Updating Stoic Theology for the Twenty-First Century
Guest post by Eric Steinhart
Massimo Pigliucci is working on updating Stoicism for the twenty-first century. You can read about it on his excellent blog, How to be a Stoic. But one controversial aspect of his revival of Stoicism is its atheism -- Massimo aims to purify Stoicism of its religious and theological elements. I think removing the religious and theological elements of Stoicism mutilates it to the point where it really shouldn't be called Stoicism any more. It should just be called cognitive behavioral therapy (or something like that). It reduces Stoicism to just another self-help movement. Recent efforts to reduce Stoicism to modern atheism have been criticized here and here and here. You can read a good debate about it here. Mainly, I think this reduction to modern atheism is culturally unfortunate. Stoicism ought to be revived as a religious movement (I would not say it should be revived as a religion, since I think the very concept of a religion is essentially Abrahamic). We desperately need better religious options. Stoicism can be one of those.
Start with the simple first cause of all things. Even Dawkins affirms the existence of a simple first cause. This first cause can be justified by a variety of sound cosmological arguments. This first cause is a self-reproducing computer. To take a term from Greek mythology, which seems appropriate in a Stoic context, this first cause is a titan. This initial titan is so simple that all it does is to make a slightly more complex version of itself. It makes another titan. And every titan is a self-reproducing computer. Every titan produces a litter of slightly more complex offspring. So there are generations of titans. Each next generation contains slightly more complex versions of every titan from the previous generation. The result is a great branching tree of self-reproducing titanic computers. Any lineage of titans gradually accumulates complexity. Complexity grows slowly. So this titanology satisfies the demands made by people like Dawkins and Dennett.
How do these titanic computers grow more complex? One way they grow more complex is by gaining greater computational powers. They can run more complex programs on more complex data structures. So another way they grow more complex is by running more complex programs. But what do these programs do? One of the things they do is to define the next generation of titans. They guide titanic reproduction much like the genome of any organism guides its reproduction. Each titan represents its own structure to itself. It applies its programming to that structure to define slightly more complex titans. The titans run a positive feedback loop that leads to accelerating growth of complexity. As they do this, their programs get better and better at making more complex offspring. So the titans engage in recursive self-complication. The titans resemble the universe-creating plants and animals in Hume's Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, which were inspired by the Stoic Cicero.
As the titans grow more complex, their reproductive algorithms ascend through various strategies for searching the design space of more complex titanic architectures. These search strategies resemble genetic algorithms; they are optimization algorithms. At first they resemble asexual algorithms, which evolve through simple mutation. But mutation is not a very efficient search strategy. So, as the titans grow more complex, the asexual titans begin to evolve subroutines which resemble sexual operators in genetic algorithms. At first these are closely connected, so that the titans resemble hermaphroditic organisms. But eventually they become fully functional sexual operators. Every sexual titan supports at least one male subroutine and at least one female subroutine. Although these male and female subroutines are purely logical substructures of their reproductive programming, it seems appropriate to refer to the male subroutines as gods and the female subroutines as goddesses.
As these computers make more complex offspring computing machines, they are merely increasing the complexity of their own hardware. But two computers can have the same hardware but differ in their computational complexity. They can differ because they can run different software. As they grow in complexity, the titanic programs gain software structure which is not directly concerned with reproduction. Here again they resemble organisms, whose genomes generate increasingly complex phenotypes. The surplus software running on titans becomes fodder for further complication. This surplus grows in complexity by ascending through the mathematical levels of complexity. It gains complexity by accumulating order relations. These evolve into spatio-temporal structures. The space-times gain force fields. These fields evolve in complexity until they support material particles. Thus the titans run software universes. Any lineage of titans corresponds to a lineage of universes. The Stoics did, after all, endorse a sequential multiverse, with universes born and dying in a great cosmic cycle. Here the series of universes is updated into a branching tree (which can serve as a domain for modal quantification).
As titans grow more complex, they support richer pantheons of gods and goddesses, all working together to design and create even more complex titanic offspring. They support pantheons with ever greater theological complexity. These pantheons are systems of subroutines for searching the abstract space of computational possibilities. And these more complex titans likewise support more physically complex universes. The theological complexity of the pantheon running on any titan is directly proportional to the physical complexity of the universe running on that titan. Cosmic design arguments can be used to tightly couple theological complexity with physical complexity. The Stoics were great advocates of cosmic design arguments.
You may object that all this metaphysics is supported only by very weak arguments. But even if those arguments are weak, they are valid, and based on evidence. And this metaphysics is entirely consistent with modern science. It can be used to update Stoic theology. If this metaphysics is correct, then our universe is running on some titanic computer. This titanic computer can serve as an updated Stoic capital-G God. This God is nontheistic. It's an impersonal machine. It may be extremely intelligent in the way artificial intelligence is intelligent. But it follows an algorithm, which plays the role of providential Stoic fate. It is not all-powerful. It will be surpassed by more complex and more powerful titans. This titanic God is neither supernatural nor transcendental. On the contrary, it is the natural ground of physicality. Its power is immanent in the universe in the sense that all physical events supervene on titanic events. Every universe has its own capital-G God. To avoid confusion with the Christian God, it's probably best to stick to the language of titans. The updated Stoic God is just our local titan.
The complexity of our universe justifies the conclusion that our titan supports a rich pantheon of gods and goddesses. These are subroutines in a optimization algorithm. But they can play the roles of the updated Stoic gods and goddesses. These gods and goddesses are concerned with the programming of the physical universe. As subroutines of the cosmic design algorithm, they are active in specific subdivisions of the physical universe. They regulate different departments of nature. And this is how Cicero, in Book 2 of his On the Nature of the Gods, says the Stoics regard the gods and goddesses.
There are many places where the Stoics come very close to the language of Anselm's ontological argument. So it's worth mentioning a way that an updated ontological argument can be used to justify the great branching tree of titans. This updated ontological argument runs like this: (1) There are some propositions. (2) The propositions are ordered by greatness. (3) There exists a unique greatest proposition. It asserts that every thing surpasses itself in every possible way. Call this proposition Optimality. (4) Propositions are either true or false. (5) Some propositions are true (for example, that Socrates is human). (6) Any true proposition is better than any false proposition. (7) Assume for reductio that Optimality is not true. (8) If Optimality is not true, then some other proposition is greater than Optimality. (9) But then Optimality is not the best proposition. (10) So the assumption that Optimality is not true leads to a contradiction. (11) Therefore, Optimality is true. (12) Since Optimality is true, every thing does surpass itself in every possible way. The initial titan surpasses itself in every possible way; every later titan surpasses itself in every possible way. But these two titanic principles entail the existence of the great tree of titans.
The updated ontological argument motivates an argument for the existence of an updated version of the Stoic pneuma. The argument for this updated pneuma goes like this: (1) If Optimality is true, then every thing surpasses itself in every way. (2) If every thing surpasses itself in every way, then every thing contains some some power of self-surpassing. (3) But this power is the same in all things. (4) So there exists a power of self-surpassing which animates every thing. This power is the updated Stoic pneuma. It is an energy which drives every titan to produce its offspring. Among all the many alternative versions of a thing, those which surpass it are the best. They are the best potentials of the thing. Given some system of potential alternatives, it's rational to select the best and reject the rest. Since the pneuma drives every thing to actualize those best potentials (and only those best potentials), the pneuma is rational. But this rationality is logical rather than mental. The pneuma is as mindless as electricity.