From Stoicism and Naturalistic Pantheism to Effective Altruism

In some regards, this presentation will be operating on a high introductory level to some concepts that I have already discussed in the past at the variety of philosophically-minded public groups that can be found in Melbourne. For example, once can found related previous presentations with titles like "Pantheism: Beyond Atheism and Theism" presented to SoFiA, Melbourne, in July 2021, "The Continuum of 'Needs' and 'Wants'" to the Melbourne Agnostics in November 2020, and "Is Pantheism an Atheism?", to the Melbourne Atheist Society in August 2016. I will begin with a discussion of the philosophical tradition of Stoicism and its relevance to contemporary times, and especially its important role in both positive and clinical psychology. From this, the presentation can move to an elaboration of the Stoic views of physics, and in particular their contribution to pantheism in general and natural pantheism in particular. This is also an opportunity to dig into that much-vexed question of free will versus determinism. Finally, and as a way of conclusion an application of Stoicism and natural pantheism to effective altruism.

What is it that is meant by Stoicism? It is not, as is sometimes expressed in popular culture, an emotionless attitude. How strange these concepts of popular Stoicism sound when compared with actual remarks by the Stoics themselves! For example, "Whoever then understands what is good, can also know how to love", a statement by Epictetus combining the emotional commitment of justice with love towards others. Marcus Aurelius extended this to all that one meets: "Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart", and Seneca The Younger noted that "Joy comes to us from those whom we love even when they are absent". There is no doubt that the Stoic tradition understands, quite profoundly, emotional states. But rather than denying emotional states, they accepted them, thought about them, and found appropriate ways of behaving in response to these feelings. It is from the Stoics that we find an emphasis on virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation, and what is described as "the Stoic fork"; take responsible and thoughtful control of what you can, which includes your own feelings about things that you cannot. An attitude that has survived through the ages and which one will find in the famous prayer of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in 1934: "God, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference."

This is, of course, the briefest possible overview of the numerous texts composed by the ancient Stoics over a nine hundred year period as a philosophy of living, but one can certainly see the relationship between the virtues and considered control of the Stoics and contemporary clinical and positive psychological therapies, especially Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and its more contemporary successors, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). The opportunity is taken here to mention that whilst Stoicism certainly includes some extremely important contributions to what, in a contemporary sense can be considered philosophy, that is propositional logic, deterministic ontology, and rationalist epistemology, the development of new disciplines means that the field of mental health, both in the positive and curative sense, is Stoicism's contribution to psychology. Indeed, both Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck, the founders of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, were pretty explicit about the importance of Stoicism in the development of their own therapeutic systems. Ellis, for example, directly stated that the central principle of CBT was that people are often emotionally more affected by their thoughts about events than the events themselves, quoting Epictetus: "Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them" and Beck referred to Marcus Aurealis: "If you are pained by any external thing, it is not the thing that disturbs you, but you own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now."

Applied cognitively this is certainly true; events in the past are outside of our control, and at best we can learn from them. Events in the future are also outside of our control, and at best we can plan for them. Events in our immediate and grounded present that are within our control are what we can effectively focus our energies on. And as much as negative past events can generate depression and potential negative future events can generate anxiety, CBT has been empirically validated as a successful therapeutic technique. However, it is far from complete, otherwise, we'd all be doing CBT and most of the problem of mental health would be solved. In particular, by the late 1970s it was evident that standard CPD did not help the chronically suicidal, and from this Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) was developed by Marsha Linehan, which incorporated mindfulness, distress tolerance, better regulation of emotions, and more effective interpersonal relationships and emphasises validation of emotional states and an ally relationship between patient and therapist rather than an adversarial role. It has been shown to be particularly effective for depression, substance abuse, and Borderline Personality Disorder (emotionally unstable personality disorder, EUPD).

The other development, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, accepts current feelings (especially those which generate discomfort), grounds the self in the present moment, chooses a particular direction that concurs with the subject's values, and commits the subject to principled action. Both of these new elaborations in the CBT lineage avoid the suppression or avoidance of emotional content but are still within the general lineage of responding to emotions with principles of rationality and justice which concurs with Stoicism, albeit one that is certainly informed by the Buddhist tradition of mindfulness as well. A very simple explanation of the main differences between ACT and DBT would be that the former is more self-experiential, whereas the latter is more relationship orientated and educational. The reason that some time has been spent on these therapies is that whilst they are typically applied with clinical justifications there is no reason that they should not be applied in a positive manner as well. Everyone can gain enormously from the "philosophy of life" espoused by the Stoic lineage.

