Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website, www.rhysy.net



Friday, 27 March 2020

Virgo Virtual Visuals

Stuck indoors ? Of course you are. You bloody well should be, at any rate. But are you going stir crazy ? Are the walls closing in ? Do you long for the boundless freedom of the great outdoors ? Well, I can't take you outside, but I can show you a view of space you may never have seen before.

The Virgo Cluster is everyone's favourite galaxy cluster, and anyone who says otherwise is a liar. As the nearest major cluster to us, we can survey it with extremely high sensitivity in great detail. And with clusters being the densest type of galaxy environment, there's nowhere better to watch the life and death of galaxies. Kind of like Big Brother, only less voyeuristic and more gassy.

A very long time ago I made a map of Virgo using optical images of the galaxies to make a nice pretty picture :


I also did some more sciency-visuals by selectively plotting different galaxies, which was quite fun to look at in 3D. I even made a 3D flythrough :


Later, I massively expanded this to show the whole ALFALFA survey of over 30,000 galaxies in VR. It was the most complex thing I've ever rendered. So with Virgo already covered in quite some detail, and an even larger data set shown in the most immersive format possible, what more is there to do ?

Like everyone else, I'm stuck at home. This has given me the chance to learn something new : interactivity.

I won't labour the details because there's not really any point. The Blend4Web addon is really very nice indeed, and just works. With largely minimal adjustments, I can easily convert my files into standalone HTML web pages that work in an ordinary browser. It even offers a VR mode, without any of the hassle of setting up special cameras and re-rendering the blasted thing. So now you don't have to see whatever I choose to render for you - you can fly around for yourself.

Click here to open the interactive version. It's a 90 MB file so may take a while to open. Works on mobile devices but is best enjoyed on a PC.
The controls are simple : left button drag to rotate, wheel to zoom, middle button drag to pan around. And there are some options at the bottom for headsets and full screen and so on. But what exactly are you looking at ? That's where the buttons in the upper left come in. Time for a crash course in galaxy clusters !


Galaxy types

"ETGs" and "LTGs" refer to early-type and late-type galaxies. This extremely stupid nomenclature was devised by the fiendish mind of Edwin Hubble, apparently for the sheer joy of confusing the heck out of people.


Basically, early-type galaxies are smooth, structureless, largely red objects consisting mainly of old stars. All their hot bright blue stars have long since died, leaving only the faintest but most enduring stars behind - they're often said to be "red and dead". They've usually run out of gas, so they're probably doomed to spend the rest of eternity fading into nothingness.

Late-type galaxies, however, are where it's at. They've still got loads of gas left and are actively forming hot, bright, blue stars, and usually have lots of interesting spiral and irregular structure. The day may come when they too will cease star formation, but it is not this day.

The definitions are easy enough, but why these bizarre terms ? It's often said that Hubble thought that galaxies evolved from one type to the other, but this isn't true. In a footnote in a paper he explicitly denies this, saying he's just referring to how complex the structures are, not the chronological sequence. Which makes total sense, because everyone refers to simple-looking things as "early" and complex-looking ones as "late"*... or more likely Hubble just had a mad moment. Regardless, the stupid terms (like many others in astronomy) have unfortunately stuck.

* As in, "look at this early-type fish tank" or "this late-type roof garden".

He didn't do himself any favours by arranging them in this famous "tuning fork" plot, with early types on the left and late types on the right. I mean, who could possibly mistake this left-to-right plot for a chronological sequence ? Clever people being stupid again...
Anyway, if you toggle the ETGs and LTGs on and off, you might notice something called the morphology density relation. This just means that late-type galaxies tend to be found in less dense regions, and early-types prefer dense environments. Late-types are newcomers to the party, bringing in plenty of fresh booze but still themselves sober and hanging around cautiously on the periphery. Early-types are already utterly wasted and are buried deep in the throng.

(Or, if you want a really disturbing analogy, the youthful blue spirals are forever falling into the corpse pit of dead giants at the centre. Lovely.)

 You can just about see this in the interactive display, but it's a bit clearer here :

Early types in red, late types in blue.
Just why this should be is a matter of intense controversy. Does the environment set what sort of galaxies form or does it alter those that happen to fall in ? Or is it a bit of both ?

We don't know. Certainly, though, the effects of the cluster can be very powerful. Just as Big Brother is a great way to spy on people but doesn't give you a typical view of human behaviour*, so too are clusters hardly typical habitats for galaxies. Your average galaxy instead prefers to live in isolation, or perhaps a small group of a few or few tens of galaxies - not the thousands-strong hordes of a big cluster.

* Hopefully.

Truly isolated galaxies are frankly as dull as hell. Small groups, on the other hand, are surprisingly interesting. Their interactions tend to be slow, as the gravity is from only a few other galaxies. But this gives it a long time to do tremendous damage, so group galaxies often show spectacular streams of stars and gas flung out into extragalactic space.

Galaxies in the NGC 7448 group. At radio wavelengths the whole thing, along with many other systems in this region, is embedded in a massive "common envelope" of atomic hydrogen.
Clusters are different. With a much greater total mass, galaxies move very much faster relative to each other, meaning that gravity has little time to do any damage. But clusters also contain something else : gas. This is not shown in the interactive tool, at least not yet, but it fills most of the cluster. Galaxies moving through this very hot, very thin intracluster medium can lose their gas through ram pressure stripping. So although long stellar tails are pretty rare in clusters, tails of gas are more common. Ram pressure can completely strip even a massive galaxy, killing its star formation and, perhaps, eventually turning a late-type spiral into a red and dead elliptical. Well, maybe.


Subclusters and structures

Virgo isn't just one big group of galaxies - it's several different groups which are still in the process of assembly. I haven't shown all the groups here, just a selection of the major ones taken from this paper.

The main body of the cluster is imaginatively known as subcluster A. It's about 17 Mpc (50 million light years) away from us, while subcluster B is more like 23 Mpc (75 million light years) and the W cloud is considerably more distant at 32 Mpc (100 million light years). The distance circles in the interactive page are shown for the main cluster, so are obviously wrong for the more distant regions.

The other sub-groups (sometimes called "clouds") are much smaller than the main A cluster, but they're still large enough to have their own gas. They're effectively mini-clusters being gobbled up by the big one.

Measuring these kinds of enormous distances is tricky, and this is the main weakness of this visualisation. We can directly measure how fast a galaxy is moving towards or away from us with really quite astonishing precision, to within a 1 km/s or so. When Edwin Hubble wasn't inventing daft terminologies, he was busy quantifying how distance relates to velocity - and this seems to work very well in low-density environments. But not, unfortunately, in clusters. Here the enormous gravity overwhelms this "Hubble flow", so the velocities we measure don't bear much relation to true distances.

