Introduction

Welcome to Tim Harding’s blog of writings and talks about logic, rationality, philosophy and skepticism. There are also some reblogs of some of Tim’s favourite posts by other writers, plus some of his favourite quotations and videos This blog has a Facebook connection at The Logical Place.

There are over a thousand posts here about all sorts of topics – please have a good look around before leaving.

If you are looking for an article about the Birth of Experimental Science recently published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘Out of the Dark’, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about the Dark Ages recently published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘In the Dark’, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about the Traditional Chinese Medicine vs. Endangered Species recently published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘Bad Medicine’, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about the rejection of expertise published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘Who needs to Know?’, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about Charles Darwin published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘Darwin’s Missing Link“, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about the Astronomical Renaissance published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘Rebirth of the Universe‘, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about DNA and GM foods published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘The Good Oil‘, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about animal welfare published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘Creature Features‘, it is available here.

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What is logic?

The word ‘logic‘ is not easy to define, because it has slightly different meanings in various applications ranging from philosophy, to mathematics to computer science. In philosophy, logic’s main concern is with the validity or cogency of arguments. The essential difference between informal logic and formal logic is that informal logic uses natural language, whereas formal logic (also known as symbolic logic) is more complex and uses mathematical symbols to overcome the frequent ambiguity or imprecision of natural language.

So what is an argument? In everyday life, we use the word ‘argument’ to mean a verbal dispute or disagreement (which is actually a clash between two or more arguments put forward by different people). This is not the way this word is usually used in philosophical logic, where arguments are those statements a person makes in the attempt to convince someone of something, or present reasons for accepting a given conclusion. In this sense, an argument consist of statements or propositions, called its premises, from which a conclusion is claimed to follow (in the case of a deductive argument) or be inferred (in the case of an inductive argument). Deductive conclusions usually begin with a word like ‘therefore’, ‘thus’, ‘so’ or ‘it follows that’.

A good argument is one that has two virtues: good form and all true premises. Arguments can be either deductiveinductive  or abductive. A deductive argument with valid form and true premises is said to be sound. An inductive argument based on strong evidence is said to be cogent. The term ‘good argument’ covers all three of these types of arguments.

Deductive arguments

A valid argument is a deductive argument where the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises, because of the logical structure of the argument. That is, if the premises are true, then the conclusion must also be true. Conversely, an invalid argument is one where the conclusion does not logically follow from the premises. However, the validity or invalidity of arguments must be clearly distinguished from the truth or falsity of its premises. It is possible for the conclusion of a valid argument to be true, even though one or more of its premises are false. For example, consider the following argument:

Premise 1: Napoleon was German
Premise 2: All Germans are Europeans
Conclusion: Therefore, Napoleon was European

The conclusion that Napoleon was European is true, even though Premise 1 is false. This argument is valid because of its logical structure, not because its premises and conclusion are all true (which they are not). Even if the premises and conclusion were all true, it wouldn’t necessarily mean that the argument was valid. If an argument has true premises and its form is valid, then its conclusion must be true.

Deductive logic is essentially about consistency. The rules of logic are not arbitrary, like the rules for a game of chess. They exist to avoid internal contradictions within an argument. For example, if we have an argument with the following premises:

Premise 1: Napoleon was either German or French
Premise 2: Napoleon was not German

The conclusion cannot logically be “Therefore, Napoleon was German” because that would directly contradict Premise 2. So the logical conclusion can only be: “Therefore, Napoleon was French”, not because we know that it happens to be true, but because it is the only possible conclusion if both the premises are true. This is admittedly a simple and self-evident example, but similar reasoning applies to more complex arguments where the rules of logic are not so self-evident. In summary, the rules of logic exist because breaking the rules would entail internal contradictions within the argument.

