Tuesday, April 7, 2020

On Personal Thoughts About Personal Epistemology

There are, to my mind, only two ways of understanding the world: the senses and our reasoning.

About our senses, we know of our basic ones: touch, smell, hearing, ect. The foundations of understanding the world with our body. To this list, I also include our emotions. We feel them, sometimes rather deeply.

Our reasoning is how we understand the world with our mind. With this, we can build the foundation of our personal philosophies. It’s also elusive. We can’t sense our reasoning. Sometimes, our reasoning can invoke emotions, but that doesn’t mean we are sensing our reason.

Part of the debate, from what I can understand, is which of these ways of understanding best help us navigate the world. We have the rationalists, who chose reason, and the empiricist who chose our senses. Both make good points in their positions I’ll not write here, as they are many and sometimes beyond my grasp.

Yet, if I may, I’d like to propose a stance that not only combines the two, but shows that each need the other. I am not the first to come up with this idea. But, as far as I can near tell, there is no name for this stance.

In Christian theology, there is a term known as synergism. There is a debate in Christian theology about if people are saved by divine grace or by human effort. Synergism says, why not both? Rather than saying one must be right and the other wrong, the synergists say that it's some combination of the two. There may be debate about how much it involves one or the other, but it still comes down to the idea that both work together.

Given that it’s a religious form of what I’m proposing, let’s call this position of both empiricism and rationalism philosophical synergism.

Both our senses and our reasoning work together to form our understanding of the world. Our senses are our input. Without these, our reasoning minds wouldn’t have anything to work off of. Yet without our reasoning minds, we would have no way of filtering information.

Neither of these systems are perfect, even when working together. Reason can take us to the stars, our senses to the heights of ecstasy. But reason can also make crackpot sensible, our senses tricked by simple sleights of hand. Yet, on the whole, we can trust both when they work together. Think fallibilism: we can’t guarantee that we’re right, but that doesn’t mean we’re wrong, either. Our positions can always change given new information. That new information may come from our senses or from our reasoning mind.

(Side note: I just learned about fallibilism, so my broad understanding of it is that we can’t be sure about anything but knowledge doesn’t need absolute certainty. Board understanding is not, typically, great understanding, but as far as I can tell, it seems to be the case.)

Now, some may wonder if either reasoning or our senses pull more of the weight. It’s a fair question: is it more work to interpret our emotions, or do our senses work harder because we’d have no way to navigate the world? If I had to take a side, I’d side with our senses. Every animal survives by their senses. Very few use reason to navigate their lives. But then again, we might not be human at that point:, most animals evolved to their environment. Humans had to adapt by using what was available, and that requires reason. So perhaps it isn’t as clear as one would hope.

I realize that this isn’t a formal philosophic argument. I am not a professional philosopher. I only play one on the internet. But I needed this more than you did: I needed to clarify my thoughts about how I knew what I knew. If we don’t know how we know, we fall prey to traps of both the mind and the body. Only by understanding ourselves can we spot the traps before they ensnare us.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

On Pandemics and Reacting to Them

The Mad Stoic has been sleeping for a while. Let me check the news here…

Oh. Pandemic. Huh. Perfect.

OK, so the world is in a handbasket going to hell at the moment, so now seems a good time to come back to the blog. It’s only been… well, some time. I’ll not figure it out. And what a hell of a journey I’ve been on myself. But more on that some other time. Why don’t we look at how the world is and what we can do about it.

Current State of the World

It seems like half the world is panicking and the other half is acting like this is a hoax or overblown. This puts a Stoic in an interesting position. Obviously, the half that’s panicking is, to the Stoic, not the road to go down. While Stoicism is mainstream enough for us to not need an explanation why, I will do it, anyway.

Stoicism teaches that emotions should be governed by reason and that negative emotions—such as panic—should be banished or at the very least corralled. Another way of putting is to say that it’s negative emotions such as panic are fine so long as you a) don’t act on it and, b) you remind yourself panic won’t help.

