Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Sci-Fi Stoic Week 2015: Tuesday-Wednesday

This is the second post in my series, Sci-Fi Stoic Week.  Stoic Week is an international event that invites you to live like a Stoic for a week by working through mental exercises.  To learn more about Stoic Week as well as my take on it, see my previous post.

Tuesday: What is in Our Control and the Reserve Clause

Tuesday's morning text is one of my favorite parts of the Meditations from Marcus Aurelius, one that has helped me get out of bed on more than one occasion!

Early in the morning, when you are finding it hard to wake up, hold this thought in your mind: ‘I am getting up to do the work of a human being. Do I still resent it, if I am going out to do what I was born for and for which I was brought into the world? Or was I framed for this, to lie under the bedclothes and keep myself warm?’ ‘But this is more pleasant’. So were you born for pleasure: in general were you born for feeling or for affection? Don’t you see the plants, the little sparrows, the ants, the spiders, the bees doing their own work, and playing their part in making up an ordered world. And then are you unwilling to do the work of a human being? Won’t you run to do what is in line with your nature? 
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.1
Thinking about this through a science fiction lens invites questions about the work of a human being.  What are we like as a species?  Marcus compares humans with other terrestrial animals, but science fiction might extend the comparison to extraterrestrials as well.

Is it our nature, as Star Trek tells us, to "seek out new life and new civilizations"?  Is this what gets us out of bed in the morning?  Consider the theme of exploration in the recent book/movie, The Martian.  Is it inevitable that we long to leave our terrestrial bed?  Is our species at the beginning of a dawn of space exploration?  Or should we be wary of over-indulging this exploration drive, as Kim Stanley Robinson's amazing novel, Aurora, seems to imply?

Could it be that we can only truly answer questions about human nature once we meet extraterrestrials?  Do we need the alien Other as a contrast to fully understand ourselves?  This may be easier if the aliens aren't so different than us, as is the case with most Star Trek and Star Wars aliens, but what if they're radically different, like the inscrutable world-ocean-being of Stanislaw Lem's Solaris or the denizens of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos?

If we ever do meet aliens, the Stoic idea of a "reserve clause" might help.  According to the 2015 Stoic Week Handbook,
"... when we form wishes about things that are not wholly within our power, we should wish ‘with reservation’ or with a ‘reserve clause’, a caveat such as ‘if nothing prevents it’. Otherwise, our plans and wishes are not based on the realities of human life and may lead to frustration and disillusionment."   - 2015 Stoic Week Handbook, p. 23
If we ever meet extraterrestrials, we won't know if they're lovable ET-types, the innocuous aliens of Ursula Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven, the ambiguous Oankali of Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis series, or the nasty aliens of blockbusters like Independence Day or Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow.  The best we can do is to act as virtuously as possible with goodwill (and perhaps a degree of caution!) while hoping for the best.  We wouldn't be able to control the actions of the aliens or the entirety of the contact situation.

This may sound fantastical, but think about it: aren't you encountering the alien everyday -- ambiguous situations, other people, new ideas, and so on? 

Wednesday: Stoic Mindfulness

The main topic for Wednesday is Stoic mindfulness.  This idea is usually associated with Buddhism, but it forms one of many points of comparison between Buddhism and Stoicism.  Like Buddhists, Stoics counsel us that it often helps to focus on one's thoughts and feelings, trying to see them just as they are without superfluous judgment.

One of the Wednesday lunchtime texts is from Epictetus, the former slave who became one of the greatest Stoic teachers in ancient Rome.
"Practise, then, from the very beginning to say to every rough impression, ‘You’re an impression and not at all what you appear to be.’ Then examine it and test it by the standards that you have, and first and foremost by this one, whether the impression relates to those things which are within our power or those which aren’t up to us; and if it relates to those things which aren’t within our power, be ready to reply, 'That’s nothing to me’." — Epictetus, Handbook, 1.5
The distinction between appearance and reality has been a major concern for philosophers, especially for those of a skeptical bent.

The Indian Buddhist philosopher, Vasubandhu, argues that taking what appears to us initially in a certain way to be how things really are is one of the major causes of our suffering (this is true whatever one makes of the scholarly controversy about whether Vasubandhu is a metaphysical idealist who denies the existence of external objects).  Vasubandhu and Epictetus agree that mistaking appearance for reality, and then becoming attached to what one takes reality to be, is the source of much of our anguish.  For instance, think about how upset people got about defending how a certain dress appeared to them (the same thing happened with Han Solo's jacket, too).

Science fiction, of course, is no stranger to questions of appearance and reality.  From big budget movies like The Matrix and Total Recall to novels like Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks and The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin, science fiction has been a fellow traveler with philosophy along the borders of appearance and reality.

These types of stories dramatize just how harmful it can be when we mistake how things appear for how things are.  To appreciate the force of these stories, one need not believe that it's likely that we either are or will be living in a computer simulation (as the philosopher Nick Bostom has argued).  From the plot of almost every romantic comedy ever made to everyday optical illusions and misunderstandings, the mistaking of what appears for what is underlies much of our error, both cognitive and moral.

Stay tuned for the continuation of Sci-Fi Stoic Week 2015!


  1. This post was discussed on the blog File 770:

  2. See Part Three, which is on virtue and relationships with others:

  3. The End: Part Four: