In defense of the conscious and providential universe.

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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.

A Stoic rap? Sure, why not.

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So a dear friend of mine sent me a video for a song which is more introspective, more important, than most popular music today is.  I watched the video and read the lyrics, and the poetry and content is moving and thought-provoking.

I felt moved to respond with what might be Stoic advice in kind.


The question about life is insane
It’s not the struggle, the hardship, the pain.
Humans are here, and we’re reasonable.
We’re here to find the truth, the logic; the main
Thing we need to see is virtue and vice.,
To know what’s good, what’s bad, we’re fraught for lack of advice.
 
But it isn’t heavenly reward,
so much as it’s our internal words
Where we can find, not rewind, what we’ve got to fill the time.
And our morals, our lessons, come from our minds.
It’s not divine, but it’s time to set aside the rhythm and rhyme.
To discover for ourselves, and not for fear of heaven nor hell.
 
It’s our nature, our fate, to reason and love, and sometimes to hate.
There’s nothing outside, but the universe is god, and the cosmos divine.
Seek to stand straight, not straightened. 
Sometimes we bend, we break, but our fate is the same, we’re waitin’
For some truth,  for nature, for god.

But we can’t see where we are, without the perspective,
Our natures are reflective, and not for god we’re awed, we stand and plod
through life without direction. 
But for men and women, we’re a collection of projections
Given no quarter other than what we find,
and the line is divine, to fill the time with prime, sublime

Excellence.

On Robbin Williams and Suicide

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Suicide if undertaken for the right reasons is not an evil in Stoicism. Socrates committed suicide, Seneca also. However, if it’s merely a means of escape from your obligations and trials, it’s not virtuous.

Seneca wrote “The wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as he can.”

But if your life has ripened, like a fruit, and is best at this moment, then plucking it is reasonable. Or if continued existence would destroy your moral or rational nature, a sagacious person might undertake it.

Epictetus: “The door is always open.”

What Dreams May Come

That being said, most folks are not in that position, and if someone is troubled and suicide is a thought they are entertaining, then they should probably ask for help, as we would be obligated to give it as we were able.  We do not know under what pain he was living, and it’s difficult to “armchair quarterback” his decision.  We can look at the context, and the social roles he had.  His children are adults, his family secure.  He did excellent work, and he struggled (not always, but sometimes successfully) with his demons and flaws.

I don’t think anyone undertakes Robin’s decision easily. I hope he finds some solace and relief in what may come after. I hope he knew the lightness of heart that he brought to many.

This is the advice I gave to some friends on Facebook:

When someone we are attached to leaves us, rather than lament at losing him or her, instead think that he has returned home.

We never possessed them, we merely borrowed them for a time. When the owner of something we’ve borrowed asks for it back, no matter how, we should return it with gladness for having experienced it.

Stoic lessons in Man of La Mancha

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Don-QuixoteI had the pleasure of seeing Man of La Mancha preformed on the stage last night.  During the performance, I could not help but note some Stoic themes in the story.  I would not classify the whole as a Stoic work, nor do I think it was intended per se to be such, but it was an interesting lens through which to view the show.  I will look at a few instances in which I think Stoic lessons can easily be gleaned from the show, but this is by no means exhaustive nor complete.

***This will container SPOILERS of the show, so if you do not want the ending revealed, please read no further.***

Firstly, the story is of two parts. Miguel de Cervantes is imprisoned for levying a tax and foreclosing on a monastery, in 17th Century Spain, and in the prison he preforms a play for the prisoners who are determining his guilt.  One of his charges is “for being an honest man.”  The trial is a ploy to rob him of his belongings, the only one of which he actually cares about is his work, a manuscript.  He pleads guilty to the charges, but wishes a defense nonetheless, that the jury might have mercy.  These are the two stories, Miguel’s imprisonment, and Quijana/Don Quixote’s adventure which he preforms for the prisoners.  Cervantes does not fight his imprisonment, nor does he overly lament his station.  In a very Stoic way he attempts to make the best of it, to protect his work.

Now, Don Quixote:  Don Quixote is a man in search of a few things, Truth and Virtue, represented by Dulcinea, and adventure.  He warns Pancho that their enemy, the Enchanter, is a danger to them.  The Enchanter might be illusion of external indifferents, and internal values.  Where others see Windmills, he sees Ogres.  Where others see simple life, he sees Dragons, Knights, and honor.  Throughout the story, Don Quixote talks of the quest, the desire for perfection, truth, honor, and chivalry.  In the story, he is (maybe) quite mad.  Others see a sickened mind, or one under illusion.  His family and countrymen see a sick Quijana, whereas we see the noble Knight Don Quixote.

And do we not seem the same when we work towards our goals in philosophy?  We see an Ogre in the the illusion of what is or is not virtue.  We see the two things which we can either effect or not as a real problem to solve.  We see our thoughts, emotions, actions, and responses to those things as thing to be subdued.  Others see a windmill.  “So what,” they say, “if you’re mad at a traffic jam, it’s a damned inconvenience!”

Quixote stands a vigil before he is to be made a knight by the Innkeep cum Lord, and during it he fights off a number of men, protecting Dulcinea.  While his perception of the events are different than everyone else’s she is saved nonetheless.  Quixote extends kindness to the men, wanting to tend to their wounds, but Aldonza/Dulcinea goes in his stead.  She is, however, kidnapped and violence is done upon her afterwards.  She comes back to the Inn/Castle, and throws this in Quixote’s face.  She is used to abuses and violence, but the tender, chaste care of Quixote is a hurt she cannot weather.  Quixote sympathizes with her hurt, but he maintains throughout her lament her Virtue and his Quest.  We see a need for Virtue and Goodness, as philosophy and reason tells us it is, whereas others may see a scullery maid.

Quixote’s relatives come looking for him, and they stage a ruse, whereby Don Quixote will be restored to his sanity.  They do this, not for his own benefit, but so that he can make an disbursement of his estate to them.  Their ruse is successful, and Don Quixote faces the Knight of Mirrors who show him to himself in such clarity that he faints.  How so, does philosophy show us ourselves, and we can either faint and “return to sanity” by ignoring what we’ve learnt, or we can face up.  Sometimes, we faint.Don_Quixote

Quijana is taken back to his estate, and there in bed, he is restored to activity by his squire Pancho.  He does not recall himself as Don Quixote, however, and begins to disburse his property to those assembled.  At the last, Aldonza/Dulcinea comes to see him, and finally, she teases out of him Don Quixote!  Don Quixote is saved by Virtue and Truth!  They stand and rejoice in their shared experience, and Don Quixote breathes his last.  He dies triumphant.

Afterwards, we return to the Prison, and Cervantes offers comfort to his compatriot, and with noble acceptance, walks to his real trial before the Inquisition.  A Stoic act, indeed; Cervantes accepts his end with Stoic calm, as the Prisoners sing The Impossible Dream to their courageous exit.

To dream … the impossible dream …
To fight … the unbeatable foe …
To bear … with unbearable sorrow …
To run … where the brave dare not go …
To right … the unrightable wrong …
To love … pure and chaste from afar …
To try … when your arms are too weary …
To reach … the unreachable star …

This is my quest, to follow that star …
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far …
To fight for the right, without question or pause …
To be willing to march into Hell, for a Heavenly cause …

And I know if I’ll only be true, to this glorious quest,
That my heart will lie will lie peaceful and calm,
when I’m laid to my rest …
And the world will be better for this:
That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove, with his last ounce of courage,
To reach … the unreachable star …