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Science philosopher Massimo Pigliucci is serious about the ancient philosophy of stoicism?

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L'Image et le Pouvoir - Buste cuirassé de Marc Aurèle agé - 3.jpg
Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD) was a stoic/Pierre-Selim

Apparently. We sometimes follow philosopher Massimo Pigliucci’s blog, Scientia Salon. See, for example, Cosmologist Sean Carroll would retire falsifiability as a science idea. Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci defends it.

Stoicism was one of the more reasonable philosophies of ancient Greece, developed more widely perhaps in Rome; it stressed the importance of developing good character in societies where bad character was increasingly cool.

Pigliucci seems to have got really interested in the philosophy, on a trip to Greece. Here’s what he says:

Now, try for a minute to set aside your skeptical, secular 21st-century attitude and see how this idea can be translated into modern terms without incurring in all too easy a posteriori rationalization. Indeed, notice that what I’m about to suggest is most definitely not what I think the ancient Greco-Romans thought, but rather a reasonable update of their thinking given modern science and philosophy.

So, at bottom, and very crudely, the stripped down version of Stoic metaphysics may be said to consist (I’m not a Stoic scholar, so take it with a grain of salt [12]) of the following ideas:

a) The universe is organized according to rational principles (logos);

b) The world works in a deterministic way (fate);

c) There is a fundamental unity, or interconnectedness, of all things.

A modern rendition of the above would say that the universe is understandable in logics-mathematical terms (a), that it works according to general exceptionless laws (b), and that it is described by a single wavefunction, to use quantum mechanical terms.

More speculatively, of course, one could even say that Stoicism is compatible with (but doesn’t depend on) stronger ontological notions, such as mathematical Platonism [13]; more radical metaphysics, such as ontic structural realism [14]; and even highly speculative philosophical ideas like the simulation hypothesis [15] — about all of which, as readers of SciSal know, I maintain various degrees of skepticism coupled with an open interest.

Okay, this is a whistle stop. Pigliucci is just not going to be able to “update” ancient stoicism so as to conform to the demands of naturalist atheism. As one friend put it, naturalist atheism isn’t bottom up, it is bottom only.

No stoic thought that the mind was an illusion. But that’s the default position of naturalist neuroscience. No stoic thought that living an ethically noble life was a way of spreading his selfish genes either. (Well, Stoic, meet Evo Psych, who has a message that will certainly change your life if you accept it. You can forget all that noble Roman stuff … 😉 )

What Pigliucci may do, however, is resurrect rational atheism. The reason new atheism has become so unpopular (cf best-known new atheist and now public punching bag Richard Dawkins) is that it does not appear to provide a rational basis for behaving morally. Or even a rational basis for itself.

(Note: Whether the mind is an illusion is a separate question from whether the mind survives the body.)

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