User:Reverend Black Percy
- 1 The reverend's community confession booth
- 2 Food for thought
- 2.1 On cognitive bias
- 2.2 On hope as a skeptic
- 2.3 On the importance of fringe watching
- 2.4 On humanist progressivism
- 2.5 On science and spirituality
- 2.6 On analytic philosophy
- 2.7 On religious wish fulfillment
- 2.8 On the off chance that God exists
- 2.9 On liberal democracy
- 2.10 On criminal justice
- 2.11 On irrationalists with nuclear arms
- 2.12 On curbing unwarranted self-importance
The reverend's community confession booth
“”I support RBP's candidacy based on our constructive interactions.
“”A person who is fairly active on the wiki, understands how the site works, and is generally a nice guy. He has my vote. I'd be surprised if he gets one anti-endorsement.
Food for thought
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state,
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Chaos of thought and passion, all confus'd;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl'd:
|—Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man (epistle II)|
On cognitive bias
We typically have a bias that tells us we are less susceptible to bias than everyone else. Our default position tends to be that our opinions are the result of learning, experience and personal reflection. The things we believe are obviously true — and everyone would agree if only they could look at the issue with clear, objective, unimpeded sight. But they don't because they're biased. Their judgements are confused by ill-informed hunches and personal grudges. They might think they're beautiful and clever and right but their view of reality is skewed.
You might have read all that thinking, Yes, yes, I know people just like that. But I'm not really one of them, to be honest. I'm modest and humble and only too aware when I'm getting things wrong. That's the sound of your brain lying to you. You are like that. If you are now thinking, Yes, yes, yes, I hear what you're saying — but if you knew me you would realise that I'm not one of those people, I'm sorry to say you're still at it. Most of us think we are the exception. This most disturbing of truths has been widely demonstrated in study after study. When individuals are educated about these ego-defending biases and then have their biases re-examined, they usually fail to change their opinions of themselves. Even though they accept, rationally, that they are not immune, they still think as if they are. It is a cognitive trap that we just can't seem to climb out of.
Our prejudices and misbeliefs are invisible to us. They form in childhood and early adolescence, when our brain is in its heightened state of learning, when it is building its models, and then they disappear from view. We can think as long and as hard as we like about our biases — we can root about our own heads for hours, utterly convinced of our own objectivity, and still come up with nothing. They are inaccessible to the conscious part of our minds. The trick is so embedded — our warped sensations of right, wrong and truth are so folded into our fundamental sense of self — that we are immune from detecting them.
Just as the knifefish assumes his realm of electricity is the only possible reality, just as the hominin believes his tricolour palette allows him to see all the colours, just as John Mackay is convinced that lesbian nuns are going to hell, we look out into the world mostly to reaffirm our prior beliefs about it. We imagine that the invisible forces that silently guide our beliefs and behaviour, coaxing us like flocks of deviant angels, do not exist. We are comforted by the feeling that we have ultimate control over our thoughts, our actions, our lives.
There are seven billion individual worlds living on the surface of this one. We are — all of us — lost inside our own personal realities, our own brain-generated models of how things really are. And if, after reading all of that, you still believe you are the exception, that you really are wise and objective and above the powers of bias, then you might as well not fight it. You are, after all, only human.
Will Storr, The Heretics: Adventures With The Enemies Of Science, pages 111-113.
On hope as a skeptic
I am, by temperament, a sanguine person, so I really hate to douse the flame of hope with the cold water of skepticism. But I care about what is actually true even more than what I hope is true, and these are the facts as I understand them.
I am occasionally accused of being skeptical of the wrong things, or of being too skeptical for my own good. Sometimes I’m even charged with denialism — I don’t want X to be true, therefore I unfairly find reasons to reject X. That is undoubtedly sometimes the case. In fact, belief-dependent realism and the confirmation of beliefs after they are formed necessarily must apply to me as well as others.
On this particular issue of agenticity and its manifestation in dualism, mind, the supernatural, and the afterlife, however, I entertain no such denialist tendencies. In fact, I passively wish for their manifestation in reality. The afterlife? I’m for it!
