Stoicism and Christianity, I: Seneca

On a number of times I have commented on the differences and similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism (insofar I understand the latter, I’m certainly no expert). But there are some interesting parallels between Stoicism and Christianity as well, parallels that were famously highlighted by Justus Lipsius, the founder of Neo-Stoicism, in the 16th century. The occasion to revisit the topic is being afforded by the fact that I’ve been reading with much interest a recent book by C. Kavin Rowe entitled One True Life: the Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions.

Rowe is professor of New Testament at Duke University Divinity School, and the author of Early Narrative Christology: The Lord in the Gospel of Luke and World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age. I will use Rowe’s book as the basis for a multi-part discussion on how Christians see Stoics, and vice versa, helped in this by the fact that I grew up Catholic, and I’m therefore much more familiar with Rowe’s perspective than with the Buddhist one.

Rowe proceeds in this manner: the first part of the book devotes one chapter each to what the author sees as the major themes found in the three great Roman Stoics, Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus. The second part examines the main themes of three great Christian thinkers who were contemporary of the Stoics: Paul, Luke, and Justin Martyr. The third part, finally, discusses whether and in what sense the two traditions may be compared. Spoiler alert: Rowe develops an argument in part III according to which the Stoic and Christian traditions are incommensurable and therefore mutually exclusive. I will comment on that, and attempt to reject the very idea of incommensurability among traditions (which finds ample, though certainly not universal, usage also in my own scholarly field, philosophy of science). I will conclude that the idea of a Christian Stoic is not an oxymoron.

So, beginning from the top, let’s talk about what Rowe sees as the main themes in Seneca’s work. Seneca, of course, is a much controversial figure even among modern Stoics, but Rowe characterizes his writings, and particularly his Letters to Lucilius, on which he focuses, as “outstanding exemplars of a Stoic philosopher and real human being at work.”

The first Senecian theme treated by Rowe is that of death: “his focus upon death is born not solely of a consciousness of the dying around him but of a sense of what the human being actually is. Our lot is to die.” Rowe reminds us that Seneca thinks that for most people death is a major cause of unhappiness, originating from the fact that our judgment about it is incorrect. Seneca’s remedy is that we have to practice how to die: “cotidie morimur, ‘daily we die.'” We die every day just in the same way as the water clock is emptied of water every moment that passes, not just by the very last drop.

“Each day, therefore, can be seen as a kind of schooling in death, a foretaste of the last day. And well might it be, says Seneca, for we never know which drop is the last to empty the clock.” Moreover, we don’t actually know how many drops are stored in our own water clock, so the next one may very well be the last one.

Seneca on death sounds at times very modern: “You will not die,” he tells Lucilius in a startling turn of phrase, “because you are ill, but because you are alive.” So “despise death! Indeed, such scorning is not only the proper cure of your disease, Lucilius, it is the remedy for ‘the whole of your life.'”

Rowe highlights four points that Seneca makes about death: i) It is unpredictable, so why worry about the future, if you could die today simply by ingesting a nut? ii) Contemplation of death will teach us that we have nothing to fear after we die, because we will be in the same state as we were before we were born. iii) Death treats everyone equally, rich or poor, powerful or powerless. iv) Meditating on death allows us to appreciate that what matters is not how long we live, but the quality of the life we have.

For Seneca, moreover, death is the source of our freedom, as we can walk through what Epictetus later called “the open door” if things are truly unbearable: “a wise man should live as long as he ought, not as long as he can.”

The second major Senecian theme is Fortuna: “Fortuna, for Seneca, is not personal, does not operate according to intention or plan, has no mind of its own. It is, quite simply, the name for the world in all its excess.”

Seneca says that human beings are constantly at war with Fortuna, and that she “conquers us unless we conquer her.” Fortuna wages her battle at two levels: that of the occasional major catastrophe that affect human existence (earthquakes, floods, and the like), as well as whenever ordinary life takes something from us that we value (as in the loss of a loved one, or when we contract an illness).

But Fortuna also attempts to conquer us by bribing us with gifts: “‘Picture now to yourself that Fortuna is holding a festival and is showering down honors, riches, and influence among a group of mortals.’ What happens? Fortuna’s gifts are ‘torn to pieces in the hands of those who try to snatch them.'” Seneca’s warning, says Rowe, is that “gifts draw us in and accustom us to their presence, thus creating a set of dependencies that fundamentally determine us away from the happy life.”

Fortuna’ great ally, and our own enemy, is time: “Nothing, whether public or private, is stable. … Amid the greatest tranquility terror arises, and though no external agencies stir up commotion, evils nevertheless burst forth from sources where they were least expected … Do not trust her seeming calm; in a moment the sea is moved to its depths.”

