Saturday, February 29, 2020

Notes on Stoic Physics from Stoicism by John Sellars

Ontology is the branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature of being and deals with all questions about the physical world.  The fundamental ontological assertion of the Stoics “underpinning all of Stoic physics is the claim that only bodies exist” (p. 81, Sellars).

The Platonic position was a “claim that the material world that we experience is merely a shadow of another realm where real existence lies” (p. 81, Sellars).

Plato was attacking all hard-lined, as well as moderate materialist perspectives.  He wished for any and all materialists “to admit to the existence of something that is not a body” (p. 82, Sellars).

Stoics believe that for something to exist it must have a body.

To avoid the Platonic trap, Zeno claimed that certain intangible things like soul, justice, virtue, and wisdom actually do exist and are bodies.  He grants Plato’s assumption that only bodies can act and be acted upon (p. 82, Sellars).  But as was discussed in the chapter on Logic in Sellars’ book, propositions (cognitions, impressions we assent to) are physical entities and so therefore intangibles such as virtue, justice or wisdom would be considered bodies.

Incorporeals subsist.  The four types of incorporeals are: void, time, place and sayables (p. 83, Sellars).

The present moment “belongs.”  This means the past and the future are non-existent realities and therefore subsist.  But the present is more real than the future or past, but still “is not as real as a physical object” and therefore “belongs” (p. 84, Sellars).

Universals of Platonic ideas, according to the Stoics “neither exist nor subsist” and “such entities are dismissed as ‘not-somethings’” … but by labeling these as “not-somethings” it creates another “category within the Stoic ontological scheme” therefore they “explicitly reject universals conceived as Platonic ideas” (p. 84, Sellars).

The ‘Stoic trap’ that Chrysippus devises goes like this:

If someone is in Athens, he is not in Magara;
“man” is in Athens;
Therefore, “man” is not in Magara.

The point Stoics want to make is “to deny that the generic name ‘man’ refers to anything at all.”  Platonists would insist that “man” is someone or something, yet the argument shows it cannot be someone or something.  The Platonist would agree with the first two premises, but if he agrees with the conclusion, he will agree with the Stoics that “man” is not-something, while if he rejects the conclusion, he must reject that “man” is someone or something – which he won’t want to admit.

The two material principals are:
a) “that which acts (to poioun) and
b) “that which is acted upon (to paschon) or we might say the active and the passive; they are God and matter” (p. 86, Sellars)

“Ancient sources” and “modern commentators suggest that the Stoics proposed a strict monism, that is, a conception of a single unified material reality.”  This conflicts with the two material principals, because how can a unified body, with nothing beyond itself, both act and be acted upon?

One way to resolve this conflict is to think of the two principles as “merely abstract or conceptual” and that the Stoics wanted “to give an account of the material world that does not have to refer to anything outside of Nature in order to explain its movement or development” thus “they are able to say that the material cosmos both acts and is acted upon … itself” (p. 87, Sellars).

The three ways in which two material entities might be mixed together are:

  1. juxtaposition
  2. fusion
  3. total blending

Fusion is where the original two entities cease to exist and a third entity is created.

Total blending is where the original two entities continue to distinctively exist and a third entity is created.

Pneuma or breath is “the active principle in Nature, sometimes identified with God, sometimes with the soul of God” (p. 163, Sellars)

Pneuma has three principle conditions, “reflecting a different level of ‘tension’”

  1. cohesion (hexis) – the force that holds physical objects, such as a stone, together.
  2. nature (phusis) – the living force, which causes biological organisms to live.
  3. soul (psuche) – the principle of life in animals that have powers of perceptions (impressions), movement (impulses) and reproduction. (See p. 91, Sellars)

Sellars states, “It is thus possible to make Stoic physics sound quite modern and thoroughly naturalistic.”  The three levels of tension coincide to levels of life forms and consciousness as well as a division between things that are purely acted upon and things that act as well as a division between things that are acted upon and which can also act.  Thus a rock would only possess cohesion pneuma and would not possess nature or soul and would be acted upon.  Going up the continuum, algae and plants would possess both cohesion and nature pneuma and could act on dirt and rocks.  Animals would have soul pneuma and could act on plants and rocks and even within animals, some animals such as humans might have greater soul pneuma.  Any modern biology class would most likely show simple versus complex lifeforms, not unlike the pneuma principles outlined above.

Two essential beliefs about the Stoic God are: God is not external to Nature, but rather God is Nature.  The other is “the cosmos is a living being” (p. 92-93, Sellars).

