Seek pleasure and avoid pain. Why make it more complicated?
- The Epicureans were some of the world's first materialists and argued that there is neither God, nor gods, nor spirits, but only atoms and the physical world.
- They believed that life was about finding pleasure and avoiding pain and that both were achieved by minimizing our desires for things.
- The Epicurean Four Step Remedy is advice on how we can face the world, achieve happiness, and not worry as much as we do.
Self-help books are consistently on the best-seller lists across the world. We can't seem to get enough of happiness advice, wellness gurus, and life coaches. But, as the Book of Ecclesiastes says, there is nothing new under the sun. The Ancient Greeks were into the self-help business millennia before the likes of Dale Carnegie and Mark Manson.
Four schools of ancient Greek philosophy
From the 3rd century BCE until the birth of Jesus, Greek philosophy was locked into an ideological war. Four rival schools emerged, each proclaiming loudly that they — alone — had the secret to a happy and fulfilled life. These schools were: Stoicism, Cynicism, Skepticism, and Epicureanism. Each had their advocates and even had a kind of PR battle to get people to sign up to their side. They were trying to sell happiness.
Epicurus's guide to living is noticeably different from a lot of modern self-help books in just how little day-to-day advice it gives.
Many of us are familiar with Stoicism, a topic I covered recently, because it forms the foundation of cognitive behavioral therapy. Skepticism and Cynicism have become watered down or warped variations of their original forms. (I will cover these in future articles.) Today, we focus on the most underappreciated of these schools, the Epicureans. In their philosophy, we can find a surprisingly modern and easy-to-follow "Four Part Remedy" to life.
Epicureans: The first atheists
The Epicureans were some of history's first materialists. They believed that the world was made up only of atoms (and void), and that everything is simply a particular composition of these atoms. There were no gods, spirits, or souls (or, at most, they're irrelevant to the world as we encounter it). They thought that there was no afterlife or immortality to be had, either. Death is just a relocation of atoms. This atheism and materialism was what the Christian Church would later come to despise, and after centuries of being villainized by priests, popes, and church doctrine, the Epicureans fell out of fashion.
In the atomistic, worldly philosophy of the Epicureans, all there is to life is to get as much pleasure as you can and avoid pain. This isn't to become some rampant hedonist, staggering from opium dens to brothels, but concerns the higher pleasures of the mind.
Epicurus, himself, believed that pleasure was defined as the satisfying of a desire, such as when we drink a glass of water when we're really thirsty. But, he also argued that desires themselves were painful since they, by definition, meant longing and anguish. Thirst is a desire, and we don't like being thirsty. True contentment, then, could not come from creating and indulging pointless wants but must instead come from minimizing desire altogether. What would be the point of setting ourselves new targets? These are just new desires that we must make efforts to satisfy. Thus, minimizing pain meant minimizing desires, and the bare minimum desires were those required to live.
The Four Part Remedy
Given that Epicureans were determined to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, they developed a series of rituals and routines designed to help. One of the best known (not least because we've lost so much written by the Epicureans) was the so-called "Four Part Remedy." These were four principles they believed we ought to accept so that we might find solace and be rid of existential and spiritual pain:
1. Don't fear God. Remember, everything is just atoms. You won't go to hell, and you won't go to heaven. The "afterlife" will be nothingness, in just the same way as when you had no awareness whatsoever of the dinosaurs or Cleopatra. There was simply nothing before you existed, and death is a great expanse of the same timeless, painless void.
2. Don't worry about death. This is a natural corollary of Step 1. With no body, there is no pain. In death, we lose all of our desires and, along with them, suffering and discontent. It's striking how similar in tone this sounds to a lot of Eastern, especially Buddhist, philosophy at the time.
3. What is good is easy to get. Pleasure comes in satisfying desires, specifically the basic, biological desires required to keep us alive. Anything more complicated than this, or harder to achieve, just creates pain. There's water to be drunk, food to be eaten, and beds to sleep in. That's all you need.
4. What is terrible is easy to endure. Even if it is difficult to satisfy the basic necessities, remember that pain is short-lived. We're rarely hungry for long, and sicknesses most often will be cured easily enough (and this was written 2300 years before antibiotics). All other pains often can be mitigated by pleasures to be had. If basic biological necessities can't be met, then you die — but we already established there is nothing to fear from death.
Epicurus's guide to living is noticeably different from a lot of modern self-help books in just how little day-to-day advice it gives. It doesn't tell us "the five things you need to do before breakfast" or "visit these ten places, and you'll never be sad again." Just like it's rival school of Stoicism, Epicureanism is all about a psychological shift of some kind.
Namely, that psychological shift is about recognizing that life doesn't need to be as complicated as we make it. At the end of the day, we're just animals with basic needs. We have the tools necessary to satisfy our desires, but when we don't, we have huge reservoirs of strength and resilience capable of enduring it all. Failing that, we still have nothing to fear because there is nothing to fear about death. When we're alive, death is nowhere near; when we're dead, we won't care.
