The View from Above: A Transformation of Perspectival and Participatory Knowing by John Vervaeke

Each year, the Modern Stoicism organization organizes the main Stoicon conference, and helps to promote local Stoicon-X events. Over the last several years, we have developed a tradition here at Stoicism Today of publishing as many of the talks and workshops from Stoicon and Stoicon-Xs as blog posts, in order to allow our readership who were unable to attend these conferences the benefit of those speakers’ expertise. We’re happy to start off this year’s sequence of posts with an excellent talk from Stoicon-X Toronto, provided by Professor John Vervaeke, which follows below – Greg Sadler, editor, Stoicism Today

I want to talk to you about a particular exercise. I’ll briefly describe it, and I’ll be doing a lot of the theory and some of the cognitive science. What I’m particularly interested in is how this exercise contributes to rationality, but I’m going to have to try to broaden your notion of what rationality is as that is part of the project. The view from above is the imaginative exercise where you imagine rising above the Earth and seeing it from extended elevations. You can also extend it in time and into a broader historical scope. Imagine that you have been alive for a thousand years as opposed to (for me) 56. One of the things you can immediately think about is that this action, this spiritual exercise of imaginatively rising above the Earth in this way and getting a view from above, is opening up that space between impression and response.

Here’s what I want to do. I want to reverse engineer the exercise with you. That’s what I do as a cognitive scientist. I try to figure out cognition by reverse engineering it. What does that mean? Find a problem that your cognition needs to solve and then try to engineer what a solution would look like and then figure out if your cognition is approximating that solution. That’s what it is to reverse engineer. That’s how we’re going about making the terrifying artificial intelligence that is soon going to make all of us completely irrelevant. A bit of a joke.

So what I want to do is set the problem with you. As I’m setting the problem, I’m going to try to introduce the ideas to you that in order to broaden the notion of rationality, we need to broaden the kinds of knowing we’re going to talk about. We’re very familiar with propositional knowing but I want to talk about procedural and especially perspectival and participatory knowing. You don’t know what that means right now, and that’s why I’m here. I want to talk about a kind of rationality that Agnes Callard calls proleptic rationality and how it’s actually instantiated in the view from above as a practice. Then I want to talk to you about the cognitive science of the view from above.

What’s cognitive science saying about this practice? It’s actually telling us a lot about what it’s doing to our cognition and our consciousness. Then I want to confront a problem because the view from above can look an awful lot like “the view from nowhere” that Thomas Nagel famously talked about. The thing about the “view from nowhere” is it provokes cosmic absurdity and a sense of meaninglessness which is going to take away any joy in life away from you. So how do we make sure the view from above doesn’t become the “view from nowhere”? I’m going to try and propose a solution to that making use of some ideas from Spinoza and some current philosophy.

Stoicism is trying to bring about a radical transformation. You are trying to get into perhaps a new mode of being (that’s how Erich Fromm thought about it when he talked about the “having mode” and the “being mode”), as you’re trying to get into a new way of life. That’s the way Pierre Hadot famously talked about Stoicism. It’s not just about changing your beliefs, this is a much more comprehensive transformation that is being pointed to because we’re trying to change who we are, the lives we are living and the kind of arena in which we are performing our actions. This is what’s known as qualitative development. That is a term taken from psychology, from the founder of Developmental Psychology, because we’re talking about development here.

We’re talking about changing ourselves, transforming ourselves.Piaget distinguished between two kinds of change. Quantitative changes are when I just get more, I acquire more knowledge and more information. But there’s qualitative change. Qualitative change is not changing how much you know, it’s changing what you’re capable of knowing. Those are two different things. Let me give you an example. You have a five-year-old child and that child is just a sponge (I’ve raised two sons and like I know what this is like). That’s quantitative development because although they can take in tons of information, they will fall prey to a bunch of errors repeatedly. They lack a certain confidence. So, you can do this with them (although it must be horrible growing up with a dad as a cognitive scientist, right?) You can count out five candies space them like this:

O  O  O  O  O

The four-year-old can count and they know that 6 is more than 5 and 5 is more than 4. You then count out and place 5 more candies like this:

O      O      O      O      O

You ask them which row of candies they would like? They all reliably pick the bottom row. Now how many of you would fall prey to that? Because I’ve got some investments for you! You don’t fall prey for that, but they all systematically do, because they are over fixated on one feature. It is super salient as they are fixated on the space taken up by the candies. They don’t pay attention to another variable which is how much of that space is candy space, which presumably you do.

So, they have to go through a qualitative development. They have to acquire a new ability, an ability to manage multiple variables in concert with each other. That’s a change not just in what you know, it’s a change in your competence. It’s a change in what you’re capable of knowing what problems you’re capable of solving.

So Stoicism, I recommend to you, is pushing for such a change in competence. Now an interesting thing about exactly that model of qualitative change is it is the center of an important article written in 1999 by McKee and Barber. McKee and Barber did something very important. They canvassed all the philosophical theories of wisdom then they canvassed all the emerging psychological theories of wisdom. McKee and Barber canvased both of these and they made a convergence argument: what is the central feature that all of these different theories presuppose at the core of wisdom? What it is, is seeing through illusion.

Now, I and Leo Ferraro in 2013 argued that’s a little bit elliptical because real and illusory are comparative terms. You only know something’s illusory in comparison to something that’s more real. So, we broadened it to be seeing through illusion and into reality. Now that’s really important because what they’re talking about here is a comprehensive kind of insight.

What do I mean by comprehensive? Let’s go back to the example of the child. The child isn’t only making a conservation area with error for counting candies. They’ll make a whole family of related errors. That’s what it is to be in a particular stage. So you’ve all had an insight experience. You realize “aha!, I’ve misframed the problem” and you have that “aha!” experience. Notice what the child has to do though. The child can’t just have a single “aha!” here in this problem. The child has to figure out that there’s a whole family of related problems and have a systematic comprehensive insight. That’s why you don’t fall prey to any of these illusions anymore. You’ve had a very systematic comprehensive insight. That’s what it is to see through illusion and into reality, to have a fundamental change so that you gain a competence so that you can now see through a whole family of problems. Your way of seeing doesn’t get distorted.

