness or mercy because you can’t kill people in the name of forgiveness or mercy. Even Bernie does this. But what I want to explore here is whether justice has become sense-making? I think Americans in their deep mind control bubble crave sense-making. They are confused, afraid and overworked. Their “education,” their language, their intellectual preoccupation with sex (including gender), are all reductionist. I generally try to approach this problem by looking at the logical positivist project to refine language and how that reduces larger things like houses, feelings, and communities into talk of a smaller, more atomized reality. So I focus on vagueness in my work because people in America badly need a way to synthesize information, houses, feelings, communities, etc. The effect of the English language is felt in everything else.

But vagueness is the linguistic approach; how to move to a political approach? I think people lean on Communication as the field where the neolibral “individual” can link hands with others to form a political community, the same way electrons link atoms, and the mind senses a great synthesis of atoms into a house. Even if that same mind doesn’t believe in things anymore, being told that everything is actually atoms, or subatomic particles, or quanta, etc. I originally approached the problem linguistically because it seems more fundamental. Some of us are not bilingual and HAVE to think in English. I remember the large shift of my mind out of English when I was immersed in Spanish as a teenager. Its not a shift between English and Spanish; it is a shift that allows thinking without language.

Communication is dominated by media. Elite People like Anand Giridharadas write things for the New York Times and try to make the argument that we shouldn’t listen to just anybody of the

114 percent of Americans now having their own podcast, it is not easy to choose the one with the best title. But I’d go with the journalist Chris Hayes’s “Why Is This Happening?”
(Why do Trump Supporters Support Trump?)
Were there a German word for emotion-question (and it turns out there is), that title may be our era’s Gefühlsfrage. As people reel from crisis to crisis, outrage to outrage, this Gefühlsfrage hangs in the air and creates space for writers.

The urgent desire to regroup the atomized communities and their podcasts to the tune of the New York Times is evident here. Not that the New York Times wants us to really regroup, just enough for us to keep coming to them for their information-framing. Actually, we need space for the common writer, and Mr. Giridharadas’ attempt to rhetorically close that space is unhealthy politically. We need synthesis but not to the tune of the elite bringing us more Barack Obamas and Hillary Clintons, which are, unfortunately, the optimistic outcomes. So I offered vagueness because it is a recognized form of synthesis from the most rigorous mathematical logic, to scientific (as error) settings, all the way through to poetry, connecting disparate disciplines.

In terms of politics instead of academic disciplines, we need another concept for synthesis. Justice seems to be the general answer to the Gefühlsfrage, but what is justice? Not a question I am prepared to answer, but I will make a guess that it is what is best for the state, in the same way we have an idea what is best for ourselves, we extend that to the state, and that is justice.  One of the oldest senses of justice was “Eye for an eye” which involves taking action in a symmetrical way to how we have been wronged. The many senses of the over-worked concept of justice allows it to generally sound like a good idea to the atomized American. To some of us, justice means: if there is a problem, if we have been wronged, the “answer” is an action that hurts the wrong-doer in like kind. This kind of justice is obviously unachievable, there are many wrong doings that have no symmetrical punishment (unless you are completely taken in by capitalism), but I think this old, violent, barbaric definition of justice resonates with the beleaguered people of America. Americans feel wronged, and justice is how to act on the world so that it makes sense, a very material sense.

Justice is the proposed answer. Just look at the amount of work in a court case, to accomplish a minuscule amount of worldly justice. Its plainly not worth it. What is the goal of Justice? Any real-world event is too complex to set “right”, and there are too many injustices. Only the ones that get attention are addressed, so every thought on how we have been wronged is clamoring for a like or a share, etc. We get one thing right, after great outcry, what next? There are too many things wrong, and that is the way it will always be. How much is unjustly getting cancer worth? Being cured of cancer?

For politics, I would propose another concept, that does no cutting out people’s eyes: the concept is Rhetoric, and in this case, I direct you to Deirdre McCloskey‘s works. Western philosophy tries to block up rhetoric as something for the sophist who isn’t interested in the truth, as if the truth and its persuasiveness could be separated. Truth is not harsh, no matter how many times the news mechanically spits out “the harsh truth,” Truth is sweet, unless your mind is not prepared to receive it. And sweet words express the truth best. There is no separating Truth from its natural sweetness (and Dierdre agrees, read her wonderfully brief book on writing!). Rhetoric has a natural role in expressing the Truth.