Inductive arguments

An inductive argument is one where the premises seek to supply strong evidence for (not absolute proof of) the truth of the conclusion. While the conclusion of a sound deductive argument is supposed to be certain, the conclusion of a cogent inductive argument is supposed to be probable, based upon the evidence given. An example of an inductive argument is: 

Premise 1: Almost all people are taller than 26 inches
Premise 2: George is a person
Conclusion: Therefore, George is almost certainly taller than 26 inches

Whilst an inductive argument based on strong evidence can be cogent, there is some dispute amongst philosophers as to the reliability of induction as a scientific method. For example, by the problem of induction, no number of confirming observations can verify a universal generalization, such as ‘All swans are white’, yet it is logically possible to falsify it by observing a single black swan.

Abductive arguments

Abduction may be described as an “inference to the best explanation”, and whilst not as reliable as deduction or induction, it can still be a useful form of reasoning. For example, a typical abductive reasoning process used by doctors in diagnosis might be: “this set of symptoms could be caused by illnesses X, Y or Z. If I ask some more questions or conduct some tests I can rule out X and Y, so it must be Z.

Incidentally, the doctor is the one who is doing the abduction here, not the patient. By accepting the doctor’s diagnosis, the patient is using inductive reasoning that the doctor has a sufficiently high probability of being right that it is rational to accept the diagnosis. This is actually an acceptable form of the Argument from Authority (only the deductive form is fallacious).

References:

Hodges, W. (1977) Logic – an introduction to elementary logic (2nd ed. 2001) Penguin, London.
Lemmon, E.J. (1987) Beginning Logic. Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis.

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Reasoning

Rationality may be defined as as the quality of being consistent with or using reason, which is further defined as the mental ability to draw inferences or conclusions from premises (the ‘if – then’ connection). The application of reason is known as reasoning; the main categories of which are deductive and inductive reasoning. A deductive argument with valid form and true premises is said to be sound. An inductive argument based on strong evidence is said to be cogent. It is rational to accept the conclusions of arguments that are sound or cogent, unless and until they are effectively refuted.

A fallacy is an error of reasoning resulting in a misconception or false conclusion. A fallacious argument can be deductively invalid or one that has insufficient inductive strength. A deductively invalid argument is one where the conclusion does not logically follow from the premises. That is , the conclusion can be false even if the premises are true. An example of an inductively invalid argument is a conclusion that smoking does not cause cancer based on the anecdotal evidence of only one healthy smoker.

By accident or design, fallacies may exploit emotional triggers in the listener (e.g. appeal to emotion), or take advantage of social relationships between people (e.g. argument from authority). By definition, a belief arising from a logical fallacy is contrary to reason and is therefore irrational, even though a small number of such beliefs might possibly be true by coincidence.

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Plonk: a language lover’s guide to Australian drinking

The Conversation

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Here’s cheers: Australians have developed a lot of slang phases for alcohol and drinking. Shutterstock

Howard Manns, Monash University

The hard-drinking Aussie is the stuff of legend and lore. But there’s little proof Australians drank more than other colonials and by some accounts they drank less (points made in Sidney Baker’s The Australian Language).

But, of course, we do enjoy a drink – at times a little too much – and a rich bevy of terms suggest we do it in Australian ways: merrily, tongue in cheek and with a shout or two.

Plinkity plink, let’s see how we drink – or rather the words Australians have used to do it throughout history.

Plonk, chardy and the goon of fortune

Plonk is perhaps Australia’s best-known word for alcohol. It originally meant cheap, fortified wine but over time came to mean any cheap alcohol.

In terms of origins, lexicographer Bruce Moore notes that one account links plonk to the range of sounds the liquid might make hitting the bottom of your glass (plinkity plink, plinkity plank, plinkity plonk).

A more likely story, conveyed by Moore among others, views plonk as a malapropism used by first world war diggers who misheard or had some fun with the French vin blanc “white wine”. The diggers also called or spelled white wine point blank and vin blank. And, of course, these days we drink chardy and champers, lest we give French its full due.

Australian drinkers are known to have a bit of fun with French. Last year the new edition of the Australian National Dictionary (AND) welcomed chateau cardboard to its pages, a tongue-in-cheek reference to cask wine, using chateau for a wine-producing estate in an ironic way.

