The ancient Stoic philosophers were a group of very impressive people, who came to remarkably sound conclusions on human experience in a time before the wheelbarrow. Given this, we can still expect them to be somewhat short-sighted about the brain, the most complex machine in the known universe. There may be certain tenants of the Stoic philosophy that don’t align with advancements in neuroscience, but this in no way means their teachings are not applicable today.

One worry that has come about by advancements in neuroscience and modern philosophy is the concept of free-will; we apparently don’t have any.

The concept of free-will starts to break down once it’s heavily scrutinized. Firstly, what does free-will even mean? Does it mean to act randomly? Does it mean there is something guiding us that’s free from logic or other constraints of this universe? That seems potentially dangerous, why would we want that? After all, what does I guide my own decisions even mean? What’s “I”? Where is “I,” and who or what guides him? To really beat this concept to death, if we were to build a series of robots and we programmed them to behave exactly like humans, with the same patterns of matter, processing power, ect., we would have certainly built something that does not have free will. Every action they take would be a programmed response, but what difference does it make — they’re still identical to humans.

Since we exist in the real world, and we are made of real matter arranged in a specific pattern, it’s more reasonable to believe that any decision we make will simply be the result of a computerized processing of external stimuli.

It helps to witness this lack of control firsthand. Neuroscientist Sam Harris, whom I have the utmost respect for, devised a simple thought experiment. He asks, “think of a state in the US.”

Probably upon reading this, you will have already thought of a state. Now just notice how that thought came about. You really didn’t decide what state to think about; the name or shape of a state simply and suddenly appeared into consciousness. You would think that, in order for us to have free will, we would have to think about that thought before we thought it. We could imagine a list of states appear in front of our eyes, for which we could see all available options and then choose accordingly. And even then, what would be the driving force behind that choosing?

So this is not just something scientists are asserting because they can’t find where free-will is in the brain. Free-will, at least in this sense of the term, is something not even philosophy can account for.

It’s actually hard to tell if the Stoics were proponents of free-will. Epictetus wrote “A podium and a prison are both a place, one high and the other low, but in either place your freedom of choice can be maintained if you so wish” Marcus Aurelius, upon witnessing someone who claims to act, “from the conjunction and intertexture of the strands of fate,” states, “ [This man] is, indeed, ignorant of what accords with nature.” However, they also certainly recognized our lack of self-control, lack of emotional control, and the near-impossibility of such freedom of will.

“For repressing vain glory, it serves to remember that it is no longer in your power to make your whole life, even from your youth onwards, a life worthy of a philosopher. It is known to many, and you yourself know also, how far you are from wisdom. Confusion is upon you, and it now can be no easy matter for you to gain the reputation of a philosopher. The conditions of your life are against it. Now therefore, as you see how the matter truly lies, put from you all thoughts of reputation among men; and let it suffice you to live so long as your nature wills, though that be but the scanty remnant of a life.”

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 8

In the end, it doesn’t really matter if the Stoics were proponents of free-will because it’s not completely necessary for the application of their philosophy. There is a recurring Stoic phrase, that we should “act in accordance with nature. The Stoics were aware of a powerful truth, that logic was necessary to nature. Logic is necessary to existence, because if something exists, it is impossible for it not to exist. Philosopher Steve Patterson says, logic is the feature of every feature of existence.

As long as we have the capacity for reason, and are able to act on reason, Stoicism has significance. But how rational are we?

This is a good opportunity to explain how the human brain works. The human brain can be viewed in layers, similar to a tree, where the oldest parts of the tree are closest to the center. The brain has three major layers. The center of the brain, the oldest part on an evolutionary scale, is responsible for the base functions of the body: regulating blood pressure, metabolic processes, and various other basic chemical processes. The second layer is responsible for more emotional thought. This layer sends commands to the first layer, often times emergency commands or reward systems. If you see a bear, the amygdala, (a part of the second brain layer that heavily regulates fear and anger), sends commands to the first layer, telling the first layer to send a chill sensation down the vagus nerve and to prep the body for fight or flight. The third layer is what separates us from all other animals; it’s the most recent brain development, something we call the cerebral neocortex. The neocortex is comprised of more logical components of the brain. Certain parts of the neocortex can process empathy, social responses and is more responsible for practical decision making abilities. Other parts of the cortex are purely logical; 1+1=2 sort of computations.

