The enlightenment gave us a formal method of studying the phenominology of reality through the methods of scientific inquiry. Often times, especially as of late, there are discussions around how the purely materialist view tilts towards nihilism in some respects. At the same time, misuse of the purpose of science creates situations where groups and individuals are seeking certain outcomes due to instrinsic bias. It may be worth considering the false dichotomy of the use of scientific inquiry as a tool to inform morality and the ability for people to make value judgements out of what is observed from either motivated reasoning or from the observations that science reveal. In this article, I will elaborate on some concepts I’m hoping to tie together as they relate to meaning and scientific inquiry.
The stoics have long held the belief that the proper way to conduct yourself in the world is to seperate what is within your purview of control and what isn’t. By continuously tending to your responsibility of what is within your control, there is a way of evaluating what then is nothing more than distraction or perhaps even malicious in the schema of life. This process that stoics use can be derived into three distinct areas:
* Tend to your judgements * Direct your actions * Accept reality as it unfolds
This is effectively a process of evaluating reality as it unfolds to the individual. The argument within this framework is such that judgements are made as part of the pillar of observation. You make judgements in accordance with determining the properties, behaviors, and patterns that your mind has cultivated over time. Following the step of observation and evaluation of the judgements, you move along to aiming and orienting your actions. Actions being necessary consequences in accordance with the observation that all actions come from the consequence of observation. Finally, within this step is how reality itself reveals itself to you due to your interaction or inaction with it. Starting with the first pillar of evaluating your judgements, we will take a look at how this can be analyzed within the scientific framework of experimental inquiry.
In some respects, because it is your life afterall, it is worth considering how it may have come to be that you become almost possessed by different ideologies, ideas, modern applications, or various distracting events that occur in the news. You might take a moment to pause on this, and observe your internal state, the physiological response to external stimuli, or even the daily rituals that seem to happen at the expense of other areas of your life you know you want to be better.
All of this is in the observation stage. To notice that you might tell yourself, “this needs fixing”, “I haven’t done X in a while”, “I really need to get this together”, “I’m afraid/anxious of XYZ”, all of these small momentary manifestations of the inner voice point to something deeper. The potential of the self. We intuitively understand this because we tend to put a lot of effort in particular areas of our lives and when we don’t live up to that we are dismayed. We make these kind of observations without even really thinking about it too much.
Consider the state you might get in if you haven’t hung out with any friends for too long. It is a biological and social imperative to communicate with other people. Steering off the course of this and your body will begin to fail in ways in increasing magnitude as a way of communicating underlying issues. Anxiety, depression, immune system response, sleep insomnia, motivational factors in work… a list of symptoms that, when properly observed as information, can point to a variety of conclusions. But this is just the first step: observing that something is happening. Measuring the properties of that system.
Thinking, exploring, and observing
This step in the process is meant derive meaning through inquiry. You have to think. To ask questions. To explore the substrate that generates thought. But thinking is more than just having something come to the surface and accepting it as is. Thinking is actually a system of steps to produce habitable order out of chaos through communicative intent and truth. It’s a process:
- Allowing anything to come to the surface of realization
- To notice that it exists, or to take notice of a thought/realization
- Generate one-to-many sort of multi-dimensional avatars that represent something that can generate alternative countering arguments, agreeing statements, appeals, or even basic realization of whether content is germane
- Engage in a discussion that allows the conceptualization/realization to be advanced so that more structure is ultimately produced
Considering the above process, you simply cannot escape internal motivators - ones you are likely unaware of at a fundamental level. Hunger, survival, drive to reduce uncertainty: forces by which you see manifested in psychological frameworks designed to make sense of the experience of reality. When you encounter malice, uncertainty, suffering, you attempt to make sense of it. In doing so, the default state of fear sets back in, disrupting the underlying structure setup to ensure that habitable predictable order is worthy of secure exploration. The default state is fear, and security being something that is learned - rather than learning to fear something. It is the essense of predictability, of modeling expectation through the underlying process of understanding how the world works and what I can predictably consider possible actions that won’t cause me severe consequences. It is in this exploration of the known and diving into the unknown that simultaneously generates anxiety and excitement. The underlying purpose of that physiology being one of attention. It requires your attention, it requires the observation to be made and necessarily filters out all irrelevant information with the central goal being to reduce uncertainty and make sense of the unknown.
