CURRENT READING – WHERE DID THE UNIVERSE COME FROM?

Where Did The Universe Come From?by Chris Ferrie and Geraint F. Lewis

“I think the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science.”– Steven Hawking, Brief Answers to the Big Questions.

As we move next to ultimate reality and a return to the question of the existence of the divine, I thought it might make sense to revisit the question of the origin of the universe, historically the major justification for belief in God. I stumbled onto this book while visiting Stanford University and could not pass it by as again I came face to face with a lay explanation of the scientific solution to this fundamental problem.  One of the earliest axioms of the ancient Greek philosophers was that something cannot come from nothing, and in truth most of us still assume this to be the case. I suspect even the most committed physicist would be hard pressed to believe a pebble, a book, an automobile, or a novel life-form materialized out of thin air, but each of these is in fact possible (albeit infinitesimally so) in the strange world of quantum mechanics. In the first 37 pages, Ferrie and Lewis present with great clarity the hypothesis of a “universe from nothing” based on this system.

Quantum physics we are told began with Max Planck’s revelation that the glow from heated metal comes from the discreet ‘jiggling’ of charges in ‘chunks’ called quanta. Then Albert Einstein building on James Clerk Maxwell’s four equations on electromagnetic waves and the fixed speed of light in a vacuum formulated the general and special theories of relativity which reveal that (1) space and time are relative and only the speed of light is absolute and (2) mass and energy are interchangeable (E=mc2). After the Russian mathematician, Alexander Friedmann conceived of the universe as dynamic and evolving and Edwin Hubble documented the universe was expanding, it became apparent that if one rolls back time, the cosmos began with something like Georges Lemaitre’s ‘primeval atom’ – a theory which Fred Hoyle mockingly called the Big Bang. However the job of the scientist is now much more manageable as in that case only the appearance of this primeval atom or ‘singularity’ must be explained. So far so good!

Ferrie and Lewis next take on nothing, which they designate as a “chunk of space devoid of any matter or radiation”1 (they freely admitting that it is hard to imagine the alternative kind of nothing “where you strip away the space and time themselves.”). It turns out that empty space “seethes with particles popping in and out of existence” a phenomenon known as quantum fluctuations. Werner Heisenberg explained this phenomenon by developing matrixes of numbers which when multiplied together gave different results based on the order of multiplication (that is A x B is not equal to B x A) with the unexpected discovery that we can never precisely know all the properties of an object, a conclusion which came to be known as the uncertainty principle. The upshot of this theory, according to Niels Bohr, is that we must learn to reject our preconceived notion that things exist (at least in the exact sense we assume).

(continued next post)

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – SYNTHESIS (final continuation)

 

In the last two posts I described two pyramids of contentment: the first premised on engagement with the world and the second premised on limited involvement in society beyond a small circle of devotees of atarxia. Today we scale the final pyramid of contentment, one predicated on a complete or nearly complete withdrawal from the world and even from the society of others. This model will generally appeal to a small number of persons, particularly those seeking a purity of internal purpose – usually conceived either as enlightenment or as mystical union. Virtue is still foundational, but here internal virtue – self-mastery and self-transcendence – surpasses all other considerations. Single-minded internal virtue demands renunciation, not only of passions and desires, but even of many civilized necessities such as shelter, diverse diet, change of clothing, and of course technology. However the critical renunciation involves one’s long-cherished personal beliefs and one’s individual ego. This degree of withdrawal demands isolation from the world of humanity and non-intervention even in the proceedings of Nature.

The means to contentment, enlightenment, and the divine is disciplined and patient meditation (or contemplation) performed on a regular basis. Within that program one must confront death not as merely inevitable, but as integral to internal peace and the attainment of enlightenment and mystical union. The death of the ego or (its denial) is fundamental. Of course these foundational layers are enhanced by a supportive environment, either an uninhabited location (such as the desert Fathers preferred), a pastoral setting (such as Laozi and Buddha chose), or at least an insulated residence within a community.

PYRAMID OF WITHDRAWAL

 

Along the way, the seeker of the contentment through worldly withdrawal must also come to terms with his or her chosen or imposed lot as we learn from imprisoned sages such as Boethius, Sir Thomas More, and St. John of the Cross. Each came to a kind of contentment in stark solitude and deprivation. Complete, voluntary self-denial may not be necessary as Buddha teaches with his “Middle Way,’ but neither can one achieve contentment while protesting one’s misfortunes.

