Posts Tagged ‘Spinoza’

Pindar in the dugout (?)

May 31, 2012

Nineteen years ago, back when it was still just the two of us, we lived out on the Davidson-Cheatham county line on River Road. Turn right out of the driveway to head back into (relative) civilization, or left to go deeper into the rustic rural hinterlands. It was a pretty place to be, but (we thought) no place to live with small children. So when Older Daughter arrived a couple years into our marriage we moved to town. No regrets, and yet…

We decided to head back that way last night for our anniversary dinner. Riverview may not look or sound like a romantic destination, but it was. So was the journey. And the catfish and hushpuppies were, as expected, superlative.

And also as predicted, the fish inspired interesting dreams: in one I encountered my old professor of Greek & classics. Frisbees (Olympian disks?) were being hurled. I overheard Professor T. tell someone that I “looked like Pindar in the dugout.”

Pindar? I don’t know Pindar. So I looked him up. Some said he was the greatest Greek lyric poet of antiquity,

in virtue of his inspired magnificence, the beauty of his thoughts and figures, the rich exuberance of his language and matter, and his rolling flood of eloquence, characteristics which, as Horace rightly held, make him inimitable.”His poems however can also seem difficult and even peculiar… much admired though largely unread

Hmmm. But what’s the dugout got to do with it?

Well, way ahead of Nietzsche Pindar said: “Become what you are.” Achieve your potential. Give 110%.

And he said: forget about immortality, “but enjoy to the full the resources that are within thy reach.” Stay within yourself. I’m trying, I’m trying! [More baseball cliches]

And especially fitting last night, out on the scenic deck at Riverview:

Youth is a blossom whose fruit is love, happy is he who plucks it after watching it slowly ripen.

He’s right about that. As Spinoza tweeted, love means “enjoyment of a thing and union therewith.” Heading into the twentieth year of a union that’s ripened nicely, I’d have to say we’re happy. Happy not in a merely Sisyphean way, but genuinely happy for the harvest of youthfulness reclaimed. Our trip down memory lane, aka River Road, was clarifying. And as noted, the fish was as good as it gets.

Spinoza & Leibniz (& Einstein)

March 22, 2011

Don’t like Descartes‘ metaphysical dualism? The other options on today’s menu are one substance or infinitely many. (“None”  is not an option for these two, but you could go back and warm up some leftover Montaigne if that’s your preference.)

Baruch Spinoza(1632-1677) thought everything was part of one universal reality (or metaphysical substance). He was a pantheist, holding that god is present in all of nature instead of transcending and creating it. English Deist John Toland may have coined the term originally. [JMH]

We’ve noted that Einstein was a fan: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” It may well be that “Spinoza’s God” continues to capture more scientific respect than any more traditional alternative.

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716), aka “Dr. Pangloss” in Voltaire’s Candide, thought reality was almost  infinitely various, but also boxed and sealed. We are “monads,” self-contained substances (not unlike Neo, pre-Morpheus) experiencing a pre-arranged harmony of perceptions orchestrated by a very controlling Master Monad. We have “no windows.”

The Einstein/Spinoza view of time & space is subtle and strange. It has tempted some to make more  of it than seems sensible [rebooted] but Spinoza clearly found his “bliss” in it. If we’re part of something practically eternal, from a finite point of view, does that lend us a share of immortality? With this perspective are we back, in roundabout fashion, to the Tao?

Or at least to the author of Walden, maybe? Asked if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau replied, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.” His God, with whom he communed daily on his saunters in and around Concord, MA, appears to have had much in common with Spinoza’s and Einstein’s.

Uncle Albert was not a New Atheist, nor quite an old one. He also said:

I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility… I cannot believe that God plays dice with the cosmos.

I always like to let Einstein give the benediction in my Intro classes, stay tuned for that. [parting wisdomsquashed Einstein… cosmic religion… Sagan’s hero…]

I could go on, but Marcel Marceau was right: “It’s good to shut up sometimes.”

Next time, STUDENTS: read to PW 88.

Spinoza & Leibniz (& Einstein)

October 28, 2010

Don’t like Descartes‘ metaphysical dualism? The other options on today’s menu are one substance or infinitely many. (“None”  is not an option for these two, but you could go back and warm up some leftover Montaigne if that’s your preference.)