From this one can turn to Stoic physics, and the relationship with pantheism in general and naturalistic pantheism in particular. The Stoics were fatalistic and deterministic. The universe is a single monist whole, which arises from the core principle of logos that is active and life-giving. It is dynamic, and the trajectory of reality unfolds before us where we are participants. These features mean the Stoics were both rationalists and empiricists. Whilst they would, as the context of the time demanded, often associate "God" with "Zeus", it was not a transcendent omniscient being, but rather an immanent divinity that is part of nature and is nature. Whether that was a personal force is a matter of some discussion. The founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium, remarked: "Why, then, seeing that the universe gives birth to beings that are animate and wise, should it not be considered animate and wise itself?", Chrysippus argued that "the universe itself is God and the universal outpouring of its soul". Marcus Aurealis summarised the monist, dynamic, and pantheist perspectives when he wrote: "All things are implicated with one another, and the bond is holy... For there is one universe made up of all things, and one god who pervades all things, and one substance, and one law, and one reason"

More contemporary pantheism is largely deriving from the Stoics among others (e.g., the Advaita Vedanta, the more secular and practical sides of Buddhism, panentheistic Sufi orders), but perhaps none more so than Giordano Bruno, Baruch Spinoza, Albert Einstein, and Carl Sagan. Instead of a personal God, the pantheist sees nature as being divine and holy, but not a person as such. Instead of divinity being transcendent, it is immanent. Ibn al-'Arabi, made the comment "The existence of all created things is His existence" and Spinoza was equally blunt: "Whether we say ... that all things happen according to the laws of nature, or are ordered by the decree and direction of God, we say the same thing."

The opportunity is taken here to discuss the pantheistic and Stoic determinism with the notion of free will. The Stoics definitely had a compatibilist approach here, taking human responsibility seriously. Essentially the alleged argument is a pseudo-problem because we lack a privileged position to make an absolute evaluation, and in any case, for on the basis of pragmatic consideration we certainly seem to have the capacity to change ourselves and we have will over our actions. Perhaps we freely choose to be determinists, or we are determined to choose free will; thus are the beginnings of a viciously circular infinite regression. The debate is a spurious problem that cannot be properly answered with certainty - but rather the erroneous parts must be discarded. For the Stoics, the erroneous part would be to mistreat others or avoid participation in society - even when we are confronted with the most despicable of people. As Marcus Aurelias' famous comment: "When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can't tell good from evil."

The Stoics sincerely associated living in accordance to nature to mean engaging in righteous behavious. "We are all made for mutual assistance", wrote Marcus Aurealis. Whilst this may seem to be a naturalistic fallacy, the argument is presented quite strongly; even from linguistic philosophy alone, we realise the enormous degree that even our own consciousness (and this should be obvious by breaking down the word itself, con scientia) is dependent inaccuracy to mutually shared symbolic values. Thus acts of social solidarity become a non-supernatural source of morality. Shared natural resources, mutual action based on informed consent, reciprocal respect for individual and civil rights, and individual virtue in expression, again citing Marcus "If it is not right, do not do it, if it is not true, do not say it." - all of these are components to "goodness" without appeals to a transcendent personal divinity.

This brings us to the question of effective altruism. We live in a world where the economic system hardly fits the Stoic conception of what is good or just. This is an area where it seems the Peripatetics arguments against the Stoics on this matter had some justification. They, led by Aristotle, suggested that some external goods were necessary for virtue and control, whereas the Stoics argued for virtue as the path to eudaimonia alone. But what sort of external goods? Here I must quote at length from the conclusion of a previous presentation: "The Continuum of 'Needs' and 'Wants'":

"... ensure that the physical needs are met, for they are a constraint upon any further action. This includes food, water, medicines, clothing and housing. Then there is the satisfaction of utilities; those things that are partially needs, because they provide comfort, but also partially wants, as they provide the opportunity for an expression of the self. Increasingly, the emphasis should be on the latter as that provides meaning and authenticity, independent of consumer value; the item of jewellery provided by a loved one will always be of greater value than the one purchased for future investment. The choice and quantity of the things purchased or kept will be an expression of one's soul; the more they have, the less they are, the greater the price, the poorer their spirit. Eventually, and sooner rather than later, one should want for no more things in their life and dedicate their resources instead to virtuous deeds to enable others. To want that, at the end of the continuum, is to want to be become an actualised person."

This brings up to the philosophy of life question, or more properly psychology, with reference to the Stoic fork. Individually, we know that an end to poverty, preventable illness, the lack of the necessities of life, and an end to suffering for human and non-human life is desirable, but an individual cannot do this themselves. What we can control is our advocacy for welfare, our work and actions, our charitable acts and deeds, and so forth. And this should be conducted with a view to the most effective and impartial action. From this one looks to the role of utilitarianism, itself derived from the Epicurean school which was often in conflict with the Stoics.

But an outwardly-focussed, and social utilitarianism does suggest making some careful considerations of how time, resources, and money are best spent to alleviate suffering, a project initiated by Australian ethicist Peter Singer, until the title of "Effective Altruism" which through "using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis". This includes doing the calculation across various charities on which provides the most beneficial outcome per dollar spent. Immediately one can see how this is related to the Stoic and cognitive behaviour lineage of being motivated by altruistic feelings, applying reason and mindful consideration to those feelings, and committing to act on them. Some pessimistic psychologists, such as Alan Jern argue that effective altruism would work, but doesn't catch on because people act according to primarily due to emotional biases (such as who is closest to them) rather than from careful consideration of those feelings where everyone is treated equally whether you know them or not. This is probably not a fatal blow to effective altruism but it does, again, raise the issue of how much of our actions are dominated by emotions without consideration - and that is something that applies not just to how we engage in charitable acts but in the whole range of behaviour of how we treat each other and, for that matter, other sentients beings. The classic Stoic question thus remains; are we capable of accepting our emotional energies with rational consideration and applying the resulting energy to virtuous acts? That is probably the most important question for all of us.

Presentation to The Sea of Faith in Australia, Melbourne, April 21st 2022

"Blue Stoic" art by Gabe Weis

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