The Dangers of Misdirected Increase of Knowledge

  • I have been very interested in some recent comments by members that touch upon an issue acknowledged by DeWitt in the following passages:

    Pg. 21 speaking of Epicurus:

    Pg. 46 in reference to “astronomical mathematics”:

    This really hits the nail on the head as to why so much of metaphysics, eastern and western, has caused me grief, and why I am here!

    Metaphysical theories, unsubstantiated by normal human perception and observation, are widely used to delineate entire systems of ethics, codes of behaviour, and ascetic disciplines, that for the sincere adherent, are meant to inform every moment of every day. In many cases, if one does not experience any benefit from following such teachings in this life, it is said to be because salvation is only to be experienced in the next life, or many lives down the road.

    In this way, one may spend an entire lifetime in devoted study and contemplation of a theology or metaphysics that may have a mountain of books written about it by very intelligent people, yet have no practical value or means of personal verification in this lifetime. (I submit that this could also apply to the “spooky” stuff we get out of modern quantum theory.)

    My feeling is that EVEN THOUGH some of the claims of quantum theory, Advaita Vedanta, Buddhism, Platonism, or take your pick, MIGHT be correct, it does not serve us to endlessly study these things, or to ever prefer their teachings to those that can be confirmed by personal experience. It fills us with doubt and confusion and affords us no practical benefit.

    My question is, do you agree with Epicurus that some areas of knowledge should be taboo to us as a waste of time and effort, and as harmful to our health and happiness? Also, have you ever had an experience of investing a great deal of time and effort into learning something, the knowledge of which proved harmful?

  • Another great point for discussion! First however:

    do you agree with Epicurus that some areas of knowledge should be taboo to us as a waste of time and effort, and as harmful to our health and happiness?

    I suspect that Epicurus would want to argue that he did not go that far, at least as to the implication of the word "taboo." Here are some of initial thoughts involved in unpacking this:

    (1) It's essential in Epicurean philosophy to never let there be any confusion about the ultimate goal of pleasure. Wisdom for the sake of wisdom, knowledge for the sake of knowledge is incorrect analysis. So is analyzing it from the point of view that "wisdom and knowledge are pleasurable in themselves" if we fail to include the rest of the analysis, which is that any activity can generate both pleasure and pain, and so we have to consider all the results of pursuing any particular wisdom or knowledge.

    (2) People are different in what they find interesting and pleasurable. I think Susan is talking in part about some recent observations that Frances Wright took a different position on some things than did Epicurus. Frances Wright apparently took the position that she was not interested in, and could come to no conclusions about, life on other worlds or other issues possibly including infinity, eternality, and perhaps even life after death. If that's a correct reading of her, that's very different than Epicurus' conclusion, because he apparently thought that those were vital to address. I am not going to criticize Frances Wright's personal decision on how to spend her time, but I don't think that's a correct analysis for most people, and I think her decision probably limited her impact in the end.

    I have a lot more but I will have to come back in an hour or two.

  • In this way, one may spend an entire lifetime in devoted study and contemplation of a theology or metaphysics that may have a mountain of books written about it by very intelligent people, yet have no practical value or means of personal verification in this lifetime.

    On this point, for a long form answer which hits this home very hard, I recommend Lucian's "HERMOTIMUS" --…eading/lucian-hermotimus/

    I consider Lucian to be thoroughly Epicurean, and this dialog is both fun to read and I think does a very good job of explaining a part of the answer the Epicurus would give to Susan's comment here.

    In the dialog, Lycinus (who I think speaks for the Epicurean position) confronts Hermotimus (a student of Stoicism) about the pursuit of his studies. The dialog explores the dangers of and issues in "spending an entire lifetime in devoted study and contemplation ... yet find ... no practical value or means of personal verification.... of the result.

  • Thank you for the Lucian recommendation, Cassius. I look forward to reading it. Is this the same Lucian that was Seneca’s nephew?

