The complex relationship between metaphysics and ethics

The point of Stoic philosophy is to help us live a worthwhile life. That task fell to one of the three Stoic fields, i.e., areas of study, known as the ethics. But the Stoics insisted that in order to improve our understanding of ethics we also need to learn about the other two fields, “physics” and “logic.” Physics actually encompassed what we today would call the natural sciences (including physics in the modern, narrow sense, of the term), metaphysics, and theology. Does that mean, then, that Stoic ethics is compatible only with a particular type of metaphysics or theology? I have argued in the past that this is not the case, and have reiterated the notion more recently, when discussing the difference between pantheism and panentheism. But if so, doesn’t that mean that the ancient Stoics were mistaken in linking their physics to ethics? And wouldn’t that, in turn, make their ethics far less naturalistic than it seems to be? I’m going to explain in this post why that is not the case either: Stoic ethics is compatible with some, but not all, possible metaphysics, thus confirming the ancient intuition that we ought to know something about how the world works in order to live the best life possible, and also that modern Stoicism is an ecumenical philosophy, within certain limits.

Thesis 1: multiple metaphysical views are compatible with Stoic ethics

The idea that more than one approach to metaphysics is compatible with Stoic ethics is actually well established by the Stoic texts that have arrived to us, and so shouldn’t be too controversial. Here are some examples:

“Whether Fate binds us down by an inexorable law, or whether God as arbiter of the universe has arranged everything, or whether Chance drives and tosses human affairs without method, philosophy ought to be our defence.” (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, XVI. On Philosophy, the Guide of Life, 5)

“Death either annihilates us or strips us bare. If we are then released, there remains the better part, after the burden has been withdrawn; if we are annihilated, nothing remains; good and bad are alike removed.” (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, XXIV. On Despising Death, 18)

“About death: Whether it is a dispersion, or a resolution into atoms, or annihilation, it is either extinction or change.” (Marcus, Meditations, VII.32)

“Either all things proceed from one intelligent source and come together as in one body, and the part ought not to find fault with what is done for the benefit of the whole; or there are only atoms, and nothing else than mixture and dispersion. Why, then, are you disturbed?” (Marcus, Meditations, IX.39)

“Whether the universe is a concourse of atoms, or nature is a system, let this first be established: that I am a part of the whole that is governed by nature; next, that I stand in some intimate connection with other kindred parts.” (Marcus, Meditations, X.6)

While most of the Stoics were pantheists, there have been Christian Stoics, and obviously there are nowadays agnostic and atheist Stoics. In any case, the above quotations establish beyond reasonable doubt that the ancient Stoics themselves did not think there was a contradiction in adopting diverging metaphysics (“whether the universe is a concourse of atoms, or nature is a system…”) and behaving according to Stoic ethical precepts (“… let this first be established…”).

Thesis 2: not all metaphysical views are compatible with Stoic ethics

If we accept the above, however, we run into the unfortunate possibility of rejecting the very idea that one needs to study the three fields in order to make sense of ethics. If multiple, diverging, metaphysical views are compatible with Stoic ethics, then why study “physics” at all?

There are two non-mutually exclusive answers to this. The obvious response is that Stoic physics isn’t limited to metaphysics. It also includes all of the natural sciences, and a study of the natural sciences will still be useful to figure out how to “live according to nature.” Here is Cicero on this:

“The Chief Good consists in applying to the conduct of life a knowledge of the working of natural causes, choosing what is in accordance with nature and rejecting what is contrary to it; in other words, the Chief Good is to live in agreement and in harmony with nature” (De Finibus III.31), and living according to nature means specifically human nature, which the Stoics thought is the nature of a social animal capable of reason. Hence Seneca’s advice: “Bring the mind to bear upon your problems” (De Tranquillitate Animi, X.4).

The idea is that if the study of the natural philosophical component of physics told us something very different, then this would be affecting the proper way to think about ethics, quite regardless of the metaphysical (or, for that matter, the theological) component of physics.

The second, and more interesting, reason why it is not a problem for Stoic ethics that it is compatible with a number of metaphysical views is that it is still not compatible with all possible metaphysical views. In philosophical jargon, ethics is underdetermined by metaphysics, but the two are not wholly disconnected. Which means that studying metaphysics is going to be necessary, but not sufficient, to a good understanding of ethics.

So, what sort of metaphysics would be incompatible with Stoic ethics? Here I’m going to direct the reader to an essay that I published recently on my other blog, Footnotes to Plato. That post had to do with something entirely unrelated to the current subject matter, i.e., the metaphysics of the wave function, a fundamental concept in quantum mechanics, and therefore in contemporary physics.

That post, however, is relevant here because it comments on a talk given by Nina Emory, of Brown University, at CUNY’s Graduate Center, and which I attended. In that talk Nina discussed a number of what she called “radical” metaphysical hypotheses which, she contended, are irreconcilable with modern science, meaning that if they were true, then modern science would have gotten something dramatically wrong about how the world works. Nina didn’t suggest that the radical metaphysical hypotheses are incorrect (though I suspect she doesn’t believe them, and neither do I), she only pointed out their prima facie incompatibility with science, which presents a stark choice to the reader: either accept modern scientific findings and implicitly reject the radical metaphysical hypotheses, or accept the latter and implicitly reject modern science.

These are the radical hypotheses in question:

Solipsistic idealism, the notion that I don’t have a physical body and brain, and that all that exists is my mental states.

Brain-in-a-vat hypothesis. My brain is floating in a vat, receiving sensorial inputs indirectly. The physical world is nothing like what it appears to be.

Bostrom simulation hypothesis. The physical universe is nothing like physics describes it, it is, rather, a simulation in someone else’s computer.

Boltzmann brain hypothesis. My brain formed spontaneously in an empty region of space, as a result of a number of coincidences. Again, the physical universe is nothing like what it appears to be.

I want to suggest here that if any of the radical metaphysical hypotheses above were indeed true, then Stoic ethics would go out the window, thus showing that metaphysics — understood as part of Stoic physics — is indeed relevant to ethics.

What all the above hypotheses have in common is the postulation of a deep nature of the universe that is substantially different from the one we currently accept (as well as from the one that the ancient Stoics accepted). Moreover, two out of four of these (solipsistic idealism and Boltzamann brain) present a solipsistic-idealist scenario (there is only us in the world, and everything is made of thought); one (brain-in-a-vat) acknowledges the existence of some kind of physical world, but tells us that it is radically not the one we think we live in; and the remaining one (Bostrom’s simulation hypothesis) is arguably even worse than solipsism, since it postulates that we don’t really exist, in any sense of “existence” that we are familiar with.

From the Stoic perspective, the four radical metaphysical hypotheses have in common that they deny that human beings are social animals capable of reason. We are either not beings at all, or we are not social, even though presumably we are still capable (somehow) of rationality. Thus “living according to nature” either becomes impossible, or it means something completely different from Stoic canonical interpretation, since we are fundamentally mistaken about what human nature actually is.

