Confronting Thoughtlessness: Become the Philosopher You Once Pretended to Be

by Max Blochowiak | October 07, 2020

For about two years, I was aware of Starting Strength as an entity. However, I did not read the Blue Book™ until I needed to read the Blue Book™. Following my short stint as a mediocre, skinny basketball player and transitioning to an underweight personal trainer, I found myself with nearly crippling pain in my left knee. Sometimes I would summit stairs one step at a time, only stepping up with my right leg. I do not wish to blame Kelly Starrett, but it was in attempting to become a Supple Leopard that I became a brittle house cat.

I spent several months with unsuccessful treatments, such as massage, stretching, rehabilitation exercises, and so on. Scouring the web, I was eventually reminded of Mark Rippetoe’s teaching of the low-bar back squat – better known as The Squat. Having been unable to high-bar squat more than 135 lb without serious pain, I began with the empty bar. Surprisingly, the first warm-up felt good. I could feel my knee, but I was not in pain. Probably I worked up to only 95 or 115 lb that day five years ago. I ordered the Blue Book™ immediately.

Over the few months following that revelatory workout, I became much stronger and healthier than I’d ever been. I topped the mythical bodyweight of 200 lb that I knew I’d never hit, I was squatting more than my bodyweight before my working sets, and much more. Life in the weight room was good.

However, it wasn’t all peaches and cream. Outside of the squat rack, I was an aimless mess. The modern condition of sitting in traffic for hours every week, 1000 cereal options at the supermarket, and science’s increasingly dull view of our place in the universe left me with, as Daniel Oakes put it, a despairing boredom. This is common in the third millennium, but it was prefaced in earlier modernity by Albert Camus, Friedrich Nietzsche, and others in a deeper and more consequential way.

Camus saw (and would probably double-down if he entered a modern supermarket) that life is absurd. We are born into this world without consent, flail about through childhood and adolescence, lose our innocence after seeing death or experiencing great suffering, and wade through countless sufferings throughout the rest of our life – at the end of which we perish. Furthermore, we are conscious of nearly the whole endeavor, far more so than any other creature on this small planet among several in the solar system, embedded in a vast galaxy with hundreds of billions of stars, which is itself merely one galaxy in an array of trillions, all floating through a mostly empty vacuum of space and time.

Naturally, young men look around and say, “Yeah, but why?” Consensus would have it that our most reliable form of knowledge is science, but it validates only a material description of the universe. This renders any attempt to find meaning within our sufferings (or anything) fruitless. As modern as this notion is sold to be, it is ancient. Democritus, about 2,450 years ago:

By convention, sweet; by convention, bitter; by convention, hot; by convention, cold; by convention color; but in reality, atoms and void. (1)

This universe of atoms and void is not just indifferent to our sufferings – as indifference would imply that it could be interested if it wanted to be – but our afflictions are momentary spectacles howled into a cave that absorbs or reflects, but is incapable of empathy. Moreover, the conception of evolution by natural selection suggests that we were crafted out of this suffering. (2) Our immaterial, inexplicable consciousness has a profound ability to comprehend suffering within this purely physical universe, yet it is the universe itself that created this ability. Absurd indeed.

However, the barbell leaves no room in one’s mind for the Big Questions. A heavy squat trying to grind one into dust on the mat below one’s feet does not leave room for deep reflection. While lifting uses a few hours per week, what of the 100+ waking hours remaining?

Outside of the gym I wore the device from A Clockwork Orange forcing me to keep my eyes open as I stared into the infinite black void of nothingness. In time, I began to see myself as Sisyphus pushing an Atlas stone up the mountain. Sure, my glutes look great, but what’s the point of having phenomenal glutes if they will inevitably return to the dust whence they came?

