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 If we are then released, there remains the better part, after the burden has been withdrawn; if we are annihilated, nothing remains; good and bad are alike removed.”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.


51 thoughts on “The complex relationship between metaphysics and ethics

  1. PeterJ


    I came back to apologise and explain. I do not withdraw anything I said but I realised that it looks like arm-flailing because there’s no context, and it look ruder at a personal level than was intended.

    It takes no gall at all to tell a professional philosopher that they do not understand ethics or metaphysics. All the honest ones would admit it..A professional scientist recently commented to me that the phrase ‘professional philosopher’ is an oxymoron. This is the low opinion in which it is held. Everybody has an opinion and nobody has a theory that works. This is not the case outside of the profession.

    Outside the profession lies nonduality, the Perennial philosophy and a great many people who do understand ethics and metaphysics. My complaint against professionals is not that they do not fall over and buy into this other philosophy, but that they very rarely known anything about it. This is a failure of scholarship.

    To be fair, it was probably justifiable before the coming of the internet, but nowadays it is a scandal. When you said you had a pretty good understanding of metaphysics but did not know Nagarjuna or his explanation of metaphysics it was if I had said to you that you had a pretty good understanding of number theory but did not know of Riemann or his mathematics. It just doesn’t add up. Such a person must either be lying to themselves or unable see their own lack of understanding.

    This is not a new experience for me. It appears to be impossible to convince professional philosophers that the philosophy of our western universities is a failure. The failure is obvious, there for anyone to see, but it seems that from the inside it is invisible. My background is in management, and were i ald to comment I would diagnose group-thing and articulate incompetence, two well-known problems in business.

    I do not say this just to have a rant but to demonstrate confidence. You will think it madness when someone tells you they understand metaphysics. If materialism is true it cannot be understood. This is the price of materialism, that the world becomes incomprehensible. But many people do understand it. I speak wiht such people all the time. To then I would say that I have a pretty good understanding of these things and claim no more. To a professional I would say I understand them, Full stop,

    You could also understand them,. So could anyone capable of being a professional academic. My philosophy is more subtle than yours but from a logical perspective it simpler by several orders of magnitude. This is why I can understand it, why most people could understand it at the level of logic and principles. .

    But none of this is possible for a materialist. If we assume materialism in order to test it, and assume it might be true for as long as it passes the tests, then this is no obstacle to progress. If we assume it is true and then give up on all views that threaten it then we are not a philosopher. So many professionals do this with one theory or another that the ‘oxymoron’ comment becomes justified.

    My faith in the academic world, which was more or less total until I reached the age of fifty, started to waiver about three weeks after I began to study metaphysics. How could so many people miss what is obvious if they are honestly looking? Two decades later it is at rock bottom. I am rude about profession because it is time for the peasants to take up their pitchforks and braziers and march on the university. I cannot be all cuddles an politeness under the circumstances. I am armed to the teeth with facts and logical arguments, not opinions and conjectures.

    A person who thinks materialism is coherent cannot know the meaning of the word. If they think it is parsimonious then they clearly do not know my view, for which nothing would really exist and nothing would ever really happen. It would be impossible to be any more parsimonious, There would be just one real; phenomenon. How many would materialism need? That you think your view is parsimonious reflects your understanding of metaphysics.

    I would like nothing better to explain Nagarjuna and metaphysics to anyone who asks, but would never attempt it with someone who cannot even see that materialism doesn’t make sense. If they cannot do this then Nagarjuna’s argument will run like water off a duck’s back. If materialism is true then the whole idea that metaphysics can be understood becomes ridiculous and implausible, Even the idea of studying it becomes ridiculous.

    So, all in all I do not have much time for professional philosophy and feel it is poorly educated and dishonest. This leads me to act like a bull in a china shop sometimes since I am a one eyed man in the kingdom of the blind while not being a trained communicator and prone to impatience.

    I feel it is important to be hard-nosed since the stakes could not be higher and the situation no more clear. The western approach to philosophy, which entails the rejection of the Perennial philosophy out of hand without examination, continues to fail. There is no global theory and none has ever been put forward. Despite this the search has been called off, since professional philosophers always know, by some strange intuition, that all the philosophers-sages of the Perennial tradition were fools. This would include me, of course.