Rhetoric also can be found in the foundations of classical logic as I explain here, and runs the gamut to poetry as well. Rhetoric is tied inextricably with expressing the truth, so it is like a space for writers to fill, a question that can’t ever quite be answered. “How do I properly express the truth?”

The pursuit of rhetoric is the truth. Technically a fool’s pursuit: to put Truth into language. However, that does not mean the direct experience of Truth is impossible.

The Fool’s Song

I tried to put a bird in a cage.
O fool that I am!
For the bird was Truth.
Sing merrily, Truth: I tried to put
Truth in a cage!

And when I had the bird in the cage,
O fool that I am!
Why, it broke my pretty cage.
Sing merrily, Truth: I tried to put
Truth in a cage!

And when the bird was flown from the cage,
O fool that I am!
Why, I had nor bird nor cage.
Sing merrily, Truth: I tried to put
Truth in a cage!
Heigh-ho! Truth in a cage.

by William Carlos Williams

Pursuing truth with language leads to other mental means of pursuing it. Language is like a ladder that is kicked away in order to have the Vision of Truth. I can attest that Truth is there to break through to. On the other hand, worldly justice is just never going to happen. Sense-making in terms of Justice means never-ending confusion. Seeking Truth earnestly will lead to real understanding.


Breath of the Body, Body of the Breath

In meditation I am experimenting with the two phrases “Breath of the Body” and “Body of the Breath”

I find that it is quite enough to absorb myself in the breath if when I inhale and say “body of the breath” I am feeling the touch of air as it fills my body, and then say “body of the breath” as I exhale and feel touch of air leave my body. Then, say “breath of the body” as I inhale and feel all the muscle tension and expansion and movement of the body that is involved opening the body for the in-breath. Finally, say “breath of the body” as I exhale and feel my lungs and chest fall to a resting, closed place. I have had some interesting experiences as I practice this meditation technique, but will post more if there is anything more I can share.

the sky was wet, so that cloud and blue ran together
The tea pot boiled too long and filled the room
the ill— illuminates
was was a blinding heat
and the sky poured,
the fog, it was water on leaves,
you couldn’t see but you could smell a heady brew,
stoking the light inside

I dream of cheerios

Its the end of the world again
And we have egg quiche with tea and coffee
made special with lots of bubbles
you need lots of bubbles and eggs because so many of them come to a bad end

If you find yourself at another edge of the world
and there is only one cheerio left in your bowl
one cheerio to rule them all
Ask yourself, friend, how would All behave, if they ruled but One?

The namelessness of everything

I have a few children’s books that are very precise about animals. Alina has learned to ask “what is that?” and expect an answer that is “real”: “thats a Northern Cardinal.” Some people feel really satisfied by knowing an animals “true” name. What I do when my daughter Alina demands something more than “thats a red bird” is “well people call it a Northern Cardinal, but this particular Northern Cardinal’s left leg is a little longer than his right, and there is no name for that.” Its like when Thich Nhat Hahn was asked by child “what color is that tree?” and his answer was “its the color that you see.” He explained that he didn’t want to replace the child’s experience of the tree with something else, a word, a concept. The Northern Cardinal visiting your yard is not a Northern Cardinal; it is the bird you see. The Buddha shrine is not an image of the Buddha. My Buddha statue in my house has a most unusual head, with a golden spike coming from the top and pointing up, and the rest of his head is black and knotted and bumpy, except for his face. If you forget it is an image of the Buddha, but an image of a human being not unlike yourself, you can learn a lot from this image. What can a bird or an ant teach you, about being a bird or an ant, if you forget what you think you know about them, like “what” they are by their name?

Look at a cockroach, for example. Imagine being a cockroach. Would you protect your life from a predator, and crawl below the surface of the sidewalk for shelter, even if it lead into the sewer? Of course you would, because you would think you’re life is good and worth protecting. This insight is not available to people who dismiss a cockroach with a technical name, or worse, try to kill them; both acts are ignorant. I invite you to pit yourself against the lives of cockroaches with all the conceptual knowledge necessary to kill as many as you can, and I hope after while you will see that the cockroach will find a shelter you cannot reach. It will survive all the names you give it, even “it”. For this, I am grateful to the cockroach.

