Sometimes It Is Easier to Be Ignorant

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Arguably one of the most famous quotes attributed to Socrates is “The unexamined life is not worth living”. It is the type of quote we have grown to expect from such as deep and contemplative thinker. Is this truly the best advice for the average person? Not that I would ever veer into the territory of philistinism, but is every aspect of life worth examining? Better yet, are such intellectual endeavors even productive for the average person?  I would argue no. Not because I seek to celebrate ignorance, nor do I lack faith in the intellectual capacity of my friends and neighbors. Sometimes knowledge is more trouble than it is worth. Everyone is familiar with the colloquialism “curiosity killed the cat”. As simplistic and folksy as that old saying might be. It does contain a grain of truth. In the pursuit of knowledge, we risk becoming jaded and overwhelmed by some of the more unpleasant aspects of reality.

Do you remember the disappointment you felt we discovered Santa Clause wasn’t real? Even worse, your parents’ marriage was nothing more than a sham? These examples may seem trivial but applied to grander questions they can make someone very skeptical. Skeptical to such an extent it brings them to the brink of an existential crisis. If you have devoted your life to political activism and you come across a few Public Choice articles regarding voting, you will grapple with your sense of identity. Being told that your vote carrying any weight is nothing more than an illusion is difficult to pill to swallow. Especially much of your sense of self and principles are derived from believing you have sway over political issues. Therefore, it isn’t necessarily prudent to want to dissect all of the mysteries of the universe. Even if it is a lie, sometimes that one lie is what helps people cope with the difficulties of life.

Looking too deeply into an issue is generally counterproductive at most jobs. The ability to extrapolated basic logic is generally rewarded. To overthink an issue, will cost your employer and customer time and money. Utilizing reason to more efficiently perform a task is conducive to being a “good employee”. Pondering the large philosophical questions at work eats into productivity. Also, getting so philosophical that you question the entire veracity of the enterprise of your employer’s goals or metrics will not win you any friends. Overtly questioning your superior’s decisions in Socratic prose will award you with some unfortunate adversaries. Speaking of friends, you will not be making very many. Most of your co-workers will think you are weird for not accepting the prima facie assumptions of our world. In most cases, avoid you like the plague. For all the philosophy majors currently working retail, at call centers, offices, etc. I feel for you. Your love of wisdom and truth can effectively alienates you from your peers.

Outside of the pursuit of knowledge destroying your coveted illusions and making you something of a misfit, is another issue, you can never put the genie back in the bottle. Once you have seen the truth, it might be enlightening, but you never look at the world the same way again. I do not personally subscribe to the new-age movement, but many who do talking about opening their third-eye. In most instances, these individuals will tell you don’t open your third-eye if you like your life the way it is. Why?  Once you have become enlightened, it is a point of no return. You can’t unlearn the secrets of the universe. You will never enjoy the pleasures of binge-watching reality television after a bad day at work if you have learned it is nothing more than a farce. Speaking of your job, the stable nine to five, you might want to quit your job because you figure out it is pointless. Decided to take on the risk of becoming an entrepreneur in an attempt to find a meaningful vocation. This is a lot of disruption for one person, especially if they are more than content with keeping the status quo intact.

I have never attempted to open my third-eye. However, I love to study philosophy and political economy. Once you have opened Pandora’s box of uncommon knowledge you will begin to crave it. Much like tapping into a deeper sense of consciousness, you can never see the world the same way again. Leading to some conflicts. I find it more and more difficult to care about my day job. I am a proponent of capitalism and all, however, I know there are better ways to make a living. I will never have the same work ethic I had before my independent study of the large questions. It was much easier to keep my nose down and get my job done back when I was ignorant. Demonstrating that it can be maladaptive for some people to reflect upon vast questions such as the quiddity of existence.

The process of seeking wisdom is never easy. Whether the actual pursuit is what makes a man weary or it’s the consequence of not being able to cherry-pick the pleasant truths from the unpleasant ones. This is why it can sometimes be a lonely path. For those who are inclined to take up the challenge, it is the only path. Despite the downsides of pursuing truth, knowledge, and wisdom in an imprudent world, for some, this is their only true calling. They are the ones who seek daylight when everyone else opts to remain in the cave. It is important to remember that pursuing truth does have its pitfall beyond misconstruing it. One excerpt from Plato’s Republic that encapsulates this point beautifully. It was about Socrates’ telling of the Allegory of the Cave in the book:  

            Therefore, even if a person should compel him to look to the light

            Itself, would he not have the pain in his eyes and shun it, and then,

            turning what he really could behold, reckon these as really more clear

            than what had been previously pointed out? (p.235).