    I confess to still having a soft spot for Seneca. To be honest, it was his letters that saved me from the Church! (How Ironic that I found him in a church book sale.) If he writes half so well as Seneca, I will love Lucian too.

    I mention this as a fine example. I love reading Seneca. Should I not read him again because it might make me a depressed Stoic who feels a failure because she hates politics?!

  • LOL ---

    I don't recommend Seneca, but if you do read him, read this part, all of which, I think, was "in the guise of an Epicurean":

  • Beautiful. :) A closet Epicurean, to be sure!

    “For that is exactly what philosophy promises to me, that I shall be made equal to God. For this I have been summoned, for this purpose have I come.”

    What an orator he must have been.

  • Tonight I read Phaedo for the first time and posted some reaction here.

    It seems to me that the relation between Phaedo and the thread here is that the existence of these Platonic/Socratic arguments is a large part of the reason why some issues that are otherwise a total waste of time, and unproductive to pursue, must be pursued. If you are unlucky enough to get taught these Platonic arguments in school, or run into them in some other form in another part of life, you have to be able to respond to them, otherwise they will immobilize you (or at least, many people) with fear and uncertainty and doubt. And I just don't think it's effective in many cases to simply take the position of saying "don't worry about it" and use arguments like "the burden of proof is on the proponent" or "speculation is not a valid form of reasoning" such as someone like Frances Wright might argue. Some people in some situations might be able to get away with that, and if so then the result is the proof of their success, but in my experience personally, these arguments are everywhere, and unless they are met they lead to skepticism, nihilism, and even anti-intellectualism. They are just so corrosive that ignoring them is unlikely to work in most cases. (And Socrates even includes in Phaedo just such a warning, but he includes it presumably so that his listeners won't seek refuge in them, but will simply give in to his conclusions based on his dialectical logic!)

  • Quantum theory is not the problem but quantum woo is, i.e. nonsensical interpretations of quantum theory create problems by misleading people into wrong beliefs.

    I never felt that the study of science was harmful beyond maybe to have wasted some time on studying in detail something which I will never use but that is unavoidable because as a student at university, I did not know in advance whether it will become eventually relevant.

    I would like to sue the Catholic Church to give me back many hours of eager study of the Bible and other Christian texts and attending mass when I was a child and adolescent.

    The harmful effect of being a Christian child was to distrust and refrain from pleasure and to socially isolate myself from peers who I considered to be mostly "sinners" by whom I did not want to get "tempted".

    Luckily, I overcame this before the end of senior high school but I still feel the effect of insufficient socialization in my youth because I still need to make conscious efforts where others behave naturally without conscious effort.

  • Ugh. Well, Lucian's Hermotimus is pretty devastating. I have been much chastened.

    In other words, it is brilliant and I am glad of the recommendation.

    He seems to leave us with at least one useful test of a philosophy: are its adherents quite happy? Or, I suppose, does its practice make us happy presently, rather than in some promised future. This would seem to allow Epicureanism some merit, at least.

    Maybe I can redeem some of my years of study of fruitless philosophies by appealing to a little neuroscience. Apparently, knowledge which is hardest won, sticks the best. (Sorry I can't find the study I'm referring to at the moment...) Perhaps I will be better able to recognize and appreciate more useful doctrines for having so much experience with false ones... One can hope.

    You are right, Cassius, we can't avoid studying these things. The influence of "dead-end" doctrines are everywhere. We need to be able to recognize and appraise them cogently.

    Martin, thank you for joining the discussion. Your years of study are very useful to us here!! It seems to me that the two main problematical findings of quantum theory are the Schrodinger equation and quantum entanglement. Are they as "nonsensical" as they are generally presented? Or do they really point to something VERY weird going on that does not fit with classical physics?

    I fully identify with your regrets about your time in the Church. I wish I could get my 10 years spent there back as well.

  • It seems to me that the two main problematical findings of quantum theory are the Schrodinger equation and quantum entanglement. Are they as "nonsensical" as they are generally presented?