You might say those are little kids and I’m an adult. Well, first of all, let me remind you of one of Hadot’s formulations of wisdom. In fact, it was shared by all the great schools of antiquity including Stoicism.  “As the child is to the adult, the adult is to the sage”.  Just like you have gone through qualitative development so that you don’t fall prey to the illusions of a child, you as an adult need to go through huge qualitative development to become like a sage and not fall prey to the kinds of systemic Illusions we fall prey to. What are examples of these? Well, this is something I study. I study illusion under the idea of self-deception. Self-deception is the fact that the very machinery that makes us adaptive for solving problems in the world is the same machinery that makes us self-deceptive. Why? Well, you can’t pay attention to all the information available to you. You can’t consider all the options when you’re considering a course of action. You cannot calculate all the probabilities. Even our most powerful computers can’t do that. So what do you have to do? You have to bias your attention to what is salient and relevant to you. In fact, that’s what makes you intelligent. I’ve argued and published that that’s the core ability that makes you intelligent, your ability to zero in on relevant information.

Here’s the problem: that very ability to zero in on relevant information that makes you so adaptive also biases your attention in a maladaptive way. Here’s an example. You can’t check all the evidence, so you tend to check the evidence that’s relevant to you. Relevant to you tends to be serving your interests. So, you know what you tend to look for? Evidence that only confirms your beliefs or what you want to be true. This is called the confirmation bias and what our society has wonderfully done is taken this confirmation bias and put it on methamphetamine in the form of social media.

So, you have many of these kinds of biases, so do I am not free from this. We’re constantly mis-framing our experience and that mis-framing is self-serving in a powerful way. Now I want to use this to introduce to you something that we therefore need to pay attention to. If rationality is going to be fundamentally about affording this transformation, it’s going to require systematic abilities to overcome self-deception. But that means we need to pay attention to how we’re framing and how things are self-serving and relevant to us.

Now this means we get into two aspects of our knowing that we don’t typically pay very much attention to which I study a lot as a cognitive scientist and cognitive psychologist. So you’re all aware of propositional knowing. Propositional knowing is to know that something is the case and it’s about asserting a proposition. A cat is a mammal – that’s a proposition, and what I get from propositional knowing is beliefs. Our culture is just addicted to beliefs. We think of truth as some correspondence between the semantic content of the proposition and the world.

But your knowing that something is the case is dependent on knowing how to do things, knowing how to select what’s relevant, knowing how to pay attention, knowing how to ignore what’s irrelevant, knowing how to apply this rule how not to apply that. What does it mean to be kind? It means one thing with my younger son Spencer, another thing with my wonderful partner Sara, another thing with my students, another thing with a stranger. If I treat them all the same that’s a disaster. All of your propositions depend on your procedural knowing you’re knowing how to do things. Knowing how is not in beliefs but in skills.

If you’re going to cultivate a skill you need to have what you have right here, right now. You need to have a situational awareness, what’s going on here and now. This is your perspectival knowing, knowing what it’s like to be here right now. It’s to have a salience landscape. I’m standing out for you. You left big toe was not very salient to you, until I said that. That which is salient and standing out and what you’re focusing on is relevant and what you’re ignoring is irrelevant. That’s all happening in a highly textured, dynamic fashion right now. This perspectival knowing really matters because we’re having to study it when people are going into virtual reality because it only feels real when things are present to them, when that perspectival landscaping is working properly. It really matters, for example, when you’re doing work like remote scientific work on Mars with rovers. So, this perspectival knowing is ultimately is dependent on your participatory knowing. All the time, and Stoicism really gets at the heart of this, you are doing this in a coordinated fashion. You’re assuming an identity and assigning identities. I am the lecturer you are the audience. There’s an agent-arena relationship that is constantly going on in the basement, the foundations of your cognition. This process of co-identification, that’s your participatory knowing. Who am I? Who are you? What is that? All of these questions are co-defining. For example, this glass is graspable to me but the fact that is graspable is not a property of it. It’s not graspable by a snail. It’s not a feature just of my hand, it’s how my hand and the glass co-identify and fit together that makes me aware of it in a situational awareness, and then I can cultivate skills of how to use it. Once I can use it, then I can make propositions about it.

We tend to stick at the level of our propositions, and exercises like the view from above are designed to drive you down into these deeper levels of knowing. The perspectival and the participatory knowing, where the guts of your identity and the texture of your world is being shaped and made on a moment-to-moment basis. You’re doing it right now.

So, we’re trying to bring about a fundamental transformation at that level. What’s the problem then? Well, here’s the problem: transformation doesn’t make any sense, at least initially and philosophically. So here I’m going to draw a convergence argument from three really important thinkers: L.A. Paul and her book entitled “Transformative Experience” from 2014, Jerry Fodor, a founding figure of cognitive science from 1980 and his work on fixation of belief and conceptual analysis and Agnes Callard and her book entitled “Aspiration: the Agency of Becoming” from 2018.

L.A. Paul starts with a thought experiment to get you aware of the issue, designed to be outlandish so it will trigger your intuitions appropriately. Your friends come to you and they give you incontrovertible evidence that they can reliably, without fail, turn you into a vampire. Should you do it? How would you decide? Here’s the problem. I don’t know what the perspective of a vampire is until I become one. I don’t know what it’s going to be like to have the salience landscape of a vampire.

I don’t know what kind of self I’m going to be, because once I become a vampire, my preferences and my values will all change. So I am completely ignorant prospectively and participatory. The only way I can get that perspectival and participatory knowing is if I go through the change, but it’s an irreversible change. What do I do? Well, I don’t do it. Here’s the problem. The ignorance is symmetrical. If I don’t do it, I don’t know what I’m missing. I have all kinds of propositions about vampires, but I’ve just shown you propositional knowledge isn’t the same thing as perspectival and participatory knowledge. I don’t know what it’s going to be like to be a vampire. But if I do do it, I don’t know what I’m going to lose. So what do I do? So, you say that’s ridiculous, I don’t care about being a vampire. Well, L.A. Paul is a philosopher, so she says you face these decisions all the time. Here’s one: have a child. I’ve been through it. You don’t know what you’re losing until you get there, but you don’t know what you’re missing if you never have a child.

