Pacatus Level 03
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Posts by Pacatus

    And I don't mean to be demeaning even to the people who talk about being washed in the blood of the lamb.

    Yes. Understood (and important).

    I spent some months in a 12-Step program where many people identified their “higher power” in supernatural God terms. I would never express doubt (especially to them) that such a belief may have helped them achieve sobriety and serenity. There were also agnostic/atheist folks who might identify their “higher power” with something like Nature. In the group I was in, they just didn’t engage in argument about such things – it wasn’t the purpose.

    I think you're saying this yourself and therefore you won't take offense to note that this kind of approach is just totally beyond the reach of the "average man" who has need of guidance for living today - in the moment - and who will never be able to appreciate half of where you are coming from.

    There is a segment of people who are into such calculations as you are discussing who will take the position: "Well the masses will never understand what I am talking about so they just need to listen to ME!: ;) That's an attitude that I think well describes most "priestly classes."

    Agreed entirely!

    So that leads back to the question of how to understand and appreciate Epicurus' perspective on this, which was apprently understood by the people of his time to be a combination of skeptical questioning of all claims of authority combined with a common sense attitude that certain decisions do have to be made with confidence, and that we do the best we can to make the best decisions we can without holding ourselves up to unrealistic expectations. What I perceive, and what I think Epicurus was also perceiving and saying, is that the pendulum can swing too far in the direction of skepticism leading to nihilism, and that it is necessary to articulate a common sense and usable approach to knowledge formation which allows for happy living.

    And with this as well!

    So that seems to me to be the direction that these discussions need to proceed. By all means we take the input from all of the complicated abstractions to which we can gain access and on which we can draw upon, but that in the end we articulate an understandable technique for trusting the senses and making the everyday decisions with confidence that allow us to live happily -- rather than take the position of a Socrates and play games with the idea that we know nothing except that we know nothing.


    With regard to the Lucretius quote (and with the hope that Don might help with translations), I think maybe we would be well advised (today) to replace "certainty" with "reliance." What can we -- must we -- rely upon? And that, I think, Epicurus nailed (and, again, something that I suspect Sextus just misunderstood).

    I realize I might have been veering into Pyrrhonian territory here, and maybe should clarify –

    The Pyrrhonians did not deny evidentiary or logical criteria for agency (decision/action) but for “truth.” Again, I suspect that they – like the other Hellenists – took “truth” to mean objective (infallible?) certainty; and, for the Pyrrhonians, specifically truth about what was “non-evident” (non-observable).

    Adrian Kuzminski (in his book Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism – the best comprehensive introduction to Pyrrhonism I’ve found) argues that reasonable inference from sense experience and observations (appearances) would also be perfectly acceptable from a Pyrrhonian perspective.

    Unfortunately, I think that the Pyrrhonians (i.e., Sextus Empiricus) simply misunderstood Epicurus. But none of them had modern understandings of, say, inductive logic – and maybe Kuzminski’s conclusion on inference is therefore a bit neo-Pyrrhonian. Epicurus, it seems to me, had a better grasp. But his expression is still (if often intuitively prescient) necessarily limited by the knowledge base available in his time.

    Note: Although Sextus can be all over the place, it seems to me that a dyed-in-the-wool Pyrrhonian can’t really deny the possibility of knowledge (that would be more in the bailiwick of the Academic Sceptics) – but would have to maintain agnosticism on the question.

    To follow up (and maybe simplify), here is what I call the “generalized empirical formula” –

    y = f (x1, x2, … , xn ; u) : p


    y is the dependent variable.

    f is some defined function.

    xn are the observed independent variables.

    u represents unobserved/unconsidered variables (which may be unknown or unknowable).

    p is some probability (e.g. a statistical confidence level).


    As long as there is any u – or f is uncertain (e.g., there is more than one possible function describing the relationships) – p must be < 1. Further, to know that p = 1.0, one would also have to know that there are no u – and that f is perfectly specified. I might call that an “infallibility condition.”

    This is drawn from statistics, but I think is not confined to statistical analysis.

    I will take objective certainty as knowing some hypothesis to the probability of P = 1.0: it is logically or mathematically impossible to be wrong.

    In deductive logic and pure mathematics I believe this is possible. But not in the empirical world.

    The most an empirical investigator (say, a scientist) can achieve is to fail to disprove a given hypothesis to some probability (objective confidence) < 1.0.

    Now, in our everyday walk-a-bout affairs – where we might question the shape of a distant tower, etc. – this doesn’t matter much. Who cares? But if, say, you’re doing medical research or calculating the safe orbit of a satellite – or trying to determine if the substratum of the universe is particles and space, or energy, or vibrating strings of some kind – then I think it does matter.

