On Philosophy

July 22, 2008

5: The Moon Cannot Be Stolen

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

1. Interpretation: The moon cannot be stolen because it is not something that can be owned. Everyone can partake of the beauty of the moon without diminishing anyone else’s enjoyment of the moon. Thus the experience of the moon is not a finite resource that can only be had by so many people. And so it is not the kind of thing that can be owned. Of course someone might try to own the moon. They might forbid looking at the moon without permission. But doing so is foolish. At the very least it is nearly impossible to enforce. And secondly it would be an extremely selfish act, since it deprives everyone else of something they otherwise would have had for free without giving them anything in return.

Evaluation: Recently trying to own the moon, and accusing others of stealing the moon, has become popular. Some try to prevent information and ideas from being freely shared. Like the moon, if it wasn’t for their efforts to restrict information and ideas everyone could have access to them freely without diminishing anyone else’s ability to enjoy them. Of course, unlike the moon, in these cases someone was the source of that information or that idea, and so they reason that, because they are its source, they have special rights to it, including the right to restrict the access of other people. Suppose that someone had made the moon. The fact that they had made the moon would not change the fact that the moon cannot be owned and cannot be stolen. If they had made the moon in the expectation that they would be able to restrict access to it and make money off it that would just make them foolish. If they didn’t want people to freely partake of the moon they shouldn’t have made it in the first place, since it is the nature of the moon to be freely appreciated. What they would deserve is recognition and gratitude, since making something that cannot be owned is an inherently charitable act.

2. Interpretation: The moon cannot be stolen because anyone who would steal the moon already has it. This is to illustrate that there are a number of wonderful things that we possess without realizing it. All that is required of us is to simply sit back and recognize them. However, all too often we are too busy working to get things we don’t have that we have no time to appreciate the things we already have.

Evaluation: Of course it is true that the moon is beautiful and that all that is required to enjoy it is merely to look up. And it is also true that we tend to undervalue the things that we already have, especially things such as the moon that were simply given to us without any effort on our part. However, it is also possible to overvalue those things. It would probably be equally a mistake to spend all your time appreciating the moon as it would be to never appreciate the moon. At least it would be if you had objectives that involved more than simple contentment. Again, at this point I cannot say which objectives you should or shouldn’t have, but there doesn’t seem anything inherently wrong with having those that can’t be satisfied by staring at the moon. Of course there is nothing wrong with appreciating the things you already have in addition to pursuing additional goals; indeed that is probably optimum.

3. Interpretation: The moon cannot be stolen – some things are simply impossible. Maybe stealing the moon isn’t logically or physically impossible; I suppose in some sci-fi scenario you might be able to move the moon. The point is that stealing the moon is impossible for a given person in a given scenario. In that sense many things are impossible. It is impossible for a poor person to become president and it is impossible to jump five feet vertically in the air from a standing start.

Evaluation: Naturally I can’t deny that some things are impossible. It would be nice if everything was possible, but that’s simply not the way the world works. However, focusing on the impossibility of things may be a bad idea. First of all, even though many things are impossible, some things are thought to be impossible which are in fact possible. For example, a smoker may believe that it is impossible for them to quit smoking when it really is within their reach. And until the last century many thought that traveling to the moon or going faster than sound was impossible, and they were proven wrong too. So in some cases it may seem like people can do the impossible when they reveal that our estimation of what was possible were wrong. If we focus too much on the idea that some things are impossible then we are unlikely to ever make the attempt. And if we never attempt things which some deem to be impossible we will never discover that they are wrong about what is impossible. In that way you may be prevented from doing things, not because they are impossible, but merely because you believe them to be impossible. So it might be better to believe that all things are possible, since that will at least lead to people to test the limits of what is possible rather than simply accepting them.

4. Interpretation: The moon is one of those natural constants that will not change; it will not disappear suddenly because someone stole it. Of course in principle it is possible for the moon to disappear, just as it is in principle possible for the sun not to rise tomorrow. But from a human perspective the moon and the sun are as constant as gravity. The point of the saying would thus be to contrast the immutable with everything else. In realizing how permanent the moon is we also realize how temporary everything else is in comparison. This may lead to a new perspective about things which are less permanent than the moon, one in which we realize that they are also less important.