Australians invented boxed wine and celebrate its invention through games (Goon of Fortune was another addition to the AND) and a rich array of words, including boxie, box monster, Dapto briefcase, Dubbo handbag, red handbag, goon, goonie, goon bag, goon juice and goon sack.

Goon is mostly likely a shortening of flagon, but might also be linked to the Australian English goom, itself linked to an indigenous word gun, meaning “water” in the south Queensland languages Gabi-gabi, Waga-waga and Gureng-gureng.

And then, of course, there’s grog, eponymous with Admiral Edward Vernon who ordered his sailors’ rum to be watered down. Vernon was known as Old Grog because of his grogram-fabric coat, and so this watered-down rum also came to be labelled.

Full as a raging bull

Australians might get on the grog or hit the grog, but there are also many other things we might get or hit. For instance, we hit the piss, slops or turps (short for turpentine) or get on the tiger, get a drink across our chest or get a black dog up ya.

The result of our hitting or getting is to be full “drunk” and there is an even longer list of things we might be full as, including a bull, a bull’s bum, a footy final, a goog, the family pot, a pommy complaint box or a seaside shitter on a holiday weekend.

The important thing is to have lively fun, or a rage with your mates, who might themselves be ragers. Rage and rager were the choice words for lively parties and revellers from the 1970s. These are probably unrelated to the obsolete homophone rager, meaning “an untamed and aggressive bull or cow”, but it’s fun to note the overlap in light of the party animal.

Before the 1970s, Australians called lively parties shivoos. Some thought shivoo was Australians having a bit of fun with French (from chez vous “your place” or shivaree “a serenade of rough music”). Others linked it to British nautical slang, and a word meaning a drunken ruckus or punch-up.

Shivoo’s most likely origin is a British dialect word (by some accounts Yorkshire or Cornwall) shiveau (with the sometimes Frenchified spelling of chevaux).

Of course, some choose to drink alone. Such drinkers are said to be dry hash, Jimmy Woodser, Jack Smithers, drinking on my Pat Malone or drinking with the flies. Pat Malone is merely rhyming slang (for alone) and it’s never quite been clear if a Jimmy Woods or Jack Smithers ever existed.

Lambing down till the horse jumps over the bar

One thing’s for sure: if you drink with mates you’ll probably be expected to shout a round or two (or alternatively stand, sneeze, carry the mail, wally grout, wally, bowl, sacrifice).

If you don’t, you might find yourself accused of an American shout, Chinaman’s shout, Dutch shout, Yankee shout or Yankee. Moreover, people might say of you (s)he wouldn’t shout if a shark bit her (him).

On the other hand, the best kind of friend is a captain, or someone who lavishly spends on drinks for themselves and their mates, perhaps at the behest of a lambers down, a pub owner who encourages people to drink lavishly (or lamb down).

Failing a captain, you’ll probably have to run a tab, or tie a dog up or chain up a pup. But after time, the publican might want to settle the score or mad dog “unpaid credit”.

A publican who wants a tab paid might point out that the dogs are barking, as this publican did in a 1937 advertisement (from Sidney Baker’s, The Australian Language):

He particularly requests that all dogs tied up at the hotel be released. This reservation specially applies to Kelpies, Alsations and other large breeds.

The ConversationIf you don’t have the cash to pay the publican, you might have to jump a horse over the bar, which is what one did when all they had left to pay with was their horse.

Howard Manns, Lecturer in Linguistics, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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The superb Superb Bird of Paradise

Why Evolution Is True

The Cornell Birds-of-Paradise Project is a great website that contains all kinds of information about the 39 species in this fantastic group. There are videos and information about the sexual dimorphism in plumage and behavior, and other aspects of the birds’ biology, information about their evolutionary history and the people who study them, and general information about evolution and sexual selection—even a video on speciation. It’s a remarkable and informative site: the best place to visit if you want to see what are the most stupendous examples of sexual selection—and I’m referring not just to the male behavior, but to the female choice that drives much of it. It’s a rich resource for those who teach evolution.