Identity is important for logical reasoning. We have to have objects and identities for logical laws to be about something. Strangely, the laws themselves create the identities the laws are to be about, not the other way around. What I mean to say is, with the law of excluded middle (either it is p or it is not p): either a human is male or female, is a part of a human’s identity–  not because we went out and asked people what their identity was, but because logicians need us to be that simple, so they can depend on their logical laws, and publish what they think they know.

But the cost of the Law of excluded middle is a great cost. The knowledge we think we  gain is largely vapid and empty:


The law of excluded middle excludes every shade and color that can impress the soul. It is an about-face from any instructive experience that one could pay attention to. But the worst damage is the Law trivializes our thoughts into overly simple formulae.

The real number system has been painstakingly built and demonstrated logically because some people want to imagine that any point in space has a name. Maybe its name isn’t “one-third” or “0.2145…” exactly: you could make other sounds with your body’s inside noises. The point they want to make is that these points in space can be singled out with some name or other. If you would like to see how this attempt fails, I direct you to my essay Many Roads from the Axiom of Completeness (2013). The desire behind identity, regardless of what bodily inside noise you use to designate that identity, is extended here to other things besides numbers.

Also, it is good to be reminded that all the names we know are not any real kind of knowledge, even if one already knows that “in name”.

The woodpecker is a kind of borderline case because it is both a name and a description. Even for these types of names, seeing, hearing, smelling this woodpecker peck wood is real knowledge. The animals don’t need those names, they don’t need the name woodpecker to peck wood. People who like to watch or care for animals will already know a lot more about what its like to peck wood, and don’t need those names. Its the person who clings to this type of “knowledge” that needs them. People think they are doing a good thing, even an ethical thing, by calling each thing by their “proper name”. They can get rather righteous about it, but actually they are only clinging to an ill founded desire, or needing, to know names that that are of no consequence. The name Northern Cardinal is of no consequence. Recognizing this bird, its relationships to others you have seen, and understanding it, the way I tried to understand a cockroach above, this bird’s condition, way of behaving and expressing, regardless of what you decide to call it, that is real knowledge.


I have something to say
And the old words show a way
But the way I am bound
There are no words to be found.

Gotta unthink the unthinkable
A hope, another lie
Its a different point of view
The liar said he would fly, and then he flew.

Hard bind like a railroad line
Face the race and step out of place, yeah
Hear the bell rhyme
In the middle of your mind

Our poem crows a broken joy
That’s changed all its lines
So I built this shrine with the help of Father Time


The limit of the question

Once I was speaking with my step-father and he told me about how the Buddha attempted to describe the size of an atom by comparing the sizes of things available to the senses, and multiplying that relative smaller size many times. My step-father was convinced that the Buddha knew the size of an atom and had got it in line with scientific knowledge on the subject. Whether or not Buddha got it right in this case I think is beside the point. The point is that the Buddha went no further than this. He described a smallest particle and asserted that it was smallest– atomic. This is not in line with the current scientific attitude. They find a smallest particle and then the race continues to find yet a smaller one.

I believe the Buddha stopped at his smallest particle and looked no further for purely ethical reasons. He was putting a limit over the domain that he would protect with his religion and his dhamma. He didn’t say so, but going further, or smaller, than his smallest particle, as an act of body, speech or mind, puts you outside his protection and his teaching.

Now we turn to the consequences of our splitting the atom– first with mind, then with speech, and finally with body, we put the entire world in danger of going up in flame. In our case, the Buddha’s teaching on heedfulness is in a sense largely unhelpful, because the fear and peril of nuclear war is paralyzing. And yet scientists seem to believe that continuing their inquiry further and further to ever smaller particles would somehow save us, rather than just put us in more danger. I don’t think scientists have anything reasonable on why their pursuits should not just put us in more danger. Danger of poisoning our water, our land, danger of WMD, pandemics. Quantum computers are great, but what about Quantum bombs? News treats scientific “progress” with wonderful possibilities for technologies, but rarely treats the way a new idea can be misused and misinterpreted to serve people who are less well-meaning than the truth-devoted ideal scientist. When will we stop uncritically allowing scientific ideas into our societies?

And the question may be put to the Sangha, whether the threat of nuclear war, which seems rather abstract involving particles I can’t see and causal relations between presidents and cultures of people I am removed from; whether this threat that I may at any time go up in flame or some of my friends may burn, or that my friends might feel the pain of their friends dying in fire, is relevant to the here and now? In other words, is it Dhamma; is it a real threat? Is fear of it justified? It may seem that we should just pay attention to what is before us and pretend that splitting subatomic particles just isn’t, in the present moment, a real problem. If we do that, and end up burning, should we look to our past karma as the cause, and not the strange modern predicament that we hear about on the news? It seems that this is a clear impasse between Buddhism and modern society, and that “what is relevant?” “What is Dhamma?” is actually in question, rather than immanently apparent.

