Atoms vs Providence? Both, really

atomThe issue of Stoic theology comes up often in the context of reviving ancient Stoicism for modern times. Lately, there has even been talk of “officially” incorporating Stoicism as a religion so that Stoic “chaplains” can provide services to the US Military. I thought that was a mistake when secular humanists did it, and I think it would be a mistake for Stoics. The world doesn’t need another religion, and Stoicism has never been one, under any reasonable description of what a “religion” is.

(To elaborate on this point briefly: all ancient philosophies, including Epicureanism, had a “theology” of some sort, meaning that they had something to say about the existence and nature of a transcendental, supernatural world. But their own leaders and adherents never thought of those doctrines are religious, clearly treating them as philosophies. I don’t see why we should break with that approach now.)

That said, there is a genuinely interesting — philosophical — debate about the extent to which Stoic theology, and in particular the concept of Providence, is a quintessential part of Stoicism, and therefore whether one might do away with it, if one is not theistically inclined, and still honestly get to call the resulting philosophy “Stoicism.”

One obvious answer would be: who cares? Labels aren’t important, and if I want to call my personal philosophy “Stoicism” even though it bears only a weak family resemblance to the original version, so be it, what’s the big deal?

The (not really big, but significant) deal is that there is a point in being historically and philosophically accurate, in respecting the tradition that allegedly inspires us and taking it seriously. That said, however, I do think that modern Stoicism is a big enough tent to include both theists and atheists (as well as pantheists, agnostics, etc.). Indeed, that’s a major reason I’m attracted to it. Let me defend this position by way of a discussion of two recent essays on this very topic that have appeared over at Stoicism Today.

(But before we proceed, an interesting aside from a post by Erik Wiegardt in The Stoic Philosopher newsletter: according to his thoughtful analysis, the textual support is for the conclusion that the ancient Stoics were — in modern parlance — deists, not theists, and of a pantheistic strip: they believed in a god who is embedded in nature and does not answer prayers or is otherwise concerned with what happens to individual creatures in the cosmos.)

The first essay is by Christopher Fisher, who argues that one cannot do Stoicism without a concept of Providence, and hence that Stoicism has an inescapable religious component to it. His argument is that it is not difficult to find textual evidence, as well as modern scholarship, supporting the idea that the Stoics thought that the universe was embedded with a rational plan. This is most definitely the case. More controversially, though, he also argues that such a belief is crucial to the entire system of ethics that is central to Stoicism (as opposed to the ancillary role played by Stoic physics and logic).

For instance, here is Epictetus: “The philosophers say that the first thing that needs to be learned is the following, that there is a God, and a God who exercises providential care for the universe.” (Discourses II.14.11).

Or: “What are we to do, then? To make the best of what lies within our power, and deal with everything else as it comes. ‘How does it come, then?’ As God wills.” (Discourses I.1.17).

Fisher argues that these aren’t just rhetorical flourishes (he’s right) and that ignoring them puts the entire project of modern Stoicism in peril (I think he’s wrong about that): “The concept of a providential cosmos provides psychological comfort and supports the ethical framework of Stoicism. When the threads of providence are unraveled from the fabric of Stoicism, the whole tapestry begins to fall apart, and the practitioner is left without the essential therapeutic tools the Stoics thought were necessary to face the vicissitudes of life.”

Donald Robertson responds to Fisher by acknowledging the importance of Stoic theology, while at the same time pointing out that the Stoics themselves where open to revision or alternatives on this point. He mentions Panaetius, the last head of the Athenian school, who framed his discussion of the gods in a “nugatory” (i.e., of little importance to Stoic practice) framework; cites Cicero as saying that “Aristo holds that no form of God is conceivable, and denies him sensation, and is in a state of complete uncertainty as to whether he is, or is not, animate” (On the Nature of the Gods, I.14); and then mentions the famous “God or atoms” comments by Marcus Aurelius, who really does not seem to think the answer is crucial to his understanding of Stoicism:

“Alexander of Macedon and his stable-boy were brought to the same state by death; for either they were received among the same creative principle of the universe [God], or they were alike dispersed into atoms” (VI.24).

Or: “If the choice is yours, why do the thing? If another’s, where are you to lay the blame for it? On gods? On atoms? Either would be insanity. All thoughts of blame are out of place” ( VIII.17).

My conclusion after reading these two essays — as well as after reflecting on several pertinent chapters in the well researched Cambridge Companion to the Stoics — is that both Fisher and Robertson have good points. Fisher is certainly right that the concept of Providence played an important role in early Stoicism; Robertson is also correct that there was dissent among the Stoics, as well as room for maneuvering within their philosophy.

But how are these two positions to be reconciled? Am I just deluding myself, rationalizing an irreducible difference in the name of a well intentioned but ultimately incoherent ecumenism?