But the fact that I wish it were so does not make it so. And herein lies the problem of understanding the mind in order to know humanity: our belief systems are structured such that we will almost always find a way to support what we want to believe. Thus, the overwhelming desire to believe in something otherworldly — be it mind, spirit, or God — means that we should be especially vigilant in our skepticism of claims made in these arenas of belief.
Is scientific monism in conflict with religious dualism? Yes, it is. Either the soul survives death or it does not, and there is no scientific evidence that it does or ever will.
Does science and skepticism extirpate all meaning in life? I think not; quite the opposite, in fact. If this is all there is, then how meaningful become our lives, our families, our friends, our communities — and how we treat others — when every day, every moment, every relationship, and every person counts, not as props in a temporary staging before an eternal tomorrow where ultimate purpose will be revealed to us but as valued essences in the here and now where we create provisional purpose.
Awareness of this reality elevates us all to a higher plane of humanity and humility, as we course through life together in this limited time and space — a momentary proscenium in the drama of the cosmos.
Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, page 119.
On the importance of fringe watching
Examining extreme cases of pseudoscience is like a doctor studying an advanced form of a disease — its features will be much more obvious and extreme. They will therefore help the doctor to recognize the more subtle signs and milder forms of the pathology.
It's for this reason that I think it's very instructive to examine those belief systems which — while they purport to be scientific — are on the fringe of science, like cold fusion, cryptozoology and belief in UFO's, for example.
Some people may denigrate spending any time on such beliefs because they are on the fringe and they're unusual, but I maintain they are excellent learning examples. By studying the fringes of science, we will learn a great deal about legitimate science, and how to do the best science possible.
In the same way, we can study these extreme pseudosciences and develop a picture of what extreme pseudoscientific pathological features have in common. We also will then see the patterns, the commonality among them — what are the types of cognitive flaws that those practicing pseudoscience tend to make?
It is an excellent opportunity for studying the features of what are sometimes even called "pathological sciences".
On humanist progressivism
Above all, we are in need of a renewed Enlightenment, which will base itself on the proposition that the proper study of mankind is man and woman. This Enlightenment will not need to depend, like its predecessors, on the heroic breakthroughs of a few gifted and exceptionally courageous people. It is within the compass of the average person.
The study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and for the eternal ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected. The pursuit of unfettered scientific inquiry, and the availability of new findings to masses of people by easy electronic means, will revolutionize our concepts of research and development.
Very importantly, the divorce between the sexual life and fear, and the sexual life and disease, and the sexual life and tyranny, can now at last be attempted, on the sole condition that we banish all religions from the discourse. And all this and more is, for the first time in our history, within the reach if not the grasp of everyone.
However, only the most naive Utopian can believe that this new humane civilization will develop, like some dream of "progress," in a straight line. We have first to transcend our prehistory, and escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs and the reeking altars and the guilty pleasures of subjection and abjection. "Know yourself," said the Greeks, gently suggesting the consolations of philosophy.
To clear the mind for this project, it has become necessary to know the enemy, and to prepare to fight it.
On science and spirituality
We humans long to be connected with our origins — so we create rituals. Science is another way to express this longing. It also connects us with our origins, and it too has its rituals and its commandments. Its only sacred truth is that there are no sacred truths. All assumptions must be critically examined. Arguments from authority are worthless. Whatever is inconsistent with the facts — no matter how fond of it we are — must be discarded or revised.
Science is not perfect. It's often misused. It's only a tool. But it's the best tool we have. Self-correcting. Ever changing. Applicable to everything. With this tool, we vanquish the impossible. With the methods of science, we have begun to explore the cosmos. For the first time, scientific discoveries are widely accessible. Our machines — products of our science — are now beyond the orbit of Saturn. A preliminary spacecraft recognissance has been made of twenty new worlds.
We have learned to value careful observations. To respect the facts, even when they are disquieting — when they seem to contradict conventional wisdom. We humans have seen the atoms which constitute all of matter, and the forces that sculpt this world, and others. We have found that the molecules of life are easily formed under conditions common throughout the cosmos.
