Cicero and Seneca on god(s)

Ritzy asked:

How is Cicero’s understanding of the Gods in ‘De Natura Deorum’ different from that of Seneca’s idea of God? I am primarily concerned with Cicero.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

If you read Cicero’s book, then you would know that it is simply a literary colloquy, in which a Stoic, a Skeptic and an Epicurean each present their views, mostly in conventional perspectives; and we may suppose that Cicero wrote this down initially for self-clarification, maybe with eventual publication with an added commentary at the back of his mind. But as it stands, the book tells us practically nothing about his own beliefs, because he doesn’t offer any personal comments. He is throughout a silent auditor, not a referee as one might have expected.

There is a fourth part of the book that differs significantly from the other three and is generally taken as the intrusion of an anonymous imitator; best forget it.

The case of Seneca is different. He was a busy writer of “consolatory epistles”, all dripping with moral sentiments derived from his Stoic allegiance. Concerning the gods, he shows a leaning towards a monotheistic conception, as some of his phrases on Jupiter reveal, e.g. “God is everything we can see and everything we cannot see. His magnitude is greater than we can conceive”, and so on. Some of the early Christian theologian saw in these utterances a premonition of the one and only God, and inevitably this resulted in a faked correspondence between him and St. Paul being manufactured.

But you said you preferred Cicero, and I can’t think of anything useful to add except that the book is still a good, though impersonal round-up of the general views of educated Romans in his time.

Nietzsche a tyrant?

Alex asked:

Imagine if Nietzsche were put in charge of the World State, with absolute power to change or eliminate anything about that society. Which elements of the World State do you think he would change and how would he change them, and what would he leave the same? Explain fully and precisely making specific reference to Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ and to Nietzsche’s ideas.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Wherever you got this question from — your lecturer or examiner, or maybe your own day-dreaming? — it does not touch any tangent of Nietzsche’s thinking. In fact, it strikes me that the model behind this question is not Nietzsche, but Hitler. But we have at least one advantage today on the Nazis: We have identified the numerous forgeries in editions of Nietzsche’s works that were sanctioned by the fascist regime and managed to extricate ourselves from the doctrinal farrago that pre-WWII scholars had to contend with. Not the least of which is, that Nietzsche was not a Machiavellian.

So then: Can you imagine his Zarathustra ruling the world as an absolute monarch? Pretty posterous idea, I think. He wants people to heed his wake-up call. His century was decrepit, decadent, hopelessly enchained in rules for life that were fundamentally hostile to an authentic life and in the main compensated for by turning the average educated citizen into a philistine personality (Bildungsphilister, a vain and pompous moral monstrosity with a herd mentality). So we should make a start by refusing to adjudge the value of our life from the perspective of its end — the end is neither heaven nor hell, but death, which leaves nothing of us behind, apart from other people’s memories. Reframe life to a sense of responsibility in this life, which is our one golden opportunity to create value, to live authentically not only for oneself, but for everyone around us, family, friends, community etc. etc.

Now I ask you: what has this to do with some tyrant exercising world-encompassing power? I think you can answer this yourself: Coercion is not a value.

So I’m sorry to have to say this: But your question is loaded with presuppositions which recall the many inhumane regimes of history whose powers represented the curse of hell on earth; and they were not exactly the few! Whereas what all humans pray for, forever and forever in vain, is justice. And so to misquote Lord Acton: Power corrupts justice; and absolute power corrupts it absolutely. Let this serve as my one-sentence answer to your question.

Aristotle vs. Empedokles on change and generation

Ritzi asked:

Do you agree with Aristotle’s criticisms, in ‘On Generation and Corruption’, of Empedocles’ account of change?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Purely on their own terms, the pre-Socratics did a respectable job, considering that they were the first to get to grips with such problems as you refer to. By the same token, it is clear that Aristotle’s acumen on these matters went far beyond them. Accordingly (in terms of your question) one cannot but agree with Aristotle’s criticism, as Empedokles did not stick to some of his own principles or, perhaps, did not notice that he fell into self-contradiction when he changed his angle of vision.

To start with, his four elements are described as “simple”, meaning they have no parts. When therefore they aggregate in bulk, it involves stacking or chaining identical element together, i.e. water is simply a mass of them. From this it is clear that Empedokles is pluralist and committed to differentiating between coming-to-be and going-through-change. In fact he says that there is no coming-to-be at all, but only mingling in the inception of material substances, followed by further accretion and avulsion. So a certain amount of water and earth mingling make mud; and now the air may conspire to deprive the mud of some moisture and change its material constitution, and vice versa for rain.

So far so good, and it still conforms to Aristotle’s criterion that change is an observable. We see the mud changing under the impact of rain or sunshine. But what is changing is the quality of the object. The constituent elements may increase or decrease, but in themselves remain unaffected. Water cannot become earth, nor earth turn into water.