Here’s another one: fall in love with this person. You’re going to be a different person, living in a different world with different perspectival and different participatory knowing. Should you do it? You don’t know what you’re missing, and you don’t know what you’re going to lose. The key point that L.A. Paul makes is that you can’t infer your way through this because you don’t know the probabilities and you don’t have a stable set of values. Our standard model of how we make decisions is to weigh the probabilities and assign the values, but it doesn’t apply because we don’t know the probabilities because we’re deeply ignorant and we know that the values are not stable across the transformation. So, you can’t infer your way through it. You can’t use propositional inference to navigate your way through this. Now that tells us something because the word rationality has been invoked a lot but has been reduced to propositional argumentation. That’s a fundamental mistake because if that’s all rationality is, it doesn’t touch perspectival and participatory knowing and it doesn’t help you go through transformation.

Jerry Fodor gives a similar argument. He thought that all of cognition is computation, just inferentially manipulating propositions and altering beliefs, that that’s all it is to think. Then he famously said if we take Piaget at his word people are going through a change in competence. What does that mean? Well, that means a change from a weaker logic to a stronger logic. That’s what it is. If I’m changing my competence in all I am is computational, I have to be making a stronger logic from a weaker logic. But you know what you can’t do? You can’t infer a stronger logic from a weaker logic. I can’t do that because I have to step outside my axioms and my functions and introduce new axioms and functions. So he came to this bizarre conclusion. He said therefore Piaget’s wrong, there’s no such thing as development and it’s all innate from the beginning. Everything a child is capable of doing they have there from the beginning, which seems ridiculous. But you can turn it around, it’s a modus tollens. The way of getting out of that ridiculousness is to say that’s because most of your cognition, contrary to what we believe, is not computational in nature. I say this because we have machines that can do exactly what Fodor said we couldn’t do. They are neural networks that use dynamical systems and use self-organization to get you through this change.

So, how can you be rational – how can you aspire to rationality – if rationality can’t make use of reasoning? That takes me to a final note by Agnes Callard. In her book she talks about this process where you genuinely undertake the goal of acquiring a value. Notice how a value combines your skill, what you would find salient and a change in your identity, procedural perspectival and propositional knowing. She gives the example of somebody who does not currently like classical music, but they want to like classical music. Now what can motivate them? Not a love of classical music because you know what they don’t have right now? A love of classical music. So,  what do they do? Well, they take a music appreciation class and they go through these exercises that are designed to transform them. Notice what this word appreciation brings with it. It brings with it the notion almost of a sensibility transformation, transforming your salience landscape, what you find salient what you find relevant. But also transforming your identity, who and what you are. Appreciation also carries with it a change in your understanding.

The difference between understanding and knowing is that to know is to be able to assert a proposition with evidence. Understanding is to grasp its significance or relevance.

Now why is all this important to Callard? Well, she says, notice what we have to say here. People are going through these processes of gaining an appreciation and transforming themselves and they can’t infer their way through it for all the reasons I’ve already articulated. So what do they do? Well they are doing all these practices and they’re sort of playing with their salience landscape and playing with their identity. Now if we say because that’s not an argumentative process it’s not rational, we’re in deep trouble. Because one of the things I’m doing as a Stoic is aspiring to be more rational. If the process of aspiration is itself not a rational process because it’s not an argumentative process, then I can’t justify cultivating rationality to you. If the process of aspiration is not a rational process because it’s not argumentation, then you know what’s not rational? The aspiration to become rational is not rational. I can’t ever justify or persuade you to become rational and that’s the disaster for rationality. So we have to include this aspirational process in our model of rationality. Callard calls this proleptic rationality.

Now that is a lot of nice abstract hand-waving but how do you do it? How do you go through aspiration? How do you engage in proleptic rationality? Well, there’s a couple things you should note. We need to be triggering a capacity for systematic insight. Is there a cognitive style that we have experimental evidence for which will bring about systemic insight? Not just at the propositional level but how my salience landscape is taking shape and how my sense of self is being transformed. Yes, there is such a cognitive style. It’s mindfulness practice. That’s why I  do research on it. You’re worried here, now. He’s sneaking in Buddhism.  I can feel it.

Well, pay attention to the science. We have a lot of good work that all of these principles are efficacious. They are basically put in place by cognitive behavioral therapy, which is probably the most evidence-based effective therapy that we have right now. But its effectiveness is actually declining because we have gotten focused on propositional techniques and the alteration of belief and we’ve lost a lot of the intuitive skill that the originators of CBT had. We’ve lost the contact with the perspectival in the participatory knowing transformation. So what’s the evidence showing? You know what works better than CBT on its own? Giving people CBT and training them in mindfulness. That’s what the evidence is clearly indicating.

So, notice what mindfulness is. It’s not an inference practice, it’s an attentional practice. In fact, you shut off inference. What you’re doing is using attention to alter your salience landscape and alter your sense of self in a profound and engaged manner. So we need that right away. What else? Let’s go back to L.A. Paul’s example. When people want to have a kid, what do they do? I noticed people doing this sort of bizarre thing, they get a dog. They get a dog and they’ll have family pictures of them and the dog. Or, for example, I’m thinking about getting into a romantic relationship with this person, I’ll go on a trip with them. What’s going on there? What’s going on is this really interesting thing and it’s actually the key to development because this is how children primarily go through those changes we were talking about. This is enacted play. In fact, it’s serious play like when we use the word play when we’re talking about playing music. You might say “well adults don’t do that” but you better not say that. For example, in the Norwegian countries that are really facing the bite of kind of a secularism which is successful in many ways and I’m not dissing that but there’s  a bit of a backlash to that success, one of the things that is growing right now is this “Meaning Crisis”, which I discuss in my series.

They have live action role playing, like Dungeons and Dragons, but they are acted out in live-action. They have a thing called Jeepform. So in Jeepform instead of a dungeon master in tolling dice, you’re acting out a scene and the dungeon master’s like a director and the director will set up the scene, cut the scene and get you to switch roles and suddenly give you something and say “This is a gun. What are you gonna do with it?”. Here’s what you’re after when you do this. You’re after the phenomena bleed. What’s happening in the act in the play bleeds over to a real problem in your real life. We are considering going through a huge transformation and you’re trying to play with a new participatory identity. What’s it like to have that perspective? What it’s like to be that person? But I’m not fully committed yet. You engage in an active serious play.

