What’s my philosophy?

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.

Is reason overrated?

Carefree, AZ

That we are primarily driven by emotions seems obvious to most of us. But even before Plato some have believed that with a little effort we can – and should – make reason primary.

Is that even possible? Seneca, writing On Anger, says anger is temporary insanity because it shuts off rational deliberation. Emotions easily override reason. Seneca isn’t necessarily saying that reason can’t redirect emotion, though. But being a Sage is almost impossible.

The elephant and the rider

Not so fast, says Jonathan Haidt. He published The Righteous Mind in 2012. He says his research on moral reasoning shows that moral reasoning is intuitive, or driven by proto-emotional sensibilities that may or may not develop into full blown emotions. And reason’s role is providing excuses after that fact. Haidt quotes David Hume as saying that reason is the servant of the emotions.

Haidt uses the image of a rider on an elephant. Our intuitions and emotions are big and powerful like elephants. And like elephants, emotions are intelligent. But they can be unruly and are sometimes destructive.

The rider can’t totally control the elephant, but a skilled rider can figure out what the elephant wants and try to guide it to a better path. The rider’s most import task, however, is to convince other elephants that this is a good elephant – even if that’s not true. Haidt describes the rider as a PR spokesperson and defense attorney.

The lord of the rings

The self-serving bias – and everyone’s lack of self-awareness regarding it – is well documented in psychology. Within the individual, reason is about self-justification. Conscious reasoning is mainly about persuading ourselves and others that we’re good, regardless of the truth.

Haidt points to a debate between Plato and his brother Glaucon. Plato thought it’s better to be good than to have a good reputation. But Glaucon claimed that people care more about their reputations than actually being good, so the only way to really be good is to be held accountable to others.

Glaucon even said that if you had a magic ring that could make you invisible then you’d become evil because you could do anything with zero accountability. J.R.R. Tolkien, in writing The Lord of the Rings, seemed to agree.

Most psychologists side with Glaucon, but ancient Stoic philosophers often sided with Plato. Epictetus, however, adds an important caveat. He says we get confidence and caution backwards. We shouldn’t worry about things we don’t control. But we should be cautious, rather than confident, about things that are up to us such as our chosen beliefs, and deliberate thoughts and actions.

Epictetus wrote, “To act rashly, or to carry out some shameful act or harbor some shameful desire, we regard as being of no importance, provided only that we achieve our aim with regard to matters that lie outside the sphere of choice.” He fully understood how easily we let the elephant steer while the rider believes the lie that it is in control.

Reason is indifferent to virtue

It’s noteworthy that Haidt isn’t saying reason is useless. Without reason we wouldn’t have modern science. And reason, after reflecting on a situation, can come up with better ways of handling things, which in turn might influence future behavior.

How we think about things is central to Stoic philosophy. But in contrast to the Stoics, Haidt says it’s a delusion to think that reason is our most noble attribute. Put differently, reason is indifferent to virtue and vice. Further, reason detached from emotion is psychopathy.

But in Stoic philosophy virtue must be reason’s goal. And by virtue Stoics mean not just ethics, but excellence in general. That’s also why Stoicism values cultivating positive emotions.

Reason is a social activity

No other animal is capable of reason like we are. The trick is to use reason well. Haidt says that reason is used best when we know that knowledgeable people will be made aware of our choices, but we don’t know if they’ll approve.

Stoics also believe that being social creatures is central to human nature – no other species cooperates on the scale human beings do. So reason, virtue/excellent, and sociability are essential to each other.

The Stoic focus on sociability shows that Stoics have never thought that most of us can be islands of virtue unto ourselves. But our desire for reputation questions the Stoic claim that virtue is the only thing we need to be happy. Maybe that’s why the Sage is a mythical figure – and no Stoic philosopher ever claimed to be a Sage.

We are a tribal species. But it doesn’t have to be our downfall.

Us vs. them is human nature. Human rights, equality & democracy are the answers.

Us versus them is one of the most common themes in politics, history, IMG_0472sports, business, music – in human nature in general. But people also can be amazingly generous, compassionate, and cooperative.

In the 1970s E.O. Wilson proposed sociobiology to explain this contradiction. We’re a super social species, and just as adaptations to the environment drive our physical evolution, adaptations to the demands of our social group drive psychological evolution. In other words, our social behavior has biological roots.

