On Metaphysics

A conversation with a friend of mine urges me to write up a summary of Stoic philosophy, and also to mention any contributions of my own to the Stoa.

I differ from my brother Stoics in that I am not a monotheist; I do not believe that a Pronia (forethought) or Nous (mind) governs the universe; I do not worship that stars or regard all men as literally the sons of God. Such an hypothesis is not necessary for the theory. I do however, believe that rational principles govern nature, including human nature, and that there are laws of morality, which are objective and intelligible objects, visible to the mind of any man who follows rational thought to its correct conclusions; I do believe that all men deserve to be treated with the dignity that we would naturally award a son of God, and that the spark of reason, which burns in the soul of every man, is as near to a divine thing as is ever likely to appear in the cosmos, and can be treated as divine for all practical purposes.

Let me begin with a breif article on Metaphysics:

Stoicism is lamentably deficient in metaphysics, a deficiency that can be corrected with one simple argument: in any rational discussion on a philosophical topic, examine the assumptions that would have to be the case in order for the discussion itself to be rational.

The philosopher’s purpose is to discover the truth of the matter, uncover his errors, admit them, and correct them, in order that he may know the nature of things and live accordingly. He uses reason for this purpose because no other tool is available to the human mind. A person engaged in a philosophical discussion for some other purpose is not doing philosophy properly so called.

Whether the fundamental assumptions on which the philosopher’s quest is based would appear true or false to a superhuman mind, nonetheless, as far as any given rational discussion is concerned, any assumptions that cannot be questioned without self-contradiction are beyond the scope of rational discussion; therefore such assumptions are invulnerable to rational question, and are therefore true within the context of human existence. They are true categorically.

The metaphysical postulates of Stoicism are that truth is true; that logic is valid; and that human reason is sufficient to reach at last some true and valid propositions; that other people exist, with minds not so different from our own to preclude at least some understanding; that external reality exists, that natural moral law exists, and at least some of the rules of natural moral law can be accepted or denied, acted upon or ignored, with no external or automatic compulsion. The fundamental implication here is that man has at least some ability to govern himself and domesticate his passions.

It is pointless to question whether there is such as thing as “truth”: for the statement, “there is no truth” if true, is false. A rational discussion cannot proceed unless it has truth as its object.

Likewise, it is pointless to question whether the laws of logic in the context of a rational discussion, since rational discussion cannot take place without assuming the laws of logic. Naturally, this statement admits of no formal proof: but if you deny it, you may, at the same time and in the same sense, accept it: and the discussion can proceed with no further objections on this head.

When one of his students challenged Epictetus, “Convince me logic is useful!” Epictetus answered, “Well, how should you like me to proceed? By demonstration? How will you know if I impose on you?” And when the student had no answer, Epictetus said, “So you see that you yourself must employ logic to discover even this, whether or not logic is useful.”

Likewise, a rational discussion cannot proceed if human reason is regarded as too flawed or biased to reach an intelligent and objective conclusion. Polylogism, under various forms, is the philosophy that says all conclusions of human reason are imposed upon them by racial, classical, or environmental nonhuman factors. A rational discussion cannot proceed if one party or both are no more than Dictaphones reciting meaningless word-sounds imprinted by nonhuman conditioning. Since, were all conclusions of human reason an outcome of nonhuman factors, the conclusions would have no truth-value, Polylogism is reduced to the previous case of denying that truth exists.

Likewise, a solipsist cannot have a rational discussion with any save himself.

Likewise, the proposition that there is no external reality, that all sense impressions are false, is not a conversation one can have with another, for not only would one be unable to see or hear, be seen or be heard, the written or spoken words of another, the conversation would have no subject matter.

Likewise, a moral code of some sort must be acknowledged before a rational discussion can occur. The parties to the discussion, if they are to receive the benefit that the discussion promises, must agree to try to conduct themselves with the character of rational philosophers, which means, to be intellectually honest, balanced in judgment, and modest and candid enough to examine and answer questions and challenges raised, and man enough to admit when they have been proven wrong.