    That's a good way of asking the question Martin -- where do you identify the line where "Quantum woo" starts?

    Lucian's Hermotimus is pretty devastating. I have been much chastened.

    I read it for entertainment as regularly as I can - I think I will try again today. It is very witty!

  • This discussion got me interested in Lucian; I read A True Story last night as I've been meaning to do so for quite a while. I think I'll give Hermotimus a read today: much more enjoyable than Phaedo! ;)

  • Answer to Susan and Cassius:

    The Schroedinger equation is - within its range of validity - well supported by evidence. Quantum entanglement is well supported, too, and is already used for secure communication in the sense that any attempt to spy on the stream of information between transmitter and receiver would be detected. Billions of dollars are spent to develop quantum computers, which independent of the specific design are all based on entanglement.

    Schroedinger equation and quantum entanglement really point to something VERY weird going on that does not fit with classical physics.

    In general, quantum mechanics itself is rock solid with lots of experimental evidence. Future discoveries or an ingenious new theory might lead to a major overhaul but that is not likely to happen any time soon.

    For many physicists, using "Shut up and calculate!" as the motto, the quantum woo starts already with any attempt of an interpretation.

    I do see some value in interpretation but have no criteria at hand to tell in general how sensical interpretations are different from nonsensical ones.

    When an interpretation is used to derive conclusions which are not backed by plain quantum mechanics, that interpretation is most likely nonsensical. Other than that crude indicator, the assessment is case by case.

    The most common nonsensical interpretation is to attribute quantum uncertainty or other features of quantum mechanics to the influence of the consciousness of the observer.

    (When playing golf with a demolition crane, the uncertainty of the trajectory of the ball is not due to the consciousness of the player but due to the clumsiness of the tool.)

    Another kind of woo is when theories which so far have been untestable (i.e. they are not even hypotheses as of now) are misrepresented as factual descriptions of reality (e.g. string theory, multiverse theories). A far-reaching interpretation of such a theory is most likely nonsense to the power of 2 (e.g. an interpretation with teleportation between "parallel universes").

  • Martin is it useful to generalize that at least one differentiator is that some theories/calculations are based *entirely* on their consistency with other theories/calculations, without *any* of those theories/calculations in the chain being verified by real-world experiment?

    Or is that so general a statement as to be useless? I would think conceptually there is a dividing line between theories/calculations that have *some* verification through experiential observation vs those that do not?

  • Yes, when comparing theories themselves, that would be a dividing line but my last remark referring to theories was a diversion from the main topic interpretations of quantum theory.

    The interpretations do not affect the calculation of the results. Wigner and I would get the same results when solving a quantum mechanical problem (unless I make a mistake) or when conducting an experiment with electrons but he thinks that his mind influences the electrons and I do not think so.

  • Martin, thank you for your comments. That does help clarify some things for me. I can understand the burning desire of laymen and scientists alike to discover a way, ANY way, to create a world-view that would make sense of quantum mechanics, but anything we surmise could be so far off base, we would be fools to create an entire metaphysics or even religion out of it. I think this debate has to go to the Pyrrhonists.

  • I agree with what you are saying, Susan, but there's a part of this that I think is dangerous to let go, echoing from Lucian. I think I quoted this recently in a similar context but no one ever accused me of not being repetitive ;)


    And at this point, my dear Celsus, we may, if we will be candid, make some allowance for these Paphlagonians and Pontics; the poor uneducated ‘fat-heads’ might well be taken in when they handled the serpent—a privilege conceded to all who choose—and saw in that dim light its head with the mouth that opened and shut. It was an occasion for a Democritus, nay, for an Epicurus or a Metrodorus, perhaps, a man whose intelligence was steeled against such assaults by skepticism and insight, one who, if he could not detect the precise imposture, would at any rate have been perfectly certain that, though this escaped him, the whole thing was a lie and an impossibility.

    The point being that I think it's a pretty fundamental part of a basic Epicurean education to have near the top of one's mind at least an outline-level understanding of a "rule" that starts flashing red whenever we confront something that seems "over-the-line" as a lie and an impossibility.