There is no service in denouncing scientists for their actions in creating WMDs, nor is there service in finding fault in Buddhist doctrine in how it helps or hurts us in our current plight.

The serviceable question is what do we do now, that we have irrevocably put ourselves in such a danger that heedfulness, inquiry, and knowledge are no longer unequivocally good.

I believe what we should do is to inquire into where the ethical limits of our knowledge ought to be. Obviously, subatomic particles in isolation, as particles of an atom, should be recognized as an unethical idea. It does not matter if subatomic particles are “true” or “real.” Any lie is “real enough” or has some truth in it, otherwise it would not see the light of day. Realizing that any lie has truth in it is unhelpful, it is a realization that will do more harm than good, even though it is true. In the same sense, a subatomic particle is a terrible lie, or a harmful truth, and, as Buddha must have realized, we must set a boundary against inquiry in this direction. We have enough technology to feed us and care for us. What we need is the sanity to recognize we have enough food (and to start sharing it); to recognize how small is small enough, how much truth us truth enough (and how little truth constitutes a lie), how much heedfulness, inquiry and knowledge is enough, when to speak of truths, and when a truth should remain unspoken, and left outside our motivations for action. After all, using small technical words such as subatomic particle restricts our speech to only a vary small aspect of the world. In other words, it is more unreal than real, less about the world and more about something else.

The wisdom of the Buddha is seen most powerfully in recognizing when he chose to be silent. He was silent on all things except on how to end suffering for oneself. The time to thoughtfully and powerfully set limits on scientists’ ability to invade one’s own thought, speech and acts is overdue. The noises we make should not be an endless refinement of technical language on ever-refined “particles” or “quanta,” but noises that quiet the noise. The sound of the singing bowl is one such noise.

I believe my book is another such noise.

Spirals within Spirals

You can reduce two-dimensional space to one-dimensional space by assuming the two-dimensional space is shaped like a spiral, if we don’t have completeness in our number system. This is because any point, on an appropriate number-system, and on, say, a piece of paper, could be described by a single length.

For three dimensions it is also possible, if you imagine a spiral going around a sphere from top to bottom, widening after it circles the sphere and turns around following a similar pattern back up, etc. It is possible to describe any point in 3-space with a single length.

Time is usually the one dimension that can describe everything, but space can be reduced to one dimension too.

Bravery, Perfection, Skepticism

“If you’re going to do it over-do it, that’s how you know you’re alive” -Ani Difranco

So we see famous people over-doing it all the time. Published works are generally over-done, or they wouldn’t be published. It falls under the general ailment of American society, seen in abundance in my field of mathematics, that technique replaces everything else. Substance, profundity, immanence, and what actually serves society, is replaced with attention to detail and over-work. And this ailment is ultimately driven by fear. People get convinced that they need attention, they come into the world with a job to do, a job that they’re good at, but because of an environment of competition, they are afraid that they’re work wont get done, because it will get ignored. A lot of things that are over-done don’t matter much. Nintendo? Game of Thrones? “Pro” wrestling? Some things that matter a lot are so over-done that they lose their potency, such as bills that are negotiated in the American government. They get rhetorical names, but their contents are like, I believe the metaphor the media likes is ground up sausage. Look at Obama-era health care bills. They managed to rearrange some things, it did help some people in very important, life-saving ways, and it made the private medical companies’ stocks go up. What was it? I admit I am not enough of a fanatic to find out, and if I were, the burden of communicating what I found would be immense. It was over-done to make it “dark.” People can be more easily manipulated, or forced into their already entrenched dogmas, because they don’t understand what is going on.

Is academia different? I’ve heard it said that academics are basically politicians, I would add that they tend to be more soft-spoken and polite politicians. Social constructivism is an obvious example, obvious because it is honest about being political. Other paradigms are just as political.

I have become convinced there is nothing new under the sun. Everything has been said at least indirectly. The things that really need to be said have been said before, but they need their expiration date renewed. The resistance to it, if its worth saying, will be actually be political, but the arguments will be technical, and if you want to get published while going against the stampeding herd, you have to be meticulous and over-do it. That is why “work” is an unassailable ideal in academia. Just call it “jobs” and you’re a politician.