We have mapped the molecular machines at the heart of life. We have discovered a microcosm in a drop of water. We have peered into the bloodstream, and down on our stormy planet, to see the Earth as a single organism. We have found volcanoes on other worlds. Explosions on the sun. Studied comets from the depths of space — traced their origins and destinies. Listened to pulsars and searched for other civilizations.
We humans have set foot on another world, in a place called the Sea of Tranquility. An astonishing achivement for creatures such as we, whose earliest footsteps — three and a half million years old — are preserved in the volcanic ash of east Africa. These are some of the things that hydrogen atoms do, given [thirteen] billion years of cosmic evolution.
It has the sound of epic myth, but it's simply a description of the evolution of the cosmos as revealed by science in our time. And we — we, who embody the local eyes and ears and thoughts and feelings of the cosmos — we've begun, at last, to wonder about our origins. Star stuff, contemplating the stars. Organized collections of ten billion billion billion atoms contemplating the evolution of matter. Tracing that long path by which it arrived at consciousness here on the planet Earth — and, perhaps, throughout the cosmos.
Our loyalties are to the species and to the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive and flourish is owed not just to ourselves, but also to that cosmos — ancient and vast — from which we spring.
Carl Sagan, Carl Sagan Tribute Series, ep. 11.
On analytic philosophy
Philosophy, throughout its history, has consisted of two parts inharmoniously blended: on the one hand a theory as to the nature of the world, on the other an ethical or political doctrine as to the best way of living. The failure to separate these two with sufficient clarity has been a source of much confused thinking. Philosophers, from Plato to William James, have allowed their opinions as to the constitution of the universe to be influenced by the desire for edification: knowing, as they supposed, what beliefs would make men virtuous, they have invented arguments, often very sophistical, to prove that these beliefs are true.
For my part I reprobate this kind of bias, both on moral and on intellectual grounds. Morally, a philosopher who uses his professional competence for anything except a disinterested search for truth is guilty of a kind of treachery. And when he assumes, in advance of inquiry, that certain beliefs, whether true or false, are such as to promote good behaviour, he is so limiting the scope of philosophical speculation as to make philosophy trivial; the true philosopher is prepared to examine all preconceptions. When any limits are placed, consciously or unconsciously, upon the pursuit of truth, philosophy becomes paralysed by fear, and the ground is prepared for a government censorship punishing those who utter "dangerous thoughts" — in fact, the philosopher has already placed such a censorship over his own investigations.
Intellectually, the effect of mistaken moral considerations upon philosophy has been to impede progress to an extraordinary extent. I do not myself believe that philosophy can either prove or disprove the truth of religious dogmas, but ever since Plato most philosophers have considered it part of their business to produce "proofs" of immortality and the existence of God. They have found fault with the proofs of their predecessors — Saint Thomas rejected Saint Anselm's proofs, and Kant rejected Descartes' — but they have supplied new ones of their own. In order to make their proofs seem valid, they have had to falsify logic, to make mathematics mystical, and to pretend that deep-seated prejudices were heaven-sent intuitions.
All this is rejected by the philosophers who make logical analysis the main business of philosophy. They confess frankly that the human intellect is unable to find conclusive answers to many questions of profound importance to mankind, but they refuse to believe that there is some "higher" way of knowing, by which we can discover truths hidden from science and the intellect. For this renunciation they have been rewarded by the discovery that many questions, formerly obscured by the fog of metaphysics, can be answered with precision, and by objective methods which introduce nothing of the philosopher's temperament except the desire to understand. Take such questions as: What is number? What are space and time? What is mind, and what is matter? I do not say that we can here and now give definitive answers to all these ancient questions, but I do say that a method has been discovered by which, as in science, we can make successive approximations to the truth, in which each new stage results from an improvement, not a rejection, of what has gone before.