Seneca tells Lucilius that there are two defenses available against Fortuna. The first one is an inward turn: “We must thus defend ourselves from behind the only wall that cannot be breached — the internal wall of a soul shaped by virtue. … because Fortuna cannot take away what she did not give.”

The second defensive strategy is to focus ourselves on the present, hic et nunc (here and now). Both the past and the future cause dread, the past because we remember our mistakes or misfortunes, the future because we expect more mistakes and misfortunes. But in the present, we are here, and we can live fully.

Seneca also advises his friend to engage in a practice self-deprivation: “Set aside a certain number of days during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’ … Let the pallet be a real one, and the cloak coarse; let the bread be hard and grimy … so that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby; [thus will we become] intimate with poverty, so that Fortune may not catch us off our guard.”

The third theme Rowe identifies in Seneca is that of God and Nature. On this topic Rowe talks about three components of Seneca’s view. First off, it is clear that Seneca, just like Cicero before him, did not believe in the Olympian gods, regarding them as superstition. Neither man would have wanted to abolish the traditional religion, but that doesn’t mean they bought into it. Rather, the divine permeates the cosmos, and human reason is literally part of the divine.

Second, Seneca sometimes speak of God in very much a personal manner: “[philosophy] will encourage us to obey God cheerfully but Fortune defiantly; she will teach us to follow God and endure chance.”

And yet, third, at other times he uses a rather impersonal approach, congruent with the general Stoic pantheism: “there is no room for a categorical difference between the referent of the words god and world. … Seneca’s word for the ultimate ordering principle of the cosmos is Natura.” If the reader doesn’t take talk of Fortuna as anything more than metaphorical, as a stand-in for whatever the universe throws at us, then there is no reason to take talk of God any differently either.

But, the objection is always heard (even from some in the modern Stoic camp), what about invocations of God that seem very personal, almost Christian, and what of talk of praying? Rowe doesn’t buy it: “Pray, invoke, and so on, is all mythical language, a way to speak piously about the need to train the rational soul — the divine within us — to be in accord with Nature. … Neither God nor Fortuna is personal in any kind of significant sense. They are, rather, textures of the cosmos, reasonable and wild, respectively.”

The fourth theme that Rowe picks up in Seneca is that of the passions. Seneca was no Chrysippus, who allegedly believed that we can completely control our emotions. Indeed, Seneca is very comfortable with a lot of the so-called preferred indifferents: “for Seneca, as long as we refrain from overindulgence, it is only natural that hunger should be relieved, thirst quenched, cold kept away with clothes, and bad weather fought with good shelter.”

Rowe takes the Stoics to be serious about their materialism, “and if emotions are corporeal, so are the diseases of the spirit — such as greed, cruelty, and all the faults that harden our souls.”

In differentiating himself from the Peripatetics, who maintain that emotions like anger are a good thing, in moderation, Seneca says: “Would you call a man well who has a light fever?”

“‘It is easier to stop [the passions] in the beginning than to control them when they gather force.’ … Why must we fear their growth? Quite simple, Seneca says: ‘Reason is no match for them.'”

But in response to those who accuse the Stoics of pushing an inhuman philosophy devoid of emotional responses Seneca is pretty clear: “[Do you think] that I am advising you to be hard-hearted … not allowing your soul even to feel the pinch of pain? By no means! That would display inhumanity, not virtue.”

And more of the same, about grief: “‘Let us allow [the tears] to fall. … Let us weep according to the emotion that floods our eyes.” But not as much as we want; indeed, only as such tears are “wrung from us by the necessity of Nature.’ There is a crucial difference, Seneca chides, between tears that fall by ‘their own force’ or ‘against our will’ and tears that we ‘allow to escape.'”

Rowe mentions the dichotomy of control, a basic Stoic doctrine that Seneca followed, and quotes one of my favorite phrases by the Roman statesman: “Life is neither a good nor an evil; it is only the locus of good and evil.”

Again on grief, “Seneca argues that when grief is appropriately in accord with Nature, memory is the proper way to honor the time we have had with a friend or a son,” instead of wallowing in one’s grief.

The fifth Senecian theme is that of philosophy herself. For Seneca philosophy is first and foremost practice, and indeed he sees no division between morales and intellectus. As Rowe puts it, “philosophy is nothing short of the lex vitae, the ‘law of life,’ that according to which we must live if we are to live well in this world, and the ars vitae, the ‘art of life,’ the actual manner by which we live the law of life.”

Indeed, in several of the Letters to Lucilius Seneca openly mocks the sort of logic chopping that passes for philosophy in the modern academy, referring to it as “childish nonsense.”