What we are left with, then, is the conclusion that some metaphysical hypotheses (e.g., there is a god, and it is immanent in the world; or there is no god at all) are compatible with Stoic ethics, while other hypotheses (e.g., we live in a simulation, or we and the world are pure mental states) are not. That’s all one needs in order to recover the ancient Stoic notion that studying physics (and logic!) is indeed useful to making progress in ethics.

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51 thoughts on “The complex relationship between metaphysics and ethics

  1. PeterJ

    Massimo – I guess your view is common but I do not share it, as you know. Here’s some reasons.

    I would not agree with the idea that that ethics need be or should be underdetermined by metaphysics and feel that a proper case would have to be made. It may be true for many or even all Stoics that there is this disconnect but it would not follow that it is a necessary one. As you know I believe that ethics does fall out of metaphysics and that what falls out is Stoic ethics.

    Nor can I agree that the four metaphysical views listed are contrary to modern scientific findings. is it not the case that these four views survive because they are not contrary to any scientific findings? What they are contrary to is some unnecessary metaphysical speculations by scientists. If they were provably contrary to scientific findings you wouldn’t be listing them here as possible views.

    Would you not agree that where a theory is metaphysical it is independent of physics? Using the words in a modern way, it seems to me that if physics can test a metaphysical theory then it is not a metaphysical theory.

    If Stoicism has no official metaphysical theory then its ethics are undetermined by metaphysics, as you say, but this is surely not an ideal situation and it could still be the case that further study would reveal a sound metaphysical theory capable of fully determining ethics. It could be that this underdetermination is an artefact of a certain interpretation of metaphysics and is not a necessary problem for Stoicism, Ethics or Metaphysics. .

    I take your point that Stoicism can justify its ethics pragmatically without reference to a specific metaphysical theory, but how can a person commit themselves to an ethical scheme that has no metaphysical foundation? This is what I would ask a Stoic salesman calling at my door.

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  2. Ron

    Thanks for this post! I like that your view allows for an ecumenical approach to Stoicism. I’ve already run into Stoics who are fervidly attached to their particular metaphysical view, averring it to be the only ‘correct’ form of Stoicism. The world needs less fundamentalism, both secular and religious.

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  3. Massimo Post author

    Peter,

    I think I did make a proper case for why metaphysics underdetermines ethics.

    The four radical views that I summarized are incompatible with science because if true they would imply that science gets something substantially wrong about the universe. It isn’t at all the same thing to say that everything is made of quarks, for instance, or that everything is pure thought. It’s either one or the other.

    I list them as possible views because they are, indeed, possible. But I don’t believe them for a second, and part of the reason I don’t is precisely because they contradict the scientific view of the world.

    No, I wouldn’t agree that metaphysics is independent of physics. It isn’t entirely determined by physics, but it can’t be independent, as plenty of philosophers of science (e.g., Ladyman and Ross, in their Every Thing Must Go) have argued.

    (Ancient) Stoicism does have a standard metaphysical view, pantheism. I just happen to think it is incorrect or unlikely, but I’m not bothered by it because the underdetermination of ethics by metaphysics means that pantheism isn’t the only metaphysical position compatible with Stoic ethics.

    I don’t see why this is not an ideal position. Actually, I think it is better than a one-to-one relationship, because that would mean that in order to be a Stoic one would have to be a pantheist. I don’t see it as a problem, but as a strength.

    And no, I didn’t say that Stoicism can justify ethics without reference to metaphysics, I made the more modest claim that some metaphysics are related to and compatible with Stoic ethics, while others aren’t.

    Stoics aren’t into salesmanship… 😉

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  4. PeterJ

    Massimo

    You make a case for why the metaphysics that most Stoics endorse underdetermines ethics, which is not to say that Stoic ethics must be underdetermined. I’m taking no notice of what Stoics believe, which varies considerably, and just looking at what its ethics would imply, what sort of world it would have to be for these ethics to be natural or follow from fundamental truths. Stoics do not seem to pursue this question very far.

    As for implying that science gets something fundamentally wrong about the universe, it obviously does since it cannot make any sense of metaphysics, I see it as the job of metaphysics to point out these errors, but instead many people just hang on to the errors and dismiss metaphysics. How many materialists (say) take metaphysics seriously? None that I’ve ever met. The price would be too high. Metaphysics asks us to see beyond the naive realism of physics to the way things actually are. You endorse the idea that things are just the way they appear to be and this entails not taking any notice of metaphysics – which is my complaint. . .

    You write, ‘…thus confirming the ancient intuition that we ought to know something about how the world works in order to live the best life possible,’

    If we don’t know how the world works at the level of metaphysics then we do not know what we mean by ‘best possible life’. Stoic ethics seem highly rational but on this presentation they roam free of any metaphysical justification. I’d rather believe that they can be justified and that the Stoics are right to advise us to study metaphysics.

    Metaphysics must take physics into account but its ultimate independence is shown by the way most physicists take no notice of it when forming their views. Bradley’s characterisation of metaphysics as ‘an antidote for dogmatic superstition’ may explain its popularity and indicate its independence. .

    I can agree that metaphysics is best left alone in favour of practice as I think you would want to argue, but not that a practice should be chosen regardless of its metaphysical plausibility. For a naturalistic approach ethics would have to reflect the way things actually are, not just the way they appear to be. . .

    My counter-argument would run – all positive metaphysical positions are demonstrably absurd and thus by implication false, which implies that the universe is a unity and that Stoic ethics are right on the button.

    I have no problem with agreeing to differ. Good to indulge in the occasional bit of jousting though.

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  5. stoicwellness

    Massimo and Peter,

    Have either of you read “A Critique of Pure Reason” by Immanuel Kant? I found it to be an excellent starting place for myself in regards to stoic ideology. By the way I enjoyed reading both sides of this thread.

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  6. PeterJ

    Hi stoicwellness

    Yes, I’m a fan, albeit with many reservations for Kant did not succeed in his project. I’d refer in particular to his claim ‘all selective conclusions about the world as a whole are undecidable’. To me this statement is a vindication of Stoicism’s doctrine of unity thus also of its ethics. It would be true because all positive (selective) conclusions are demonstrably absurd. This glaring result of metaphysics seems to go unnoticed despite Kant’s efforts.

    .

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  7. stoicwellness

    Decisions make up ones ethics, which are based on perceived knowledge, therefore absurd in their collection and allocation by any group. Kant believes learning the different types of knowledge that make up one’s decisions is the first step in being truly reasonable. Correct me if I am wrong.

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  8. Massimo Post author

    Stoicwellness,

    Hmm, actually I’m not a fan of Kant. I simply think that deontological systems are too rigid for real ethics (and the same goes for the other major contended, utilitarianism). That’s why I’m attracted to virtue ethics. Kant was indeed influenced by the Stoics, as far as the concept of duty is concerned, but that’s about it, I think. (Just like Epicurus influenced the utilitarians, about the importance of reducing pain and increasing happiness.)