In the welter of conflicting fanaticisms, one of the few unifying forces is scientific truthfulness, by which I mean the habit of basing our beliefs upon observations and inferences as impersonal, and as much divested of local and temperamental bias, as is possible for human beings. To have insisted upon the introduction of this virtue into philosophy, and to have invented a powerful method by which it can be rendered fruitful, are the chief merits of the philosophical school of which I am a member. The habit of careful veracity acquired in the practice of this philosophical method can be extended to the whole sphere of human activity, producing, wherever it exists, a lessening of fanaticism with an increasing capacity of sympathy and mutual understanding. In abandoning a part of its dogmatic pretensions, philosophy does not cease to suggest and inspire a way of life.
On religious wish fulfillment
We call a belief an illusion when a wish-fulfillment is a prominent factor in its motivation, and in doing so we disregard its relations to reality, just as the illusion itself sets no store by verification. Having thus taken our bearings, let us return once more to the question of religious doctrines.
We can now repeat that all of them are illusions and insusceptible of proof. No one can be compelled to think them true, to believe in them. Some of them are so improbable, so incompatible with everything we have laboriously discovered about the reality of the world, that we may compare them — if we pay proper regard to the psychological differences — to delusions.
Of the reality value of most of them we cannot judge; just as they cannot be proved, so they cannot be refuted. We still know too little to make a critical approach to them. The riddles of the universe reveal themselves only slowly to our investigation; there are many questions to which science today can give no answer. But scientific work is the only road which can lead us to a knowledge of reality outside ourselves.
It is once again merely an illusion to expect anything from intuition and introspection; they can give us nothing but particulars about our own mental life, which are hard to interpret, never any information about the questions which religious doctrine finds it so easy to answer. It would be insolent to let one's own arbitrary will step into the breach and, according to one's personal estimate, declare this or that part of the religious system to be less or more acceptable. Such questions are too momentous for that; they might be called too sacred.
At this point one must expect to meet with an objection.
- "Well then, if even obdurate skeptics admit that the assertions of religion cannot be refuted by reason, why should I not believe in them, since they have so much on their side — tradition, the agreement of mankind, and all the consolations they offer?"
Why not, indeed? Just as no one can be forced to believe, so no one can be forced to disbelieve. But do not let us be satisfied with deceiving ourselves that arguments like these take us along the road of correct thinking.
If ever there was a case of a lame excuse we have it here. Ignorance is ignorance; no right to believe anything can be derived from it. In other matters no sensible person will behave so irresponsibly or rest content with such feeble grounds for his opinions and for the line he takes. It is only in the highest and most sacred things that he allows himself to do so. In reality these are only attempts at pretending to oneself or to other people that one is still firmly attached to religion, when one has long since cut oneself loose from it.
Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanor. Philosophers stretch the meaning of words until they retain scarcely anything of their original sense. They give the name of "God" to some vague abstraction which they have created for themselves; having done so they can pose before all the world as deists, as believers in God, and they can even boast that they have recognized a higher, purer concept of God, notwithstanding that their God is now nothing more than an insubstantial shadow and no longer the mighty personality of religious doctrines.
Critics persist in describing as "deeply religious" anyone who admits to a sense of man's insignificance or impotence in the face of the universe, although what constitutes the essence of the religious attitude is not this feeling but only the next step after it, the reaction to it which seeks a remedy for it. The man who goes no further, but humbly acquiesces in the small part which human beings play in the great world — such a man is, on the contrary, irreligious in the truest sense of the word.
On the off chance that God exists
On the matter of the God question, either God exists or he does not, regardless what I think on the matter, so I’m not particularly worried about it, even if the afterlife turns out to be what Christians think it is with a heaven and a hell, and with belief in God and his Son as the requisite criteria for entry. Why?
First of all, why would an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God care whether I believed in him? Shouldn’t he know this ahead of time in any case? Even assuming that he has granted me free will, since God is said to be omniscient and outside of time and space, shouldn’t he know everything that happens?
In either case, why would “belief” matter at all, unless God were more like the Greek and Roman gods who competed with one another for human affections and worship and were filled with such human emotions as jealousy. The Old Testament God Yahweh certainly sounds like this type of deity in the first three of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2–17, King James Version):
- “I am the LORD thy God.… Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.”
