Induction – Lecture 2

October 13, 2014

MiracleLast week we spoke about the difference between science and religion. We said it could be conceptualised as one between belief and facts. The more, we investigated, however, what a fact is, the less certain we became of its status as a starting point for scientific investigation. Common sense might tell us that facts are just out there and we simply observe them and scientific theories are merely collections of these observations, but when we look at the history of science, however, it is clear that this is not how science works. What we take as facts are already determined by the way we understand and see the world, and our observations are equally shaped by this background conceptuality. In this lecture, we are going to investigate the problem of induction, and we shall see that we’ll come up against the same barrier again. Moreover the knowledge that science has of the world cannot itself be infallible, because of the very way that it interprets these facts.

Ordinarily we might think that scientific theories are obtained from facts through observation and this is what makes it different from belief. But what does it exactly mean that theories are obtained or derived from facts? How do we get from the one to the other? What we mean here is something logical rather than temporal. We don’t just mean that first of all there is a collection of facts, and then a theory, as though facts were just pebbles on a beach that we pick up. A theory, on the contrary, is supposed to tell us something about these facts before we have even discovered them. It is about meaning and context, rather than just what comes first or second in a temporal order.

What then do we mean by derivation when we speak about logic? We don’t have to go into the complexities of logic here but just the basic form since all we are interested is how theories originate from facts. Logic is based upon deduction. Here is a valid deductive argument, which comes from Ladyman:

All human beings are mortal

Socrates is a human being

Socrates is mortal. (Ladyman 2002, p.19)

1 and 2 are the premises and 3 is the conclusion. You cannot deny the conclusion if you take the premises as true. We can change the premises slightly, however, as Ladyman writes, and the deduction would be wrong.

All human beings are animals

Bess is an animal

Therefore Bess is a human being (Ladyman 2002, p.19)

What is important here is that it’s the form of the argument itself that is wrong. The conclusion does not follow from the premises even if one accepts them. Bess could be any kind of animal. What is positive about deductive arguments is that they are truth preserving. That is, if the premises are true and the argument is valid, then the conclusion is. The problem is that the conclusion does not contain any more information than the premises. It does not tell you anything more about the world and surely this is what science does.

From this is follows that if science is derived from facts then it cannot be done so logically, because logic cannot tell us whether a fact is true or not. If we know there are true facts then we can logically relate them together (logic is ‘truth preserving’), but it is only from experience whether we know that they are true. Take for example the scientific law that metal expands when it heats. It does not matter how many times that I repeat this, as Chalmers argues, it does not logically follow (as is implied below) that all metals will expand when heated:

metal x expanded when it was heated

metal y expanded when it was heated

metal z expanded when it was heated

All metals expand when heated (Chalmers 1999, p.44)

If scientific theories don’t come from facts logically, then how are they derived? The answer must be through experience itself; that is to say, inductively. What do we mean by induction? First of all the difference between deductive and inductive arguments is that in the latter the conclusion always goes beyond what is contained in the premises, as the example above shows. I can never be certain that all metals will expand when heated, because this is precisely what I assert when I move from a singular instances (this metal expands when heated) to the universal judgement that all do so.

How then can I adjudicate between a bad and good inductive argument in the way that I did with deductive ones? It would seem, through common sense, that I might be able to justify my universal judgements if I go through a number of singular observations. In other words that I observe a large number of samples of metal to investigate whether they do expand or not, and if I observe in this large number that they do, then I would be justified in asserting ‘All metals expand when heated’. Thus the laws of induction would be

1) The number of observations should be large

2) They must be repeated under a wide range of conditions

3) There should be no exceptions.

It is precisely for this reason that English philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon can up with his ‘new method’.[1] First of all this method is negative. The point is that we should avoid falling into bad arguments rather than coming up with new deductive ones. Bacon’s method is rules about how to practice science by avoiding some of the worst errors. These errors he called ‘idols of the mind’: that we tend to see order and regularity in nature when there is none is the idol of the tribe; that our judgements and are shaped by our language and concepts rather than what we see is the idol of the marketplace; and finally that are views of nature can be distorted by our philosophical and metaphysical systems of thought is the idol of the theatre.[2] From this follows the positive content of Bacon’s method that we ought to make observations of nature that are free of these idols. It is from the mass of information gained through observation that we should make generalisations, rather than understanding our observations through generalisations, which he accuses the philosophers of doing. This he calls the ‘natural and experimental history’.

It is important to understand what he meant by observation is not just looking but experiments and it this emphasis on experiments that distinguishes the new method from the old Aristotelian one. It is experiments that preserve the objectivity of observations. First of all it allows them to be quantified and secondly that they can be repeated by others and thus tested as to their reliability. It is this data from experiments that are then put into tables. To use then example from Bacon of heat: first we have the table of Essence and Presence that lists those things that are directly part of the phenomena of heat; secondly, we have the list of Deviation and Absence, which lists those phenomena that are related to the first but have no heat; and then we have the list of Comparison, where features that have a quantity of heat are listed and quantified. The empirical method is one of elimination. Let us say I argue that the colour white is explanation of heat. Then I would check my tables and I would see that not all the phenomena that hot are white, or that some phenomena that are white are not hot and so on. White, then, could not be part of theory of heat. Through this process of elimination Bacon explained that heat was caused by the ‘extensive motion of parts’, which is not far from the modern kinetic theory of heat.

Bacon believed one can discover the forms that made what we observed possible, even though they were not directly perceivable. These forms where the direct physical cause of what we saw. This was the rejection of final causes, where natural phenomenon where viewed as purposive. The Aristotelian explanation, for example, that stones fall to the ground was because the earthly element sought to fall to the centre of the earth. Teleological explanations such as these are only suitable for human actions (since humans unlike stones do have desires) but not natural phenomena. The ubiquity of physical causes is the major different between new empirical science of the 17th century and the old science of Aristotle’s era that had dominated the explanation of nature for so long.

There are, however, problems with induction. First of all what is the status of the non-observed forms that are the physical cause of what we observe. How can we make a leap from what is seen to what is not seen? It is possible to see how heat might be explained by Bacon’s method since in fact we can see the motion, but how would we go about explaining radiation? Also we see in science that there can be two competing forms that explain the same visible phenomena such as the two theories of light, for example. Bacon does have an answer for the last problem. He says that we ought to set up two competing experiments that would test what we observe and we could see which was the more successful. But this already demonstrates what we might doubt about Bacon’s new method. In this case are not the theories themselves determining the experiments and not what we observe? Bacon says that science is made from two pillars: observation and induction and that we ought to be able to observe nature without prejudice (the prejudices being the idols of the mind). This is perhaps what most people think that science is. We take many particular instances and then we generalise a law. Yet the problem is how we account for this mysterious leap from the particular to the universal. How many instances make a general law and if there is an exception does this mean that law is no longer a law? There are two problems with the principle of induction as Bacon describes it. One is that we might doubt that any observation is unprejudiced. This is not just in a negative sense as Bacon describes it, but also positively, that without a theory it is hard to know what one would observe in the first place. Secondly, we might worry about how it is possible to go from many observations to a general law. Just because X has happened many times before, how do we know we know that it will happen again? This problem of induction, as it is called, and was introduced by the Hume, and has for many made naïve inductivism untenable. We shall investigate this problem in next week’s seminar.

Works Cited

Chalmers, A.F., 1999. What is this Thing Called Science?, St. Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland.

Ladyman, J., 2002. Understanding Philosophy of Science, London; New York: Routledge.

[1] See (Ladyman 2002, pp.22–5) for this summary of Bacon’s method.

[2] As we can see, what Bacon sees as idols, we might see as unavoidable necessities and this precisely prevents us from accepting the inductive explanation of science.


Science and Knowledge – Lecture 1

September 30, 2014

Religion and ScienceThis is a seminar about the place of science in our everyday lives. Most of us are not scientists and do not even plan to be scientists, but nonetheless science dominates our conception of the world. Most of us also, I suppose, believe that science tells us the truth about the world, and that generally what scientists say can be trusted. If we want to know the answer to something, or to a problem, then it is to science we turn. This is not only the case when it concerns nature, but also ourselves. But why do we trust science so much, even when many of us do not do science or have very little knowledge of what it is that scientists do?