I don’t think so. What needs to be done is to take the Stoics themselves at their word, one or two levels up, so to speak, from the Fisher-Robertson discussion. Let me explain.

Every scholar I have read agrees that Stoicism was a system made up of three components: physics (i.e., what we today would call natural philosophy, metaphysics, and theology), logic (what we today think of as logic, epistemology, rhetoric, and psychology), and ethics (not in the modern deontological or consequentialist sense, but in the virtue ethical one).

Scholars also agreed that the Stoics considered the ethics, not the other two parts, the absolutely crucial aspect of their philosophy. Stoicism is a practical philosophy, and it was clear from the beginning that the “physics” and “logic” were seen as instrumental to the ethics, not on the same level as the latter. In the Socratic tradition, Stoics were not interested in understanding nature (physics) or reason (logic) for their own sake, but insofar as such understanding lead to a better formulation of their ethical principles, which in turn were good only because of the practice they lead to. Here is Epictetus, on merely theoretical philosophy, for instance:

“Some students [of philosophy] become captivated by all these things and don’t want to proceed further. One is captivated by diction, another by deductive or equivocal arguments, someone else by yet another ‘inn’ of this kind; and there they stay and rot as if seduced by the Sirens.” (Discourses, II.23.41)

The Stoics were also very aware that they could be wrong on specific doctrines, and they were willing to change their mind about them. This is not only clear from the continuous back and forth with the Epicureans, the Academics and the Peripatetics as understood by modern scholars, but also from direct textual evidence. Here is Seneca, for instance, in the context of Stoic knowledge of comets and other celestial bodies:

“Let us be satisfied with what we have discovered, and leave a little truth for our descendants to find out.” (Natural Questions, book VII, XXVI)

Fisher claims that the concept of Providence was basic to Stoic philosophy, and that without it there simply is no recognizable Stoicism. But the idea of a providential universe can in turn be understood as embedded in Stoic understanding of physics, of which a truly basic component was the universality of cause and effect. Everything has a cause, all things are interconnected. The idea of Providence is one reasonable interpretation of this universal web of causation. Another, of course, is the naturalistic one: the universe is what it is because that’s the way nature works. (It is relevant here to note that Boethus of Sidon, a I Century BC peripatetic philosopher, thought of the cosmos as an unconscious vegetative process, not the embodiment of a rational principle.)

So one can consider the idea of a Logos in the more neutral sense — the fact that the universe is understandable by rational means — to be more fundamental than either the providential interpretation (which was, to be sure, by far the most common in antiquity) or the naturalistic one (which has gained more traction nowadays because of the discoveries of modern science).

If this doesn’t convince you, at an even more abstract level one could simply think of as truly fundamental to Stoicism the idea that our best understanding of the way the world is ought to inform the way we behave in it. In this sense, Stoicism is a thorough naturalistic philosophy, with a spelled out connection between “is” (matters of fact) and “ought” (values).

(Another parenthetical aside: it is often said that David Hume argued that one cannot in principle bridge the is/ought gap in a famous quote in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739). But what Hume actually did was to very reasonably ask for an account of how such bridging is done, if it is to be attempted.)

Look, the Stoics were, after all, wrong on a number of pretty serious tenets of their physics: the world is definitely not made of four elements, there is no pneuma (the breadth of life) permeating the universe, and current cosmological theories do not accord with the Stoic idea of a recurring series of identical cycles of booms and busts of the universe (the universe may indeed cycle between a Big Bang and a Big Crunch, though even that’s open to debate, but it is more likely that each cycle isn’t exactly the same as the preceding one, as the Stoics maintained).

And yet it is far more credible that had Stoicism continued to be practiced in the way, say, Buddhism has been, Stoic philosophers would have acknowledged the discoveries of science and incorporated them into their system, or — when necessary — that they would have altered some components of their system accordingly. Even the Dalai Lama recently said that if Buddhism contradicts science, so much the worse for Buddhism, it will have to adapt:

“If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” (Dalai Lama XIV, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality)

I really don’t think the Stoics would have been any less wise than this.

29 thoughts on “Atoms vs Providence? Both, really

  1. I think the key phrase that ties physics and ethics together in Stoicism is ‘according to nature’. Whether nature is thought of individually, socially or cosmically it must be thought of as beneficial, else why would anyone follow it. In ancient times nature could be thought of as benign whether it was Zeus or atoms in control. Today, between nuclear physics and evolution, nature hardly seems rational, benign or working in our best interests. Is a gigantic explosion (the Big Bang) or random bursts of radiation causing mutations the providental world of Stoicism? Seneca was right, there was a little more left to discovered.

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  2. How can there be a close connection between is and ought in the modern scientific view of a deterministic natural universe, when the is precludes any particular ought, and evolution, in fact makes ought valueless? What survives survives, but only until an inevitable change precludes its survival.