    Peter,

    Of course we can agree to disagree (indeed, I’m not sure we have much choice in the matter!).

    I’m not sure what you mean when you say that Stoic ethics must be underdetermined, or not. It just is, as a matter of fact, I think, regardless how one think it should be.

    I don’t think it’s correct to say that the Stoics don’t pursue this question very far. One third of their curriculum had to do with “physics,” and they clearly articulated why their ethics derives from that study.

    I’m don’t think that science cannot make sense of metaphysics, though I’d say — again with Ladyman et al. — that it is the task of metaphysics to make sense of science (because the former is the broader discipline), not the other way around.

    I’m a materialist, and I take metaphysics seriously, obviously.

    No, I don’t endorse the view that things are just the way they appear to be. That would be to accept what in philosophy is known as the manifest image. I accept the scientific image of the world, which is much stranger and more complicated. Quarks, for instance, don’t appear anywhere in the manifest image.

    I think we do have a pretty good idea of how the world works at the level of metaphysics, which is why we have a good idea about ethics. The Stoics, contra what you claim, certainly do not “roam free of any metaphysical justification.”

    The fact that most physicists don’t take metaphysics seriously is entirely irrelevant to this discussion. Their loss, but, again, the relationship between the two fields is asymmetrical: one can do a lot of physics by simply pushing metaphysical assumptions to the background. One simply cannot do serious metaphysics without taking physics (and the other natural sciences) very much seriously.

    No, I don’t argue that metaphysics is best left alone in the pursuit of practice. I make the milder claim that several metaphysics are compatible with a given range of practice. That’s what underdetermination means.

    Yes, a naturalistic approach to ethics has to reflect the way things actually are. Which is what Stoic ethics gets right. Living according to nature means primarily living according to human nature, i.e., the nature of a social animal capable of applying reason to solve his problems.

    I don’t know what it means to say that positive metaphysical positions are absurd and false. I really don’t thin that’s the case.

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  9. Daniel Mann

    Massimo, You wrote: “[Is] Stoic ethics compatible only with a particular type of metaphysics or theology?…Stoic ethics is compatible with some, but not all, possible metaphysics.”

    In contrast, in as far as Stoic ethics fails to rest on a compatible philosophical/religious setting, it is like a diamond placed in the wrong setting. If Stoic ethics does not rest upon the right foundation, it will eventually loose its footing and fall to the ground, like the diamond.

    Let me just point to one set of problems. Since naturalistic Stoic ethics/virtue depends upon us and our efforts, if we repeatedly fail, we will become discouraged and eventually give up. If instead we regard ourselves as successful – increasingly virtuous – we will become arrogant, proud, and look down on others, in which case, it might have been better to not have embarked at all.

    While I would encourage the pursuit of Stoic ethics, this thoughtful practice should provoke a deep sense of our moral failure to live up to its standards and humility. However, the repeated failures are too difficult to bear without the assurance of a God who forgives, loves, and promises us the world, despite our moral unworthiness.

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  10. PeterJ

    Stoicwellness

    I didn’t fully understand your latest post but would agree that examining the beliefs that govern our behaviour is necessary to being reasonable. It may be the only way.

    Massimo

    I am agreeing that Stoic ethics is underdetermined. This is obvious from the absence of any normalising metaphysical theory. What I’m suggesting is that this absence is not necessary but merely a function of Stoicism’s philosophical weakness. Most people’s ethics are underdetermined by metaphysics but it would not be possible to prove that they need to be so. Deontology would not be the only alternative to underdetermination since knowing the facts would not entail that there is cosmic rule-book for ethical decisions, only that we understand our situation.

    You say that you don’t think that science cannot make sense of metaphysics, Is it not obvious from the literature that it has no clue about metaphysics? Here metaphysics is usually ignored where it is not ridiculed. I’d say this is not the fault of science but of philosophy, which has failed to proved physics with a metaphysical theory that stands up to analysis. Thus we have a free-for-all of wild opinions. It’s the task of metaphysics to make sense of metaphysics and in this the Academy has utterly failed. I wouldn’t blame physics for not making sense of metaphysics but would blame physicists for thinking that because of this vacuum they can just adopt any old idea and vote to call it ‘scientific’. .

    —‘I’m a materialist, and I take metaphysics seriously, obviously.’

    Without wishing to rude, honest, I would say obviously not, since In metaphysics materialism fails. It makes not a jot of difference to physics whether it’s true or not since it is a just a convenient methodological framework and not a rational, testable or even useful metaphysical theory. It solves no problems and renders the universe incomprehensible. Materialists must steer well clear of metaphysics if they are to maintain their position.

    I do not share your view that we ‘have a pretty good idea of how the world works at the level of metaphysics’, and cannot understand how you could arrive at it. The recent Blackwell Guide states that nobody ever has or ever will know how the world works at the level of metaphysics. My idea of a ‘pretty good idea’ would be one that does not leave ethics underdetermined.

    I would agree that living according to nature means primarily living according to human nature, i.e., the nature of a social animal capable of applying reason to solve his problems. But without a grasp of metaphysics we can have no clear idea what we mean by ‘Nature’ or ‘human nature’.

    —‘I don’t know what it means to say that positive metaphysical positions are absurd and false. I really don’t think that’s the case.’

    It is demonstrably the case that they are absurd. This may be the best known and most often ignored result of metaphysics. Their falsity would be an interpretation of this result. From Kant’s conclusion that such positions are undecidable (being as bad as each other) we can immediately deduce their absurdity but their falsity would require another deductive step. Once we make this extra step, however, then the results of metaphysics can be explained and predicted. These positions would all be false because the universe would be a unity such that the divisions on which Kant’s ‘selective conclusions’ rely are not fundamental. It then follows ineluctably that all selective conclusions are undecidable since they would all be wrong. Job done. The problems of metaphysics are solved and logic and reason have proved their worth.

    I will be bold and say that this is the only solution for metaphysics that works. This is Nagarjuna’s solution, used to justify pretty much the same ethics as Stoicism. I would call it the ‘Perennial’ philosophy and do in my forthcoming blockbuster.

    Once I asked you about an idea to publish a series of statements and offer a reward for a falsification of any one of them. ‘All positive metaphysical positions are logically absurd’ would have been one of them, as would ‘The Universe is a Unity’.

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  11. Massimo Post author

    Daniel,

    We’ve had this discussion before, and quite obviously neither one of us is going to budge. However, it seems to me that there is an asymmetry in our positions. I have no problem admitting that if some people feel the need for gods in order to calibrate their ethics, so be it. But I find it rather arrogant (to use your own word) to claim that one must do so or else.