It would seem that the very act of observing this struggle, confronting it at all, and creating habitable order out of the unknown by exploring it is indeed the path towards growth. But it’s also worth considering, what is growth - what is that potential. This might be where we can being to orient our values, our judgements, our aim so to speak.
One observation that may have come up as a result of dealing with your internal state is such that you notice when things are not according to your liking. They aren’t “living up to the potential” that you might otherwise attribute them. In order to understand this, it’s worth considering how structure itself is produced through hierarchies of value.
Value hierarchies exist everywhere, it is a fundamental component of reality that in order for choice or action to occur, a value judgement must occur. Whether it is derived from subconcious/unconcious/ or concious observations and value judgements, the very nature of making a choice allows you to place value over a singular potential over all other information irrelevant to that goal. A feedback loop occurs as you make value judgements, filter out irrelevant information, act accordingly, and evaluate results. Given that, it’s worth actually evaluating what sort of value hierarchy has been set in place in your mind. A value hierarchy will exist whether you are intent on one being there or not. So it is important to consider giving time to actively think about that structure and determine how you might like things to be instead; or in most cases to consider simply how things are at all.
That consideration of “how you might like things to be” is a direct consequence of aim, or the lack thereof. This “how you might like things to be” is the product of combining observations with a story of sorts - the potential, entropy, or idealization of what isn’t but could be. The dream state, as another way of putting it, is something that manifests out of the unknown and the exploration of it. The consideration that comes from asking questions to even be able to make additional observations at all from how reality presents itself. It is from this entire consideration that thinking is even something worth doing. We think because some structure, any structure, can be at times a necessary precondition for action.
Directing action, risk, experimentation, challenge
So what does it take to move from a place of mere observation to one that actually can make sense of the unknown and get to a place where you are able to direct your actions accordingly. One way to make sense of the unknown is to explore it. In this sense, we revisit the first step of mere observation by exploring what is not known in order to gather more information. By using a combination of understanding our own internal struggle to simultaneously run in fear of the unknown and jump in excitement of the novelty, we can take those points as measurement conducive for growth. We can consider this concept of growth, potential, entropy, skill, to be one that drives motivation to meet a challenge and necessitate a positive feedback loop.
Some part of us however, would like us to consider the idea that constraints or limitations help create some limiting cases over what can be observed. By introducing constraints, we allow the number of variables to be reducable and managable. We make the exploration of the unknown more manageable by reducing how much can actually change the system simultaneously. With respect to our goals, our aims, this is relatable by being more precise in our speech. It means, that in order to manifest your potential, you need to be precise about what that means. To take a good look at what you value, why you might value that, to ask questions, to inquire about what can and cannot be observed, to derive any sort of order from that and to allow yourself to experiment with the unknown.
In this sort of experimental phase, you are doing several things. You allow yourself a limiting case to explore the space. Discovery of possible actions that can take place. You allow yourself to ask questions, to make additional observations, to measure, and obtain feedback. This experimentation phase, the exploration of the unknown, is foundational to the scientific method. It brings us to the new state of evaluating the evidence as it presents itself. Even though our predictions, our realizations might not hold true long term, we give ourselves a chance to evaluate and continuously re-evaluate whether the structure holds up.
It is from this that I claim that the scientific method and stoicism might actually have far more in common than I believe is currently understood. I’m hoping to explore this idea further in more detail as time moves along. Much of the work from Ryan Holiday, Joseph Cambell, Carl Jung, Frederich Nietzche, and Jordan Peterson have been pivotal to my understanding of these concepts.