But does that mean that Stoic sides with those who say all of this is overblown? The lack of toilet paper and other various sundries in the world show that people are a little too invested in this. Why don’t they all calm down and let this blow over? Besides, the flu has killed more people! And this an election year, and something always happens! And…

The Stoic, as near as I can tell, is not one of these people either. Many of the ancient Stoics lived through some horrible times, Marcus Aurelius having dealt with a plague himself. None of them denied anything happening or claimed that proper measures were overblown. Sadly, Stoic epistemology isn’t my wheelhouse. I’ll leave it at they could probably see the horrible events happening around them and make a good guess that it wasn’t fake. We of the modern world will have to take the word of various governments and institutions, weigh what we both know and believe about them, and go from there. At any rate, the Stoic would ask the important question: which is more likely, that there’s a conspiracy going on or that these people are paranoid?

So, while a Stoic wouldn’t panic, they wouldn’t go down the road of acting like this is all horse hockey. They’d be—shocker—level-headed about it. They wouldn’t buy toilet paper like it was some all-in-one survival tool, but they’d also wash their hands and not host giant parties.

Pandemics and Stoics

As usual, for pretty much anything, the Stoic would have you ask: is this in your control?

This is important, because it guides how you act through anything, not just pandemics. Now, unless you’re a god, you have no real power over the fact that this is happening. You can’t wave a wand and make this go away. But, the Stoics would remind you, this doesn’t make you powerless. To start, you can focus on you. How can you keep healthy? Not only in keeping the current virus at bay, but any illness. By keeping healthy, you free the time of the medical professionals who are, last I checked, damned overwhelmed right now.

Stoics also acted towards the public good, and perhaps this is the first time in history that public good was done by not being in public.

I Got Sick, Now What?

So you got the coronavirus. It happens even to the best of us. And with a mortality rate of a little over 4% worldwide, you stand a somewhat good chance of living, though maybe not unharmed.

But now is a good time to contemplate death.

See, the Stoics were a little obsessive about death. But this is for good reason: conquer your fear of death, and what the hell else will scare you? Keep in mind, this doesn’t make things less unpleasant. Not fearing death doesn’t mean you enjoy being stuck by needles. Or perhaps you do, because the feel of the needle assures you you’re alive, like some strange little emo.

Perhaps you might think now is a good time to not ponder about death. Kind of have a lot on your plate, you know? And I understand. Shortness of breath and fever aren’t conducive to heavy thinking. Let’s be real: if you’re sick, unless the threat of dying in that moment is very real, just focus on getting better. Which, may I remind you, isn’t up to you. This is good. Means you can relax.

Monday, February 13, 2017

On (Short and Most Likely Wrong) Thoughts About the Modern Stoic Schools

Recently, I’ve been working on not only gaining a deeper understanding of Stoicism, but also how to use in modern life, as well as attempting to figure out if there is anything of the modern world that could be of some use to Stoicism. This attempt, of course, has me seeing Stoicism of today as two different schools: New Stoicism and Traditional Stoicism. The following, of course, may be a gross generalization that could be dispelled with a little work, but I find that the best way to find answers is to sometimes be wrong on the internet.

Traditional Stoicism

I also call this “religious” Stoicism, not because Stoics from this camp follow one faith or another, but rather they’re attempting to keep the physics side of Stoicism alive. This means keeping the idea of Providence going.

To the Traditional Stoic, dropping this aspect of Stoicism effectively changes it from a philosophy to a form of CBT psychology. You won’t find anyone (that I can tell) arguing that this isn’t useful, but rather that it just isn’t Stoicism.

This school, as far as I can tell, is attempting to fit new ideas into the framework of an old philosophy. They don’t ignore science or anything like that, but they also don’t ignore the physics of Stoicism. Providence is real and, through the use of both science and philosophy, attempt to prove this.