    Stoic ethics doesn’t “fail,” it works for plenty of people, and has worked for thousands of years. And so does secular Buddhist ethics, and secular humanism, and ethical culture, and so forth. None of them have, so far, “lost their footing,” and I doubt they will.

    As for your alleged problem, again, I don’t see it. Plenty of people repeatedly fail, but get better and don’t get discouraged. It’s the human condition, and one of the best things about the human spirit. For many of us such alleged failures are not too difficult to bear, with or without the assurance of a loving god.

    Peter,

    I don’t see how you reach the conclusion that Stoicism is “philosophically weak.” Indeed, I’m not sure what you mean by that. Stoicism is one of a number of coherent philosophical systems, which plenty of people don’t find wanting, let alone failing.

    I never said that science cannot make sense of metaphysics. I just said that much science can be done while pushing metaphysical assumptions to the background. Not at all the same thing.

    I don’t take offense at your self-proclaimed rudeness, but again I wonder how you reach your conclusions. Materialism hasn’t failed at all. Indeed, many metaphysicians pretty much count it as the only game in town (that or the more vaguely defined naturalism, which is materialism plus certain kind of non-material objects, like mathematical ones).

    To say that materialists must stay clear of metaphysics is weird, since materialism is a metaphysical thesis. And one that, of course, is perfectly compatible with science (and implicitly or explicitly accepted by most scientists).

    Regardless of what the Blackwell Guide states, we have a pretty damn good understanding of how the world works, though certainly a partial one, always subject to revision.

    And while I understand that your wish is not to leave ethics underdetermined, I’m afraid that that is just a fact, and not something to blame on metaphysics.

    Let me give you an analogy: mathematics grossly underdetermines physics, meaning that there are many more mathematically possible universes than physical ones (even if one buys into the idea of a multiverse). But nobody in his right mind would take such underdetermination as a sign of the failure of either physics or mathematics. It is just the way it works.

    I’d like a good, clear example of a widely accepted metaphysical position that is manifestly absurd. Try materialism, for instance; or naturalism. They may or may not be true, but absurd? C’mon.

    Forgive me, but I have no idea about your chain of reasoning from Kant (of whom, as I said, I’m no fan anyway) to the fact that the problems of metaphysical are solved.

    I’m not sufficiently familiar with Nagarjuna’s solution, but if you gave it a good description, seems to me to fail far short of the objective.

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  12. maylynno

    What I mostly like about stoic philosophers is their modernity. They sound as if they live in the 21st century, being aware of all scientific progress. I love this post! Thank u

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  13. Daniel Mann

    “But I find it rather arrogant… to claim that one must” [believe in God].

    It is not a good example of Stoic virtue to call me “arrogant” for merely expressing my opinion. You too express many opinions, but no one is charging you with “arrogance.” I would hope that you will extend the same courtesy to me.

    I suspect that those who are comfortable with their practice of virtue are so because they are in denial, a thoroughly established psychological fact, especially in regards to the “normal” person. Psychologist Shelley Taylor has written as many other psychologists have written:

    • As we have seen, people are positively biased in their assessments of themselves and of their ability to control what goes on around them, as well as in their views of the future. The widespread existence of these biases and the ease with which they can be documented suggests that they are normal. (“Positive Illusions”)

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  14. Daniel Mann

    PeterJ,

    I too believe that Stoic ethics isn’t adequately undergirded, although I do respect its directionality and many of the insights that it seeks to inject into secular society.

    The support for Stoic ethics is merely pragmatic – what works for me and society. However, Stoic ethics is unable to coherently say, “It is morally and objectively right to live virtuously.” Without this essential piece, the Stoic does what is “right” but for selfish reasons – an inherent contradiction. What is self-serving it not what is virtuous.

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  15. Shane Sullivan

    It seems to me that, even if one bought into any of those radical ontological positions, one could still practice Stoic ethics effectively as long the “world”–be it a mental construct or a simulation–obeyed certain patterns. Granted, as soon as the sky spontaneously turns purple and gravity stops working, there’s a pretty good chance eudaimonia would stop working too, but until that happens…

    But maybe that would be too much of a departure to still be called Stoicism. Pragmatic Quasi-Stoicism, perhaps?

    (By the way, while we’re on the subject of Idealism vs. Materialism: If George Berkeley were alive today, I could certainly imagine him saying, “of course Quarks are real; they’re mental constructs too is all!” =P)

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  16. Massimo Post author

    Shane,

    Right, one could still be a pragmatic quasi-Stoic, but he would have gotten the metaphysics entirely wrong, and therefore the ethics would be problematic. Just like one could do pragmatic quasi-science, even though his picture of the world would be radically mistaken.

    Daniel,

    First off, let me remind you that it was you who characterized my view of things as “arrogant,” I simply pointed out that since I can accept yours but you absolutely reject mine, perhaps the appellativo is more appropriate to your position.

    Second, one sentence after you complained about my language you went on to tell me that I am delusional about my positions, while I never used (and could easily have used) any such language concerning your views.

    Seriously, you may want to look in the mirror before convincing yourself that you are on moral high ground.

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  17. Michal Franc

    Dear Massimo,
    initially I did not want to comment because I thought Peter roughly represented my position, but turns out this is not a case so here it is. I am not sure I agree with your claims about (at least some of) the radical metaphysical hypotheses and compatibility of Stoic ethics (and at least partially with their implications for scientific exploration). The way I understand it, the key assumption here is that the metaphysics have to allow generation of knowledge for Stoic ethic to be relevant. Hence, as long as we are able to generate knowledge about for example the simulation we allegedly live in, Stoic ethics is fine. Frankly, I do not really see many practical differences between pantheism (panentheism) and the simulation hypothesis. You still cannot do better than reflect the knowledge about such word in your ethics, and the concern whether the quarks are metaphysically bits of a simulation-running computer, parts of got the creator (that either can or cannot be reduced to it), or just empty patterns (here I am probably misrepresenting Layman & Ross) is largely irrelevant. I think I’ve read a similar argument by D. Chalmers somewhere (to give credit).

    Best,
    Michal

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  18. Daniel Mann

    Massimo, I NEVER said such things about you or anyone else here. If you are going to make such allegations, please provide the evidence – quotations from what I have written.

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  19. PeterJ

    This is a fascinating meeting of views.

    Daniel

    You wrote – ‘If Stoic ethics does not rest upon the right foundation, it will eventually loose its footing and fall to the ground,’

    I think that this is not quite right, for the reason that Stoic ethics is so forgiving of metaphysical theories. As Massimo,points out, while it stands free of a foundation it can be consistent with more than one metaphysical theory. But you would be right, I think, in that there are many theories that would make it ‘lose its footing’. For instance, I can find no way to reconcile these ethics with materialism or subjective Idealism. I’d say that if materialism is true then Stoicism is just a lifestyle choice along with dogmatic Theism, Objectivism or Humanism. Your point might be stronger if you replaced ‘Stoic ethics’ with ‘the ethics of the Stoic practitioner’.