“If philosophy is the practice of a wise life, its truth cannot be learned apart from its embodiment. … ‘Cleanthes could not have been the express image of Zeno, if he had merely heard his lectures,’ Seneca tells his pupil. That is why ‘he shared in Zeno’s life, saw into his hidden purposes, and watched him to see whether he lived according to his own rules.’ … ‘I hold that no man has treated humanity worse than he who has studied philosophy as if it were some marketable trade, who lives in a different manner from that which he advises.'”

And how do we learn good philosophy as a way of life? From good role models, of course: “Go ahead, Lucilius, ‘and choose a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit.’ The main thing is ‘to choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern (exemplum).'”

Seneca tells Lucilius about a series of spiritual exercises, both mental and physical: “Self-observation, Seneca advises, comes by way of imagining oneself from the perspective of another: ‘Act in whatever you do as you would act if anyone at all were looking on’ … Lucilius should spend a predetermined number of days ‘content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, [and] with coarse and rough dress.'”

Here is a passage where we see Seneca giving advice, talking about his own practice, and yet admitting to fallibility: “‘I have forsaken oysters and mushrooms forever since they are not really food but are relishes to bully the sated stomach into further eating. … I have also throughout my life avoided perfumes. … My stomach is unacquainted with wine … and I have shunned the bath.’ Now, truth be told, Lucilius, ‘other resolutions have been broken. But all in such a way that in cases where I ceased to practice abstinence, I have observed a limit which is indeed next door to abstinence.'”

As Rowe points out, the Stoics were socially and politically active, and even in retirement they sought to be useful. Seneca says to Lucilius: “I am working for later generations, writing down some ideas that may be of use to them. There are certain wholesome counsels, which may be compared to prescriptions of useful drugs; these I am putting into writing; for I have found them helpful in ministering to my own sores, which, if not wholly cured, have at least ceased to spread.”

Overall, summarizes Rowe, “Philosophy … is the wise way of life that enables us to die daily, to build and fortify the inward fortress against Fortuna, to become aligned with God and Nature, and to control the passions.”

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103 thoughts on “Stoicism and Christianity, I: Seneca

  1. Massimo Post author

    Labnut,

    As you observed before, this is a forum on Stoicism, and yet we keep going back to Christianity vs atheism, somehow. (Not your fault in this case, Daniel started it, and Paul replied!)

    As you know, I respect your faith. But this doesn’t mean I am not bound to point out that I don’t buy your — surprisingly relativistic — “these are my axioms, you got others.” Not all axioms are created equal, and on the basis of modern scientific evidence there is simply neither reason nor evidence to believe that evolution is anything but a wholly naturalistic process.

    That said, please can we get back to Stoicism?

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  2. labnut

    Massimo,
    1) I replied to Paul. He raised the matter.
    2) Christianity is the subject of your essay
    3) “there is simply neither reason nor evidence to believe that evolution is anything but a wholly naturalistic process.
    I don’t buy your statement at all. You are altogether too dismissive. Naturalistic process are founded on the laws of nature. And where do they come from?
    on the basis of modern scientific evidence there is simply neither reason nor evidence‘ to explain the laws of nature in the slightest way. We observe them but observation is not explanation. Your whole position rests on a foundational assumption for which there is no evidence. So yes, your axiom is no better than my axiom.

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  3. Massimo Post author

    Labnut,

    This is going to be my last comment on this matter here, and — again — let’s please drop it.

    Asking “where do the laws of nature come from?” is an important question, but the fact that we don’t have an answer (we do have a number of possibilities being explored by physicists) in no way makes the naturalistic position weaker (because we always don’t know something), nor, a fortiori, makes the slightest positive argument for the supernaturalitic position. So, with the usual respect for your faith, no, there is no reason or evidence to go in that direction, and my axioms are far better than any other that has been proposed so far.

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  4. labnut

    Thinking more about it, these comments are highly relevant to contrasting Stoicism with Christianity and I really am on topic. To summarise the position.

    1) Modern Stoicism
    [unknown process] —>laws of nature —>naturalistic processes(eg evolution)

    2) Modern Christianity
    [God] —>laws of nature —>naturalistic processes(eg evolution)

    Note that both hypotheses agree on the end point. Modern Christianity and Modern Stoicism have therefore this surprising commonality and this makes my observation right on topic, directly relevant to your theme.

    To argue that evolution is ‘a wholly naturalistic process’ is a non sequitur since both hypotheses agree on the end result, i.e. the laws of nature result in ‘naturalistic processes’ and therefore evolution is a naturalistic process. Atheists are of course extremely reluctant to concede this obvious point because they then have to abandon what they thought was a killer argument. But their so-called killer argument is no more than a fond delusion.

    Where Modern Stoicism and Modern Christianity differ is the degree of importance they assign to the two differing starting points of [unknown process] and [God].

    1) The Modern Stoic is unconcerned about the [unknown process], apart from natural intellectual curiosity, concentrating rather his attention on the here and now of the end result, naturalistic processes.