This is the point at which Empedokles gets caught talking double-dutch. Aristotle says, coming-to-be entails a change in the substance, i.e. “When nothing perceptible persists in the substratum and the thing changes as a whole, such an occurrence is no longer an alteration.” Aristotle cites the conversion of a seed into blood, which is plainly the coming-to-be of one substance at the expense of the other, which creases-to-be concurrently. Empedokles did not consider this aspect of his four roots, that they all had to come out of the One of Parmenides; moreover this process must also be considered in light of “Love and Strife still fighting with one another… so presumably his roots had no distinctive existence at all while merged in one” (315a). Empedokles then compounds the error by insisting that every further thing coming-to-be also emanates from the One. But this implies that e.g. water must emerge twice, from two sources, once as a substrate and then again as a mass.

These are the tribulations of pioneers!

Aristotle goes on to praise Demokritos and Leukippos for their courage in taking the final step towards monism, which eliminates the possibility of falling into these types of self-contradiction. This tells us something about himself as well — that he could quite possibly have announced Occam’s Razor 1700 years before Occam did it!

Empedokles and the cosmic cycle

Ritzy asked:

My question is about Empedocles trying to solve the Parmenidean challenge of change and working towards the idea of why does Empedocles have a cosmic cycle. Your guidance would be of utmost importance and greatly appreciated. Thank you.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

When Parmenides said, the Cosmos is One, a rigid block, eternal and unchanging, he wanted this to be understood as the all-encompassing order among all of its constituents. If this were not the case, the Cosmos would be a higgledy-piggledy entity, without rhyme or reason, without any coherence or form.

But we humans perceive things in motion and in constant change, so this demands an explanation. Hence his doctrine of “phenomena”. The word means “appearances” and takes account of what we see, hear, feel, smell and taste. But this capacity for sensing does not report the truth about the objects and processes of the Cosmos, because we are limited at both ends — things that are larger, smaller, faster and slower than we can perceive. So our perceptual apparatus performs all sorts of compensations on our behalf, enabling us to navigate in the world and orient ourselves.

From this explanation, you might be inclined to agree with Parmenides — except that he did not carry out a comprehensive account of how appearances and the “naked reality” (aletheia) can be fused in our understanding. This, precisely, was the challenge taken up by the other philosophers. The notion common to them was, that the structure of objects and processes can be analysed internal to the cosmos, which would not affect the structure, but explain the details of phenomena that affect our perceptions. In a word: it was tantamount to a concession that intellectually Parmenides could not be contradicted; yet phenomenally it was possible to understand how we can and must live in our world of appearances.

Accordingly Empedokles conceived of a two-fold aspect to phenomena:

(a) All things are unequal mixtures of fundamental parts which he calls “roots” — earth, water, air and aether. Some of them are stable; though most of them percolate incessantly through the whole structure, yet altogether they remain true to the structure of the whole. E.g. water can be pumped through a series of pipes and gush out through a fountain, then into a basin and back to the pump. In those motions it might acquire heat and cold, maybe dirt as well, which could be filtered out somewhere along the route.

(b) This image also explains his conception of the “sphairos”. His cosmos is an organism, breathing in and out. It was a relatively common belief among the Greeks that the material and spiritual world are continuous. We note this organismic feature in the rotation of the seasons; but it also applies to what he calls “The Great Year”. This is an analogue of the ancient (probably Babylonian) zodiacal cycle of c. 26,000 years. The cosmos cycles through this, inhaling and exhaling in four stages. The beginning (taking breath) is the inception of a new world; then follow the high season, the declining season and finally the run down to demise. But the end is also its new beginning; and so on forever.

This idea (misleadingly called “eternal return”) led to Empedokles’ startling thesis that in each of these great cycles, the world engenders different life forms, since the resources for emergent life are infinite and never repeat themselves.

To conclude I will give you a practical instance of reality vs phenomena that is familiar to you. When you sit in an aeroplane in front of the engines, you can see them starting up and the blades rotating. But at some moment in this acceleration they seem simply to stand still or even move backward. This is a visual effect (called “strobe light”) caused by the limited capacity of our eyes to resolve fast motion. It occurs near 24 impingement per second, and when the propellors spin at that rate, the eye sees all of them paused in the same position. But you know of course that they are still spinning. Now we are used to this phenomenon and accept it as unproblematic for us. However, imagine now that everything in the world is in a state of differential vibration. Then we can discern only those features which correspond to the capacities of our sensory system to resolve them. This is a chastening thought, but I might leave it to you to figure out!