    Stoicism encourages the overcoming of ignorance, however, so it is not clear to me that assuming metaphysics cannot be studied and understood is in line with its teachings. It then becomes vulnerable to your objection, that it is just the ego choosing a view that suits it and is thus likely to have the opposite effect to the intended one. .

    Later you say – ‘Stoic ethics is unable to coherently say, “It is morally and objectively right to live virtuously.” Without this essential piece, the Stoic does what is “right” but for selfish reasons – an inherent contradiction. What is self-serving it not what is virtuous.’

    I would agree and see it as a subtle point, but again would want to add a proviso. If we do not have a grounding theory for ethics then we do not have much choice but to do the best we can, even if it means risking being led by our ego like a lamb to the slaughter. We can at least do the best we can. Still, I think your point stands. With no metaphysical basis determining this ethics the ego is likely to have field day making up one that it likes, which could easily lead to an aggrandisement of the ego. Stoicism preaches the unity of the universe, which does not imply a reification of individual egos.

    And then, one could argue that ethics should be self-serving and must be. It is what we mean by ‘self’ that would be critical. If we mean ‘Self’ with an upper-case ‘S’ then the more Self-serving the better. For a Buddhist ethical behaviour IS selfishness since it is in our own best interests. Thus altruism and selfishness are seen as non-different, but only where they are seen to be non-different. . .

    But quibbles aside we seem to be on the same page.

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  20. Daniel Mann

    PeterJ, Thanks for your thoughtful response.

    Just to go one step further – If virtue/ethics lacks its own objective ontological reality/authority, it evolves along with culture, society, and our fleeting ideas. This condemns virtue to be a mere captive of society/culture – the evolving status quo. Who then can take it seriously? Who then would pay the price to submit to its rigorous requirements? Who then would tell his child, “Don’t bully because this goes against our social norms?”

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Massimo Post author

    Michal,

    You make good points, but the resulting Stoicism would be, as we characterized it earlier, a pragmatic quasi-Stoicism. The actual philosophy is predicated on the idea that we get a significant part of how things work in the cosmos right, and if we found out that we are in a simulation we clearly would have gotten things drastically wrong.

    Same idea for science: if we think of it as simply a pragmatic enterprise that produces empirically adequate theories, then no problem; but most scientists are in it for its promise to uncover the actual truth — at the least, that’s why I got into it as a biologist.

    As for pantheism being similar to a simulation, I don’t think that’s the case. If pantheism is true, the universe itself is animated by a vital force that generates everything, including us. If we live in a simulation we are either the objects of an experiment or a source of amusement.

    Daniel,

    Sure, here are your quotes, from the discussion above:

    “If instead we regard ourselves as successful – increasingly virtuous – we will become arrogant, proud, and look down on others”

    Despite the “we” this referred to the position that I hold, so I took you to accuse me — indirectly — of arrogance. If that was not your intention, apologies, but you need to be careful about how you phrase things.

    Second:

    “I suspect that those who are comfortable with their practice of virtue are so because they are in denial, a thoroughly established psychological fact”

    This was, again, commenting on my position, which means you effectively told me that I’m in denial.

    If you deny that those were your intentions I believe you, but then I wasn’t addressing you directly either, just your position:

    “But I find it rather arrogant (to use your own word) to claim that one must do so or else.”

    Finally, again, it seems to me strange to reject someone’s offer of ecumenism by insisting that his position leads to arrogance and is based on a delusion. On what grounds would you possibly be able to make such sweeping statements?

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  22. PeterJ

    Massimo

    I’ll address your specific points to keep myself on track.

    —“I don’t see how you reach the conclusion that Stoicism is “philosophically weak.”

    You are arguing that it has no metaphysical theory so how can it be any weaker? I genuinely do not understand how this lack can be seen as anything but a major weakness.

    —“Stoicism is one of a number of coherent philosophical systems, which plenty of people don’t find wanting, let alone failing.”

    But it is not a philosophical system. It leaves its underlying philosophy open. Hence you feel you can be a Materialist and a Stoic, while another Stoic could be an Idealist and a Stoic. Philosophically It’s a free for all, not a system. Would you not agree that a philosophical system must have a metaphysical basis to be worthy of the name? .

    —“I never said that science cannot make sense of metaphysics.”

    No, I said that. Neither can the Academy make any sense of it. .

    —“I just said that much science can be done while pushing metaphysical assumptions to the background. Not at all the same thing.”

    Yes, in the sciences we are not concerned with metaphysics. There is a separate department for that. Yet scientists do not usually push it into the background. They usually endorse a metaphysical view and often very vigorously. They ignore metaphysics as an activity but leap straight to the end as if the answer is obvious. So do many politicians and plumbers and as you say. life goes on.

    —“Materialism hasn’t failed at all. Indeed, many metaphysicians pretty much count it as the only game in town (that or the more vaguely defined naturalism, which is materialism plus certain kind of non-material objects, like mathematical ones).

    So what is your metaphysical theory? How would materialism justify an ethical scheme? How would it help us solve the problem of consciousness, origins, freewill, causation, space and time, motion and change, the continuum and so forth? Okay, materialism is true,. So what? Most scientist assume it is true now and yet cannot explain even one metaphysical problem. I struggle to see the point of such a sterile conjecture. I also struggle even to see any need to explain that it fails. It says that matter is a miracle, leaping into existence from nothing at all. Can this be called a ‘theory’? .

    —“To say that materialists must stay clear of metaphysics is weird, since materialism is a metaphysical thesis. And one that, of course, is perfectly compatible with science (and implicitly or explicitly accepted by most scientists).

    I meant they must steer clear of thinking deeply about metaphysics. There are quite a number of metaphysical theories that would be consistent with the scientific data, four of which you mention in your article, which is why it is up to metaphysics to decide whether materialism is plausible. The pioneers of QM now all being dead there are so few prominent scientists with a serious interest in metaphysics that I can only think of Paul Davies, who I find very good and better than most metaphysicians. There must be others but none come to mind. So what they accept or reject seems unimportant.

    —“Regardless of what the Blackwell Guide states, we have a pretty damn good understanding of how the world works, though certainly a partial one, always subject to revision.”

    No idea at all, I would say. Not a clue. A good understanding would entail an understanding of metaphysics and ethics.

    —“And while I understand that your wish is not to leave ethics underdetermined, I’m afraid that that is just a fact, and not something to blame on metaphysics.”

    I don’t blame it on metaphysics. I blame it on poorly done metaphysics. My ethics are not underdetirmined by metaphysics but forced on me whether I like it or not.

    —“Let me give you an analogy: mathematics grossly underdetermines physics,…;.”

    Of course. This is bound to be true for areas of knowledge that are not fundamental. But metaphysics cannot take this approach. It has to get to the bottom of things.