Below is a 4½-minute video of the famous Superb Bird of Paradise (Lophorina superba), whose Cornell page is here. I like this video because it’s not just a “gee…

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The new Department of Home Affairs is unnecessary and seems to be more about politics than reform

The Conversation

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Peter Dutton (right) is set to assume responsibility for the newly created home affairs portfolio. AAP/Mick Tsikas

John Blaxland, Australian National University

It is difficult not to give in to cynical impulses over Tuesday’s announcement that the government will create a Department of Home Affairs.

Described as a “federation of border and security agencies”, the home affairs minister – set to be the current immigration minister, Peter Dutton – will be responsible for ASIO, the AFP, Border Force, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre, and the Office of Transport Authority.

The Home Affairs department was announced at the same time the government released an eagerly awaited review of Australia’s intelligence agencies. But the rationale for the creation of a “super ministry” seems to conflate the well-intentioned and important intelligence review with an inadequately justified yet major rearrangement of federal government executive agencies.

Fraught with danger

The Home Affairs model appears to stand on contestable grounds.

There may be an argument to be made about potentially improving internal bureaucratic efficiencies by having power centralised under one minister. However, this is debatable. And the move upends long-standing conventions on how security intelligence and executive police powers are managed separately.

Bringing ASIO and the AFP together in one department and away from the attorney-general is a fraught move.

Multiple royal commissions and a protective security review following the Hilton Hotel bombing in February 1978 saw the police, security and intelligence functions tried and tested by fire. They were found wanting, but were then subject to significant review and reform.

That reform led to an understanding about how best to delineate and maintain the separation of powers while upholding robust accountability. That understanding has come to be broadly accepted as the best way of managing intelligence and security affairs.

This model includes a high degree of healthy contestability concerning intelligence judgements and operational options. This is thanks in large part to the diffusion of power between ministries, and authority between agencies, departments and ministers. These arrangements mean there are clear lines of accountability and responsibility.

Mechanisms for prioritisation and avoiding overlap exist with the Heads of Intelligence Agencies Meetings, the Secretaries Committee on National Security, cabinet’s National Security Committee, and the National Intelligence Collection Requirement Priorities mechanisms. It’s unclear how the new arrangements will alter the dynamics in these contexts.

Under the previous arrangements, in authorising a warrant the attorney-general had to be satisfied it was justified, recognised as consistent with agreed-upon national intelligence collection priorities, resourced appropriately, executed within the legal guidelines, and then suitably reported on in a timely manner.

Under the new arrangements, the attorney-general – having relinquished management responsibility for ASIO – will retain responsibility for issuing warrants and ministerial authorisations. Yet the attorney-general will not, seemingly, be responsible for seeing the process through to its completion.

This change risks diminishing the prospects of a clear connection between ministerial authority and ministerial responsibility. The two functions look set to be performed separately, by the attorney-general and the home affairs minister.

The attorney-general also will gain responsibility for two important oversight agencies: the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor and the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security. These are two little-understood but important offices that have been performing significant roles to ensure intelligence agencies are accountable and compliant with legislation.

The inspector-general, for instance, has the enduring powers of a royal commissioner. They are able to walk into any sensitive intelligence facility and ask to see any files virtually at any time.

Like the monitor, the inspector-general can report directly to the prime minster. This is a powerful tool to ensure accountability. It is hard to think of a compelling reason for their lines of reporting responsibility to be altered.

What role did the intelligence review play?

Announcing the changes on Tuesday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull did not speak about the intelligence review – undertaken by former senior public servants Michael L’Estrange and Stephen Merchant – in great detail.

However, Turnbull did mention the headline items. These include:

  • the creation of an office of national intelligence (a sensible and graduated move);
  • the better resourcing and management of intelligence capabilities (also a reasonable step);
  • the establishment of the Australian Signals Directorate as a statutory body within the Department of Defence (something talked about for years by insiders); and
  • a bolstering of the profile and placement of the Australian Cyber Security Centre (an unsurprising step given the high profile of cyber affairs this year).