So now I can give you what I think the view from above is doing. We need something that’s attentional that’s altering our sense of salience our sense of self getting into the perspectival and the participatory knowing. It’s going to manipulate perspective and our sense of self. That’s what the view from above is doing. It is going to alter what we consider significant or relevant. That’s what the view from above is doing. It’s a form of serious enacted play. It’s rational even though it doesn’t involve inference, proposition or argumentation.

So, what do we know from cognitive science? There’s a whole theory called construal level theory. So instead of thinking of your problem right here, right now, imagine that your problem is 10 years in the future. That’s a re-construal. It’s imagination. What do we know about construal level theories? As we get people to move to a higher level of construal – as we get them to move to a view from above – it makes challenging tasks seem easier. All of which is supported by experimental evidence. It also generates notice this self-insight, people get insight into their sense of who and what they are. That co-identification process becomes more apparent to them. They become aware of the identity they are assuming and the identities they’re assigning.

They gain self-control because as you change what is salient to you and your sense of self, your ability to alter your behavior significantly improves. If you try to change your behavior and you’re not doing things that give you skills and identities for altering your salience and your sense of self, your ability to change a behavior fails. That’s why 95% of people fail on diets. They have all the right propositions, but they don’t do anything to alter their competence for salience landscaping or their sense of self. That’s why they fail.

You become more capable of being authentic. You’re less easily pushed around by social influences precisely because you’ve lifted yourself out of that usually unchallenged arena of behavior. It makes you more creative, it generates systematic insight. As I said, there’s also research from what’s called the “overview effect”. I’m doing work on this right now. The “overview effect” is when astronauts go up into space and they look back at the Earth and they experience awe and wonder and they say it’s the most life-transforming thing that ever happened to them. Gallagher et.al. have actually set up set up a mixed reality, sort of part of its real and part of it is virtual reality and we can generate the overview effect in people and study this and experimentally generate awe and wonder. in 2016, Yadin et. al. did a nice overview.

What does awe do? Awe forces you to open up. Wonder and awe are different from curiosity. Notice how you want curiosity alleviated, but you would like to perpetuate awe. Because curiosity is about quantitative development, getting more information. Wonder is about qualitative information. It’s about opening up and putting your world in yourself into question. That’s what awe does. It makes you more humble, it changes your sense of self and your sense of perspective. The view from above has all of these measurable effects. Notice three different lines of research and they’re all converging on the efficacy of this spiritual exercise.

So I get to work with my friend and colleague Igor Grossman and he’s been doing a bunch of work. Of importance to our discussion is his work with Kross in 2011. It’s called the “Solomon effect”. Here’s what you do. You ask an individual so describe a horrible problem that they are facing. Then you ask them to re-describe their problem from a third person perspective, of them from above. What reliably happens is people get systematic insight into their problem and they become more capable of “wise reasoning” as referred to by Igor. The view from above allows them to restructure what they find salient and relevant. They alter their identity because they’re doing it from a third person perspective. They get a powerful systematic insight and then their reasoning becomes efficacious. The reasoning comes after the transformation.

Finally, and this goes with the awe and wonder, there’s the work of Frederiksen and the broaden and build model. These kinds of, what are called epistemic emotions, like awe and wonder broaden your attention, they transform your salience landscaping, and they build your skills. That’s why we have these emotions. That’s what they’re there for.

So, four lines of evidence as to why the view from above would be efficacious and, therefore, how it is efficacious and how it addresses the problem of how to go through transformation when we can’t reason our way through it. It is a spiritual exercise, it’s different from discourse. That’s why Epictetus said that philosophy is not just about the discourse. That’s not Stoicism.

But here’s the problem. Thomas Nagel in two places, first in an article in 1971 called “The Absurd” and then later in a book called “The View From Nowhere” brought up this problem. I can do the view from above and I go above the Earth and then maybe the solar system and the Galaxy. Then I can move to a perspective that is isometric with the entire universe and that’s the view from nowhere. You know what people experience when they get to the view from nowhere? They don’t say “Wow! This is great”, they say “It’s all meaninglessness. It’s absurd”. This is called “cosmic absurdity”. Let’s get into what everyday absurdity is so that we can understand cosmic absurdity.

So, Nagel gives us a wonderful example. Notice when he wrote was 1971 and 1980 – the dark time before Star Trek cell phones. When your phone was in a place and you left it there and you had to return to your phone at different times. Here’s the example. Tom has been working himself up all day to call Susan. So he calls Susan and he hears the phone be picked up and he says “ Susan, don’t say anything! I just got to tell you I love you! I love you! I really care about you”. Then he hears “BEEP! Susan is not here right now. Please leave a message”.  He sort of laughs but there is also a sense of pathos. I noticed first of all is there’s humor there, and what’s humor? Humor is about a clash of perspective that gets resolved with play. So, absurdity is when we have a clash of perspectives that we can’t resolve with play.

What’s happening with Tom? Tom has this one perspective, this one salience landscape and this particular agency. He is Susan’s future lover and this identity is taking shape and the salience landscape is there. Then this other perspective, a third person in personal perspective, slams into his perspective, the perspective of the machine. Those two perspectives don’t jive, there’s perspectival clash. When you go to the view from nowhere and then you compare it to your life right here right now you experience the greatest perspectival clash you’ll ever experienced. That’s cosmic absurdity.

Notice something that Nagel points out. Many of the arguments people use for absurdity are technically invalid arguments. You don’t reason your way into absurdity. I can’t do all of it. I’ll just give you one example of an argument. People say well what I do won’t matter 10,000 years from now, it’s all meaningless. Nagel points out. Well, be logical – that’s a symmetrical thing. If what you do doesn’t matter to people 10,000 years from now, then what’s equally true is what they think 10,000 years from now shouldn’t matter to you now. It’s equally symmetrical. It’s not a valid argument, but you don’t then say “Oh okay now I feel better!”. The point is the arguments do not generate the absurdity. They are after the fact expressions of it. What’s generating the absurdity is a perspectival clash. How do we deal with the perspective of clash? Because if we know how to deal with the perspectival clash we know what to do to keep the view from above from becoming the view from nowhere.