    This takes back nothing of what I said, but perhaps it makes it less personal and less thoughtless, and explains my agitation a little. And perhaps it might just pique your interest. It surely cannot be comfortable knowing that there is a whole area of philosophy into which you have not yet ventured.

    Thanks for the discussion. I feel I can retire a little more gracefully now and will do so as soon as you want to bring this thread to an end. Materialism is a barrier that the believer has to overcome voluntarily, I think, and cannot be overcome by arguments from his mortal enemy, from whom he is bound to defend himself.


  2. Daniel Mann

    Massimo, You claim that materialism “coheres with science.” Indeed, concepts like a material universe, predictability, understanding, “natural” laws, and a stable body of knowledge cohere with science. However, materialism ALSO represents the denial of anything transcendent. Such a belief goes beyond scientific investigation.

    I would even argue that science depends upon the transcendent as does ethics. For example, it is impossible to account for our universal, elegant,, and immutable laws of science apart from the transcendent. Why? This universe is a matter of molecules-in-motion – not enough to account for what we find in our laws of science. Therefore, I think it necessary to expand our understanding of both fields.

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  3. Massimo Post author


    Yes, materialism does deny transcendence. Not because science demonstrates that there is no such thing, but because there is no reason at all to invoke it, in my opinion. The “elegance” of the laws of nature is in the eye of the beholder, not an objective fact. Besides, we are evolutionarily programmed to find any complex pattern “beautiful,” probably because it helped us survive in the wild.


  4. Daniel Mann

    Massimo, Indeed, “elegance is in the eye of the beholder,” but the beholder can perceive objectively, and this also pertains to reading scientific instruments. This assumption of objectivity is at the foundation of science.

    E=MC2 is elegant. It says so much so succinctly. Notice that the speed of light must be squared precisely. Explosions (Big Bang) to not create such laws. Instead, from our experience/observations, these kinds of symmetries/elegance are the product of ID.


  5. Massimo Post author


    the fact that you have to bring up (anonymous) scientists’ critique of philosophy, a subject they usually neither understand nor read about, tells me all I need to know. Oh, by the way, I’m a scientist too, but perhaps I don’t understand science either…


  6. Daniel Mann

    “Yes, E=mc^2 is elegant. But a lot of equations in population genetics are downright ugly.”

    Examples of “dysteleology” fail to mitigate the need to account for the examples of teleology (purpose/design). Here’s why:

    Even the ugly might not constitute dysteleology but simply the fact that we have thus far failed to recognize their teleology (purpose), like “junk DNA.”
    Even the ugly correspond to the material world, demonstrating that the material world is knowable and ordered (but by Whom?)
    Even if your examples are indeed ugly, design in the other example must still be accounted for. A LITTLE THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: Imagine that you are on a month-long probe for intelligent life on Mars. For the first 29 days, no evidence is found. On the last day you uncover what looks to be a library filled with books. However, your commander dismisses your finding saying, “For 29 days, we have found absolutely nothing. Your one finding on this last day cannot overrule the lack of evidence during the initial 29 days.” Absurd, right?


  7. Massimo Post author


    Forgive me, but I don’t think there is anything to account for where ID would help. And your discussion of dysteleology seems like special pleading to me.


  8. Daniel Mann

    I think that ID provides the appropriate foundation to all of our inquiries and even the performance of virtue. Without an objective right and wrong, virtue can not be virtuous. Why not? Without ID, the only other justification for virtue is pragmatic – the benefits. However, if you perform virtue for the benefits, then it is not virtue and the system will eventually fall apart.


  9. PeterJ

    Massimo – The scientist in question is a assistant professor and has written two books about philosophy and does understand it, in some important respects far better than myself. It would be very wrong to mention his name against a private comment. If it were not I’d refer you to his extensive writings.

    I find scientists to be braver and more imaginative on average than philosophers, even where I disagree with them. Whether they understand philosophy is not worth arguing about, however, since if they are any good they’ll know this themselves. My complaints start when they can’t admit what they don’t understand. (And of course you understand science, or so I assume. It’s metaphysics were discussing.)