One very important consequence of this system is that interdisciplinary works get ignored because they cannot follow the techniques of a given discipline as well as narrowly-focused work can.

I think Borge’s comparison of the Argentinian verses the US-American is apt. Borge’s says that to an Argentinian, a book that has received a reward might be good despite the reward, where US-Americans generally go by the New York Times bestseller award or others.

I offer a way out of this situation with two concepts: Bravery and Skepticism.

Skepticism is the attitude that helps the consumer, the path of being.

Bravery helps the creator, the path of doing

When you are doing things, don’t over do them. This takes skepticism as well as bravery. Eventually you have to say “this is not perfect, it is good enough” Care is a kind of fear. When you are careful in your work, you have to know when you are caring too much, when you just have to be brave and stop worrying over your work. That takes bravery because you have to face the attention you are going to get, however little that might be. You have to face a general attitude that works should be overdone and your work “doesn’t count” because it isn’t as meticulous as other works and doesn’t show the right technique. You have to face not getting published, and getting ignored. If you really chose the path of doing, this is hard to face, and it feels like you didn’t really accomplish anything.

But actually it is the only way to really accomplish anything, because instead of pursuing technique you can pursue other things.

People say technology has to be over-done, and we wouldn’t have our wonderful toys without our belief in technique. The drawbacks are obvious but not in focus: gadgets that depend on software that will only be supported for a few years, other gadgets that require specific replacement parts that wont be made for that long. The “designed obsolescence” concept doesn’t go far enough. The reason for all the trash is more embedded in our minds than that. I’d like to ask Darwin if he thinks we’ve won the competition.

Now the audience for your work that is not over-done is the rare skeptic. They are the ones who will recognize that it doesn’t have to be “out-done” with greater attention to detail, beyond its surface appearance. They will see and appreciate substance, immanence, profundity, and how it serves humanity beyond whether it “out-does.”


The skeptic viewpoint seems to point to a way of life where you do not interpret things. They make impressions on the soul, but you do not react by interpreting them.

I think this is not quite right. While it is true that the sweetness of the honey is truth enough for life in general, occasionally something happens that seems unusually significant. My belief is that in those times, such as a death or birth in the family, the event should be interpreted very carefully.

Sometimes, you decide to know, not for any other reason than the impression your soul gives you is that you ought to know. Now, when this happens, deciding to know has to be thought about carefully. For example, say you are cooking dinner for the people at a baby shower. You like some of the people coming and you don’t like others. So you cook a different dish according to who will eat it. It being a momentous occasion it appears to your soul that you ought to interpret what these foods mean, so you decide “the food for the people I don’t like will make them fat” and “the food for the people I do like will warm their heart and give them strength and courage” Now, the danger, as is always the danger when you decide to know something rashly, is that these decisions or interpretations get misused. The people you like eat the food they’re not supposed to eat; same for the people you don’t like. The invention of gasoline got misused, coal powerplants got misused, social constructivism got misused. That is why it seems to the skeptic its better not to decide.

I would differ in saying that deciding on an issue should be done with the utmost care. The example above is less momentous than an actual birth or death. As for my children and the death of my father, I have decided on certain meanings, but it took years of careful thought, and I am still revising my thoughts on what their births/deaths mean, to say nothing about their lives, which is a problem that seems to big to even begin working on, but I have begun. Life is a moving target, that is why it is so precious. If we could really know what it meant, it would signal our death.

This was how I learned I didn’t need a PhD. I remember vividly my advisor giving me permission to interpret, as if that were not something normally done by people. He said “You can interpret” a few times in succession, and it made me angry, but I didn’t show it. Of course I can interpret. I don’t need someone with a PhD to give me permission, and neither does anyone else. This person, who is in a powerful position as an academic disseminating ideas on how to teach physics to students, seems to believe otherwise.

But then sometimes I meet people who have been in love with the English language a long time, and they have entered into some kind of language-game, where each little word “OK” “Right” “See you later” has a fixed interpretation, as if the person doesn’t get to decide what they mean. This is another way that skepticism serves regular people, to help them escape the English language-games, which… how do I say except to quote George Orwell “English is in a bad way” Its not a language to play a language game with.  And if you think poetry is dead, it is simply because English is dead (or mathematics) for you. We need English poets to revive the remains.

