As I’ve mentioned before, I belong to a philosophy salon, in which a bunch of philosophers and hangers-on (like me) bicker about pre-selected papers (most recently “So It Goes” by J. David Velleman.) One honest-to-God philosopher is Catherine Wilson, who has a knack for calmly cutting through the bloviation. Wilson and I share an interest in war and altered states, among other topics. Her new book, How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well, is unusually clear-eyed for a work of philosophy (see this review in The Economist). I didn’t know much about Epicurus or his philosophy before reading the book. But Wilson has convinced me that Epicureanism, more than stoicism or Buddhism, is a philosophy for our scientific age. In fact, I think I may be an Epicurean. Below Wilson answers a few questions. –John Horgan
Horgan: Why philosophy? Has it given you what you’d hoped?
Wilson: As a friend of mine put it, philosophy is a commentary discipline. It’s versatile—you can take any branch of art or science you want to and find issues to look at philosophically.
My family were strong in science and mathematics, and they tended to regard philosophy as armchair speculation about basically insoluble or merely verbal problems, and so as not interesting. When I started as a graduate student, I gravitated first to logic and linguistics, then history and philosophy of science. Analytic metaphysics, which is the most admired branch of professional philosophy, never had any charm for me. But I am still happily in philosophy, though always with an empirical twist to it, still trying to interpret, to find patterns, structures, connections, disconnections. Over the years, I’ve investigated one main set of topics in early modern science centered on atomism, microscopy, and the machinery of living organisms, but I’ve always made side jumps into other topics and problems, such as how evolutionary theory relates to ethics and aesthetics, literature and emotion, consciousness, hallucination and hypnagogia, and the history of pacifism.
Horgan: So eclectic! Can you reason your way to happiness?
Wilson: Happiness, considered as a feeling, is episodic, and you get it from being in a certain situation, doing certain things. Does reason tell you what those things are? No: immediate experience does. Further, reason encourages worrying, which doesn’t make you so happy.
But if by reason you mean philosophy, and by happiness you mean some way of feeling more satisfied or less fearful and put upon, I would have to say yes. Any discipline gives you the satisfactions of learning and understanding. And both philosophy and the arts say essentially: ‘You are not alone. Others have thought and worried about this too.’ They connect you to your species; theoretically and emotionally, and this can give you encouragement and consolation.
So no philosophy can tell you anything you don’t already know about how to have happy experiences, but systematic philosophies like Epicureanism or Stoicism or Kantianism offer orientation. Each has a distinctive way of relating what it thinks is the way the world is to what ought to be the way it is and to what you ought to do.
Horgan: Can you reason your way out of fearing death?
Wilson: No and yes. If I learned that I had a progressive disease that would kill me in a few months and be preceded by pain and awful side effects from strongly recommended treatments, I would be very, very afraid. Thinking would not help, especially once I started to notice the first signs of that descent. But you can reason your way out of irresponsible and futile behavior with respect to death.
In late middle age, you can get your affairs in order, make a will and talk to your descendants about your wishes for yourself and even for them. You can decide how many screening tests you want to endure, how many drugs you want to take for the various conditions you will surely develop, and whether you want to want to heed all that generic doctor’s office advice about low-fat diets, caffeine and alcohol, and so forth. None of that is philosophy, but the Epicureans I study, after assuring you that you are going to be pulverized into atoms at some point like every other object in nature, argue that hedonism tempered by prudence and morality is the way to go in the meantime.
Horgan: Do you see any correlation between philosophical reflection and niceness?
Wilson: Er, not really. The nicest people I know professionally—the most interested, helpful, and generous-- are philosophers, and the worst –the most rivalrous, dishonest, and selfish--are philosophers too. This is just because I know more philosophers than people from any other single occupational group. But just as doctors and dentists are, or at least used to be statistically liable to drug addiction because they have or had ready access to drugs, philosophers are maybe statistically liable to amoralism because they have ready access to all the arguments why morality is fictional.
Horgan: Are you a hard-core atheist, or do you ever suspect that God exists?
Wilson: I’m pretty hard core. The idea of God as telekinetic mind with intelligence, knowledge, plans, preferences, control over events, etc., is completely unacceptable to me. This is obviously human projection taking thousands of highly elaborated cultural forms. Yet I have, in dire straits –in foxhole conditions you might say—experienced the feeling that I can only describe as my life or fate being in the hands of God. Like William James, I think there is religious experience and related forms of so-called mystical experience that are moving and meaningful. I just don’t believe in supernatural persons, and I think the forms of fear, hope, antipathy and confidence that the major world religions stimulate in people are more destructive than constructive.
Horgan: Hmm, maybe I’m an atheist too. Has Epicureanism really changed you, or has it confirmed what you already believed?
