Stoicism and “Truth”

Philosopher of science Imre Lakatos

By Dr. Massimo Pigliucci / 05.24.2017
Professor of Philosophy
City University of New York

I recently wrote about the remarkable similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism, referring to a recent book by Bob Wright, Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. With all due respect to Bob, and acknowledging (from experience) that authors don’t actually have full control of the titles of their books, I maintain that to ask the question of whether a philosophy (be that Buddhism, Stoicism, or whatever) is “true” is, in part, a category mistake. But that does not, in fact, mean that modern scientific evidence is entirely irrelevant to the practice of said philosophy. Let me explain.

A category mistake is a situation where someone is attempting to apply a particular criterion to something to which that criterion is irrelevant or inappropriate. For instance, if I were to ask “what is the color of triangles?” that may sound deep, but it’s actually nonsense (what philosopher Dan Dennett calls a “deepity”). That’s because triangles are geometrical figures, and they are characterized by things like number of sides, angles, lengths, and so forth. But not colors (though individual instances of triangles may, of course, be colored).

The classic case of a category mistake is given by philosopher Gilbert Ryle, in his The Concept of Mind (1949), where he introduced the idea: consider someone who is visiting Oxford University. The guy, upon viewing the various colleges and the library, inquires “But where is the University?” The visitor’s mistake is presuming that a University is part of the category “units of physical infrastructure” rather than that of an “institution.”

So when someone asks whether Buddhism or Stoicism are “true” I think they are making a category mistake. Philosophies of life cannot be true in the sense of corresponding to some sort of reality out there, like the fact that the Sun is a star of a given type and surface temperature, or that water boils at 100C. Rather, philosophies of life are frameworks to orient one’s existence and navigate it in a way that is satisfying to the practitioner. Which means that one cannot even sensibly ask whether Buddhism or Stoicism “work.” The proper question, rather, is does Stoicism (or Buddhism) work for you?

Another proper question one can ask about a philosophy is whether it is coherent, i.e., (more or less) internally consistent. Or whether its precepts are clear, instead of being muddled. And so forth. Coherence, clarity, and individual usefulness are criteria properly applied to philosophies of life, just like number of sides, angles, and lengths are proper characteristics of geometrical figures. But truth, in this case, is not a proper category, it’s more like color for triangles.

Nevertheless, philosophies like Stoicism and Buddhism also make more limited claims about specific practices. For instance, meditation for Buddhists, keeping a philosophical diary for Stoics, and so forth. These claims are empirical in nature, and are therefore at least potentially subject to systematic or scientific inquiry. That, I surmise, is the meaning of Wright’s book title.

(For the purposes of this discussion, “empirical” is taken to be broader than scientific, since it includes personal experience, for instance, while scientific means done systematically, according to the methods of whatever science is germane, like psychology, biology, and so forth. My knowledge that I need to take the Q train to get from my apartment to Time Square is definitely empirical, but it would be a bit too much to label it “scientific.”)

Interestingly, even if one or more particular practices within a given philosophy were shown not to work, that would not invalidate the philosophy within which such practices are situated. The Dalai Lama famously said that if science comes up with something that contradicts a Buddhist doctrine, Buddhism will have to change. Notice the use of the word “change,” not “be abandoned.” How come?

Help may come here from an unlikely source: philosopher of science and mathematics Imre Lakatos, a student of Karl Popper. Allow me a brief detour into philosophy of science, I promise it will pay off.

Popper had arrived at the conclusion that scientific theories cannot possibly be proven true, because there is always a chance that — while the theory has so far withstood various empirical tests — it will fail a new one tomorrow. Indeed, the history of science tells us precisely that: Newton’s mechanics was considered true, until it failed to describe the orbit of the planet Mercury and was replaced by Einstein’s General Relativity. The latter is already known not to be true, because in certain areas of application it provides predictions that contradict those of quantum mechanics. And so forth.

Popper then thought that science makes progress not by arriving at true theories (it manifestly doesn’t), but rather by progressively eliminating false ones. If a theory fails a given test then we know it is not true, and it can safely be discarded.

Except that things don’t work that way either. For instance, the Copernican theory in astronomy abysmally failed, initially, to account for the actual positions of the planets in the sky. In fact, it wasn’t doing any better than its rival, the long established Ptolemaic system. And yet, astronomers like Galileo believed Copernicus was much closer to the truth than Ptolemy, and kept the theory alive. Until Kepler had a eureka! moment, realizing that if planetary orbits were elliptical, and not circular as assumed by Copernicus, everything would fall into place, with the theory now providing a very good approximation of observable planetary positions. But Popper would have rejected the Copernican system, because it had been falsified by observation for decades.

