An Informational Approach to Stoicism

Stoicism is essentially a software fix to a hardware fact: humans tend to emphasize or experience negative thoughts more strongly by roughly a factor of 2. Daniel Kahneman’s research into what is now codified under the term “behavioral economics” has shown this to be the case. When confronted with loss, whether potential or actual, we react much more strongly than when faced with a gain of equal size.

Of course this makes perfect sense from an evolutionary, game-theoretical perspective. In order to be able to lose something, an organism must first have gained it through expenditure of a non-trivial amount of energy. If it were to give up easily on its “property”, conveniently defined here as “that which an organism defends”, it may very well not get another chance to acquire new food or mating partners, and consequently exit the gene pool and thus “the game” entirely. And since we humans are still here, and since we exist as biological creatures the ancestors of which have lived through extremely adverse environmental conditions, we too defend that which we have an interest in maintaining.

Stoicism then, properly understood as the practice of mental discipline in the face of adversity, asks one to front-load the negative experiences that will inevitably intrude upon our day, and consequently allows one to prime one’s mental machinery such that tones down its reaction to actual adversity by taking advantage of the involuntary mechanism of comparing present experience to recent memory of similar nature. This practice, if coupled with training automatic responses to imagined adversity, allows one to benefit from the compressed version of a considered response, which tends to incorporate greater amounts of information about consequences and causal relations, and even superior processing of these factors into the outcome it generates.

In a very real sense the Stoics were the first scientists. They systematically used greater amounts of information that they “updated” and refactored constantly through daily practice of mental discipline, and applied it to the problems they faced. They committed themselves and their fortune to the empirical study of human nature through constant self examination and continuous experimentation. They were the original “Agile developers” of their own internal software.

Of course they didn’t do all of this “just for the fun of it”. Students of the discipline, and especially professors of philosophy – or so-called “intellectual-yet-idiots” – often forget that the whole point of this practice is to actually gain the upside. What use is all of this discipline if the reward is zero? As Taleb points out, Seneca, at the time the wealthiest man in the world, “wanted to keep the upside and not be hurt by the downside.” By choosing to experience extreme loss on a daily basis like the good Stoic he was, he avoided more often than not the actual losses heaped on him by fate. And when he did experience a loss he got right back to work to “transform fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.”

Because what else is there to do?

Notice here that the practicing Stoic, unlike the idle student of Stoicism, assimilates information from the environment in order to use it. He recognizes the nascent value in adopting this way of life and intends, nay! decides to capture it. In effect he, or rather the series of men he will become by constantly killing off a series of lesser versions of himself that attempt to protect unproductive attachments, evolves on the psycho-spiritual rather than genetic level. He uses a never-ending series of ever greater attachments to motivate his psychological and neuromuscular machinery into action that will yield superior strength and optionality, which in turn generates greater vision and broader fields of possible and profitable paths of action.

He self-creates.

Through the acquisition of greater amounts of information and their integration into his operational machinery (quasi permanent structures on the habitual, neuronal, neuromuscular, physical levels) he gains the ability to put greater amounts of resources (stored in various forms of capital: informational, relationships, tools, etc) to the extant (or “greatest-utility-yielding”) path of action, thereby strengthening his dominion over more parts of nature, including himself.

One may even be tempted to say that the most informationally complete or integrated structure, on whatever level, will tend to influence everything around it in outward circles on all levels: sub- and superstrata.


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