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  3. “Religion is but a single brand of superstition (others include beliefs in astrology, paranormal phenomena, homeopathy, and spiritual healing), but it is the most widespread and harmful form of superstition. And science is but one form of rationality (philosophy and mathematics are others), but it is a highly developed form, and the only one capable of describing and understanding reality.” A quote from Jerry Coyne’s new book “Faith vs. Fact” which I am currently reading. Which side of the religion/science debate would the ancient Stoics have taken? Would they have used Science as a method if it had been available to them or have rejected it because it didn’t conform to Stoic doctrine? There are two words in the above quote that are not a part of the set referred to as “superstition”, that kind of leap off the page – rationality and philosophy.

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  4. jbonni,

    “Whether nature is thought of individually, socially or cosmically it must be thought of as beneficial, else why would anyone follow it”

    Not necessarily. Yes, that was the view of the majority of the ancient Stoics, but one can argue that a crucial part of their doctrine was the recognition that human nature is that of a rational, social animal. So “following nature” means just to behave in a socially constructive fashion (discipline of action) and rationally (discipline of assent), all the way recognizing that some things are under our control while others aren’t (discipline of desire). This works within an indifferent universe as well as within a benign one.

    ajc,

    “How can there be a close connection between is and ought in the modern scientific view of a deterministic natural universe”

    Well, one could put it the other way: given a deterministic universe, how could ought be divorced from is? But what I meant above is that Stoic ethics is “naturalistic” in the sense that it is informed by our best understanding of how the universe works, and not divorce from it, as for instance much religiously-based ethics (and some philosophies like Sartre-style existentialism).

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  5. Seems like less of a philosophy than attending a play. We’re just natural events that happen to see each other. Why bother worrying about anything. If your event differs radically from mine, c’est la vie. I can’t really help you, or stop you.

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  6. Massimo, Thanks again for your illuminating discussion of Stoicism.

    Of particular interest to me was Epictetus’ assertion:

    • “The philosophers say that the first thing that needs to be learned is the following, that there is a God, and a God who exercises providential care for the universe.” (Discourses II.14.11).

    More to the point, I think that an omniscient, immutable, loving, and universal God is the necessary basis for the virtuous life, one based on immutable and universal moral principles. After all, if these principles aren’t immutable, why bother to follow them. They will just be different tomorrow. And if they aren’t universal and I want to rob the bank, I’ll just go to the country where robbing is presently in fashion.

    This is to say that pragmatic considerations alone are not adequate to derive immutable and universal moral principles – the only ones worth following. History clearly demonstrates that pragmatism can just as easily lead to barbarism as it can to altruism.

    Can such principles be derived from an investigation of the cosmos? You seem to think so:

    • Stoicism is a thorough naturalistic philosophy, with a spelled out connection between “is” (matters of fact) and “ought” (values).

    Can such a connection be “spelled out?” This seems unlikely. Does the survival of the fittest (what is) justify dog-eat-dog behavior (what ought to be)? Clearly not! Even the altruistic behavior of some (what is) does not mandate or require the altruistic behavior of others (what ought to be.) Only a Higher Authority can do that!

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  7. It’s not a “so”, it’s a “why”? I do not just sit around, for sure. But how do I motivate others who may not have a plan, when they ask, “why?” I can point to higher meanings that I or others have imagined, but in the purely natural deterministic EXPERIENTIAL universe that current science claims we must inhabit, there are no higher meanings than those that individuals chose to create for themselves. It seems to me that a purely stoic philosophy does not solve that dilemma. There must be some openness to an unknown possibility somewhere for there to be a motivational meaning that we can all find useful.

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  8. Daniel,

    “I think that an omniscient, immutable, loving, and universal God is the necessary basis for the virtuous life, one based on immutable and universal moral principles. After all, if these principles aren’t immutable, why bother to follow them. They will just be different tomorrow”

    As you know, I disagree. Epictetus had his opinion, I have mine, and I don’t feel compelled to follow his. In my mind Plato’s argument in the Euthyphro pretty much eliminates gods as the possible sources of morality, and as I point out in the essay, the Stoics were naturalists open to be corrected should the science change. Well, the science has changed.

    Also, I think it is fallacious to slide from the rejection of moral absolutism straight into anything goes relativism. There are lots of positions in between.

    “This is to say that pragmatic considerations alone are not adequate to derive immutable and universal moral principles”

    But the Stoics didn’t think that anything was immutable. Remember, they thought that one’s understanding of the world has to inform one’s behavior in it. And our understanding of the world has changed since Epictetus, dramatically so.

    “History clearly demonstrates that pragmatism can just as easily lead to barbarism as it can to altruism”

    Not really. Usually barbarism comes out of what people take to be immutable principles, like Nazi ideology.