Is this because science, for us, has become like a religion? How ironic this might be, since many scientists, if not the most famous (though it is not the case that all of them are so) are atheists and would see science as completely the opposite to religious belief. Think for example of the publication of Dawkin’s The God Delusion and the publicity around it.[1] Here is someone who thinks that science and religion are completely the opposite. Indeed it is the duty of science to rid the world of religion entirely by demonstrating that all religious people are irrational, and worse, violent. Personally, I do not think that science and religion are making the same claims, though there are many religious people who think they do. If religion is a science, then I am certain it can only be a pseudo-science, and can make no proper scientific claims at all. But equally, if religion is not a science, which I think it is not, then it absurd to argue that it is a pseudo-science. Are not religion and science doing different things, and making different claims?

But what do we mean by a science and what does science do that religion does not? The answer might be that science has to do with facts and religion beliefs. But are we absolutely sure what we mean by facts and how are they the basis of the science? A fact seems to be something I observe. I say, ‘There is a table in front of me’ and there really is a table there in front of me. How do I know that? I can, because I can see it with my eyes. Facts then are then something verified with the senses, in this case sight, whereas beliefs do not appear to be so. If a Christian says Jesus was resurrected on the third day how can it be verified by simply looking at it? At most it is a report, but I cannot verify it myself. Religion does not seem to be about facts at all. It is something subjective, personal and a matter of faith rather than reason.

Is this opposition watertight though? Perhaps not if we think that difference between religion and science is just that one is about facts and the other not. Are facts really that simple? Isn’t there more to facts, so to speak, than meets the eye? If I did not have an understanding of what a chair was, would I see a chair at all? Let us imagine rather than being a member of my culture, where coming across chairs was pretty common, I was born in a tribe in deepest Amazon that had never come across chairs before or even Western civilisation for that matter. Let us imagine again, that for some unknown reason, a chair that was being transported by air carrier fell out of the plane and landed in a clearing in my forest that I used every day to hunt. Would I see a chair? No I certainly would not. No doubt I would have an image of a chair on my retina and that image would travel down my optic nerve into my brain, but I would not see a chair, because I have no concept of chair.[2]

How do we pick up concepts of things? Not simply by looking at them, otherwise we’d be right back at the same paradox again. Rather they are part of the conceptual background that makes up our world, and this conceptual background is something we learn in any given culture.[3] Only in this way can I recognise something as something, rather than just a mysterious object that has suddenly appeared in my world, like the chair in the clearing of the jungle. The meaning of the chair, the fact that I can see it as a chair, is given by the context of its use. In this sense, if we were to apply this to our idea of science, scientific practice might define what a fact is and what it is not in advance of the research itself which is meant to explain these facts. In other words theories are not justified by facts, because in reality theories precede facts.

This is exactly the case when we look at the practice of scientists. They don’t just look at things in isolation and then base their theories upon them, rather their theories already tell them where to look and what they should be looking for in order that they know what the relevant facts are. If you like, facts are not just facts. They are not just perceptions; rather they are perceptions plus understanding, and the perception does not come first, and then the understanding second, but they both arrive together. They are part of the same conceptual or if you prefer, phenomenological whole, how we actually see the world within a given context, whether we are scientists or not.[4]

Science already makes us aware of this because when we think of a fact, we don’t just think about a state of affairs but make statements about a state of affairs and these statements only make sense within a community of speakers that understand them. The fact isn’t that they are mountains on Mars, but that someone says that there are mountains are Mars, and that someone else can observe them and agree that they really are mountains on Mars. There would be mountains on Mars whether there was science or not, or even human beings. It only becomes part of a scientific theory when some says ‘There are mountains on Mars’, and then someone else gets a telescope and sees that this statement is true.

Rather than saying that science is based on facts, perhaps it would be better to say it is founded upon statements which can be verified through observation.[5] Yet aren’t we faced with the same problems we found with the chair? What we find as relevant in an observation again will be determined by the conceptual background that we inhabit. Chalmers uses an example from the history of science to explain this (Chalmers 1999, p.16). Before scientific revolution of the 17th century, it was taken as given that the earth was stationary. The observable phenomena seem to corroborate this. When I jump upwards, I do not fall back to a different place on the earth, which would seem to the case if it were moving. Of course the reason why this is not the case is inertia. I and the earth are moving in the same direction and thus the same forces are acting upon us (for the same reason a tennis ball that you throw up in the air in a moving car falls back into your hand, because you and the car are moving in the same direction and speed). But because no-one knew the theory of inertia at the time, what was observed did appear to prove the earth was stationary (and I imagine there are some who still believe this for the very same reason). It is the theory that determines the meaning of our observations, rather than the other way around, our observations determining our theory.

Does this mean that science is just subjective and what you see is just what you want to see? Then there would not be any difference between science and religion, for it clearly is the case the religion is subjective.[6] Rather, what is required, to clearly delineate science, is a better definition of observation. For this is precisely what scientist do. Rather, than seeing observation as something private and passive, where I see the chair and the image is projected on my retina, we should see it as public and active. Active, because the observer is always involved in what they see, correcting and changing their observations in relation to their understanding and interpretation, and public because these observations are always shared with others who can interpret the results.

Chalmers gives us two examples of how scientists actually work (Chalmers 1999, pp.21–4). One is Hooke’s pictures of the eye of fly under a microscope. First of all the image of the eye was affected by the very instruments he was using, such that he had to work out how to use a light source that did not affect what he was looking at (candle light through brine, eventually). Secondly, he published what he saw, and told people how he had seen it, so that they too could do the same for themselves and see if they came out with the same results. Secondly, in the case of Galileo, he saw in his telescope the moons of Jupiter, but he needed to prove them to his fellow scientists. For this he had to modify his telescope so that he could gain an accurate measurement of their trajectory to show that they were moving around the planet, and finally when he had obtained these results he published them, so everyone else could test them for their reliability.

What is important in this process is to understand that these observations are not infallible. The difference between science and religion is not that one in infallible and the other isn’t (however you might want to understand this). On the contrary observation is fallible. What we see is determined by how we look and how we look by the conceptual background we find ourselves in. But anyone can come along and show us that this background is incorrect and it is preventing us from seeing something. What is important, however, is how they do this. They do it by pointing to what is observable when we do change our theories, but also that this hypothesis can be tested by others. They do not do so by simply asserting a belief about something. The moon is made out of cheese, for example. So Chalmers can define science in this way: ‘According to the view put forward here, observations suitable for constituting the basis for scientific knowledge are both objective and fallible’ (Chalmers 1999, p.25). This means that objectivity is not the same as absolute truth, but quite the opposite: what is objective can be corrected and changed through observable evidence, whereas what is subjective cannot. A religious belief based on observation would not be a religious belief at, but an inferior and poor scientific theory, since it would never be falsifiable. This does not mean that religion per se is inferior. This would be the case only if it were doing the same thing as science. The test for faith is not observation, but existence. To be a Christian, for example, is not to belief X, Y, Z, but to act as a Christian. Only when a Christian thinks their faith is supported by objective knowledge do they come in conflict with science, as for example those who people who think that the creation story is a scientific theory in competition with evolution. The irony, of course, is they are dependent on the very scientific method that they despise, for one can only disprove a science by another science.

Bibliography

Ayer, A.J., 2001. Language, truth and logic, London: Penguin.

Chalmers, A.F., 1999. What is this Thing Called Science?, St. Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland.

Dreyfus, H.L., 1991. Being-in-the-world: a commentary on Heidegger’s Being and time, division I, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Gardner, S., 2006. Kant and the Critique of pure reason, London; New York: Routledge.

Jebens, H., 2004. Cargo, cult, and culture critique, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Uys, J., 2004. The gods must be crazy, Culver City, Calif.: Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment.

 

[1] You can hear his defence of this book on NPR here, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9180871.

[2] I am thinking here of what are called ‘cargo cults’, though the evidence of such practices is controversial (Jebens 2004).There is a famous film about a coke bottle that plays with this idea (Uys 2004).