There are other ways to measure distance, but they're much harder and only available for a far smaller number of galaxies. So what I did here was to use the velocities as a proxy for distance and scale them so that the cluster has approximately the correct depth. This gives broadly correct results, in that you can clearly see the different clouds, but each individual galaxy is usually wrong. For example there's a famous pair of galaxies which are clearly interacting :

The big red elliptical is NGC 4649 while the distorted spiral is NGC 4647.
But you won't see this in the visualisation. Both of them are present, but the velocities of the two are quite different, making them appear much more widely separated than they really are.


Individual galaxies

The labels I chose based on some of my personal favourite galaxies in the cluster. If you click them, you'll get links to more detailed information (public outreach articles where possible, academic papers where not). Mainy of them refer to tails of gas, which I might try and add at some point in the future.

There's a total of 774 galaxies shown : 386 early-types and 388 late-types. This is a bit of a misleading view, because in reality there are a lot more ETGs than LTGs. But most of them are pathetically faint and don't have velocity measurements, so we have even less of an idea as to their distance.

Actually, it might not be so bad as that by now. I'm using the same data set as for the map I made years back, so by now we might have new data. But showing each galaxy isn't a trivial task. A lot of time and effort was spent in manually adjusting them images to make sure their size was correct and annoying artifacts and foreground stars were carefully removed. That's not a process I care to repeat, though most of the new galaxies probably wouldn't suffer from this (but, being so faint, it wouldn't make that much difference to the overall appearance of the thing anyway).

The size of the galaxies has been exaggerated by a factor of five. I wanted to make this an interactive feature where you could set the scale for yourself, but this proved difficult. Maybe I'll find a way to do this and update it as I learn more about Blend4Web, but for now, this scaling seemed to give the best balance between realism and the need to make a pretty picture.

Galaxies are also, as you can tell, rendered in the style of classic video game sprites that always point towards the camera. It should be possible to overcome this for many galaxies and give a more accurate 3D view, but I leave this for version 2.0


So that's all for now. Have fun exploring Virgo, and let me know if I've missed anything vital. There's lots more to do (more galaxies, higher resolution textures, colour correction to show the spirals better, add gas), but as a first effort I'm pretty darn pleased with this.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Which Telescope Is The Best Place To Survive A Zombie Apocalypse ?

In these troubled times, it's important to consider the big questions. What's the meaning of life ? What is consciousness ? Where is all the toilet paper ? And, of course, which observatory is the best one to run to in the highly likely event that COVID-19 mutates and turns everyone into zombies ? I dunno, but here's my top five (and one honourable mention).


5) The Very Large Array, New Mexico


At first glance this seems like a really dumb choice to hole up in the event of a zombie outbreak. The telescopes are small and the on-site facilities are highly limited. There's only one way in or out of each dish, but at just 25m diameter, it would be easy for the shuffling hordes to build World War Z style human towers and climb on, probably collapsing the dish in the process.

The one advantage is that the site is remote and the population of the nearest towns is absolutely tiny. So it's going to take days before any zombie wanders in, and then they'll be in such low numbers that you could easily hold them off for a good long while until a full horde arrives.

VERDICT : POOR. Acceptable as an emergency stop-off - you could hunker down inside one of the tiny telescope instrument rooms and the zombies would probably never know you were there. But after that you'd want to get to safety pretty fast.


4) The McGraw Hill 1.3m at Kitt Peak, Arizona



This dinky little telescope sits atop a mountain some considerable distance from Tucson, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It's not going to be at all easy for the zombies to reach the site, and most of them will hang around in Tucson anyway. Fifty miles is not that far, but the population density is still pretty low and the zombies wouldn't be able to scent anyone so high on the hill.


That's the good news. The bad news is that when the zombies eventually make it there, the site is poorly defendable - even worse than the VLA. Especially the 1.3m telescope. The building is small, one storey, and has easy-access. There's nowhere inside good to hole up in, and a minimum of hardware to play with. Yes, you could blast the zombies with some liquid nitrogen from the storage tanks, but that's not going to last very long. And with so many telescopes up there, it's pretty likely someone will already be carrying the virus, so you may not have as much time as you think to prepare.

VERDICT : POOR. Better than being down in the city, but too easy to get trapped in. You'll have more supplies than at the VLA, but a less defendable site.


3) The IRAM 30m Single Dish, Granada, Spain


Now we start to get serious. Although not much bigger than a VLA dish, the telescope is considerably more defendable and the site extremely well-equipped : being snowed in is nothing unusual here. Inside the main building you could live very comfortably, but your best bet would be to grab the wine and food and hole up inside the telescope itself. Not so much comfort, but very easy to stay hidden.

The uncertainty comes from the site and when the outbreak occurs. In winter, the shuffling hordes are going to have absolutely no chance of making it up the hill - without crampons, even a fully-functioning human would find it difficult. The problem is it's on a ski resort, so the number of potential zombies nearby is going to be high. So when you eventually need to get back down, you might have a problem. And in summer there will be hikers, so sooner or later you're going to have to deal with the zombies and not just hide from them.

VERDICT : Decent. A great place to survive the winter, but you'll have to escape come the spring thaw.


2) The Green Bank 100m Telescope, West Virginia



The gargantuan GBT is a massive edifice that suffers from being too big to photograph properly. Access to the top of the telescope is by lift only, making it difficult for the zombies to reach. And even if they somehow stumble against the "up" button, they'll only come in limited numbers. The instrument room at the top wouldn't be luxurious, but you'd be able to hold the site against indefinitely large hordes. Plus, it's West Virginia, so getting guns won't be a problem.


The remoteness of the site is another big asest. Your only real limit is going to be the limited storage space at the telescope for food. And if that lift breaks, you're screwed.

VERDICT : Excellent. Get up quick and the zombies won't even know you're there. Only the space limitation restricts this from being a long-term way to ride out the apocalypse. You might be able to make it work, but you'd need some serious preparation time.


1) The Arecibo 305m Radio Telescope, Puerto Rico



As long as you come prepared, this one might be hard to beat. The site isn't as remote as the others but it's not bad. The telescope platform, however, is just about as defensible a site as you could ever hope to find. At the top, it's easy to disable the cable car so that the zombies can't even bring it back accidentally. Take out a few of the catwalk panels and that route is denied to them too. All you need do is put a few obstacles on the top of the catwalk and even that becomes impassable to the clumsy corpses.

Unlike the others, the interior of the telescope doesn't have much in the way of space restrictions. You'll need to disable the radar in case it gets accidentally activated and fries you, but this is easy. And being so far above the ground, the zombies are not going to be able to sight or scent you, so the chances of them even attempting access is minimal. If you prepare in time, you could rig up a zipline to the ground which the zombies wouldn't be able to use.

What about the case of an all-out attack ? The towers are too difficult for zombies to climb and the cables too strong to break. Should the zombies decide to build a human pyramid to reach you, it'd take hundreds of thousands - maybe even millions - to reach the platform -  a sizeable fraction of the population of Puerto Rico. Basically, that isn't going to happen.