An important function of the neocortex is its ability to control components in the bottom two layers. When you see your friend’s pet snake, your initial response will be from the amygdala, after all, we are instinctively afraid of such animals. But the neocortex, upon reasoning that this pet snake does not pose a real threat, will actually limit the amygdala’s production of stress hormones. So it’s possible for reason to be a significant guiding factor of behavior. It also seems possible for the neocortex to be strengthened. Learning new things can cause a strengthening of connections between brain neurons, where thought processes can fire in a more efficient way. It’s also been noticed that neurogenesis (the production of new brain neurons) can occur in the neocortex of primates, although it is debated whether this can occur in humans, simply because we haven’t actually witnessed it yet.

So although we may not have free-will, who needs it? We can still be guided by reason. And even if we can’t control our emotions from appearing, we certainly have the rational capacity to control how we react to them, and the Stoics understood this fully. “This is the true athlete — the person in rigorous training against false impressions.” — Epictetus, Discourses.

But what if we somehow lose our rational capacity, or have it severely hindered?

I’m reminded of the peculiar case of Charles Whitman, one of the first school shooters in the United States. He was a very intelligent man, apparently having an IQ in the 99th percentile, but was stricken by uncontrolled outbursts of anger and severe anxiety. He visited only one doctor about his condition and like many men, decided to deal with this problem on his own. He couldn’t deal with it though. He felt the need to document his condition in a letter. He records having the uncontrollable urge to kill his family, even though he loved them dearly. He insisted in this letter and in his journal that his brain should be autopsied to determine exactly what was causing this. On August 1, 1966, he killed his wife and mother and then proceeded to climb to the top of a university tower in Austin TX, where he began shooting at random. He killed 17 people in total and wounded 31 before being killed by police. Upon his autopsy, it was discovered that he had a pecan-sized brain tumor pushing on his amygdala. You can read his letter here.

We could say much about why he decided to act in such a way, but it boils down to two possibilities: either the tumor completely separated his rational thought from the lower levels of his brain, or that he came to a possibly valid, but terribly unsound logical conclusion about how to best help himself and other people, where the tumor clouded his judgement and prevented him from seeing the full picture. In any case, it seems as if this could happen to any of us. We like to think we’re the guiding force in our decisions, but as we can see, simply poking on the brain the wrong way could potentially turn us into serial killers.

Unfortunately, Stoicism doesn’t protect us from losing our rational capacity; it’s only useful while we have it, and in fact the Stoics never mention anything about mental illnesses. So what are we to do if we find ourselves in the same position as Charles Whitman?

What can we do? This man was obviously deprived of all the components that made him a rational actor. Such a situation obligates other people, rational people, to step in and help solve this problem. The Stoics often tell us that we have a duty to help our fellow man, and we most certainly are obligated to help if by not helping we create a situation in which many more people will suffer. I go into more detail on moral obligations in my post, How Much of Your Stuff Belongs to Me?

So although parts of the Stoic philosophy may not completely align with neuroscience, we do no harm by revising certain parts of the philosophy or cherry-picking what we know to be true in order to create a rock-solid philosophy. I doubt the Stoics would disapprove.

We may say that our chief purpose in life is simply this: To learn as much as we can about the world around us, so that our reason may be in accordance with nature, and then act only on logic and practicality — because this is how we will make the decisions that promote our own long-term well-being and the well-being of others. We know that reason can be a guiding force of our decisions. If we wish to decrease the likelihood of acting irrationally or prevent ourselves from succumbing to our emotions, we should act to strengthen the rational capacities of our brain however we can.

All of this can be done in accordance to our programming; having no free will doesn’t mean we have no guide. Otherwise, how would I have written this?

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