by DT Strain, 2006
Over the past few years, I have been studying Stoicism, Buddhism, and areas where they overlap or contradict. I have been amazed at some of the similarities between them, and intrigued at innovative ways to think about how, if, and where they conflict. Like many others, I have also come across amazing overlap with modern concepts of complexity and chaos, and with my own Humanist philosophy.
This document is an attempt to reconcile some of the more profound realizations contained in these streams of thought, as well as some others (such as Taoism, Emerson, and even Christianity). This practice of a global reconciled view I call Synthophy - particularly when reconciled in this manner, as opposed to the infinite ways one might seek to reconcile different streams of thought. The word Synthophy is meant to represent a 'synthesis' of philosophic ideas, practiced as a 'philosophy' in its own right. Therefore 'Synthophy' is an amalgamation of the words 'synthesis' as in "to blend together" and 'sophy' as in "wisdom" - or, the wisdom of bringing together good ideas. 'Synthophic' would be that which pertains to Synthophy (as philosophic is to philosophy).
In this synthophic process, I have attempted to maintain a naturalistic view and an empirical approach. At the same time, I have attempted to integrate notions of compassion, virtue or character ethics, and a more subtle and enlightened overall understanding of nature and life. I have used poetic language reminiscent of folk wisdom in places, but it has been very carefully worded so as to be unexpectedly precise.
Structurally, I have attempted to formulate a series of premises, starting from the ground up, with each building on the previous and leading to the next. Hopefully, each precept will not merely serve as a premise emphasizing the final precept, but rather be a centrally significant lesson in its own right - with a vast array of material from several philosophies, waiting to be explored to understand more deeply. In this way, the 20 Synthophic Precepts can also serve as a program outline.
As always, the following is provisional and open to further tuning in the future. For best effect, it is useful to review the notes at the end of this document.
The 20 Synthophic Precepts
1) The goal of all beings is True Happiness.
All beings, like ourselves, wish to survive, thrive, flourish, and enjoy contentment.
2) True Happiness cannot come from transitory material pleasures.
It is a mistake to confuse pleasure with True Happiness. Changes in our material conditions such as wealth, power, fame, or hedonistic pleasure fluctuate over time. Therefore ordinary lesser happiness which depends on those circumstances is also transitory. While escape from all forms of suffering may be impossible, ‘True Happiness’ means a deep, long-lasting happiness and contentment in life which is not highly susceptible to changes in our material conditions.
3) To discover the path to True Happiness we must first understand Nature.
If we are seeking to understand what things will lead to True Happiness in this world, we must understand some basic truths about how this world (Nature) operates. This requires a broader understanding of the natural universe, including knowledge of ourselves.
4) Reason, science, and a discriminating healthy skepticism are the best tools we have for understanding Nature.
As with any human endeavor, science and its practice are imperfect and limited. Science is also lacking in moral direction; its fruits useful for both positive and negative purposes. But given human limitation, science affords us the best method of reaching understanding about the physical nature of our universe.
5) Nature consists of intricate complex systems of interdependent causal relationships, balanced between order and chaos. These patterns operate by rational means which permeate and unite the entire universe.
The many diverse branches of science have in common certain observations about order and organization, as expressed in Chaos and Complex-Systems Theory. The revealing dynamic described in these theories outline an understanding of Nature which informs subjects as diverse as biology, psychology, economics, politics, computer science, artificial intelligence, and even ethics.
6) Nature produces all of what we call order, chaos, life, death, and the system of activity we call our mind.
This structure, order, dynamic, and operation (or “Way”) of Nature is found throughout all aspects of life and the world around us. Even our own minds are part of this rational order.
7) Better understanding the greater truths concerning the ebb and flow of these patterns in Nature is the key to True Happiness.
While understanding of Nature is not equivalent to True Happiness or sufficient for it, such an understanding is a necessary foundation to any sensible exploration of the path to True Happiness. This includes subtle understanding of human beings interacting with one another and the universe.
8) Knowing ourselves is not merely understanding our personality, inclinations, desires, talents, and weaknesses. It is knowing how we fit into Nature and how it fits into us.
This includes mindfulness of our thoughts, feelings, and inner nature. But in addition to this, we must learn to see ourselves as an integrated part of Nature, not apart from it. By understanding this relationship, we are better suited to determine the path to True Happiness in life.
9) We as persons are aggregates and our sense of a solid, unified, unchanging, self is an illusion. The distinction between ourselves and the rest of Nature is not absolute.
In this natural universe, we know at least that our bodies, brains, and the activity of those brains result from a temporary congregation of particles in a certain pattern. Nature makes no distinction between which particles make up ‘us’ and which make up our surroundings. These frequently interchange and our conception, more than Nature, superimposes notions of an isolated self. There is no sharp line between ‘us’ and other beings, no line between society and individual, and no sharp line between ourselves and Nature.