Purpose in this model is generally singular – the achievement of enlightenment or union with ultimate reality – perhaps with the subordinate purpose of being an example for others (e.g. the Cynics). The drive to other goals must be overcome for the practitioner of withdrawal to be successful. In fact, an intense desire to achieve enlightenment or mystical union may undermine their actualization. Last, friends are of limited importance except to the extent one requires a guide or master who may also train others, some or all of whom may be seen as friends.

This completes our synthesis on contentment. The reader should exert significant effort to determine which model to utilize depending on logistics, personal beliefs, desired purpose, and stage in life. To me the most difficult model is that of engagement with the world while the most accessible is that of restraint. The Pyramid of Withdrawal is the one we must likely climb to reach the fourth component of the meaningful life, ultimate reality, which is the subject of the next section on this site.

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANING OF LIFE – SYTHESIS (third continuation)

Last time we constructed a pyramid of the factors affecting contentment for the individual who determines purpose requires engagement with the world. Today we look at our second model which applies to those who prefer to limit engagement with the world from the start or who have completed social or cosmic purpose and wish to move on from it. The foundation remains virtue, but in this scenario virtue refers mainly to self-discipline and scrupulously ethical conduct towards family and friends.

One tier up comes the sine qua non of contentment in a life of restraint: the goal of a state of absolute freedom from worry and discomfort called ataraxia by the ancient Greeks. The Epicurean truth underpinning this state is that the objects of most desires and passions are overvalued and that contentment comes not from satisfaction of such desires, but from rejecting and controlling them. The vital necessities of life are easily obtained and thus one need not stress about them. The virtues of self-control and self-denial combine with this truth like an equation adding up to lasting tranquility. Peace of mind then plays out as freedom from irrational desire and passion, a reduction in concern for the ongoing events in the world, and an absence of fear of the supernatural.

   PYRAMID OF RESTRAINT

However partial withdrawal from the world must not lead to boredom and loneliness so an important element is friendship, specifically relationships with close friends who form a community or close-knit circle. One can anticipate not only pleasure from true friends but mirrors of virtue and serenity. Similarly a rural or semi-rural environment helps one keep optimal distance from the disturbances and intrusions of a hectic world. Measured seclusion and noninterference in the affairs of men contribute to one’s peace of mind and an undisturbed quality of life. Purpose is intentionally limited, mainly to serving as an ethical actor in the success of a community or circle of likeminded individuals.

Dealing with death is a key but limited issue in this model. One must discover for oneself that while death may be inevitable, it is not inherently evil or to be feared. Death is at worst a brief discomfort followed by permanent rest. Thus it is neither a rational source of discontent nor worthy of great concentration. Living contently in the moment with the simple pleasures of subsistence and caring friends is the very nature of happiness.

While this paradigm of contentment will seldom suffice for the expectations of a young adult in modernity, it remains the likely resting point for most mature adults once they fulfill their self-determined essential purpose in the larger world.

Next time we finish with the Pyramid of Withdrawal.

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANING OF LIFE – SYNTHESIS (further continued)

Each of the three pyramids is founded on virtue, but above that foundation they have little in common. Moreover the kind of virtue that dominates varies. The model of engagement is ultimately founded on virtue at every level. Inner virtue is key to external virtue, and a life of involvement in the world includes proximate, social, and cosmic reality. To fully function in the world, one needs, as Confucius tells us, to create order in the home. Social purpose imposes a need for proximate and social virtue.

The pyramid of engagement is likely to dominate the majority of early and middle life for most of us as we focus on purpose inside our family, with our friends and close associates, and in society or for cosmic ends. The crux of contentment within these latter purposes is the ability to come to terms with a key truth – success in social or cosmic purpose is contingent on factors outside oneself. Equilibrium is maintained not by dogged resistance to this truth, but by offering the best we can and disconnecting our happiness from the final result as we have been taught by the Bhagavad Gita and by Laozi.