The real risks come from perfectly natural disasters. The telescope has its own power generator, but who knows how long that will last without maintenance, so you're gonna be roughing it. A really big earthquake or hurricane might bring it down, but those are few and far between. Still, without maintenance, eventually enough of those cables are going to break, but this would plausibly take decades.

VERDICT : A solid choice. Needs some serious preparations, but less than the GBT, and potentially an ideal permanent residence for self-isolation.


Honourable Mention : The Sphinx Observatory, Switzerland


Doesn't make the list because it's not a functioning astronomical telescope, but still worthy of note. Virtually inaccessible except by train, permanently snow-capped, and hugely well-equipped for tourists so totally laden with supplies. A far more comfortable place to ride out the apocalypse than any of the others, but since it's a major tourist attraction the site may already been crawling with zombies when you get there.

VERDICT : Wildcard. If you reach it before the zombies do, you can live in indefinite luxury above the clouds. If you don't, you'll have a lovely view shortly before the brain-dead tourists rip you limb from limb. Oh well, at least you'll die somewhere scenic.

Thursday, 12 March 2020

A Handy Guide To Being A Supervillain

Why do seemingly clever people sometimes do really stupid things ? There are a host of reasons, not least of which are the networks in which people live. It doesn't matter if you're super-duper intelligent : if you're unfortunate enough to only know people who only ever talk about the latest drivel from Kayne West, then chances are you're going to believe a few crazy things yourself.

But a much more fundamental reason is that there are different kinds of intelligence and stupidity - or at least, different aspects of each. We tend to mistake mathematical, technical brilliance for a much broader sort of wisdom, as though anyone capable of assembling IKEA furniture without the instructions must also be a dab hand at international diplomacy. This, of course, is not the case. As the philosopher Epictetus said :
'But I'm a scholar who understands Archedemus !' You can understand Archedemus and still be an adulterer and a cheater, a wolf or an ape rather than a human being, what's to stop you ?
For a more recent example, look no further than the case of a lesbian professor of philosophy who sexually harassed a gay male student. People are indeed very, very strange and complicated beasts.

So what is this "wisdom" we're interested in, and how is it different from the regular kind of intelligence ? This is something that's bothered me for a while. Some people call it "critical thinking", others might call it "skepticism", but perhaps Ian Malcolm said it best :


That's a pretty decent definition of a clever idiot : sometime who has to work tremendously hard solving lots of complex problems in order to accomplish a really, really stupid task. Which in this case results in a bunch of dinosaurs eating everyone, making it something of a self-limiting problem.

So intelligence compromises many different cognitive skills. What I've suggested* is that this sort of critical thinking is the ability to overcome bias. Someone who's really good at thinking critically is concerned only with the truth, and is prepared to accept whatever the evidence says regardless of any other concerns. They'd be equally comfortable in declaring that the evidence says, "kill all the ginger people" as they would in saying it says, "give all the ginger people a billion dollars and a big bowl of ice cream". Whereas a bullshiter doesn't care about the truth at all, a really good critical thinker merely doesn't care about what the truth is - but does care a good deal about actually knowing the truth, whatever it may be.

* At least, I make a throwaway statement to that effect in the link, but I honestly don't remember if I had a moment of inspiration or read it somewhere else.

So let's go with this idea of two different kinds of intelligence. Analytic intelligence is about solving problems. Critical intelligence is about being able to accept whatever the evidence suggests, regardless of personal preferences. Doubtless there are more kinds of intelligence than this, but if we stick with just these two, we can make a nice chart.

But why bother ? First, charts are fun. I like charts. They give simplified descriptions that are useful in getting a handle on the messy complexities of reality. But more importantly, lately I've seen a misconception floating around in the left-wing UK media. Perhaps it was always there, but it's become much more noticeable in the last few months.

Specifically, the Guardian, Independent, Mirror and the like are full of headlines about how the right-wing political leaders are most certainly doomed. Whether through their own stupidity or an awakening on the part of the voters, just like the scientists who build Jurassic Park, they're permanently assumed to be on the brink of becoming a self-limiting problem. This is exemplified by this article in the Guardian which says that evil geniuses are a myth; that evil is always stupid and stupid is always doomed to fail. Never mind that a lot of damage can happen in the process, I think that's just plain wrong. So without further ado, let me explain why by means of a handy chart.


The Evil Genius Chart


Let's go through this quadrant by quadrant, because it's fun to pretend that people are so simple they can be divided into four big blocks. Note that the labels are intended to represent quite large areas. As for individual people, they can be found all over the chart : a scientist might be fantastic at thinking critically about the causes of muscle diseases but absolutely insistent that the English cricket team is the greatest force for good in human history.


The ideal scientist

Obviously the ideal case is pretty rare in practise.
As is very nicely explained on the blog Wait But Why, a perfect scientist cares a lot about how they reason and whether they're being honest. They don't care a fig what their conclusions are, just so long as they're as accurate as possible.

Your typical scientist doesn't necessarily reach the extreme top right of the chart, having maximum critical and analytical intelligence. Most mere mortals do have some biases they just can't shake off, but for your typical scientist this is not so much that they cause any serious difficulties. Being by definition more educated than laymen, they know better tricks for solving specific problems and understand the nuances better than most keen amateurs.

Really obsessed people, be they professional or amateur, might achieve incredibly high analytic scores, but unless they're in a professional environment, they might not do so well in terms of critical thinking. For that, you need other people telling you "you're wrong !" to keep you honest.

Of course, every scientist wants to reach the top right corner. They want to be able to solve every problem, no matter how complex, with the best solution possible. Sherlock Holmes is something pretty close to this ideal, but as we'll see later, his creator Arthur Conan-Doyle gives an interesting contrast.


Ignorant students


From the amazing they can talk webcomic. I will be a spoilsport and point out that neither children nor animals are really "born scientists" as it's popular to claim - the resemblance is superficial.
We've all got to start somewhere. Young children and various animals are really, really good at accepting reality as it is, or at least the evidence as presented to them. If a dog finds a ball under the couch, it doesn't get confused if it thought the ball was previously on the table. It just accepts reality and moves on. It may not have the slightest idea how the ball got there, but it damn well knows that is is.

When it comes to more advanced stuff, a lot of people are vaguely interested in something but aren't dedicated viewers - the difference between a Star Trek devotee who never misses an episode and has every stardate memorised and one who tunes in to ogle Seven of Nine from time to time. If presented with different possible solutions, the casually interested might be able to figure out which one is correct, but isn't likely to come up with either on their own. They just don't know enough of the subtleties to make the necessary connections, or understand the interrelated parts sufficiently well to work out what would happen in a new situation. Likewise for the uninterested : they may tell you which option is more likely, but they wouldn't ever stop to analyse the situation themselves.

