I’ve written quite a bit about Stoicism over the past year. And I’ve been asking myself, What do I believe?
The short of it is:
- Ethics: Stoic with Peripatetic (Aristotelian) modifications
- Physics: Materialism
- Logic: Empiricism
I agree with the value Stoicism places on ethics as the focus of reason. And that centers on the idea that the only things I really control are my chosen values, goals, and my deliberate thoughts and actions. Nothing else is up to me, and I must accept this fact.
Related to this is knowing what belongs to me and what does not belong to me. And not touching what’s not mine while guarding what is mine.
But while I agree that being a good person is necessary for human flourishing (eudaimonia), I disagree that it’s sufficient. Basic necessities such as food, shelter, and safety are also necessary for human flourishing. And Abraham Maslow’s research on the hierarchy of needs lends tremendous support to this view.
In ancient times physics was philosophy about the nature of the universe. Many of these pre-scientific ideas were about the gods – what we call metaphysics today.
Ancient Stoics were pantheistic. They believed that the material universe is all that exists, and the universe is God. Coupled with the Stoic belief in divine providence means that everything that happens is just. But this is clearly irrational. As I noted in a previous post, “If everything is just then injustice doesn’t exist. Just like if everything were yellow then red wouldn’t exist.” Yet justice is the core of Stoic ethics, so the house of cards falls.
In contrast, Epicureans (who were Stoics rivals) believed in an atomistic universe. And though ancient Epicureans didn’t explicitly deny that gods existed, they did claim that the gods have little to do with the universe – a type of deism, or de facto atheism. This enabled Epicureans to take the problem of evil seriously.
With the advent of modern science, however, ancient speculations about physics and gods are moot. We can’t prove that gods don’t exist, but we don’t need gods to understand how the natural world works.
I don’t think gods exist. And I think the universe is impersonal. There’s luck – good and bad – but no providence.
How do we know what we know? Ancient Sceptics said we can’t really know anything. But most ancient Greek philosophers thought we can know things by thinking it through, or rationalism.
But eighteenth century philosopher David Hume disagreed. He said reason is often self-serving. Besides, if you start with a false premise then even perfect logic won’t get you to the right conclusion.
In a recent post I summarized the findings of psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who said David Hume was right. Hume’s empiricism is a model for modern science. We must use our sensory perceptions to test theories, and then draw a logical conclusion. Certainty is proportional to evidence.