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Friday, December 11, 2009

SEMINARS by Gregory David Roberts aka Shantaram

The Big Questions - Seminar Two, The Philosopher’s Toolkit




In this seminar, we're going to acquire the first in a set of intellectual tools that will help us in the search for truth, which is to say the search for the meaning and purpose of existence. The tools we'll discover here, and in the next few seminars, are not the only ones we'll acquire during this journey of discovery. Several times along the way I'll ask you to pause for a moment and familiarize yourselves with another new tool or intellectual method that will be helpful. For now, I'm going to give you the first and most essential tools we'll use, as we take new or old ideas apart and search for the truth in them.



Okay, here we go. The very first tool that I want to give you, in this seminar, has a long and seemingly confusing name: it's called



the dichotomously variable continuum.



Now, fearsome as this mouthful might seem, it's really a quite simple idea that we'll use many times in our minds' journeys. Let's see what the term means, and then let's break the term down to examine each of the words in the string.



Many of you will be familiar with the term "The Bell Curve", which comes from the field of statistics. The term is used to describe the graph form of a certain kind of distribution.



A simple example of the Bell Curve relates to the heights of all the people in a crowded room. If we put all the heights of all the people in a crowded room onto a graph, what we see is that:



a few people are clustered at the short end of the scale,

a few people are clustered at the tall end of the scale, and

a larger number of people are clustered around the average height.





So, what we get is a curve shape, that's a bit like a bell, with a low pointy bit at one end, a high round bit in the middle, and a low pointy bit at the other end. It also looks a bit like a hat, so it could have been called a Hat Curve, but the term that statisticians have all agreed to use is "The Bell Curve."



You can use the term yourselves, in your everyday language. For example, if you were talking about the popularity of a successful TV show, you could say that "It's pitched right at the centre of the Bell Curve."



If you were talking about a TV show (to stay with the TV example) that had a very small, specialized audience, you could say that "It's pitched at the shallow end of the Bell Curve."



Now, the philosophical term that describes this kind of statistical averaging of things, is our new friend:

the dichotomously variable continuum.



So, what does it mean? It means that most things (but not all, as we'll see) in life are to be found somewhere on a Bell Curve distribution. Most things fall somewhere between two opposites, and they lean towards one end of a spectrum, or they fall somewhere in the middle, or they lean towards the other end of the spectrum.



The reason for this is rooted in statistics itself: that is, in the nature of sample groups, and averages. If we take any one of trillions of examples - let's say, the automobile, in a modern, Western city - we can get the idea.



Cars can be examined from many points of view. We can, for example, talk about the relative pollution given off by a car. Now, some cars will be right down at the end of the Bell Curve where they give off almost no pollution at all. Some cars will be right down the other end of the Bell Curve, where they give off huge amounts of pollution. And most cars, in modern Western cities, will be somewhere in the middle of a fat or high Bell Curve.



The same kind of distribution curve applies to almost every aspect of the automobile (if we stay with cars for just a moment longer) that we care to examine. If we look at the relative cost of cars, we'll see that some cars are right down at the end of the spectrum, or the Bell Curve, where they are fabulously costly. Some cars will be right down the other end, where they're very cheap. And most cars will be filling out the fat, high curve in the middle range of prices. Now, let's take another look at the philosophical term for this understanding of things in terms of their averaging:



DICHOTOMOUSLY: a dichotomy (die-kott-o-mee) is a division into two. Often, the word dichotomy is used when people are referring to a sharp distinction between two very different and opposite things, such as the dichotomy between Good and Evil, or the dichotomy between Right and Wrong, or the dichotomy between Love and Hate. This division is also known as a "binary classification", which means that we're classifying things in terms of two polar opposites. We're going to encounter the word "dichotomy" several times during this journey. One of the most common errors in thinking, for example is the "unreasonable dichotomy" or the "false dichotomy", and we'll examine them in later seminars. For the moment, what we need to understand is that a dichotomy is a division into two, and usually of opposites,



VARIABLE: what we mean here, when we put the common word "variable" together with the uncommon word "dichotomy", is that there is a range of variation between two things, and usually between two opposites. The amount of Good or Evil in an act, for example, is variable between the dichotomy ( or division into two, remember) of Good and Evil. The amount of Love or Hate in a given emotional state, as another example, is variable between the dichotomy of Love and Hate.