    2) The Modern Christian says that [unknown process] == [God] and believes this is a vitally important fact that should determine his behaviour. However he also concentrates on the here and now, as does the Modern Stoic.

    Massimo, I am sorry that you wish to dismiss my thoughts out of hand but I think my contribution is both relevant and a useful exploration of the differences/similarities.

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  5. Massimo Post author

    Labnut,

    I don’t dismiss anything out of hand. I have given this a hell of a lot of thought, both as a scientist and as a philosopher, and I simply find your reasoning wholly unconvincing. That’s all.

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  6. labnut

    Massimo,
    I greatly respect your skills and erudition. I always learn from you and value your comments. But I think, test and analyse. Our differences cause me no distress. I value them as they stimulate me to go away, research and refine my thinking. I appreciate though, given the nature of your position, that time is a scarce resource and you can rarely afford to engage fully in the debate.

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  7. E. O. Scott

    Labnut,

    “Where Modern Stoicism and Modern Christianity differ is the degree of importance they assign to the two differing starting points of [unknown process] and [God].”

    I agree with you there.

    Both world views appeal to a largely unknowable “Ultimate Reality” or “Process.” The difference is that atheists find it very unlikely that that Process is something like a complex mind with plans and intentions. This leads us to place very different weights on teleological arguments.

    Personally, for instance, I suspect that the universe-generating Process that caused the universe could probably be implemented with less than 100 lines of computer code (much like evolutionary algorithms). A human-level intelligence, meanwhile, would take millions.

    One of most interesting things about Stoic pantheism, IMO, is that it blurs the line between naturalistic and design-oriented world views. A Stoic divinity might very well originate from the metaphysical equivalent of “100 lines of computer code,” but still have a rich structure—even consciousness?—that we call “Logos,” or “God.”

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  8. mccainmac

    I don’t think that a “Stoic Christian” is an oxymoron. It’s a absurdity. Read I Cor. There is a complete switch from Greek virtue to faith. Virtue is based on reason. Christianity is based on faith. Fundamentally different.

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  9. labnut

    It’s a absurdity.
    You should tell that to Alasdair MacIntyre.
    He is the author of After Virtue, one of the seminal 20th century works on virtue ethics. He converted to Catholicism. A preeminent philosopher like him certainly did not think it was an oxymoron or an absurdity. And there are more philosophers like him. You seem to be unaware of the deep tradition of scholarship in the Catholic Church where reason is greatly valued.

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  10. labnut

    Eric,
    Both world views appeal to a largely unknowable “Ultimate Reality” or “Process.”

    Yes.

    One of most interesting things about Stoic pantheism, IMO, is that it blurs the line between naturalistic and design-oriented world views.

    But we have already got a design, it is called the laws of nature. They are the complete blueprint for the development of the Universe. If there was no design the Universe would be a random assemblage of elementary, property-less particles. But we have got this design, this marvellous blueprint and that poses profound questions.

    The deep, deep problem is finding the source for this design. Was it always there, an indelible, infinite part of existence, that defined existence? That is certainly a possibility. Did it develop from nothing, a kind of self creating, self expanding blueprint? Possible, though I cannot even begin to imagine how the Universe blueprint could be self creating, or even self expanding, but that does not rule out its possibility.

    I would go for the first possibility, an infinitely existing blueprint that is an indelible part of existence. It defines existence. That sounds very much like Stoic pantheism. The Christian goes further, adding cognition, intentionality and values to this blueprint, labelling it God. That is what really separates Stoics from Christians.

    And despite what Massimo says, all we have is speculation without evidence. The speculation is coloured by a priori ideological predispositions. We are all guilty of that I suppose. That is OK as long as we are open to considering other possibilities.

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  11. labnut

    Eric,
    Personally, for instance, I suspect that the universe-generating Process that caused the universe could probably be implemented with less than 100 lines of computer code

    I was in the middle of writing a photo collage program in Python when I read your comment and chuckled at its aptness. But programs require rules and that brings us back to the start, asking where these rules come from.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. E. O. Scott

    Mccainmac,

    “Read I Cor. There is a complete switch from Greek virtue to faith. Virtue is based on reason. Christianity is based on faith. Fundamentally different.”

    I have to second labnut here. There are numerous long traditions in both Christianity and Islam of reconciling faith and reason, and none of the Christians I know (mostly protestant) have ever suggested that Paul’s words in 1st Corinthians amount to a total opprobrium on reason. Ergo the long tradition of apologetics (ex. Justin Martyr), of moral theology (ex. Aquinas), and of intellectual mysticism (ex. Al-Ghazali).

    It makes sense to say that faith has precedence over reason in Christianity, and that reason by itself is treated as suspect. Even William Ellery Channing—19th century champion of a reason-oriented Christianity—would agree with you there.