The orthodox Stoic belief was that Nature / the cosmos is conscious (see quotes from Zeno and Diogenes Laertius p. 93-94, Sellars).

The Stoic God is a conscious, living being that is Nature.

The Stoic cosmos can be described in a few points.

Point 1: there is nothing but void beyond the cosmos; therefore nothing external to the cosmos orders it: “The Stoics are thoroughgoing naturalists who want to give an account of the movement and order in the cosmos that does not depend on any entity outside the cosmos” (p. 95-96, Sellars).

Point 2: Nature / the cosmos “organizes and regulates itself” (p. 95, Sellars)

Point 3: Nature / the cosmos is a “living organism [and] is also conscious” (p. 95, Sellars)

Point 4: the cosmos is viewed as “a spherical being” and is “a finite cosmos” (p. 96, Sellars)

Point 5: the cosmos is “held together by the breath or pneuma that pervades it” (p. 97, Sellars)

Point 6: “at certain moments, the entire cosmos was dissolved entirely into fire” causing its destruction and birth.

Point 7: The destruction and birth are cyclical.  “The life of the cosmos in each cycle is identical to its predecessor.  The cosmos, governed by reason, has the best possible organization, this is repeated in each cycle.  Thus, there is eternal recurrence … as a single cycle, repeated endlessly” (p. 99, Sellars).

“Whole” or holon “refers to the cosmos.  “All” or pan “refers to both the cosmos and the infinite void surrounding it” (p. 97, Sellars).

Pneuma or breath holds the cosmos together and “is a conscious and rational organizing principal.  It is the soul of the cosmos, analogous to the soul of any other living being” (p. 97, Sellars).

Per the Wikipedia page, the phoenix “is a long-lived bird that cyclically regenerates or is otherwise born again. Associated with the sun, a phoenix obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor.”  This is an appropriate comparison to the Stoic eternal recurrence, where the cosmos goes through conflagration and birth in a single cycle, repeated endlessly.

Stoic fate is described as “a continuous string of causes, an inescapable order and connection between events” (p. 100, Sellars).

Stoic providence is described as “God, who pervades the entire cosmos, forms the cosmos into a harmonious whole and orders events in a providential manner.  The cosmos is ‘administered by mind and providence’” (p. 100, Sellars).

Fate and providence are reconciled by Stoics who argue that they “are in fact one and the same thing.”  God’s will is an ordered, continuous string of events and furthermore, because “God is supremely good and supremely rational, then there will surely be only one course of action open to him, namely the best and most rational course of action.”  And this “necessary and unalterable order of causes … is providentially arranged by God to be the best possible order” (p. 101, Sellars).

The theory of cosmic sympathy offers that all parts of the cosmos are continually interacting, such as the sun’s charged particles striking atoms in the earth’s atmosphere causing auroras to appear.  “This sympathy between all of the parts of the cosmos is a product of the fact that it is all permeated by breath or pnuema” (p. 103, Sellars).  Therefore, small events can have wide-ranging impacts.

Between Stoic fate, Stoic providence and cosmic sympathy, it would appear human will or agency is limited.  Some would suggest that individual humans have little to no free will and that their fate is entirely determined, regardless of their actions – so why should humans bother acting at all?  This is known as the “lazy argument.”

Chrysippus’ response to the “lazy argument” references two types of fated things.

  • Simple fated things are “necessary and [are] a product of the essence of a thing.”  An example would be death – all mortals will die.
  • Conjoined fated things are more complex and involve “two types of causes” called internal and external.  External causes would be things external to human nature that would impact the outcome.  Internal causes are things inherent to human nature.

Thus, humans can attempt to influence their fate when they are sick and may die at night.  While dying is an internal cause, dying at night is not a given as the human may call a doctor or take medication, thus influencing the outcome.

The cosmos is mirrored at the human level.  Where the cosmos has pneuma which constitutes God’s soul, the human soul is a fragment of the cosmic pneuma.  Where the cosmos is embodied in matter, so too the human body is a fragment of cosmic matter (see p. 104, Sellars).

The rational human being has pneuma at four levels of tension (p. 105, Sellars):

  • hexis – cohesion of the body
  • phusis – being alive in most basic biological sense
  • psuche – animal faculties of impression and impulse
  • logike psuche – rational power of judgement that can intervene between receiving impressions and acting on impulses.