Having a reasonable level of critical thinking but not analytic intelligence has another weakness. Being able to assess what the evidence suggests is a different from being able to understand if the evidence is itself correct. Children are extremely vulnerable to manipulation because they'll believe pretty much anything you tell them - they don't have the mental skills to asses statements on their own. Tell them that Santa exists and they have no problem in accepting that... but also tell them that fat people can't fit down chimneys and they'll spot the difficulty right away.


Sheeple


From the wonderful xkcd, of course.
A.k.a. the Great Unwashed, nice-but-dim. To borrow an example from Wait But Why, a sports fan does care about reality, but desperately wants it to go their way. If things don't, they have enough skill to work out all kinds of complicated (and not so complicated) reasons why it didn't, but ultimately they do accept it.

Politicians - at least the current bunch of morons - seem to be even more tribal than sports fans, partly because that's their professional role. They're supposed to be tribal, that's how the system works (and why it doesn't). Analytically they're certainly more sophisticated than sports fans, for the same reason. The region that the label for politicians represents is probably the largest of all groups : some reach very respectable levels of both kinds of intellect, others... don't.

At the lower left we have the extremes : the people so stupid they're barely capable of thinking at all. They accept whatever anyone they happen to like tells them without question, confusing their trust in the person with trust in what they're claiming. Left to themselves, they're largely harmless. Their danger lies largely in their participation in democratic systems which require a fair degree of skepticism. Without this, anyone appealing to the lowest common denominator has an easy time getting these people on board.


The evil genius



Finally we come to potentially the most dangerous realm of all : people who can figure things out, but use their skills only to justify their existing preferences. They don't really investigate, they rationalise.

This isn't necessarily dangerous, mind you. Arthur Conan Doyle presents a particularly nice example. Most famous for creating the ruthlessly logical and brilliant Sherlock Holmes, he himself believed in fairies. Frickin' fairies, for God's sake ! Even when a very obvious hoax hit the headlines, he saw it only as evidence for his beliefs. A decent scientist would never do that, or at worst would have to suffer the eternal shame of other scientists and quickly shut up about it.

But Doyle's fairies hardly led to any serious direct harm to anybody. Likewise, believing in the Flat Earth doesn't necessarily do anyone any actual physical harm. Even so, while the sheeple of the lower left are the most at risk from manipulation, it's the potentially evil people of this upper left quadrant which are the most likely to do the manipulating : when things go bad here, they can go very bad indeed. The people on the other side of the chart care too much about the truth to deliberately mislead anyone, but the people over on this side care more about getting their own way than anything as pesky as "facts".

This takes different forms. The "angry people in pubs", on on the internet, are often what we might call armchair bigots. They won't, unless strongly pressured, ever take physical action against people they dislike. But they are all too willing to vote on policies which harm other people. They care just enough about the truth to have the decency to be embarrassed (even if only unconsciously) by their opinions, but they're all too happy to absolve themselves of responsibility and let other people do their dirty work*. This is a very dangerous aspect of democracy, in that it makes villainy much easier by making it far less personal.

* We might be more sympathetic to armchair heroes, who want good things but aren't prepared to take any action further than signing a petition or, dare I say it, writing a blog.

It's said that to err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer. In other words, the more analytic intelligence someone has, the greater their potential for damage if they don't also care about the truth. Hence the scientists of Jurassic Park were hardly what anyone would call evil, but they made a catastrophic mistake (at least according to the movie). At the more extreme end, while many Flat Earthers belong much lower down the chart, at least a few are capable of some serious mental gymnastics to rationalise their beliefs. They are not necessarily stupid, but dear me they're not the slightest bit interested in the truth.

And lawyers ? This is another excellent example courtesy of Wait But Why. A lawyer on their own has to be good at justifying any position, because that's what their professional role entails. By definition, they're not supposed to care about the truth, or only to the bare minimum necessary to formulate a defence of their client. Their interest is only in defence, in rationalising. The hope of the judicial system is that when such people operate in a system, doing the same process both for and against a client, a neutral observer will be capable of getting at the truth. Thus a lawyer acting in defence of a serial killer isn't evil, given the context in which they operate.

Whether this really works or not is an interesting question. On the face of it it sounds a bit daft*, so I propose an experiment : present a series of carefully staged scenarios to a bunch of scientists and a court and see which does best. We take it for granted that both courts and scientists are good at establishing facts, but the two systems are very different. Scientists criticise each other, yes, but the adversarial process is quite different to the courtroom situation. So when Captain Picard says :

* Get two people to make the cleverest, most persuasive arguments for and against a position ? Knowing how persuasion works, and knowing that people of the jury will lie all over the above chart, this seems like a very weird idea.


... we should wonder if a) this is really correct and b) whether there isn't a better way of doing things.


Conclusion : yes, you can be an evil genius, but please don't

To really describe the evil genius, we'd need to add malevolence as a third axis. As I said, lawyers aren't necessarily evil or doing evil things, and they certainly don't go home at night to cackle away in their creepy dungeons. Probably. But they do exemplify the kind of thinking that can be described as evil genius in the right circumstances. Sure, the people who fit all three criteria (highly biased, highly analytical, and highly malevolent) are rare, but they're also disproportionately dangerous.

This realm of uncritical, highly analytical intellect is what the British left-wing media is either refusing to believe in or doesn't realise is possible. It's why, as Stephen Pinker eloquently put it, "things that can't go on forever can on for much longer than you think". It's how people can have absolutely lamentably, horrifically stupid goals but then set about accomplishing them in amazingly sophisticated ways. It's one way - only one way, mind you - by which people can become locked in to a course that goes directly against their own interests.

Part of the appeal of conspiracy theories of the evil-lizard-men ilk is that we want to believe someone's in charge, even if they're not very nice. It helps us make sense of a messed-up reality. But saying that an evil genius is impossible, that anyone bent on a course that seems to be obviously self-destructive will in fact self-destruct, is also a mistake. Yes, eventually they may come crashing down in a big ugly heap, but the British media seems to think that every minor difficulty for them poses an insurmountable challenge - even as they keep on succeeding. This is to misunderstand how genuinely clever such people can be : just because their goals are those of lunatics does not mean they don't know some incredibly astute methods to accomplish them. To say that the evil genius does not exist is, I'm sorry to say, little more than wishful thinking.

Friday, 28 February 2020

Epictetus, The Angry Stoic (V)

At last we reach the thrilling finale to this pointless mini-series examining a popular but daft philosophy. Last time we pretty much nailed Stoicism down as being fundamentally incomplete and probably flawed. If all our suffering is opinion, there appears to be nothing much from stopping us from committing wanton depravity save some external, arbitrary factors like God or whatever. Worse, Epictetus even encourages us - albeit on rare occasions - to actively exploit suffering to further our own advantage.