    “Can such a connection be “spelled out?” This seems unlikely”

    There is a large literature on spelling it out, both within and outside of Stoicism (pretty much anything that deals with naturalist and ethics).

    ajc,

    “It’s not a “so”, it’s a “why”? I do not just sit around, for sure. But how do I motivate others who may not have a plan, when they ask, “why?””

    The way you have been doing it all along: appealing to their social instincts and their ability to reason. Just like the Stoics advised.

    “there are no higher meanings than those that individuals chose to create for themselves”

    Right, but we don’t create meaning in a vacuum, we do it within the framework of a biologically and culturally shaped human nature. Hence the Stoic advice to “follow [our] nature.”

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  9. “Right, but we don’t create meaning in a vacuum, we do it within the framework of a biologically and culturally shaped human nature. Hence the Stoic advice to “follow [our] nature.””

    I agree with the above statement. Where I tend to diverge from the Stoics is how they characterize the ‘nature’ we are to come into accord with. I don’t think we can separate reason from feeling with the purpose of finding the way to meaning. Because we are shaped biologically and culturally our reasoning is always going to be accompanied by feeling. When our reasoning is obstructed or fails to fall into accord with a contextual situation we feel a certain way (hesitancy, uncertainty, frustration, etc…). When our prior patterns of reasoning allows us to make sense of a contextual situation we tend to feel a sense of comfort. When we can tap into both our uncertainty and our comfort in a novel situation sometimes our prior understandings open up and expand and we learn something new (this phenomena also has characteristic feeling). I think reasoning and feeling are part of a single process. The better we can understand and be aware of that process, I think the better positioned we will be to synch our reasoning and our feeling with the contingent world that we are extended in.

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  10. Right on Seth. Read Jaak Panksepp ‘architecture of mind’ for the science behind affective thinking. Here’s the rub. Affect allows us to function, but the actual universe is heartless. We can’t think harmoniously with the universe we inhabit if affect is intrinsic to our thinking.

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  11. Seth,

    I’m not sure Stoicism requires a sharp distinction between reason and emotion. But at any rate, there is both a conceptual and an anatomical distinction (in the brain), but of course also a lot of interaction and overlap. Still, in the end the idea is that to live a flourishing life one needs to exercise reason and decide which emotions to cultivate and which ones to deny assent to, to use Stoic parlance. I don’t see anything particularly problematic in that.

    ajc,

    “Here’s the rub. Affect allows us to function, but the actual universe is heartless. We can’t think harmoniously with the universe we inhabit if affect is intrinsic to our thinking.”

    Again, I don’t see a rub here. If by “harmony” you mean some sort of teleological concept, sure, there is a problem. But as I said, most modern Stoics don’t go for that. So “harmony” just means “in synch” with the universe, living while understanding how the world works and how to navigate it.

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  12. Let me try it this way. The way the world seems to work, based on quantum mechanics, relativity, and evolution, means that we have no true free will, and that whatever I do is okay because it is simply one of the events that have already been determined to have occurred in the scheme of the universe. I can “feel” like I’m acting as an agent, but in fact, I’m just an event, and a blip at that. To act in harmony with the universe, as science describes it, is simply to happen, not to act. Unless one remains open to some purpose that we cannot measure or calculate, there is no other way to see things. Yet, if stoicism wishes to have its ethics, it must have its agents.

    There are no agents, as far as I can tell, and even if we claim “local agency”, in our small part of the universe with an inflow of energy that temporarily creates the possibility of some form of intentional action, the outcomes of those intentions have no value in the long run. As an agent, if I want to save the whales by killing the humans, only the humans will really care (and I suppose the whales might be grateful). And as far as we can tell, humans have no special consideration in the universe. Why would I want to be in harmony with that scheme?

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  13. Ah, I was afraid we were going into a discussion of free will. I find the concept entirely unhelpful and very muddled. But at any rate, the Stoics were compatibilist determinists, in modern parlance, so I doubt they disagreed with your take.

    But then you go on to say: “the outcomes of those intentions have no value in the long run.” Sure, but I never understood why X has to have value “in the long run” to have value at all. My experience of a beautiful sunrise has value while I am experiencing it, and perhaps a little bit later in my memory. But certainly not beyond my death. So what? Why does that impermanence somehow diminish its value?

    “Why would I want to be in harmony with that scheme?”

    If you are a determinist you don’t really have a choice, do you?

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  14. AJC, By declaring life and cosmos bereft of any intrinsic value, you have condemned you rself to a bleak, empty, and forbidding landscape, one whose objects/people answer only one question – “Do they enhance my pleasure or detract?”

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  15. Massimo, Is living the virtuous life a coherent undertaking if the principles of virtue are always changing?