    It doesn’t make sense, however, to say that Christianity requires a “complete switch.”

    Liked by 1 person

  13. E. O. Scott

    Labnut,

    “The deep, deep problem is finding the source for this design. Was it always there, an indelible, infinite part of existence, that defined existence?”

    I find that question just as provocative as you do!

    And I find the idea of a “self-creating” universe just as unintelligible as you do. I feel that the chain of metaphysical cause-and-effect has to stop somewhere, with a Something that, mysteriously, has somehow “always existed,” with the caveat that the word “always” is meaningless without time and space.

    Whether that “Something” describes a simple set of generative rules (Dawkins’ “crane”), or as complex designer’s mind (Dawkins’ “skyhook”), its existence is still a profound mystery. “Why is there something rather than nothing at all? And why this, specific something?” is a challenging and mind-bending question for anyone’s world view!

    The idea of “something that was always there,” btw, is much how how Kavin Rowe ends up describing Stoic cosmology in the book: humanity isn’t so much designed by a God as we are “baked in” to the fabric of the cosmos from the start. Every time the universe is destroyed and reborn in the conflagration, there humanity is again, as if we ourselves are a law of nature.

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  14. Daniel Mann

    Labnut,

    I think that there are compelling reasons to see Transcendence in the laws of science:

    • These laws are incredibly elegant. Take E+MC2. The speed of light must be Precisely squared. Such elegance does not come from explosions or chance,

    • The laws are immutable. How can we explain this? This is in direct contrast to our expanding universe of molecules-in-motion.

    • The laws work universally and uniformly, while any universe-bound energy source is localized. For example, the further we travel away from a radio station, the weaker the signal – no uniformity of impact.

    These features point to ID.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. labnut

    Eric,
    And I find the idea of a “self-creating” universe just as unintelligible as you do.

    Indeed, it is bizarre. But it is the necessary conclusion of certain ideological predispositions. They have painted themselves into a corner.

    The idea of “something that was always there,” btw, is much how Kavin Rowe ends up describing Stoic cosmology in the book

    I like that. I think it is an unavoidable conclusion that we can derive from the precision, time and place invariance of the laws of nature.

    I think we can agree there is an indelible, infinite part of existence, that defines existence. It is existence, defining the development and growth of Universes(if more than one) through the laws of nature. The way we label it depends on our ideological predispositions/prejudices.

    Consider this:

    [foundation] –>laws of nature–>Universe–>life–>people–>purpose and meaning

    I call it [foundation] to avoid loaded labels. Here Stoicism and Christianity are in complete agreement on this overall structure. We just apply different labels to [foundation].

    But then we differ in seven important ways when we consider the nature of the [foundation] and its implications. Below C = Christianity, S = Stoicism.

    1) Intentionality
    C: the [foundation] possesses intentionality, i.e. it is purposive.
    S: the end result is baked into its nature.

    2) Value
    C: the values of the True, the Good and the Beautiful are inherent in the [foundation]
    S: they have emerged in the end result and are not inherent in the [foundation]

    3) Revelation
    C: the [foundation] has spoken to us in a limited way so that we may have some guidance towards improving our behaviour. This is a consequence of its intentionality.
    S: the [foundation] has not spoken to us. We must work out for ourselves how to improve our behaviour.

    4) Obligation
    C: As a consequence of the values and intentionality of [foundation] we are placed under an obligation to improve our behaviour by pursuing the True, the Good and the Beautiful in our lives.
    S: We are under an obligation to ourselves to pursue True, the Good and the Beautiful in our lives because that fulfils our highest nature.

    5) Awe and reverence
    C: Deserves awe and reverence because it is the source of the True, the Good and the Beautiful.
    S: Deserves awe and reverence because observations reveal a Universe of beauty.

    6) Intervention
    C: The [foundation] can and has intervened in the present, but in an extremely limited way to preserve hiddeness.
    S: The [foundation] never intervenes in the present, since it lacks intentionality.

    7) Instituitions
    C: Believes that humankind is defective and needs institutions to help overcome these defects.
    S: Believes that humankind, can of its own volition, through intellectual effort, overcomes its defects.

    I think that summarises the important differences. Which one you choose is a consequence of the kind of person you are. We need to respect that and not silence differing voices, an unfortunate aspect of an intolerant neo-liberalsim.

    I happen to think that the laws of nature are the properties of God and that God acts through the laws of nature.

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  16. Massimo Post author

    Daniel,

    “Elegance” is in the eye of the beholder, and clearly a human aesthetic value.

    Immutability is neither an argument in favor nor one against ID. I’m sure if we lived in a universe with changing laws you would point out to the beauty of it, and to the wisdom of the creator. In other words, your suggestions are unfalsifiable.

