Prelude to Euthoria

Perhaps all philosophy is, at its heart, selfish. All of our questions, all of our examination of ourselves, all of our contemplation of the universe is simply the result of our own inability to compile the staggering diversity of the universe we see into a single coherent model that will fit comfortably within our little bone-cased minds. This is a state many of us cannot exist in comfortably; we must respond, either by trust in the ideology of someone else, or by questioning and seeking on our own.

In my own case, philosophy is something like an addiction. With my maturation as a young human came the crumbling of the certainty of childhood, and the loss of several key beliefs that had completed my mental model.

Unable simply to leave it at that and let it be, I began looking elsewhere, working out new frameworks within the patterns of my mind to enable me to interact with a vast reality and retain some level of meaning within my infinitesimal spark of a life.

This, and the series of articles that will follow, is the result of that search. This is an embryo of a philosophy, a set of ideas which may serve as the seed for a more coherent philosophy once I’ve walked the world for a bit longer. As every philosophy, even those in utero, should have a name, I offer “euthoria”–the Greek for “good path.”

As Euthoria focuses on the act of living itself rather than on some material or metaphysical destination (be that Paradise Everafter or a six-figure income and a Porsche), Euthoria is highly pragmatic. Every act, and every outcome, is weighed based solely on the effect it has within this world, and every virtue on how it affects the living. I will leave metaphysics and possible lives after death to theologians.

Philosophy deals in questions, especially the Big Questions. What better way to begin a prelude to an unborn philosophy than to ask a few of them, and answer in summary? Please note that the following are only summaries, not intended to be arguments; each point will be addressed in more detail in future essays.

1. What is This?

“This” is reality. This is the universe, and the universe is a thing which exists outside of and beyond us, in indifference to us, though we are ourselves part of it. A tree falling in the forest when no one is around still falls; volcanoes on the far side of Io still erupt; stars two million light years away explode in wrath and fury even though the flickering news of their deaths will not reach us until our species as we know it no longer exists.

The universe is a system. It is not merely a machine, or an equation, or a collection of independent parts, or a raging cloud of chaos and chance, though it shares aspects of all of those. Reality is a functioning entity of such mind-boggling complexity that no human analogy to it can even approach accuracy.

The universe functions, at least according to our inescapable human perspectives. We are aligned from birth to death along the axis of time, and as such we experience the universe as in motion, as changing, as working in causal patterns. Gravity draws objects closer together, actions have reactions, and matter and energy are conserved; these are the rules we have created to describe how this system works from our point of view. More on these perspectives in 4. What is Truth.

The universe is One. Subdivisions are constructions of the human mind, and are useful in our attempts to comprehend and modify the workings of the universal system, but are ultimately only constructions. Again, more on this under question 4.

2. What is Divine?

Humans have, for most of their existence as speaking creatures, assumed an intelligent higher force responsible for the creation of all that is.

That there is Something which either is or contains the universe within Itself seems likely, given the complexity and beauty of the system. However, because the Something is outside of the universe, it is entirely outside of our ability to comprehend. We have no way of seeing this Something, so we can only base our judgments about It on what this Something does–namely, the universe itself. More on this in a later article.

This precludes the possibility, of course, of divine revelation. If you happen to be one of those that believes the Something does on occasion communicate meaningfully with human beings, well enough–I hope you can still make some use of the ideas I’m outlining here.

Euthoria will not conflict with belief in a creator, or even with certain species of divine revelation. It will conflict, however, with any system of belief–theistic or otherwise–that urges total, unquestioning faith in an ideology, or total, unquestioning obedience to some external authority. If your beliefs fall along these lines, please, continue reading. Perhaps it is the Something’s will that these few pages will be among the first chinks of awakening doubt in your ideological armor.

A key aspect of traveling the good way is to take the responsibility of navigation into your own hands. Blind trust is useful for children, but can quickly become dangerous in adults–you can take your pick of ideological genocides (again, atheist as well as religious) for evidence of that. This means that, before all else, you must trust yourself–you yourself bear the responsibility for your actions, and so should choose the bases for them wisely.

3. What is Good?

So if we don’t put our trust in any codified revelation, or the loving direction of the State, or some charismatic religious leader, how do we determine what is Good? If the divine Something isn’t planning on tossing us into Hades for disobeying Its commandments, is there still a basis for morality?

There is. Morality based solely on the punishments inherent in disobedience to a set of rules is, again, useful for children, but becomes obsolete with maturity (some members of society never mature, of course, but that’s an issue for another discussion). Ask the world’s greatest religious figures why they strive to do good, and they won’t tell you that they’re just trying to avoid some form of postmortem punishment. Likewise, atheists tend to act morally despite having no higher “authority” to ensure they do so–in fact, some religious groups act more immorally by their own standards than do nonbelievers, one of the reasons for the loss of faith of writer William Lobdell, and, I suspect, a great many agnostics in an increasingly post-religious world.

So if morality isn’t about avoiding punishment, what is it? What, if not the Something, makes a thing “Good?”

Simply put, certain things are Good simply because they are–that is, their goodness is prior to reason. This seems rather like a cop-out until you examine another such prior attribute–Beauty. The spiral glow of our neighboring galaxies doesn’t require a reason to be beautiful; it simply is. Lovers don’t walk on the beach at sunset because they’ve been presented with complex arguments about why the sun, when at a low angle relative to the horizon and viewed across an expanse of hydrogen dioxide suffused with sodium chloride, is beautiful. They walk on the beach at sunset because sunset on the ocean is beautiful–prior to reason.