Today’s social groups are like the tribes of the past.

But this social behavior has its limits. In The Social Conquest of Earth Wilson notes, “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”

Social skills are key to human survival. The most socially cohesive tribes surpassed less adept tribes. And today’s social groups are like the tribes of the past. But cooperation, while valued among members of the ingroup, is valued far less with the outgroup. Often there’s violence.

And we mustn’t forget about competition within a tribe for power and social status. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt likes to quote a Bedouin saying: it’s me against my brother; me and my brother against our cousin; and me, my brother, and our cousin against the stranger. The more distant our connection the less you matter to me.

This is why Wilson tells us that human beings seem to be of two minds: self-sacrificing and viciously selfish, altruistic and self-interested, peacemakers and warriors, empathic and uncaring, and so on.

The more distant our connection the less you matter to me.

I don’t think argue pure altruism exists. Evolution ultimately is about the perpetuation of an individual’s genes, so it all comes down to self-interest. But there’s narrow self-interest, or competition, which is win-lose; and there’s broader self-interest, or cooperation, which is win-win.

Both cooperation and competition can be good. But narrow self-interest is our default. And this can be problematic. Our shared humanity (and shared DNA with other species) means we’re closer to others than we often think. But failing to realize this leads us to think that others don’t matter, and we can do whatever we want to them. This is how rape, murder, genocide, torture, and any number of horrible things happen.

Human societies have tried to solve these problems. It took us thousands of years, however, to figure out that democracy, equality, and universal human rights are essential to mitigate the dark side of human nature.

Religion fuels tribalism, but atheism is just another tribe.

And we can do better still. Religion fuels tribalism, but atheism is just another tribe to contend with. What can we do about this? Wilson suggests:

  • Challenging the claims of those in power that they speak for God, are God’s special representatives, and have exclusive knowledge. This includes challenging the alleged special status of the pope and even the Dali Lama.
  • Acknowledging that we are solely responsible for our actions, which includes how we treat others, animals, and the earth.
  • Accepting that science is the best method we have for discovering objective truth about the world.

To this I would add that we should try to figure out what encourages cooperation, and what encourages competition. After all, competition is often good. Competition drives us toward something better. But competition can get out of hand. Where is the line, and what leads to us crossing it?

We need democracy on a global scale, and a universal bill of human rights.

We need democracy on a global scale. There are still too many undemocratic countries. And most corporations are not democracies even though there’s no reason why corporations can’t be run more democratically.

I don’t advocate a strong world government, however, because that would be too big of a temptation for a would-be dictator. But we could have a universal bill of human rights that we would strive for all nations to amend into their national constitutions.

Anger’s Antidote: Getting In Touch With Your Inner Jerk

A recent discussion about Donald Trump’s hair (which fascinates me because it seems to defy the laws of physics and fashion) led to something more serious: there’s a lot of anger out there, which is maybe why Trump’s popularity increases when he says bigoted things about Mexicans, women, and others.

Anger is nothing new. But certain situations seem to draw it out. My mother asked me, Why are some people so angry when they’re driving, honking and flipping the bird? But when they’re walking down the street they seem friendly?

Perhaps it’s the question du jour. Not long after our discussion, Hank Garfield wrote an op-ed for the Bangor Daily News asking why there’s no pedestrian road rage. Hank’s conclusion:

The inside of a car straddles the line between public and private space; we’re on our best behavior in one but not the other. When you’re stuck in a traffic jam, you’re stuck, unlike pedestrians and cyclists, who can simply go around; impotence leads to frustration. Drivers can’t directly communicate with each other beyond easily misconstrued gestures; it’s easier to apologize or express good will face-to-face and on foot. Driving is stressful; walking releases stress. And so on.

In brief, it’s the lack of direct human contact when we’re in a car.

Thing is, we’re not as moral as we think. The self-serving bias is well documented, and apparently intractable. Morality is about how we treat others, and it’s socially enforced. In isolation (in a car, online, etc.) there’s no accountability, and our inner jerk has a greater opportunity to make an appearance.

And there’s more bad news. Anger spreads faster than anything else. A lot faster than joy, which takes a distant second place.