    I’m not even sure what your third point is.

    Bottom line, no, those features do not point to ID.

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  17. E. O. Scott

    Labnut,

    I think that’s a nice summary. It works pretty well, at least, when contrasting a fairly mainstream version of Christianity with non-theistic Stoicism.

    It’s worth noting that the ancient (that is, (pan)(en)theistic) Stoics would differ on a number of points—they might say that beauty is indeed inherent in the foundation, since everything we see is an out-working of the foundation (2), and that we should indeed admire the source of the True and Good like a Christian would (5). And while you’re right about the Stoics’ position on total revelation (3), I think most of the Stoics didn’t so much reject intervention (6) as they tended to be agnostic about it or to believe that it was rare (and when it did happen, it was driven through divine immanence, rather than through a suspension of the laws of nature).

    As an atheistic Stoic, I would still insist that 4.S—pursuing what “fulfills our highest nature”—is a necessary precondition to being able to recognize 4.C—obligations as “a consequence of the values and intentionality of [foundation].” 😉

    I don’t say this to belabor the point, but just because it’s the most effective way I’ve personally found for resolving the Euthyphro paradox: use humanistic ethics to “boot-strap” your way toward recognizing one’s duty to obey God—then go from there. I think this is perfectly compatible with orthodox Christian claims: God is the ‘telos’ that human nature drives toward. And we recognize that ‘telos’ the same way that other schools recognize their telos (be it virtue, pleasure, etc): through our experience of human nature and development, complemented by observations of physics.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. E. O. Scott

    Daniel,

    “These features point to ID.”

    Personally I agree that they point to something interesting—or, rather, that the elegance of the laws of physics is suggestive of something (I agree with Massimo that your other points are pretty unfalsifiable—I think “non-random” or “non-chaotic” would have been better concepts for you to focus on than simply “immutable”).

    Making the jump to a complex intelligence is a huge inductive leap, however, especially for people who don’t already have faith in a revealed tradition like Christianity or Islam.

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  19. labnut

    Massimo,
    I think Daniel’s arguments deserve careful consideration and not an allergic reaction.

    “Elegance” is in the eye of the beholder, and clearly a human aesthetic value.

    And human aesthetic values come from where? You might have a point if you could show that random processes generate aesthetic perceptions. No one has come close. There is not even the smallest beginning of the vaguest inkling of an idea of how that could happen.

    Immutability is neither an argument in favor nor one against ID.

    I disagree. This immutability is a most astonishing fact given the change that permeates the Universe. It points to an underlying immutability that we expect only from God.

    I’m sure if we lived in a universe with changing laws you would point out to the beauty of it, and to the wisdom of the creator.

    An argument based on counterfactuals is rhetoric camouflaged as argument, really not worth considering.

    Bottom line, no, those features do not point to ID.

    Bottom line, I think that Daniels line of reasoning is interesting and worth exploring. I am a little worried by the readiness to shown down countervailing thoughts.

    There is a big difference between critical thinking and intelligent thinking. Critical thinking looks for faults and invariably finds them because that is its goal. But it tends to be of a most selective kind, reinforcing confirmation bias. Critical thinkers plod down the same old path because they are determined to find fault with every other path. The result? More of the same old, same old.

    Intelligent thinking on the other hand is open, explorative and curious. Curiosity defines and drives intelligent thinking. Curiosity never says no, it says what if? It says, on the one hand this, on the other hand that. It says, hmm, lets see, perhaps it leads somewhere. Curiosity look for understanding while critical thinking is obsessed with judgement. Curiosity delights in discovery, critical thinking shuts down discovery.

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  20. E. O. Scott

    Labnut,

    “This immutability is a most astonishing fact given the change that permeates the Universe. It points to an underlying immutability that we expect only from God.”

    There are so many a priori assumptions going on in this sentence that I can barely parse it.

    “An argument based on counterfactuals is rhetoric camouflaged as argument, really not worth considering.”

    Labnut, are you by any chance familiar with Bayesian probability?

    Asking “what conclusion would we draw if the evidence were different from what we see” is fundamental to evaluating any truth claim. If we would draw the same conclusion, then we know the evidence at hand gives us zero information about the claim in question.

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  21. labnut

    Eric,
    Labnut, are you by any chance familiar with Bayesian probability?

    I loved statistics and used it a great deal in my career. It is a delightful subject.

    There are so many a priori assumptions going on in this sentence that I can barely parse it.

    Summary statements are of necessity like that. But it is worth parsing.

    Asking “what conclusion would we draw if the evidence were different

    Don’t we all love counterfactuals? They fascinate us. It is a form of deja vu and an imaginative escape from the present. But, vitally, it is how we prepare for the future. In the military we explored every possibility before an engagement. After the engagement we explored all the ‘might have beens’. And thus we were better prepared for the next engagement, losing fewer lives.