The commanding faculty of the pneuma is called hegemonikon and is comprised of three parts (p. 105, Sellars):

  • faculty of impressions; faculty of impulse; faculty of assent
  • Humans share the faculties of impression and impulse with animals.
  • The faculty that makes humans unique (their nature) is the faculty of assent.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Thoughts on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

Chris & Robert Pirsig
If anyone saw me sitting in my truck, in a parking garage on Valentine's day at 5:43am in the morning, they would have found a grown man crying.

I had just finished listening to the Audible version of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

The book is about living a good (quality) life.  There are a number of stories in this book.

There is the story of the first person, who is taking a cross-country motorcycle trip with his son and friends.

There is the story of Phaedrus who is the previous "version" of the first person.

There is the story of actual motorcycle maintenance.

And there is a story of the chautauqua - which ties all of the above stories together.

Some Thoughts on the Book

One problem he is trying to solve is the alienation of people ... conservatives, liberals, hippies, etc.  Somewhere along the line, people began to culturally reject the way society was living.  He tries to understand why and how can we (re)bridge the schism.  This is where he gets into the Romantic and the Classic view of the world.

The question that really got him thinking was from a teacher colleague about if he was teaching his students quality.

The Romantic view is enamored with the final product, as it were.  While the Classic view loves the inner workings.  Quality is a unification of the two perspectives.

The motorcycle, throughout the book is symbolic of any hobby, or career, or job or even the way of living life itself.  The motorcycle is symbolic of technology and modernization.  It's interesting to note, as I'm reading John Sellars' Stoicism I learned the Greek word technē is translated to art and is defined as "a practical skill requiring expert knowledge" (p. 163).

One way to solve alienation is to fall in love with something (a job, a career, a hobby such as motorcycle maintenance) and all of life, and to care about it - to love it - to make an art of it.  Too many people have not fallen in love with acquiring expert knowledge of modern life or how to live a quality life.

One of the most important somethings a person should focus on and acquire expert knowledge is that of philosophy - the art of living.  When you read the book, just substitute his discussions on motorcycle maintenance with the art of living or philosophy, and you will gain a lot of insight.

Attentiveness is needed for quality; you have to give a damn (about the subject/hobby/career/life).

He gets into aretē which has been translated into virtue or excellence (of the soul).  And although Pirsig writes:
“Then Phaedrus feels a tugging to read the passage again, and he does so and then…what’s this?!…’That which we translate ‘virtue’ but is in Greek ‘excellence.’
Kitto had more to say about this arête of the ancient Greeks.  ‘When we meet arête in Plato,’ he said, ‘we translate it ‘virtue’ and consequently miss all the flavor of it.  ‘Virtue,’ at least in modern English, is almost entirely a moral word; arête on the other hand, is used indifferently in all the categories, and simply means excellence.’”
... he discounts the virtue aspect of it.  When I look at it from a Stoic perspective, I see aretē is virtue (courage, justice, wisdom, temperance) and a human shows these qualities no matter what the platform or technē / art he expresses himself in.  It is all-encompassing; in living as a quality father, a quality employee, a quality neighbor, a quality chess player, and on and on.

He later writes:
“Arête implies a respect of the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialization.  it implies a contempt for efficiency — or rather a much higher idea of efficiency, an efficiency which exists not in one department of life but in life itself.”
Pirsig (the first person of the book and Phaedrus) is learning to grapple with the art of being a quality father.  He doesn't do such a good job on the road trip, but by the end, he finally realizes it and we can see the immediate changes in his style of fathering.

The book is a love book.  The love of a practical skill; the love of art; the love of being a parent; the love of being a teacher; the love of quality itself - of workmanship; the love of wisdom - philosophy.

I cried at the end of the book after listening to the epilogue.  Chris (the son), was stabbed to death in San Francisco just before his 23rd birthday.  Pirsig describes the death in detail and then discusses where and what Chris is after his death.

And one more thought ... I loved his description of how we see the present, past and future.  It is as if we are walking backwards.  We see all that we have passed up to the present.  That is all we can see and know.  But the back of our body/head faces the future - it's unknowable.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Notes on Stoic Logic from Stoicism by John Sellars

The different parts of classical Stoic logic were “reason, language or argument – in all of its forms, including formal arguments, rhetorical arguments, speech, grammar, philosophy of language and truth (i.e. epistemology)” (p. 55, Sellars)

Today’s logic is usually understood to be “the formal analysis of arguments.”

For the Stoics, logic was divided into two principal divisions: rhetoric and dialectic.

