Monday, October 1, 2012

Stoicism : Human freedom and determinism (part two)

Part One [link] began answering the charge of inconsistency between Stoic character development and Stoic determinism. It showed the source of the confusion was the superficial similarity of modern soft determinism and the Stoic practice of distinguishing between 'what is in our power and what is not' .

In this post I will outline the Stoic position on human autonomy, freedom and determinism.

In classical Greece autonomy was defined as 'one who gives oneself their own law'. Heteronomous is being 'subject to an external law'. The key question is: are autonomous endeavors simply determinate products of our external natural circumstances (both generic and environmental)?. Perhaps surprisingly, Stoics answer 'No'.

Stoics assert that agency defines autonomy and that every exercise of agency is self-transformative because it captures a set of data and forms it into something new. Moreover when the agency is conscious of itself, it operates transformatively upon itself, transforming everything it is given to work with. We are influenced by heteronomous impressions such as culture, childhood learning, external conditioning etc that once accepted (ideally through rational examination but just as likely subliminal absorbed) agency converts the heteronymous ends into autonomous ends. How those autonomous ends are achieved, or not achieved, is dependent upon individual agency. Moreover, Stoics hold that choice and deliberation are outcomes of practical reasoning, the strength of which depends upon individual agency, and are therefore also deterministic.

Consider the implications of this :

1) Stoicism does not equate to fatalism. Fatalism is the belief that events will happen no matter what, regardless of the antecedent events. Antecedent events contain conditionals: if X and Y, but not Z then X etc.

2) Free Will defined as indeterminism is just categorical fatalism: events happen independent of the antecedent events. If free will includes choice and deliberation, then we back to determinism because deliberation requires practical reasoning, which requires logic.

We now have enough definitions and background knowledge to attempt an argument :

1) All living creatures process the dual facility of impulse and impression, that is, the facility of responding to the stimulus (see: part 1). In addition human beings can evaluate the truth-value of impressions. This is called Assent and occurs before the impulse (the desire or response to external stimulus). To Assent (to decide or to deliberate) is deterministic and is either true or false, accepted or rejected. There is no freedom to choose between falsehood and truth. Together Assent, Impulse and Impressions form the stoic rather materialistic understanding of the human mind.

"Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them" - Epictetus

2) Human agency is deterministic yet self-transformative. As agency is exercised, it becomes changed by the experience. Therefore human agency is not fixed but can be changed and altered within a deterministic framework. Therefore how human agency reacts to external events can be changed and altered.

3) Through the exercise of stoic philosophy, the human mind can be trained like the human body. The minds facility of Assent becomes stronger through active use and greater wisdom. Falsehoods are rejected and the desire for what is harmful or false is never activated.

" Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of men's desires, but by the removal of desire" - Epictetus

4) The process of 3) is deterministic and operates circulary over time until it becomes habit and effortless. Therefore Stoicism differs from the soft determinism which asserts humans have freedom of choice between available options. To the Stoic the outcome is determined but self-transformative. Our human freedom therefore lives in forgetting the past, accepting the present and training our mind for the future.

5) Stoicism is not fatalistic because fatalism does not take into account the conditional antecedents.

Therefore humans may alter their character within a hard deterministic framework.

Consider the example of quitting smoking. Whether or not I smoke is determined by various complex factors:  how tired I am, my cravings, work stress and so on. Under soft determinism, if I smoke then I have weak will. Under Stoicism, if I smoke then I had no choice but to smoke. However the action is self-transformative in that I am now aware of the deterministic impressions that resulted in my smoking and through this awareness my mind -  my assent - will become stronger so the impulse to smoke will, eventually, never arise in this situation again. The key thing is to reconcile myself to the fact that I did indeed smoke against my 'will' and thus remove the negative emotion of guilt.

 Does the argument work ? Can the Stoics assert human freedom within a hard deterministic framework ?

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