[3] We might ask further whether this conceptual background is even first. Are we not first of all living in a world before we understand it? This is the basis of Dreyfus’s stress on the importance of Heidegger’s philosophy (Dreyfus 1991).

[4] The key issue here is whether this position would lead to relativism. This depends on how one understands the truth and objectivity of science. This will be at the heart of our reading of Kuhn in the second half of this course.

[5] Such a position is what is called logical positivism, whose most vocal defender is A. J. Ayer (Ayer 2001).

[6] This is not a criticism, for what is subjective is not necessarily worse than what is objective, and indeed the objective might have its basis in the subjective, but it all depends on what you mean by the subjective. This was certainly Kant’s view, who placed practical reason (subjective, though in a special way) above theoretical reason (Gardner 2006, pp.319–25). The ultimate end of reason is not knowledge for its own sake, but the Good. We might call this position humanist.


Humanities in Crisis in a University in Ruins

September 26, 2014

MoneyYou are a student in the school of humanities. You have come to study a particular subject. Some English, some History, some Philosophy, and so on. All of you, perhaps, have some idea what you subject is about. You might not know very much about your subject and hope to learn something about it, but you do have some idea how to get about it, so to speak, and where to begin. But humanities? What is that? Does anyone know anymore what that word means and why should anyone be interested in it at all? If I am English student, then I want to study English. Why should I learn anything about history or philosophy, let alone linguistics or creative writing. Aren’t those students who claim that knowing about the humanities isn’t relevant to their course right after all, and why should we criticise their lack of motivation?

It goes without saying that I do not think so, otherwise I wouldn’t be standing in front of you now introducing this course to you with a few words. First of all, I think the specialism of English education system is not beneficial. I think a student should know about these other subjects. Indeed, I think humanities students should know about science and science students should know about humanities, but that would be another story. But this isn’t the major reason why I think you ought to have some grasp of the humanities. To understand humanities is to understand what a university is and why it exists, though as we shall see this might not be such a happy story, because today I am going to tell you that the university is crisis and humanities is at the heart of it, not of course as its cause, but its symptom.

What it the history of the word humanities? The word comes from the Latin studia humanitatis that was linked to the rediscovery of the classical world in the Renaissance out of which grew literary and historical criticism (both of which are essential to discovery and preservation of ancient texts). What began, however, as a spiritual awakening soon became institutionalised in the university, and even became associated with a certain discipline of the mind that was necessary for particular professions (as though knowing Latin and Greek somehow made one a good civil servant). Perhaps the greatest influence of the ideal of humanities was the German philologist Wilhelm von Humboldt. He redesigned the curriculum of the university of Berlin which became the template of the modern university around the world, even here in England. Central to the idea of the university for Humboldt was Bildung. This word is usually translated as ‘culture’, but it means more than that. It comes from the verb bilden, which means to ‘form’, whose earlier form the English verb ‘build’ derives. Culture, in this context, means self-formation. To study the humanities is to be on a journey of self-discovery, not just to learn about something outside of oneself, but to discover oneself. This is the tension that is at the heart of humanities. It is not enough simply to know stuff. One has to form an opinion about them that is an expression of one’s own self-development. Somehow the study of humanities makes one a better person. It develops one’s character, and this development is expressly moral.

Humanities is just as much defined as what it is not as what it is. What it is not is science. As opposed to the humanities, the object of science is not the cultural production of humans themselves but the investigation of nature. And why also no-one can agreed a common method to the study of humanities, everyone is pretty certain what scientific method is. It is the study of facts through empirical means. Moreover, not only can everyone readily agree what science is, we can also see around us the fruits of its success. Science gives us IPhones and Google. What has the humanities ever done? Science produces wealth on which the humanities are parasitical, and even the humanities student is seen as a shirker and scrounger.

Of course one only has to investigate deeper underneath the headlines to know that this absurd (you can find numerous list on the internet of famous and successful people who have studied the humanities), but that is beside the point. The prejudice against the humanities is evidence of something very real, which for some time now there has be a real crisis in the humanities and this has to do with what we now think the function of a modern university is and which has little at all to do with how Humboldt imagined it when humanities was at its heart.

I think that Bill Readings is right to say that ‘it is no longer clear what the place of the University is within society nor what the exact nature of that society is’ (Readings 1996, p.2). This is because the university is no longer tied to the idea of culture (and a national culture at that), but is increasingly seen as a corporation, which is part of a trans-global network. Its function is to produce capital and capital of a particular kind: human capital. In this context, the student is more likely to see themselves as a consumer rather than some who is on a journey of self-discovery and the object of their study is less like to some national cultural artefact (why should studying George Eliot be in any better than studying the Simpsons?). If the purpose of the contemporary university is to produce technology (sciences) and training (professional and vocational subjects), what possible place is there for the humanities? You can hear people say that they offer great transferable skills, but why should they be better than any other training, and anyway to defend them in this way, is this not already to admit to defeat?

How, then, can we defend, if it is at all possible, humanities today on its own terms, if the cultural project of the university is now over? Reading again suggests a way forward for us. Rather than justifying national and cultural identity, whether at the individual or state level, the role of the university in the era of globalisation, and more specifically humanities, is to question what it is that we value. ‘Accountants,’ he writes, ‘are not the only people capable of understanding the horizon of contemporary society, nor even the most adept at the task’ (Readings 1996, p.18). Paradoxically the ruin or crisis of the humanities might be the very reason for its salvation, but if it continues to cling to the old ideas of culture and tradition, then it will be doomed.

So what is it that we can value today, and how might humanities be a part of this question? The modern university was a university of culture, Bill Readings explains. It both formed the basis of a national ideal that functioned both as a unity of knowledge and of citizens in a nation state. The university of culture was a national university. In the European university, philosophy had this function. In the English and American universities, it was literature. For the English, literature was defined as tradition, where Shakespeare stood as the pinnacle, whereas for America, literature was defined as a canon, since American had no tradition it had to define its own as the act of a republican will (‘we the people,…’).

It is this university of culture that has disappeared because of the weakness of the nation state in relation to global capital. It is corporations who have captured the state, not the state global capital (which explains the decrease in political participation across democracies). What has replaced the university of culture, Bill Readings tells us, is the university of excellence.

Now every university has excellence as its highest goal. A paradoxical goal, because it does not tell us anything, since anything could be excellent. You could be an excellent charity worker, but also there could be an excellent tyrant or murderer. This explains our rather cynical attitude to many of the statement of universities, since their prospectuses are increasingly becoming like company brochures promising us excellence in everything: excellent in teaching; excellence in research; excellence in student experience. The last excellence also show us that students themselves are no longer to see themselves as subjects of culture, but as consumers.

So what, we might say to ourselves. Perhaps it is better to be a consumer rather than subject of culture. That might be the case, but if you really did think like that that it is hard to understand how you are going to be motivated to do a humanities subject, because whatever you might think at them, or whatever subject you are doing, you cannot consume them. Why? Because you are bound to, at some point (and you should expect this) in your university career, to be asked to read, learn something, or even write or produce something, you might find difficult, boring and even, at the time, pointless. No why would you consume that? It would be strange to go into a McDonald’s to ask for a burger that was dry, tasteless and overcooked, pay for the experience and be happy with it. Secondly, and this is perhaps more important, apart from filling you up, the burger is not going to change you as a person, and I for one certainly hope that my students, who are studying philosophy and religion, would be changed by their education as individuals, and might think about themselves and the world differently through the process and stay of their education.