Baruch Spinoza(1632-1677) thought everything was part of one universal reality (or metaphysical substance). He was a pantheist. We’ve noted that Einstein was a fan: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” It may well be that “Spinoza’s God” continues to capture more scientific respect than any more traditional alternative.

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716), aka “Dr. Pangloss” inCandide, thought reality was almost  infinitely various, but also boxed and sealed. We are “monads,” self-contained substances (not unlike Neo, pre-Morpheus) experiencing a pre-arranged harmony of perceptions orchestrated by a very controlling Master Monad. We have “no windows.”

& here’s more Einstein on Spinoza’s God and ultimate Reality:

and more:

The Einstein/Spinoza view of time & space is subtle and strange. It has tempted some to make more  of it than seems sensible [rebooted] but Spinoza clearly found his “bliss” in it. If we’re part of something practically eternal, from a finite point of view, does that lend us a share of immortality? With this perspective are we back, in roundabout fashion, to the Tao?

Or at least to the author of Walden?: asked if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau replied, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.” His God, with whom he communed daily on his saunters in and around Concord, MA, appears to have had much in common with Spinoza’s and Einstein’s.

Uncle Albert was not a New Atheist, nor quite an old one. He also said:

I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility… I cannot believe that God plays dice with the cosmos.

I always like to let Einstein give the benediction in my Intro classes, stay tuned for that. [parting wisdomsquashed Einstein… cosmic religionSagan’s hero…]

NOTE to students: the tornado alerts  messed with our afternoon classes on Tuesday, so everybody gets to wait ’til next Tuesday for Exam 2. No new quiz today, but Spinoza (& Einstein) and Leibniz will possibly be on the exam. We’ll get on with as many presentations as we can today, everybody please be present and ready to go. Remember, non-presenters, essays are due Tuesday too.

rationalists & empiricists, R.I.P.

March 17, 2010

Happy St. Pat’s Day, & Happy Birthday, Sis!

We were talking about Thomas Hobbes on Monday, about his negative evaluation of human nature as conducing to that “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, short” state of nature we supposedly contracted out of. This stands in such striking contrast to David Hume’s and Adam Smith’s notion that humans are naturally un-selfish (and that that’s why we can even begin to entertain the thought of a free-market economy).

I pick on Hobbes at every opportunity, for being so down on the human race. But he’s kind of a role model anyway. Simon Critchley notes: he walked vigorously every day in order to work up a sweat and lived to 91, in the desolate 17th century (when most were lucky to hit 40).  And he had a sharp wit. His epitaph of choice: “This is the true philosopher’s stone.” Don’t tell Harry Potter.

Descartes didn’t fare so well, dying at (yikes!) 53.  But no wonder, with this attitude: “My soul, you have been held captive a long time… leave the prison… relinquish the burden of this body.”

Before giving up his ghost, Descartes corresponded with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia. She pushed him on his problematic dualism: If the thinking mind is separate from the extended body, then how do mind and body interact? She was among the first of many to be underwhelmed by his speculative response that maybe it happens in the pineal gland.

Critchley says Descartes refused to take seriously Gassendi‘s objection that our ideas, even the clear-and-distinct ones, might be out of touch with reality. Well, though… he at least pretended to take it seriously, to motivate his “meditations” with hyperbolic doubt. I find that strategy suspect, and think we’re right to consider ourselves “in touch” most of the time. That doesn’t mean we can ever be indubitably certain that all our ideas are correct. It does imply that we should not  invent reasons to doubt in our studies what we cannot deny in our lives.

La Rochefoucauld thought the philosophers protested too much, those who tried so fervently to convince us that death is nothing to fear. “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.” And neither can safely be disregarded.

Blaise Pascal‘s snapshot of the human condition is bleak, but also reminiscent of Plato’s cave-dwellers: “Let us imagine a number of men in chains and all condemned to death, where some are killed each day in the sight of others.” If you’ve heard of his wager you probably thought he was a hyper -rationalist, but for Pascal reason is limited and cannot establish its own first principles… left to itself it leads to endless and unanswerable scepticism.” So maybe David Hume was being disingenous when he declared reason beside the point.