That is it. The truth can be inconvenient. The truth could even unravel the very fabric of our being. Especially if it is predicated upon a false sense of identity or a flimsy house of cards built upon numerous lies. Much like almost all of the other cave dwellers in Socratic allegory chose to ignore the truth. Most of society elects to do the same. Similar to the discomfort experienced when our eyes adjust to direct sunlight, it can also be uncomfortable to be confronted with the unadulterated truth.

What is Good, Tends to be Good in Moderation

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Aristotle was a thinker who sought to bring order to thinking. Hence, his emphasis on distinctions and categories. This need to establish order also extended to personal conduct.  Proclaiming moderation to be a core pillar of proper deportment. Beliving it was an indispensable aspect of living a virtuous life. Those of us well versed in history can’t help, but see how far the latter days of the Roman Empire strayed from moderation. At the apogee of Rome’s profligate spending on foreign wars; the wine was flowing and orgies were in full swing. Not to mention grotesquely gluttonous overconsumption being decadently flaunted. Banquet-style bulimia, does this seem appealing to anyone? Clearly, none of these excesses were healthy physically, financially, or psychologically.  Making Aristotle’s emphasis on moderation clear even from the standpoint of a consequentialist.

 

 

Aristotle believed that we should want what is good. What is good is universal to all people as there is only one correct true plan (Adler. 1978. P. 82) [1]. How can this be true if every person has a diverse array of wants and needs? We need to distinguish between “wants” and “needs”.  Our needs are always good for us. Moderate amounts of food, clothing, shelter, and the pursuit of knowledge does little in the way of harm. However, our needs can be “misdirected” (Adler. 1978. P. 87-88) [2]. If I want a cigarette to experience the temporary effects of nicotine, that is clearly a want. Nicotine is not essential to life. To compound matters, wanting to smoke a cigarette is a misdirected want. As the effects of smoking are severely detrimental to healthwise.

 

In order to be physically healthy, we do require some material wealth. After all, clothing, food, water, and housing are not free. External goods such as wealth and food have diminishing returns (Adler, 1978, P.96) [3]. Once we have our needs satisfied, anything else is gratuitous. Aristotle did express that internal needs (psychological) such as the pursuit of knowledge could not be overindulged. Making it imperative that we exercise restrain (Adler, 1978, P.99) [4].  Devolving into excess clearly has well-defined consequences. Drinking too much is injurious to our health. Much like sexual promiscuity. Overspending is damaging from a financial perspective. Observing how the roman republic veered away from virtue in its latter days of it is easy to see how its collapse was inevitable. You can only stretch the limits of the natural order for so long without negative consequences. When we overextend pleasure, pain is bound to follow.

 

The question becomes is how do we avoid the long road to self-destruction? As you can imagine Aristotle did have an answer.  That was to practice the virtues of temperance and courage. Temperance being able to resist overindulgence. Courage being the proclivity to endure necessary pain (Adler, 1978, P.103) [5]. Temperance is quite self-explanatory to avoid being hedonic. Maybe avoiding that MDMA-fueled orgy would be a prudent decision. Courage isn’t quite so obvious. Pain is a part of life. That can be physical or psychological pain. Those of us who are more reserved find social situations to be daunting. If we want that promotion we need to get out of our comfort zone and network with our fellow co-workers.  Making that discomfort requisite pain for a greater good. Even through the process of leaning, we experience pain (Adler, 1978, P.105) [6]. The anxiety of grappling with difficult academic material. The payoff of enduring such discomfort is much greater than the temporary relief of avoiding it.

 

We are not an island. Our decisions and choices impact society as a whole. The virtue of justice is concerned with the wellbeing of others. Our choices do directly impact others in ways that are detrimental to them. Making it imperative that we behave responsibly (Adler, 1978, P. 107-108) [7]. If we choose to drink too much and then drive home, we impact people. Suppose that due to our compromised state we happen to hit and kill a pedestrian crossing the road. This one bad decision will set off a cascade of pain and anguish throughout the community. The pedestrian was a husband and a father. Now an entire family is devasted. The man we killed was the town butcher. Now all of the employees that worked for him no longer have a job. As you can see one bad decision has a long-reaching ripple effect.  It also displays how we need to try to veer towards virtue. If we fall prey to excess, we do not only hurt ourselves. To some extent, we hurt everybody.

