Coffee & WisdomPodcasts

Coffee & Wisdom 02.77: Naive Optimism and Stone Walls Part 3

David Breeden is speaking all week about Naive Optimism


Please Subscribe



Hello, I’m David Breeden, I am the Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically humanist congregation. This is “Coffee and Wisdom”. And this week we are looking at optimism, foolish optimism, over-optimism, no optimism at all, and which is kind of what I’m going to talk about today. I’ve been looking at the phrase “Vertitas vox liberabit”, which means “the truth shall make you free”, and which is actually a quote from the Gospel of John 8:32 taken out of context, as I have been discussing. But that kind of appeals to people that somehow the truth will do something to make you free. So one of the things that I have been thinking about here is, you know, what is a concept of truth? How do we want to talk about that? And so I’m just differentiating here between truth and fact, and what’s the difference between a truth and a fact? A truth cannot be seen. For example, “justice” that is an abstraction, “democracy” that is an abstraction. And you can see also that these are human invented ideas. A fact can be seen or measured. And in this case, think about gravity. No, you can’t really see it, but you can see its effects. You can measure its effects, and that would be a fact. You can do gravity experiments anywhere in our world and come up with a lot very similar kinds of ideas and answers. So a truth is socially constructed, all right, a truth is socially constructed. And that’s how I want to talk about this then.

And if it is socially constructed a truth, we don’t have the truth with a capital T anymore. We have a whole lot of little T truths out in the world. Yesterday I discussed one of the first ideas that came along in the Western world to question this idea of what we see in terms of languag in reality. It was a philosophical essay by Frederick Nietzsche in the 1870’s called “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.” He’s not going to worry about whether or not it’s moral to tell the truth or to lie. Rather, can we discover any truth at all? And his conclusion on that, to be very brief, if you want to know the whole thing, look back to yesterday’s program. But he says truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions. So we have elided a metaphor. We have elided concepts into something that we’re calling a truth that actually well, now it’s not really quite a truth. It’s just an abstraction. Now, one of the groups that looked at this a long time ago are the skeptics. And nowadays we, too, that use the term skeptical all the time. But it was originally a philosophical movement, first in India and then in Greece. A skeptic means “skepsis”, it’s based on the Greek word skepsis, which means investigation. So skeptics are those who investigate. And they also call themselves the “ephektikoi”, they are those who suspend judgment.

The Greek verb for this is Époque. They put things in brackets so that, you know, I’m not going to really decide about that at Epoque. So the goal is a relaxed life without unsubstantiated beliefs. I want to live my life in such a way that I don’t believe anything that I don’t know is in some way tested. Well, if you’ve been reading Nietzsche, you know that that’s not a whole lot that you’re going to be doing in terms of substantiated beliefs. So there you go. Now, this is based on a much older idea. The first skeptics are the Ajnana school which was absorbed later into the Jains and Buddhism in northern India. The main figure in this movement is Sanjaya Belatthiputta, I hope I got that kind of right, from the 600’s BCE and he was a contemporary of the Buddha. Northern India in the six hundreds before the Common Era was a hotbed of philosophical and religious thinking. And this Ajnana School was the center of the ideas as a kind of absolute skepticism. Now this Hindu movement later is absorbed, it’s kind of disappeared from Hinduism, although it does create some other subgroups like the Carvakas, who are the first true atheists in recorded history anyway, people who say, well, I just don’t think there can be a God. But this is a little bit earlier than that. And it is later absorbed into other North Indian ideas that then are spread around the world.

So one of Sanjaya’s ideas is, “I do not think not, or not not.” So I’m just not going to decide on these things. He’s skeptical. He investigates everything. I do not think not or not not. And these guys were very good at arguing. They loved arguing, as did the later Greek skeptics. And not only did they argue, but they believed they should be able to argue both sides of any object. So, yeah, they can argue very convincingly about not and also not not. And any time they did that, they would always end the argument by the denial of denial, saying that you can’t deny denial. No. And so everything I’ve just said is absolutely not true and can’t be proven. So you deny even the idea of denial. So there you go; an absolutely, ultimately skeptical way of thinking. Well, where does this come into Western thinking? Well, it comes in, in something called Pyrrhonism. Pyrrhonism. And there is a book you can pick up if you want to find out more about this by Adrian Kuzminski. “Pyrrhonism, How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism.” Now how did that happen? Well, it’s a very interesting story, actually. There was this guy, Pyrrho (Pyrrhonism) Pyrrho of Elis, who lives sometime in the three hundreds before the common era. He was attached to Alexander the Great’s army that went sweeping around the world in conquest. And he spent time as a young person in both Persia and also in India.