    Exploring counterfactuals has an important psychological role but more importantly it better prepares us for the future, as we discovered in the military. For all its utility, it is not a rebuttal argument. It is merely a projection of your own thinking onto another person.

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  22. E. O. Scott

    Labnut,

    “For all its utility, it is not a rebuttal argument.”

    We’re going to have to agree to disagree here.

    The best and only way to rebut an argument of the form “evidence X implies hypothesis Y” is to show that “but evident ‘not X’ is also consistent with hypothesis Y.”

    We can state this in propositional logic:

    Claim: X —> Y
    However, ¬X ^ Y
    Therefore, ¬(X —> Y).

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  23. labnut

    Eric,
    I think that’s a nice summary.

    Thanks.

    It works pretty well, at least, when contrasting a fairly mainstream version of Christianity with non-theistic Stoicism.

    That was the intention since modern Stoicism is largely non-theistic.

    As an atheistic Stoic, I would still insist that 4.S—pursuing what “fulfills our highest nature”—is a necessary precondition to being able to recognize 4.C—obligations as “a consequence of the values and intentionality of [foundation].”

    I think we can both agree on pursuing what fulfils our highest nature, even if our motivations differ in some ways. The Stoic has role models that help him to recognise their highest nature and therefore emulate it. This is remarkably like Christianity where our highest role model is Jesus Christ and we strive to emulate him. This is also why the Church has a pantheon of saints. They function as recognisable, real life examples of role models we can strive to emulate.

    And we recognize that ‘telos’ the same way that other schools recognize their telos (be it virtue, pleasure, etc): through our experience of human nature and development, complemented by observations of physics.

    I agree with that.

    recognizing one’s duty to obey God

    Here I must sound a dissenting voice. Duty ethics is an Old Testament view. The New Testament introduced a merciful loving God who would give you every opportunity to reform. In the New Testament we see God not commanding, but offering opportunity to people so that they can fulfil their highest nature. This is an opportunity we can freely grasp of our own volition. We see this opportunity in the person of Jesus Christ, the ultimate role model. In him we recognise our highest nature and we are given the choice to emulate him. That is not a command but an opportunity that God has offered to us that fully respects our free will. For this reason the Euthyphro Dilemma is a complete non sequitur.

    Lest Massimo once again accuse me of straying off-topic. Role models are central to Stoicism and Christianity. This is where we are similar. But we differ in that Christians assign far more importance to their role model.

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  24. E. O. Scott

    Labnut,

    “This immutability is a most astonishing fact given the change that permeates the Universe. It points to an underlying immutability that we expect only from God.”

    [Me:] “There are so many a priori assumptions going on in this sentence that I can barely parse it.”

    “Summary statements are of necessity like that. But it is worth parsing.”

    I’m happy to ‘parse it’ if you’re willing to re-state it in a way that A) takes the anthropic principle into account, and B) offers a framework for explaining why a particular kind of immutability (or, in fact, anything) should be “surprising.”

    I’m afraid that would take us far afield, however, and we would no longer be discussing Stoicism!

    Liked by 2 people

  25. labnut

    Eric,
    I have loved this discussion for its friendly, respectful and imaginative discussion of ideas. Thanks. Now I will call it a day to attend to family responsibilities. I would love to clarify misunderstandings about the nature of ‘faith’ but I am sure that can be done another day. All the best, Peter.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Massimo Post author

    Labnut,

    Daniel doens’t have arguments, in the structured sense of the word, only his opinions. They are worthy of respect, but they are frankly quite weak on the face of it.

    Eric has addressed a number of your and Daniel’s point, to do more than this would definitely get us outside of Stoicism, and as you know, I have another blog devoted to broader issues.

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  27. labnut

    Eric,
    to continue our discussion. The word ‘faith’ is brandished in many confusing ways and deserves a little clarification. The relevance is this. It is commonly held that Stoicism is reason based while Christianity is ‘faith’ based. But that is wrong and it all depends on the meaning assigned to the word ‘faith’. Let me clarify.

    Opponents of Christianity like to deride us for belief without evidence or reason. That is satisfying and cheap polemic but bad argumentation. Take myself as an example. As a lifelong atheist I converted to Christianity, not as an act of faith, but because I was satisfied there was strong evidence and powerful arguments to support a belief in God’s existence. My conversion was not an act of faith but an honest acceptance of evidence and reasoning. You may disagree with my evidence or reasoning but you cannot accuse me of not basing my beliefs on evidence and reason.