    —“I’d like a good, clear example of a widely accepted metaphysical position that is manifestly absurd. Try materialism, for instance; or naturalism. They may or may not be true, but absurd? C’mon.”

    Kant’s logical result that ‘all selective conclusion are undecidable’ covers materialism. Materialism-Idealism cannot be decided because both fail in logic. This has to be true otherwise there can no explanation for why you would name your other blog ‘footnotes to Plato’. If we endorse an absurd theory then all progress comes to an end and philosophy becomes moribund. I would endorse naturalism, for I cannot imagine how a real phenomenon could not be natural, but the version that is more common is a muddle to me. Take Chalmer’s ‘naturalistic dualism’. He argues that in order to preserve naturalism we must stop doing metaphysics and assume that mind-matter dualism is true. If this approach is scientific then the moon is made of cheese.

    —“Forgive me, but I have no idea about your chain of reasoning from Kant (of whom, as I said, I’m no fan anyway) to the fact that the problems of metaphysical are solved.I’m not sufficiently familiar with Nagarjuna’s solution, but if you gave it a good description, seems to me to fail far short of the objective.”

    Hmm. I don’t go along with Kant very far but I do think he sets about things in the right way. Big topic, but briefly…

    Kant, along with all metaphysicians who keep going, discovers that selective or partial metaphysical views, those which form the horns of all those famous metaphysical dilemmas, are undecidable. Neither of the horns work, leaving us in confusion. If the universe is not paradoxical then there can only be one explanation, which is that all these views are wrong.

    Meanwhile Nagarjuna logically proves (or at least attempts to prove) that they are all wrong, thus explaining Kant’s result. Nagarjuna proves that all extreme metaphysical views must be abandoned such that all division and distinction must be seen as not metaphysically real. In this case the universe must be a unity, just as Stoicism claims. I call this a ‘neutral’ metaphysical position. For this position there is no such thing as a metaphysical dilemma and no reason not to see metaphysics as a way of working out what is true. In fact it becomes quite an easy thing to do at the level of principles. Bradley states the same result when he says ‘Metaphysics does not produce a positive result’.

    This allows the prediction to be made that once this result of metaphysics is ignored then metaphysics will become impossible. And so it is.

    A metaphysical theory must, at the very least, be able to explain why we are still writing footnotes to Plato and have not moved on. Only two theories can do this, one that say the universe is paradoxical and one that says Nagarjuna’s solution is correct. I do not know of any other global theory, just local conjectures that can be and regularly are refuted for the contradictions they engender. Not for nothing is the Holy Grail said to have the power to ‘dissolve all distinctions’, for we would discover the same thing in experience as we do by logical analysis.

    Hence Stoicism focus on meditation and philosophical knowledge would be justified, as would its idea that ignorance is the crucial ethical problem to be overcome, not sin and wrong-doing. In mysticism the distinction is sometimes made between the way of the saint and the sage. The former fights sin and wrong-doing, a hopeless task while the ego is in charge, the latter fights ignorance and has a much easier time. . .
    I won’t post so much again having said all this, you’ll be glad to hear, but felt my earlier comments would seem casual without more support. I find these discussions extremely helpful but having a very firm view puts me in the position of having to argue all the time, which I know can can be tedious and unwanted.

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  23. Massimo Post author

    Peter,

    I appreciate the effort you are putting into this, though we may begin to go in circles somewhat, as inevitably happens in these discussions.

    “You are arguing that it has no metaphysical theory so how can it be any weaker?”

    You keep misreading what I write, no doubt many fault for not explaining myself more clearly. No, I never said that Stoicism has no metaphysical theory, it obviously does. I only said that that particular metaphysical theory is not the only one compatible with Stoic ethics.

    “But it is not a philosophical system. It leaves its underlying philosophy open.”

    Again, no. And the scholarly literature is pretty clear in labeling Stoicism a system, indeed, one of the most coherent systems ever put forth (which doesn’t make it “true,” of course).

    “Yes, in the sciences we are not concerned with metaphysics. There is a separate department for that.”

    But whether scientists, individually or as a group, are concerned with metaphysics is irrelevant to my point. Science still assumes a number of metaphysical positions and notions, beginning with materialism (or at the least naturalism).

    “So what is your metaphysical theory? How would materialism justify an ethical scheme? How would it help us solve the problem of consciousness, origins, freewill, causation, space and time, motion and change, the continuum and so forth?”

    My metaphysical position is materialism. It justifies a number of alternative ethical schemes, including of course Stoicism. Consciousness is a biological, not an ethical, problem. I’m not sure what you mean by “origins” but if you are talking about the origin of the universe or of life, those are respectively problems for physics/cosmology and biology, not ethics. Same with space, time, motion, change. Freewill does not exist in a materialist universe, hence the Stoic position, which today would be considered a form of compatibilism. Causation comes out of materialism in a number of ways, for instance in the idea that causal interactions are interactions that conserve fundamental physical properties, like energy and momentum.

    “There are quite a number of metaphysical theories that would be consistent with the scientific data, four of which you mention in your article, which is why it is up to metaphysics to decide whether materialism is plausible.”

    I don’t think it is reasonably questionable whether materialism is plausible. Of course it is. And it is also the most parsimonious metaphysics compatible with science (unlike the four radical hypotheses I discuss). That’s different from saying that materialism is true, but that question, I think, is simply undecidable, by metaphysicians or anyone else.

    “No idea at all, I would say. Not a clue. A good understanding would entail an understanding of metaphysics and ethics.”

    Ah, I guess I’m going to go hubristic here, I think I have a pretty good understanding of both metaphysics and ethics. And so do plenty of others.

    “My ethics are not underdetirmined by metaphysics but forced on me whether I like it or not.”

    I find that hard to believe, but I’d like to know how.

    “This is bound to be true for areas of knowledge that are not fundamental. But metaphysics cannot take this approach. It has to get to the bottom of things.”

    As I said above, it can’t. The best human beings can do is to examine and compare a number of plausible metaphysics. The idea that we can get to the true one is a chimaera, best abandoned as quickly as possible.

    “Kant’s logical result that ‘all selective conclusion are undecidable’ covers materialism. Materialism-Idealism cannot be decided because both fail in logic.”

    As I said, I don’t put that much stake into Kant, and my sense is that lots of professional philosophers simply don’t buy that conclusion.

    “Take Chalmer’s ‘naturalistic dualism’.”

    I don’t take Chalmers seriously, for reasons that I explained elsewhere, for instance here: http://tinyurl.com/gv5nf4t

    “Meanwhile Nagarjuna logically proves (or at least attempts to prove) that they are all wrong, thus explaining Kant’s result. Nagarjuna proves that all extreme metaphysical views must be abandoned such that all division and distinction must be seen as not metaphysically real”

    I do not know enough about Nagarjuna to be able to comment sensibly. But I’m extremely skeptical of any grand proof of that sort, and I don’t know what would count, in this context, as an extreme metaphysical view.