Form and Purpose- Aristolian Thought

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Here are some more insights from the Classical philosopher and master of taxonomy, Aristotle. Aristotle draws a sharp contrast between what is a byproduct of human ingenuity and that of nature. He had four main causes or parameters that need to be met in the consideration of constructing manmade goods. These considerations included:

 

Material Cause: that out of which something is made.

Efficient Cause: that by which something is made.

Formal Cause: that into which something is made.

Final  Cause: that for the sake of which something is made.

(Adler, 1978, P. 42) [1].

 

The Formal Cause gives way to the essence of the object that is produced. For example, the “carness” of an automobile. The quiddity of an object possesses all of the enduring attributes specific to the category of a car ” … every size, shape, color…” and so on. Even when confronted with the Formal cause of an object. The other causes also play a role in contributing to the nature of an object such as the Material Cause. An operable automobile constructed out of loose-leaf paper seems like an impossibility, if not an outright oddity. These four defining principles are what “transform” or shape the object (Adler, 1978, P. 43) [2].

 

Now that we have described the core attributes of what contributes to an object’s form, let’s go a little deeper. As if this wasn’t abstract enough. What about the object that is formless?  It possesses the potential for all forms but lacks resemblance to any material form. Existing as a contradiction. From an Aristotelian point a view there is no such contradiction. Because such an object cannot exist beyond the confines of our imagination. It can be only hypothetical or conceptual (Adler, 1978, P. 53-54) [3]. Every object and entity physically existing on this planet has a form. That includes even all existing entities that are a byproduct of nature. Even objects in the nascent stage of development or construction have a form. To exist without in the physical world without a form is self-nullifying. Without a form, an object cannot be an actuality.

 

If we review the four causes posited by Aristotle, we see that an object’s purpose is implied in its physical form. For any object produced by man, its utility is generally self-evident. In other words, its Final Cause is salient. It would be superfluous to pontificate over the purpose of a chair. When we examine objects and entities of the natural world their functionality isn’t so obvious. Which is understandable as they are not an invention of human thinking. Typically, their functionality is revealed through rigorous study. Biologists provide a great deal of insight into the Formal Cause of the objects and lifeforms of the natural world. Each component as an integral role in stabilizing the ecosystem. The environment much like any other complex system is highly sensitive. If any link in the intricate chain is broken every other aspect is impacted. For instance, predators generally operate as a safeguard against overpopulation. Which implicitly operates as a form of resource conservation. If the predator is eliminated from the food chain resource equilibrium will be askew. Leading to other complications.

 

This example demonstrates how nothing exists haphazardly. Generally, the function is implied in the physical form. This is also true in the natural world. Most phenotypical attributes exhibited by animals has an adaptive purpose from an evolutionary standpoint. The bright colors of a frog in the rainforest is a signal to potential predators of their prospective meal being poisonous. Whether this is a true indicator or mimicry is inconsequential. Either way, the bright colors function as a deterrent. I am not veering to an argument for Intelligent Design. Regardless of how this adaptive attribute came into existence, it has an operable purpose. Whether it manifested through design or chance of the evolutionary vicissitudes. Even this interpretation of phenotypical expression could be subject to scrutiny.

 

The main point here is that nothing exists without a purpose. All physically existing entities have a form. That physical form implies purpose. This alone does not relegate man to the superficial purpose of mere subsistence. The human brain is competent within man’s physical form. The human brain is capable of astonishingly profound insights, innovations, inventions, and complex reasoning. Our higher existential pursuits are an aspect of man’s purpose. Otherwise, we would not possess the organic operating system for such pursuits.

 

 

An Object and its Attributes- An Aristotelian Observation

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Few thinkers can be described as profound, prolific, and enduring. Needless to say, all of these characteristics apply to the thought of Aristotle.  Few would ever truly acknowledge his contributions to biology. Aristotle was a master of taxonomy. Rigorously examining defining characteristics of a specific category. Categories extending from entities from the physical world to the metaphysical world. This may be a careless oversimplification, he was great at labeling groups of objects, ideas, people, animals, etc.