Read the following text as quickly as possible:

This is a classic experiment. This is part of the cognitive scientist dog and pony show. So,  first of all notice what you did you read? Notice you interpreted the ambiguous letter first as an H in the and then as an A in cat. So now I’m going to reason this through for you. In order to read the words, I must first read the letters, but in order to disambiguate the letters, I must read the words. Therefore, reading is impossible. What you just did was an illusion. Because you don’t reason your way through this. You make use of a dynamical self-organizing system. You are simultaneously reading from the features, the letters to the word and reading from the word down to the features. You’re doing it in parallel in a dynamically self-organizing fashion. That’s actually how your attention works. Notice that your attention is simultaneously fusing your sense of self and your sense of object together. That’s what your attention is doing right now. When I grasp a cup, I’m attending to the graspability of this cup. My identity and the cup’s identity are being fused together. That’s what your attention is doing right now. Your attention is a dynamically self-organizing process.

Spinoza talks about this in his Ethics. When you read the Ethics, you have to do the ethics, not just read it propositionally or argumentatively. He’s trying to actually give you a spiritual exercise that will transform and bring you into a state He calls blessedness. He talks about a state you can arrive at called “scientia intuitiva”. What it is like is this, and when you study the Ethics you can have this experience – I’ve had it. You keep trying to hold the whole argument in your mind and you have to practice and practice and it’s like stretching, like learning a martial art, but you eventually get to this place where this happens. You see the whole argument at once and you see how it goes into each premise and how each premise fits into the whole argument very much like how the letters go into the words and the words feedback down into the letters at the same time. The whole argument is from under the eye of eternity. It’s a God’s eye point of view. The individual premises are individual thoughts you have. So your individual perspective and the cosmic perspective become completely interpenetrating in a self-organizing manner.

The problem with cosmic absurdity is all we do is juxtapose the two perspectives against each other. But you can go through a transformative self-organizing form of play in which they become interpenetrating with each other, scientia intuitiva. I would argue that’s exactly the goal that’s sought after in duality and Buddhism in which the cosmic perspective and the individual perspective are completely interpenetrating. Because if they’re interpenetrating like this, you don’t suffer absurdity. Then you might say “Oh but absurdity is about the arguments!” but it’s not about the arguments is it? I don’t need an argumentative response to absurdity because the arguments are driving it. This is what I need. So we can practice the view from above but we can move towards scientia intuitiva and thereby always preserve the efficacy of the view from above and never fall into the cosmic absurdity of the view from nowhere.

Thank you very much for your time and attention.

John Vervaeke is an Assistant Professor in Cognitive Psychology and Cognitive Science at the University of Toronto. His research is designed to bridge between science and spirituality in order to understand the experience of meaningfulness and  the cultivation of wisdom so as to afford awakening from the meaning crisis. 

Stoicism Groups in Your Country

News: We have now created a Facebook group for admins of other Facebook groups, to help you get started and grow your community.

Over the past few years, more Facebook discussion groups have sprung up for Stoicism. The largest group, which I run, currently has about 55k members, and is just called Stoicism (Stoic Philosophy). There are also groups for Stoic Parents, Stoicism and the military, and even Stoic Dating.

However, in this post, I’d like to provide a list of those groups associated with particular geographical regions: countries or cities. The image on this page shows the countries from which most visitors to the Modern Stoicism website come, in rank order, with the USA, UK, Canada, and Australia consistently at the top, followed by Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands, in that order.

I recommend that anyone who wants to encourage a Stoicism community in their home town or city should consider using Facebook in this way. (If you’re not a fan of Facebook there are, of course, other options but the fact is that currently it seems to be the option that actually works best.) See my recent article about How to Bring Stoicism to Your City. Also consider making the Modern Stoicism page an admin of your regional group, as this allows us to promote your group through Facebook more easily by listing it on our page.

The format I recommend for a group name is “Stoicism [country/city]”. If it’s in a language other than English, I’d repeat the same name in English after it in parentheses like “Stoïcisme Nederland en België (Stoicism Netherlands and Belgium)”. (Word of advice to admins: Some of the groups below are currently not easy to find by searching!)

List of Regional Facebook Groups

Please comment below with any other suggestions for groups that could be added to this list…

Britain and Ireland

Rest of Europe

North America

South America

Australasia

Asia

Africa

(To be continued…)

Stoicon Is On! And Stoic Week Starts Monday!

As this post airs, the big STOICON conference is underway in the home town of Stoicism – Athens Greece! If you’re there, you’re probably not reading this at present, since it is a packed day. And if you’re not there, and want to know what you’re missing, here’s the schedule.

We have a now-several-years-old tradition of publishing transcripts and summaries of many of the presentations from Stoicon itself – and from the smaller Stoicon-X events worldwide – here in Stoicism Today. We’ll be continuing that after this Stoicon, starting with a post from one of the Stoicon-X Toronto presentations! There are also video recordings from the events as well to look forward to.

So if you couldn’t make it to Stoicon itself this time around (and I’m myself in that boat, given my own teaching and client schedule!), you’ll still be able to have a solid idea not only of what went on, but what the speakers and workshop providers talked about!

Stoic Week Starts Monday!

International Stoic Week starts the Monday after the main Stoicon. This offers participants – whether joining in for the very first time, or rejoining us for a “Stoic tune-up” (as I like to call it) – to deliberately “live like a Stoic” over the course of a week.

As has been the case every year since its inception, we have a robust online course for Stoic Week, featuring the Stoic Week Handbook, which contains readings, exercises, and all sorts of helpful information. Here’s where you can enroll, if you haven’t already joined us. It’s totally free to enroll, and a great opportunity to learn a lot and interact with other people as interested in Stoicism as you are!

(As a side-note, this semester, I’m teaching a class titled “Philosophy, Mindfulness, and Life” for my students at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. The class focuses on philosophies as ways of life, experimenting with actual philosophical practices, and reflecting upon what the actual effects of “doing philosophy” are. There are about 20 students enrolled in the 15-week class, and this coming week, we’re going through the Stoic Week course together.)

Stoicon-X and Stoic Week Events

One of the other really cool features of Stoic Week – and really of the modern Stoic movement in general – is that there are always a lot of in-person events all over the world. Some of these are bigger, Stoicon-X events. There are also groups, organizations, and institutions who work through the Stoic Week class together as a community.

Each year, we try to provide a definitive listing of these events here in Stoicism Today as a resource for members of the Stoic community worldwide.