    “A metaphysical theory must, at the very least, be able to explain why we are still writing footnotes to Plato and have not moved on.”

    We have moved on. The title of my blog is simply a tip to the hat, not a reflection of current philosophy.

    “Not for nothing is the Holy Grail said to have the power to ‘dissolve all distinctions’, for we would discover the same thing in experience as we do by logical analysis”

    I don’t know what that means, but I think distinctions are crucial to navigate reality. And logic grossly underdetermines experience, so…

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  24. Michal Franc

    Dear Massimo,
    thank you for your answer. Allow me just couple of more comments. First, the way I view Stoicism is that it can face new developments whatever they are (e.g., as it did when it switched from teleological to causal perception of the universe), which I agree can be called pragmatism (I think you do like to use the phrase “pragmatic wisdom” after all). The caveat is that knowledge should be possible in the new model/perspective of the universe.

    As for the pursuit of truth in science, yes, that’s how I got into psychology, too. One of the things that I like about science is that even if the simulation hypothesis turns out to be true (however improbable I think that is), scientist will first be disbelieving, but after a while they will say “wow, that’s amazing”, roll up their sleeves, and take up the new challenge to get even closer to the truth.

    As for the difference between pantheism and simulation hypothesis, I do understand your intuitions. I just have a certain suspicion that the main basis of these intuitions lies in the different ways we tend to psychologize the “vital force” (or the god creator – you were mentioning Christian Stoics after all) and the creator(s) of the simulation. Here, I am not sure whether we can say something reasonable about intentions of such entities, and whether these are even relevant for our judgment of the situation we would find ourselves in…

    Liked by 1 person

  25. PeterJ

    Massimo

    I also appreciate the effort you are putting into this and I know you have less time for it than I do. Still, I’m going to immediately break my word and write at length. I think you’re right, we’ll go in circles, but hey. This is bound to happen where metaphysics is not used as a referee to make decisions. Hence Kant’s ‘arena for mock fights’.

    “No, I never said that Stoicism has no metaphysical theory, it obviously does. I only said that that particular metaphysical theory is not the only one compatible with Stoic ethics.”

    Then why do none of us seem to know what it is? Why are we worrying about underdetermination?

    At the start of your article you quote a number of Stoic comments about metaphysics. It is clear that their authors could not decide which view is correct so were covering the bases with their ethics, not responding to a well-defined theory. Someone with a sound theory would just answer these questions and say it like it is. If we cannot explain metaphysical problems then how can we claim to have a metaphysical theory? It would a strange use of the term ‘theory’.

    “And the scholarly literature is pretty clear in labeling Stoicism a system, indeed, one of the most coherent systems ever put forth (which doesn’t make it “true,” of course)”

    Yes it is a system, but like chess it is local and limited and not metaphysical. It leaves metaphysics not just underdetermined but not determined at all. I thought this was the whole point of Stoicism, and indeed the reason you liked it, that it is a beneficial and functional ethical theory and practice that does not depend on adopting a specific metaphysical view. Is it not precisely because it leaves the question of the truth of materialism open that you like it?

    “But whether scientists, individually or as a group, are concerned with metaphysics is irrelevant to my point. Science still assumes a number of metaphysical positions and notions, beginning with materialism (or at the least naturalism).”

    This was also my point, that science assumes things rather than doing the sums. I call this not doing metaphysics or doing it badly. Nobody does science like this.

    “My metaphysical position is materialism. It justifies a number of alternative ethical schemes, including of course Stoicism.”

    Materialism justifies abandoning ethics and replacing it with game theory. What use can ethics be to a materialist other than if it is self-serving? This was Daniel’s point, that this approach to ethics is not likely to be virtuous or lead to virtue. You have decided what is true before humbly undertaking the study that Stoicism advises. I can’t see why anyone would do this. We both know that you have no idea whether materialism is true…

    “Consciousness is a biological, not an ethical, problem.”

    …Nor whether this is true. It would mean that ethics is a biological problem, not metaphysical. Why do we need to leap to conclusions in this way? Is it a scientific approach? Surely the purpose of an hypothesis is to test it, not adopt it as an axiom.

    “I’m not sure what you mean by “origins” but if you are talking about the origin of the universe or of life, those are respectively problems for physics/cosmology and biology, not ethics.”

    My suggestion was that metaphysics is necessary for all of them, thus that they must all be covered by a metaphysical theory.

    “Freewill does not exist in a materialist universe..,”

    Then neither does ethics. .

    “… hence the Stoic position, which today would be considered a form of compatibilism.”

    It would be considered a form of prevarication here. True compatablism, as a global metaphysical principle, is ‘Middle Way’ Buddhism, hence (in part) the name.

    “I don’t think it is reasonably questionable whether materialism is plausible.”

    This goes without saying for most materialists. Hence the unpopularity of metaphysics, which asks us to examine its plausibility. .

    “And it is also the most parsimonious metaphysics compatible with science (unlike the four radical hypotheses I discuss). That’s different from saying that materialism is true, but that question, I think, is simply undecidable, by metaphysicians or anyone else.”

    My view would be that it is not a theory, is not parsimonious, is not compatable with the scientific data, is false and is decidable in logic. So we are a long way apart.

    “Ah, I guess I’m going to go hubristic here, I think I have a pretty good understanding of both metaphysics and ethics. And so do plenty of others.”

    I wouldn’t say this is hubristic, but I would predict that if you ever do gain a pretty good understanding you will look back and regret this remark.

    (“My ethics are not underdetirmined by metaphysics…)”

    —“I find that hard to believe, but I’d like to know how.”

    I could try but only at some length. If consciousness is a unity that envelops the whole of creation, such that we share an identity with all sentient beings, then much of ethics follows. For the rest a lot of words would be necessary. For a start, sin would not exist, only ignorance, so it is quite a shift of paradigm away from our usual religious notions let alone the common scientific view. It is not often mentioned that in the Gospel of Thomas Jesus is quoted as saying ‘Sin, as such, does not exist’. This would be the Buddhist view and more generally that of the Perennial philosophy. It is my impression that it is true also for Stoicism.

    –(” Metaphysics cannot take this approach. It has to get to the bottom of things.”)

    “As I said above, it can’t. The best human beings can do is to examine and compare a number of plausible metaphysics. The idea that we can get to the true one is a chimaera, best abandoned as quickly as possible.”

    A materialist is bound to say this. It is a necessary assumption.

    –“Kant’s logical result that ‘all selective conclusion are undecidable’ …”

    “As I said, I don’t put that much stake into Kant, and my sense is that lots of professional philosophers simply don’t buy that conclusion.”

    This is not about Kant. He just states what metaphysicians always discover. They don’t have any choice in the matter. They reach this result whether they like it or not. It is a logical result, not an assumption.