Rhetoric is defined as: “the art of speaking or writing effectively” (Merriam-Webster).

Dialectic is defined as: “discussion and reasoning by dialogue as a method of intellectual investigation” (Merriam-Webster).

The central them of Stoic logic is “the acquisition of knowledge” (p. 79, Sellars).

Epistemology is the theory of knowledge – “the process by which the individual gains knowledge” (p. 64-65, Sellars)

Birth of Cognition

At birth, human infants possess little to no knowledge.  Jean Piaget’s knowledge experimentations on babies conclude infants are born not knowing much.  To quote a Time magazine article, “Piaget's work led him to conclude that infants younger than 9 months have no innate knowledge of how the world works or any sense of "object permanence" (that people and things still exist even when they're not seen). Instead, babies must gradually construct this knowledge from experience” (The Brain: What Do Babies Know? Time, Monday, Jan. 29, 2007).  The article later notes modern experimentation have drawn the same conclusions as Piaget.

Humans gain information about our world, largely through impressions and sensations – through experience, as stated in the previous point.

Empiricism is defined as: “a theory that all knowledge originates in experience” (Merriam-Webster).

Regarding the epistemology of the Stoics, Sellars notes, “Whereas most impressions are assumed to come from sensation, and so the Stoics might broadly be characterized as empiricists in epistemology, they do also acknowledge impressions received from the mind that are the product reasoning” (p. 65, Sellars).

An example of an inadequate impression might be light coming into a room and someone thinking it is day, when in fact, they’ve not gone outside to check that it is night, and it was a fire or street light causing the light to enter the window.

An example of an adequate impression would be someone thinking it is day while they are standing outside at noon, with the bright sun over their head.

The Stoic response to the Skeptics’ claim that we can never know if an impression is adequate, would be to “reply by saying that over time it will become possible to develop a certain ability to recognize adequate impressions.  One might not be infallible at first, but one might eventually be able to become highly accurate with certain sorts of impressions” (p. 70, Sellars).  Therefore, a Stoic can point to the sun directly above our heads and be absolutely certain that it is day; while at the same time, the Stoic can accept the possibility of mistakes by suspending judgement when uncertain (see p. 73, Sellars).

When we give assent to an impression, the impression is called an adequate impression (p. 73-73, Sellars).

When we withhold assent to an impression, we are suspending judgment (p. 73, Sellars).

The Greek word for cognition is katalepsis (p. 70, 164, Sellars).

An instance of cognition is “an assent to an adequate impression; a building block for knowledge” (p. 70, 164, Sellars).  It is the mental process of knowing (by experience or through reasoning) by giving assent to an adequate impression.

For the Stoics, knowledge (episteme) is more substantial than cognition.  To me, it represents putting experience from cognition together into a system or structure.  Cognition provides the basis and building blocks to make something – knowledge – which is to see a wider, bigger picture as it were – something greater than the individual part.

Cognition Analysis

Sellars states “An adequate impression is an impression that is so clear, vivid and distinct that it is its own guarantee of its accuracy” (p. 69).  We can also guarantee the accuracy of an empirical impression by observing the “causal history” and ensuring that nothing has interfered with “one’s sense organs, the object in question, and all the other variables involved are not obstructed or in an abnormal state” (p. 69).

“The impressions we receive that present external objects to us are not within our control.  We do not have the power to choose them; instead they force themselves on us.  However, we do have the power to choose whether to assent to these impressions or not” (p. 66, Sellars).  Stoics will often be forced to confront these external circumstances and will at least have the choice to behave virtuously and serenely, but this does not mean they will choose to do so every time.  Because “first movement” emotions come to all humans, many people do not question or analyze these emotions and propositions before assenting to them.  The Stoic will try to pause and reflect on the emotions and proposition from the “first movement” before fully assenting to or rejecting an external object.  Assuming a Stoic consistently practices this pause before assent, then over time, the Stoic will act correctly (virtuously) and serenely more often than not.

The four stages of assent are (p. 67, Sellars, emphasis added):
  1. “a perception of an external event or state of affairs”
  2. “an almost involuntary and seemingly unconscious value judgement that is made about the content of the perception”
  3. “the presentation to the conscious mind of an impression in the form of a proposition that is composed of both the perceptual data received from the outside and the unconscious value judgement”
  4. the act of assent to an adequate impression or we suspend judgement of the impression
Propositions have corporeal and incorporeal aspects.
  • The corporeal aspect would be physical utterance or written word of the proposition.
  • The incorporeal aspect would be the meaning of the physical element presented.
  • Incorporeal propositions subsist, if they are never spoken or written and remain as a cognition in our mind.
"The meaning or sense of a proposition is a sayable", which is purely in the mind of the utterer and listener, is incorporeal.  “Sayables only subsist” (p. 79, 63, Sellars).