    So, in the traditional sense of the word, my conversion was not an act of ‘faith’, but the rational act of someone following the evidence. Every Jesuit philosopher will agree with my statement. Where then does faith come into this? This is the problem. We have to deal with a hidden God and thus our account of God is incomplete. There are gaps in our religious account. Faith means this – we believe that ultimately these gaps can be adequately explained, even though we can’t do so now. A good example of this is the problem of natural and moral evil. In this case we have no good explanation but have faith that there is a good explanation, that would be apparent, if only we knew more. That is what we mean by faith.

    This is surprisingly like science. Take the problems of dark matter and dark energy. They are speculative hypotheses created to plug holes/contradictions in our knowledge of the cosmos. We have no adequate explanation for them but have ‘faith’ that science will, in time, deliver an adequate explanation.

    You might reply that at least there is good reason for believing that science can provide an explanation. But then we have the even more speculative hypothesis of the multiverse. Here it seem the matter is, even in principle, unprovable, but nevertheless science has faith that their account is a reasonable one, worthy of acceptance.

    Do you see the pattern here? Both science and religion believe they have a basis in evidence and reason. Both disciplines have large holes in their accounts. Both disciplines have faith that there are adequate explanations for these holes in their accounts. Both disciplines maintain this faith even where, in principle, the explanation cannot be uncovered.

    I say all this so that you can begin to appreciate the more subtle, nuanced way the word ‘faith’ is used by people like myself.

    Now lets contrast this matter of faith up with Stoicism and science.

    1) Stoicism
    – bases its beliefs on evidence and reason.
    – restricts its beliefs to things that do not require unexplainable hypotheses.
    – therefore does not require ‘faith’ to plug the gaps since it admits of no gaps.

    2) Christianity
    – bases its beliefs on evidence and reason.
    – but its beliefs create unexplainable gaps.
    – Christianity has ‘faith’ that the gaps will, given enough knowledge, make sense.

    3) Science
    – bases its beliefs on evidence and reason.
    – its belief system is incomplete, containing many gaps.
    – it has ‘faith’ that the gaps will, in time, be explained. It even maintains ‘faith’ in matters like the multiverse that cannot be explained.

    This then is the faith that the gaps in our beliefs about the world can be explained. We all exercise this kind of faith and it is a necessary kind of faith since most of our beliefs about the world contain gaps. Only the severest, most radical, fundamentalist sceptics reject all beliefs that contain gaps.

    This is the first meaning of the word ‘faith’. My next comment will give the second meaning.

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  28. Massimo Post author

    Labnut,

    “This is surprisingly like science. Take the problems of dark matter and dark energy. They are speculative hypotheses created to plug holes/contradictions in our knowledge of the cosmos. We have no adequate explanation for them but have ‘faith’ that science will, in time, deliver an adequate explanation.”

    I’m sorry, but they are nothing like that, and it is frankly a bit annoying that religious people have to pretend it is. First off, the overwhelming majority of scientific hypotheses is very much grounded in solid empirical evidence. Second, even dark matter/energy are a hell of a lot more than the sort of speculations you make them out to be. They are themselves grounded in empirical data (about the cosmological effects of gravity), and scientists are actively looking at theoretical models that can refine their understanding of the issue.

    So, no, religious faith is nothing like scientific speculation. That said, people have a right to believe things on faith, and of course, as Eric has pointed out, no religion is just a matter of faith, particularly not the Catholic one, otherwise we wouldn’t have the long canon of apologetic treatises by brilliant minds like Thomas Aquinas.

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  29. Daniel Mann

    Eric, Labnut, Massimo

    SUPPORT FOR THE SCIENCE/RELIGION ANALOGY:

    For one thing, Christian faith, as Labnut appropriately affirms, is not about a blind leap into the darkness but rather an embrace of the light, the evidences. This is supported by the fact that the Bible never asks us to embrace what is non-evidential or unreasonable. For example, Jesus instructed His disciples to NOT believe Him without evidential support.

    Meanwhile, science, despite the progress as it has brought, still embraces basic terms that it barely understands like light, matter, space, and time.

    Liked by 1 person

  30. labnut

    Massimo,
    there is a clear difference between the way you and Eric engage in a discussion. Eric engages in a friendly way that examines the other point of view. And this makes a discussion with him pleasant and productive. You are often hostile, indeed allergic to anything that may put religion in a favourable light. Your comments, over time, consistently cast religion in an unfavourable light. Of course this is your right. But it does make discussion unproductive.

    Here I am, in a sincere and thoughtful way, trying to explore and contrast differences between Stoicism and Christianity. And I think I bring useful insights. You ignore my insights and respond with a hostile contradiction. Why?

    it is frankly a bit annoying

    I regret annoying you and I am sad about the hostility. I would like nothing more than a friendly, productive discussion, as happened with Eric. I am going to do my best to maintain this. But I am going to stick to my guns and persist with what I believe is a perfectly good line of reasoning, even when you refuse to engage with it.

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