Why? It is because anger is a negative emotion? Sadness isn’t so popular, so that can’t be it. But anger is intense and energizing, unlike a downer like sadness. But joy also is intense and energizing, so why would joy fall so far behind?

In The Happiness Hypothesis Jonathan Haidt points to evolution. The consequences of finding food aren’t as significant as missing a predator. You can find more food, but if you’re dead you are food. Haidt cites research which finds that it takes five good things to outweigh one bad thing.

Humans no longer live in our evolutionary environment. We have few natural predators, and those that exist (such as bears and lions) are not an everyday concern. But being stuck in traffic, immobilized with no options, still triggers an unconscious fear.

Haidt writes:

Research shows that when we are under extreme time pressure, we are more likely to behave unethically. When we operate in isolation, we are more likely to break rules. When incentives are very steep (we get a big reward if we reach a goal, but much less if we don’t), we are more likely to try to achieve them by hook or by crook.

Plato’s story of the Ring of Gyges (from the Republic) is a great metaphor. Do people really value goodness, or merely the appearance of goodness? What if you had a magic ring that made you invisible? Would you use it like a superhero to defend the innocent? Or would the lack of accountability corrupt your best intentions until you became a totally selfish asshole?

Plato’s musings helped inspire J.R.R. Tolkein to write The Lord of the Rings. A wicked long answer to Plato’s questions. But such a fun answer!

The Internet is the Ring of Gyges, the one ring to rule them all. Another interesting study found that after five days offline, teenagers’ emotional awareness notably improved. Maintaining niceness requires social interactions with immediate emotional feedback from others.

Anonymous, invisible, and unaccountable on the Internet, it’s surprising that there aren’t more trolls out there. When I see an anonymous person kindly disagreeing with someone online I think, there’s a person of character.

A while back a friend told me about a book called Radical Honesty. AJ Jacobs interviewed its author, Brad Blanton, for Esquire. Blanton told Jacobs that “I appreciate you for apparently having a real interest and hope you’re not just doing a cutesy little superficial dipshit job like most journalists.”

Jacobs, of course, did a superficial dipshit job. He missed Blanton’s central point: radical honesty starts with admitting to ourselves all the stuff that we try so hard to deny. In contrast, being blunt with others without being blunt with ourselves just makes us bigger assholes.

So that’s one (though certainly not the only) antidote to anger: getting in touch with your inner jerk. Or as atheist Jonathan Haidt (channeling Jesus) more tactfully puts it, focusing on the beam in your eye and not the speck in your neighbor’s.

This doesn’t mean being down on yourself. That’s just a passive-aggressive gambit for attention. Granted, you’re not better than the average person. On the other hand, you’re no worse than the average person either.

Why Religion Evolved

Everybody’s looking for something.  I think the Eurhythmics sang that.  People look for the love of their lives, devote themselves to religion, become activists for a political ideology, and are spiritual seekers because they’re looking for something.

But what is this something?  No one can quite put their finger on it.

Some people even think this something would appear if only everyone else would adopt their ideology.  And when others don’t, they lash out in anger.  And so religion and politics descend into authoritarianism.

Religion’s epitaph has been written many times, each one premature and disconnected from reality. There’s never been a culture without it, and atheists are a minority even in the most secular societies.

This calls for an evolutionary explanation that isn’t dismissive or partisan. The title of Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell implies an ideological quest to diminish religion. Still, he’s right about religion being a natural phenomenon which should be studied as such.

Dennett focuses on agenticity (also called theory of mind or intentional stance): we automatically assume, even as toddlers, that other people have thoughts, intentions, beliefs, etc. But we overgeneralize. Little children often think their teddy bears can think and feel. Even as adults we might describe a computer as being stupid, as if a computer could think.

The earliest religions were animistic, where the forces of nature were thought to act intentionally and the sun and moon were deities. So it’s not much of a stretch from there to the assumption that invisible agents such as spirits and gods exist, and that whatever animated someone in life must continue after death.

But this doesn’t explain why religion is such a pervasive group endeavor. Evolution typically focuses on the individual, but individuals don’t exist in isolation – we survive in groups. So it makes sense that evolution selected for behaviors that enable individuals to be effective group members. (This is not group evolution, but rather individuals who cooperate with others being more likely to survive.)