The review also proposed:

  • an expansion of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security’s remit to cover agencies with intelligence collection and reporting functions not previously counted as part of the six agencies in the Australian Intelligence Community over which he exercised oversight; and
  • a slightly expanded, operationally-oriented role for the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security to request briefings and initiate inquiries.

These recommendations are sound. But they were made in isolation of the Home Affairs proposal.

By announcing the review and the new arrangements together, the issues appear conflated. The Intelligence review is well considered and reasonable. The new governance arrangements lack the same level of intellectual rigour for the public to consider and accept.

The ConversationPut together, it suggests this is more about politics than substantive fact-based organisational reform.

John Blaxland, Professor, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Consent to risk fallacy

I have added another paragraph to this fallacy.

The Logical Place

A common argument against counter-terrorism measures is that more people are killed each year by road accidents than by terrorists.  Whilst this statistic may be true, it is a false analogy and a red herring argument against counter-terrorism. It also ignores the fact that counter-terrorism deters and prevents more terrorist attacks than those that are eventually carried out.

This fallacious argument can be generalised as follows: ‘More people are killed by (fill-in-the-blank) than by terrorists, so why do we worry so much about terrorism?’  In recent media debates, the ‘blank’ has included not only road accidents, but also deaths from falling fridges and bathtub drownings.  However, for current purposes let us assume that more people do die from road accidents than would have died from either prevented or successful terrorist attacks.

Whenever we travel in a car, most people are aware that there is a small but finite risk of…

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Do ravens plan for the future?

Why Evolution Is True

The answer to the title question is “apparently so, and at the level of great apes and four-year-old human children”. That, at least, is the conclusion of Can Kabadayi  and Mathias Osvath, the authors of a new paper in Science on raven behavior in the lab (reference and free download below; see also the Perspective summary in Science by Markus Boeckle and Nicky Clayton).

Ravens, like most corvids, are very smart. They’re known to cache food for later consumption; they know when another raven is watching them cache, and then re-hide their food in response; and they can follow the gaze of another raven looking at its cache, and then pilfer that cache later. These, however, aren’t regarded as ravens using new information to plan for the future, though it seems to come close to that!

What Kabadayi and Osvath did was to teach five captive, hand-reared ravens two new skills…

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Gwyneth Paltrow’s medical woo gets demolished

Why Evolution Is True

Gwyneth Paltrow’s goop site (“Elevated Essentials for Life”) has been promoting pseudoscience and quack remedies for years, but somehow she manages to shake off criticism, like Trump or Deepak Chopra. Most notorious was her $66 “jade vagina egg“, which, inserted into that orifice, was claimed to do these things:

  • harnesses the power of energy work, crystal healing, and a Kegel-like physical practice
  • cleanses, clears, and detoxifies the vagina
  • removes negativity
  • increases chi, orgasms, vaginal muscle tone, hormonal balance, and feminine energy.

Did I mention that you could “recharge” the egg by putting it in the light of a full moon?

Despite the weaselly disclaimer, these benefits were touted not by a doctor, but by a quack named Shiva Rose. A real doctor, a gynecologist named Jen Gunter, took apart these claims, pointing out not only that the egg had no vaginal benefits, but could, by carrying bacteria…

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Evolution news: A statue of Clarence Darrow is unveiled at the “Scopes” courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee

Why Evolution Is True

Reader Rick called my attention to a  New York Times piece about a new statue in Dayton, Tennessee, which. you’ll recall, is where the famous Scopes “Monkey Trial” took place in 1925. John Scopes was convicted of teaching human evolution to high-school students, thus violating Tennessee’s “Butler Act” prohibiting the teaching of non-Biblical accounts of human origins. (Teaching evolution of non-humans was not illegal, underscoring the perennial human exceptionalism in evolution.)

It was a titanic trial, pitting William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution versus Clarence Darrow as the lead defense attorney. Scientists weren’t allowed to testify, yet Bryan himself was allowed to take the stand and testify on his views about the Bible. Darrow ripped him apart, and it was duly reported by H. L. Mencken in a series of wonderfully acerbic pieces for the Baltimore Evening Sun (you can see Mencken’s full coverage here).