   PYRAMID OF ENGAGEMENT

Within this world of engagement with its crowds, traffic jams, ceaseless stimulation, and ever-growing list of problems and crises, a key skill is the ability to retreat inside oneself as Marcus Aurelius discovered two thousand years ago. The disequilibrium resulting from an inevitable sense of fatalism in the quest for social purpose is managed by some degree of acceptance of the nature of the world and one’s place within it, i.e. one’s lot in life as Horace so poetically wrote.

Nonetheless each person is likely to encounter at least intermittent psychological hurdles that impair contentment in the engaged model and so techniques enumerated by three generations of psychologists offer additional relief. Friendships offer a less available but highly effective retreat from the disturbances of the engaged life so they too must be nurtured. Quietude and solitude are difficult to deploy by the person fully in the world, but serve as temporary pressure valves as for example when we leave on vacation or take a “mental health day.” However the environment for engagement is to a large extent fixed and thus this is of lower importance.

We end with the least critical factor for contentment in this model, confrontation with mortality. To some extent we must deploy Becker’s denial of death to acquire sufficient equanimity to fulfill social purpose, but we also must recognize Heidegger’s temporality to permit optimal focus for any hope to succeed. Final acceptance of death is likely a late phenomenon for the content person engaged in the world, but remembering our limited time helps alleviate the strain of purpose when we take up retreat into our inner self.

(third continuation next post)

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – SYNTHESIS

“It is best for a man to live his life with as much contentment and as little grief as possible; this will come about if he does not take his pleasures in mortal things.”  – Democritus

The major thesis of this site is that a meaningful life is assembled on four parallel tracks: virtue, purpose, contentment, and the experience of ultimate reality. In the last 63 blogs we have examined many facets and viewpoints of contentment, but one still might ask how to best negotiate the labyrinth of seemingly endless disturbances and impediments modern life throws at us on the road to it.

It seems to me the fundamental question still comes down to one’s individual preference or level of comfort in choosing one of three general approaches to the world: withdrawal, restraint, or engagement. Each leads to a different pyramid of factors with subtle differences in many of those factors based on the approach chosen. In the appendix (to be published 9/21/22) is a matrix of the ten basic factors we have seen are operative in contentment: (1) attainment of virtue and thus freedom from guilt, (2) achievement of purpose, (3) freedom from desire and passion (including asceticism), (4) quietude and solitude, (5) apatheia, (6) meditation and relaxation techniques, (7) friendship, (8) environment, (9) confrontation with the inevitability of death, and (10) embrace of final truths.

From that table, we can construct three pyramids with the factors most influential for achieving contentment forming the lower levels and less vital or less emphasized factors at the top. Since I believe the life path for most readers and, in fact, for most modern people is one of engagement with the world, that pyramid comes first. A smaller number of individuals may choose the partial withdrawal of Epicurus, so that comes next. Few people born into our time will choose to renounce society and pursue a path similar to Buddha, the Cynics, or the medieval monks, so I place it last.

Nonetheless I believe there may be a chronological element here as well. The wisest among us are likely to choose the path of engagement in their younger and socially productive years followed by a move to increasing restraint in middle age  near the end of one’s career and after one’s children are grown and secure, but final contentment may be facilitated by or even depend upon choosing a higher degree of withdrawal late in life.

(continued next post)

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANING OF LIFE – SUMMARY (finish)

In our ongoing synopsis we have already reviewed definitions and distinctions of, and antagonisms and approaches to contentment, and the thoughts of ancient and later thinkers on it. That takes us to scientific pathways presented by psychology. Models include: (1) Erich Fromm’s humanistic paradigm of  meeting authentic needs buttressed by self-respect, ethical behavior, and a capacity for relaxedness, (2) Psycho-analytical treatments of chronic anxiety which eradicate its causes and redirect energy into healthy and productive lifestyles, (3) Cognitive/behavioral techniques that facilitate tranquility and insight, (4) Positive psychology with its focus on subjective well-being, (5) Self-guided programs involving practices such as breath control and progressive muscle relaxation, and (6) Pharmacologic therapy adjunctive to psychological and philosophical efforts. To a large extent most psychologists encourage the guidance of a professional but I still believe some of these techniques and eventual success are possible by the individual alone for many of us.

