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A Conscious Cosmos – Episode 62


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The doctrine that the world is a living being, rational, animate and intelligent, is laid down by Chrysippus in the first book of his treatise On Providence, by Apollodorus in his Physics, and by Posidonius… And it is endowed with soul, as is clear from our several souls being each a fragment of it. (DL 7.142-3)[1] Some people think the idea of a conscious cosmos is an antiquated relic of ancient Stoicism that we must abandon in light of modern science. However, numerous modern scientists and philosophers describe the nature of the cosmos in ways that are compatible with the intuitions of the ancient Stoics. Some now suggest consciousness must be a fundamental aspect of the cosmos and refer to a mind-like background in the universe. A few boldly claim the universe is conscious, just as the Stoic did more than two thousand years ago. Modern thinkers frequently label this idea panpsychism, which entails consciousness as a fundamental aspect of the cosmos. When we consider a concept like a conscious cosmos and relate it to ancient Stoicism, we first must acknowledge that the Greeks did not have a word for conscious. The word first appears in English in the seventeenth century. Next, we must admit that many definitions of consciousness exist today. The ancient Stoics argued the cosmos is a living being (organism) that is rational, animate, and intelligent. I cannot imagine an entity that meets all those criteria we would deny is conscious. Instead of a conscious cosmos, we could say a rational, animate, and intelligent cosmos; however, that will not appease those who believe the universe is mechanistic, reductive to matter, and governed by laws that just happen, accidentally, to be conducive to life as we know it here on Earth. Therefore, the term conscious serves quite well as a substitute for a living being (organism) that is rational, animate, and intelligent. The ancient Stoics considered their unique conception of a conscious, providentially ordered cosmos a necessary element of their holistic philosophical system. They did so for good reasons. Today, Traditional Stoics think this conception of the cosmos is still viable. First, despite the objections offered by those who adhere to the metaphysical assumptions of the current scientific orthodoxy, there is no objective scientific reason to abandon the conscious cosmos of Stoicism. More importantly, Stoic practice relies on the essential relationship between the way the world is (physics) and the way we should act in the world (ethics). Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoa, argued that universal nature is the source of our knowledge of virtue, good and evil, and happiness. Further, according to Plutarch, Chrysippus asserted, “physical theory turns out to be ‘at once before and behind’ ethics.”[2] As I have written before, the conscious and providential cosmos is the soul of the Stoic philosophical system. Speaking of soul, the ancient Stoics believed the cosmos has a soul, and it is God. As Plutarch notes: In his On providence book 1 [Chrysippus] says: ‘When the world is fiery through and through, it is directly both its own soul and commanding-faculty.[3] Unfortunately, many people recoil, almost reflexively, from the concept of a conscious cosmos because it entails some form of intelligence that preexists human consciousness. They mistakenly assume such a concept necessarily invokes a supernatural divinity akin to those of traditional monotheistic religions. Likewise, many people are unaware of the increasing number of scientists and thinkers breaking out of the pre-twentieth-century, mechanistic, materialist, reductionist box and arguing that consciousness is a fundamental aspect of reality. I will highlight a few of those thinkers shortly. Consciousness was ignored by the mainstream hard sciences, including psychology, at the beginning of the twentieth century. Science could not explain consciousness via reductive materialism; therefore,

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