If you’re holding an event, or working through Stoic Week together, and you don’t see yours listed, send me your information ASAP, and we’ll get it into the lists below. So, with no further ado, here they are:

Stoicon-X Events

Stoicon-Xs in Toronto, New York, and New England have already taken place, but there are another eight Stoicon-X events coming up this month, all over the world.

Stoicon-X Athens – Sunday, October 6, 9 AM – 1:30 PM – Cotsen Hall, American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 9 Anapiron Polemou, 106 76 Athens – features talks by Alkistis Agio, Kathryn Koromilas, Chrysoula Kostogiannis, Chuck Chakrapani, Donald Robertson and short lightning talks by participants – more information and ticketing available here.

Stoicon-X Moscow – Saturday, October 12, 8 PM – 10 PM – Bookstore Falanster, Malyy Gnezdnikovskiy Pereulok, 12, Moscow, Russia, 125009 – features talks by Kirill Martynov, Stanislav Naranovich, Polina Gadzhikurbanova – more information on the event available here.

Stoicon-X London – Saturday, October 12, 10 AM – 5 PM – Senate House, University of London, Malet Street, London, WC1E 7HU – Christopher Gill, Katharine O’Reilly, Tim LeBon, Mark Preston, John Sellars, Alexander MacLellan, Tom Hill, Justin Stead – more information and ticketing available here.

Stoicon-X Milwaukee – Saturday, October 12, 10 AM – 3 PM – Community Room, Milwaukee Public Library Central Branch, 814 West Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee, WI 53233 – features talks and workshops by Kevin Vost, Dan Hayes, Daniel Collette, Andi Sciacca, and Greg Sadler, and short lightning talks by participants – more information and ticketing available here.

Stoicon-X Sussex – Wednesday, October 16, 1 PM – 3 PM – Sussex University Meeting House, Falmer, Brighton BN1 9RH – features talks by John Sellars, Mark Preston, and Tosin Adebosi – more information and ticketing available here

Stoicon-X Perth – Sunday, October 20, 1 PM – 5:30 PM – Wellstrong Collective, 185 Eight Ave · Inglewood – talks on a variety of topics, organized by Ashley McCole – more information available here

Stoicon-X Bay Area – Saturday, October 26, 1 PM – 3 PM -Union City Library, 34007 Alvarado-Niles Rd, Union City, CA, 94587 – Stop by and meet members of the Bay Area Stoic Community. Learn about the local activities and opportunities for practice, community service and fellowship – more information and signup here.

Stoicon-X Brisbane – Sunday, October 27, 10 AM – 4 PM – Mitchelton Library, Mitchelton QLD 4053, Australia – features talks by Shannon Murray, Sharline Mohan, Andrew Dunn, Ashley McCole, Simon J.E. Drew, and Greg Sadler (by video) – more information and signup here

Additional Events During Stoic Week

Orlando Stoics – Monday, October 7, 7 PM – Panera Bread, 3138 S Orange Ave · Orlando, FL – discussion of Epictetus’ Enchiridionmore information available here

Tampa Stoics – Friday, October 11, 7 PM – Panera Bread USF, 11860 Bruce B Downs Blvd, Tampa, FL – discussion of Marcus Aurelius – more information available here

Los Angeles Stoics – Saturday, October 12, 10 AM – Bicycle Coffee Co, 358 E 2nd St. Los Angeles, CA, 90012 -discussion of Stoic Week – more information available here

New Acropolis Chicago – Saturday, October 12, 7 PM – New Acropolis Chicago, 4548 N. Dover, Chicago, IL 60640 – Greek style dinner and discussion (RSVP) – more information and ticketing here

New Acropolis Chicago – Saturday, October 13, 11 AM – Stoicism and the Coddling of the American Mind – more information and ticketing here

Minnesota Stoics -Sunday, October 13, 1 PM – Merriam Park Library, 1831 Marshall Ave · Saint Paul, MN – Stoicism, Death, and Dying discussion – more information here

Philadelphia Stoics – Sunday, October 13, 4 PM – Philadelphia Ethical Society, 1906 Rittenhouse Square · Philadelphia, PA – Discussion of A Handbook for New Stoics – more information here

Groups and Institutions Working Through Stoic Week Together

Los Angeles Stoicsmore information here

Praetoria Stoicsmore information here

If we learn any additional information, we will update this post.

How to Bring Stoicism to your City

“How do I get started bringing people interested in Stoicism together in the place where I live?” People ask me this question so often that I’ve decided to write a very simple guide. There are three basic steps you can follow:

1. Create an Online Community

Generally these are on Facebook, which seems to work well, although it might not be everyone’s choice. Join an existing Facebook Stoicism group for your country or city. If there isn’t one, try creating one. For example, I recently helped create Stoicism Netherlands and there are Facebook groups for Stoics in London, Toronto, and other major cities.

These groups can take time to grow but eventually they will take on a life of their own, especially if you keep sharing appropriate content. It’s important to have ground rules, though, and not to allow personal abuse or off-topic (spammy) posts – too much of those will cause people to leave and prevent your group from flourishing. Share appropriate content and ask questions to stimulate discussion. Once you have a large enough online community, it will be easier to organize other events.

A great resource for your group to start work on would be a list of books on Stoicism in your language. Goodreads Listopia allows you to do it really easily and it’s very helpful to new members.

2. Organize Face-to-Face Meetups

Most people use Meetup to do this. For example, the Toronto Stoics, where I live, have about 1,400 people, making it the largest Stoicism meetup group in the world. See if the Stoic Fellowship already have meetups in your area. They can also give you information on people interested in starting one, or ideas for how to run the meetings.

Organizing face-to-face meetups probably requires more patience and skill than just setting up a Facebook discussion group. However, eventually these groups also begin to take on a life of their own. You can base each meeting around a chapter from a book on Stoicism, making it a little bit like running a book club. It’s important to have several people who can help so that if you’re unavailable or can’t continue to attend, someone else can take over in your stead.

3. Organize a Stoicon-x Event

Every year since 2012, Modern Stoicism has organized a Stoicon conference, which moves to a different city each year. We also organize and encourage others to organize smaller “Stoicon-x” events, mini-conferences, in different cities around the world. Often once the main Stoicon conference has visited a city it’s easier to organize a Stoicon-x conference the following year because many of the same people will attend.