CONTINUUM: a continuum is anything that is seen as having a continuous nature, rather than a separate and not continuing nature. The lives that we're living, for example, are part of a continuum, or can be said to form a continuum. We don't stop living for a few hours or days, and then start living again, speaking in the strictly biological sense. We're born, and we die, but the life between those points in the dichotomy (there you go, we've used the word) is continuous, and can be described as a continuum. We might say that a specific university education, for example, has a beginning and an end, and is thus "discrete" (which means separate). But the process of learning lessons in life, which is a much broader sense of education, goes on until the day we die, and can be described as a continuum. So, what have we got here? A dichotomously variable continuum, can be described in other words as "a continuous stream of things that varies between two opposites."



Let's take the example of Good and Evil, and begin to use the language we'll come to know well as we move further along the path of this journey. We can say that any one act, if we consider it from a moral perspective, will fall somewhere on the dichotomously variable continuum between Good and Evil.



We'll use exactly those words, many times, in the coming months, so I'll write them again, and in bold:

We can say that any one act, if we consider it from a moral perspective, will fall somewhere on the dichotomously variable continuum between Good and Evil.



We might've said that "any proposition will fall somewhere on the dichotomously variable continuum between Truth and Falsehood"; Or we might've said that "any event will fall somewhere on the dichotomously variable continuum between Inevitable and Impossible," and so on. But for our first example, we're using the terms Good and Evil (which we still haven't defined, but that's in a later seminar).



Okay, so the dichotomously variable continuum between Good and Evil can be seen as a line, drawn on a page, with Almost Perfectly Good at one end, and Almost Perfectly Bad at the other. And any act that we care to examine will fall somewhere (or will vary) on the line (or continuum) between the two opposites (or the dichotomy). Some acts will be so Evil that they'll be right down toward the Almost Perfectly Evil end of the spectrum. Some acts will be so Good that they'll be right down toward the Almost Perfectly Good end of the spectrum. And some acts, probably most acts, will be somewhere in the middle of the Bell Curve.



Now, there are a few points that we have to make here, in order to complete our understanding of this important tool, and of its application in our search for truth and meaning.



1) Nothing in the finite, physical universe is perfect. I won't go into the quantum proofs that support this assertion here, because it will put us off the track. I referred to this point in Seminar One, and I'll simply state it as a fact, here and now. We live in a finite, physical universe. Nothing in that universe, including the entirety of the universe itself, is perfect and absolute. And what this means for our dichotomously variable continuum is that the ends of the continuum - the opposites in the dichotomy itself - will never be perfect.



So, in the example we've used just recently, about the Good or Evil in any act, what we have to realize is that the ends of the spectrum - the extremes of the dichotomy - are never perfectly or absolutely Good or Evil. Nothing in the universe is perfect, so no act is perfectly Good or perfectly Evil. Therefore, the most we can ever say is that one end of the continuum or spectrum is Almost Perfectly Good and the other is Almost Perfectly Evil. And every act falls somewhere between those less-than-perfect or less-than-absolute extremes.



Now, this has huge ramifications for us, as we begin to grapple with big ideas about the meaning and purpose of life. One of them, right off the top, is that if no act is perfectly Good or perfectly Evil, then there must be at least a tiny little bit of Good in even the most Evil acts, and at least a little bit of Evil in even the most Good acts.



I have to say that when I've taught my cosmological model around the world some people - quite a few, in fact - have found this fact about the Good that's in every Evil act, and the Evil that's in every Good act, to be very disturbing. They're people who found a sense of assurance or reassurance in the belief that some things were completely Evil, and some things were completely Good.



If you happen to be one of those people who are disturbed by, or who resent, the idea that nothing in the finite, physical universe is perfect or absolute, and that therefore no act is perfectly Good or perfectly Evil, then please break off from these seminars now. I'm not trying to make converts here. I don't want anyone else to think like me. I'm not trying to convince anyone else, ever, to believe what I believe. Quite the contrary: my cosmological model insists that every single one of us has to engage in our own journey of discovery, using all the tools and methods that work for us, even if they don't seem to work for others. All that I'll ever do here, in these seminars, is tell you what I believe, and why I believe it. I don't ever want you to just swallow whole what I tell you, and accept it as your own. My only aim is to tell you what I believe, and why I believe it: what you choose to do with that information is your private, personal, and unalienable right.