    So, I would have to say, at bottom, empirical knowledge is fundamentally probabilistic – but that, like Newtonian physics versus quantum mechanics, it doesn’t matter at certain levels of reality: i.e., the one we routinely live in. (Wittgenstein thought that we need to be able to take certain things as certain in order to rationally navigate our world.)

    When someone says they are certain of something that they cannot objectively prove to a P = 1.0 (whether by observation or logical reasoning), what they are really saying is that they are so sure that they see no reasonable possibility of doubt. That is not the same as saying there is no – let alone can be no – such possibility.

    For me, the question then becomes: Why would anyone suffer any anxiety or agitation about any of this?

    After all that, my brain is creamed corn. :P I go with “knowledge is possible.” My guess is that infallible knowledge is logically possible – but I don’t claim to have any.

    And I refuse to be anxious about it. (Chuckling as I say that.) ^^

    EDIT: I may have overshot your question, Cassius. I am using certainty in an objective empirical sense, not how "sure" someone is or feels subjectively. Confidence can include a subjective level of surety, or some objective statistical measure. I'm really using it in the former sense. (Don't know if that helps.)

    Now, my brain really is creamed corn ...

    Knowledge is usually defined as “justified, true belief.” That is, you 1) believe something (think it is so); 2) have good reason to think it is so(otherwise you're just guessing); and 3) it turns out to be true (factually confirmed).

    Now, suppose I point and say: “That’s a maple tree.”

    You ask: “Are you sure?”

    Well, am I? Objectively? I’d say it depends on how close we are and how well we examine it.

    [This is akin to the oft-cited “square tower / round tower” example.]

    At some evidentiary point, I think it’s reasonable to claim certainty in such a case. My point about anxiety comes in when someone has some fear of being wrong – or even uncertain. I’ve encountered that, for example, among some Christians. [And I should add that there is some controversy among epistemologists about fallibilism versus infallibilism. I think the ancient Greeks thought of actual knowledge as being infallible. I tend to as well. But the question becomes, not is knowledge possible, per se, but is infallibility possible -- to know something infallibly (and a perhaps a stronger version?) do I infallibly know that my knowledge of some proposition is infallible? That is, am I infallibly certain about my own capacity for having infallibly certain knowledge? (That would border on a claim of omniscience, it seems to me).] 8o

    But that means that if (contrary to all expectation) it was somehow shown that there are gods that intervene in some way in our world, I would not be anxious about it (partly because I see most claims about supernatural gods to be logically absurd – so any such gods would have to be part of the nature of the cosmos, etc.). Just as I have no anxiety about idealism versus realism for the Epicurean view of the gods.

    But we need to be careful about thinking the sheer number of observations can confirm to a probability of 1.0 the truth of a hypothesis – it only takes one (as yet unobserved) counter-observation to disconfirm it. (The “Black Swan” event.)

    So, I guess my general viewpoint is to rest easy about such things – and don’t cling to a need for certainty: that does not always relieve anxiety. (I think sometimes we can cling to a need for too much precision as well.)

    I always liked Rilke’s definition of love: “Love consists of this: two solitudes that meet, protect and greet each other.” I’d just expand the possible number and call it friendship.

    Note: I’m a pretty strong introvert (which I do not accept as a flaw to struggle against – even though extroverts are the vast majority in our society); I do not get “lonely” when I’m alone; I value and cherish a few friends.

    I want to add that I’m not sure how keen our reasoning needs to be – but I don’t think that Epicureanism is somehow reserved for the intellectual elite or experts in deductive and inductive logic. Nor do I think we need to trouble ourselves over our own perceived shortcomings in such regard. (I’m reminded of Philodemus rejection of the need for technical expertise – “techne” – in household management.)

    A few notes –

    The idea that anyone can or should objectively believe a proposition – regardless of evidentiary confidence – because such belief will relieve anxiety is absurd. Such a “belief” would, at best, involve some cognitive dissonance (or at least some non-evidentiary notion of “belief” that would, I think, would allow anyone to believe anything willy-nilly – allowing any kind of religious cultism or conspiracy theories flying in the face of empirical evidence).

    Now, I use the word “believe” (or “belief”) strictly to mean such things as: “It seems [or appears] to me that …;” or “the [preponderance of] evidence indicates that …;” and the like.

    Subjective confidence, even when supported by a plethora of evidence is still not the same as objective (empirical) certainty – though a subjective attitude of confidence in the face of recognized objective uncertainty can be a psychological help in agency/action (ala in sports psychology).

    And while absence of evidence might not be evidentiary proof of absence, repeated null findings can add to a reasonably secure confidence (think of supernatural, interventionist gods – or unicorns).