10) As integrated beings within Nature, we act as though in a dance. As such, to achieve True Happiness, we must appreciate what we control and what we do not control so that we ‘dance well’.
With no sharp distinction between ourselves and Nature, it is helpful to understand that we do not control as much as we might think or hope. Conversely, there may also be many things about ourselves that we do indeed control, which we are not currently appreciating. Understanding and being mindful of which things we control and which we do not is essential to wisdom.
11) We can never have full control of other beings, events that happen to and around us, or even the consequences of our choices and efforts. What we can control is our mind and our choices.
The only thing over which we really have control are our judgments, opinions, responses, and desires. Control over external things such as our friends, family, possessions, money, reputation, and even our health, is an illusion.
12) There is a purpose to assigning things as ‘good’ or ‘evil’ such that we work to promote the former and eradicate the latter. Therefore things outside our control should not be thought of as good or evil, but simply considered neutral. Only one’s own decisions and efforts should be considered good or evil; all else is not ultimately within our control and therefore something over which not to be obsessed.
A wise person’s contentment comes from within his own thoughts and actions. True Happiness should be attached to these things which we control. We should detach our happiness from externals of which we do not have control. This doesn’t mean that we can’t consider things outside our control as generally positive or negative. It also doesn’t mean that we don’t work in the world to promote positive behavior in others and discourage negative behavior in others – these things involve elements that are often within our control. But if we do not detach our True Happiness from those things which are not, we will live a life of continual hunger and disappointment. In this way, our focus determines our reality.
13) ‘Good’ choices are those which increase True Happiness. ‘Evil’ choices are those which increase True Suffering.
Within the scope of those things over which we have complete control, there are those choices which make us experience True Happiness - a long term, deep, meaningful contentment. These are ‘Good choices’. There are also choices which cause not only suffering, but True Suffering, which is a deep, meaningless form of suffering. These are ‘Evil choices’.
14) Each choice we make works to alter our character. When we do evil we harm ourselves and Nature. When we do good we help ourselves and Nature.
Our actions do not exist in a vacuum from one another. Each time we commit negative actions, it shapes our character and builds our habits and inclinations. Because such actions make us less likely to enjoy a good life, this alteration of our character will make our life less contented in the long run. The reverse is also true. Each time we perform actions from a positive motivation, we shape our character in that direction, making our lives easier and more likely prosperous in the long run.
15) Virtue is both necessary and sufficient for True Happiness.
Because True Happiness depends on our good choices within our control, and True Happiness cannot come from transitory material circumstances, one cannot have True Happiness without virtue. Furthermore, if one has virtue, then one has everything that is needed for True Happiness, regardless of other circumstances, assuming one has understanding of the neutrality of externals.
16) The way of Nature informs us of what is virtuous.
The ‘way’ of Nature entails its workings, lessons of history, lessons of life, sociological facts, basic matters of psychology and interpersonal relations, and the general logic and rationality which is pervasive in, and foundational to, our natural universe. By observing these subtle lessons we come to an understanding of what is harmful and what is helpful. This is the foundation of virtue. Ethics are to be judged by their consequences on True Happiness.
17) Ethics is objective and independent of our understanding or agreement, but it is simultaneously a product of human beings.
While we determine through social convention and consensus what behaviors are moral and what are not, there is a truth or falsehood to this, in that we are trying as a people to achieve a goal by erecting these standards. That goal is our mutual benefit and prosperity as a people and as individuals. As such, there is an objective truth as to whether any given moral will achieve that goal and to what degree. Truly ethical norms are those which actually do achieve such goals, regardless of our knowledge or agreement on their effects. However, our knowledge of these solutions is subjective and imperfect. Discovering them and reaching consensus is part of our historic and progressive struggle.
18) Outlines of the virtues serve as general guidelines, including: Compassion, Reason, Discipline, and the many shades and combinations of these virtues. But, because there is a rational structure to Nature, rationality must guide our moral deliberation rather than simplistic codes.
It is helpful and useful to have and promote moral principles, which we might turn into virtues of character through practice. But it is equally important to recognize that each simplistic principle is based on a larger truth and a more generalized aim. We mustn’t take to learning these virtues as being universal and absolute rules which we follow mechanically without thought as to the situation at hand. This will often lead to evil and harmful choices. Instead we must look sensibly at virtues and apply them with informed deliberation in good will.
19) Through practice, choices become spontaneous and codes give way to character. In this way, moral excellence is nourished.