This school’s biggest challenge is overcoming the skepticism of most modern people. Providence, seemingly, plays no part in today’s world. Atheists find no need to for it and it seems a lot of theists see divinity more as a form of prosperity (“Pray to God for x, and pray like you mean it, and you’ll get x in some form or another!”).

New Stoicism

If Traditional Stoicism is about fitting new ideas into an old philosophy, New Stoicism is about fitting an old philosophy into new ideas. The Roman Stoics all but abandoned the logic side of Hellenistic Stoicism, and New Stoics abandoned the physics side.

A majority of New Stoics are atheist or agnostic (and before that debate starts, yes, I’m aware you can be both). For them, divinity just simply isn’t needed for Stoicism to exist. If, after all, an atheist derives the same benefits from Stoicism as one that believes in Providence, at what point did it stop being a valid philosophy?

This school’s biggest challenge is accounting for individual suffering. It can be hard to take Stoicism’s “medicine” about evil and overcoming it when the big Doctor in the sky isn’t around to dispense the treatment. When you try to take the cosmos as a whole, the atheist perspective can leave it a little cold whereas with the Providential view, the universe “provides” for you.

Final Thoughts

This is, as stated, my starting thoughts in this new understanding of Stoicism. I want to explore the way of the old schools and see if they can withstand the test of time. Personally, I think both schools have valid points about the other: I’m leery about outright ignoring one aspect of Stoicism, but it’s also hard to accept that the universe is looking out for us.

Monday, January 23, 2017

On the Dichotomy of Control vs. Trichotomy of Control

Side Note: I wrote this sometime last year and never posted it. So here goes.

This essay, as the title points out, is a look at the Epictetus’s dichotomy of control and Irvine’s trichotomy of control. More to the point, just who the hell is right, anyway?

Let’s look at Epictetus first.

Epictetus is straightforward about things. He says some things are in our control and some things aren’t in our control. And that’s it. Okay, it’s more than that, though not much more.

There’s only two things in our control: our opinions and our will. So whatever isn’t our opinion isn’t in our control. Will is our ability to influence over the world, including our own actions.

Irvine is more nuanced in his idea. To him, there’s three things: things in our control, things not in our control, and things we have limited control over.

The example he gives is someone practicing for a tennis match. By practicing, our tennis player is exerting some control over the outcome because the player is improving their game. Ultimately, however, winning the match comes down to a lot of uncontrollable factors, such as if the weather plays in anyone’s favor, if the opponent is better or cheats, whatever.

The problem with Irvine’s trichotomy is that the third category is actually a part of things we control. We control if we practice or not, because it’s of our opinion that we can improve our game and we have the will to make ourselves do it. But as Irvine himself points out, the outcome isn’t up to the tennis player. So did the tennis player really exert control over fate? No. All they did was improved themselves, not their outcome.

Personally, it feels like Irvine is attempting to lessen the feelings of fate in Stoicism. If we have limited control over the world, it isn’t as big or strong as it seems.

What it comes down to is Irvine’s trichotomy tries to make more categories of control than needed. For clarity, let’s go back to an old Stoic staple, the Stoic archer.

The old Stoics said that the archer didn’t control if their arrow hit the target or not. All the archer had control over was how much effort they put into doing their best. Practicing archery is one such way the archer could put effort into hitting the target. Yet there isn’t any amount of practice that will make that arrow hit.

This doesn’t make the archer’s practice worthless. For what it’s worth, the archer improves by practicing. And while the archer that practices has a better chance of hitting their target, once that arrow leaves, it isn’t up to the archer anymore.

For all the blustering I just did, there’s one caveat that turns all this around and makes Irvine right.

See, for Epictetus to be right, you must accept the traditional Stoic position on fate: that everything is up to the gods. No amount of practice would matter. If the gods wanted you to hit your target or win your tennis game, so be it. You could practice, but for your own sake.