Evaluation: Yet again this interpretation expresses a kind of stoicism, in this case not motivated by the desire to avoid unhappiness but the observation that in the grand scheme of things almost everything is temporary, and hence not worth worrying about. It is true that most things we concern ourselves with are less permanent than the moon, but should we really place less value on them because they are less permanent? One key concept in this interpretation is that from a human perspective the moon is permanent. But from a human perspective so is a statue, a large tree, and a system of government. Should we therefore care about those things as well? (Which isn’t very stoic.) Of course in the long run everything changes and nothing is permanent, so should we therefore care about nothing or treat everything as unimportant? Perhaps the real point to press is the connection between impermanence and being less important. The reasoning behind this connection may be that, since it eventually is going to change or disappear, it isn’t worth spending effort on something impermanent, since in the long run that effort will be “wasted”. But, on the other hand, each moment is impermanent, and yet it would seem that the effort we spend on making each moment the best we can is well worth it. In other words, even though something is impermanent we may still receive a benefit from that thing’s existence, while it exists, that is worth the effort we put into it, even if in the long run it is going to disappear. It takes a great deal of work to cultivate a beautiful garden, and if you stop working at it the garden will go away. And yet some people find the work worth it because they enjoy the garden while it lasts.

5. Interpretation: The moon cannot be stolen because the moon is free, and you cannot steal what is freely given to you. Perhaps then this saying is indicating that the best things in life are free. Obviously this interpretation overlaps a bit with interpretation 2, which emphasizes that we already have a number of precious gifts. The difference between them is that if we accept that the best things in life are free, the moon among them, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we already have them; we might still need to reach out for them. The moon, for example, is not constantly being appreciated, we need to act to appreciate it. Thus this interpretation encourages us to take advantage of the number of opportunities for a pleasant life that are free, and not to overlook them simply because we aren’t asked to pay.

Evaluation: The truth of this interpretation depends on what you mean by free. It is true that many of the best things in life don’t cost money, but often they take a great deal of work. For example, for an artist the best thing in life may be to paint a masterpiece. Learning how to paint a masterpiece does not necessarily take money, but it does take a great deal of hard work and dedication. It is not something that the artist can simply reach out and take for themselves. Now I would agree that it often seems as if the best things in life tend to be those that we work for rather than pay for. But that may be because, as noted in 4:8, generally we only really appreciate the value of something if we work for it. And so it could be that when we look back upon the things we had or have that we only fully appreciate those that we worked for instead of paid for, even though by some objective standard some of the things we paid for were equally valuable.

6. Interpretation: In several interpretations so far (1, 2, 5) the moon has been understood as the experience of seeing the moon or an appreciation of the moon. In that light to say that the moon cannot be stolen is to say that part of someone’s mind cannot be stolen from them. You can blind someone, but you can never take away from them the experiences they had of the moon or their appreciation of it, short of destroying their mind completely. Thus a sharp distinction between the mental and the physical is uncovered.

Evaluation: A very straightforward approach to this interpretation would be to take it as an argument for dualism (i.e. the mind is one kind of thing and the body / physical world is another). However, it would be a very poor argument for dualism, since we can envision sci-fi scenarios where someone’s memories could be altered, illustrating that, in principle, there is no fundamental distinction between the mind and the physical world. But there is no reason to take the interpretation in such a straightforward manner. For all practical intents and purposes (versus metaphysical ones) our memory of the moon and appreciation of it are unlike physical things. Unlike physical things we can’t be deprived of them. And so, again, a kind of stoic perspective emerges, which would encourage us to place greater value on things in the mind, such as our memory of the moon, than on physical things, since we can never be deprived of them by outside forces while physical things can be destroyed. Again this perspective is best met with the challenge raised in 3:6 – why should we only care about our own happiness? What’s so bad about the possibility that caring about the external world might make us unhappy, especially if we find plenty of happiness in addition to the unhappiness?

7. Interpretation: As with the previous interpretation, let us understand “the moon” as a proper appreciation of the moon. Can we take a proper appreciation of the moon from someone else? No. And yet it is quite possible for someone else to give us a proper appreciation of the moon though their guidance and instruction. This illustrates that the mental “virtues” (wisdom, knowledge, and experience) can be freely shared but never taken by force or cunning.

Evaluation: Again, the stoic perspective rears its head, and may lead us to conclude that the mental virtues are thus the best kind of virtues. But let us put that aside, since it has already been discussed in the previous interpretation. Another interesting idea that this interpretation suggests is that the mental virtues (or, more generally, things that can only be obtained through work) may be the things that are best to work for, from a pragmatic perspective. Everything else we could theoretically get without effort. A lucky lottery ticket, for example, could give us enough money to simply buy everything else. In contrast we will never obtain the mental virtues without hard work. Thus working for the mental virtues and leaving everything else up to good fortune has a shot at working, but it is never the case that after working hard for everything else that fortune will deliver to us the mental virtues. Of course that strategy only makes sense if you place a very high value on the mental virtues, and there is no argument here for doing that.

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