Where did Leibniz get his “monad” idea? Possibly from Anne Conway, who argued against materialism and against any distinction between mind and matter. What did Bertrand Russell think of Leibniz? “Optimistic, orthodox, fantastic and shallow.” Similarly, William James called Leibniz’s theodicy “superficiality incarnate.” Some have construed Leibniz’s bizarre monadology as a front for a very orthodox conception of God as master-planner and micro-manager. Ironic, then, that the name “Leibniz” was popularly derided as “glaubt nichts,” or unbeliever.

John Locke was much more modest and circumspect about the scope of philosophy, tracing ideas to each individual’s idiosyncratic “sensation and reflection.” But he didn’t think he could prove it, and that opened the door to critics who wanted to nail things (and ideas) down more definitively.

Spinoza said a free human being is one who lives according to reason alone and is not governed by fear. That would seem to exclude Hume, who insisted that life is not lived by reason alone (or even by reason in the greatest measure) and that death is the transformation of one natural being (a living human being) into another natural being (the corpse as natural being). Pardon me if I don’t find that entirely consoling.

How civilized are humans, really? According to Vico, there is a constant danger of a cataclysmic return to a new age of the beasts.

English freethinker John Toland invented the term “pantheism,” commonly taken for atheism but  really a form of spiritual materialism. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing.

For George Berkeley, the independent reality of the material world is nowhere affirmed in the Bible. So, being a strict constructionist, he found nothing real in death. Again, pardon me if I don’t find that wholly persuasive.

Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks to kick.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Thanks in advance for not asking when your papers will be graded. The invariable answer, of course, is: ASAP. (That’s “the memo”– the one I’ll refer you to, if you ask me that question.)

exorcists

March 16, 2010

A nice barely-planned symmetry: we begin the second half of our semester in A&S with  Carl Sagan, who also began the first.

In Demon-haunted world the “elegant and witty” exobiologist again implores us to light a candle and neither curse nor fear the darkness. Cursing and fearing are inveterate bad habits of our species, going back to St. Paul’s “high places” and beyond. How delightfully, wickedly ironic, that “demon” means “knowledge”… and that women have so frequently been demonized in our sexually repressed, male-dominated society. And, how appalling that more than half of Americans tell pollsters they “believe” in the Devil’s existence. They should read the Devil’s Dictionary: FAITH, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.

In the Gifford lectures that became Varieties of Scientific Experience we’re reminded it’s very easy to call people who believe in a different kind of god atheists, and in fact anybody who doesn’t believe exactly as I do. Sagan brings the same perspective to bear in sifting the differences among Abrahamic believers as he does when comparing ours to the gaze of an extra-terrestrial. The fundamental differences among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are trivial compared to their similarities.But those trivial differences, comic though they are (as with the naive Western view of God as an outsize, light-skinned male with a long white beard) have been deadly. Maybe it’s time to give Spinoza’s and Einstein’s God a hearing.

Sagan: Certainly it is insufficient to say “I believe in that sort of god because that’s what I was told when I was young”… We cannot depend entirely upon what people say. We have to look at the evidence, or else admit that we’re just not interested in trying to defend rational beliefs.

There are a few arguments Rebecca Goldstein missed here. The argument from atomic combinations and the argument from the suspension of the world fail, but they try.

Is Sagan being impertinent when he asks why God wouldn’t have engraved the Ten Commandments (say) on the Moon?

Also in today’s reading: an excerpt from John Updike’s Roger’s Version (Updike was a theist, btw), J.L. Mackie’s Miracle of Theism, Michael Shermer’s “Genesis Revisited,” A.J. Ayer’s weird oxygen-deprivation account of “what I saw when I was dead” (not God), and Dan Dennett’s more sensible (and grateful) reflections on his own near-death experience in “Thank Goodness!”

[NOTE to A&S students: the syllabus got ahead of itself. For Thursday read thru the next Dennett piece, “A Working Definition of Religion”]

Who knows?

March 1, 2010

Montaigne and Descartes, not quite contemporaries at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries, represent two poles of French philosophy, two very different mindsets and worldviews, and two fundamentally different ways of thinking about knowledge, truth, and reason. Both valued knowledge and learning, but had different notions of how we stand in relation thereto. Figuring out which of them you like more, just like deciding if you’re a Platonist or an Aristotelian, will go far towards clarifying your own philosophy. Pictured here (from top left:) Montaigne, Descartes, Newton, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, and Kant

Montaign’e slogan, we’ve seen, is “What do I know?” Descartes is famous for “Cogito, ergo sum,” supposedly a foundation-stone in an edifice of unshakable (“indubitable”) certainty.