However, a lot of atheist Stoics don’t buy this concept of fate. For them, fate is more like probability. There are certain odds of doing something and a certain odds of doing said thing successfully. So, going back to the archer, you have certain odds of hitting the target. You can’t know the exact number as it involves a lot of unseen factors. However, you can improve your odds in different ways, such as practicing, buying a better bow, better arrows, and so on. Here, Irvine is right. We can change the odds—perhaps even in our favor—and so we have some control over the world.

How you see fate determines who is right, and who is wrong. Believe fate is divinely determined, and Epictetus is right. Believe fate is numbers, and Irvine is right.

I’ll be frank. When I started out on this, I was attempting to prove Irvine wrong. In fact, over at the Mountain Stoic (who has a wonderful post on this very subject), I commented that I disagreed with Irvine. However, having taken the time to think over how things played out, I had no choice but to agree with Irvine. I’m an atheist Stoic, you see. I’m one of those that see fate as probability. Given that you can change probability into your favor (such as by practicing), I had to concede. For me, Irvine is right: I have some control over external events.

However, this doesn’t mean I have to get wrapped up in the outcome of said external events. I still do not make something happen. I can only improve the odds of making something happen.

And I’ve yet another thought on the subject! Whilst working, I got to thinking about the fact that we can’t know the odds to any event. Sure, there are some smart people out there that can make a good guess at it. But as anyone who’s lost a sure bet knows, there isn’t anything concrete about odds.

Now, seeing as the numbers are a total mystery to us and even something that is “sure” to happen can be screwed up, it’s fair to say that we don’t really know the numbers. And what is the difference between not knowing the numbers and having no control over the outcome? Nothing.

In this sense, Epictetus is right. No amount of planning can give you a sureness to the world around you. You can, however, have a sureness about the fact you practiced. In fact, you can say that at the very least, you tried to improve your odds and still accept that it’s not up to you to succeed in what you do.

Okay, that’s it. I’m done. Here’s what I got.

The Dichotomy is right if: you think something like God or Fate controls everything or you think the uncertainty of odds makes it impossible to put the odds in your favor due to too many other unforeseeable events.

The Trichotomy is right if: despite not being able to know the odds, you think you can influence them through your actions.

For me, the dichotomy proves true.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

On "Real" Stoicism

I was listening to the Painted Porch podcast, specifically episode 8. In this episode, they tackle the question of just how needed a god is to Stoicism. I remember the Facebook kerfuffle that happened, too. If I remember correctly, I saw a lot of the phrase “real Stoic” being thrown around.

While the main focus of the episode is an interesting topic, it's the idea of “real” Stoicism that got me thinking more. Just what is this “real” Stoicism that we sometimes hear about?

To be clear, since the fighting died down, I don't think I've seen this talked about since. But it could also rear its head again at any time, because any big enough disagreement seems to bring out the true Scotsmen. So, just what is “real” Stoicism?

See, this all depends on who we ask. Today, you might get a lot of answers. “Those who follow Stoics ethics are real Stoics.” “Those who follow Stoic physics are real Stoics.” Oh, poor Stoic logic. Nobody seems to give two damns about you anymore.

Ask a Roman Stoic and they might be a little confused. “How could you guys be real Stoics if you ignore this part or that? Atheists, you ignore the physics. What good does that do you? And religious folk, you impose your religion's ethics on top of Stoic ethics. What's that all about?”

Then's there Zeno. “Hey, where's all the orgies I wrote about?”

It's hard to find out what “real” Stoicism is these days. We've lost much of the history. That's what it got for being a “pagan” philosophy, after all. But from what we know, Stoicism changed much since it's time of the hippy Zeno, the boxer Cleanthes, to the slave Epictetus and emperor Marcus. In fact, we can say “real” Stoicism changed with each new head. Refined, if you will.

It's hard to say what Stoicism looked like when Zeno started it. In fact, it's hard to point out a consistent philosophy besides the basics. And without a head for the school, we'll never get back the unified philosophy of old. And we'll never agree on everything, not any more.

This isn't a bad thing. Not at all. In fact, it could help out school. By disagreeing with each other, we must refine our own positions or concede loss. If we aren’t will to do either, we’re missing the point of philosophy.