For all that, however, the university of excellence, with its obsession with human capital, is here to stay. There is no way we could get back to the university of culture, where humanities was at the heart of the university, even if we wanted to. So what place can humanities have? I believe the point of humanities is to offer a different kind of accounting. In a world that is dominated by money, where the only value is the profit line, and the only purpose of any activity is the accumulation of capital, it can offer us other values, for what is humanities except the question what does it mean to be human? Ecolinguistics, for example, which you will study here, asks whether language itself effects the way we think about nature and our place in it; history, how our past shapes our present, but also how there have alternative histories than our main narrative; literature, how there have been both major and minor literatures and not just one dominate literature, each showing us alternative ways of living; philosophy, how there have always been other values and we should never accept there only being one; religion, that human practices have never been just about the material but also the spiritual and ethical; and finally creative writing, which is about the creativity at the heart of every human being to produce for the sake of the art itself, and not for some extrinsic worth. In a world increasingly dominated, if not wholly so, by global corporations and financial capital, where we might think the relation of the individual to itself, to others, to nature, and to God, if one believes in such a being, is damaged, then humanities will continue to have a place. If we do not think so, nor do we think there are any other values than the value of the accumulation of capital, then humanities will be increasingly irrelevant and they will finally disappear. For if the only reason you have to study philosophy, religious studies and religion, literature, history, creative writing and linguistics is to get a better job, then that is no reason at all.

Bibliography

Readings, B., 1996. The university in ruins, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.


Subjective Atheism

April 16, 2014

Abraham and Issac2I am writing this lecture in response to Martin’s lecture on atheism the week before last. In one sense, Martin and I stand in the same corner, we are both atheists, but in other sense, we are, to mix a metaphor, poles apart. If I were to describe Martin (and of course in the end he must speak for himself), I would say that he is an objective atheist, whereas I would say I am an subjective atheist. This difference between an objective atheist and subjective one is mirrored in those who have a religious belief (mentioning that word that Martin did not want to be mentioned, ‘religion’). There are those, I think, who believe objectively and those who do so subjectively. Because of this cross-over, I think, strangely enough, that there is more in common with subjective believers and subjective atheists, than there is between objective and subjective atheists, and thereby more in common with objective atheists and objective believers. What subjective atheists and subjective believers have in common is uncertainty and doubt (what I would call faith). Whereas, what objective atheists and objective believers have in common is certainty and conviction (what I would call fundamentalism). This is why when you listen to a fundamentalist religious believer and a fundamentalist atheist (like Richard Dawkins, or Christopher Hitchens), they sound, to me at least, the same.

What is at the heart of objective atheism is a certain conviction about science. That science, as Martin, tells us is what is real. The opposite side of this conviction is that religion is a falsehood, because religion tells us that there are fairies at the end of the garden, when clearly there are not, or that Santa Claus exists, when clearly he does not. There are two ways to respond to this accusation. Firstly, this is a very positivist view of science. Positivism is the assertion that there are only true facts about the world are empirical, that science is the only method that can investigate these facts, and as science progresses we are getting closer and closer to what reality is. There are no doubt many people who believe this, and indeed there are many scientists who do (Brian Cox being currently the most famous of its adherents). This would mean that art, literature (which is what Martin does), philosophy and all the other activities that human beings engage in that are not science, would have nothing true to say about the world at all, which would be rather extraordinary. Yet what most people don’t notice about the assertion ‘only science can tell us what reality is’, is that it is not in fact a scientific statement at all (how would you empirically prove this?), but a matter of belief. To believe that only science can tell you what is true is not science but scientism, and scientism is a conviction, a fundamental belief. Scientific theories themselves, like quantum mechanics or evolution, are remarkable open and uncertain (that is they allow for anomalies that cannot be explained), otherwise they would not be able to function as theories that set the boundaries for what we see as normal science. Scientism is in fact normal science raised to the status of objective belief and that is why objective atheists tend to become indiscernible from objective believers. They both believe that they have an iron grasp of what truth and certainty might be. One of course sees it in their equations and the other in their sacred texts.

Secondly, however, and even if Martin were right to think that science tells us what reality is (and I don’t think he is), this should not make a difference to anyone who has a religious belief (I am pretty certain that no one who entered the lecture hall with a religious belief came out of it suddenly having lost it). This is because I do think there is any conflict between science and religion because they are totally different discourses. Even though I am sceptical that science could ever come up with a definite answer to the question about what the nature of reality is (which would be pretty bad for science anyway since it would have come to an end), I still think that it is about the external world. If I wanted to know what a tree is, then I would ask a scientist. Religion, on the contrary is not about the external world but the internal one. If I want to know about my internal world, then it would be better to ask a priest, and if I don’t like priests, then it would be better to ask an artist, like for example Camus, who Martin actually quotes (who I would say is a subjective atheist like me, and not an objective one like Martin).

I know that the clever ones amongst you will say to me that science surely can now tell us about our internal world and we don’t need religion and art anymore. Does not neuroscience tell us how our brains work, and aren’t our brains just who we are? I think the claims that some neuroscientists make are pretty absurd, and if you talk to any of the serious ones, they will tell you that we hardly know anything about how the brain works, but even if we did, nothing that science says externally about the function of the brain, allows one to make the jump from an objective description to the meaning of subjective experience (and ‘meaning’ is the key word here). Sometimes you here people speaking about how their brain does this and that . Their brain opens the door, their brain drives their car, their brain loves their children, and so on and so on. But of course a brain does not do any of those things. It would be pretty messy if it did. We know really that it is a metaphor when someone speaks of their brain opening a door, but this metaphor hides a lot of metaphysics that gets surreptitiously sneaked in so we don’t have to think about it. Someone who thinks that brains open doors, drives cars, kisses children on the forehead, is like someone who thinks that programme that they are watching on the TV or the book they are reading in their hand is to be explained by the objective description of the TV (the wires and electronics that make it up) or the book (the paper, ink and binding), which of course doesn’t. What explains the programme or the book is the subjective meaning and not the objective description.

So having said that what is common to a subjective atheist and subjective believer is uncertainty and faith, I am now going to say something categorical: there can never be an objective description of a subjective meaning, not because we lack knowledge, but what is subjective is never open to an objective description. This is why I would say that if you want to know what the meaning of love is then read literature. Knowing which part of your brain ‘lights up’ when you are in love is not going to tell anything at all, even though it might be objectively true and in itself very interesting.

So what is common to an objective atheist and an objective believer is both of them reject subjective experience, though they do so in very different ways. Now I don’t think it is very difficult to understand why an objective atheist might do so, since the positivist image of science would impel then to do so, even though I think they are wrong, but what is difficult to see is how anyone religious has managed to get themselves in the confusion that their religion is objectively true and needs to be so, when everything that we know about the world tells us that it cannot be so. Why would anyone think, for example, that there is a conflict between a belief in God and evolution? One is subjective and the other objective. Why would anyone think that what is written in a sacred text like the bible is literally true since these are historical documents written by people like us with subjective experiences shaped by the societies they lived in? This does not mean that these documents still cannot speaks to us, but so does Shakespeare, but we do not have to think that these are literally true. The answer to these questions are probably political, and that as usual, fundamentalism is all about power and control. What better way to dominate others that to get them to deny the reality of their subjective experience through objective ideologies? But such a fundamentalism is just as possible in science as it is in religion, and no more true of religion than it is of science.

I am going to end this lecture with a writer who I have been reading for some time, Soren Kierkegaard. He is someone perhaps some of you have heard of. He is said to have been the inventor of the philosophy that Martin himself mentioned last week, existentialism, but that is not of course, how he would have seen himself. He saw himself as a religious writer, indeed a deeply troubled and uncertain one. No doubt what he had to say about religion affected other more philosophical writers (like Heidegger, for example), but that is not what would have interested him. What mattered to him was what it meant to become a Christian, and it is important that it was becoming a Christian that concerned him, because religion is a philosophical abstraction, whereas, he would argue, becoming a Christian is not.

So the key question for Kierkegaard is how does one become a Christian (or even how does one not become one). Whatever one’s answer to this question might be, he was certain that at the heart of it was the issue of what it means to be a self. In other words, there is no objective answer to this question (including whether God exists objectively or not). To exist as a self is an accomplishment and a task and not something that one simply is. It is possible to describe one’s existence objectively, and this is what science does. In that way, you and I do not exist any differently than a stone or the Big Bang that began the universe. This is why some people worry whether God is necessary for such an existence, or some that he is not, and to suggest so is to be superstitious. But this is not where Kierkegaard thinks the absence or presence of God is.