    “I do not know enough about Nagarjuna to be able to comment sensibly. But I’m extremely skeptical of any grand proof of that sort, and I don’t know what would count, in this context, as an extreme metaphysical view.”

    Bradley constructs the same sort of proof in his ‘Appearance and Reality’. An extreme view would be partial or selective. It would state the universe is this and not that, forming an intractable dilemma. Bradley would do away with these distinction for Lao Tsu’s view, for which the world as whole can never be called this or that for it is a unity.

    “The title of my blog is simply a tip to the hat, not a reflection of current philosophy.”

    A reflection of current philosophy would be the number of jobs that are being abolished and the level of criticism from the scientists for the lack of progress. It is a failure in our western universities, stagnant and struggling to justify its existence. I don’t think this is an opinion but there for all to see.

    —“Not for nothing is the Holy Grail said to have the power to ‘dissolve all distinctions’, for we would discover the same thing in experience as we do by logical analysis”

    “I don’t know what that means, but I think distinctions are crucial to navigate reality. And logic grossly underdetermines experience, so…”

    Yes. this one was a curve-ball. I was just making connections to show the ubiquity of my view. There is no suggestion here that we should not make distinctions, just that we recognise we are making them. The idea would be that logic proves that the universe is a unity, as shown by Bradley, Kant Nagarjuna et al., while the journey to enlightenment and knowledge would prove this ’empirically’ by way of the Grail experience. Logic and experience would coincide, and ethics would be fully determined.

    I think it would be impossible for me to explain my view in a convincing way here. Perhaps we could focus on the crucial metaphysical issue, which is whether metaphysics produces a result and what it is. If it does not produce one then ethics will always be underdetermined.

    One strong opinion I have is that Nagarjuna is the entire key to metaphysics. He is clarifying and not inventing anything but he brings a clarity and neatness that is very rare. Oddly. though, it would not be necessary to read him. It would be enough to know that in order to explain and justify Buddhist ethics and soteriology he went to a lot of trouble to prove that all positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible. This implies a global compatabilism. If we reject all these positions, therefore, we are left with the metaphysics and ethics of Buddhism, Taoism and the Upanishads.

    My complaint against Stoicism, on reflection, would be that it claims the universe is a unity but does not make clear what it means by this or explore the implications. For me the proposition ‘the universe is a unity’ would be the only axiom necessary for metaphysics as long as ‘unity’ is well-defined.

    I’m a bit on-song having just written down ‘my’ solution for metaphysics and entered it in a philosophical essay competition. I would be honoured if you chose to read it, but this is not an ambush. I won’t mention it again unless encouraged. .

    Probably my longest comment ever, right after promising to be brief. .

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  26. Daniel Mann

    Massimo,

    Thanks for attempting to clear-the-air in a very direct and responsible manner.

    Please be reassured that neither of those references to “arrogance” and “denial” had any references to you or even specifically to Stoicism. Instead, they were intended as generalizations pertaining to any moral endeavors and anyone’s attempt to live virtuously. Such is a humbling endeavor, as it should be.

    I am therefore sorry that my observations about the human condition were not presented clearly enough and therefore became the source of misunderstanding.

    Instead, I have a lot of respect for the principles you have been illuminating. From a Christian perspective, by following the laws imprinted upon our hearts and minds (physics), we should be humbled (among other things), and this should cause us to seek the Author of these principles. I therefore applaud your attempt to reintroduce these solid moral principles of virtue back into public awareness, and I do receive your ecumenical overture. (I should have been explicit about that.)

    Liked by 1 person

  27. PeterJ

    Massimo

    On reflection I think my previous post was too long and complex for a response. Feel free to leave it unanswered. If (IFF) you wish we could perhaps focus on the problem of altruism, which is useful and interesting since it crops up in biology and metaphysics. But I feel I’ve said my piece so leave it up to you.

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  28. Massimo Post author

    Peter,

    I’ll pick up on just one of your many comments:

    “Materialism justifies abandoning ethics and replacing it with game theory. What use can ethics be to a materialist other than if it is self-serving? This was Daniel’s point, that this approach to ethics is not likely to be virtuous or lead to virtue.”

    No. First off, I don’t see why materialism justified abandoning ethics, and where on earth game theory comes from. Second, the Stoics were materialists, and they quite obviously didn’t think you couldn’t ground an ethical system on it. I believe it is you and Daniel who have decided ahead of time that materialism isn’t true and then derived the consequences. And I never said that I know that materialism is true, I simply said that it is the simplest metaphysical hypothesis compatible with science. Which for me is a pretty high bar, not met by any other metaphysical hypothesis (with the partial exception of naturalism, a broader version of materialism that includes some abstract concepts, such as mathematical ones).

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  29. PeterJ

    Massimo

    From the title of your essay it is perfectly obvious that you do not understand metaphysics or ethics and from the rest it becomes even more so. Had it been my essay the word ‘complex’ would have been changed for ‘simple’. Then it would have gone on to explain this relationship instead of wandering around in confusion misleading Stoics and everyone else alike. .

    Someone who can say in the same breath that they do not know the metaphysics of Bradley, Lao Tsu and Nagarjuna, think that materialism is a good theory and have a ‘pretty good understanding of metaphysics’ is either a liar or a fool. I lost all faith in academia some time ago. It is not an honest endeavor.

    I enjoy your writing and admire your style but do not consider you a serious scholar. It is not a coincidence that two commenters see your approach as ego-driven and thus not in line with Stoic ethics, I do not have a pretty good understanding of metaphysics. I understand it. Full stop. But you do not care about truth, just the protection of your axioms.

    A recent article in Sage Open, the best read journal of SAGE, which is perhaps the main academic publisher in the field of psychology worldwide, by Bernardo Kastrup, explains my view of the connection between materialism and the ego. It is accessible online.

    Sorry to leave with these harsh words but you are a professional.and in a position to mislead many people. This brings responsibility and I do not feel you are living up to it.

    The good news is that materialism seems to be on the way out as a fashion accessory, so I will rely on Thomas Kuhn and wait you out.

    Otherwise, on a personal level, I wish you all the best and thank you for the time you put into this discussion. I will unsubscribe but not in a hissy fit, just so that I’m not continually tempted to comment here and end up as an annoying troll.

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  30. Massimo Post author

    Peter,

    Wow. It takes some galls to tell a professional philosopher that he doesn’t understand either ethics of metaphysics. And it is amazing that my (humble, I thought) admission that I am not sufficiently familiar with a particular author to comment on it is met with accusations of arrogance. (Incidentally, I would have like to have a discussion about what arguments from that author you find so compelling, but you never cited any.) As for materialism, it is here to stay, it is by far the most coherent metaphysics out there (it coheres with science, for one), and it is certainly the most widely accepted one by professional philosophers. But then again, you reject the whole academy thing, so best luck with your pursuits, I wish you the best.

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