Yikes! The sins of the fathers are to be borne by their children’s children’s children? What sort of justice is that? What kind of God is this? This just sounds so … well … ungodly to my ears. Most people have learned to get over jealousy, and I’ve even managed to keep it in check much of the time myself, and I’m no god, that’s for sure.
Wouldn’t an omniscient, omnipotent, omniphilic deity be more concerned with how I comported myself in this world, rather than obsessing over whether I believe in him and/or his Son in hopes of getting to the right place in the other world? I would think so. Behavioral comportment dines at the high table of morality and ethics; jealousy feasts on the empty calories of baser human emotions.
In any case, if there is an afterlife and a God who resides over it, I intend to make my case along these lines:
- Lord, I did the best I could with the tools you granted me. You gave me a brain to think skeptically and I used it accordingly. You gave me the capacity to reason and I applied it to all claims, including that of your existence. You gave me a moral sense and I felt the pangs of guilt and the joys of pride for the bad and good things I chose to do. I tried to do unto others as I would have them do unto me, and although I fell far short of this ideal far too many times, I tried to apply your foundational principle whenever I could. Whatever the nature of your immortal and infinite spiritual essence actually is, as a mortal finite corporeal being I cannot possibly fathom it despite my best efforts, and so do with me what you will.
Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, page 45.
On liberal democracy
I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone — if possible — Jew, Gentile — black man — white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness — not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.
Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost...
The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men — cries out for universal brotherhood — for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world — millions of despairing men, women, and little children — victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.
To those who can hear me, I say — do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed — the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish...
Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes — men who despise you — enslave you — who regiment your lives — tell you what to do — what to think and what to feel! Who drill you — diet you — treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men — machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate — the unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!
In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: "the Kingdom of God is within man" — not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power — the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.
Then — in the name of democracy — let us use that power — let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world — a decent world that will give men a chance to work — that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfil that promise. They never will!
Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfil that promise! Let us fight to free the world — to do away with national barriers — to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers! in the name of democracy, let us all unite!
Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator's Speech.
On criminal justice
One other respect in which our society suffers from the theological conception of ‘sin’ is the treatment of criminals. The view that criminals are ‘wicked’ and ‘deserve’ punishment is not one which a rational morality can support. Undoubtedly certain people do things which society wishes to prevent, and does right in preventing as far as possible.
We may take murder as the plainest case. Obviously, if a community is to hold together and we are to enjoy its pleasures and advantages, we cannot allow people to kill each other whenever they feel an impulse to do so. But this problem should be treated in a purely scientific spirit. We should ask simply: What is the best method of preventing murder?
Of two methods which are equally effective in preventing murder, the one involving least harm to the murderer is to be preferred. The harm to the murderer is wholly regrettable, like the pain of a surgical operation. It may be equally necessary, but it is not a subject for rejoicing. The vindictive feeling called ‘moral indignation’ is merely a form of cruelty.
Suffering to the criminal can never be justified by the notion of vindictive punishment. If education combined with kindness is equally effective, it is to be preferred; still more is it to be preferred if it is more effective. Of course, the prevention of crime and the punishment of crime are two different questions; the object of causing pain to the criminal is presumably deterrent.
If prisons were so humanized that a prisoner got a good education for nothing, people might commit crimes in order to qualify for entrance. No doubt prison must be less pleasant than freedom; but the best way to secure this result is to make freedom more pleasant than it sometimes is at present. I do not wish, however, to embark upon the subject of Penal Reform. I merely wish to suggest that we should treat the criminal as we treat a man suffering from plague.
Each is a public danger, each must have his liberty curtailed until he has ceased to be a danger. But the man suffering from plague is an object of sympathy and commiseration, whereas the criminal is an object of execration. This is quite irrational. And it is because of this difference of attitude that our prisons are so much less successful in curing criminal tendencies than our hospitals are in curing disease.
On irrationalists with nuclear arms
It seems peaceful. But this is the very spot where a lot of Christians believe life on Earth will end. The irony of religion is that — because of its power to divert man to destructive causes — the world actually could come to an end.
