What is and is not in our power, part II

(Part I of this essay can be found here.)

My colleague and critic of Stoicism Christian Coseru’s second major issue with Stoicism concerns the dichotomy of control. Like many, he thinks that a dichotomy is too strict (after all, aren’t there things we can influence, though only partially?) and that it is not in sync, again, with modern research in cognitive science (which has uncovered that much of our thinking takes place below the conscious level). He is incorrect on both points. 

He states: “[M]y opinions reflect ways of seeing and habits of mind that I can reflect on, but also whose underlying mechanisms I don’t fully understand, let alone control. Similarly, while I may not be able to control the weather, my ability to find shelter, build a campfire, or adjust the thermostat represent ways in which I can wrest some measure of control over my immediate environment.” There are two entirely separate points here, misleadingly connected by the “similarly” in between. First, Coseru acknowledges that we have a capacity to reflect on our values, judgments, and habits. He immediately adds, though, that we are unaware of the underlying (presumably, neurological) mechanisms. This reference to neurological mechanisms is a bit of a distraction. I may not be aware, for instance, of the physiological mechanisms underlying my breathing, and yet I can control it. Even better, I don’t need to know anything about how muscles and connected neurons work in order to be able to raise my arm. 

The question is thus whether we can alter our judgments and opinions by way of sustained critical reflection or not, independently of which neuro-biological mechanisms make such alteration possible. The answer to that question is clearly, “Yes.” Not all the time, and not necessarily in a single sitting, but the existence (and empirical success) of cognitive behavioral therapy—which is based on Stoic principles—clearly shows that of course we can alter our thoughts and feelings about things. 

The basic notion is that feelings (or, more properly, emotions) have a cognitive component, as discussed in the previous section. We can address and alter that component by way of critical reflection on whatever issue happens to be at hand (a reflection that may be aided by others, including a therapist). This then leads to behavioral changes that are initially deliberate and that gradually become second nature. The behavioral changes, constantly reinforced by reflection at the cognitive level, eventually lead to the alteration of the emotion itself. In this way, people can and do learn to overcome phobias, depression, and addictions (again, not one hundred percent of the time; this is science, not magic). The Stoic approach applies the same techniques not just to pathologies or extreme behaviors, but to everything of importance that affects the moral dimension of our lives. 

While it is fashionable, in this context, to bring up Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s concept of “thinking fast and slow,” these researchers have not shown that we are incapable of altering our thoughts in a deliberate fashion, or that all of our thinking is subconscious, but rather that the human brain constantly functions in one of two modes: one fast and subconscious, the other slow and deliberate. This is probably adaptive: we wouldn’t want to have to think carefully about everything that we do. There isn’t enough time nor brain resources to do so and still live our lives (or, in some cases, simply survive). The distinguishing characteristic of the human species is precisely that we can, if need be, and if time and resources allow it, slow down and consider more carefully what we are doing, why, and how. If we deny this, it isn’t just Stoicism that runs into a problem, but our understanding of any complex human activity, including writing philosophical (or scientific) papers. 

It is the second part in the above quotation that is most revealing, though, as Coseru falls into a classic misunderstanding of the dichotomy of control. Do we really want to defend the notion that the ancient Stoics, let alone modern ones, don’t know that seeking shelter from bad weather is an effective way to avoid or minimize its consequences? Surely, Epictetus was aware of such basic precautions of ordinary human life. Why, then, did he so blatantly ignore them? 

The dichotomy of control is universally read as making a distinction between things we completely control and those we don’t completely control. Clearly, the weather falls squarely under the latter, even if we are equipped with umbrellas, thermostats, and so forth. (Incidentally, the availability of such devices is also not under our complete control, as anyone who found himself in the middle of a sudden thunderstorm with no umbrella vendor in sight can readily testify.) 

It is important to understand the reason why the Stoics make such a sharp distinction. It is perhaps best explained, again, by Epictetus: 

“If you have the right idea about what really belongs to you and what does not, you will never be subject to force or hindrance, you will never blame or criticize anyone, and everything you do will be done willingly.” (Enchiridion 1.3) 

That is, if we focus on what we completely control, then our eudaimonia is, in an important sense, entirely up to us. Nobody can force us to change our judgments, not even by pointing a gun to our head. If we find ourselves in such a predicament, we may prudently pretend that we changed our mind, but we haven’t. We have simply decided that to insist on putting forth our opinion when our life is threatened by violence may not be the best course of action. To attempt to undermine Stoicism by suggesting that we should think in terms of a trichotomy (what we control, what we influence, and what we don’t control) misses the point by a wide mark. Still, one could marshal the evidence that our judgments are affected by cognitive biases of which we are not aware or influenced by factors such as our ideological commitments, other people’s opinions, and even corporate advertisement. 