If we come to understand the reasonable foundations behind moral principles, these become virtues of character as we practice them and build habits. Over time, it becomes easier to recognize the right thing to do, and to do it. Nourishing healthy feelings and faculties such as empathy can also encourage character. While intellectual moral deliberation is always important, this “good nature” is essential to develop.
20) The virtuous of character are those who walk in accordance with Nature. They are more prone to enjoy prosperity and, even when not, will have the foundations of True Happiness, independent of circumstances. Moral excellence and excellence in living are thus the same; wisdom and virtue the same.
Walking with Nature includes at least: learning and accepting the truths of our natural universe as best as we can determine them without bias, understanding what we can and cannot control, understanding and living in harmony with ourselves as social beings living in a network of other social beings, and 'dancing well' with the ebb and flow of 'the way' things work in the universe. Virtuous living, inspired by a good-natured character and informed by a rational objective mind, is the key to long term, deep sustaining happiness in life.
1. This is a truth both observed and exemplified by many religions, philosophies, and traditions throughout history and around the world.
2. As the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism states: attachment or craving these things is the cause of suffering.
3. It is important to note the use of the word Nature here refers to all of what is in our natural universe. It is meant to distinguish from that which may be alleged to be supernatural. As such, it includes space, time, particles, physics, rocks, planets, life forms, people, brains, minds, technology, pollution, and more. To mistake the use of the word Nature throughout these precepts for the narrow concept of what one sees when going camping - trees and animals 'out in the countryside' would render most of these precepts meaningless or false.
4. Implicit in the method of science is a doctrine that values integrity, objectivity, and honesty in the handling of ideas and statements. As the Taoist philosopher Chuang-Tzu says, “We must have true men before we can have true understanding” (The Great Supreme).
5. This concept of Nature is comparable to the Stoic concept of the Logos, the Buddhist concept of Indra’s net, or the Taoist concept of the organic pattern Li. Components of this view include notions similar to the Stoic Divine Fire (Heraclitus), the Yin/Yang, and even Hegel’s “absolute”.
6. In Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes that it is “not only the material, but also the process and the result... Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour and is not reminded of the flux of all things?” He says, “...the whole of nature is a metaphore of the human mind.” This precept is also a rejection of dualism and an affirmation of a holistic, monistic view of mind and body.
7. In his Taoist writings, Chuang-Tzu outlines many ways in which understanding of Nature should form our approach to living. Such understanding is incremental and not something we either have or do not have.
8. The ancient Greek Oracle advised, “know thyself”. Buddhists advise mindfulness of our inner states, our actions, our impressions, and our environment. See also my ‘existential deliberation’ and Stoic ‘oikeiosis’.
9. This is similar to the Buddhist concept that the ‘self’ is an illusion. I plan to write further on the ‘metaphysical body’ and ‘regressive qualia contemplation’. See Chalmers on qualia as a fundamental property of the universe (Scientific American, "The Puzzle of Conscious Experience", p.96). Lastly, see 'autopoiesis' regarding the lack of distinction between particles making up 'us' and those not.
10. See Stoicism: Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca. As for 'dancing well', see "Wu Wei" and the philosophy behind Gung Fu, Tai Chi, and Judo.
11. See Stoicism. Possibly Buddhist effort to improve focus and direct attention.
12. One part of what Stoicism calls ‘living in accordance with Nature’ is this acceptance of what is not in our control. Also, non-attachment as in Jainism & Buddhism. See also Heidegger’s ‘Enframing’ concept.
13. Stoics call our inner choices the only true ‘good’ and ‘evil’, all else is called an ‘indifferent’.
14. This is similar to the Buddhist concepts of karma and merit.
15. See Socrates who is written to have said this, as well as Epictetus.
16. See Humanist Manifestos I, II, and III and "A Secular Humanist Declaration" on the evaluation of ethics, and Chuang-Tzu for specific interpretations of lifestyle following knowledge of the workings of Tao.
17. See Chuang-Tzu, who said that virtue is a hill that we work together to climb. See also my own “Natural-Objective Ethics”.
18. See Chuang-Tzu, human rights, golden rule (Confuscious/Jesus/etc), 8 fold path, treatment of enemies (Jesus / Dalai Lama), Bushido, democracy/freedom, The Primary Virtues.
19. See Paul speaking about the fruit of ‘Holy Spirit’ entering a person (Galatians 5:22 and more). Not sharing his supernatural interpretation, I view this as an observation by Paul of character transformation. See also Stoics practice to form character; see Jesus talking about the law being in our hearts (Mark 7:14-23). Lastly, see the section called "What Karma Is" in my own A Naturalistic Approach to Buddhist Karma & Rebirth.
20. This is the Synthophic conclusion, supported by argument throughout precepts 1-19.