Thursday, September 27, 2012

Stoicism : Human freedom and determinism (part one)

Stoicism is persistently charged with holding contradictory views of determinism and human freedom :-
Firstly, Stoics believe that everything in life is predetermined by a divine being or God or fate; thus everything ranging from the decision to go to the toilet, or to go to the park, or thinking about food during a meeting or to murder a person are all actions or events which had already peen predestined by some divine being. Therefore, if these events were destined to occur, then there is nothing which can be done to alter them. Thus, humans are not 'free' but rather chained to a destiny created by a divine plan. This is inconsistent with the stoic view as they believe that a person can alter their character. According to stoicism, a person can learn to become indifferent to things which had once been an important aspect of their lives. Thus, the stoics are implying, that humans are free to alter their character; thus man is both free and not free. If we accept the latter then it is pointless to tell a person to change ones character, because if a character is already predetermined then how can it be changed? Contrary to this, if we are free to alter our characters then the whole theory that everything is predetermined must be false!![Link]

The classical Stoic conceptions of human agency, human freedom and determinism are quite unusual to the modern ear because our culture is steeped of notions of self-autonomy and self-construction (“Who do you want to be today?”). I think most confusion arises because Stoicism is conflated with modern soft determinism.

Soft-determinism holds that actions caused by our choices and our desires are within our power to control, even within a broadly deterministic framework. Therefore by distinguishing between what is and what is not within our power, human agents can control their lives through choices made between freely available alternatives. Freedom in this sense means freedom to act. We should learn to ‘let go’ of that we cannot control for greater happiness and peace of mind.

Stoicism appears similar but it is quite different. The Stoics distinguished between human action (what is in our power) from happenings in terms of a causal structure in which assent and impulse are the most important elements. Impulse is a desire, the response to sensory stimulation (which Stoics call Impressions). All living creatures process the dual facility of impulse and impression, that is, the facility of responding to the external world. Assent, meaning ‘go along with’ or ‘to commit oneself’ is evaluating the truth-value of impressions. It is a facility of the mind that deals with both cognitive powers and character.
Man, you have a capacity for decision which is by nature unconstrained and unimpeded … I will prove this to you first under the heading Assent. Can anyone prevent you from inclining to what is true? No one can. Can anyone compel you to accept what is false ? No one at all. Don’t you see in this region you have capacity for decision that is unconstrained, unimpeded and unobstructed? - Epictetus’ 

Perhaps strangely  the Stoics argued impulse will follow assent, that is, they see cognitive facility as a mediating factor between stimulation (impressions) and impulse (desire). If the mind declines to assent, the impulse remains inactive. This may sound overly rational but remember willpower and choice are alien to Stoicism. Assent is both conscious and unconscious. Impressions are evaluated and if found false, we will not desire them. “Can anyone compel you to accept what is false? No one at all”. It is the difference between unthinkingly accepting advertising and examining the advertisers tricks. Advertising has a deterministic effect in that its entire purpose is promoting desire for certain products and services. But if we pick it apart, understand its history, its effects, how it works, and we then recognize its falsehood and the impulses are controlled. Indeed a large section of advertising is focused on neurobiological and psychological research to keep ahead of the audience. 

Differences between soft determinism and Stoicism are now starting to emerge. Soft determinism speaks in terms of willpower, choice and freedom. Stoicism speaks of impulse and assent. 

Next we need to examine the scope of human agency in a hard deterministic framework and why Stoics believed human character may be trained without reference to choices or freedom.

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