The up-side of Montaigne’s skepticism is his tolerance. Tolerance would remain in short supply throughout the modern era. No kidding.

Descartes’s most important thesis was his insistence on our ability to think for ourselves. Good. And Montaigne won’t disagree. Descartes insisted that we push our doubts to their extremes, to the point of absurdity, where they will rebound and give us indubitable truth. Hmmm. How do you grab that rebound exactly, Rene?

Descartes’s Meditations [squashed version] are still entrancing students and scholars of philosophy all these centuries later. So is his mind-body problem, though there aren’t many working dualists among professional philosophers these days.

In Spinoza‘s vision, there was no ultimate distinction between different individuals. We are all part of the same single substance… our sense of distance from [Einstein’s?] God is mistaken. Spinoza also defended determinism, akin to fate. Whatever happens to us, happens necessarily. We should accept the universal necessity of nature, and feel the bliss of what Spinoza (the “God-intoxicated” atheist) called “intellectual love of God.”

Leibniz— you remember, Mr. Best of All Possible Worlds (as tagged by Voltaire) was not a monist or a dualist, or even a pluralist, but was an infinitist about substances. The world consists of innumerable simple substances, monads… God is the super-monad. No monad actually interacts with any other, but it seems like they– we– do, thanks to “pre-established harmony.” Weird.

Newton demonstrated the possibility of understanding the world in terms of a few simple, elegant principles. He also messed around with alchemy and other scientifically-disreputable chimeras. But he’s still Neil de Grasse Tyson’s favorite scientist/philosopher.

live long and prosper

February 23, 2010

Jennifer Hecht’s Genesis poem includes a nod to Spinoza– Voltaire’s Enlightenment was nice but Spinoza led the Jews into light a good two centuries prior– and to Trekkies…

There is a flicker poetry to the universe and it had already started when we got here.  Yet we can star in it, standing there like Captain Picard. Our hearts on our sleeves like Commander Troi There are millions of galaxies to change our minds, yet we get our hearts replaced more often. Leonard Nimoy and Bill Shatner are both Jewish; the “live long and prosper” hand gesture rabbinical, a secret sign a young Nimoy spotted in shul when his father told him to close his eyes and he peeked instead. There they are on the bridge, Kirk and Spock, sailing into the universe where no one has ever gone before, exile upon exile, until nothing feels like home as much as further exile, further out, further on, ancient secrets furling secrets like fractals.

And lots more. She really sings the  spiritual side of natural oblivion, and makes it fun. What other kind of universe would you most want to be at home in, than one you had to leave?

Vulcan spirituality isn’t in today’s A&S readings (though it sorta was, in last week’s: Stoics and Buddhists are pretty Vulcan-ish). But it seems like everything else is: Galileo and Copernicus, Calvin and Hobbes, Erasmus, Luther, Rabelais, Montaigne, Spinoza, Voltaire, Hume, Franklin, Jefferson… and in for a cameo, all of doubt’s old friends from Raphael’s School of Athens.

Thomas Hobbes didn’t call himself an atheist but his Leviathan state was widely perceived to be a God substitute, an authority to keep us all in awe. Hell, he said, was just a fantasy to control people. Foolish people, “they that make little or no enquiry into the natural causes of things…”

Voltaire, a Deist who found no grounds for believing in a worship-worthy Creator, probably inspired more people to reject their childhood religion than anyone else at that time… “Ecrasez l’infame!”

Spinoza: No one, not human beings, not God, could have free will. Nature was self-causing. There were no miracles. Supernaturalism did not have to be rationalized– it could simply be dismissed. If all that sounds too austere, he consoles us with a dose of Epicureanism: nothing forbids our pleasure except a savage and sad superstition. He means pleasures like study, wine, good food, the beauty of green things, theater, and sports.

Hume (who loved Cicero): We don’t need religion for morality, religion itself got its morality from everyday morality– based on the simple fact that doing good brings you peace of mind and praise from others and doing evil brings rejection and sorrow–  in the first place. Somebody should tell Stanley Fish. (And tell him too that English deists like John Locke counselled: to improve life, do not ask God for help.)