    I don’t think you realise the extent and depth of the criticism of philosophy from the outside. It is bad enough even as chronicled internally by Dailynous. Had I posted the ‘oxymoron’ comment on most of the forums I frequent people would have yawned for it is the general opinion. My comments here are the orthodox view in many quarters. This doesn’t make them correct. of course, but it does make them worth addressing. At this time one vast area of philosophical thought is ignored and largely unknown and this cannot be a sign of a healthy profession.

    In the end the facts speak for themselves. In our universities neither the science or philosophy department has a metaphysical theory that works. These scientists and philosophers do not understand metaphysics. I really cannot grasp why they cannot admit it when it is so blindingly obvious. It means that progress is out of the question because nobody sees the need for it. Everybody politely concurs with their peers that it is impossible to solve metaphysics, leaving them free to pick the view that best suits them. The result is mayhem. I truly believe that professional philosophers are not fulfilling their responsibilities to the their profession, their students, the general public or themselves. Sorry, but this is my conclusion.

    Please be aware that I am not promoting ID, theism, creationism or crystal ball gazing. I’m promoting the study of metaphysics whatever it proves and whether we like it or not.

    I once posted the statement ‘All positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible’ on Daily Nous i response to a request for important philosophical statements. On a professional bulletin board this comment received the greatest number of likes I’ve ever had.for a comment. So why is this fact ignored? Because few people in the profession know what to make of a result that is used by Buddhists as a proof of their philosophy. The whole thing is too frightening. Best to just go on imagining that metaphysics cannot be understood and ignoring all those people who say otherwise.

    Not impressed.


  10. PeterJ

    Okay Massimo. I can see why you would think this, although to me it’s on topic since it’s all about metaphysics. I’ve said my piece, or had my rant, and if any of this is not what you want on the blog then please feel free to delete it.

    I meant to come back and answer your question about Nagarjuna which I forgot to do, in case you decide to pursue the issues. There are well-known books by Garfield and Siderits/Katsura designed to translate his metaphysics into western terms and concepts but I would not recommend them. They massively confuse the issues,. I would recommend ‘The Sun of Wisdom’ by Khenpo Gyamptso, which is shorter, clearer and simpler that the other two.

    I’ll leave you in peace. Thanks for the chat even if we agree about little.


  11. Daniel Mann

    Massimo: “In order to provide the foundations for anything ID would have to have some foundation itself, in facts. It doesn’t.”

    I think that there are many weighty theistic proofs. In contrast, there is no evidence whatsoever that anything has ever happened naturally and without intelligence or that the laws of science operate independent of intelligence.

    Besides, materialism is unable to provide an adequate foundation for virtue:

    • The material world does not imply the “should” that virtue requires. Actually, it cannot even support pragmatic considerations like “The virtuous life best insures human thriving.” Why not? Because, materialism cannot even support the legitimacy of “human thriving!” Perhaps, instead, humanity is the scourge upon all other forms of life???

    • Materialism is unable to provide support for the values we wish to maintain, like human rights and equality. Without this necessary support, our commitment to virtue can only be arbitrary, relative, and subjective at best.

    Instead, from a theistic perspective, moral laws are just as real and even tangible as are our laws of physics. They must be embraced, not only because of their benefits, but also because of their authoritativeness – they are truth.


  12. Massimo Post author


    I’m afraid we need to, again, agree to disagree. I have explained several times why I don’t think the arguments in favor of ID are convincing at all, why materialism is by far the best option available (pace Peter), and why the Stoics were right that one can get virtue naturalistically, no gods needed.


  13. Nanocyborgasm

    But aren’t these four premises unfalsifiable? If everything we sense about the universe is an illusion, then we can never know when anything is true or that we are just being very well fooled.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. E. O. Scott

    Okay, clearly I’m too late for the debate that’s already happened… but I just don’t see how a “brain in a vat” or “simulation” hypothesis contradicts or even undermines either science or Stoicism.

    As someone who studies machine learning and AI, all knowledge to me comes down to “fitting curves to data.” We can do physics just fine if we are in a simulation—fit curves to physical data.

    We can do ethics just fine, too, because ethics is ultimately “fitting a curve” to phenomenological data. And even teleology, for those who like it, works just fine, it seems to me, for a Logos that “lives with us” in the same simulation. A simulated God is still a God!