    For one thing, if what is virtuous is always changing, then we can’t really learn any principles of virtue or attain any wisdom about virtue, since tomorrow will simply wipe away our present “conclusions.”

    Besides, it is difficult to be virtuous. It will be doubly hard if we believe that what is virtuous today is vice tomorrow. Instead, we profit from any assurance that our sacrificial behavior is serving a Higher Cause!

    If we don’t have such an assurance, then pragmatic considerations – “what do I get out of virtue” – must fill the gap. However, pragmatism is not virtue, since it is fundamentally self-centered.

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  16. I seems to me that the meaning of the term “religion” has widened and changed since antiquity. When Cicero wrote De Natura Deorum, the theological considerations discussed in that book where clearly part of philosophy and religion (as explained in the same book) was more a set of practices, concerned with temples, priests, cults, rituals like sacrifices etc. In that sense, stoicism was clearly no religion although important stoics, like Epictetus and Musonius, where obviously theistof some kind. Religion, as discussed by Cicero, is concerned with pietas, which is understood to be an attitude of performing your duties against the goods, in the form of correctly performing sacrifices, prayers, and other rituals and sacral activities. This does not necessarily involve a sophisticated set of beliefs or a theological or philosophical theory about the gods.
    Today, however, I think there are many people who have theistic private ‘philosophies’ which they might think of as their religion, even if they do not participate in any community activities, rituals etc. There are some modern meanings of the word “religion” that I think would apply to the theological part of the philosophies of those ancient stoics. The distinctions have shifted. Just as large parts of “physics” have moved out of (natural) philosophy and into science, parts of what was philosophy about the “natura deorum” has moved out of philosophy and into theology. At the same time, I think, the meaning of the term “religion” has changed.
    There is clearly a large spectrum of different concepts of religion (and religion-like concepts) at different times in the development of European cultures and in other cultures as well. Under some definitions, it would be possible to call certain brands of stoicism religions. In a greek/roman intra-cultural description, describing the thoughts of those people in their own term, it would not qualify as “religio”, but as “philosophia”. In a modern description, however, using (anachronistic) terms derived from later cultures, it is well possible to define them as religion.

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  17. Daniel,
    I am not declaring the universe bereft of intrinsic value, I am observing it to be, at least if I hold to the current scientific paradigm for the underlying mechanisms of its operation. I actually would declare that the universe has intrinsic value because for a multitude of reasons, none specifically religious, I cannot accept that paradigm as complete.

    Massimo,
    someone’s experience of a beautiful sunrise on August 6 and August 9, 1945, the days that the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan, may have had some great value to them, but not to all. That sunrise, as with all sunrises, had no intrinsic value. I cannot accept that simple experiences have anything to do with value in that sense, even in the short run. They are merely, as Daniel notes, pleasures. Values to me constrain actions toward some intention that improves the condition of the entire system of those who hold them. If the intention is not free, then the constraint is an illusion.

    I think free will of some sort is critical for the existence of values. While I understand that we might want to simply accept the contingency of a natural deterministic universe, and create a self-created value for all that occurs, I think our imaginations allow us to transcend those contingencies in more interesting ways than a simple surrender to the script. I also think only imagination allows us to say things like, “Humans all have equal value”. I apologize for not having kept up with your blog despite my great interest and intention to, but what do the stoics have to say about imagination?

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  18. Daniel,

    “Is living the virtuous life a coherent undertaking if the principles of virtue are always changing?”

    Be careful not to strawman my position: I didn’t say that principles are always changing, I said that even principles must be subject to revision, if there is sufficient evidence and/or reason to think they need to be revised.

    “It will be doubly hard if we believe that what is virtuous today is vice tomorrow”

    Again, no, it does’t follow.

    “pragmatism is not virtue, since it is fundamentally self-centered”

    Not sure what sort of pragmatism you are referring to, but if it is the American philosophy by the same name, then I think both Dewey and James would be stunned to hear that.

    nannus,

    “When Cicero wrote De Natura Deorum, the theological considerations discussed in that book where clearly part of philosophy and religion”

    I disagree. Cicero was most definitely talking about philosophy, not religion. Theology has historically been a part of philosophy since antiquity, but theology is not religion. Philosophy means you support your positions with arguments (and evidence), religion does not have a need for that, it is based on faith. Yes, this is a simplification, but a very good first approximation.

    “Religion, as discussed by Cicero, is concerned with pietas, which is understood to be an attitude of performing your duties against the goods”

    Again, no. Cicero was talking about the standard virtue ethical approach to things, which has nothing to do with religion, and it has never been understood in the primary literature on ancient philosophy as having to do with religion.

