Archive for November 7th, 2011

Putting Descartes before the Deists

November 7, 2011

But not before the horse.

Please forgive the bad pun, my old jokester pals from Grad School reinfected me this weekend. (Kept me from grading, too. I gave you an extension, students, I know you’ll graciously reciprocate.)

And what an amazing reunion weekend it was, wrapped around the annual meeting of the Tennessee Philosophical Association and punctuated Sunday afternoon by an incredible High School performance of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. We really do need to learn our own sociopolitical history, and make better history going forward. Wasn’t it Faulkner who said the past isn’t really past at all?

But the reunion: wow! Re-connecting with philosophers and old friends (many of them last sighted around these parts during the Reagan administration) in from Alabama, North Carolina, Corpus Christie, Washington D.C., Seattle and points between, all gathering again in Furman Hall (and Blackstone’s) to honor the old Grad School mentor and specialist in modern philosophy (not to mention Kant) whose tireless devotion and dedication we were all humbled by, and are deeply grateful for.

And today in CoPhi we turn to some of his favorite philosophers and subjects: the scientific revolution, Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, and the English Deists (my personal favorite is John Toland, who came up with the term “pantheist” and for whom John Locke invented the term “freethinker”).

Dubito ergo sum makes at least as much sense as Descartes’ actual slogan. (But then, just about any 1st-person Latin verb will do.)  Thinking’s easy, doubting’s hard (because it moves the ground beneath your feet). While you’re only thinking, you’re stuck in your head. Well, not even your head, for a metaphysical dualist like Descartes. Stuck in your mind, a doubly problematic predicament. Should consciousness really be “esteemed higher than the universe”? And does “inner certainty” ever prove a thing?

Spinoza, we recall, was a pantheist: God didn’t make the world, God is the world and we’re its “nodes.” What then becomes of free will? Not so much, on his view. He might have been right, but I still literally can’t allow myself to believe it. I’m a lot more comfortable with his stance on miracles and supernaturalism (“it could simply be dismissed”), and am charmed by his short list of Epicurean delights – “study, wine, good food, the beauty of green things, theater, and sports.” He was a complex thinker of simple virtue, striving to “live honestly… for the excellence of virtue itself.” (Not unlike the Vandy Professor we honored this past weekend, who taught us what he knew of “Spinozer.”)

Hobbes, Mr. SolitaryPoorNasty (etc.), is a more intriguing figure viewed through the lens of doubt. Hell is just a “fantasy to control people” (like his “Leviathan”?), people are riven by the fears (and ghosts and gods and devils) they themselves have dreamed up, the world is a “machinelike thing that runs itself.” He said things that got lots of his contemporaries scorched, and his making it to age 92 may just be a miracle.

Also noted in today’s reading: Galileo (“E pur, si muove”), BayleBoyle, Newton, Locke, Berkeley, Toland, and Pascal, whose gambling sense was more than just “odd.” He said you should place your money (meaning your life) on God, for fear that betting against Him might make you an eternal loser. JMH notes the howling statistical error at the heart of this specious reasoning:

We may be struck by lightning or not, but that doesn’t make it a fifty-fifty proposition.

Pascal‘s bad wager underscores something more to appreciate about Spinoza.

What Pascal decried as the misery of man without the Biblical God, was for Spinoza the liberation of the human spirit from the bonds of fear and superstition.

But then again, the strange case of Newton reminds us: you can be a really brilliant scientist– Neil Tyson says there’s never been anyone better– and also believe in woo (like alchemy and the philosophers’ stone). Weird, but also cautionary. Michael Shermer says smart people believe weird things for perfectly comprehensible bad reasons, and that’s probably right. But we should still leave a crack in the door for extraordinary experiences to squeeze through, when and if they come calling.

Speaking of weird, Pierre Bayle’s Dictionary was a smash bestselling New Skeptical bombshell, with “a good deal of sex” as a bonus. I’m actually more intrigued by his earlier comet book, “the first-ever all-out defense of the morals of an atheist.” He was “good without God” before it was cool. (Watch the next section for Diderot’s echo of this theme.) And, Bayle shared Hobbes’ view of Hell back when that could still get you ground-roasted.

Spinoza & Leibniz (& Einstein)… modern timesDescartes & Montaigne