As for an action plan, do not seek momentous occasions: wait for them, listen for them, and then, as the impression is such that knowing is required, carefully interpret so it does no harm. How momentous an occasion is depends on the wisdom of interpreter.

I imagine as we approach death smaller and smaller, seemingly mundane events will seem more and more momentous.

Death does not speak true

Who, dreaming, says so others can hear,
“I am dreaming”

And someone, dreaming, says only to herself
“It is raining”
When it is raining

She does not speak true

Even if her dreams were connected
With the noise of the rain.

And not knowing when I was in a dream, if I were to die
How could the manner of my death speak something true?
Would my death awaken something somewhere:
My daughter would look on my death and think
“He died dreaming”
“He spoke as he died, ‘I am dreaming’”

“Dying, he dreamed something true”

And if dreams speak true, are they a figment of the living?
What dreams in death, after the momentous death, could speak as finally a word,
Even in peace,
Mean as finally a meaning?

What if these were my last words?

“A Defense of Poetry Against the Mathematicians” (2019) ISBN 1688505717

Science and Happiness

There is a strange problem with ancient Skepticism, or Pyrrhonism, as it is described by the best authority, Sextus Empiricus.

I have to confess that several features of this account of how the Skeptic will achieve ataraxia and happiness through epoche [suspension of judgement] are very puzzling…Now the so-called “Modes of Epoche” give us an overview of the kinds of considerations that supposedly lead the Skeptics to adopt a pattern of life in which they live by the appearances and do not believe any assertions or theories about an external world. But it is striking that all but one of these Modes are concerned with questions having no immediate relevance to the domain of values; instead they have to do with such questions as whether the honey is really sweet, whether there really are invisible pores in the skin, whether things really have the shapes they appear to have, and so on. Only Aensidemus’s tenth Mode offers the sort of considerations that presumably bring the Skeptics to epoche as to whether things or actions are good, bad, or indifferent. Yet when (at PH 1.27f. and much more fully in M 11) Sextus gets down to the business of explaining in detail how epoche about the external world leads to ataraxia and happiness, he considers only value judgements. The Skeptic gives up any belief that judgements about good and evil have objective validity, and through his epoche in this limited area he achieves his ataraxia. Not even a hint is given of how the state of epoche on such matters as are considered in most of the Modes contributes to peace of mind. For these kinds of case we are left to conjecture that the relevant discomfort is perhaps the kind of frustration a biological scientist might feel at being unable to find the cause of cancer, or a physicist might feel at being unable to find a unified theory for all types of force.”p75-76 Mates 1996

Sextus Empiricus neglected to explain how scientific knowledge seems to be opposed to rest and peace of mind. I have already discussed that “science” (which has become too general and ambitious a word) uses as its ultimate concept that of work. Heidegger argues that it is work that prevents questioners from getting a word in edgewise. They are always “working on it” and, for now, we should content ourselves with the marvelous achievements we have, and not ask so many questions that they stop working.

It is exactly the Skeptic’s situation that asking questions has won out as the dominant attitude over any entrenched scientific doctrine. There are some opponents of Skepticism that say such an attitude amounts to paralysis, and if not paralysis then to behaving eccentrically, and if not that then at least a Skeptic would speak strangely. Sextus deals admirably with these objections in his Outlines of Pyrrhonism.

Further, we are told in several places (e.g., PH 1.191, 194, 207) that the Skeptic uses language (katachrestikos) “loosely” and does not join the Dogmatists in fighting over words or in seeking to use them with philosophic precision (kurios). In view of this we may conjecture that a sophisticated Pyrrhonist, following the ancient maxim of lathe biosas (“live in such a way as to escape notice”), would also be inclined to follow the advice to “think with the learned, but speak with the vulgar.””p72 Mates 1996

The way the Skeptic uses language is related to the problem at hand: how to show that scientific work is not conducive to rest and peace of mind, or of leading a happy life. How? Sextus says at the beginning of his Outlines  that

if the theory is so deceptive as to all but snatch away the appearances from under our very eyes, should we not distrust it in regard to the non-evident, and thus avoid being led by it into precipitate judgements?” p92 Sextus in Mates 1996