How can we say that the matter of my existence is different from that of a stone? Because I can lose it. Again you might reply, the stone too can lose its existence. It can be annihilated by the hammer as I can by the bullet. But that is not the loss that Kierkegaard is talking about. He says that we can lose our existence simply by not being ourselves, by thinking and acting in the same way as everyone else. To be objectively is actually quite easy; one simply is. But to be subjectively, now that is really very hard indeed. Becoming or not becoming a Christian has to do with that. How one decides to live one’s life. Now of course, this is a very difficult decision, so we like falling back onto objective reasons why we should or should not be a Christian. The fundamentalist falls back onto his sacred texts or culture and history, the objective atheist onto science and logic. Yet these are objective answers to a subjective question, and so miss what is stake completely.

Why is the subjective question more difficult than the objective one? It is not because it requires more or less knowledge, but rather the opposite. It is because it can only be answered in uncertainty. At the very moment that I think that I am being most true to myself, I could be betraying myself, and vice versa. Nothing objective could make you become a Christian as a matter of faith. No-one becomes a Christian through the proofs of the existence of God, even if these arguments were truly objectively. On the contrary faith is not a matter of reason for Kierkegaard but a subjective decision and it would be an ontological error to measure the latter by the former (as though faith were irrational in relation to the rationality of reason). An ‘objective acceptance of Christianity,’ Kierkegaard writes, ‘is paganism or thoughtlessness’ (Kierkegaard 2009, p.108). What is ‘thoughtless’ here is not that one has made an objective mistake, but one has confused the subjective with the objective.

The objective justifies itself in the face of the universal (rules, reasons, and axioms – what Martin calls science), but the subjective in the face of the absolute. This mistake is to think that the absolute and the universal are one and the same, but they are not. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard retells the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. From the outside, he is either a murderer or a man of faith, but if he is a man of faith, then what he does makes no sense at all (one might imagine Martin standing at the bottom of the mountain berating Abraham for his foolishness and superstition). No judgement from the outside can compare with the inner anguish and torment of Abraham’s acceptance of God’s command to sacrifice his son and his long journey up the mountain. Our judgement of him would pale in comparison. For he knows that there is no reason to listen to this voice, no scientific, no logical, indeed not even religious, in the objective sense, and yet he does. How would he know if what he was doing was right or not? He could not be certain. His faith could only be subjective. You might reply to me. Haven’t religious people always done terrible things in the name of a God that speaks to them? But they do so through certainty, and not through a subjective God that they do not even know exists. Even Jesus, Kierkegaard says, doubted whether God existed or not, how much more so should a Christian live in doubt. But even if they think they are acting objectively they are wrong. They are doing so subjectively. Every certainty has its roots in a uncertainty that it forgets and represses. What I am saying in hold onto the uncertainty subjectively, whether you are an atheist or a believer.

Abraham acts the way he does because he believes in God. From the outside this does not make any sense at all. We should be appalled by it, and Kierkegaard wants to us to be horrified by it and worst still would be disgusted by those who would use this story objectively to prove the existence in God. From the inside, the whole story changes. He acts because he believes in God. His trial is not to commit the act, but not not to commit it. Objectively God might not exist, and then he is a murderer. Or objectively God might exist (though this makes no sense to Kierkegaard), then he is a man of faith, but subjectively this makes no difference. He acts because he believes.

I do not believe, but I do not do so objectively like Martin does, but anxiously in the face of the absolute whose absence I feel with a passion. To me there is something banal about filling in this absence with facts about chimpanzees and super novae, however wonderful both may be. I want to face the terror of the absence of God with the same horror that must have seized Abraham when he thought he heard the voice of God tell him to sacrifice his son. If some feel the subjective need for God, then they already in a relation with God. Nothing that anyone says objectively about God is going to make any difference at all. Of course, you can also feel the subjective absence of God, but I do not think that this is an objective decision. That would be to confuse what is at stake here. An atheist who comes to their atheism objectively is not really an atheist at all (or perhaps it is better to say that they are confused about their atheism, for anything that matters to us, even scientific understanding of the universe, is subjective, for without subjectivity there is no passion). But equally, anyone who thinks there are objective grounds to be religious, whether in the universe, or in their sacred texts, is at best stupid, and at worse dangerous.


The Vision of Necessity and the Intellectual Love of God in Spinoza – Lecture 12

April 15, 2014

BaruchSpinoza4Part 5 is perhaps the hardest part of the Ethics, and not because it is impossible to understand the words we read. Such an interpretative difficult probably belongs to the book as a whole. Rather, even if we can understand the words, do we really know what Spinoza means by the intellectual love of God? Is it possible to have such an experience? It reminds me of some of the stories in Plato’s dialogues which are there to explain the ultimate end of philosophy. I can read the words of the Symposium that describe the ‘ascent to the beautiful’, but can I really know what this means if I have never had such an experience, which as Spinoza writes at the last sentence of the Ethics, is as beautiful as it is rare? Sometimes we confuse knowing about philosophy with being a philosopher, and they are not always the same thing at all.

What is the highest wisdom of philosophy? Plato and Spinoza are one is this regard: to teach you not to fear death. As Spinoza writes in the scholium to proposition 38:

From this we understand what I touched on in IVP39S, and what I promised to explain in this part, namely that death is less harmful to us, the greater the mind’s clear and distinct knowledge, and hence, the more the mind loves God.

But how do we get to this sanguine state so that we no longer fear death, which is probably the greatest fear we all have? We do so by reaching what Spinoza calls the third level of knowledge. It has already introduced us to this level in the second part of the Ethics (IIP40), and it is worthwhile here to remind ourselves what the three levels of knowledge are. The first level is the stage that most people are at. It is the knowledge of opinion and belief, which is motivated by fear and hope. This level is not really knowledge at all, but ignorance and unawareness of the world around you and the network of infinite series of causes and effects that determine one’s existence. The second level is a little more difficult, but is knowledge proper. It involves, Spinoza argues, common notions and the adequate ideas of things. Thus, he will write in the second part of the Ethics that there are universal properties of bodies that are recognised by all (IIP38). These common notions are adequate ideas of things and form the basis of our scientific understanding of the universe, but not only this understanding as we shall see later. Now we would think that this would be the end of the matter: the distinction between knowledge and opinion, but it is not. Spinoza says that there is a third level of knowledge, which is the intuitive knowledge of God. It is this knowledge that is the proper knowledge of the philosopher, or the wise human being, which is the same thing, and is the purpose of the Ethics to convince us both that it exists and is possible, and finally can enable us to free ourselves from the worse effects of our affects.

What is this intuitive knowledge of God, or what Spinoza will call, in Part 5, the ‘intellectual love of God’, and how does it differ from the second level of knowledge? The first thing to underline, as Lloyd stresses, is that we should not confuse this with any kind of mystical or supernatural knowledge (Lloyd 1996, p.110). There is no transcendence in Spinoza, no reality beyond this reality, no being beyond being. The second kind of knowledge is an understanding of things through the parallelism of the order and connection of ideas and the order and connection of things, but the third kind of knowledge is an immediate understanding of myself and my place within the universe, or to use Spinoza’s language, my place within God. My understanding of this produces the highest affect of joy in my mind (for we have to remember that there is no division between reason and affects for Spinoza), which is what he calls ‘blessedness’. However this immediate joyful wisdom is not be confused with mysticism or irrationalism.

At the end of his lectures on Spinoza, Deleuze explains these different types of knowledge in terms of swimming (he is adamant that we should not take mathematics as the model of adequate knowledge, but just as one example) (Deleuze 1978). What does it mean to know how to swim? Perhaps the best way to understand this is to think about what it means not to know how to swim. Not to know how to swim means to be at the mercy of the waves such that if one entered the ocean one might drown. To be at the mercy of the waves is inadequate knowledge, for one has a passive relation to external elements about which one only knows the effects (‘I am drowning’) and not the causes, which would be precisely to know how not to drown, and which is the same as knowing how to swim (learn to float, learn to shut one’s mouth so the water does choke you, and so on). Now as the waves crash over me, depending on what happens, I might cry out in joy or shock. Such are my affects or passions, to use Spinoza’s language, and they are always related to external relations to an external body. The waves on my body, which might be nice, but also could be quite dangerous (these are the screams and shouts one hears on the beach all day, which generally one takes to be an expression of happiness, but there is always the threat of tragedy on the horizon, otherwise there would be no lifeguard). But what does it mean to know how to swim? How come that is not the same? It does not mean, Deleuze says, that I have to have a mathematical or physical understanding of wave mechanics. That would be going too far. Rather, as they say in French, one has a savoir faire of the wave. Instead of fighting against the wave, one goes with it, one has rhythm. In the sense one knows how to compose one’s body with the body of the wave. One knows the right moment to jump in, when to dive, to surface, to use the wave to propel one along, and so on. It is important not to think that the second level is mathematical. Mathematics is kind of second level knowledge, but it isn’t what this knowledge is tout court.