Another book on this theme is Christopher I. Beckwith’s “Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia.” Now what’s going on? Three hundred years previously, we had had these ideas I was just talking about happening in northern India. They’re all still mixed up with the movements that haven’t yet differentiated themselves into contemporary Buddhism or later Buddhism, later Hindu forms and also the Jains. So these are still a matrix of ideas that are floating around. And by golly, the young Pyrrho ran into all of that with Alexander the Great’s army, and he began to think in a new way. One of the interesting things about Pyrrho is that he’s one of the few Greek thinkers in, you know we always talk about, oh ancient Greek philosophy. Well, they’re almost all focused on Socrates and then Plato, in terms of how they develop their ideas, Pyrrho is the only one who’s completely an outlier. He never refers to Socrates. He’s not worried about any of those ideas. And so where did he get those ideas? And it does appear that he got them from India and Persia. So the goal of Pyrrhonism. You’re going to see, if you begin to do some research on this, that there are two forms of skepticism. This is the older form and it’s usually called Pyrrhonism. But you will also see it referred to as skepticism. So the goal of Pyrrhonism is eudaimonia. Now, those who have been following, along with “Coffee and Wisdom” already know all about eudaimonia,

we’ve spent some time on that. It was the goal of all of the ancient Greek philosophical schools, and it meant a good spirit or a good life. It’s often mistranslated as happiness, but really it means, a whole way, a whole matrix of how we live in the world. Now Pyrrho is going to say, let’s look at how we go about doing that. How do we achieve the goal of eudaimonia, first in an abstract way? And he says first ask, what is the nature of pragmata? Now, this is a term we know very well in English still today. That’s the pragmatics of life, the things in our lives in general. What are the nature of the things around us that we deal with every day? Well, the second question to ask yourself is, given the nature of pragmata, all the things that are around me every day, what should I do? What should I do, given the facts of how my life is going? And then three is, what will the outcome of acting in this way be? How should I act? And then, how will my actions, if I base them on this idea, how will they affect the way that I live? So a very centering way of thinking about reality and our ways of dealing with it. Now, Pyrrho’s advice for a good life goes like this. Number one: Nothing can be differentiated as to true or false, real or unreal.

All things are unstable, unjudgeable and undecidable. And yeah, that’s probably you know, that’s kind of what Nietzsche and others are getting at. Everything is a little bit unstable in the world. Yeah, no, not gravity, but my political opinions, my philosophical opinions, my religious opinions are unstable and may or may not be based on any real ways of thinking. Therefore, neither our sense perceptions nor our views, theories or belief, our doxai (where we get the term orthodox that we use) our doxai, our beliefs tell us either truth or falsehood. Our doxai just don’t tell us anything, actually. And therefore, we should not rely on those doxai to build our lives because they’re just unstable and actually, finally unknown and unknowable. Well, rather, we should be without views. Now, wait a minute. How can you do that? Well, that’s the whole point of this. The Buddhists are going to call this non-attachment. That’s the word that’s going to come into the English language anyway. But Pyrrho is getting it apparently from this idea of non-attachment. Don’t get attached to your views. Be a- without doxastoi. Don’t be completely not orthodox. Right. Don’t have any ideas that you believe, OK. And then therefore be unaligned on one side or the other, ak-lineis, and yeah that’s one of the words we get for being on one side or another of the line. So be unaligned on either one side or the other of any belief, and unwavering then in our refusal to choose. We will be at ak-radantoi, radius is a word that comes out of Greek and English of that.

Don’t take it in. Don’t embrace any of those doxai, right? Because all is, as he will say, both is and is not, no more is than is not. And neither is nor is not. So you don’t know enough to make any real decisions on any of these things. So, better just to back off and not try. We’re realizing the pointlessness of assigning the labels good and bad, which nowadays we would call value judgments. Adopt a not and not not stance which leads to a-taraxia. We’ve also talked about that before. Not disturbed, be undisturbed or achieve undisturbedness. In other words, relax, because you’re not going to be able to know much in this life anyway, so why worry about it? I mentioned this book before. If you really love this kind of ancient thought, “What is Ancient Philosophy?” by Pierre Hadot. He was a French neo-classicist who also argued that philosophy should be a way of life, not just a bunch of old ideas. And so he pulls out these sorts of ideas. And certainly the early skepticism is one of those and is probably based on the same ideas that the Buddha was using to develop Buddhism. So skeptics, they investigate skepsis, they investigate things and they are ephektikoi. They bracket out judgments and say, you know, I just don’t know enough and I can’t know enough. I’m just not going to have any opinions on that

and there go a relaxed life without unsubstantiated beliefs. And they’re going to say, you know, it’s beliefs all the way down. One skeptic that we know and love is Charlie Chaplin. In his autobiography, he says this: “I neither believe nor disbelieve in anything. That which can be imagined is as much an approximation to truth as that which can be proved by mathematics.” Yeah, he’s probably been reading Nietzsche and maybe even some of the ancient skeptics there that, you know, we pretty well make it all up. It is all forgotten metaphors. It is illusions that we have forgotten are illusions. Or probably his most famous quote, don’t believe everything you think. And that’s probably a very good skeptical stance to have. Don’t believe everything you think. Well, one thing that you can believe in is, we will be doing a viewing party for The Story of Plastics, Thursday night, April 22nd, in celebration of Earth Day at six p.m. Central Time. You can join us, in there and just go to if you want to look up more about that and you can find out all about how to join us with our clean up Minnesota idea, cleaning up our act in Minnesota. And we are thinking this month about “Becoming” as a theme for First Unitarian Society. Thanks a lot. And we’ll be back with some more ideas about how to relax with truth, in fact, tomorrow. Thanks a lot.

Leave a Reply