In a large city like New York or Toronto, even these smaller conferences might attract 100-150 people, fairly easily. Organizing a conference can be quite a responsibility, though. Modern Stoicism can offer advice. Choosing experienced speakers can help. It’s good to start small with perhaps a half-day event. Authors tend to be obliged to promote their books so they have an incentive to respond to requests to speak at events like these. However, in some parts of the world it can be easier than others to find appropriate speakers. (People tend to be more likely to buy tickets if they recognize the names of some of the speakers.)

We’ve found that “lightning talks” work well where individuals are invited to speak for five minutes one after another on different topics. This is a good way of attracting and testing out new speakers. It also means that even if you’re organizing a half-day event your audience will get to hear a lot of talks, and experience a variety of speakers.

Stoic Week 2019 Coming Up! The Course and Call for Events

Right after the big Stoicon conference – taking place in Athens this year – International Stoic Week will run from Monday, October 7 to Sunday, October 13. We hope you can join us and thousands of other people around the world by participating in the week, the free online course, and perhaps even local Stoic Week events this year!

Here is the press release for Stoic Week.

Enroll in the Stoic Week Course!

As many readers of Stoicism Today know – and many others will be pleasantly surprised to learn – every year, the Modern Stoicism organization provides a FREE online Stoic Week course. Thousands of people around the world take the opportunity to “live like a Stoic” (the original title of Stoic Week, when it was first organized)!

Here is the link to enroll in Stoic Week 2019. You will likely want to enroll before the class starts so you can start exploring the site.

The online course includes the Stoic Week Handbook (revised again this year – we’re always making some improvements and tweaks), which gives a great overview of Stoic philosophy and practice, and for each day of the week provides daily exercises, passages to read and think about, and some helpful insights written by the Modern Stoicism team. You’ll also find other cool features within the class, including guided Stoic meditation mp3s (featuring Donald Robertson).

You can go through the course entirely on your own, but Stoicism teaches us that our human nature is a social one, and one of the great aspects of Stoic Week is the opportunity to interact with, compare notes with, and get to know other people interested in Stoic philosophy.

While the Stoic Week class is very much designed to be useful for complete beginners, it also provides a great opportunity for those who have been studying and practicing Stoicism for some time. On a personal note, this will be my sixth year of participating in the class. I look at it as a great chance to do a “Stoic tune-up”!

Call For Stoic Week Events

Stoic Week gets even better yet! Not only is there the online Stoic Week course itself. All around the world, Stoic Week also gets celebrated with special local in-person events. Some of these are smaller versions of the big Stoicon – what we call “Stoicon-X” events.

This year, those are being hosted in a variety of major cities and regions worldwide – London, Toronto, New York, Brisbane, Moscow, San Francisco, New England, and Milwaukee (a few of these have already taken place). Three of these Stoicon-X events – the London, Moscow, and Milwaukee events – are scheduled to take place during Stoic Week itself.

Every year, dozens of local Stoic groups and fellowships, academic institutions, and other organizations plan and hold their own Stoic Week events. We put them all into a list and publicize them here in Stoicism Today, in order to promote as much engagement as possible with Stoicism during Stoic Week. So, this is the place to check, if you’re looking for local Stoic Week events!

If you have a Stoic Week event planned – of any sort, no matter how big or small – make sure to write me (the editor of Stoicism Today) with the information sooner than later (ideally, as soon as possible). Once we have it, we’ll get your information added to our listing of worldwide Stoic Week events. We’ll be putting out the first listing next week!

New Stoicism Netherlands Discussion Group

We’re pleased to announce the creation of a new Facebook discussion group for people interested in Stoicism who are based in the Netherlands, or Flanders, or speak Dutch.

Join the Stoicism Netherlands Facebook Group

Donald Robertson will also be hosting a free “coffee and Stoicism” meeting on Friday 27th September at 1pm in the Vascobelo coffee shop, inside the Scheltema book store, in Amsterdam. Everyone is welcome…

Facebook Event Listing: Coffee and Stoicism in Amsterdam

Meditation for Stoics by Caleb Ontiveros

Over the past few years, mindfulness meditation has grown and grown in popularity. Though connections between Stoicism and mindfulness have been made, mindfulness meditation as a practice has yet to find a consistent home in Stoic practice.

There’s a historical reason for this: the historical Stoic philosophers didn’t advocate for mindfulness meditations. Though they recognized the value of mindfulness, using mindfulness meditation as tool isn’t something any of the key figures spoke of. This, of course, does not mean that it cannot fit within a contemporary Stoic life. Today, we’re lucky to take advantage of cognitive innovations that the historical figures didn’t have access to. Moreover, as we’ll see the main idea behind mindfulness meditation meshes well with Stoic thought.

In this piece, I’ll show what adding mindfulness meditation to the Stoic toolkit could look like. I’ll start by explaining what it is. I’ll then explain how mindfulness meditation serves as a gym for the core Stoic disciplines.

First, what is mindfulness meditation?

Mindfulness meditation is fundamentally about cultivating nonjudgmental awareness. There are two parts then, nonjudgement and awareness. Awareness concerns our ability to perceive what is here, right now. Whether what is here is a thought or a sensation, we can perceive it. Nonjudgement refers to the ability to experience the sensation or thought without making unnecessary value judgements and seeing the world through those value judgements. Noticing and correcting mistaken value judgements is familiar to Stoics. Many thoughts we have are simply distort reality and are false. In the language of cognitive behavioral therapy, they are cognitive distortions.

A more subtle way we wield unnecessary value judgements is by projecting them into world. In the language of acceptance and commitment therapy, we become cognitively “cognitively fused” with the thought. A thought is cognitively fused when the content of the thought and it’s emotion fuse together such that both no longer feel like a mental construct, but instead appear to be an objective fact. Thoughts are fused when we forget that they are thoughts and instead see them as part of the world. A classic example of this is being caught up in passionate anger. When we are passionately angry, at say, another person, we see the world through the logic of the anger. It seems obvious to us that the other person acted unjustly and that they deserve blame — anyone who thinks otherwise is thinking incorrectly. When we are angry, these appear to be objective facts about the world.

Nonjudgemental awareness is about stepping back from such thoughts and seeing them as they are, thoughts that may or may not be true. It is about cultivating the ability to defuse from thoughts and sensations and just be aware of them. Put another way, meditation is just about being aware of whatever is going on and being able to be calm. With meditation we’re able to experience the reality that we are not our thoughts, we are not our sensations.