Just as one can speak of knowing how to swim, Deleuze says, one can speak of knowing how to love. How does someone love inadequately? Just as in the case of the wave, one who does not know how to swim, one is at the mercy of external effects of which one does not know the causes. Whereas to know how to love is to know how to compose one’s body and mind with another. This is a strange kind of happiness, Deleuze says, but no-one would confuse it with mathematics or physics.

What then is the third kind of knowledge? It hardly seems possible that such a thing could exist. It does so because the other two are relations to external bodies and not to essences. I either know how to compose with another body, or I do not, but neither the relation of composition or decomposition is an essence. What is an essence Spinoza? It is a degree of power. To have the third level of knowledge is to know (or to intuit, to use Spinoza’s word, so as to distinguish it from the second level of knowledge) what makes up one’s own degree of power and what makes up the other’s degree of power. For every degree of power that is given there is always a degree of power stronger, since the totality of Nature would be infinite degree of power, and no singular thing could be the same as infinite Nature, as this would be to confuse a mode with a substance. Now if we were to view this relation between essences externally, then we would say that the weaker essence would be destroyed by the stronger one (the hand crushes the fly), but if this were the case, Deleuze says the whole of Spinozism would collapse, for it would mean that there would only be inadequate relation between essences. How can we think of the relation between essences in a different way?

The key he says is proposition 37 of part 5, for it explains that the axiom in part 4 that describes the relation between essences as one destroying another only has to do with singular essences in a determinate time and place. What does it mean to think of something in this way? It means to think of it in terms of existence. What does it mean for something to pass into existence at a certain time or place? It means that a body is determined from the outside by other external bodies. I have an essence, you have an essence, each essence is singular, but to exist is to be determined from the outside by other bodies (I cannot exist without food, water and air, for example). To exist is to have a time and a place, and to have a time and place is to exist in relation to other external bodies that determine one from the outside. Until such point that these external bodies enter a different relation, then I exist.

At this level, everything exists at the level of opposition. I kill the pig to eat its meat, but the next day, I die of botulism, and so on. In this case, one might speak of a stronger power destroying a weaker one. Such is the risk of death, which is the inevitable and necessary event that external relations that sustain my body enter a different relationship (which is what we mean by disease). My essence, however, is not the same as the external relations that I have with other bodies. A degree of power describes an intrinsic and not only an extrinsic relation and for this reason it makes no sense for Spinoza to say one degree of power destroys another degree of power, just as much as it does not make any sense to say that the colour red is redder than green. Intensive magnitudes cannot be compared extensively.

What then does it mean for Spinoza to say that one is eternal? It is not a declaration of belief, as if by that one means that one is immortal, for eternity and immortality are not the same. To think that one is immortal is simply to take one’s finite existence and to imagine that it would continue for every, which contradicts the very fact of death. An experience of eternity, on the contrary, Deleuze says, can only be felt as a kind of intensity. It would be to understand that one’s death, as the relation of a body to other external bodies, was insignificant and did not matter, because as intensive parts, singular essences, we all degrees of the infinite power of God.

What matters, what is important, is not the duration of our lives (how long we live), but the actualisation of one’s essence. If one laments a premature death, it is just because they did not live long enough, or that they didn’t actualise what they could have become? Equally, we might think someone who had a lived a long life in years but did not do everything with their lives that they could, might also have lived a sad life. It is perfectly possible to live a short life, as Spinoza did, but intensively as though one where eternal. Intensity, then, would be the measure of the third level of knowledge.

Many find the end of the Ethics incoherent and a contradiction of the overall message of the book. The most notorious of these is Bennett, who pretty much gives up on it altogether. Sometimes one thinks that Bennett doesn’t like Spinoza at all, and one wonders why he is reading him, since most of the time, in his opinion, Spinoza is wrong (Bennett 1984, pp.329–75).[1] I think, however, that Lloyd is absolutely right in stressing that this third level of knowledge is not religious at all, but is merely a taking on board, in terms of our lives and our experiences, what is taught abstractly through definitions and axioms in part one that God is the totality of the universe of which we are an intrinsic part, rather than an element separate from it sustained by a fictional personal God, who in reality is nothing else than a projection of our absurd pride that the universe could have been created for us in the first place (Lloyd 1996, pp.112–13).

One way that people imagine that they have a special and unique place with the universe, rather than just a finite mode of an infinite substance, is to believe that there is immortality of our lives after death. To overcome our fear of death, we imagine that our personality and consciousness continue after we have disappeared. This is not possible for Spinoza, because my sense of myself is only possible because I have a body. My mind, as we learnt from part 2, is an idea of my body, and my body is not an idea of my mind. Without my body I wouldn’t have a mind at all, and any sense of duration, and time would cease to exist. Immortality is based on the false idea that minds can exist without bodies, and no one suggest that bodies are eternal. Combined with this false idea is the confusion of eternity with infinite duration, so that I imagine myself living together as I am now but just for an infinite time.

Eternity does not mean for Spinoza time going on forever, but something quite different. This is why he can say that even though there is no immortality in the way that religions have imagined it, there is part of my mind which is eternal. This seems to be very strange since it implies that the mind can exist without the body, and this cannot be what Spinoza is saying since it would contradict the fact that the mind is the idea of the body. The contradiction exists for us, because we still viewing eternity in terms of duration. We are imagining that mind would continue to exist in the same way as it endures whilst the body exists.

Again the best way to understand the eternity of the mind, as Lloyd suggests, is in relation to the third kind of knowledge (Lloyd 1996, p.121). I only understand myself through the affections of my body, but it is impossible that I could know the infinite network of causes and effects that lead up to this affections. I can know, however, the true status of myself as mode of infinite substance. How would this knowledge, Lloyd asks, overcome my fear of death? Not through the knowledge gained by simply reading the first part of the Ethics, but something more subtle:

What is new is the understanding of the truth of finite modes in relation to particular bodily modifications, and to ourselves as ideas of these modifications. (Lloyd 1996, p.121)

Lloyd continues to explain that is not a matter of ascending to a transcendent vision of the universal, like Plato’s ascent to the beautiful and the vision of the one, but of understanding the ‘actual existence of these affections’ (Deleuze would have said the singular essences). For all that exists for Spinoza are singular things and substance, or the being of singular things. To understand singular things as the expression of substance is different from understanding them in relation to other singular things, which is the basis of the 2nd level of knowledge, which compares one thing with others. This kind of knowledge, though adequate, can never be complete. As Lloyd concludes, ‘we know that we are in God, and are conceived through God; we understand ourselves through God’s essence as involving existence’ (Lloyd 1996, p.122) Having seen this, I can understand that dying is of no consequence to me, since, in understanding myself in relation to substance which is eternal, the greater part of my mind is given over to what is eternal, rather than to what is individual and perishable in me, my imagination and memories.

Works Cited

Bennett, J., 1984. A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics, [Indianapolis, IN]: Hackett Pub. Co.

Deleuze, G., 1978. Les Cours de Gilles Deleuze. Sur Spinoza. Available at: http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/texte.php?cle=14&groupe=Spinoza&langue=2 [Accessed September 30, 2012].

Lloyd, G., 1996. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Spinoza and the Ethics, London; New York: Routledge.

Zizek, S., 2004. Organs without Bodies : On Deleuze and Consequences, New York; London: Routledge.

 


[1]. Surely there is a better way of reading philosophy which isn’t so sad. Perhaps Deleuze’s advice, as quoted by Žižek, is more joyful: ‘Trust the author you are studying. Proceed by feeling your way […]. You must silence the voices of objection with you. You must let him speak for himself, analyse the frequency of his words, the style of his obsessions.’(2004, p.47)


Spinoza and Truth – Lecture 11

March 30, 2014

20120322_Gartenberg1What does Spinoza mean by truth? When we think about truth normally in philosophy then we think about the agreement between a statement and a state of affairs in the world, but this can’t be what Spinoza means by truth, at least not in any simply way. Why is this? Because for Spinoza truth cannot be the agreement between two different attributes, since attributes can have no causal relation to one another. Thus the idea of ‘tree’ cannot be true because it agrees with an object called a ‘tree’, rather an idea is true because it is true in itself and not because it ‘represents’ something else. What then does it mean to say that an idea is true in itself?

In one sense, Spinoza is repeating the story of truth that we have heard since Plato: perception is not sufficient to explain truth. This is because, as we know, perception does not tell me truth about things at all. Indeed if all I had were perceptions, then I probably wouldn’t have a very good idea of reality at all. One of the basis premises of the new modern science is what common sense tells us about nature (which we might say is the Aristotelian starting point) can only lead us astray. Common sense might tell me that the earth is at the centre of the universe, because that is how it appears to me, but I know in fact that this is not the case. What is true is not what my senses tell me, but what true knowledge does, and true knowledge is not perception, as Plato would have already told us, but mathematics. Copernicus does not disagree with Ptolemy because he saw something different in the heavens, but he postulated a different mathematical model and that is why he saw the heavens in a different way. It might be the case that Galileo did see something different in his telescope, but he wouldn’t have seen what he was looking for unless he had already agreed with Copernicus’s mathematical revolution.

If an idea is not true because it agrees with what I see with my eyes, then why is it true? Here we have to make a difference between the psychological event of having an idea and the content of the idea itself. I might be thinking of a circle because I see a circle. Or I might be thinking of circle because I associate it with something else. Perhaps I have being thinking about bears and then the idea ‘circle’ just pops in my mind. Or, I might be thinking about circle, but I have completely the wrong idea of circle in my mind. I might think lines drawn from the centre of the circle are not equal. None of the instances of thinking of the idea circle would make the idea true. The occasion of thinking the idea does not make the idea true (and this is really the reason why perception cannot be the source of the truth of ideas, since it psychologises them, and would make truth subjective). What is true is the objective content of the idea itself, which can be thought by anyone (or anything if it capable of thinking true ideas).

In proposition 35 of the second part of the Ethics, Spinoza explains how such an error is possible. There is no positive idea of falsehood. Strictly speaking there are no false ideas in themselves, because every idea is an idea of something that exists. Rather there are confused ideas. To have an ignorant idea is to have an idea of a positive thing, but in a confused way. The example that Spinoza gives in the scholium is the idea of freedom. Why is it that people falsely believe they are free? The answer is because they are ignorant of the causes that make them act the way they do. Because they are ignorant, they therefore think they are free. The cause of false ideas is not a real idea, but ignorance on our behalf, and this ignorance is always ignorance about causes. To use the other example that Spinoza gives in this scholium. I believe that the sun is 200 hundred feet away from me because I am ignorant of the true distance. Even though I know that the sun is further away than it seems. Because the distance that it appears from me is caused by the relation of my body to the sun, I might still fall under the error that the sun is closer than the actual distance. Of course I can also understand why it is that the sun appears in the way it does to me (I can understand for example that the sun really doesn’t get larger at sunset or change from yellow to red, but this is the effect of light in the Earth’s atmosphere), but that means I have to have a true idea of what the sun is and what the my body is and how they interact.

Because of our limited knowledge, Spinoza thinks that is very easy for us to have inadequate of idea of things, but does he think that we can have adequate idea? It would surprise us if he said ‘no’ to this questions, since Spinoza is an exponent of the new modern science. He is a realist. He does not think that our scientific theories are just our way of understanding what reality is, but are true picture of what is. Indeed Newton’s laws would be true, even if there were no human being to think them.

The difference is between understanding a particular thing as a mode or as an expression of substance. Let say I look at a stretch of water that is in front of me. I could just describe the water as I see it, perhaps in the way that I writer might describe it in a story, or painter paint it. Or I could describe it in terms of substance. Not just this stretch of water in front of me, but through an attribute that expresses not just this part of reality, but the whole of reality. Isn’t this just what science does? Science does not explain this or that particular instance or occasion of water, but the reality of water as such, which for Spinoza would be explained in the current scientific explanation of nature through the general laws of physics. This would be to have an adequate, as opposed to an inadequate understanding of water, because I would be understanding its true cause, which is substance explained in this case through the attribute extension.

The laws of physics are what Spinoza calls ‘common notions’. The occasion for us to have ideas is our bodies, for this nothing in our minds that does not come via our bodies. Thus if we didn’t have eyes to see the sun, then we wouldn’t have the idea of sun. The error, then is not think that the ‘truth’ of the idea of the sun somehow has its origin in us. We can think the true idea of the sun, because the true idea of the sun corresponds (or is the same as) as the causal relation between the mode and substance. There cannot be any other idea of the sun that is true because nature cannot be any different than what it is, otherwise substance would be lacking that different reality and therefore would not be infinite.

How can we escape the confused ideas of the realm of sensations and affections? We can only do so when we understand ideas internally and not externally. To understand ideas internally means to know the necessary order and connections of ideas themselves and not how they are encountered through affections. Yet even though I might know the difference between the two, how do I take the step from one to the other? It is probably wrong to say that Spinoza rejects imagination, because this would be argue that he rejects the body, but as we know, for Spinoza, only through the body can I know the world. There must then be a route from inadequate to adequate knowledge, and the key is ‘common notions’.

Inadequate knowledge only tells me about my individual encounters with things. What Spinoza calls duration. How something appears to me at a certain time and place, and which I might subsequently remember and associate with other things. But I can, through duration, leap out of duration. I can recognise what is ‘common to all things’. In so doing, I am understanding the mode through substance and not through another modes, which I can only have a limited knowledge of. It is possible to understand the causal relation between substance and modes. It is not possible to understand the infinite causal relation between modes (it is this inadequate understanding we have seen, for example, that produces the error of free will).

It is very important not to confuse common notions with universals. In IIP40S1, Spinoza disputes the existence of universals precisely because they are not common notions. I can have an adequate idea of scientific laws of nature that are common to all bodies, but what I cannot have is the idea of all horses that would be common to the universal ‘Horse’. The latter is merely a word, whereas the former is a true idea. This is why we differ in what we mean by the word ‘horse’, but we do not differ when we understand what is common to all things (like extension and the laws of nature that follow immediately from it), because this is common to nature as such, and not just a use of words. When we understand the universe, we understand it as it is in reality, and our understanding cannot be any different from God’s (what the universe is in reality in terms of truth), because there couldn’t be any other understanding. There is no mysterious transcendent cause, nor any distinctive human understanding (as there is in Kant for example) that would be any different from truth of what is actually in reality, which would be true whether we knew it or not.

It is possible to have adequate ideas because it is possible to know the causes of things. Of course as finite beings, it is not possible to for us to know the cause of everything, but that does not mean that we know nothing. It is possible for us to understand the essence of God for example, for Spinoza. It is possible for us to understand the idea of a triangle, though it is not possible for us to have the idea of every triangle that has ever existed. To have an adequate idea is to understand something through its cause rather than its effects. Thus to have an adequate idea of the sun is to understanding why it makes my skin feels warm and appears closer than it is in reality, as opposed to an inadequate idea, which starts with effects, my warm skin, the appearance of the sun and the sky, and argues backwards towards the cause. The sun is close to me in the sky because it is circling the earth; the sun warms the my skin because it was created by God to benefit human beings. Both these arguments are false because they argue from effects rather than causes. To understand the effects of the sun through its cause is to follow the order of reality itself. It is to go from substance as it expressed through its attributes and then to modes. Rather than to start with modes and to try and get back to attributes and from there to substance.