Ontological proofs

Donna asked:

Could you summarize the logic of the Ontological proof?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

There are actually different ones, but you asked for their logic, which I take to mean “do they stand up to strictly logical principles?” I’m afraid all of them are invalid under these premises — for which the main reason is that a proof can confirm knowledge we already possess, but cannot prove the existence of merely conceptual entities.

For example Descartes said: “I think therefore I am”. This is cast-iron, because the contradictory statement “I think, therefore I am not” is nonsense, even thought its logical form is identical to the former. But now Descartes goes on to claim that his essential self is as a “thinking thing”, implying that his body is a contingent (accidental) housing for the thinking thing. This logic is derived from the common belief that humans have a soul which inhabits a body, but is actually a separate entity. In principle it could therefore have been incarnated in any other body. It follows that the identity “Descartes” is a contingent fusion of his soul with a body that is his only in virtue of his soul having ensouled this particular body.

Now we don’t have any knowledge of bodies exchanging souls or souls wandering from one body to another. That’s the logical problem. Following Descartes we might now say, it is logically possible, although the probabilities are virtually 100% against it. But as far as proof is concerned, we cannot definitely rule out this possibility. A proof could only say, every human being is a union of soul and body; but then this proof is also problematic, because when the body dies, what happens to the soul? Here we have nothing other than conjectures to deal with — some biologists will say a soul is mortal and dies with the body; others might claim that there is no such thing as a soul anyway and refer to brain activity which stops when a body dies. Religions have a variety of explanations on offer as to what happens to the soul after death, but obviously these are not facts, but beliefs.

These consideration are all entangled in your question, because Descartes pins an ontological proof to his doctrine of the thinking thing. He still envisages it as “I”, which on the terms described above is already disputable — nevertheless he now says this thinking thing did not create itself, nor did it spring up from nothing (you might ask yourself at this point, is it truly logically impossible for a soul to come into being from nothing? Well, what is a soul? It is not a physical item, nor a form of energy: so what then?). Anyway, for Descartes, there is only one option left. An existent far greater than himself, a creative existent, a being like a soul but much more powerful, must have created it. This existent he calls “God” and declares the existence of God to be a necessary condition for these circumstances to arise.

This is not very compelling. Hostile critics pointed out that the evil demon who whispers in his ear is also a spirit and might have created his soul. Shock, horror! Moreover this demon nowhere refers to another demon co-existing with himself. But Descartes’ failed to consider these (logical!) possibilities, because they were not matters about which he could possibly think. Therefore, if we carefully consider these issues, we find that all his arguments are strapped to beliefs and opinions handed down by authority figures, which contrary to his fervent avowals he did not examine with a view to holding them false.

Now as mentioned above, a proof cannot certify existence without the existent being unambiguously defined. Yet all of Descartes’ arguments are inferential — “If A, then B”, where A and B cannot be proved independently. It is the case (as Wittgenstein once remarked), that if you use metaphysical diction, there will be signs in your sentences which have not been given an undisputed meaning.

Descartes was not the only philosopher dabbling in ontological proofs. So I will mention two other concepts, though very briefly. The cosmological proof starts from the assumption that “I can imagine that the universe did not exist until it was created”. Therefore a creator is necessary, etc. etc. I would question if anyone could truly imagine a non-existent universe (what kind of an image would it produce in the mind?).

The argument from design is similarly deficient, as it proposes that everything in the universe shows signs of planning. A big assumption! If you say, “prove it to me”, you might be handed an encyclopaedia of all the objects in the world with pointers to their interconnection. The trouble here is, that we are predisposed to see order, whereas it is entirely (logically) possible that this the universe is purely an outcome of chance (cf. Einstein: “God does not play dice.” Bohr: “Stop telling God how he should run the world!”).

As it happens, Kant examined the logic of the four main ontological proofs and demonstrated that all hinge on the credibility of what is called a “common notion”. For Christians such a common notion is God, for atheists that God is an empty concept. Accordingly both proofs based on these notions run their identical course to opposite conclusions.

No need to pursue this further, I believe. It suffices to note that the terms used in ontological proofs revolve around ‘possibility’ and ‘necessity’, of which it has to be said that we humans tend to overshoot the mark quite frequently, posing as God’s apprentices already endowed with his omniscience.

By the way: The technical terminology for these kinds of usages is “commitment to an ontological vocabulary whose sole purpose is to justify hyperintensional operators”. This is also worth taking on board!

On having a purpose in life

Katherine asked:

For my senior thesis we are asked to answer a variety of questions, I chose “what is the purpose of human existence?” My thesis is basically: from a secular standpoint there is no true purpose of human existence however, in order for one to feel that their life has purpose the must do the best they can with what they have under the condition that it affects others in a positive way. I know that there is a lot there that I have to define but I need people to destroy my thesis so that I’m ready when the time comes… what’s the problems with my statement? Any suggestions on how to make it stronger?