Jefferson (who did not love Plato): Jesus would reject all Christianity. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried was Jefferson’s attempt, when he took scissors to the Bible. The resulting  Jefferson Bible, he intended, would reflect “the most sublime and benevolent [and humane and natural] code of morals” yet devised by mortal man, and it would nestle safely behind the sacred wall so many of our self-righteous contemporaries have been so eager to tear down. That’s one founder’s “original intent” they consistently ignore.  He was a Deist, but considered that his personal business and none of the state’s. (If you missed it before, check out Maira Kalman’s tribute to the Sage of Monticello.)

And I’ll bet you didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition. You should’ve.

more reality

September 30, 2009

Or less…

I gave short shrift to the pre-Socratics, but Democritus (c.460-360 BCE)  was a genuine visionary. He “developed a picture of thedemocritus world that is remarkably close to our current scientific views.” He never appeared in public without laughing at human folly, hence his moniker “The Laughing Philosopher.” (Looks a little grim here, the sculptor may have been unsympathetic.) He had the last laugh, if it’s true that he lived past 100. He had good atoms.

“With Democritus the attempt to deanimate and demythologize the world was complete.” His “soul” was insubstantial except when embodied, and then was more like a breath than a spirit. “I would rather understand one cause,” he said, “than be King of Persia.” Carl Sagan celebrated him on Cosmos.

“With Democritus the attempt to deanimate and
demythologize the world was complete…”
Greek “soul” was insubstantial except when embodied,
and then was a “mere breath”…

Many of Democritus’ successors developed views remarkably inimical to current scientific wisdom.

descartes crcleRene Descartes (1596-1650) thought it useful to doubt the reality of everything; he was a mind-body dualist; and he demanded indubitable certainty as the gold-standard of scientific knowledge. All of these views have been doubted, if not flatly rejected, by most scientifically-minded moderns. His famed Meditations seem circular. (Here he is, squashed and truncated.)circular

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) thought everything was part of one universal reality (or metaphysical substance). He was a pantheist. We’ve noted that Einstein was a fan: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” It may well be that “Spinoza’s God” continues to capture more scientific respect than any more traditional alternative.

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716), aka “Dr. Pangloss” in Candide, thought reality was almost  infinitely various, but also boxed and sealed. We are “monads,” self-contained substances (not unlike Neo, pre-Morpheus) experiencing a pre-arranged harmony

prearranged harmony of perceptions orchestrated by a very controlling Master Monad. We have “no windows.”

George Berkeley (1685-1753) said esse est percipi, “to be is to be perceived.” Don’t blink, God, or we’ll wink out of existence. The lexicographer and wit Samuel Johnson thought he had a practical refutation of Berkeley’s idealism.  He missed the point, but made one too: your philosophy of reality really ought to make a discernible difference in your experience of life .

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) said “things in themselves” (tits, as I’m afraid my undergraduate Kant professor taught me to abbreviate them) are out of reach. We deal strictly in phenomena, or appearances. But the good news for Kant is that we can be sure that appearances are not deceptive in at least one crucial respect: they appear as they must, in the light of our own categorical nature. We constitute the world through the categories our collective minds impose upon them, and thus are normally in touch with reality when we ply our minds and use our reason.

G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) saw the world as a kind of universal Spirit, coming to maturity through the clash and conflicts of human history. He was the ultimate Systematic philosopher and devotee of Rationality, the antithesis of Kierkegaard (though some scholars have begun to challenge this). He made Schopenhauer crazy.

marxKarl Marx (1818-1883) “turned Hegel on his head,” seeing the world mainly in material terms. History was for him, as for Hegel, a grand unfolding process (“dialectic”) tending toward some higher “synthesis”  that would represent our apotheosis as a species. But as we know, his particular political synthesis has met with some resistance in recent decades.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)– separated at birth from Ebenezer Scrooge– was the pessimist-par excellence: life (on his view) is no good, without purpose, the clatter of pointless striving will. But he wasn’t a total scrooge: he loved little dogs, and (as we’ll see) as a young man he loved at least one or two other human beings. That’s why Alain de Botton chooses him to exemplify “consolation for a broken heart.”