This is all true, of course, but “influenced” doesn’t mean determined. Ultimately, the buck stops with us. I may be led by others’ opinions to think that racism is a good thing, but if I “assent,” as the Stoics say, to such a notion, I am the racist. The Stoics were aware, and refreshingly forgiving, of the fact that people arrive at incorrect conclusions about how to act in the world. Importantly, though, people can always be corrected, because we always have the potential to change our mind and do the right thing: 

“Consider that you also do many things wrong, and that you are a man like others; and even if you do abstain from certain faults, still you have the disposition to commit them, though either through cowardice, or concern about reputation, or some such mean motive, you abstain from such faults. … If you are able, correct by teaching those who do wrong; but if you cannot, remember that indulgence is given to you for this purpose.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations XI.18 and IX.11) 

Even cognitive biases, as strong and subtle as they may be, are certainly not an insuperable obstacle. Christian Miller provides evidence, for instance, that the negative consequences of the bystander effect can be overcome by knowledge of the effect combined with self- reflection. The “bystander effect” refers to situations where someone is in distress but we tend not to act if there are other inactive people around us, likely because we don’t want to misread the situation and embarrass ourselves. One study discussed by Miller shows that people help in only 27% of the cases when the bystander effect is at play. However, if they are educated beforehand about the effect and if they pay attention to the situations they are in, the helpful response jumps to 67%. Teach those who do wrong, indeed. 

It may well be that, as Coseru says, “the findings of contemporary cognitive science seem . . . to limit the range of things that are . . . ‘up to us,’” but my reading of the relevant scientific literature is that they don’t restrict it in ways that undermine Stoicism. Unless, again, one simply gives up on the notion of human agency altogether, which does not seem to be what Coseru is suggesting. Of course, a full discussion of human agency, moral responsibility, and so forth, is well beyond the scope of the current article, but I think—with Wilfrid Sellars—that talk of values and prescriptive judgments is both unavoidable in a human society and uneliminable by any kind of scientific advance. For example, see his concept of philosophizing as the development of a “stereoscopic vision,” taking on simultaneously the scientific and manifest images of the world. 

Final Thoughts: Stoicism Evolving

Coseru raises a number of other points in his critique, for instance, that the “new sciences of human nature . . . cannot tell us why we find it reasonable to care for things seemingly beyond our control, such as the health of the environment, far-away political conflicts, or the welfare of seniors.” He seems to think that this is a problem for Stoicism, without considering that Stoic virtue cannot be exercised on its own, outside of specific contexts. Stoics care about the sort of things Coseru lists because we think that we should be concerned with the welfare of others, and indeed of the entire human cosmopolis. The environment, conflicts nearby or far away, and the welfare of seniors (and the rights of women, minorities, and so forth) are very much to the point. 

We are told that “The starting point for Stoic ethics may have been the concept of ‘familiarization' (oikeiôsis), which captures the sense of self-preservation and sociability that is indispensable to living well. It should be obvious that this capacity to be at home in the world, which for the Stoic is not merely a function of survival and sociability, but a guiding principle of reasoned agency, cannot be easily reconciled, if at all, with the disenchanting picture of the world advanced by modern science.” But why not, exactly? Here, Coseru not only does not advance any argument, limiting himself to stating his opinion as if it were factual, but plainly contradicts himself. Just a few paragraphs earlier he attempted to convince his readers that it is a limitation of Stoic philosophy that it, allegedly, has no tools to trigger concern for a variety of moral issues. He now identifies that tool, the process of oikeiôsis, but dismisses it as somehow incompatible with the “disenchanting” view of the world that emerges from science. Which is it? And why is the scientific image of the world disenchanting anyway? It isn’t the business of science to tell us about values, which squarely belong to the manifest image. We are perfectly free to accept scientific findings (“follow the facts,” as Larry Becker puts it) and still think that we have a duty to improve the human cosmopolis. We are just going to exercise that duty without a woolly eyed view of things. 

Ultimately, however, Coseru has a point, and it is an important one. Stoicism originated in the fourth century B.C.E., and quite a bit has happened both in philosophy and especially in science since then. It is necessary for the philosophy to evolve accordingly, adjusting things, or even rejecting some notions, in order to stay current and useful. That was precisely Becker’s project in A New Stoicism; it was also the motivation that led me to write my initial article, which, after all, was entitled “Toward the Fifth Stoa,” not “Let’s Go Back to the First Stoa” (see here and here). 

This kind of project, it turns out, was an integral part of Stoicism from the beginning. Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoa, disagreed on a number of points with Cleanthes, the second head. Posidonius, from the middle Stoa, developed a reputation for eclecticism when compared to his predecessors. Most importantly, the Stoics themselves have explicitly embraced the spirit in which this exchange between myself, Christian Coseru, and Brian Johnson has been conducted: 

“Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road—but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come.” (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, XXXIII.11)
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