It’s an Ancient Greek philosophy known for its lessons on material existence and pleasure-seeking. So what might Epicureanism say about living well on social media and the internet? Nathan Dufour Oglesby explains
In all likelihood you’re reading this on a screen.
Tens of millions of bits of digital information display this text within your perceptual field, while hundreds of billions of neurons interpret the visual information received from your optic nerve. A sprawling interplay of physical processes, theoretically reducible to infinitesimal signals and bits, underlies your experience of reading an online article.
I try to keep this physicality in mind, as more and more of my life occurs on screens. My main occupation is making comedic music videos about philosophy, ecology and other topics, for my YouTube and TikTok channels – it’s a joyous job, but one that comes with an overwhelming abundance of screentime. Hence, even when I’m using my digital devices to pursue my desired ends, writing and creating, an anxiety sometimes sets in – “Is this okay? Am I letting my very life vanish into the pixelated vistas of my video editing software, my docs? Is this a life at all?”
As these forms of experience come to predominate, and as we approach the frontier of an augmented reality, in which computer-generated content is woven into the fabric of perception, I often try to remind myself that even though there’s something seemingly “immaterial” about digital and virtual experience, it’s all still ultimately physical.
This thought helps me to interpret, and to manage, that experience.
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Is this okay? Am I letting my very life vanish into the pixelated vistas of my video editing software, my docs? Is this a life at all?
I reason that I can live a good life, even if a lot of it is spent on my computer – so long as I regulate my inputs and outputs conscientiously, the same way I would for any other physical process, like eating or exercise. You are what you eat, and, in a different but fundamentally related sense, you are what you scroll through, watch, comment on and download. It’s all matter, and matter matters.
Now there’s a lot packed into this claim, that “everything is matter”, or reducible to it. It involves perennial philosophical quandaries, about which my own convictions are ultimately fluid, agnostic and eclectic.
But when I’m thinking about my digital experience, seeking to make sense of the various layers of virtuality that overlie my day, I find myself turning to a particular school of Ancient Greek philosophy called Epicureanism. What, then, can this 2,000-year-old philosophy tell us about how we live in the digital world today?
To begin with, the Epicureans were materialists. They believed that all of existence results from the chance collision of indivisible material bits called “atoms”, cascading in the infinite void. We now understand atoms, via modern physics, as things that can be further divided, but by this term the Epicureans simply meant the smallest bits that could be conceived. The word literally means “indivisible” (atomos). These bits aggregate into larger bodies, and in the process of cosmic evolution have brought about life forms such as ourselves.
I use the word “bits” deliberately, to evoke an analogy with the digital. Not only is a “bit” a small quantity of something (such as an atom), it is also the term for the smallest unit of data in a computing system. These bits are physical things – in early computing they were housed in sequences on punched cards, now they are embodied as voltages on tiny transistors. Different sequences of bits (ones and zeroes), different digital information. Different shapes and arrangements of atoms, different bodies.
The Epicureans believed that even the contents of our minds – our thoughts and perceptions – are comprised of very fine atoms of a certain kind. On this basis they asserted that all perceptions are equally real – even dreams and optical illusions are real, in the sense that they are made of actual, material stuff just like anything else.
This doesn’t mean that all perceptions are equally trustworthy – one must interpret which pieces of perceptual information are the most reliable. But this theory is pertinent to modern digital experience because it reminds us that the contents of our screens, like the contents of our minds, are not less real than the external sense objects we perceive, just different.
As the philosopher David Chalmers puts it, in two helpful phrases: “information is physical”, and “virtual reality is genuine reality”. (Chalmer’s recent book Reality+ goes into many of these issues – such as how to define “virtual” and “physical” at greater depth. Also, for a lengthier treatment of the Epicurean theory of perception, see this article by Emma Woolerton.)
The contemporary philosopher David Chalmers pointed out that information is physical (Credit: Nathan Dufour Oglesby)
Still, how does this help? Just because I’m living a “real life” when I spend an entire day shrouded in the luminescence of my laptop screen, doesn’t mean I’m living the “good life”. What would an Epicurean have to say about the qualitative aspects, and the ethical value, of digital experience in the 21st Century?
Epicureanism emerged in the Hellenistic period (323-31BC) – an era which, not unlike our Information Age, was characterised by a radical shift in the technology of media. Book culture was becoming more widespread, texts were being collated, canonised and produced at an increasing rate, and Greek language and culture was spreading throughout the Mediterranean region. It was an era of social and political upheavals, and new ideas arising to confront new realities.
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Amidst all these changes, Hellenistic philosophy tended to put great emphasis on ethics, and the application of its theories to the pursuit of the best possible life. It wasn’t just an academic discussion, it was about creating and pursuing a spiritual discipline founded on a rigorous conception of the nature of things (See Martha Nussbaum’s Therapy of Desire for an extensive treatment.)
The Athenian Epicurus was paradigmatic of this trend. He began his system of thought from the atomic theory of matter described above, drawing on philosophers from the preceding century. But his most well-known contribution to philosophy is the ethical theory that he derived from it – a radical endorsement of the pursuit of pleasure.
Epicurus believed everything reduces to atoms and void – including our mind (psyche) – and so rejected the conception of the immortal soul, which had been central to prior religious and philosophical thought. The gods, he held, may exist – but even if they do, they have nothing to do with us, and hence give us no moral obligations, no divine law, and no higher purpose. Therefore, the best thing you can do, and in fact the highest good, is to pursue a life of pleasure.