Nothing Under the Sun Is New

Much of Starting Strength is dedicated to saying that the barbell makes its frequenters more of what they are. When one spends the first six weeks putting ever-increasing loads on the bar, getting stronger between every workout, one’s nervous system, musculature, tendons, ligaments, and mind quickly begin to do more than once was possible. After this novice phase, the barbell can continue to provide these benefits, but at a slower pace provided adequate programming. Any way it is dissected, the barbell helps us realize the potential many of us did not know we had.

But what is potential? We all intuitively understand it to be that which we are capable of but do not yet possess. But why is it obvious that someone can become different than they are? Do things outside of ourselves bring about these changes? Are our perceptions of change illusory? From where is this potential derived?

To begin to answer these questions, it is helpful to acknowledge that we know when potential is not realized. We think of the all-state quarterback who partied far more than he trained in college, never making himself as great as he could have been. The punk teen who is brilliant in mathematics but cannot be convinced to push himself with a tougher and more-comprehensive workload. The Minnesota Timberwolves potentially having a winning season but pretending that the first three quarters of each basketball game are all that matters. The classic tales of unrealized potential.

The pattern of these stories is that each failed to enact proper change. The quarterback went from a fit, competent athlete to a washed-up chump with a B.A. in communications. He was supposed to undergo rigorous training in order to climb the football hierarchy and become the best college quarterback that his university had ever seen – maybe even gone pro. Regardless of our value judgments about the direction of the cases above, change occurred.

But what is change? We could define it as the process of bringing some potential quality into actuality. What was merely potential becomes actual. At the beginning of any Timberwolves season, they have the potential to win or lose 82 games. Thus, when the season ends, they have actualized 82 potentials and possess a record with an array of wins and losses – probably 32-50.

Why is the writer talking this way?

Aristotle contended that this is how change occurs in the world. He refuted Parmenides and other Pre-Socratics who held that change could not exist. (3) The cup of coffee the writer is currently drinking was hotter a few minutes ago than it is now, and it will be much cooler in 20 minutes. This change, Parmenides claimed, involved something coming into existence (coolness/coldness) from nothing (it was hot). Yet, nothing cannot bring about something, only “more” nothing. (4) So, according to Parmenides, change cannot occur. Aristotle felt, as the reader likely does, that this argument cannot be correct. But why? Can the reader refute the toga-sporting Parmenides?

Aristotle contradicted Parmenides by noting that potential is a real quality of the thing in focus, but it has not yet been actualized. The coffee contains in its essence the potential to be colder than it is when freshly hot. This quality is not created ex nihilo, and Big Chemistry eventually brings the coffee to this lower room temperature.

To Lift or Not to Lift

We have to conclude, then, that change is a real process that occurs in the world. Readers of Starting Strength likely have no problem with such a claim because they do not live in Ivory Towers wearing tweed and elbow patches, but it is important to be explicit. Additionally, we can say any actualization can come only from something that is itself actual. For example, the potential for the writer’s hair to be purple can be actualized only by a dye that has the actual properties necessary to dye his hair purple. Rubbing Play-Doh into his hair would not work. Conversely, if the coffee mentioned above is stored in a room that is 150 degrees, it will not cool to 70 degrees. The act being realized must be brought about by something already actual. (5)

Now, an intriguing question can be raised within this description of change. Is the sheer existence of a thing an act? In other words, does the fact that a barbell exists in time and space, sitting on the squat rack’s pins, require that some other actualizer give the barbell its existence? Yes, indeed it does. Take any barbell in Wichita Falls Athletic Club located in sunny Wichita Falls, Texas, and ask Mark Rippetoe: why does this barbell exist? He will tell you it is from manufacturer so and so, and he bought it in such and such year, and that you should leave for asking such a dumb question. Why does this barbell exist? Because the manufacturer wanted to sell weightlifting equipment. Indeed, but why this specific barbell rather than another instance of the same kind of barbell?