Okay, so to conclude that first general point about the dichotomously variable continuum, we can see that the ends of the spectrum (no matter what the dichotomy that we choose to examine) will always be less than perfect or absolute, and that anything we look at in life will be composed of a mix between the two ends.



But don't be confused into thinking that if every act is a mix of Good and Evil, then every act is allowable or permitted. The fact is that some acts are so close to perfectly Evil - they're so far down towards the Almost Perfectly Evil end of the continuum - that it's impossible for a human mind to see the Good in them. Rationally, we know that the act can't be perfectly Evil, because nothing in the finite universe is perfect. But the little Good that must be in the act is so infinitesimally small that it's beyond our ability to detect it. Child molestation is an example that we might use to make this point. The act is so close to the Almost Perfectly Evil end of the continuum that we just can't see even the merest scintilla of Good in it. And for all practical purposes, there is no Good in it.



It would be ridiculous, and a profane misuse of the philosophical tool, if someone were to try to excuse child molestation on the grounds that nothing in the finite universe is perfect or absolute. Some things are so close to the Almost Perfectly Good end or the Almost Perfectly Evil end of the continuum that we can, for all practical purposes, describe them as Good or Evil acts.



The important acknowledgement that we're making here, as philosophers in the search for truth and meaning, is that with this tool of the dichotomously variable continuum, we can take just about any event, act, or phenomenon, and examine it in terms of where it falls on the continuum between the dichotomous extremes; and we can see that it will never be perfectly or absolutely one thing or the other.



The significance of this intellectual tool might not be immediately obvious, but it will become ever more useful as we move further along in this journey. In the meanwhile, you might want to try using the tool as you examine ideas and moral propositions from day to day. For example, someone tells you a lie. You can immediately see where that lie falls on the dichotomously variable continuum between Almost Perfect Lie and Almost Perfect Truth - and recognize, at once, that because nothing is perfect in the finite, physical universe, then every lie has at least a little truth in it, and every truth has at least a little lie. Similarly, if someone betrays you, you can see where that betrayal falls on the dichotomously variable continuum between Almost Perfect Betrayal and Almost Perfect Loyalty - while recognizing that no act is perfectly loyal or perfectly treacherous. And similarly, if someone does something generous for you or for a friend of yours, you can see where that generous act falls on the dichotomously variable continuum between Almost Perfect Generosity and Almost Perfect Selfishness.



In future seminars, we'll see that there are exceptions to the Bell Curve distribution. One of those, for example, is the distribution of wealth between individuals in any given society. In every example that I've studied wealth isn't distributed as, say, height or weight or cooking talent are,; in a Bell Curve, with a few who are short or fat or have no talent at one end, a few who are tall, or thin, or have much cooking talent at the other end, and a large number clustered around the middle or the peak of the Bell Curve. Wealth distribution, in almost every case, follows a different set of laws. In almost every case, there is a small number of wealthy people, and a large number who aren't wealthy.



We'll look into those exceptions to the Bell Curve distribution in later seminars, but for the moment, we can safely assume that even when a phenomenon can't be put into a Bell Curve, it will still fall somewhere on a dichotomously variable continuum. Even when wealth distribution, for example, defies the Bell Curve, it still falls somewhere on the dichotomously variable continuum between Almost perfectly Wealthy and Almost Perfectly Poor.



The important things to take away from this seminar, which introduces the first of the many intellectual and philosophical tools we'll use, are these:

Everything can be seen to fall somewhere on a dichotomously variable continuum.

Nothing in that spectrum, or at either end of it, will be perfect or absolute.

Everything in the finite, physical universe is a mix of opposites, within a given dichotomy.

In the next seminar, I'm going to introduce you to one of the philosopher's most useful tools, and the cornerstone of the sceptic's intellectual mansion.



Good luck, good thinking, and good wishes to you all.



Greg Roberts.

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