The Skeptic takes appearances as not open to question, so they are not nihilists. And they question doctrines that attempt to undermine appearances. Take the famous example of Sir Arthur Eddington (1928) on the term “solid.” As a scientist, he argued that a common table is not actually solid, because it is mainly made up of empty space. This goes against the table’s appearance of solidity, and was famously rebuked by Susan Stebbing (1937), who said that tables are things that help us know what we mean by “solid.” From a pragmatic point of view, a table is solid,

but Mates points out a problem with Skeptics in siding somewhat with the pragmatic use of words. He points out that at first we learn to say “the honey is sweet” and that is the correct and normal way of using language, while the Pyrrhonist would, at least a little later, assert that it merely appears to be sweet, and since this is not the way a child would normally use language immediately, it is a kind of abuse of language. To be more precise, Mates’ problem is that he thinks “the honey is sweet” and “it appears that the honey is sweet” are meant differently by a child. What exactly does a child means when she says honey is sweet? I would bet that the child is referring to an appearance, not a property of an external reality beyond such appearance, independent of a perceiving mind. The added word appears is merely a clarification for realists, not a modification of what a child means or how she uses language.

In other words, we were not born with the distinction between Berkleyan idealism and naive realism, and both suffice for the purposes of the child saying the honey is sweet. Indeed, that is the only way to really “go by appearances” as a child does, by experiencing the sweetness of honey without bothering about the realism or idealism (or both, or neither) of its appearance.

This leads directly to the central point that a scientific attitude is not a way that leads to very much happiness. When we study honey with a microscope so that we “know” things with the eye or with the mind about honey, so much that when we taste honey all we think about are these concepts and sights, not the taste, we miss the enjoyment in knowing the truth of this appearance of sweetness. Applied to our lives in general, the scientific attitude will quickly make us miserable. The way to know about the sweetness of honey is not any other way than to taste it yourself. Maybe an equivalent to a microscope can be invented for the tongue, and that would yield interesting, if warped, results, but is the world more enjoyable if we walk around with telescopes attached to our eyes?

Also maybe the difference between a scientist and a happy person is not so clear as this example, for take a wine connoisseur who can identify all the qualities of all the flavors of any particular wine. The question then becomes: does a wine connoisseur enjoy wine better than someone who is just really good at paying attention to taste and doesn’t know anything about wine or its ingredients?  The answer, under the economic principle of diminishing returns, is a resounding no. The wine connoisseur has tasted so many wines and has remembered and analyzed it so well that they do not enjoy it as much as they used to. In effect, they get burnt out, and the pleasure diminishes. The pleasure diminishes for the Pyrrhonist too, (it is doubtful she will taste wine as many times as a connoisseur) and she may learn to taste wine better, but the pleasure diminishes in a different way: the Pyrrhonist returns to ataraxia or dispassion and peace of mind because there is no identifying with or grasping for any “being,” there are only appearances. Without their external reality appearances are like water flowing through your fingers. Grasping after it is obviously futile. The Skeptic believes appearances are states of their soul, not external objects. So there is nothing to know more about, no endless searching to know and enjoy a tiny new thing about wine.

But this is the same with language use. The person who really enjoys language is not the analyzer-knower type, but the one who can appreciate vagueness. The person who enjoys the word solid uses it for a table, not a tiny particle. Not that particle is any less poetic than table: particle is still infinitely large compared to the infinitessimal, and the infinitessimal, which may escape being poetic, emerges as a piece of mysticism.

I hope this clears up Mates exasperation about Sextus not going into detail on why a scientist trying to cure cancer would not be as happy or have as much peace of mind as a Skeptic who has cancer. If the scientist didn’t have at least some skeptical approaches to life he would not taste honey, or feel the solidity of the world around him. The appearances of art would not be felt by him. Would you rather be him or the skeptic?

Of course, the idealized scientist doesn’t usually happen, and most scientists and other specialists move from their work to a more skeptical attitude at home or outside work. With a very flexible mind, a scientist could still be mostly a happy person. So this message is more for science education and communication. I had to argue with my mom that the things she sees in day to day life were more real than invisible particles. Sometimes people can’t live the skeptical life until they have reached the forefront of research in an area, just to confirm that appearances are just as good or better than the truths found in research. (example: me) I have to argue with my students to see the world of appearances. There have been projects such as logical positivism with a goal to make general language use more analytical and scientific. So the relevance of this argument has more to do with taking away the authority of the scientist to “discover” things that don’t appear to us, and giving appearances back to regular people, even if that makes the job of the scientist less valued and harder to communicate. We should educate and communicate with science in a way that empowers regular people and makes them happy, that is more important that the work of science.