Wilson: Some things I thought I had worked out on my own, such as the idea of morality as a system of ‘advantage-reducing imperatives,’ I later found prefigured in Epicureanism, which of course made me like it --as well as my own ideas--more.
I was always in favor of biological life, children, good food, love, and scientific understanding based in the properties and dispositions of matter, things valorized by the ancient Epicureans, but not by the most prestigious traditions in Western thought. Maybe I’ve become firmer in these convictions as a result of studying Epicureanism. I’ve certainly become more critical of Stoicism as a fashionable popular philosophy. But I didn’t start studying Epicureanism with any of this in mind. I was originally interested in the recovery and development of atomic theories of matter in the early 17th century after centuries of opposition to them.
Horgan: Is it fair to expect someone who has written a self-help book to have her shit together?
Wilson: Self-help! I thought it was just a popular philosophy book. Who in this sublunary world does have it together? Like everybody else, I’m still experimenting and learning.
My actual self-help tips, as one disapproving-of-my-whole-approach reviewer pointed out, come down to a few things like getting rid of all those plastic bottles around your bathtub. I do have it together as far as that’s concerned, but I am absolutely not a rules-for-living person.
People love rules. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t even have language, let alone manners, morals, or art forms. And they love to read books and articles with rules promising success in this or that enterprise such as careers or relationships. These rules are usually just what somebody guesses will work, as opposed to advice based on careful observation and comparison of large cohorts who did A or who did B.
My normative approach mainly involves asking yourself questions –including what do I or anyone actually know about this? That said, I am eager to learn whether my analysis in the chapter ‘Beware of Love!’ helps anybody, and I have some hopes for the hedonism-modified-by prudence strategies in my chapter on ‘Science and Skepticism’ and for the chapter on Epicurean political theory, which is critical of all rights-based political argument.
Horgan: Well, I found your book helpful. With the exception of Epicurus, the ancient philosophers seem to have been pretty sexist. Have things gotten better?
Wilson: For most of history, Woman, as they call us in all our wild diversity, was the Other of reason and virtue, the very model –and fashioned into the very model--of how a person ought not to be. Don’t be emotional, uneducated, dependent, childbearing, or averse to warfare. Be the opposite! All the clerical religions are misogynistic, and so are most philosophies, especially Kant’s, with the Epicureans (mostly) constituting an exception.
It is better now. Science and social science dispelled the myth of female incompetence and revealed the biases of social judgment. Philosophers began to analyze power relations in ordinary life. In addition to new knowledge, deliberate and courageous social action was and is essential to effecting change. I admire my colleagues, male as well as female, who have pushed for statistical equality in graduate admissions and female representation at conferences and in journals. It should be obvious that the admission of women into academic life through ‘affirmative action’ has raised standards and expectations all around, not lowered them.
I was sorry to see that a recent list of the ‘50 most influential living philosophers’ had less than 20%- women. Where were Ruth Millikan, Patricia Churchland, Elizabeth Anderson, Catharine MacKinnon, Carol Pateman, and Rae Langton?
Horgan: Good question. What does it say about modern philosophy that perspectives such as Epicureanism, Stoicism and Buddhism remain so popular? Could that be a sign that philosophy hasn’t really progressed that much?
Wilson: I think philosophy progresses in terms of branching and extinction –like the tree of life--not necessarily in terms of problem-solving. A given question can become more complex, more interdisciplinary, more ways of discussing and considering it can emerge, but it doesn’t get solved unless and until it is converted into a purely scientific problem or a problem about concept-formation in a given culture.
People turn to analytical-prescriptive philosophies like the very old ones you mention for two reasons. First, contemporary academic philosophy is specialized and technicalized to the point where not just the lay person but almost nobody outside the subspecialty can understand and evaluate a proposal. It is also very conscious of and respectful of the fact-value distinction. Ancient philosophies and religions by contrast can be studied via a selection of pithy sayings and recommendations. Second, many people –I include myself here-- realize there is something wrong with the values of the dominant culture. We see that we work too many hours and consume too much, that too many of our relationships are purely transactional, and that the idol of growth is not leading to Adam Smith’s predicted ‘universal opulence,’ but to immiseration and environmental destruction. So we look for alternatives that were developed in low technology pre-industrial societies.
Horgan: Speaking of Buddhism, what’s your view of it?
Wilson: As positive religion, it is not my cup of tea. It has a clerisy, monks, nuns and priests, separate standards and modes of life for the elect and for the laypeople, and lots of superstitious elements, such as karma and rebirth. Even if you distill Buddhism down to its central doctrines and purify it of those elements, I am wary.