    However, belief in something that is logically absurd is simply delusive. The opposite of “logical” (in the deductive sense) is not “false” but – absurd, incoherent, “gobbledygook.” (Hmm: once again I think of supernatural, interventionist gods … But maybe I’m wrong. 😉 )*

    For some people, the very idea that they could be wrong is a source of anxiety. (I suspect that has a lot to do with a person’s experiences and pressures during their formative years – which can often be a kind of psychological conditioning than can be difficult to jettison, even if one realizes it is there.) And that can lead to a willingness to “believe” anything at all – and back to the first paragraph …

    And, to make a long story longer, the best we've got is the evidence of the senses and our best, evolving reasoning therefrom (and a due nod to prolepsis). And, for me personally, once I let go of a perceived need for certainty, a lot of prior anxiety fell away too.

    ~ ~ ~

    * I always liked that quote by the detective Mr. Monk (from the TV series Monk) : “I could be wrong. … But I don’t think so.”

    Christmas - This one's tougher. The Christian context is the birth of Christ, the "bringer of light to the world." Well, we already have Epicurus's birthday in Jan/Feb to celebrate the birth of the founder. So, what to do with Christmas? There's gift giving. Maybe something to do with that?

    The winter solstice: when the days (daylight) start lengthening again.

    And Thanksgiving comes at the end of the fall harvest (and stomping the grapes -- and Nouveau Beaujolais wine!) :)

    I came upon this, regarding the trap of certainty:

    “Epicurus also saw that man’s natural fear of the unknown is seized upon as a tool by false priests, professors, and politicians who demand obedience through the call for ‘certainty.’ The call for ‘certainty’ in human action is a false standard which can never be met, and the real evil of those who call for it is that they are aware of the trap which they lay for the unthinking. The only remedy for this abomination is for men to acknowledge that their knowledge and their lives are limited to the scope to the bounds established by Nature.”

    – Cassius Amicus, Ante Oculos: Epicurus and the Evidence-Based Life (emphasis in the original) 8)

    I had this e-book long ago, but, it seems, never finished it (mea culpa! – I’ll blame my ADD). ;(


    I want to add that “philosophy” can be a “red-flag” word too, in the modern (seemingly pervasive) academic sense that it strictly involves intellectual pursuit – rather than as a therapeutic way of life, as the Hellenistic philosophers (especially Epicureans) understood it. And a (over-) reliance on intellection seems to inform things like CBT, as embraced by modern Stoics.

    Since other languages sometimes seem to get me out of everyday and ingrained definitions, maybe the Spanish “via vida” is a good substitute (for me) for “faith.” "Es mi via vida."

    Yes. I hasten to add that for me neither “belief” nor “faith” are interchangeable with being 100% certain (let alone the absurdity of some Christians who, generally quoting St. Paul, claim that faith itself either a) is knowledge, or b) is itself actually evidence that guarantees knowledge).

    Yes, faith is still a “red flag” word (my wife grimaced a bit when I used it :) ), and there are likely better ones …

    Autumn Ferment

    A red-bandanaed sun dances barefoot

    on the summer-ripened earth of autumn

    as wine-maidens gaily tread swollen grapes

    in wooden vats to mash yeast, skins and juice –

    to waken the ferment that will be racked

    from oak to oak, and aged in barrel-casks.

    Corks are pulled from hand-blown bottles: youthful

    vintage stored in the bodega cellar,

    plucked to celebrate this year’s harvest end.

    Rough-grained tables are stacked with rustic fare:

    ham, black olives, apples, Manchego cheese

    and thick loaves of lusty pungent brown bread.

    Village musicians play wild pagan tunes

    from ancient memory – never scripted

    or scored in ink – to call upon their gods

    to bless the yield, ward off the winter cold.

    Flowered maidens dance barefoot with the sun

    to transubstantiate fruit into wine.


    Image: “Women Stomping the Grapes” – oil painting by Eric Michaels; used with permission.


    The "calling on their gods" is not quite Epicurean, I admit ...

    The Golden Rule: Treat others the way you would want to be treated

    The Platinum Rule: Treat others as they would want you to treat them

    These always remind me of the conversation between the masochist and the sadist, to wit (pun intended) –

    Masochist: “Beat me, torture, make me feel pain!”

    Sadist: “No.”


    On a more serious note, I always liked this quote from the Catholic theologian Urs Von Balthsar, as a caution against willy-nilly applying simple rules:

    “When it comes to shaping one’s personal behavior, all the rules of morality, as precise as they may be, remain abstract in the face of the infinite complexity of the concrete.”

    —Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Presence and Thought: An Essay on the Religious Philosophy of Gregory of Nyssa” (from the Foreword).


    I will add that there is another version of the Golden Rule, attributed to Rabbi Hillel: “What you do not like done to yourself, don’t do to other.” (The same Balthasarian caution applies.)