Sunday, February 5, 2012

Our Fascination with Futility

I sometimes wonder what we would achieve if we followed the Stoic dictum that we should concern ourselves with things within our control, and disregarded things beyond our control.

Someone might object that there are things currently thought to be beyond our control that would in fact be within our control if we but attempted to control them.  Well and good; but this is something we address by doing things we can control (say, engaging in experiment) in the course of living our lives, in encountering problems we seek to solve.

This Stoic dictum is I think one of the aspects of Stoicism which is consistent with Pragmatism.  As I've no doubt mentioned before, I tend to agree with "Big John" Dewey that we only think when confronted with problems, and feel that problems are not problems, properly speaking, if they do not admit of a solution.  A solution is possible only if it may result in some resolution of the problem on which reasonable people will agree--otherwise, there can be no determinable, satisfactory, outcome.

We may infer that some "problems" are insoluble, and therefore not problems with which we should concern ourselves (as they are quite beyond our control), from various factors.  Among them would be the fact that they have been debated relentlessly for thousands of years, and are still debated today, generally using the same arguments or at best variants of those arguments that have been employed for centuries.  Most of these "problems" seem to be philosophical or religious in nature.

Clearly, such "problems" recur, and as they are ostensibly insoluble by any reasonable measure their recurrence must be due to some characteristic of humans which disposes us to consider them regardless of the fact that we never arrive at their solution.  Perhaps because we never arrive at their solution?

These so-called great questions are not necessarily great because we believe them to be of such importance that we continue to ask them without finding any answer.  They may simply be questions which are based on misapprehensions.  Or, our reasons for asking them may be fundamentally irrational. 

More and more, I feel that many of the "great questions" of humanity have their basis in our failure to take a reasonable view of the universe and our place in it.  More specifically, they are caused by our spectacular self-concern, self-love, self-regard. 

Note the word "spectacular."  There is nothing wrong with the fact we are concerned about ourselves and each other.  We should be so concerned.  There is less and less reason, however, to believe that we are of particular or peculiar concern from the perspective of the universe or, if you will, God.  Each day seems to bring revelations regarding the existence of extra-solar planets, for example, which may harbor not only life "as we know it" but life of other kinds.  The immensity of the universe, and the possibility that other universes, equally immense, may exist, renders the view that we are special or have a special importance and significance incredible.

The search for some special, inherent, meaning to our lives, or special purpose, seems misguided from this perspective.  So does our tendency to seek explanations for things that do not admit of explanations which humans in particular would be pleased by.

Whether God exists is not something within our control.  Whether evil exists is not something within our control.  Why evil exists if God exists is not something we can determine through argument.  Why we exist is not something we can determine through argument.

How we exist is something within our control.  We can determine how most people want to exist, as we can determine what most people desire.  We can make reasonable, equable, decisions on how to allocate resources available; we need not be selfish, angry, hateful, superstitious.  We have but to control what is in our control, but to do that we must disregard what is not in our control.

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