We next surveyed three portals to contentment: silence, solitude, and aestheticism. Silence refers not only to finding a quiet space, but also listening to the universe, attending to the gap between sounds, and suspending unnecessary action. Solitude is a sweet spot of voluntary but reversible separation from others without subjective feelings of loneliness and augmented by self-sufficiency. Asceticism brings serenity through disciplined but moderate and ethically-consistent privation accompanied by mindfulness, and spiritual freedom.

We ended with Horace, part poet/part philosopher, who provides insights into contentment that sort into two broad categories: (1) individual actions, such as living each day fully and embracing one’s lot in life, and (2) special considerations – such as the value of friendship, the perils of romantic love, and the need to confront and prepare for death. Success, for Horace, is measured by a steady mind which we are assured is entirely within the grasp of the individual.

This completes our summary, but we have one last step in finishing our analysis of contentment as a feature of the meaningful life – a synthesis of these many pieces and philosophies into a whole accessible to people faced with the challenges of modernity. I will attempt that next time.

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANING OF LIFE – SUMMARY (continued)

In closing this section on contentment I began with definitions and distinctions, methods to free ourselves from emotional and empirical obstacles, and structures based on three approaches to interacting with the world. Our review next returns to the lessons of several great traditions and thinkers. First the ancient Eastern masters emphasize withdrawal, renunciation, or non-intervention, combined with recognition and meditation on eternal truths, the reading of scriptures and texts, and often the guidance of spiritual teachers. They downplay the need for lasting purpose and elevate the importance of the experience of ultimate reality. Peace for them comes not from the direct seeking, but from letting go of worldly concerns and individual desires, unmasking the truth of reality, and at last finding enlightenment.

From the ancient Western philosophers of Greece and Rome we saw that contentment distills down to freedom – freedom from wants and from worry and to order the soul for inner peace. Theirs is an inviolable freedom no person or law can threaten. Three ancient Greek terms ataraxia (untroubledness), apatheia (detachment), and euthymia (spiritual peace and well-being) enclose a triangle of tranquility located within a mental retreat beyond the crowd and its disquietudes where one can contemplate the harmony of one’s existence with Nature and the universe.

Later thinkers offer points for fine tuning contentment. Boethius sees contentment reflected in the final truth of the goodness at the heart of things leading to a love that re-establishes one’s union with the providence of the universe. Philosophy, he tells us, provides an explanation as to why we must accept our individual fortune within the construct of the cosmos and the means to self-mastery and internally-focused tranquility. Montaigne encourages rational withdrawal, particularly from avoidable evils, which following a youth of instruction and an adulthood of good practice should bring one to contentment later in life in a setting of solitude and freedom from worldly concerns and which permits sufficient time to overcome one’s fear of mortality and to prepare for death. Arthur Schopenhauer tempers excess expectations, asserting that contentment is not happiness but the acceptance of a moderate life and freedom from anxiety, society, unnecessary mourning, and the folly of excessive desires, enhanced by ceaseless learning. Sigmund Freud is pessimistic, finding happiness and lasting content are improbable, but after considering several approaches, offers sage advice: there is no universal recipe, rather one must find one’s particular means to peace and be careful in pursuing any means to the extreme given the disappointment of possible failure.

(finished next post)

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – SUMMARY

“Do your work then step back, the only path to serenity.” – Laozi.

In this section we have seen that contentment accompanies virtue and purpose as the third key ingredient of a meaningful life. For our purposes, I defined contentment as lasting tranquility combined with genuine satisfaction with one’s lifestyle, virtue, and purpose. It is not pleasure, joy, or salvation, nor is it contingent on leisure, the absence of responsibilities, or a good life, although several of these may be conducive to it. It is not the same as happiness, nor sufficient to sustain happiness. One cannot have too much contentment as in the case of pleasure nor share it as one can share happiness.

Contentment differs from virtue and purpose by manifesting nearly completely in internal reality while the other two are shaped more by proximate, social, and even cosmic reality. Contentment is thus highly subjective, and some persons might even argue their life can be meaningful without ever reaching the point of contentment. To them I would say that contentment is, at a minimum, an indication of the attainment of virtue and purpose, and the absence of contentment may be a warning sign that the meaning of one’s life is precarious or incomplete.

