5 min read

058 - On Existence - Moral Letters for Modern Times

If wishes could create reality, would we live in paradise or hell? I fear we are on the path to finding out.
Empty hiking trail running between trees - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

How rich our language is, and how wonderful that it is constantly evolving! We inherit everything bequeathed to us by our ancestors, and can dissipate none of the fortune. Rather, each generation can only add to the riches of the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary defines over 630,000 lexical items as of the year 2020, with more than 860,000 separate senses, or meanings of words.

Words are added to the OED quarterly, at a rate of several thousand per year. In the last year, the OED has been expanded to include new fears such as astraphobia (from ancient Greek, a fear of lightning or thunderstorms accompanied by lightning), transphobe (a person prejudiced against transgender people), and fat-shaming (the mocking, humiliating, or stigmatizing a person deemed to be fat or overweight). Though from what the pandemic has already taught us, we have more to fear from COVID-19 than from being told the truth about our weight.

But because the last thing most people want to hear is the truth, we have invented new responses for our new fears including: cancel culture (publicly boycotting a person thought to be promoting culturally unacceptable ideas) and virtue signaling (acting in a way motivated primarily by a wish to garner recognition and approval). The keyboard warrior (one who posts abusive messages on the Internet, typically with a username that conceals his or her identity) is today alone mightier than armies, no mere griefer (a person who derives enjoyment from spoiling the game for others by playing in a way that is intentionally disruptive and aggravating) but able to breach the stoutest defenses, for all we are tempted to dismiss them as a crybully (a person who harasses or abuses others yet, following resistance or disagreement, claims to be a victim of ill-treatment).

All around us, some see signs of structural racism (discrimination or unequal treatment arising from systems, structures, or expectations that have become established within society), so please take a knee (to go down on one knee as a peaceful means of protesting against institutional racism) to start redressing your unconscious bias (favoritism towards or prejudice against people of a particular race, gender, or group that influence’s one’s actions or perceptions) and working off your white guilt (remorse or shame felt by a white person with respect to racial inequality and injustice).

I enjoy playing with words, Deuteros, and I doubt you will see me tire of it. Neither do I expect any surcease in the assault on our reason, of which these new words are but the vanguard. Those uttering these inanities are not playing with us, either. Rather than acknowledging objective truths and adapting themselves accordingly, they wish to redefine reality to suit their subjective wishes. If wishes could create reality, would we live in paradise or hell? I fear we are on the path to finding out.

In the face of these assaults on my senses, I sought refuge by reminding myself what humankind has learned of existence. The physics of classical mechanics that busied scientists for the last several thousand years was based on things that humans could observe and directly relate to, including space, time, matter, and energy, and our scales were above the size of the atomic and our speeds below the speed of light.

The high-energy physics of elementary particles departs from this familiar ground and, for many, starts to depart as well from common sense. In quantum mechanics, nature is no longer continuous but rather phenomena are discrete at the atomic and subatomic levels, with waves and particles existing simultaneously in probabilistic states.

Although there have been many attempts to popularize and explain the state of physics today, perhaps the last, best attempt that a layperson could hope to understand was that undertaken by Richard Feynman in the early 1960s in lectures given to undergraduate students at the California Institute of Technology. See The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Since then, physicists appear only to have added detail and complexity at the cost of clarity and understanding. Sixty years on, and we are no closer to a grand model unifying relativity and quantum mechanics. Feynman was surely warning us when he said in his very first lecture:

Everything we know is only some kind of approximation, because we know that we do not know all the laws yet. Therefore, things must be learned only to be unlearned again or, more likely, to be corrected.

Though the Standard Model is by far our current best theory, having stood the rigors of many tests, we know it is incomplete. Indeed some humility is in order when we admit we do not know what almost all of the universe is made of (dark matter and dark energy indeed), or how to explain the difference in the imbalance between matter and anti-matter. What we do know is this: unlike its Greek name, the atom can be cut into sub-atomic particles, which are divided into even smaller constituents known as fundamental particles. The Standard Model describes the known fundamental particles and the forces they interact with. Here is what we think they are.

The twelve known elementary particles of matter or fermions, consist of six quarks, designated as up, down, top, bottom, charm, and strange; and six leptons, which can be electrons, muons, and taus, or their neutrino equivalents. The Standard Model describes how these particles interact via elementary forces called bosons, generating so-called strong, weak, and electromagnetic interactions. At present, a great unsolved problem is that we cannot account for the force of gravity, and the graviton boson is but hypothetical. The particles of matter exchange gauge bosons, which count among their number gluons, photons, and either Z or W bosons.

The famed Higgs boson, whose existence was predicted decades ago by Peter Higgs, stands alone as a scalar boson. After a fifty year wait the European laboratory for particle physics, CERN, announced in 2012 its detection of the Higgs boson. At least the Nobel Prize committee was quicker in granting him recognition for his contribution to our understanding of the nature of existence.

“All well and good,” you say, “but what does any of this have to do with living a good life or the meaning of life?” Not a thing, I suppose, at least not directly. But indirectly, let me suggest the following. Just as we happily subject ourselves to the stress of vacation travel, on the theory that a change is as good as a rest, so it is with thinking deeply on philosophy. When you need a rest from the strictures of our teaching, take a rest, but make it a change rather than total relaxation.

I have learned the power of continuous improvement can be applied in all areas of life. Small steps taken regularly will let you travel great distances over time, and so it is with your reading. Steer clear not only of the self-help aisle of the bookshop, my dear Deuteros, but you may safely detour around the whole of the “summer reading” section. Though the sun is shining and you are sitting comfortably on the beach, still you may be studying up on some topic that has caught your interest.

If mathematics or physics are not on your Kindle reading list, then still you may enrich yourself with other meaty fare: the development of social and political systems in the enlightenment, or art and architecture through the ages, to name but a few. Truly the menu is well-stocked despite all you have cut from the dessert section! Besides slowly but steadily adding to your wisdom, when you are thus challenged in your leisure, all the more willingly do you return to the embrace of philosophy when your pause has refreshed you.

We must be deliberate in our actions, whether we are in motion or at rest, because this helps us to be consequent in our thoughts. We humans are no elementary particles, and though our existence is probabilistically uncertain, it is certainly limited. To live long, you must first recognize that you are only living as long as you are living well.

Be well.

Next Letter →
Overview of All Letters ↑