Practical, modern, and straightforward, Epicurus offers a valuable insight to life. It's existential comfort for the materialists and atheists. It's happiness in four lines.
Spirituality can be an uncomfortable word for atheists. But does it deserve the antagonism that it gets?
- While the anti-scientific bias of religious fundamentalism requires condemnation, if we take a broader view, does the human inclination towards spiritual practice still require the same antagonism? The answer, I think, is a definitive "No."
- Rather than ontological claims about what exists in the universe, the terms spiritual and sacred can describe the character of an experience. Instead of a "thing" they can refer to an attitude or an approach.
- One can be entirely faithful to the path of inquiry and honesty that is science while making it one aspect of a broader practice embracing the totality of your experience as a human being in this more-than-human world.
The tension between science and religion is old news to us moderns. Historical events like the Catholic Church's trial of Galileo or the Scopes Monkey Trial over teaching Darwin in schools, seem to imply that religion and science are incompatible. More recently, writers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and other 'New Atheists' have been vigorous in their condemnation of the anti-scientific bias of religious fundamentalism. But if we take a broader view beyond these fundamentalisms, if we ask about the human inclination towards spiritual practice in general, do we still have to find the same antagonism? The answer, I think, is a definitive "No." And that answer is important as we consider the totality of what it means to be human.
First, it's important to distinguish between religion and what I'll call spiritual practice. In his excellent book "Sapiens," Yuval Noah Harari defines religion as "a system of human norms and values that is founded in the belief in a superhuman order." There are two parts of this definition that are important for our discussion. First is the "system of human norms." That phrase points to a lot of stuff, but it also means politics. There is an aspect of organized religion that has always been about establishing and enforcing social norms: Who is an authority; who justifies who is in charge; who marries whom; who tells you how to behave. This aspect of religion is about power within social hierarchies.
The second part of Harari's definition refers to a "superhuman order." Note that he does not say a "supernatural" order. Why? Because some religions like Buddhism don't pivot around the existence of an all-powerful deity. This distinction is important because it allows you to see a point many scholars of religion have made after looking at the long human history of what I'll call spiritual endeavor. From our beginnings as hunter-gathers, we have always been responding to a sense of a "superhuman order." That response has taken many different forms from beautiful paintings on cave walls to beautiful paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Even though I consider myself an atheist, experiences of a superhuman order have been with me since I was a kid.
In my first book, I looked in depth at this response, its history, and its relation to science. Even though I consider myself an atheist, experiences of a superhuman order have been with me since I was a kid. Heck, that's what science was to me—an order expressible in mathematics beyond the purely human. In fact, many of my deepest experiences of being alive had come to me through my scientific practice. Working through some line of mathematical reasoning or encountering some image of a nebula or galaxy, I'd get thrust into an overwhelming sense of the universe's presence, of its perfect unity and wholeness. At first, I saw the laws of physics as the source of that order but as I got older my focus widened.
Now, one could say that my experiences were "just awe" and nothing more. But as the great scholar of religion, Rudolph Otto noted, awe is the essential component of a spiritual experience. It is an encounter with what other scholars have called "sacredness."
So, what are we to make of these words "spiritual" and "sacred"? Some strident atheists recoil at these terms because they believe they must entail a belief in supernatural entities. This is a mistake. Both can point to something much broader. Rather than ontological claims about what exists in the universe, spiritual and sacred can describe the character of an experience. Instead of a "thing", they can refer to an attitude or an approach. This is the central point William James made in his masterwork "The Varieties of Religious Experience." To speak about sacredness is to understand that some experiences (the birth of your child, coming upon a silent forest glade, hearing a powerful symphony) evoke an order that is more than just our thoughts about that order. And to speak of "the spiritual" can call to the highest aspects of the human spirit: compassion, kindness, empathy, generosity, love.
This kind of understanding of spiritual and sacred have always been with us and they may, or may not, have anything to do with a particular religion. This is where we can draw a distinction between a spiritual practice and a religious one. In a spiritual practice, people purposely attempt to deepen their lived sense of the superhuman order they experience. It is, literally, a practice. You work on it every day, perhaps using meditation or ritual or service to others. The methods differ but the daily application and aspiration are the same.
The important point is that spiritual practice has a purpose: transformation. It is to become a person who lives in accord with that sense of experienced order, that sacredness. Such a lifelong aspiration and effort can happen within an individual religious tradition if there are domains within that tradition that truly support this kind of interior work. Unfortunately, the politics of religion can sometimes keep this from happening. As scholars Joseph Campbell, Walter Houston Clark, and others have said, church can be a "vaccination" against the real thing.