    “parts of what was philosophy about the “natura deorum” has moved out of philosophy and into theology”

    Agreed, but if we are talking modern Stoicism, then, the theological part tends to be dropped by most if not all books on modern Stoicism, precisely because theology, as you say, has moved out of philosophy. It follows that ancient Stoicism was not a religion, because theology was part of philosophy; and modern Stoicism is not a religion, because the theology is largely discarded.

    ajc,

    “someone’s experience of a beautiful sunrise on August 6 and August 9, 1945, the days that the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan, may have had some great value to them, but not to all”

    I honestly don’t see how that follows from what I wrote. I didn’t say that sunset is always, for everyone, a universally positive experience. Indeed, my point was precisely that experiences can be positive and meaningful even if they are limited in time and space. I am tempted to add *only* if they are limited in time and space.

    “That sunrise, as with all sunrises, had no intrinsic value.”

    Nothing has intrinsic value, because value is a human construct. So is money. Or poetry. It doesn’t mean they don’t exist, or they don’t play a functional role in human existence.

    “I think free will of some sort is critical for the existence of values”

    Yes, but much hinges on that “some sort.” I’m a compatibilist about free will, if you really have to use that term (I don’t, I prefer the modern cognitive science one: volition), and so were the Stoics. We are happy with that much.

    “I think our imaginations allow us to transcend those contingencies in more interesting ways than a simple surrender to the script”

    But if you are a coherent determinist you have to admit that even this ability to imagine a transcendence is something that was determined, you have no choice in the matter, and it isn’t really “yours.”

    “what do the stoics have to say about imagination?”

    Not sure, I’ll inquire about it. It depends on what you mean by the term. If you mean the ability to imagine, say, different scenarios in order to be able to act on the one that we consider the most virtuous, them yes, people are capable of such imaginings. Indeed, they are crucial to our ability to navigate the world.

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  19. Massimo, great topic.
    This post made me think of how the Stoics were interested in divination and astrology. If they believed in some sort of “weak determinism” then this would translate into a modern interest in probability and statistical theory. The question was fundamentally: Can we find a possible future outcome potential based on the “causes” we know (or can deduce)? In other words, scenario analysis.
    Obviously free will is both a theological and philosophical problem, as troublesome now as it ever was. But this idea of the Stoic concept of “god” is something I imagine along the lines of what we now call “the god of the gaps.”
    Also, in a polytheistic Greek environment, I find it fascinating that the Stoics don’t write about plural “gods.” Is this the root of early Christianity’s interest in Stoicism as a potential monotheistic Greek religious practice?

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  20. vienna,

    excellent questions! The Stoics treated divination as a branch of physics, and yes, if they were doing it today they would probably instead dabbling in statistics and probability theory.

    As for god(s), the Stoics were definitely pan-mono-theistic: they believed in one god, permeating the cosmos, and in effect identical to it.

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  21. Well, at least the closure of SciSal led me to explore this excellent blog.

    “Philosophy means you support your positions with arguments (and evidence), religion does not have a need for that, it is based on faith.”

    Drat, Here’s that narrow view of religion again. My religion is not based on faith so this statement is, as you say, an approximation. I find it a very wild one.

    Until it is refuted I will stick to my view that Stoicism is Buddhist (or nondualist) ethics but without any philosophical foundation. Nothing wrong with its ethical system afaik, but a philosophical scheme would be required to justify it. In this respect Stoicism seems anti–scientific, or perhaps ‘anti-investigatory’, since it does not suggest that the facts can be ascertained and the ethical scheme thus proved but, rather, that we must assume that the facts cannot be ascertained.

    For me Stoicism seems a weak doctrine precisely because it is not a religion or a philosophy and thus has no grounding. A study of dependent-existence would reveal a logical and not-unscientific basis for Stoic ethics as the most sensible response to our situation, but establishing our situation is something that the Stoics never seem to get around to sorting out and so their ideas float free of any anchor in Reality.

    In short, and for what it’s worth, I’m a fan of Stoic ethics but not a fan of how they are justified.

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  22. Peter,

    most religious people I know do not analyze their beliefs, so I’m sticking with the faith characterization. Indeed, even theologians — who are in the business of deploying reason to defend their religion — at some point usually admit that reason stops and faiths has to take over. You’ll never hear a philosopher say that.

    As for Stoicism not being a philosophy, that, frankly, stuns me! Of course it is a philosophy, and I actually find Stoic ethics much less arbitrarily grounded than its Buddhist counterpart (with which, however, I agree shares a lot). Stoics explicitly build a materialistic, naturalistic system of ethics, where one gets his ethics from a study of the best “physics” (today we’d call it natural science + metaphysics) and “logic” (today we’d call it logic + epistemology + psychology). That’s one of the things I find most attractive about Stoicism.

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  23. Thanks for the reply Massimo. You seem capable of being in twenty places at once.

    This looks like an interesting disagreement but I worry that I’ll have more time for it than you. I’ll say a bit more but please don’t feel obliged to maintain the discussion. I just wanted to register an objection.