In short, there’s no real Stoicism anymore than there is a “real” Scotsmen. In fact, the only real Scotsmen are, well, actual Scotsmen. And the only “real” Stoics died a long time ago. We modern folk are just picking up pieces they left behind.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Thoughts on Book 1

Today, I want to talk about the first book of Meditations.

When's the last time we thought about why we are thankful for people in our lives? Sure, we may be thankful for our parents and loved ones, but how many of us can sit down and say why, exactly, we are? I sure as hell couldn't.

That's why, even though it's a little boring, the first book is, when considered all at once, one of the more interesting books. He was able to sit and list various people in his life and consider what it was that made them so important.

It isn't just that his mother was his mother that he was thankful. He accredits her for teaching him reverence, generosity, and living simply. He thanks his great-grandfather for teaching him the importance of good private tutors. He even thanks a man named Rusticus for showing him he needed to learn discipline, a man he later states he was often upset with.

Isn't that interesting? He thanks people that, with good odds, butted heads with him often. When's the last time we felt thankful for people in life that upset us that much? Never, I'm willing to say.

And get a load of some of the things he thanks the gods for:

  • that he had a good family
  • that he didn't lose his virginity too early (and as he puts it, delayed losing it)
  • that he wasn't more talented in rhetoric or poetry, because if he had improved, he wouldn't have given them up
  • that his body held out
  • that he never did anything to Rusticus (you know, the one that pissed him off) that he would have regretted
  • that his mother spent her last few years with him, despite dying young
  • that he could always lend money without worrying about being told no
  • that he had dreams that helped him cure illnesses he had
  • and, lastly, “All things for which 'we need the help of fortune and the gods.'”

This is why I have a hard time thinking that Marcus was as depressed as some made him sound. Someone that takes the time to be thankful for so much had to realize a reason for thankfulness. This was a man that was thankful for putting off the loss of his virginity, something I think would surprise most young men these days.

I think, even if we read no other part of this book, we can learn more than enough from this.

It got me to wondering, though. Did he write this part all at once? The rest of the books was sort of like an undated journal, him just writing when the fancy hit him. I wonder if he does the same for this book. Was it written over time? One week? One year? An hour? Who knows.

I think we can all learn something here about being thankful. Here was the most powerful man in Rome thanking others for teaching him a sense of humor or showing strength in illness. And yet we of lesser status get mad that the fast food clerk forgot a packet of ketchup.

So, who can we be thankful for in life?

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

On East and West

I was listening to the radio, which in of itself is nothing special. I heard a song about some guy who had found new life in Christ, but was afraid of his old self coming back and ruining all that. He asks, “How far is east from west?”

The man was singing and said that the difference was from one hand to the other. But I don't quite think that hits the mark. Why? Because vice and virtue (as well as sin and righteousness) is a journey, not one side or the other. How far is east from west?

One single step.

One step is all that's needed to go from one direction to another. You don't even have to turn around: even walking backwards counts.

I feel that this is the way the path of virtue is. It's long and narrow. It only goes one way. And, as it turns out, a lot of things like to block that path.

Little wonder, then, it's so tiring and hard to become a Sage, to be like Christ, this, that, and the other thing. It's far easier to turn around, find another way, go around, whatever, than it is to keep on the path. And I think Stoics have it harder than the Christians. At least Christians believe there's a reward at the end. A Stoic without religion, atheist or theist, doesn't have that same promise.

Thankfully, the path of virtue will always be there, waiting for us to get back on it. It doesn't blame us for taking an easier path from time to time. It knows that if we are truly good people, we'll admonish ourselves for taking the paths of vice. And if we aren't that good, well, that by itself is its own punishment.

How far is virtue from vice? The same distance between east and west.

On Personal Thoughts About Personal Epistemology

There are, to my mind, only two ways of understanding the world: the senses and our reasoning. About our senses, we know of our basic o...