Buddhism shares with Epicureanism the idea that states and things are impermanent and must be reckoned so, and both philosophies emphasize compassion. But Buddhism prescribes detachment as the remedy for suffering (as does Stoicism in a somewhat different way) whereas the Epicurean sees attachment --love and friendship-- however precarious, as a source of delight and as giving us the motivation to live.
Also I don’t find the no-self view compelling. From a biological perspective, the self-world distinction is baked into all living organisms, in our own case phenomenologically as well as behaviorally. In mystical experience or by taking dissociative drugs, we can erase this self-world phenomenology and it will feel like the destruction of an illusion. If this leads to less grasping and selfish behavior that’s a good thing, but the feeling of no-self is just as much a feeling as the feeling of self-hood, not a higher truth.
Wilson: There is no hope, I think, of a neuroscience or a metaphysics of free will. But free will is ‘a thing’. I think there are two components to it, the phenomenological and the social. Phenomenologically, we know what it is like to ponder options, make a decision, make a difficult decision, resist an impulse, and to change one’s mind when encountering new evidence. To the extent that we are all capable of having these experiences, thanks to our great big neocortices, we humans have free will, even if a Laplacean intelligence could have foreseen every twist and turn and every outcome beforehand.
At the same time, our notion of ‘being able to do otherwise,’ on which deservingness depends, is socially constructed. It is a weakly grounded but surprisingly confident inference from observation that furnishes an estimate of what a normal person can learn to do or not to do.
For example, we think everybody, apart from a few ‘psychopaths,’ can easily be and has been socialised not to plan murders and carry them out. Accordingly, we think if you had the decision-making and action phenomenology, you weren’t in a trance when you made a plan and murdered somebody, you did it freely, and we punish you.
In other scenarios, such as when you win a piano competition, we reward you. We know or surmise that you stayed indoors, practiced hard, and sacrificed, or your parents did. And we know from observation that many people give up the piano, but we see that you didn’t. You are therefore special and ‘deserve’ your prize, even if according to a Laplacean intelligence it was inevitable that you would compete and win,
I don’t think phenomenology + social judgment gives us a justification for punishment, the infliction of pain, only for reward. If punishment doesn’t reform or deter it is just persecution. That’s my best shot at solving this age-old problem, or rather at turning it into a soluble problem.
Horgan: Thanks for that. You mentioned your interest in pacificism above. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to convince people, mostly in vain, that we can end war once and for all. Do you think it’s possible?
Wilson: I’m glad to hear that, and I agree it’s possible. The end of war should be a no-brainer. Think of the enormous ‘peace dividend’ that would result from redirecting the talent and money that go into military research, arms manufacture, arms purchases, maintaining and training armies, and even caring for the victims of warfare into solving the collective problems of humanity—climate change, the environment, housing, health, transportation and education. But militarism is entrenched in philosophy in the form of ‘just war theory,’ which I reject, and in our institutions. As long as humans revere and trust belligerent strongmen as their leaders and are indoctrinated into patriotic, narrowly nationalistic, rather than cosmopolitan ideals, we will have wars.
Up to now, the anti-war movement has focused on the wrongness of killing. Its arguments have not been widely influential because people can’t help but think of killing as a way of saving. We will always need a weapon-bearing police force for international affairs, just as we need one in our towns and cities, but nationalistic balance of power and containment doctrines are just so yesterday. That’s why I think the way forward is to make the economic costs of the global ‘system of war’ –as the Abbé St. Pierre called it back in the 18th century --much more obvious than they currently are. Meanwhile, I am encouraged by even small steps such as the interest in ‘nonoffensive defense’ in forward thinking military circles and empirical work on how to respond safely and effectively to the threats and the hostage taking of belligerent strongmen.
Horgan: What’s your utopia?
Wilson: Less plastic, less shopping, more plants, animals, and insects. An end to noise pollution, air pollution, and light pollution. Everyone would have fresh, colorful food, meaningful work, and a pathway down to an Epicurean garden.
See Q&As with Scott Aaronson, David Albert, David Chalmers, Noam Chomsky, David Deutsch, George Ellis, Marcelo Gleiser, Robin Hanson, Nick Herbert, Jim Holt, Sabine Hossenfelder, Sheila Jasanoff, Stuart Kauffman, Christof Koch, Garrett Lisi, Christian List, Tim Maudlin, James McClellan, Hedda Hassel Mørch, Priyamvada Natarajan, Naomi Oreskes, Martin Rees, Carlo Rovelli, Rupert Sheldrake, Peter Shor, Lee Smolin, Sheldon Solomon, Amia Srinivasan, Paul Steinhardt, Philip Tetlock, Tyler Volk, Steven Weinberg, Edward Witten, Peter Woit, Stephen Wolfram and Eliezer Yudkowsky.
See Catherine Wilson talk to Robert Wright on Meaningoflife.tv.