Answer from Hubertus Fremerey

I put the question here again for clarity:

“From a secular standpoint there is no true purpose of human existence. However, in order for one to feel that their life has purpose they must do the best they can with what they have under the condition that it affects others in a positive way.”

Thus you make the important difference of “having a purpose of life” and “feeling a purpose of life”.

I share your view that there is no given purpose of life — at least I do not know of any.

I do not share your assumption that to feel a purpose of life people “must do the best they can with what they have under the condition that it affects others in a positive way.”

People see life as a given, and by this can see it as a chance to fulfill some task or dream. Think of it like a bank account full of money. What to do with that money?

While there are many options, to use this money “to affect others in a positive way” can be on one’s mind but is not in any way necessary. You can go for a world-tour or you can buy a house or you can start a charity or you can give your money away as Wittgenstein did. You can set up a lab to do research, but that does not include that the well-being of others in on your mind. You just like to find out some things and enjoy the life as a researcher. Or you prefer the life of a painter or of a general.

You are right that many people try to do “something useful”. But it is not in any way necessary. When the famous long-distance runner Paavo Nurmi was asked “Did you run for Finland?” he answered “No, I run for Paavo Nurmi!” And what is the purpose of running for a gold-medal?

Think of humans as of a special sort of machines. They are delivered to a strange world and then try to orient themselves in this world and make some sense of what there is. But we are making the sense, it is not provided. We are writing our own script for our own movie. To “affect others in a positive way” is not a condition.

Why do I exist?

Katherine asked:

For my senior thesis we are asked to answer a variety of questions, I chose “what is the purpose of human existence?” My thesis is basically: from a secular standpoint there is no true purpose of human existence however, in order for one to feel that their life has purpose the must do the best they can with what they have under the condition that it affects others in a positive way. I know that there is a lot there that I have to define but I need people to destroy my thesis so that I’m ready when the time comes… what’s the problems with my statement? Any suggestions on how to make it stronger?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Peter and Jurgen have both given very reasonable replies to this question, but I am going to have a go anyway. ‘Why am I here?’ is a question I ask every day, and sometimes more than once. I don’t distinguish between ’cause and effect’ and ‘purpose’, because ultimately if some entity other than myself purposed that I should exist, that would be the cause of my existing rather than not.

And every time I ask that question, the same alternative presents itself: Either there is something, an entity or explanation or principle X that accounts for my being here. Or not.

One plausible account of X would be the Big Bang hypothesized by cosmology. I am here because the Big Bang banged in precisely the manner necessary and sufficient for the coming together. of the particular sperm and egg that made the embryo that eventually became me. Each of us is here for a similar reason.

On the cosmological view, I am not here for the ‘purpose’ of any entity other than my own self. The secular view, which is widely held. Fine. You probably haven’t heard the quip by W.H. Auden (who got it off an old music hall joke) ‘We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know.’ (Maybe this is all my personal video game, and you are just sprites or monsters. If I do well, show altruism, etc., I will ascend to the next level. And if not, etc. etc.)

Then there’s the religious view, which is also held by many millions of human beings, so I don’t need to tell you about that. This is all just one big Family Story with a loving parent, who cares for our welfare, and even sends earthquakes and Hitler to improve our moral well-being, so that we can prove how courageous we are in the face of adversity. You’d have to laugh?

Personally, if we’re going in for this I prefer the theory of my friend J, an accountant, who believes that we were made by aliens. Who made the aliens? I always ask. Well, maybe that’s not such a stupid theory. You have to think of every possible angle. Maybe we are the ‘aliens’ who after inventing time travel went back to create the human race.

Each theory has its answer to the ‘purpose’ of human existence. According to the alien theory, you and I are just someone’s chemistry experiment.

Or, as I said earlier, not. Nothing could have made me, none of the above and not something else either because that would only suffice to make an entity like me, someone with exactly my physical and psychological attributes — who was not I. Nothing that is not I can explain why I am here. I am uncreated. (Maybe I am God, I just haven’t woken up to that fact, yet. Not impossible.)

(Visitors to this page will be getting weary of my going on about this. But, you see, the Question gets into everything.)

It’s good to be positive and affect other people in a positive way, because that is — OK, not a guaranteed — a reliable route to happiness, which has worked for many people. And what’s wrong with that? It has worked for me, because I compartmentalize. I ask the question, I ask lots of questions, but I never allow myself to forget that I am a human being and have human needs.

Just be honest. Talk about what you believe, what you hope for, for yourself and the human race, the questions that trouble you. The point isn’t to come up with some clever new answer that no-one has ever thought before but just to dig a little bit deeper than you have normally been accustomed to do. And then you’ll be fine.