    Our beliefs about the underlying reality might affect the prior probabilities that we’d assign in, say, a Bayesian learning process. We might be much more afraid of trusting Occam’s Razor, for instance, if we learned that one of those four radical metaphysical views is true. That I can sympathize with. But besides setting priors, any good programmer knows that the implementation details of a system don’t really matter—it’s the abstract interface, the behavior of the system, that is “real”!

    Maybe it’s the Kantian in me, who sees “phenomena” as the only thing that is real to human beings in the first place, or the logical positivist who says “if it doesn’t have empirical implications, it doesn’t matter,” but I, for one, welcome our simulator overlords!


  15. Massimo Post author


    Well, the difference between us in this case may well come down to that between someone who studies AI and a scientist interested in fundamental questions. Let me explain.

    “Fitting curves to data” is an entirely instrumental approach to science, one that scientists, and many philosophers of science squarely reject. Science is in the business of discovering truths about the world, insofar it is possible for epistemically limited creatures such as humans are. You’ll find few Kantians in that department.

    No, a simulated god is not still a god, as even every religion person will tell you. It is a fake good, thus undermining both our view of reality and our conceptions of ethics.

    The implementations details of a program may not matter, but the universe is not a program, it’s a physical thing, so the details do matter.

    As for logical positivism, it has been long abandoned in philosophy of science, in favor of a number of flavors of realism.

    Finally, regarding the Stoics in particular, they studied physics (which included metaphysics and natural science) and logic (which included a theory of knowledge) in order to understand ethics on the assumptions that truth about the first two leads to truth about the latter. If the first true are false, then it’s hard to see in what sense one can live ethically significant lives.

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  16. E. O. Scott


    “the difference between us in this case may well come down to that between someone who studies AI and a scientist interested in fundamental questions”

    Likely true. I do think my own view has also been pretty strongly impacted, however, by the contemporary philosophy of physics. As the various realisms that are left open to us by quantum mechanics get stranger and stranger, it becomes more and more attractive to simply say “what we experience is a real and authentic universe, no matter what—how couldn’t it be?—But I have no idea what is really going on underneath the hood!”

    “Science is in the business of discovering truths about the world”

    Aye. But, I suppose I’ve never read an answer to the question “what makes a virtual world any less ‘real’ than a non-virtual one?” Either way, the best “truths” an agent can discover in such a world are models of that world’s underlying order.

    “No, a simulated god is not still a god”

    For theists, I certainly agree. Theists usually require that their God be the answer to the question “why is there something rather than nothing at all?” He must be contingent on absolutely nothing.

    It’s not clear to me that Stoic-style pantheism necessarily makes the same claim, however.

    “As for logical positivism, it has been long abandoned”

    Indeed! I was being a bit tongue-in-cheek. I am barely educated enough to wrap my head around the analytic-synthetic distinction, much less Quine’s destruction of it, etc. And why anybody took positivists seriously when they attempted to prohibit hidden variables entirely from scientific modeling is beyond me. I guess one just had to be there?

    It just always seemed to me that “concepts aren’t meaningfully different unless they have different implications for human experience” was a profoundly innocent place to start thinking about epistemology!


    But anyway, you’re the philosopher of science here! I’m just a dilettante. Thank you for deigning to spar a bit with us plebeians ;).


  17. Massimo Post author


    It’s a pleasure to interact intelligently with people from all over the world. That’s a main reason for my two blogs!

    Your reference to certain developments in realism applied to fundamental physics are on target, but after having considered it I rejected structural realism, especially of the ontic variety proposed by Ladyman and Ross, among others. Obviously, long discussion there, but I prefer the take of people like Lee Smolin:

    What makes a virtual world less real than a non-virtual one? Good question. The fact that the first one is made only of information, the second of matter. Yes, I’m aware of metaphysical approaches that treat everything as information, but, again, don’t buy them. And, again, long discussion. But my position here is similar to the reasons why I reject computational-only theories of mind. See, for instance:

    As for god, I’m not sure why the Stoics would have less of a problem with a fake one than the Christians would. Even if god=universe, we would still be living an un-truth if the universe turned out to be simulated, thus undermining the truth value of our ethics.

    Logical positivism: yes, I suppose one had to be there to appreciate it. I think of it as a necessary step in the development of philosophy of science, but one that, thankfully, we have overcome.

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