It's also possible to build such a practice outside of established religious tradition. In that case, the difficulty comes in inventing forms that can support a lifelong practice. There is something to be said for traditions or rituals that have endured for many generations and the best of these often occur within some religious traditions.
The bottom line is human beings have felt the need for spiritual practice for a long, long time. That means that even as participation in traditional religions drops, people claiming to be "spiritual but not religious" and people who embrace science continue to grow. The writer Annaka Harris and her spouse New Atheist Sam Harris are, for example, strong defenders of science. They have also both written about the importance of contemplative practice in their lives.
I have long argued that science is one way that the aspiration to know the true and the real is expressed. It is one way we express that sense of an order beyond us. But there are other ways that go beyond descriptions and explanation, and all of them make up the totality of being human. That means you can embrace science in all its power and still embed it within the larger context of human experience. All of us can be entirely faithful to the path of inquiry and honesty that is science while making it one aspect of a practice meant to embrace the fullness of your experience as a human in this more-than-human world.
Adam Frank, a card-carrying atheist and physics professor, wonders if there might be more to life than pure science.
- With all due respect to Copernicus, writes Adam Frank, humans are at the center of it all.
- Science is just one of many sources of truth in the world. The lived, subjective experience of humans creates reality, and when science excludes subjective experience, we end up with a less useful kind of science.
- Can science and philosophy form a union that gets us to a far richer account of the world and a far richer science?
So, what is this about? Where are we going with it all? What is its point?
Today marks my first post of this most excellent incarnation of 13.8. Since the new home for the blog represents a continuation of a project of thinking Marcelo and I started a decade ago, I wanted to begin with a 10,000-foot view. What was it that Marcelo and I were aiming for when we began with 13.7 Cosmos and Culture on NPR 10 years ago? And where are we pointing towards now?
The answer, I believe, can be embodied in a single word: thresholds.
I am a scientist and all I ever wanted to be was a scientist. For me, science was never a career choice. Instead, it was an all-encompassing way of living. Through science, I found a perspective and a path that offered a larger way of seeing my small life and its complications. Through science, I could also see how exquisitely sculpted the world was. That beauty gave me comfort and made the experience of my life richer. For that, I have been profoundly grateful.
But as I went from a Carl Sagan-reading, science-obsessed teen to a math-physics drunk graduate student and on to card-carrying professor, my approach to science has changed. Always an atheist, when I was younger, I thought no aspect of the world was immune to science's reach. The triumphs of Newton, Lagrange, Boltzmann and Einstein showed me that science offered a way out of the cave of limited human perspectives. Through sciences' principles and practices, I thought we'd found a way to a truly objective view of the world. It was a God's-eye perspective that revealed the totality of the universe—space, time, matter—independent of us. It was the world, in and of itself, revealed to our minds through the power of reason.
Sounds glorious, doesn't it? It certainly did to me at one point. Now, however, I think there is more, much more to the story of us and the world. Now I've come to believe that the whole "Gods-eye view" thing was a mistake. It was a very useful mistake and one that helped positively shape the first three or four hundred years of science's history. But it was a mistake nonetheless and now it has led us to a remarkable range of paradoxes and closed loops in subjects ranging from cosmology to consciousness. The job before us then is to go beyond that mistake and see where it leads us.
That is why I am interested in the science and philosophy of thresholds.
There is a fundamental problem with this "view from nowhere," this perfectly objective God's-eye view of science. That problem is it fails to see our proper place in the universe. With all due respect to Copernicus, that place is at the center of it all.
There can be no experience of the world without the experiencer and that, my dear friends, is us. Before anyone can make theories or get data or have ideas about the world, there must be the raw presence of being-in-the-world. The world doesn't appear in the abstract to a disembodied perspective floating in space... it appears to us, exactly where and when we are. That means to you or to me right now. In other words, you can't ignore the brute, existential, phenomenological fact of being subjects.
Of course, 'subjectivity' is a dirty word in science. We rightfully spend a lot of time trying to excise our research of the effects of subjectivity. That is all well and good if you are trying to understand particles in a box or bacteria in a dish. In fact, the methods we use to purge our research of subjective biases reveal the real meaning of 'objective' in science. It's not a metaphysical position about some perfect, platonic ideal version of reality. Instead, it's about getting the same results if we perform the same experiment. That's when the knowledge gained from an experiment can properly be called objective.
But as we've pushed deeper and deeper into the experience of the world, it no longer makes sense to ignore that we are always at the center of that experience. From the nature of time to the nature of consciousness, taking the act of being a subject seriously offers a new direction for thinking about the biggest issues facing science and philosophy.
We have to invent new languages that can deal with the strange loops where the world creates the self, and the self creates the world. We have to deal with the fact that reality is always our reality.