Scopes was convicted…

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On the diligence of biologist-collectors

Why Evolution Is True

This story about Darwin comes from his Life and Letters, page 50 (h/t: John Hawks), and shows what an avid entomologist he was as a youth:

I will give a proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles, and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas! it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.

Biologists who are collectors often approach a state of obsession, ignoring palpable dangers to get that one prized specimen. Here, courtesy of reader Tom C., is a tw**t from Vazrick Nazari, an evolutionary biologist…

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The worst argument yet that speech can be “violence”: science can tell us which speech should be banned

Why Evolution Is True

I swear that the New York Times and the Washington Post are getting closer and closer to HuffPo all the time. Yesterday I saw this article in the WaPo on human sexual dimorphism, which uses Trump’s sexism to cast aspersions on a well-established body of data on sexual selection. It’s an ideological argument masquerading as a scientific one. (I’ve argued before, using that data, that sexual selection produces disparities in body size in humans and many other species).

Now, in today’s New York Times, we have Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett arguing that some kinds of speech really are violent, and should be banned. (Barrett is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University). Click on the screenshot to see the fun:

Barrett’s argument runs like this:

1.) Chronic stress exacts a physiological toll on the body, overworking your immune system, shrinking your telomeres, and the like.

2.)…

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Stoicism 5.0: The unlikely 21st century reboot of an ancient philosophy

The Conversation

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Keep calm and get your stoic on many people today are heeding the advice.

Matthew Sharpe, Deakin University

From Cynicism to Stoicism

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition, to paraphrase Monty Python.
We live in strange times. But few people could have expected today’s rise of a global movement of self-describing Stoic online communities numbering over 100,000 participants.

Stoicism was the ancient Greek and then Roman philosophy founded in the last decades of the fourth century BCE by a merchant, Zeno of Citium (modern Cyprus). The latter’s vessel had sunk on route to Athens, taking Zeno’s cargo down with it.

Zeno, it is said, made his way up to the Athenian agora. There, with his few remaining coins, he bought and read a copy of Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates. “Where can I find a man like this?”, he is supposed to have asked the bookseller.

Zeno was pointed towards one Crates, a philosopher from the Cynical school. The Cynics were a kind of radical break-away group from the circles surrounding the Platonic Academy and Aristotelian Lyceum. The Cynics claimed to live “according to nature”. They completely shunned social conventions and living as simply as dogs (kynes), whence the name.

Some years later, Zeno founded his own school. He would deliver lectures to the public on the steps of Athens’ painted Stoa (whence “Stoicism”, aka “the porch”), whose foundations today lie half-concealed beneath surrounding restaurants.

The painted Stoa today where Stoicism began in the 5th century BCE.

What all this has to do with men and women in the internet age, outside of classics departments, is another thing.

When this author has from time to time spoken on issues around the Stoic conception that philosophy is a “way of life” at academic conferences, the results vary. In some contexts, people respond with barely concealed condescension. Philosophy is about concepts, the pursuit of truth, and these days, the increasingly-uncertain pursuit of competitive advantage in a shrinking marketplace.

“How would you know you were living philosophically?”, someone asked at one such event. “Surely, even if we agree that a form of self-cultivation was what philosophy once was, this is no longer possible today,” others have rejoined.

The Stoic philosophy, some note, involved a highly systematic physics, many of whose propositions do not gel with our presently-best understandings of nature (notably, the idea of a providentially ordered cosmos that is in some sense a single living organism).

I had a strange Cynical impression of my own, when I recently discovered the phenomenal extent of the growth of “Modern Stoicism”, “How to Be a Stoic”, “Daily Stoic”, “Traditional Stoicism”, and associated blogs, email lists and Youtube channels since 2013.

The thousands of people who write, read and practice the Stoicism prescribed by these sites, take courses and attend annual events like Stoicon, I thought, are responding to the academic queries like Diogenes, the most famous Cynic, is said to have responded to a metaphysical argument that purported to show that movement was impossible.