We have only distinguished between inadequate and adequate knowledge in this lecture, but there is third level of knowledge that Spinoza describes in IIP40S2, which he calls ‘intuitive’. We will have to wait to Part 5 of the Ethics to find out what this.


Spinoza’s Materialism – Lecture 10

March 18, 2014

human-proportions-for-artistsSo far, in relation to part 2 of the Ethics, we have only spoken about the mind and not the body (and the mind in relation to the attribute of thought). The particular nature of human beings, however, is that they are the union of a mind and a body. What, then, is the relation between the mind and the body? First of, unlike Descartes, Spinoza begins with the body not the mind. If we are going to understand the nature of the human mind, we first of all have to understand the nature of the human body. This quite is different from Descartes who believes that the union of the body and the mind must be thought from the vantage point of the mind and not the body, and the mind is the truth of the body and not the other way around.

When we are thinking about Spinoza’s parallelism we are thinking about the relation between human thought and the attribute thought. For Spinoza the true ideas of thought are independent from us. These are necessary truths belonging to the causality of thought and not to whom or what thinks them. When we are thinking, however, about the nature of human thought itself, and not just its relation to the attribute thought, then we have to think of the relation between our bodies and our minds, because this is the kind of beings that we are. We already saw from last week’s lecture that the idea for Spinoza has two sides: one side is the idea itself, which Spinoza calls its formal reality, and the other side, is the object that it represents, which Spinoza, following general practice, calls its objective reality. No idea can be defined without these two sides. When we thinking about the nature of thought itself, and not just the human mind, then we are thinking just about the formal reality of ideas, the necessary causality of thought. When we are thinking about just the human mind, though, we focus on the objective reality of ideas. We have to ask ourselves ‘What is it that the human mind represents?’ Spinoza answer to this question is that the human mind represents the human body. We have to be very clear about what this answer means. It means that body is the essence, definition, or content of the mind. What the mind represents is the body, and not itself. Without the body, the mind would be nothing at all; it would have no objective reality. Thus in the scholium to P13, Spinoza will say that the complexity of the human mind, as opposed, for example to the mind of a dolphin, is to do with the complexity of the human body, and not with human mind. It is because our bodies can feel, experience, sense more that our minds are more complex than other animals, and not the other way around. We do not have complex bodies because we have complex minds, but we have complex minds because we have complex bodies.[1] As Spinoza writes in the scholium to P13,

In proportion as a body is more capable than others of doing many things at once, or being acted upon on in many ways at once, so its mind is more capable than others of perceiving many things at once.

This explains why the next section of Part 2 has to do with the general nature of bodies. If we are to understand the human mind through the human body, then we have to understand the nature of the human body first. The human body, of course, is acted upon as any other body is in nature. To put it within a modern context, to understand human psychology we first of all have to understand physics and biology. For Spinoza’s interests in the Ethics is human happiness, then the central idea in this excursus, as Curley indicates, is the idea of the composite body, which is a body that can be acted upon by many external bodies without losing its identity (Curley 1988, p.76).

There are many different bodies in nature: basic chemical elements, simple material objects, simple organisms, and more and more complex forms of life. For Spinoza, the human being is a very complex living organism that is made up of many individual bodies, and is affected by many other bodies, in very many complex ways. What we can or are able to know for Spinoza, is directly related to the complexity of our body to be affected: everything that we know, from the simplest and most basic, to the most complex and extraordinary, first has to come to through the experience of our bodies.

The relation of the mind to the body also explains the limitations of the human knowledge, and the possibility of inadequate ideas. If we have inadequate ideas, then it is because we have a confused or distorted understanding of the body. Thus a false idea, or an inadequate idea, is not false at the level of the mode of thought or mode of extension, but in the relation between them. To understand this relation we have to understand how the human mind comes to inadequate ideas of things.

For human beings, our perception of things, which is the first level of knowledge for Spinoza, is mediated by our human body, as he states in IIP26:

The human mind does not perceive any external body as actually existing, except through the idea of the affections of its own body.

Our perception of things at this level, therefore, tells us more about the condition and nature of our own bodies, rather than the nature of external things themselves. Thus if I am short sighted things will be blurred and small, but this is true for human nature in general, since we can only perceive external things in the way that they affect our bodies, and we cannot perceive them in any other way.[2] In Spinoza’s terminology this fundamental relation between the idea and the object mediated by the body is called imagination. When I see something for Spinoza, I am imagining it. This does mean that I am making it up; rather I have an image of it in my mind, whose origin is mediated by the affects of the body. The image is the correlate of the sensations. We should, however, be very careful about what Spinoza means by the word ‘image’ here. An idea is certainly not a picture (as Spinoza makes very clear in IIP43S), if one imagines a picture to be some kind of thing which is a copy of a real thing, as though in the mind there existed images which corresponded to actual things; rather an idea is always a mode of the attribute thought. Error does not happen because I have the image of something in my mind which is wrong; rather error happens because my mind lacks the idea that excludes the existence of the thing that I imagine to be present. Thus, to use Spinoza’s example, when the young child imagines the existence of a winged horse, it is not the image of the ‘winged horse’ that is in error, but the child lacks the knowledge that would tell him or her that this image could not possibly exist. So there is nothing wrong with the imagination in itself, as Spinoza writes in the scholium to IIP17:

For if the mind, while it imagined nonexistent things as present to it, at the same time knew that those things did not exist, it would, of course, attribute this power of imagining to a virtue of its nature, not to a vice.

Inadequate ideas are those ideas which are caused from outside of my mind. This is only a partial knowledge of an object, whereas adequate ideas, within the internal necessity of the order and connection of ideas, are a complete or whole conception of the object. If we only remained within the external relations of the mind to objects, then we would only have a partial and mutilated understanding of the universe. But why is this understanding only partial and mutilated? This is because the body has a negative impact on the causality of ideas, if we assume that we only know things through perception. Thus, I am affected by the rays of the sun as it warms my face. There is nothing in common between me and the sun, and therefore, at this level, I cannot have an adequate idea of the sun. Rather, as we have already said, this relation tells me more about the body affected (in this case myself) than the body which is the cause of the affection. As Deleuze says in his lectures on Spinoza, a fly would be affected by the sun in a different way (Deleuze 1978). The reason why this is inadequate knowledge is that I only know the sun in terms of its effects on my body (just as the fly only knows the sun in terms of the effects on its body) and not in terms of causes; that is to say, what the cause of the sun and what is the cause of the heat on my face and so on. To know that I would have to know what my body was and what the sun was, and I could not know that simply through the effects of one body on another (it is not through the warmth of the sun against my face that I know that my idea of the sun is adequate and the idea of the sun of the fly is not). Inadequate ideas are therefore representation of effects without the knowledge of causes.

The idea of inadequate ideas will become very important in the rest of Spinoza’s Ethics. For to live at the level of the knowledge of effects, that is to know nothing of the causes of things, is to live a life of encounters only. One sensation follows another sensation, but I have no real understanding of the causes of these sensations. This is the level, unfortunately, that most of us live. When we come to think about our ethical life, this means that we are completely under the control of one feeling following another, like a paper boat buffeted by the mighty waves of the ocean of emotion. If we knew the true cause of these emotions, then we would be in control of them, rather than they in control of us. Knowledge of these true causes is the aim of the rest of the parts of the Ethics.

Works Cited

Curley, E., 1988. Behind the Geometrical Method : a Reading of Spinoza’s Ethics, Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Deleuze, G., 1978. Les Cours de Gilles Deleuze. Sur Spinoza. Available at: http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/texte.php?cle=14&groupe=Spinoza&langue=2 [Accessed September 30, 2012].

Lahn, B.T., 2004. Human Brain Evolution Was a “Special Event.” Available at: http://www.hhmi.org/news/lahn3.html [Accessed November 25, 2012].


[1] Humans have extraordinarily large and complex brains, even when compared with macaques and other non-human primates. The human brain is several times larger than that of the macaque — even after correcting for body size — and “it is far more complicated in terms of structure (Lahn 2004).

[2] We can of course improve our bodies in relation to instruments, but these instruments themselves have to relate to what our bodies can interact with. There is no point having a powerful electronic magnetic microscope if we can’t make available to the human eye the images that it produces.


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