This seems bonkers. There's one last avenue to explore. We've already looked at how people are supposed to behave, but by and large Stoicism doesn't say much about how we should try and influence other people. So let's see if Epictetus really does want to try and minimise, rather than ignore, suffering, and how he proposes to go about this.


The (slightly) sociological Stoic

The central paradox of Stoicism still isn't resolved. Everything is opinion; we have absolute control of ourselves despite the need for extensive training; we're supposed to be able to endure literally any hardship and this may or may not extend to letting other people suffer at the hands of others. Epictetus' Stoicism is very much centred on the individual, and while we're frequently exhorted to duty...
Get married, raise children, and be prepared to hold the usual public offices.
[DBII23]
... Epictetus also looks down on such base concerns, sometimes being downright (selfishly) rude about the elderly :
'I am ill here,' said a student, 'and want to go home'.
Because you were never ill at home, I suppose ? Consider whether you are doing anything here to improve your will. Because if you aren't achieving anything, you arrived here for no reason to begin with. Leave, attend to your affairs at home... add to your savings, look after your ageing father, frequent the law-courts, serve as a magistrate, and do whatever comes next - you sorry creature, in your sad and sorry way.

[DBIII5]
Is Stoicism therefore also a license to insult ? It's all very strange : for someone so strongly espousing fortitude and aloofness, he doesn't half go off on a damn good angry rant from time to time. It's hard not to wonder if Epictetus didn't have multiple personalities, or possibly was just an angry drunk.

But anyway, the focus on the individual doesn't entirely exclude the sociological. He makes it clear that some people should be in charge and others shouldn't. In fact, he looks down upon the great majority of mankind as somewhat worse than the Great Unwashed :
Some of us sink to the level of wolves - faithless, vicious, and treacherous. Others turn into lions - wild, savage, and uncivilised. But most us become like foxes, the sorriest of the lot. For what else is a spiteful, malicious man except a fox, or something even lower and less dignified ?
[DBI3]
Think you're mean ? You'll never be as mean as Epictetus.
Never send a philosopher to do a naturalist's job. But how to organise this rabble of adorable woodland creatures ?

Enter the Stoic, pursued by a bear.

A few people in the crowd are capable of reflection; what is this world, they want to know, and who runs it ? Someone must - for no country or estate can function for any length of time without its governor or steward. Naturally they are laughed at by the majority... and I suppose if cattle had opinions, they would make fun of anyone interested in anything besides the grass !

[DBII14]
Charming. But that, alas, is just about all Epictetus has to say on the subject of governance. Few indeed are the hints given as to what sort of specific laws should be enacted - not for Epictetus the myriad of problems of formulating an ideal society, a la Plato. Fair enough, I suppose, but frustrating all the same.

If Epictetus gives no indication of social policies, he at least does give a few hints as to how to behave in society. As usual, despite all the paradoxes, there's plenty of good advice here. As he says, Stoics don't preach contempt for rulers : but they do prefer a quite different mode of respect from the normal one :
'Everybody gives me their attention and respect.;' Right, and I pay attention to my blackboard, wiping it and washing it; and for my oil flask I'll even drive a nail in the wall. Does that make these things better than me ? No - it just means that they are useful to me somehow. I look after my horse too.
'But I can cut off your head.' Good point; I had forgotten that I should look out for you as I would look out for some virus or infection.

[DBI19]
This, I think, he means quite literally. We should be wary of the powerful, but treat them primarily as our servants (when they start to think it's the other way around, that's when we should start to think of them as dangers to be avoided). We should default to treating them as useful tools and afford them the same level and type of respect. Likewise, while he also advocates for self-sufficiency wherever possible, he also emphasises that man is a social animal. He reconciles these two viewpoints essentially by saying that we should all have a mutual stake in each other's interests : we all have ownership of and in the community in which we live.
It is a universal law that every creature alive is attached to nothing so much as to its own self-interest. The upshot is that if you identify self-interest with piety, honesty, country, parents and friends, then they are all secure. Wherever 'me' and 'mine' are, that's where every creature necessarily tends.
[DBII22]
In fact he goes as far as to say that we should treat everyone as family. Given that Epictetus would undoubtedly play the role of cantankerous uncle, this isn't necessarily such a good idea. I mean, only Epictetus could praise the family while in the same breath insulting children - and yet again raising his fixation with runny noses :
For God's sake, who benefits society more, people who produce two or three brats with runny noses to survive them, or those who supervise in each person's life what they care about or mistakenly neglect ? My friend, he fathers everyone : every man is his son, every woman his daughter. That is how he regards everyone, and how much he cares for them.
[DBIII22]
Well, I suppose a Stoic attitude would help you deal with annoying children... I almost wonder if Epictetus developed the entire thing to deal with runny-nosed little tots.
At least this does emphasise the importance of philosophers in society. He also says, with his usual directness, that one should either play the philosopher or not. If you realise you're no good at it, don't torture yourself by trying to adopt principles you're ill-suited to : go back into the regular world as soon as you can. Accept that in ordinary society there are different rules to academia, and if you have chosen such a path, remember that you won't get anywhere without respecting those rules. In short, commit yourself fully (or at least as fully as possible) to philosophy or society, not both.
You can't expect the same reception from the group you used to associate with if you don't go carousing with them regularly any more.
[DBIV2]
Refuse to praise someone and you cannot expect the same compensation as a flatterer. It would be unfair and greedy on your part, then, to decline to pay the price that these privileges entail.
[E24]
This doesn't mean that you actually should resort to flattery, only that you can't expect to be treated the same as someone who plays by the usual conventions of society and degrades themselves in such a way. Stoicism, of course, gives you the power not to get the things you desire, but to stop desiring them.

For those who choose the path of philosophy, Epictetus doesn't expect them to become hermits. They must still interact with the world, though (especially during training) they should be very careful about this. To a degree, this makes sense. Learning to be a Stoic is difficult, as already conceded.
You should be especially careful when associating with one of your former friends or acquaintances not to sink to their level; otherwise you will lose yourself.
[DBIV2]
But the ease with which it seems possible to abandon one's Stoic viewpoints seems perilously easy. How can one be said to be a Stoic if it's so easy to fall back on one's base nature ?
What kind of peace is this that is so easily shattered - not by the emperor or even by a friend of the emperor, but by a crow, a street musician, a cold, or a thousand other annoyances ?
[DBIV4]
Very little is needed for everything to be upset and ruined, only a slight lapse in reason. If you doze off, all your progress up to that point will be negated. It is no small thing that is being watched over, it equates with honesty, trustworthiness, and stability. It is freedom from passion, grief, fear and consternation - it is freedom itself.
[DBIV3]
I suppose we have to assume that this is because of the aforementioned difference between knowledge and belief. An intellectual knowledge of what one should do is not at all the same as a deeper conviction and genuine desire to actually do it. Until he achieves such a state, the would-be Stoic needs to be very careful. Epictetus cautions strongly against deliberately trying to endure difficult situations, because that will likely result in disaster and is usually an excuse to fall back into old habits :
If you lose the struggle once, but insist that next time it will be different, then repeat the same routine - be sure that in the end you will be in so sad and weakened a condition that you won't even realise your mistakes, you'll begin to rationalise your misbehaviour.
[DBII18]
I emphasise the repetition since Epictetus isn't trying to say that a single lapse is fatal, especially if we've tried to do something above our abilities. We have to do things gradually and incrementally.
You should be careful about fraternising with non-philosophers in these contexts; remember that if you consort with someone covered in dirt you can hardly avoid getting a little grimy yourself.
Why are they stronger than you ? Because they talk such garbage from conviction, whereas your fine talk is no more than lip service. It lacks life and vigour; anyone listening to your speeches might well come to hate that damned 'virtue' you keep proclaiming. Conviction is quite a potent and irresistible force. So until those fine principles take root in you so that you can begin to rely on them a little, I advise you to use discretion in associating with such people.