Initiating the long and invaluable tradition of philosophical satire, the old dog got up from his armchair and walked around.

Why Stoicism?

But why Stoicism, and why now? I recently asked these and other questions to several of the leading figures associated with the new Stoic movement, and spent time investigating their sites and stories.

The core of the answer has to be the enduring pertinence of Stoic ethics, especially as it has come down to us through the Roman Stoics Seneca, Epictetus, Musonius Rufus and Marcus Aurelius.

The pertinence hinges upon a few very simple, powerfully intuitive observations and principles.

These begin with Epictetus‘ simple call to people to always distinguish between what is, and is not in our control. There is, at some basic level, no rational point in being unhappy about the things we can’t change. Learning to let go of these things, in order to focus on what we can affect—our own present impulses, thoughts, and actions—just has to be both philosophically astute, as well as a psychological boon.

Imagine that all of the mental energy people spend worrying about what others think, tweet, like or say (or don’t) about them, what may happen in the future (but may not), and what cannot be changed in the past, could be freed up to attend solely to the things we each can presently alter.

This thought will bring you close to what the Stoics promise, via their (Socratic) stress that peoples’ inner character (or “virtue”) is the most important good anyone can prize or pursue.

Bust of Marcus Aurelius, the second centUry CE Stoic philosopher-Emperor in the Metropolitan Museum.

All of the other, external things—from reputation to fame to power to money to … anything subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune—all these are for the Stoics “indifferent”.

That is, they are neither good nor bad in themselves, nor can their possession or loss (as we sometimes say) “make us” happy or unhappy. It is our judgements of things which confers on them this power over us. But those judgements can be challenged by argument, and reframed through practice and resolve.

Stoicism has recently been described, in today’s terms, as one of the best “mind hacks” ever devised.

The resulting, advertised ability of Stoic “sages” to be able to bear up “philosophically”, despite the loss of their cities, properties, friends or even loved ones has given the school the perennial reputation for being a joyless, “grin and bear it” affair.

The Stoics however don’t want or require people to lose everything in order to find inner peace. (This is more the Cynics’ prescription). Stoicism instead asks people to cultivate the inner resources to be able to bear up to prosperity and adversity alike with equanimity.

Hamlet’s friend Horatio, whose Stoic virtue makes him not a pipe for fortune’s finger to sound what stop she pleases.

From the Serenity Prayer to Shakespeare to Roosevelt to modern authors like Walt Whitman or Tom Wolfe, Stoicism has remained one of the abiding threads out of which Western culture has been woven.

And while most of us will find many aspects of the Stoic physics and theology foreign, there seems little in this ethics which has or could ever age. This realisation led the founders of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to adapt Stoic principles and prescriptions into 20th century psychotherapy, before today’s 21st century revival under Stoicism’s own name.

It is just a good deal harder to be a Stoic in practice, than to Stoicise in theory. And this is where communities of debate and practice come into it.

Why now and how?

One old criticism of the Stoics, from the German philosopher Hegel, is that Stoicism is a philosophy for times of de-democratisation.

It emerged after classical Greece’s autonomous, democratic city-states had undergone terminal decline. The philosophy re-empowers people individually, in a world where everything else is at the disposal of powers, like the Hellenistic Kings and Roman Emperors, who can at any moment rob us of all our worldly possessions.

There are real historical problems with this idea. But perhaps it captures something about the attractions of Stoicism today. We are entering into a period in which the postwar liberal-democratic consensus is straining. Meanwhile, the security and surveillance apparati of modern corporations and nation-states increasingly call into question what privacy could mean in the internet age.

The internet itself is the more material cause underlying today’s proliferation of Stoic practical philosophy, outside of the walls of academe.

Zeno the founding Stoic’s statue in modern Larnaka (ancient Citium/Kition) in Southern Cyprus.

What we might call this “fifth Stoa” or “Stoicism 5.0″—counting the early, middle and late ancient periods scholars divide, plus the early modern “neoStoicism” of figures like Justus Lipsius—had humble beginnings.