Religion often creates the cohesion groups need, as well as addressing the uniquely human search for meaning. Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind, quotes a World War II veteran who said that at first he thought marching exercises were stupid, but he understood its purpose once his unit began to function almost like a single organism with each person forgetting his individuality.

In battle you forget about yourself, but once the bullets stop flying you’re an individual again. Transcendence is short lived because it serves a specific function, that of binding the individual to the whole by temporarily leaving the self behind.  But for mundane tasks, which is most of what we do, we need to act as individuals.

The transcendence of self that soldiers experience in combat is not unlike the transcendence of self the Zen master experiences in meditation (but less riskier).  In the evolutionary environment, humans had to deal not only with conflicts with outside groups, but more often they had to function as a hunting team.  This was much harder than sport hunting today.  Weapons were primitive, there were predators like lions to contend with, and failure meant starvation.  Subsuming the self to the interests of the whole can be necessary for group coherence with nonviolent tasks as well.

In other words, civilization can’t happen without the ability to focus on something greater than ourselves – and religion helps us do this.  Haidt points out that many anthropologists view religion not primarily as belief in supernatural agents, but rather as primarily about community and ritual.

Ritualistic behavior is also a human universal, and synchronized movement – whether it’s marching soldiers or a religious ritual – seems to play an essential role in binding a group together.  The wave at a baseball game does the same thing.

That complex civilizations are impossible without cooperation is no small observation.  Haidt notes that you never see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.  Chimps don’t cooperate at such a high level.  But humans cooperate to the point where we’ve gone to the moon.

As such, Haidt (though an atheist) disagrees with Dennett’s claim that religion is an evolutionary byproduct of other traits, much like alcoholism’s (partially) genetic basis.  Haidt claims that religion evolved because it serves to cohere a group of people.

In sum, religion is about what happens between individuals and groups, and these individuals include invisible agents born from a pervasive human cognitive error (overgeneralized agenticity).

To this end, Haidt notes that, “Religion cannot be studied in lone individuals any more than hivishness can be studies in lone bees” (p. 248). Thus, religion can only be understood in the context of community.

Further, Nichols Wade, in The Faith Instinct, claims that morality – the need to sometimes subordinate one’s self-interest to the greater needs of society – also evolved in humans to enable us to function in groups. As such, it makes sense that religion took on morality as its special project. Supernatural agents often are the enforcers of morality, thus tying agenticity and group cohesion together.

I think another reason religion evolved is that our intelligence leads us to wonder why we exist at all, and so people everywhere seem to need a comprehensive worldview that explains why we’re here and where we’re going.  Typically, this worldview is communicated as a story or myth. A shared worldview conveys meaning, and this is essential for a species that can ask the question, Why?

But free riders are a big problem groups face. The most conservative religions today seem to be the most successful, which baffles secularists and religious progressives.  Economist Laurence Iannaccone notes that conservative groups demand a high membership price – adhering to a strict moral code, distinctive dress, rejection by mainstream society, etc. In return they receive the benefits of group membership. Free riders don’t like the price, so they drift away.

None of this shows that God doesn’t exist, but neither does it prove God does exist. But what if God does exist? The modesty that comes with uncertainty causes us to recognize a few things:

For starters, there’s no way to know, so belief is an opinion and we can’t blame atheists for disagreeing. Even if there is some higher power, there’s no reason to assume this is God rather than an impersonal principle, a Goddess, or multiple deities.

And now that we know just how vast the universe is, it seems unlikely that God created all this just for us, or that God is even a person. If horses had gods they would look like horses, as they saying goes.

Then there’s the problem of ideas that are logically incoherent, such as the trinity or evil and the existence of an all-powerful, perfectly good God. And we must recognize that science trumps religion regarding the natural world. But if science someday is able to show that multiple universes are most likely the case, then God’s fate may be sealed because the statistical improbability of our universe would disappear.

So while rumors of religion’s demise are greatly exaggerated, religion is stuck in the past and is struggling to grow up. If history is any guide, however, religion will eventually succeed. The specifics aren’t yet clear, but typically the process is organic and grassroots rather than by design or decree.