Okay, said Lakatos, if scientific theories — strictly speaking — cannot be shown to be true, and cannot be shown to be false, how does then science make progress? By producing research programs. A research program is a body of theory (the “core”), plus a number of ancillary notions (the “protective belt”) that bridge the gap between the theory and the empirical world. For instance, the core of the Copernican theory is the idea that the Sun, and not the Earth, is located near the center of the solar system. But the further idea that planetary orbits are circular is part of the protective belt. What Kepler did was to retain the core and change the belt, substituting ellipses for circles, and thus making the core empirical functional.

Lakatos thought that research programs aren’t “true” or “false” (that would be another category mistake), but rather “progressive” or “degenerative.” A progressive research program is one that keeps producing new results that are useful to scientists. A degenerative one, by contrast, doesn’t yield new insights, and in fact it needs constant fixing and tweaking, until eventually it is abandoned because no longer useful. That’s exactly what happened to the Ptolemaic system, where the tweaks came in the form of an increasing, embarrassingly high number of “epicycles” (basically, sub-orbits used to artificially improve the align between theory and observations). Indeed, the word epicycle nowadays has come more broadly mean the introduction of baroque and artificial notions in order to save a pet theory. If you need epicycles you are very likely on the wrong path.

Back to philosophy, then. The suggestion I want to make is that philosophies of life are, in a sense, like scientific research programs: they too are constituted of a “core” and a “protective belt.” The core is made of the fundamental precepts of that philosophy, without which it would not be recognizable as such. The protective belt is constituted of ancillary notions that are not as crucial, as well as of a series of practices. The core is not really open to empirical verification, but is rather assessed in terms of internal coherence and usefulness to the practitioner. The belt, by contrast, is open and revisable, partially in light of empirical or scientific evidence.

This means that philosophies can (and do) evolve by way of dynamically adjusting their protective belts in response to human experience and understanding. Whether they become “progressive” or “degenerate,” to use Lakatos’ terminology, depends on whether they are useful to a sufficient number of people or not.

If you have followed me so far, then the next question is: what do the core and belt of Stoicism consist of? Opinions, I’m sure, will vary, but here is a first pass:

Stoicism’s core

(i) Virtue is the chief good, i.e., the thing in life you do not trade anything with. Everything else is a preferred or dispreferred indifferent.

“The matter can be imparted quickly and in very few words: ‘Virtue is the only good; at any rate there is no good without virtue; and virtue itself is situated in our nobler part, that is, the rational part.’ And what will this virtue be? A true and never-swerving judgment.” (Seneca, Letter LXXI. On the Supreme Good, 32)

(ii) The dichotomy of control is the proper way to look at world, in order to make a distinction between what is and is not up to us, and thus focus our energy on the first and ignore the second.

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion, 1.1)

(iii) Cosmopolitanism: regardless of social status, geographical or ethnic origin, and so forth, all human beings are to be treated fairly, and indeed the point of a human life is to be of service to society. (This is related to another famous Stoic motto: live according to nature, i.e., by applying reason to social living.)

“Labor not as one who is wretched, nor yet as one who would be pitied or admired; but direct your will to one thing only: to act or not to act as social reason requires.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, IX.12)

(iv) Cause and Effect: while this is sometimes understood as Stoic determinism, I’ve argued that from a modern perspective talk of determinism is a bit of a red herring (because if it turns out that quantum mechanics confirms the existence of truly random events at the fundamental level, cause and effect still hold at the macroscopic level of human actions, even if the universe were strictly speaking non-deterministic). The important point is that everything happens because of previous causes. See the metaphor of Chrysippus’ cylinder:

“‘In the same way therefore,’ he says, ‘as a person who has pushed a roller forward has given it a beginning of motion, but has not given it the capacity to roll, so a sense-presentation when it impinges on the will, it is true impresses and as it were seals its appearance on the mind, but the act of assent will be in our power, and as we said in the case of the roller, though given a push from without, as to the rest will move by its own force and nature.” (Cicero, De Fato, 43)

(v) Materialism: the Stoics thought that everything is made of matter. Of course, modern science may understand something quite different by “matter” then they did, but the important point is that things are made of stuff, there are no spooky entities, no mind-matter dualism, and so forth.

“The primary matter [the Stoics] make the substratum of all things: so Chrysippus in the first book of his Physics, and Zeno. By matter is meant that out of which anything whatsoever is produced.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.150)

Stoicism’s protective belt

The protective belt is not as easy to define as the core, because it is both much larger and dynamic. Roughly, it can be divided into two major categories: theoretical and practical, with the theoretical component subject to critical analysis on the basis of coherence and logic, and the practical component subject to critical analysis based on usefulness and empirical evidence.