 

We could simply state that Aristotle’s fixation on category was somewhat superfluous. Even go so far to call it pointless. I would vehemently disagree. We as humans think in language. Categories operating as a natural corollary of language. Language in of itself is a category. A category of a specified system of human communication. While many people claim that categorization is either unnecessary or problematic, it is an inevitable proclivity of human thinking. Even in a broad sense we subconsciously place ideas, objects, locations, people into categories. Categories to some extent operate as a tool to better navigate the world and to engage in higher-level thinking. Classification brings order to thought. To indignantly vilify the act of labeling things due to the social stigma surrounding specific designations is shortsighted. Without structure, stray thoughts are aimless and do not form anything comprehensive. So yes, we do need to put a label on it. Unlike your son’s last girlfriend.

 

Beyond cognitive organization, categories are helpful in other ways. To fit into a specific category, the object must possess certain immutable attributes that define this specific label. The quiddity or essence of the stone. Some are large, some are small, some are smooth, and so on.  However, despite these superficial differences each stone possesses defining characteristics that categorically specific. Here is where Aristotle comes in. He sharply defines the difference between the categorical object and its attributes. The distinction between “body” and “characteristics” (Adler, 1978, P.12) [1]. The “body” whether conceptual or physical is the corpus of all constant characteristics of an entity in a specific category. For example, all of the defining attributes that all dogs possess constitute the categorical “body” of a dog. The characteristics of the dog or attributes are much more dynamic. Unlike the categorical “body” of the essence of a dog, it is subject to change (Adler, 1978, P.13) [2].

 

It is clear how Aristotle places the line of demarcation between uniform traits of a category and those that vary. A rough stone can be polished then it is no longer rough, but smooth. The texture of a stone being rough is certainly not a defining trait of the essence of the stone. Seemingly when the characteristic is altered it does operate on a continuum. It replaces the previous attribute.  Call me foolhardy to question one of the greatest minds of Western Philosophy, however, this appears to lack some nuance. Does the new characteristic replace the old one? Because we live in an imperfect and imprecise world there isn’t a golden-mean for defining qualitative attributes. The problem becomes when is a previously rough stone polished to the point of being smooth? That is a potential flaw I see in perceiving fluid traits in a total category rather than sequential gradations. Which “smooth” and “rough” are definitive descriptions of texture the exist on a scale. It is a matter of degree The extent to which a surface is “soft”, “hard”, “smooth” is held captive by subjective perception. Which at times can lead to faulty interpretations of the characteristics of the surface. For example, in the instance of tactile hallucinations.

 

It could be said that the defining difference between two fluid characteristics suffers from the Sorites Paradox. When does a rough stone become smooth? In the absence of any quantitative parameters, we need to rely on common consensus. If the majority of people would agree with a surface of a polished stone being smooth, then that is the proper attribute. Not that all because the majority of people agree with this notion makes it correct. When effect with a lack of any objective criteria how else are we to approach the problem? The best course of action would be to take an average composite of subjective evaluations of a specific characteristic for the best approximate answer. Unfortunately, it is still an imprecise standard. However, better than a survey of one subjective observation.

 

The very fact that I can veer into this direction reinforces the importance of fixed categories. Even fixed categories with loose parameters can be subject to scrutiny.  Therefore, having a strong distinction between the fixed and dynamic features of a categorical object. Without boundaries, we devolve into aimless thinking. Which is incapable of solving algebraic equations much less pontificating upon the larger questions of existence. Being able to organize thought is a crucial feature of higher-level thinking. Hence why you tend to witness fleeting and fractional thoughts from young children. Outside of the limitations of a 4-year old’s attention span, they are still developing their sense of category. What distinguishes one object from another. What remains constant in similar objects. If we did not have categories even at the conceptual level nothing would exist in a context. Making everything aimless and boundless.

 

 

 

We are all Ignorant and That is Okay- Wise Words from Socrates

 

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One of the oldest epistemological problems is how do we obtain true wisdom. To reach a state of wisdom we must amass a substantial amount of knowledge. How do we distinguish true knowledge from misconceptions and opinions in our pursuit of the virtuous ideal? I have often asked myself what is the difference between common sense and ignorant old “wives’ tales”?  Same principle different wording. Both inquiries reflect the larger premise. How do that the knowledge I have obtained is true knowledge?