    You are, of course, right about faith. But if we do not combat the view that this is religion’s principle method and it’s principle source of authority then we are going to be stuck in the 19th century forever. Schrodinger endorsed religion and he did not endorse substituting faith for knowledge. If we are going to use Christianity as our main example of religion then we must consider the Gnostic gospels and the nondualism of such books as ‘A Course in Miracles’. I know that many religious people would see these texts as heretical but feel that this merely indicates their crucial importance to anyone interested in religion. Most of religion asks us to discover truth, not merely to guess. It just so happens that in western Christian countries we have suffered centuries of Roman nonsense, but surely it is to time to question it. .

    I feel very strongly about this and bridle whenever I hear religion being called a matter of faith. The perennial philosophy, as the name implies, is justified by logic and experience, not by faith. Faith would be a great an important motivator but it is also an admission of ignorance.

    You are also right to say that Stoicism has or is a philosophy. But it has no fundamental theory, no philosophical foundation, It makes no claims to knowledge of fundamental truths as far as I’m aware and has no logical/metaphysical theory to justify its ethics. It has some brilliant arguments for ethics but they do not start at a fundamental level. It is ‘scientific’ in its approach, which may explain why it works so well and makes so much sense, but it has little to say about the nature of reality. It doesn’t seem to solve any metaphysical problems.

    My proposal; would be that Nagarjuna explains and justifies Stoic ethics in logic at a solid fundamental level, the level where religion, science and philosophy converge, and in a way that allows the possibility of our actually knowing how best to behave rather than having to deduce it or guess. For the Stoic ethics would be a response to the way things seem to be, not a response to the way they are known to be.

    The more general issue for me would be bringing to an end the antipathy between science and religion. This would be entirely unnecessary once we see beyond monotheism, dogmatism and scientism. It must surely be time for the debate to move on.

    As a philosopher/scientist do you not yourself find Stoicism a little short on explanations for anything except ethics?

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  24. Peter,

    “if we do not combat the view that this is religion’s principle method and it’s principle source of authority then we are going to be stuck in the 19th century forever. Schrodinger endorsed religion and he did not endorse substituting faith for knowledge”

    But Schrodinger wasn’t exactly your typical believer or even theologian. I maintain that most people falling in the latter categories would strenuously object to the idea of combating the idea of religious faith.

    “Most of religion asks us to discover truth, not merely to guess”

    But don’t we already have science and philosophy for that purpose? What sort of additional epistemic tools — other than reason and evidence — can religion bring to the table?

    “Stoicism has or is a philosophy. But it has no fundamental theory, no philosophical foundation, It makes no claims to knowledge of fundamental truths”

    It has, and it does. You may want to peruse some of my other posts here, or take a look at some of the books I recommend in one of the tabs of this blog.

    “Stoic ethics would be a response to the way things seem to be, not a response to the way they are known to be”

    You may be right, to a point, but what do you expect ethics to be? It is concern with human relations, so it has to address the world as perceived by humans, not as it “fundamentally” is. To give you an analogy: the desk on which I’m currently writing can be described, at a fundamental level, as an aggregation of quarks with no “solidity.” But such description would be useless for me to use the desk, or to purchase one appropriate to my needs. I think the same goes for ethics: it is pretty much irrelevant to ethical concerns whether we do or do not know, say, fundamental cosmological truths (a point, I believe, made by Socrates), because that doesn’t affect how human beings interact (or should interact) with each other.

    “The more general issue for me would be bringing to an end the antipathy between science and religion. This would be entirely unnecessary once we see beyond monotheism, dogmatism and scientism”

    On that we agree, but I think it is a mistake for religion to get into the epistemic business. Its role has always been one of providing people with meaning and comfort, not to discover truths about the world.

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  25. “But Schrodinger wasn’t exactly your typical believer or even theologian.”

    He was not a believer or a theologian. He endorsed the view of the Upanishads. His usual publisher refused to publish the book in which he claims to be God on grounds of heresy, but his idea of God was Upanishadic and would not be theism at all for an ‘exoteric’ or ‘literalist’ Christian.

    “I maintain that most people falling in the latter categories would strenuously object to the idea of combating the idea of religious faith.”

    Of course. I wouldn’t want to combat it but just to distinguish it from knowledge.

    (“Most of religion asks us to discover truth, not to guess”) – “But don’t we already have science and philosophy for that purpose? What sort of additional epistemic tools — other than reason and evidence — can religion bring to the table?”

    Science as it stands means natural science and it is stuck with examining appearances, while academic philosophy is in such a mess that I do not see it as a search for truth so much as a strenuous attempt to avoid it. (Apologies for the strong view but it can’t be helped). These useful tools have failed miserably, while religion claims to have solved all the problems.