The plain fact is, religion must die for mankind to live. The hour is getting very late to be able to indulge in having key decisions made by religious people — by irrationalists. By those who would steer the ship of state not by a compass, but by the equivalent of reading the entrails of a chicken. George Bush prayed a lot about Iraq, but he didn't learn a lot about it.
Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking. It's nothing to brag about. And those who preach faith, and enable and elevate it, are intellectual slaveholders — keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction.
Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don't have all the answers to think they do. Most people would think it's wonderful when someone says I'm willing, Lord! I'll do whatever you want me to do! — except that since there are no Gods actually talking to us, that void is filled in by people, with their own corruptions and agendas.
And anyone who tells you they know — they just know! — what happens when you die? I promise you, you don't. How can I be so sure? Because I don't know, and you do not possess mental powers that I do not. The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions is not the arrogant certitude that is the hallmark of religion, but doubt. Doubt is humble, and that's what man needs to be — considering that human history is just a litany of getting shit dead wrong.
This is why rational people — anti-religionists — must end their timidity and come out of the closet and assert themselves. And those who consider themselves only moderately religious really need to look in the mirror and realize that the solace and comfort that religion brings you actually comes at a terrible price.
If you belonged to a political party, or a social club, that was tied to as much bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, violence and sheer ignorance as religion is, you'd resign in protest. To do otherwise is to be an enabler — a mafia wife — for the true devils of extremism, that draw their legitimacy from the billions of their fellow travelers.
If the world does come to an end — here, or wherever — or if it limps into the future, decimated by the effects of a religion-inspired nuclear terrorism, let's remember what the real problem was: that we learned how to precipitate mass death before we got past the neurological disorder of wishing for it. That's it. Grow up, or die.
On curbing unwarranted self-importance
Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.
The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.
Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, "You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be." And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.
Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. Death, for instance, is not terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion of death that it is terrible. When therefore we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never attribute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own principles. An uninstructed person will lay the fault of his own bad condition upon others. Someone just starting instruction will lay the fault on himself. Some who is perfectly instructed will place blame neither on others nor on himself.
Remember, that not he who gives ill language or a blow insults, but the principle which represents these things as insulting. When, therefore, anyone provokes you, be assured that it is your own opinion which provokes you. Try, therefore, in the first place, not to be hurried away with the appearance. For if you once gain time and respite, you will more easily command yourself.
If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?
If anyone tells you that such a person speaks ill of you, don't make excuses about what is said of you, but answer: "He does not know my other faults, else he would not have mentioned only these."
Don't be prideful with any excellence that is not your own. If a horse should be prideful and say, " I am handsome," it would be supportable. But when you are prideful, and say, " I have a handsome horse," know that you are proud of what is, in fact, only the good of the horse. What, then, is your own? Only your reaction to the appearances of things. Thus, when you behave conformably to nature in reaction to how things appear, you will be proud with reason; for you will take pride in some good of your own.
These reasonings are unconnected: "I am richer than you, therefore I am better"; "I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am better." The connection is rather this: "I am richer than you, therefore my property is greater than yours;" "I am more eloquent than you, therefore my style is better than yours." But you, after all, are neither property nor style.
Does anyone bathe in a mighty little time? Don't say that he does it ill, but in a mighty little time. Does anyone drink a great quantity of wine? Don't say that he does ill, but that he drinks a great quantity. For, unless you perfectly understand the principle from which anyone acts, how should you know if he acts ill? Thus you will not run the hazard of assenting to any appearances but such as you fully comprehend.
When any person harms you, or speaks badly of you, remember that he acts or speaks from a supposition of its being his duty. Now, it is not possible that he should follow what appears right to you, but what appears so to himself. Therefore, if he judges from a wrong appearance, he is the person hurt, since he too is the person deceived. For if anyone should suppose a true proposition to be false, the proposition is not hurt, but he who is deceived about it. Setting out, then, from these principles, you will meekly bear a person who reviles you, for you will say upon every occasion, "It seemed so to him."