The obvious problems with this approach are that that it makes ethics subjective, and is difficult to quantify–and quantification of morality is to some extent necessary for the formation of society, in a way appreciation of beauty isn’t. Moore’s naturalistic fallacy, Hume’s is-ought distinction, and questions of aesthetics and rational ethics will also arise. These problems will be addressed in the upcoming essay on the ethics of Euthoria.

4. What is Truth?

As discussed above, the universe is a whole, unified, complex system, of which we are nearly infinitesimal parts.

Truth, then, is the accuracy with which our depictions of the universe describe its actual functioning. A statement is more true or less true according to how accurately it describes its targeted subsection of the universe. Accuracy is determined by predictive power and cohesion. If a given theory (or mental model of some aspect of the universe) can explain all relevant observed aspects of the universe, it is to some extent “true.” If a new theory can explain it better, or explain more, it is “more true.”

The ultimate test of truth from a pragmatic standpoint is in the power it can give you–either to affect the universe in some way, or to predict future states of it. In science, this is called “experimentation.” In technology or social engineering, it’s testing in the field. The truth of Einstein’s theories, for example, was confirmed when starlight was observed bending around the sun during a solar eclipse. It was then that Einsteinian physics were shown to be “more true” than Newtonian physics. Newton’s work wasn’t obsolete–it still worked at “normal” speeds and masses–it just was no longer the best theory available in the field of physics. Note here that an aspect of “truth” for any given model is its range of application; this is the main area in which Einstein’s theories are more true than Newton’s, and it is also the reason why physicists today are searching so carefully for the fabled Theory of Everything.

You may notice that, according to this method, truth is somewhat relative. That’s so; any system of information that could perfectly describe the universe would itself be a universe identical to this one–a feat obviously impossibly for any beings living inside the universe. It would also be impossible to perfectly describe some subsection of the universe without describing the universe as a whole, for every “part” is incomplete without the whole. Perhaps even the observable universe itself is not a autonomous “whole”–physics is moving in that direction–but that remains to be seen.

Euthoria isn’t orthodox postmodernism, though it shares aspects of it. This isn’t simply about narratives and “created truths.” We live in a very real, very physical universe that will kill us all sooner or later–sooner, if given half a chance. Truth, in terms of accurate description and prediction of the universe, is essential to our survival and to our effective functioning within the universe-system.

Truth has another advantage. It is–somewhat inexplicably–beautiful. There is a staggering elegance in the mathematical formulae that underlie our best theories about how the universe functions at its very core, to such an extent that “elegance” is now used as criteria for formulating new theories. One of the most interesting results of this is in Supersymmetry theory, which theorizes a new subatomic particle (the Higgs boson) based simply on the fact that the math is at its most elegant when the particle is included. The Large Hadron Collider, when it’s finally up and running, should tell us definitively whether the Higgs boson exists, and thus whether the “elegance” test is a good one.

So, perfect Truth isn’t possible, but simply accurate truth is. Accurate truth is good for two reasons: first, it is useful, and second it is beautiful.

5. What are we?

I said above I’m going to avoid metaphysics, and I intend to. For that reason, I intend to leave out all consideration of the soul, the immortal spirit, reincarnation, and the rest, until I have good reason to behave otherwise. Until then, they fall under the same category as knowledge of the divine–they are inherently unknowable without some form of direct divine revelation. Any consideration of morality might at first seem to cross into the metaphysical realm, but in this case, we’ll treat it a bit differently. Our “Good” won’t be some fundamental part of the universe (or won’t be treated as such) but rather a “good” which is common to most human perception. Ethics in Euthoria will be approached from a pragmatic standpoint.

So until the Something decides to speak to me (preferably while I’m lying in a cave in the desert–that seems to have worked well the last few times), I’m going to ignore them and go with what I can see.

We are humans. We are carbon-based lifeforms. We are mammals, and we are primates. We feel social ties, form relatively long-term sexual relationships, and care for our young. We have complex systems of communication, which allow us to pass on experiences and mental models of the universe (truths) to our young.

Most importantly, we are just barely beginning to become sentient–to become self-aware, in the fullest sense. We know roughly what we are, and roughly where we’ve been. We’re learning more about the biology that drives us, and the mental quirks that affect the ways we think.

That knowledge has the potential to lead to the supremacy of the mind in the human species, the one single aspect of our anatomies that has led to our global domination of our belabored planet. It is the one thing that could lead to a quantum leap in evolutionary rapidity, or to a quick, radioactive extinction. It is, in short, the first taste of real freedom.

6. Where do we go from here?

There is little comfort in freedom. Sentience and responsibility are marks of maturity, as individuals and as a species, and to a young person or a young species, both can be terrifying.

Overcome the fear, though, and avoid screwing up on too large a scale, and there is the potential for abundant joy. The realization that we can, in fact, create our future is at once daunting and liberating, and calls for careful deliberation and quite a lot of forethought.

That is what Euthoria is all about. Not picking a paradise and hoping to follow the rules long enough to get there, but acting with deliberation and wisdom here, now, in order to take the next step along a Good Path. Making mistakes, learning lessons, and discovering astounding new things about the road ahead are all part of the experience.

I hope to see you along the way.

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  • [...] This is the second essay in a series introducing the Euthoria approach to living. If you haven’t yet read the prelude, read it here. [...]

  • [...] This is not the case, and you don’t have to be non-religious to understand that. Observational truth, by definition, only covers observation. The only faith needed for personal observation, then, is the faith that your senses and mind actually work. Pragmatically, this is the only useful assumption to make, as I mentioned in the prelude. [...]

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