[DBIII16]
But this attitude arguably extends to the fully-fledged Stoic too. To repeat of couple of quotes we started with :
Let silence be your goal for the most part; say only what is necessary, and be brief about it. Try to influence your friends to speak appropriately by your example. Keep laughter to a minimum; do not laugh too often or too loud.
[E33]
Don't talk much about the event [public games] afterwards, or any more than is necessary to get it out of your system. Otherwise it becomes obvious that the experience captivated you.
[E33]
On the other hand, this could because that's the very nature of Stoicism : not feeling anything too strongly. It could also be a recognition that feigning emotions has a tendency to induce them. Or it could simply be that the fully-fledged Stoic can indeed endure anything, but is simply leading by example. Rather than designing the rules for an ideal society a la Plato, Epictetus chooses only to set forth how individuals should behave, presuming that their example will bring about wider change. In that sense there is a conscious effort and intent to change society, it's just done by a subtle method.

I, for one, can't believe that has the slightest chance of success. And in fact it didn't, otherwise the Roman Empire would have been awash with Stoics (notably, while Marcus Aurelius may have been a decent chap, his son and successor Commodus was certainly not). More generally, remaining largely silent seems like a surefire way to fall into an echo chamber, as you'll only associate with other possibly philosophically-minded but definitely oddly untalkative people. Without debate, you have no chance of changing your own mind, let alone anyone else's. So this "shut up and lead by example" instruction is something I have to reject. Ask questions dammit, and don't presume that you won't be refuted. Continuously test your own beliefs as well as those around you  - and this self-scrutiny is crucial in leaders most of all. But Epictetus largely inclines towards the opposite viewpoint :
I want you to show me a person willing to work with, and never criticise, either God or a fellow human being. One who will never fail, or have experiences he does not want; who will never give in to anger, jealousy, or the desire to dominate others... I will define him as someone set on becoming a god.
[DBII19]
I think he probably meant "becoming a sheep". Of course, elsewhere he says the exact bloody opposite.
I find this another impossible hypocrisy. Even leaving aside Epictetus' own tendency towards vicious insults against innocent bystanders, his words of the ideal Cynic at least show what he was aiming at even if he didn't succeed himself.
I never been angry with God or another human being; I've never yelled at anyone. Have you ever seen me with a sad expression ? The people before whom you bow and tremble - when I meet them, I treat them as if they were slaves.
[DBIII22]
The signs of a person making progress : he never criticises, praises, blames, or points the finger, or represents himself as knowing or amounting to anything. He has expunged all desire, and made the things that are contrary to nature and in his control the sole target of his aversion. Impulse he only uses with detachment.
[E48] 
While avoiding dominance is laudable, I don't think it makes any kind of sense to avoid criticising others. Indeed, I don't see how one can work with people without criticising them if they do in fact deserve criticism. Angrily rebuking them does not and should not mean that one would prefer to send them into exile or beat them over the head with a porcupine, rather it should be more equivalent to his earlier quote about telling people, "your desires are unhealthy, your plans are incoherentetc. Criticism should have the goal of preventing them from making further mistakes in the future (and - even better - to guiding them towards making positively good decisions instead), not for insulting them in order to gratify the accuser.

Given the extent of the contradictions, one minute telling us to ignore everyone else completely, and the next telling us to behave like a sheep, I have to wonder if Epictetus was simply insane.

It's important that ad hominem attacks, where necessary, are both justified and relevant. It makes little or no sense to bring up someone's hairstyle when it comes to their opinion about aircraft design or taxation levels. But it makes no sense at all to completely avoid criticising them if they themselves are just no good at aircraft design, if their terrible idea to make the wings out of plasticine isn't due to some silly mistake (like a typo or whatever) but because they're an idiot. Or if their taxation policy is designed to hurt disabled people, and not just due to an unforeseen consequence - then their morality can and should be attacked. The goal is to reform them and their ideas, and if they do so then they should be welcomed. Ad hominem attacks constitute a fallacy only if they attack something irrelevant*; using them as a first response to literally every throwaway comment someone says (as the hyperpartisan media tend to do) is also foolish. But avoiding them completely - never mind avoiding criticism itself ! - is at least equally problematic.

* A great many fallacies boil down to, "you're criticising the wrong thing."

There's a nice little quote which sums up the problem :
Our debating skills improve at the cost of our character.
[DBII10]
I both agree and disagree. Some have it that learning rhetoric encourages critical thinking, and to an extent this is true. But as I've argued before, rhetoric seems to dominate politics while the actual substance of debate is all too often treated with disdain. Learning rhetoric teaches us to be critical, but it doesn't necessarily teach the self-doubt that's an essential part of critical thinking. Making criticisms is just one aspect of self-examination, but it's hardly the whole story. Hence one can appear to successfully refute an argument without even understanding it; we can learn techniques to argue with others without necessarily remembering to apply that same scrutiny towards ourselves.

Perhaps this is the most basic flaw of Stoicism of all : that it teaches us to suppress human nature rather than dealing with it. Now there are many cases where this is important, where the correct solution is simply to learn self-control. I myself am I highly introverted, to the extent where I (sometimes) feel flushed and anxious about a trip to the post office*. I cannot stop this from happening, but I can learn to accept it - the physical symptoms still manifest, but I can still act rationally during the whole process (this is a real example by the way, so if you think it's silly or funny then I'll thank you to sod off).

* Well, at least the Czech ones. It's uncomfortable not knowing if they'll speak English or not or how many people I'll have to deal with to post a simple letter.