    You say philosophy should be enough and I would agree, but not if it’s the sort of philosophy that has failed for centuries. Schrodinger thought that science and philosophy endorsed his religion and so do I. For me science, religion and philosophy are in full agreement and there would be no point in arguing which is ‘more’ correct. The key difference would be practical, for only in religion do we find an empirical or direct study of consciousness and origins and the techniques required for acquiring ‘metaphysical’ knowledge. .

    But there is a problem of definition. Lao Tsu tells us that he knows the truth of our origin from ‘looking inside himself’. This might seem to be religion and yet his view is known as ‘Philosophical Taoism” and it pre-dates the religious version by half a millennium. It is no coincidence, I think, that Taoist ethical ideas sit so well alongside Stoic ideas.

    (“Stoicism has or is a philosophy. But it has no fundamental theory, no philosophical foundation, It makes no claims to knowledge of fundamental truths”) – “It has, and it does. You may want to peruse some of my other posts here, or take a look at some of the books I recommend in one of the tabs of this blog.”

    I will do a double-check but I don’t buy it. If Stoicism has a sound philosophical theory then it should make it more public. How would it explain existence, freewill, the problem of consciousness and so forth?

    {“Stoic ethics would be a response to the way things seem to be, not a response to the way they are known to be”) “You may be right, to a point, but what do you expect ethics to be? It is concern with human relations, so it has to address the world as perceived by humans, not as it “fundamentally” is.”

    In my view this would be the biggest mistake possible in the circumstances. Nothing can be properly understood about human relations without a knowledge of what that relationship actually is and who it is between. Everyone wants to start theorising before investigating. Kant had it right, I think, when he said that the proper subject for a rational psychology would be a phenomenon that is not an instance of a category. Once this is studied then ethics can be properly connected with ontology and epistemology. Nagarjuna would provide the ingredient to which Kant refers. But the main point would be that we do not have to guess.

    “To give you an analogy: the desk on which I’m currently writing can be described, at a fundamental level, as an aggregation of quarks with no “solidity.” But such description would be useless for me to use the desk, or to purchase one appropriate to my needs. I think the same goes for ethics: it is pretty much irrelevant to ethical concerns whether we do or do not know, say, fundamental cosmological truths (a point, I believe, made by Socrates), because that doesn’t affect how human beings interact (or should interact) with each other.”

    Okay. We have no choice but to be pragmatic in the absence of a complete theory or any genuine knowledge, but our ideas will be subject to change at a moment’s notice. I could never be happy with a theory of ethics that has nothing to say about the nature of reality. It would be an hypothesis or conjecture, not a theory. I cannot imagine anything more important to ethics than an understanding of human nature but for me this nature goes all the way down so is an ontological issue, while for you it is contingent and superficial and nothing to do with physics. . Which of these it actually is could only be discovered by the kind of exploration encouraged by religion.

    “… I think it is a mistake for religion to get into the epistemic business. Its role has always been one of providing people with meaning and comfort, not to discover truths about the world.”

    Perhaps this disparaging comment sums up our disagreement. I see it as utterly and demonstrably wrong The whole point of religion would be to discover truths about the world. I cannot imagine what other purpose it could have. It seems clear from the vast literature that the acquisition of knowledge is what it is all about except where it has ossified into a self-serving dogma. “Beware the hymn-reciters” says the Rig Veda long ago. People such as Nagarjuna, Lao Tsu, Al-Halaj, the writers of the Upanishads and so on do not rely on guesswork. They are explaining, not speculating,.

    The issues are difficult but it is noteworthy that the view endorsed by the Buddha and Schrodinger, Lao Tsu and Rupert Spira, Nagarjuna and Alan Watts and all the rest, actually works and has never been falsified. If these people are guessing this becomes a miraculous achievement.

    Too many words again. I do not have good communication skills. What I do have is a philosophy that works and that has no intractable problems. I find it odd that so few people go in search of such a thing but assume it would be a wild goose chase. Perhaps this this is the price of rejecting religion.

    But it’s a practical matter in the end. Until someone refutes or falsifies Nagarjuna’s description of Reality I’ll go on believing it is completely correct, empirical, forever unfalsifiable and a sound metaphysical basis for ethics. I know of no competitor theory since all the rest fizzle out in miracles or never fizzle out due to regressions of turtles etc.

    Perhaps this is not a practical discussion for you since it is too time consuming. My (not at all prestigious) first dissertation was a long argument for a neutral metaphysical position as endorsed by Nagarjuna and I could point to it rather than make the same arguments here. But it’s quite long so feel free to ignore this idea.

    We may never agree but I greatly appreciate the chance to talk with you about all this.

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  26. Peter, I appreciate all you wrote above, even though I disagree with a number of points. That’s all I have to say at the moment, but I look forward to continuing discussions here.

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