There is nothing within any one particular barbell that says “this barbell must exist.” To state it more rigorously, the existence of a barbell is not contained in the essence of a barbell. So, there is a distinction between the two. The essence of a standard Olympic barbell – about 84” long, weighs 20kg, has a diameter of 29mm, and so on – does not include the fact that any one barbell must exist. In fact, it does not imply that any barbells have to exist at all, at any time – the essence of a barbell is constituted of purely potential qualities. Admittedly, it would be strange if there were standard barbell specifications while none existed, but there is nothing intrinsic to the barbell that would imply its existence. We can think of unicorns, dragons, and other standard fictional creatures for examples.

Since the essence of a barbell in no way necessitates its existence, we can call it contingent. And, we must conclude that an existent contingent thing must say its very existence is actualized.

Aristotle’s Argument

This is Chase Lindley performing a deadlift. We’ll examine the lift as if he is performing this repetition with a pause below the knees – a moment frozen in time.

middle of the deadlift

We can say at least a few things; the plates have been moved from the ground to being suspended in air and the barbell has changed from straight to slightly bent because of Chase’s world-famous deadlift prowess, both of which cannot be actualized by the plates and barbell on their own. Additionally, this is the result of many simultaneous bodily processes. His hands are holding the bar, which implies that his forearm and hand muscles are kept in contraction, which also implies that his nervous system is activating the requisite motor neurons. These motor neurons are activated because the neurons in his brain command this of the nervous system, and these neurons are activated because of his desire to perform this particular repetition.

More generally, myriad potentials are being reduced to specific acts and Chase is actualizing all of these potentials because he has the ability to do so. Most young men do not have the actualized ability to deadlift 405 lb, so they would not be able to actualize all of these potentials.

Yet, in stating some of the changes taking place – and there are many left unstated – we have presupposed that the barbell exists (and the weight plates and Chase and the ground on which he stands). But if a contingent being’s existence is actual rather than potential, it must ask for help to explain why this is the case, as was noted in the previous section. And not only does the thing in question need to look elsewhere to explain its existence at all, but it must do so at any one moment, such as the one being examined, since there is no point in the lifespan of a barbell/weight/Chase that presupposes its own existence.

Should a contingent thing (let’s call it B for barbell) be unable to explain its existence, it must appeal to something “above” it, which we’ll call A. As was stated above, A must be actual in order to actualize B. The question then becomes: is A an admixture of potentiality and actuality? If it is, then it too must ask for help explaining its own existence. If there is not admixture, then A is purely actual (since pure potentiality could not, even in theory, exist).

It is possible that A is not purely actual, but then we would be left with a chain of at least three contingent beings not explaining their own existence. We must move “up” the chain again. This order of causes can extend infinitely or it can end in a purely actual actualizer that explains its own existence (and the imparted existence of everything “below”). However, it is not possible to explain any one element’s existence within the chain should the chain be infinitely long. How would we explain the movement of a train if it is an infinitely long string of boxcars without an engine? How would we explain the suspension of a chandelier if it were held by an infinitely long chain?

Thus, the charge that we can have an infinitely long order of simultaneous change from potentiality to actuality brings us to the Ouroboros snake eating its own tail. (6) We must conclude that A is itself purely actual or is actualized by that which is purely actual. Either way, we reach a pure act – Actus Purus – that causes all potentialities to be sustained in actuality at any one moment. This all men call God.

Many will squabble with this argument, but only a few might aim at what it actually says. Firstly, remember that this is not a plea to answer the existence of a causal chain reaching back in time. This is one of the egregious mistakes Richard Dawkins makes in his “refutation” of these arguments in The God Delusion (see page 78). Aristotle and many later Aristotelian thinkers believed the universe is eternal, or that at least it is impossible to prove a finite past philosophically.

We have examined a causal series ordered per se, or ordered in itself – what Dr. Edward Feser helpfully calls a hierarchical rather than linear series. The paused deadlift is an order of simultaneous causes, frozen in time to show that at any one moment, all contingent beings must search for their own existence outside of themselves.

The article by Daniel Oakes that partially provoked this one suggests that the barbell knocks us down a peg or two. While this is undoubtedly true, I believe the weight room can help us think deeply about the obvious – a staple of Starting Strength. Moreover, the question of why there is something rather than nothing has yet to be answered, despite our newfound humility.