That's where the idea of thresholds appears. I once read a definition of poetry as being "that which takes us to the boundary between the expressible and the inexpressible." That, to me, is the real frontier. That is what I think we should be interested in once we recognize that science is not the only kind of truth out there. Poetry and all the arts, for example, reveal their kinds of truth. And there is a truth that can come from spiritual endeavor (or whatever you want to call it) as well. These other truths have their own place and their own power and don't simply reduce down to, say, neuroscience or some other scientific discipline.
To understand them, and science's place among them, we have to be willing to explore those thresholds between the expressible and inexpressible. We have to invent new languages that can deal with the strange loops where the world creates the self, and the self creates the world. We have to deal with the fact that reality is always our reality.
The problem with the God's-eye view of science is that it confuses the illusion of being right for actually being in accord with the weirdness of being an experiencing subject. It appears to offer a perfect, hermetically sealed account of the universe that seems so beautiful until you realize it's missing the most important quality: life. Not life as an account of a thermodynamic system, but life as our embodied, lived experience.
I am hopeful there are ways to think about science and philosophy that never forget that fact. I am hopeful that, if we can work our way up to those dynamic thresholds of experience, we may get a far richer account of the world and a far richer science. Most of all, I am hopeful that by facing those thresholds we might develop a new understanding that is both beautifully true and truly helpful.
That, in one form or another, is what 13.8 is going to be all about.
Visit 13.8 weekly for new articles by Adam Frank and Marcelo Gleiser.
Is death the final frontier? We ask scientists, philosophers, and spiritual leaders about life after death.
- Death is inevitable for all known living things. However on the question of what, if anything, comes after life, the most honest answer is that no one knows.
- So far, there is no scientific evidence to prove or disprove what happens after we die. In this video, astronomer Michelle Thaller, neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris, science educator Bill Nye, and others consider what an afterlife would look like, what the biblical concepts of 'eternal life' and 'hell' really mean, why so many people around the world choose to believe that death is not the end, and whether or not that belief is ultimately detrimental or beneficial to one's life.
- Life after death is also not relegated to discussions of religion. "Digital and genetic immortality are within reach," says theoretical physicist Michio Kaku. Kaku shares how, in the future, we may be able to physically talk to the dead thanks to hologram technology and the digitization of our online lives, memories, and connectome.
In some countries, religiosity and pro-science attitudes are actually positively correlated, according to the results of a recent study.
- Americans have longed seemed to view science and religion as competing forces.
- A new study examined views on science and religion among roughly 70,000 people across 60 countries.
- The results showed that while many countries show a negative correlation between religiosity and science views, the correlation is far more consistent in the U.S.
Americans tend to view religion and science as competing forces, both logically and psychologically. This outlook isn't quite new.
Since the 19th century, American intellectuals have been discussing the seemingly incompatible nature of religion and science. One byproduct was the "conflict thesis." It argues that inherent differences between the two inevitably lead to hostility in society. Today, historians generally take a more complex view of science and religion, but it seems many Americans still believe the two are largely at odds.
Now, a new study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science suggests this phenomenon may be unique to the United States. The researchers examined data from 11 studies that surveyed roughly 70,000 people across about 60 countries.
The results showed that, for Americans, religiosity is consistently associated with negative views toward science. To find those associations, the researchers analyzed the results of nine studies that measured the religious-scientific views of 2,160 Americans. These studies measured things like interest in science-related activities, selection of science-related topics, general attitudes toward science and implicit attitudes toward science.
Americans who scored high in religiosity were much more likely to hold explicitly and implicitly negative views toward science. But that's not quite the same as being anti-science.
"It's important to understand that these results don't show that religious people hate or dislike science," study author Jonathan McPhetres told PsyPost. "Instead, they are simply less interested when compared to a person who is less religious."
To find out whether this negative correlation exists elsewhere, the researchers examined data from the World Values Survey (WEVs) that was collected from 66,438 people in 60 countries. The results showed that while most countries did show a negative correlation between religiosity and science views, those correlations were smaller and less consistent than in the U.S. What's more, further analysis of five understudied countries revealed that religiosity is positively associated with science attitudes in parts of the world.
One phenomenon that was consistent across the world, however, was moral prejudice against atheists.
Improving science communication
Why do Americans seem especially uninterested in science? The study didn't seek to answer that question, exactly. But the researchers did note that future research could explore why Americans show higher rates of biblical literalism and strong overlap between religious fundamentalism and politically conservative values.
But the key finding is that the belief that science and religion are inherently in conflict does not generalize around the world. This suggests scientists and science communicators are able to change attitudes.
"There are many barriers to science that need not exist," McPhetres told PsyPost. "If we are to make our world a better place, we need to understand why some people may reject science and scientists so that we can overcome that skepticism. Everyone can contribute to this goal by talking about science and sharing cool scientific discoveries and information with people every chance you get."