My point is that while my Stoical attitude makes perfect sense in a lot of everyday situations, and there are many people far more emotional than me who could benefit a great deal from Stoicism, there are other circumstances in which it makes no sense at all. Trying to suppress anger at genuine injustice will only lead to further perpetration of that injustice; likewise, refusing to praise people for doing good is a recipe for disaster. Trying to make humans into Vulcans will just lead to pent-up emotional explosions. Yes, there are many lessons from Stoicism that could be applied directly to the theatre of debate, but we shouldn't avoid debate completely. Nor should we avoid emotional reactions completely. That won't make us more rational - it will have the very opposite effect. Failing to understand the emotions of others will mean we cannot tell when they're being rhetorical and when they're sincere, and that brings disaster.

Epictetus, as I've said, views the mind and body as separate entities. But if we adopt a different view, that the mind is either a product of or at least directly affected by the body, then the whole Stoical worldview collapses. If emotions are an intrinsic part of our mental state, and not some strange aberration, then we must learn to manage them, not simply extirpate them.
Man, the rational animal, can put up with anything except what seems to him irrational; whatever is rational is tolerable. Physical hardships are not intolerable by nature.
[DBI2]
This, I think, is simply wrong. Natural, physical events can cause unendurable hardship, and there should be no shame in that (and yet another contradiction, since Epictetus elsewhere allows suicide). While there is far more to life than merely allocating resources, to deny that this plays an important role in human happiness is as bad as saying that only economics leads to happiness.




The return of the selfish Stoic

All in all, the Stoic philosopher as part of society feels like a strange beast. To his great credit, Epictetus not only acknowledges that some of the advice given seems bizarre but also that it is open to doubt.
Rufus used to say, 'If you have nothing better to do than praise me for it, then my speech was a failure.'
[DBIII23]
Thank goodness for that, otherwise all this would have been a monumental waste of time ! But how to participate in a debate with those we disagree with ? Even more importantly, what happens when we reach an impasse ? As I've said before, in general the only sensible answer to the question, "do you want to be right or do you want to win ?" is both. There are exceptions though :
'I want everyone I meet to admire me, to follow me around shouting, "What I great philosopher !" ' And who exactly are these people that you want to be admired by ? Aren't they the same people that you are in the habit of calling crazy ? And is this your life ambition, then - to win the approval of lunatics ?
[DBI21]
There's clearly no point in winning the approval of lunatics, and convincing the irrational requires irrational arguments anyway. But Epictetus goes rather further, totally prioritising being right over being persuasive. If, in the end, we reach the limits of Aumann's Agreement Theorem, we just have to sit back and feel smugly content with ourselves.
If you are ever tempted to look for outside approval, realise that you have compromised your integrity. So be satisfied just being a philosopher, and if you need a witness in addition, be our own, and you will have all the witness you could desire.
[E23]
This is perhaps comforting to some but incredibly self-centred, presuming a tremendous arrogance that "outside approval" might not come from someone much more expert and intelligent than you. No philosopher ever said that truth could be decided by majority opinion, and Epictetus is no exception :
A true philosopher is under no obligation to respect vulgar opinion as to what is religious or irreligious, what is just or unjust. What dishonour he brings on philosophers in general if he did !
[DBI29]
... but this idea of not seeking outside approval at all goes many steps further. And bear in mind his other conflicting statements that we shouldn't always stick to a decision but shouldn't let anyone else tell us what to do. Now these could be reconciled with a discussion of context and the broader principles at work, but Epictetus doesn't do that.

I prefer to suggest that we should seek approval from intelligent, experienced experts, trying to recognise our own deficiencies. True, in some cases we ourselves will be more expert than others, and so seeking the approval of "lunatics" is indeed flawed. But as a general rule, I don't think shunning outside approval is sensible : it's just more complex than that, and can't easily be generalised.

Similarly, Epictetus suggests that it doesn't matter if no-one knows who we are :
Don't let thoughts like the following disturb you : 'I am going to live a life of no distinction, a nobody in complete obscurity.' Is lack of distinction bad ? Because if it is, other people cannot be the cause of another's disgrace. Is it solely at your discretion that you are elevated to office, or invited to a party ? No, so it cannot be a dishonour if you are not.
[E24]
Which is again true only to a degree. The authority of popularity engenders a confidence in content that would otherwise be utterly disregarded, whereas obscurity conveys distrust (or simply lack of interest) in even the most perceptive and important analyses. But if you think you have something important to contribute, if you think that popular opinion is wrong or incomplete, then being obscure and right is no virtue. Indeed, you have a duty to express your opinion : you should at least try to stop people from making horrible mistakes. This in no way precludes the caveat that you might be wrong, but again, sincere dialogue and discussion is the best way to test that - not hiding and doing nothing.

To be fair, the message here may be more of consolation than advice : if we try but fail, this is not always our fault, so we shouldn't sink into despair. The problem is that absolutely no advice is given as to how to judge if it was our fault or not. How should we prevent ourselves from reaching the wrong conclusions ?  What criteria do we have to judge objective truth ? This is not Epictetus' purview, which feels like a bit of a cop-out. If being correct is so important, then we deserve some instruction as to how we go about this. If convincing people isn't important, then we again get back to the Stoical problems of letting people stew in their own personal hell rather than trying to actually lift a damn finger and do something about it.

(It should also be noted that both of the above quotes are phrased explicitly as instructions on how to act in the future, not how to respond to what's already occurred. So I think I may even be being generous by interpreting them as consolation.)

And yet we should remember that for all that Epictetus derides the general populace, he still insists that we're not supposed to hide away quietly philosophising :
We fail to realise how little we differ from the mass of mean, the only difference being that they are afraid that they will not hold office, while you are afraid that you will.
[DBIV4]
Does the "take events as you find them" attitude help here ? As in, "oh, I've just thought of this mechanism to reduce crime overnight but no-one is listening to me, but never mind", or equally, "oh whoops, I've just become a senator, even though I'm a terrible judge of character, but never mind". I don't think it does. Self knowledge is merely imperfect, not wholly flawed. Kudos to Epictetus for advising us to participate in society, but I don't subscribe to the idea we should just sort of go with the flow. I'd like to know beforehand if I should hold office, not deal with this after the fact.

The problem can be expressed using one of Epictetus' own metaphors :
The school of a philosopher is a hospital. When you leave, you should have suffered, not enjoyed yourself.
[DBIII23]
Doctors treat diseases, which is great. Cures, devised by researchers, are even better. Epictetus offers both of these. But prevention is surely best of all, and Epictetus utterly neglects this. Why ? Because he views so much of what happens as being totally outside our control, a fundamentally Stoic doctrine. And the metaphor isn't a great one anyway. You only go to hospital because you're already suffering, and while the treatment might be unpleasant, the end result ought to offset this. Yet while Epictetus is usually only concerned with how we endure unfortunate circumstances beyond our control, when it comes to Stoicism, endurance and suffering are seen as things we should actively embrace, not avoid.
This is a particularly charming clause in the Cynic contract : you are going to be beaten like a donkey, and must love your tormentors as if you were their father or brother.
[DBIII22]
Seriously, will ya just leave the animals alone already ?
As for philosophy, it's fun to consider other viewpoints, especially those you disagree with. There's no compulsion for suffering - that's a rather holier-than-thou attitude I can't accept. But then, Epictetus is largely convinced he already knows the answers and merely needs to impart them, which is very different from the investigative approach of - dare I say it - true philosophers. What Epictetus offers is ultimately not philosophy, but counselling.

