In defense of the conscious and providential universe.


There is a split in the Stoic community. On one side we have the anti-theist/atheist camp, and on the other is the theist/deist camp. This is not a particularly new debate in philosophy, and it is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. That being said, for current practitioners there are those who are being called Orthodox or Traditional Stoics and the Modern Stoics. The Moderns aren’t calling themselves that, they’re not taking an adjective as I think they’d rather just be called  ‘The Stoics,’ but I think it’s fair to hand one to each. I’d prefer to say “atheist Stoic” but whichever works.

The key divisor between the two camps tends to revolve around Stoic Physics. The Moderns see it as utter rubbish, and the Orthodox are unwilling to toss out a key part of the traditionally tripartite study of philosophy. I’m not at all sure how everyone reads the Physics, but I see it as mere romantic or allegorical description of modern science. I see them in agreement.  It’s important to note that the classical Stoics were speaking as they could, with the terminology they had.  They were speculating.  Speculation is the realm of philosophy, and when it becomes accepted as fact, we call it science.  What the Stoics had on the nose for modern understanding is quite astounding.

The Stoics classically believed that the universe expands and then contracts in a great fire, called Ekpyrosis. Sounds a lot like the Big Bang and Big Crunch (Heat Death fans will take umbrage here). The ancient Stoics discussed pneuma, the active function of matter, the Logos, or God permeating and infusing all things, connecting and enlivening them. Sounds to me like quantum entanglement and zero-point fields. I personally see no big issue with the manner that our ancient forbears used to describe speculatively the things we test today. If we borrow atoms from the Epicureans, then we’ve got an empirically tested system with flowery language. I’m fine with this.

Additionally, the universe is providential in that causes yield effects. This is regular and is the unconscious basis on which all living critters navigate the cosmos.  We see an unmitigated trend towards increasing complexity and energy consumption.  We can posit from this the cosmos is working towards some end, and the classical Stoics would say that such an end will be ‘good’ on the level of the universal scale.  The universe seems perfectly constituted to bring about living creatures, and (I will argue) consciousness.  Additionally, the laws of physics are so finely tuned as to allow for our existence.  The tiniest change (as I’m told by specialists) in the speed of light, the functions of gravity, the forces required for the universe to support us, and it wouldn’t.

I got into a friendly debate with a fellow Stoic on the Great Book of Faces, and we were hashing out the particulars of the claim made by the Orthodox Stoics that the universe is both conscious and providential. I will summarize my argument there, below.

Although I cannot prove it, most folks will accept that four billion years ago there was nothing we would call ‘consciousness’ on Earth. Today, that is not the case. Is this point debated? I think not. From this, we can interpret that consciousness is a developmental state of matter; if we remove the possibility of a Personality-God injecting it into creation a la the Abrahamic faiths. Take for instance that at some point during the life cycle of a human, the fetal cells are not-conscious. It is alive, but nothing we’d recognize as ‘consciousness’ is happening there. Then, at some later developmental point this is no longer true, and the human is conscious. Where this occurs is not a material factor in this discussion (is for others), but let us say that it in fact does occur. In this case, we see a thing go from non-consciousness to consciousness.

I do not claim to understand the mechanism here, and I’m not sure there is anyone alive who does. However, I will posit a possibility. Consciousness is a point on a continuum of matter. As matter organizes itself on the rational principles of the universe (meaning we can divine them by reason), in certain configurations it goes from mere chemicals to organic compounds. Those organic compounds like amino acids begin to form into larger, more complicated things like DNA. From there, we get living things, made up of the very same base-stuff as the non-living parts of the universe. At some point, specialized cells begin forming electro-chemical networks. Given enough time and appropriate energy availability, these networks might form something we would call “consciousness.” We see this in evolution and in ourselves. It occurs on the scale of the geologic and the individual lifetime. We see that things in the universe go from one state to another regularly, might not this trend continue?

This position is without superstition, religion, or magic. I suspect there is something special about consciousness, something in our ruling faculty that merits being called a soul. Something religious, but we will set that aside for now; although I would like to come back to that at some point.

The universe has produced reason and consciousness, since it contains such a thing, it’s fair to say it is such a thing. We are part and parcel of the universe. Now, one might call out the Fallacy of Composition. If the universe is constituted in such a way to produce consciousness within it, I argue it’s fair to call it conscious. Just as the cells of my finger are not themselves conscious (to my knowledge), I am. A rock or a pencil are not conscious, indeed not even living like hair, but the larger body is, (as hair:humans). It could have been phrased “since humans are conscious, consciousness is a feature of the universe.” Maybe this would be more palatable to some?

If that’s true (granted: large ‘if’), then I’m comfortable with saying the universe is conscious and providential. I don’t understand the mechanisms; however, the universe has never shown itself to be overly bothered with my understanding it or not.

I see no contradiction between the Physics of the classical Stoics (and the Orthodox today) and modern science. One does not necessarily preclude the other, as the atheist Moderns would contend. What I would like the reader to take away from this, is not my position wholesale (on faith), but the element of doubt enough to ask “what if?” Take that ‘what if’ and see where it leads you. You might just find, Fate permitting, that it’s an interesting and meaningful place.

One thought on “In defense of the conscious and providential universe.

  1. Pingback: On the grounding of ethics | Mountain Stoic

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