    Getting back to the title of the topic, I think it's dangerous to ever consider that any area of knowledge is off limits or to be avoided per se, even though for all the reasons Epicurus is stating, a prudent person does not waste more time on them than might be absolutely necessary.

    Probably the category of quantum woo is right up there nowadays, at least in some circles, with the claims of traditional religion. I am not young anymore, but I suspect especially with young people going through establishment education, it's possible even that quantum woo might be even more present than straight religious arguments. So that's the reason the topic interests me - we ought to be able to articulate, even if the precise imposture of quantum woo escapes us, why it is we are confident that the whole thing is a lie and an impossibility.

    I am thinking that the general description of the answer is going to involve affirming how the senses (the three legs of the canon, actually) are really what the meaning of "truth" and "reality" is all about to us, and that any impactful claims which cannot be validated using that method is in fact, for us, a "lie and an impossibility" and to be treated as such. I think also that this is closely related to the direct argument in Lucretius that he who asserts that knowledge is impossible is in a way "upside down" and has to be rejected out of hand.

    That's where I think we can improve - I do not think we are there yet in expanding the meaning of that material in Lucretius, which is hinted at in other aspects of the texts, in way that is clear and meaningful.

    For example, it's taking me far too long to state the issue in this post -- it ought to be reducible to something very simple and memorable, along the lines of this excerpt from Lucretius book four. Probably if I had to rank everything I have read in the Epicurean texts, this is one of the most important to me:

    1743: Lastly, if anyone thinks that he knows nothing, he cannot be sure that he knows this, when he confesses that he knows nothing at all. I shall avoid disputing with such a trifler, who perverts all things, and like a tumbler with his head prone to the earth, can go no otherwise than backwards. And yet allow that he knows this, I would ask (since he had nothing before, to lead him into such a knowledge) from whence he had the notion what it was to know, or not to know; what was it that gave him an idea of Truth or Falsehood, and what taught him to distinguish between doubt and certainty? You will find that knowledge of truth is originally derived from the senses, nor can the senses be contradicted, for whatever is able by the evidence of an opposite truth to convince the senses of falsehood, must be something of greater certainty than they. But what can deserve greater credit than the senses require from us? Will reason, derived from erring sense, claim the privilege to contradict it? Reason – that depends wholly upon the senses,which unless you allow to be true, all reason must be false.

    Munro: Again if a man believe that nothing is known, he knows not whether this even can be known, since he admits he knows nothing. I will therefore decline to argue the case against him who places himself with head where his feet should be. And yet granting that he knows this, I would still put this question, since he has never yet seen any truth in things, whence he knows what knowing and not knowing severally are, and what it is that has produced the knowledge of the true and the false and what has proved the doubtful to differ from the certain. You will find that from the senses first has proceeded the knowledge of the true and the false and that the senses cannot be refuted. For that which is of itself to be able to refute things false by true things must from the nature of the case be proved to have the higher certainty. Well then, what must fairly be accounted of higher certainty than sense? Shall reason founded on false sense be able to contradict them, wholly founded as it is on the senses? And if they are not true, then all reason as well is rendered false.

    Bailey: Again, if any one thinks that nothing is known, he knows not whether that can be known either, since he admits that he knows nothing. Against him then I will refrain from joining issue, who plants himself with his head in the place of his feet. And yet were I to grant that he knows this too, yet I would ask this one question; since he has never before seen any truth in things, whence does he know what is knowing, and not knowing each in turn, what thing has begotten the concept of the true and the false, what thing has proved that the doubtful differs from the certain? You will find that the concept of the true is begotten first from the senses, and that the senses cannot be gainsaid. For something must be found with a greater surety, which can of its own authority refute the false by the true. Next then, what must be held to be of greater surety than sense? Will reason, sprung from false sensation, avail to speak against the senses, when it is wholly sprung from the senses? For unless they are true, all reason too becomes false.