On occasion, Epictetus even denies the value on inquiry - albeit specific sorts of inquiry :
What do I care whether matter is made up of atoms, indivisible, or fire and water ? Isn't it enough to know the nature of good and evil, the limits of desire and aversion, and of choice and refusal, and to use these as virtual guidelines for how to live ? Questions beyond our ken we should ignore since the human mind may be unable to grasp them.... what's to be gained by understanding them in any case ?
[F1]
The obvious retort being, "well, your whole damn belief system is predicated on the idea that mind dominates the body, so we could start by looking at the nature of matter, you berk." But Epictetus isn't listening. He already knows the answer - he wants to explain, not examine.
The nature of the Universe was, is, and always will be the same, and things cannot happen any differently than they do now.
[F8]


Summary and conclusions

Phew, that was a long one. If you read the entire thing, go and get yourself a cookie, you've earned it. Or, if you don't have any cookies, it doesn't matter - your disappointment is merely a matter of opinion anyway.

There's a certain spirit to the text that I could never possibly hope to capture in an analysis no matter how many quotes I used, which is why I highly recommend reading it in full. Still, while I cannot doubt the sincerity of Epictetus' honourable intentions, I do deny many of his conclusions. That's why I've tried to pick multiple examples wherever possible, to demonstrate that I'm not cherry picking or taking things too literally : that the problems and contradictions are all too real and too damning to ignore.

It's not that there isn't wisdom here. It's that there's also a great deal of "nope". The idea that we can learn to have total control over our opinions is philosophically dubious and morally suspect.

If nothing else, this case study has shown why abstract philosophical notions really matter. The nature of mind and matter is interesting in its own right, but has direct psychological, sociological, and political implications too : it informs how we should act toward one another. Which, in the end, is probably one of the most important questions of all. (Granted, however, we cannot tell if Epictetus himself derived his philosophy from reasoning or only used reasoning to rationalise his pre-existing belief.)

The prevailing view in the text is that the mind is separate from the body. At most, it might suffer from limited powers of perception, but the ability to make correct judgements given full and correct information can never be impaired. We might, of course, be hindered by our lack of knowledge as to how to correctly apply our various faculties in judging different problems. But ultimately, the mind and the will cannot be thwarted. Everything depends upon perception and opinion - it's just a matter of learning mental control. Since everything we believe happens through perception, and through our own awareness of that perception, everything is subjective. Everything is opinion. And so no-one is ever really suffering, and if they think they are, they simply have a wrong opinion. Opinions, you see, are completely optional and subject to the absolute control of the mind, at least with proper training.

Mercifully, Epictetus doesn't follow this through to the extreme end point in which reality is "nothing like" what we perceive it to be. I stand by my opinion that this is bollocks, that external reality definitely exists, but we can only ever define it by how it affects our perceptions.
We can, certainly, influence what we believe by seeking out different sources of information; we can learn to endure a great deal of both physical and mental hardships. But these have limits. We cannot perform complex mathematics while in total agony or with some twit shoving rancid butter up our nose : our judgement can be impaired by external events. And not only by extreme events, but by the littlest things, as the whole Cambridge Analytica scandal testifies. We can't believe our way out of reality - it just doesn't work like that.

We can be on our guard, of course. We can learn about manipulation and psychology, and investigate different ways of forming conclusions. But none of this can ever undo the simple fact that external events influence our opinions and judgements - and Epictetus doesn't even try to outline the best methods to ensure good judgement.

Where it really falls apart is when it comes to morality. Despite laudable efforts to ensure that Stoics act for the common good, Epictetus labours in vain to remedy a fatal flaw in the whole Stoic world view : if everything is subjective opinion, then no-one can ever be said to be really suffering. Criminals only act out of ignorance, while victims only suffer because they choose to let events affect them. Make yourself invincible by changing your opinion ? It's not for me, thanks. I'd rather investigate the best conditions in which we could all live together, rather than insisting that anyone unhappy should just shut up and deal with it. And I stress that Epictetus is replete with far too many examples of saying, "shut up and let other people suffer" for this to be dismissed as mere rhetoric : he intends it as real, practical advice on how to live.

Stoicism, in the end, offers personal peace by throwing everyone else under a bus. As consolation and counselling, it has much merit in teaching us to deal with disasters when they befall us. But as a sociological guide to life, as preparation for what to expect and how to behave, it's a worse disaster than the Titanic - because it says that everyone on the Titanic should have had the decency to drown quietly.

And psychologically too there are enormous problems. Stoicism doesn't want us to manage and control our emotions - it wants us to eliminate them entirely. This is simply not an option, and attempts to do so are downright dangerous. Sure, we can learn emotional control, and even alter what we experience emotionally (familiarity breeds acceptance), but attempting to make ourselves into robots is never going to work. Total elimination of desires, of suppressing joy and grief and rage and lust, all so that we can prepare to die rather than cut off our beard, is nothing I'd sign up for. Why bother being alive in such a state ? The true Stoic would indeed be little more than a "miserable corpse".

And as we've seen, criminal ignorance looks a lot like Stoic bliss.

Yet much of Stoicism can be salvaged. In moderation and in proper context, very little of it is without merit. Eliminate my desires ? No thanks, but teaching me to control them, to account for my own emotional biases when forming judgements, to analyse whether my rage or despair or hope is justified ? Yes please, that's actually useful. To allow me to justify any career path I want, even if I'm no good at it ? That's stupid. To prepare in advance, to honestly say to myself, "I wouldn't be any good at this, but I might be good at that" - that's helpful. And likewise, to callously dismiss the problems of others as being only their opinion ? No thanks. But to be able myself to endure hardship when there is no alternative - not to avoid the emotional pain, but to still be able to act sensibly in order to survive it, that, surely, is a worthy goal.

So I will end on an upbeat note, because I despise a pessimistic finish. Stoicism as a complete world view is lame and should be utterly dismissed. But individual insights are profound and pragmatic. Let's finish, then, with my ten favourite quotes in handy meme-format. They may not be your traditional, "just believe in yourself" nonsense, but then Epictetus is at his best when not bound by Stoic mantra.

On re-thinking decisions



That external forces are not all there is



That a little wisdom is a dangerous thing



That self-interest does not have to lead to selfishness



That other people may understand us better than we do ourselves



Be careful what you wish for



That knowledge is not the same as understanding or wisdom



That the freedom without understanding is not freedom at all



That the ignorant can never be free