We began on the path to finding contentment by looking at its antagonisms: emotional states such as anxiety, fear, dread, and unease (especially guilt); and empirical states such as suffering, want, dissatisfaction, and absurdity. The former are alleviated by meditation, atonement, psychological techniques, or even medication. The latter are overcome through embracing four critical truths: (1) suffering is universal but manageable, (2) desires are either readily satisfied or illusion, (3) dissatisfaction is merely a temporary setback on the road to contentment, and (4) the apparent absurdity of life, is in the larger sense, a deception. From this analysis we discover that contentment entails radical freedom, that is, freedom from the experience of ourselves and reality in negative terms.

Contentment also has three different structures originating in one’s approach to living in the world: (1) withdrawal, (2) restraint, and (3) engagement. Withdrawal makes sense when one sees the world as an endless and tedious cycle where action is futile, and abstention can induce personal peace, especially when paired with disciplined meditation. Restraint in one’s interaction with the world is epitomized by the ancient Greek philosophers’ striving for ataraxia through partial withdrawal from worldly affairs combined with a conscious effort to avoid all sources of unease or troubledness. In that case a reduction in wants and passions, and individual purpose found in simple pleasures within a limited community and the contemplation of nature, rather than total seclusion and meditation, bring about contentment. The third model seeks contentment within a context of continued activity and purpose in the world, and thus peace is found in detaching one’s feelings from the results of one’s actions, a dispassionate attitude to one’s environment, and an intense focus on completion of tasks (mindfulness), perhaps with some form of regular meditation.

(continued next post)

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – HORACE (continued)

Last time we began our investigation of the thoughts of the ancient Roman poet, Horace, on contentment by addressing internal and behavioral adjustments he advocates to bring it about. Today we consider three special areas Horace believes influence personal tranquility. The first is friendship which Horace, following Epicurus, believes is advantageous to lasting contentment as long as it is based on character and virtue, not social status. Friends offer relief from public pressures, an environment for relaxation, a positive influence on happiness, and service in consoling one another. They also form the community of peaceful retirement. Consider this poem by written by Horace to a friend:

 

When Jupiter grants a lengthy spring

And warm mid-winters, and the Aulon valley,

Friend to fertile Bacchus, need feel no envy of

The grapes of Falerii.

 

That is the place that calls you and me

With its happy citadels: there you will scatter

With due tears the still-warm ashes of

Your friend the poet.7

In contrast to friendship, romantic love is, for Horace, an impediment to contentment.  Peace of mind and psychological balance are disturbed by the erotic passion of Eros. Romantic love is, for him, a stage for youthful excess and emotional highs and lows which are “tempered in time by the moderation of middle-aged wisdom.”8  Add to this the destructiveness of jealousy, the folly of petulant protest, and the brevity of intense love and one recognizes that moderate monogamy is more conducive to the imperturbability of the truly virtuous and wise person. Love is like the sea, appearing calm from a distance, but stormy when riding its waves.

The last special consideration is death; Horace counsels us not to foster long term desires, but to live each day as if it is the last because “Sweet is the hour that comes unexpected…”9 Since life is brief and death inevitable the content person will wisely face death with equilibrium. And suicide, when reasoned, remains an honorable choice for the contented. Consider this ode:

 

Be sure to keep a level mind in steep times

And likewise on that is restrained

From excessive joys in good times,

Dellius, doomed to die,

It makes no odds if you are rich and spring

From Inachus of old, or whether you are poor

And of humble family in your stay under the sky,

You victim of Hades who has no pity:

 

We are all herded the same way, for all of us

Our lot is shaken in the urn, destined to leap out

Sooner or later to load us

On the boat to eternal exile.10

Much of what we hear from Horace sounds clichéd, even trite, but then we must remember he was first or among the first to compile these simple thoughts and tips for our benefit. Perhaps if Horace were here he might compose a rhyme to remind us that we make contentment far too complex and difficult. At the end of the day, this particular facet of the good life is ours for simply for the taking.

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8Harrison, Stephen (editor/translator), How To Be Content – Horace. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2020. ISBN 978-0-691-18252-0, page 145.

9Ibid., page 85.

10Ibid., pages 199-202.