 

The renowned classical philosopher Socrates believed he had the answer. That was to acknowledge the limits of your knowledge. However, he did this to the extreme. This principle has been enshrined in the Socratic Admission of Ignorance. Professing to know nothing being of the highest virtue. This is counter intuitive considering we would expect a man anointed as the father of Western Philosophy to have answers. Certainly, a man proclaimed by the oracle at Delphi as the wisest man on the planet would know something? (Silvermintz, 2020, P.11) [1]. Conversely, maybe it takes a supremely wise man to see his knowledge deficits. Rather than blithely putting on the pretense that he knows more than what he does. Reflecting upon the Hayekian Pretense of Knowledge. The hubris that has consistently foiled the plans and aspirations of central planners. Would Hayek have ever formulated such a concept without any Socratic precursors?

 

Perhaps, a truly wise individual sees the process of learning as a continual process. Not a linear destination, that once reached it cannot be expanded upon. It is an ongoing search. Especially when we are confronted with the fact that there is too much knowledge for one person to possess. Making education a lifelong process. We need to be open to this fact of reality. To some capacity, we need to humble ourselves and be honest about what knowledge we lack. In the example of the central planner, admitting that they do not know what the long-term impact of rent control will be on the housing market. Here is where the Socratic omission comes into play, acquiesce the fact that you truly do not know. Socrates claimed that we do not possess any precise knowledge other than that of our ignorance. This may seem somewhat gratuitous. Isn’t it enough to admit our ignorance on topics that we do not have any expertise?  Socrates was arguably an “expert” when it came to virtue yet he still claimed to be ignorant true virtue.

 

“ “I am wiser than this man,” as Socrates says of one of Athens’ respected politicians, “for neither of us knows anything fine and good, but this man thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas I, as I do not know anything, do not think I do, either” (Apology 21d). (Silvermintz, 2020, P.11) [2].”

 

This does seem like an outlandishly absurd thing for a man who has decided his life to morality to claim. It is important to note that while the truth isn’t fluid, what our perception of truth is. Old scientific theories are often debunked by new evidence. Social norms change in-lock step with the evolution of our social morality. For example, it is the abolition of slavery. A practice that was at one time viewed as being appropriate. Then years later was viewed as being immoral. However, was it ever truly moral? Through admitting to being ignorant of everything Socrates sidesteps this fatal error. Through claiming ignorance we have the freedom to reevaluate social practices without being labeled as a hypocrite. Beyond our reputation it also enables us the foresight to examine and abolish moral practices. If we believe we are on the moral high ground we are less apt to be critical of our current customs. By place an air of doubt around all knowledge we are enabling the flexibility for necessary revisions. Doubt is what gives malleability to the scientific claims. It also is what makes the U.S. Constitution a governing charter that grows with the country. Rather than keeping the U.S. held captive by the sins of the past. In my estimate, both the scientific method and the founding principles of the United States owes gratitude to Socratic thinking.

 

Socrates questioning the validity of everything helps delineate true knowledge from opinions (Silvermintz, 2020, P.11) [3] In our mind, we often conflate opinion with fact. How often is advocacy for political policies based on facts?  Infrequently. In the mind of the advocate, their position on the issue is the only correct stance.  This separation is an important one to make. It is a common fallacy to combine facts with opinions and to present opinions as facts. An increasingly prevalent problem in the area of news reporting. Whether a news outlet is right-leaning or left-leaning they do more editorializing than presenting the information. Making it impossible to be informed after watching the evening news. Rather we are inculcating ourselves with partisan talking points. Providing another modern example of why the Socratic Admission of Ignorance is still pertinent.

 

Over the years, people have taken liberties with ethics.  Some could argue since the advent of modern philosophy pragmatism has slowly come to supplant true ethics. People are starting to see morality from more of a subjective point. Per a 2015 survey, 74% of all millennials surveyed agreed with the only true truth is doing what works best for you (Silvermintz, 2020, P.11) [4]. Rejection of there being a true morality or ethics is profoundly problematic. Naked pragmatism can lead to a litany of reprehensible policies. Past regimes have utilized pragmatism to justify genocide. Morality is far from being black and white. However, that does not mean morality is relative. Treating morality as relative can be calamitous for humanity as a whole.