The connection to Stoicism is clear. Consider Seneca’s well known line on anxiety:

we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.

Or Marcus Aurelius:

Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.

Marcus Aurelius is describing the process of cognitive defusion. He notes that at one time he was cognitively fused with anxious thoughts, but realized that the thoughts were not apart of the objective world. They were merely thoughts.

Through mindfulness meditation one can get better at this skill. In this way, mindfulness meditation is as a gym for practicing the core Stoic disciplines.

Ok, so what does the typical mindfulness meditation session look like? Here’s a simple set of instructions:

  • Find a quiet place to sit for a few minutes. Consider setting a timer for 5-20 minutes.
  • Take a few deep breaths and close your eyes.
  • Bring to mind why you are meditating. What is the purpose of meditating now?
  • Bring to mind what you expect to happen. What do you think will happen while meditating?
  • Bring to mind any potential distractions. Note that they’re there and remind yourself to return to meditating when you get caught up in them.
  • Commit to following through. You have a reason for meditating, give it your full attention for the next few moments.
  • When you’re ready, bring your attention to the breath. Notice where it feels the strongest.
  • Just watch the breath if you can.
  • If you get distracted, notice that you became distracted, and return your attention to the breath. Becoming distracted is part of the process.
  • Continue watching the breath and returning to it whenever you become distracted.
  • When the time is up, take a few deep breaths and open your eyes.

You can try this on your own or with guidance. There are many courses or apps you can use, you can try the app I’ve created, Stoa, a meditation and journal app built around Stoic teachings, though there are other good options as well (I’m a fan of John Yates’ work and Sam Harris’ program). A short five to ten minute meditation may fit nicely within many morning and evening routines.

How does meditation fit within a Stoic thought more broadly?

Stoic exercises, and other therapeutic exercises generally, can be divided into the cognitive and non-cognitive. A cognitive exercise involves thinking verbally and conceptually. For example, the Stoic practice of praemeditatio malorum is a contemplative meditation. In this practice, one may imagine ways that one’s day could go wrong and devise plans to ensure that one is psychologically and practically prepared. Another cognitive Stoic practices involves simulating a role model or sage. One can imagine how the role model would act in our place or what advice the role model would give us. Both of these contemplative exercises involve explicit and verbal thought.

Another kind of exercise is non-conceptual, non-verbal. This kind of exercise can be useful for reprogramming our automatic reactions to the world. Mindfulness in meditation falls in this bucket. In mindfulness meditation, one cultivates nonjudgemental awareness. The ability to focus on one’s thoughts or sensations in a tranquil way. In this practice, the focus is not on an activity like planning or conversation, but instead is on simply watching one’s mind.

Both of these kinds of exercises are valuable. Consider Victor Frankl’s well known line:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Both of these exercises can take advantage of that space. Whether it’s an explicit reminder to live in accord with one’s values or mindfully moving your attention to what matters.

Let’s make the connection between the Stoic disciplines more explicit. Following Pierre Hadot, I think of the three disciplines of Stoicism as desire, judgment, and action. The discipline of desire concerns relegating your desire to what is under your control. The discipline of judgement concerns seeing the world accurately without making unnecessary value judgements. Finally, the discipline of action concerns acting virtuously.

One can think of mindfulness meditation as a gym for practicing each of these disciplines in a non-cognitive way. Here’s an example for each discipline.

Consider the discipline of desire. This discipline concerns mastering desire and aversion. Through meditation, we can better realize how many of our initial impressions are not under our control. And we can notice how our initial impressions trigger aversions or desires — and then reprogram these triggers. For example, as we focus on the breath, we will inevitably find our attention wandering. No matter how hard one tries to focus on the breath, eventually your attention will wander! That this will happen is out of our control. Although it may be natural to respond with disappointment or frustration upon noticing that we’ve become distracted, we can instead deliberately return our attention to the breath. In this way we can practice not being averse to our what is out of our control (distraction) and taking advantage of what is under our control (moving our attention to the breath). Instead of spiraling into further disappointment or frustration, we can simply notice that we became distracted and return to the breath.

This is a familiar pattern in our life. We react to an event negatively and let that event serve as a trigger to further negative thoughts and interactions. For example, we may respond to something a friend or partner said with frustration and we may respond in kind. We all know how these interactions go. Instead of doing this, we can note the frustration (which occurred automatically) and freely return our attention to the task at hand.

The discipline of judgement is all about seeing the world accurately. We add so many stories to the world, many of which are inaccurate or cause us suffering. For example, consider pain. While meditating, one will often experience pain. Meditation doesn’t cause pain, but the fact is that sitting straight for 10 or so minutes can become uncomfortable. When this happens it often feels like the pain will last forever. Consider the words of Epicurus (as quoted by Marcus Aurelius):

Pain is never unbearable or unending, so you can remember these limits and not add to them in your imagination.

The thought that the pain will last forever is an illusion. It’s cognitive fusion at it’s worse. The experience of pain sometimes seems to be what the world is all about. But this simply isn’t accurate. When we meditate we can notice that there is pain and practice distancing ourselves from it. Simply viewing the pain as it is, a temporary experience, nothing more.

Finally, consider the discipline of action. Some meditation traditions implicitly overlook this step. Because it is important to act with purpose, it’s important to meditate with purpose.

That’s why it’s so important to set a purpose before meditating, as one does above. And it’s important to commit to following through, even when it becomes uncomfortable. Meditation is often a joyous thing, but one can also experience mental and physical discomforts while meditating. When you persevere when this happens, you’re reinforcing your identity of being a reflective person who acts with purpose and who follows through. This crucial ingredient for the Stoic virtues.

There are many other explicit connections one can make between a meditation practice and the Stoic disciplines, but to my mind the above are some of the most important.

I’m not arguing that mindfulness meditation should be adopted by every Stoic. No practice is suitable for all people. But I would advocate that many experiment with it. It’s an excellent practice that has benefited millions of people. And, importantly, it’s an excellent way to practice the core Stoic disciplines. It’s useful for seeing the world clearly, calmly, and acting with purpose.

Caleb Ontiveros is the founder of Stoa. He received his MA in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and has worked at several startups. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.