While a philosopher might wish to debate with a hypocritical buffoon for some other non-philosophical purpose (such as for entertainment, or to study the psychology of dishonest men), nonetheless, the discussion itself will not be an honest discussion unless the parties in it are being honest; it will not be a rational discussion if the parties are not being rational.

It may be that, by accident, the hypocritical buffoon will pose a question whose depth the buffoon does not appreciate, and this will prove useful to the philosopher’s own internal discussion he has later with himself; or it may be that he hypocritical buffoon is honest and fair-minded during some parts of the discussion, touching some topics, and only sinks into sophistry and self-delusion during other part or touching other topics. Obviously, during those lucid moments when he adopts the character of a philosopher, the buffoon can receive some from the discussion that same benefit a philosopher hopes to receive: to prove his opinions, or else improve them.

Now, again, it may be the case that, to a superhuman mind, no conversation in this universe can have a truly philosophical character; it may be the case that all philosophical conversations are futile and all philosophers are deluded in their opinion that philosophical discussion can prove or improve an opinion. But, if so, this case can never be proved by rational discussion: therefore it is futile to discuss the case rationally.

Again, the proposition that men do not have a duty to be honest is one that cannot be discussed rationally, since the man who tells you so, is not necessarily being honest with you when he says it.

Whether or not this moral code is objective in the sense that it would appear to be so from the point of view of a superhuman mind, is irrelevant: if all parties to the discussion must by definition consent to a moral code before the discussion begins, as far as mortal men are concerned, the code is objective, in that they will never be able to conduct a rational discussion, to convince or be convinced by, any entity that does not ascribe to at least these minimums.

Again, the proposition that men have no free will in moral decisions, no internal ability to chose whether to be honest or not, is a proposition that cannot be discussed rationally, since the man who tells you so, either is automatically (like a Dictaphone) issuing word-noises, meaningless to him, whose truth he passes no judgment upon, or he has freely chosen to be dishonest about this issue: in either case, he cannot freely chose to be honest about the opinion that no man freely chooses to be honest about any opinions.

Again, one can certainly have a perfectly rational discussion on the topic of which topics can be discussed rationally and which cannot: but the idea that no topics whatsoever can be discussed rationally, is not an idea open to rational discussion. Likewise, a man who says that some things can be discussed honestly and some cannot be, must place the rational discussion where he says so in the former category. Likewise, a man who says that men have free will in some areas and not in others, must place the rational discussion where he says so in the former category.

So, no matter what the opinion of a superhuman mind might be on these issues, a rational discussion can only take place in the context of an agreed-upon assumption that at least some men are honest and rational, and at least some men chose freely to be so.

Finally, those to whom philosophy is a past-time or a game, may see no relation to the moral qualities that we call honesty, integrity, candor, balanced judgment, modesty and manliness, and these same qualities that are necessary preconditions for a rational discussion: but, if so, these light-hearted sophists are merely playing at or mocking what it is philosophers do, honest and grave philosophers.

Light-hearted sophists have the outward form and show of a philosopher, but never put the conclusions of their discussions into practical effect in their lives. To them, a rational discussion may have value as a game or past-time, and they may have enough candor and honesty to examine the questions raised without quibbling or ambiguity; and they may indeed be convinced on an intellectual level of their minds, but keep that level compartmentalized sufficiently from their practical daily life so as never to trouble them. An ethicist can debate fine points of right and wrong with his fellows at school, and then cheat at cards that evening, because he never imagines that anyone would seriously put into effect the conclusions of philosophy.

All one can say here is that such persons may be able to achieve the purpose of the rational discussion qua discussion, but miss the purpose entirely of such discussions, which is, namely, to study the nature of things so as to learn how best to live, and, having learned, to live as is befitting to nature of things.