Nobody’s ship was sunk. But the people associated with these beginnings had no idea how quickly their progeny would grow.

According to Donald Robertson, author of The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy:

Patrick Ussher, a PhD student at Essex University used it with a group of students who were trying to live for a week following the advice of Galen, Marcus Aurelius’ physician. His professor in the classics department at Essex, Chris Gill, organized for a group of people who had written about these things, including myself, Tim LeBon, and Jules Evans to meet with them and Stoic Week was born. There’s a video of that workshop at Exeter in 2012. That’s exactly how our Modern Stoicism project was born.

This project now includes several Facebook groups (the largest of which has, as of this week, over 25, 000 members), the Stoicism Subreddit (over 54,000 subscribers), email lists within which fierce debates rage on points of theoretical detail: numerous Stoic blogs, some Stoic consultants, and hundreds of Youtube videos.

There is the site “Traditional Stoicism” which has broken away from the other “modern” groups on grounds of an insistence that living according to Stoic ethics requires a commitment to the ancient Stoic physics and theology.

There are the “Modern Stoicism” and “How to be a Stoic” email feeds, on which articles on Stoic figures, texts and subjects—and, in the latter case, a popular Stoic Advice column—are posted every other day.

Some groups recommend Eastern meditative practices of “mindfulness” alongside, or as the corollary, of Stoic practices. Others demur.

Then there is a site like “Daily Stoic” which sends daily Stoic meditation themes to subscribers’ email addresses: whether quotes from the great Hellenistic and Roman Stoics, or from works of literature and philosophy on Stoic themes.

All of these online communities are united by the conviction that Stoicism was and remains, at its core, a way of life. Their founding father, in this regard, is the great French classicist and historian of philosophy, Pierre Hadot.

In a series of works written after 1970, based upon an exacting apprenticeship in theology and philology, Hadot became convinced that the only way to make sense of what the ancient Stoics (and Epicureans and Pyrrhonians) wrote was if we suppose that they conceived philosophy as what the Stoics called “an art of living”.

Pierre Hadot, author of The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and other influential works.

Many of the texts, notably including the Roman Stoics’ at the heart of today’s Stoic revival, feature prescriptions for what Hadot called “spiritual exercises”. These include meditative exercises, wherein a student is for instance encouraged to re-envisage her situation from above, in order to re-contextualise (and bring a larger perspective to) the difficulties they face.

Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations involve a series of fragments wherein the emperor enjoins this and other exercises on himself: like the practice of remembering, with gratitude, all the people who have benefited him, and what he owes to each of them; or premeditating, every morning, how in the day ahead we will confront people who irritate or misconstrue us, and situations that do not “go our way”; or remembering that “the best revenge is not to become like the person who has wronged you”, whose thoughts and actions in any case are primarily their own concern.

Seneca tells us that each night, before sleep, he would make time to examine all of the previous days’ actions in the Stoic light of his philosophical principles.

The answer to how a person would know they are living like a Stoic is then pretty clear, to all but some professionals. Zeno is again on the move.

The Stoic student would be undertaking these and other exercises, every day, at allocated times, in ways recommended for instance in the “Live like a Stoic” week that has been running since 2012. As Robertson explained his own Stoic practice to the author recently:

I study Stoic literature pretty much every day …. [and] I try to live like a Stoic. I take a cold shower every morning; I fast every Sunday; I exercise based on Stoic principles in the mornings. I prepare for setbacks in the morning and review my day before going to sleep … I also use the View from Above if I’m ever feeling stressed. But Stoicism is my ethic, so in a sense I’m trying to apply it throughout the day to every situation.

Of course, not everyone who belongs to the 21st century, Stoic online communities will live out so completely the kind of philosophical regimen Robertson describes here.

The ConversationBut the fact that so many people now belong to these 21st century Stoic communities suggests that, whatever may happen to philosophy in its later modern academic iterations in coming decades, its ancient calling will remain vibrantly alive.

Matthew Sharpe, Associate Professor in Philosophy, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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