Part of the theoretical belt, for instance, is the idea of a providential universe, which the ancient Stoics believed in (they were pantheists), and yet which even they allowed was not strictly necessary for ethics:

“Either there is a fatal necessity and invincible order, or a kind Providence, or a confusion without a purpose and without a director. If then there is an invincible necessity, why do you resist? But if there is a Providence that allows itself to be propitiated, make yourself worthy of the help of the divinity. But if there is a confusion without a governor, be content that in such a tempest you have yourself a certain ruling intelligence.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, XII.14)

Some of the Stoics’ so-called “paradoxical” ideas fall into this category too: for instance, the notion that virtue is an all-or-nothing (and that, therefore, all bad actions are equally bad), as expressed in the famous drowning man metaphor:

“For just as a drowning man is no more able to breathe if he be not far from the surface of the water, so that he might at any moment emerge, than if he were actually at the bottom already. … Similarly a man that has made some progress towards the state of virtue is none the less in misery than he that has made no progress at all.” (Cicero, De Finibus, IV.48)

On the empirical side, there are all the Stoic techniques, which have been validated, modified and expanded by modern disciplines like rational emotive behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. There is a very in-depth recent article in the New York Times on how to deal with stress (really, life in general) on the basis of modern empirical evidence. It could have been written almost entirely out of quotations from Seneca, Musonius, Epictetus, and Marcus. For instance:

* Changing your perception of a stressful situation helps you cope with it, just like Epictetus said:

“It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.” (Enchiridion, 5)

* Practicing stress inoculates you against it, for example by reflecting on what to expect and rehashing a difficult situation ahead of time:

“Everyone approaches courageously a danger which he has prepared himself to meet long before, and withstands even hardships if he has previously practiced how to meet them. But, contrariwise, the unprepared are panic-stricken even at the most trifling things. We must see to it that nothing shall come upon us unforeseen.” (Seneca, Letter CVII. On Obedience to the Universal Will, 3)

* Practicing resilience helps coping with stress, for instance by way of exercises in self-deprivation:

“‘Bad bread!’ you say. But just wait for it; it will become good. Hunger will make even such bread delicate and of the finest flavor.” (Seneca, Letter CXXIII. On the Conflict Between Pleasure and Virtue, 2)

* Finding a role model gives you courage and inspiration:

“Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.” (Letters to Lucilius, XI, On the Blush of Modesty, 10)

* Daily journaling is an empirically proven way to help you reflect on issues and better prepare to deal with them:

“The spirit ought to be brought up for examination daily. It was the custom of Sextius when the day was over, and he had betaken himself to rest, to inquire of his spirit: “What bad habit of yours have you cured to-day? What vice have you checked? In what respect are you better?” Anger will cease, and become more gentle, if it knows that every day it will have to appear before the judgment seat.” (Seneca, On Anger, III.36)

* Eating well and in a mindful way is good for your mind, not just your body:

“When it comes to food, responsible people favor what is easy to obtain over what is difficult, what involves no trouble over what does, and what is available over what isn’t.” (Musonius Rufus, Lecture 18B.8)

* Good friends and relations are an important source of support and happiness:

“Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself.” (Seneca, Letter III. On True and False Friendship, 2)

* Helping other people is good for your own mental wellbeing:

“The universal nature has made rational animals for the sake of one another to help one another according to their deserts, but in no way to injure one another.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, IX.1)

The list could go on and on, but you get the gist. Of course, the Stoics do all the above not just because it makes their own life better (practical outcome), but because it is the right thing to do for a social animal (ethical precept). Then again, for them there is no sharp distinction between one’s own wellbeing and that of everyone else, because of universal cause and effect and the notion of cosmopolitanism. Every time I make the world better by my actions I don’t help just other people, I help myself as well.

So when people ask if Stoicism (or Buddhism, or Christianity) is “true” the answer is: it depends on what you mean. If you are referring to the core principles, then you are committing a category mistake: core doctrines are not true or false, they are coherent or incoherent, useful or not. If they are coherent and useful, the philosophy progresses, in the Lakatosian sense; if not, it degenerates. But if you are talking about the protective belt, then the theoretical components are subject to the same sort of (philosophical) analysis at the core, and the practical ones can usefully be confronted with empirical and scientific evidence. Being aware of the distinction between a philosophy’s core and belt would surely save us a lot of endless discussions about whether something or someone is “truly” Stoic (or Buddhist, or Christian) or not.