Lastly, this question is not for the physical sciences to answer. All of science was once nested within philosophy, and this is where it belongs. Indeed, science presupposes much in the way of philosophy. Physics fetishists will claim it is the pinnacle (or even sole) vehicle by which we achieve objective knowledge of the world, but that claim is a purely philosophical one. Further, it presupposes that our interpretation of the experiments constitutes objective knowledge. Even more radical is that the utterly abstract world of mathematics reliably maps onto the physical universe. Can we test these claims in the Large Hadron Collider? What equation can we derive to tell us that mathematical abstractions are accurately conveying physical reality? What of a possible immaterial reality, such as consciousness?

It’s common for atheistic types to reject arguments for the existence of God because of their perceived weightlessness. They expect that as they finish the argument’s conclusion, their socks will shoot off of their feet as they fall limp to the floor, utterly submissive to the power of God as they finally gaze upon the Divine Essence. Down here in reality, the greatest thinkers to ever live have built these arguments through the millennia in order to explain why a universe filled with contingent things is ordered rather than chaotic – or why it exists at all.

When laid out in full, the seriousness of Aristotle’s argument is plain. It is a pre-Christian levy to explain the universe that has been studied and contemplated for two and half millennia. To scoff at it betrays an embarrassing arrogance (takes one to know one). If nothing else, I hope this essay forces the reader to meditate on the question: why is there something rather than nothing?


Bibliography and Notes

1. Smith, N. D., Allhoff, F., & Vaidya, A. (2014). 5: The Atomists. In Ancient Philosophy: Essential Readings with Commentary (p. 49). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

2. Evolution was first hypothesized by Anaximander c. 530 B.C. and the Primordial Soup hypothesis of how any life at all came to be was hypothesized by Anaxagoras c. 450 B.C. (see the Penguin edition of Early Greek Philosophy).

3. “It is necessary to say and to think What-Is, for to-be is And nothing is not. These things I command you to consider. … For never will this prevail, that things that are not are. … That What-Is is ungenerated and imperishable, Whole, uniform, unmoving, and without end Neither was it, nor will it be, but rather it is now, altogether one, continuous, For what coming-into-being will you seek of it? How and from what did it grow? Nor will I permit you to say Or to think, “from What-Is-Not,” for it is not possible to say or think that it is not What need would have urged it Later or sooner, starting from What-Is-Not, to grow? Thus it must either be or not be.” Parmenides, (3: The Eleatics 2014).

4. Remember this tidbit when your favorite physicist proposes that the energy of the universe caused itself, or was generated from nothing. Sometimes this is skirted for the multiverse theory, but that merely pushes the question back one step.

5. Sometimes it also needs to be said that potential must be possible. A Toyota Camry is potentially rainbow colored, but it is not potentially a paint brush. This is not an exercise in imaginative capabilities.

6. Bertrand Russell showed us how obstinate brilliant people can be when he refused to accept this fact in a 1948 debate with Frederick Copleston.

Further Learning – in the order I’d recommend.

1. Five Proofs of the Existence of God by Edward Feser.

2. Aquinas by Edward Feser with Aquinas 101 videos.

3. The Last Superstition by Edward Feser.

4. Aristotle’s Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundations of Physical and Biological Science by Edward Feser.

5. The Metaphysics by Aristotle. I like the Penguin edition by Hugh Lawson-Tancred. His introduction and summary of each chapter are exceedingly helpful.

6. Lectures for the Thomistic Institute.

7. Summa Theologiae by St. Thomas Aquinas. Latin-English version. Paperback. Latin-English hardcover set. A video on how to read the Summa is necessary. This reading is difficult. However, if you aren’t as obdurate and self-opinionated as Richard Dawkins, there is much to be gained from diving headlong into the Summa.

Picture for the article, if I may be so bold. Wiki Commons Sisyphus by Antonio Zanchi.  

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