Sellars notes, “What is perhaps unique to the Stoic position is their rejection of meaning as something that exists.  As incorporeals, sayables only subsist” (p. 63).  How does this explain how the meaning of words can cause action?  The key aspect would be in the assent of the person comprehending the sayable.  A man shouts a warning to a woman that a ball is being thrown her way.  She hears the words the man shouts, she comprehends the sayable, she assents to the meaning and therefore chooses to act, either to catch the ball or move out of the way to avoid being hit by the ball.

There are two kinds of sayables – complete and incomplete (p. 62, Sellars).
  1. A complete sayable would be: Rocky is typing on his computer.
  2. An incomplete sayable would be: is typing.
Complete sayables are used in dialectic.


“An assertible is a complete sayable” (p. 58, Sellars).

The four important characteristics of assertibles are (p. 58-59, Sellars):
  1. True
  2. False
  3. Simple assertibles can be
    • affirmative
    • negative
  4. Complex which include logical connectives
    • conditional ... if
    • conjunction ... and
    • dis-junction ... either/or
    • pseudo-conditional ... since
    • causal ... because
    • comparative ... more/less-likely
While not characteristics, all assertives can be distinguished by their modality:

  • possible - an assertible which can become true and is not hindered by external things from becoming true
  • impossible -  an assertible which cannot become true or which can become true but is hindered by external things from becoming true
  • necessary - an assertible which (when true) cannot become false or which can become false but is hindered by external things from becoming false
  • non-necessary - an assertible which can become false and is not hindered by external things from becoming false

The four kinds of assertibles listed above are the propositions that can be combined to form Stoic arguments for systematic scientific knowledge of the world.  These arguments are called syllogisms (p. 59, Sellars).

Summary of Stoic Logic (p. 79, Sellars)

  1. “the mind at birth is like a blank sheet of paper”
  2. “via sensory experiences or impressions … we gain information” of an external event or state of affairs.
  3. we experience "first movements" which are almost involuntary and unconscious value judgements
  4. “the impressions we [initially] assent to are presented to the mind in the form of propositions” which are composed of the perceptual data and the unconscious value judgement.
  5. we either assent or reject the impression as either adequate or inadequate.
  6. "a proposition is a physical entity” or corporeal [spoken or written] which carries meaning/sense, which subsists and incorporeal.
  7. Sayables are the subsistence of the meaning of the proposition.
  8. Sayables are either complete or incomplete.
  9. Complete sayables are called assertibles used in Stoic dialectic.
  10. Four kinds of assertibles (true/false/simple/complex) can be combined with other assertibles to form syllogistic arguments.
Syllogistic arguments “form the foundation for systematic scientific knowledge of the world.”  A syllogism is an argument with premises and a conclusion.  Aristotle was the first to use the syllogism (p. 56, Sellars).
Aristotelian syllogisms used universals with letters, whereas Stoic syllogisms could use either universal or particular assertibles for their propositions. In Stoic formal logic, ordinal numbers replace propositions, not individual terms. (p. 57-59, Sellars).

An argument may be valid “in its logical form” but if we doubt the premise, the conclusion may not be true. So, we can just say, "no." :)

An example of a logically valid argument that is untrue would be:
All Texans are human;
All humans are male;
Therefore, all Texans are male.

An example of the 3rd Stoic argument using ordinal numbers:
Not the seventh and the eighth;
The seventh;
Therefore, not the eighth.

The above example would contain a complex negative conjunction assertible as one premise and a simple assertible as the second premise.

An example from the physical world of the 3rd argument would be:
The temperature is not both hot and cold;
It is hot;
Therefore, it is not cold.

Examples of the other four arguments (1, 2, 4, 5):

If the man is in Texas, then he is in the United States;
The man is in Texas;
Therefore, the man is in the United States.

If the boat is sailing, then it is on the water;
The boat is not on the water;
Therefore, the boat is not sailing.

Either is it night or it is day;
It is night;
Therefore, it is not day.

The animal is either a mammal or a reptile;
It is not a reptile;
Therefore, it is a mammal.

More on Stoic Logic: