Spinoza, Freedom and Democracy – Lecture 4

November 11, 2013

Perhaps one of the most difficult ideas to grasp in Spinoza is freedom, for his metaphysics seems to run counter to it. If we are modes of an infinite being, then this being is the cause of everything that we do and think, otherwise we would be separate from it, and this is clearly not possible for Spinoza (man is not a ‘dominion within a dominion’ as he writes in the preface of part 3). And yet, throughout the Ethics he talks of the rational man as a free man, and indeed that the highest goal of human life is freedom. How can this possibly be when we are totally dependent and therefore determined by God?

This contradiction, however, is only a surface one because it is the result of our misunderstanding of what Spinoza means by the word ‘freedom’. What we mean by freedom is freedom of choice. That I am free to do what I wish to do, and whatever I wish to say or think. This is not what Spinoza means by freedom. For Spinoza, freedom is freedom to be oneself, but to be oneself is to follow the necessity of one’s nature. The difference between these two conceptions of nature can be found in letter that Spinoza writes to Schuller:

That thing is free which exists and acts solely from the necessity of its own nature and I say that that thing is constrained which is determined by something else to exist and to act in a fixed and determinate way. […] I place freedom, not in free decision, but in free necessity. (Spinoza 1995, pp.283–4)

This difference, of course, reminds us of the difference between passive and active affects. In passive affects and I am affected by an external body that is outside of me and which I have an inadequate idea of, whereas in active affects I am the determining cause because I understand both the nature of my body and how it relates to other external bodies. Since everything seeks to preserve its own existence, by the principle of conatus, if I were only to follow my own reason, then I would only seek those external bodies that brought me joy, and avoid those that brought me sadness. But what has active affects to do with free necessity, and why would the free man, so to speak, always be the joyful one?

The key, as we have already suggested is the difference between inadequate and adequate ideas. A rational person for Spinoza, which is the same as a free person, is someone who has adequate ideas. I have an adequate idea of something when I know its cause. What does Spinoza’s mean by cause? He does not just mean the narrow sense of cause that we might use in scientific explanations, when we say that something causes something else. Rather, ‘cause’ has a much broader meaning as ‘explanation’. It is to know the cause of why something exists. Clearly a finite mode, which we are, cannot know every cause (this is why for Spinoza it is not possible to free ourselves from inadequate ideas completely and thus passive affects), but we can know some things. To know the cause of something means the explanation ends in self-evident truths. Now a self-evident truth is a necessary and eternal truth. How do we distinguish between inadequate idea and adequate ones? Inadequate ideas are those ideas that I can never know because they belong to an infinite series. Such a series is always a historical, temporal one for Spinoza. Thus if I ask why did such a thing happen to be at this time, then I will never know because I cannot know all the circumstances. Adequate ideas, on the contrary, are ideas of things that I can know, because they are explanations that end in self-evident truths that are eternal. I can know the same thing inadequately or adequate. Thus if I ask myself why did I write the word ‘triangle’ at this moment, rather than ‘square’, then I cannot know this. But if I ask myself ‘what is a triangle’, then I can. It is a three sided figure whose internal angles add up to 180 degrees.

It is inadequate ideas that give us a false idea of freedom, because we confuse freedom simply with the impossibility that we can know the cause. Thus I might say to myself if only I hadn’t made that choice then I wouldn’t be unhappy now. But I have no idea whether that is true or not, or all the reasons why I made that choice or not. It is the fact that I cannot explain it that gives me the illusion there were hidden possibilities that I could have chosen. Because I get fixated by that choice, I then become enslaved to it. I end up isolating a particular cause, but this can only ever be a partial cause and thus an inadequate idea. Indeed for Spinoza this is how most people live, a slave to their passions. They are attached to one cause or another, one object or another, that they either love or hate, but this cause or object can only be a partial cause or object in infinite network of causes and objects that they cannot know. This is what Spinoza means by slavery and it is a slavery of the understanding. My ideas are attached to objects or causes that begin to dominate them. Thus the only way to escape this enslavement is through the natural power of the understanding itself.

We can already see what this might be. It means that I should direct my attention to eternal truths that I can understand, rather than partial causes that I cannot. I would analyse my affects in terms of those that I can understand and those that are the result of my imagination, and since I am an active thinking being, it would be the most rational thing to follow my reason rather than my imagination. A free person is therefore someone who uses the power of their mind to free themselves from the domination of the passions. To understand freedom here we have to, like every other concept in Spinoza, relate it back to the ontology of the Ethics. Every individual strives to preserve itself in its being and thus to increase its power. Such striving is what makes an individual an individual, for if they did not strive they would cease to exist and be swallowed by a stronger power. As a physical thing, I resist the physical environment that surrounds me. But human beings are not just physical things, they also think. So what does it mean to strive for existence in terms of thinking? It means to increase the power of thinking. To understand more is therefore to exist more as the very activity of thought itself. Active thinking means that thought determines itself rather than is determined by partial causes that it does and cannot know, and the more self-determining I am the more free I am; that is to say free from the passive affects that are caused by inadequate ideas.

It is this conatus, this striving for existence that determines the meaning and reality of freedom for Spinoza, which is not an ideal that lies outside of us. The more power that I have, the more freedom I have, and therefore the more reality and perfection. Virtue for Spinoza therefore means being oneself, the power to be or realising oneself, which means being an individual. My conatus is not to be a best of kind, but to preserve myself as an active individual in terms of both my body and my mind.

We should not confuse this freedom with the freedom of choice, if you mean by that freedom to choose between different possibilities. We are free to the extent we can determine the essence of our nature, but not what our nature is. The only choice is either reflectively choosing oneself, or passively ending up being who one already is. Freedom here is freedom of reflection. If I am caught up in inadequate ideas, then I will chose things that will undermine my existence. If I know the essence of things, what is truly useful and what is not, then I will not choose those things. But to know what something is, is to know it necessarily and eternally. It is not as though I can change it. Thus freedom and necessity are not a contradiction. Whether I do or do not choose has already been determined, but since I do not know this, it is irrelevant (or at least is something I am indifferent to rationally). Spinoza did not choose to become Spinoza, but he did not choose not to either.

For every belief and idea that I have there is an explanation. Every passion that I have is an idea of joy and an idea of sadness which is accompanied with the idea of the cause of that joy or sadness. I can either know this cause adequately or inadequately. To know it adequately is to know what it is in terms of its self-evident truth. To know it inadequately, is to know it only in terms of the association of ideas whose origin I cannot fathom. Freedom means don’t let yourself be enslaved by an idea or belief that you cannot or do not know, because that belief or idea will determine you rather than you determining it. Either the partial cause is the source of my affect, and then I am passive, or I have an adequate idea of that cause, and then I am active, and self-determining. What I cannot do is either change the order of things, or the order of ideas, since neither totality can be adequately grasped by me, as finite mode, nor could change, since what is cannot be otherwise than it is, otherwise it would not be infinite. If I have cancer, then I cannot change that, but what I can change is my understanding it, and in understanding it, free myself from the passive affects that might be associated with it (the idea that it might be a punishment for example). Or to use the example by Stuart Hampshire, I am angry with someone (Kashap 1972, p.321). I thus have an idea of them and that they have displeased me because of something they said or did. I become obsessed with this, and imagine that they could have said or done something different. As soon as I, however, reflect on this passive affect, I realise that there are a chain of associations that have led to this obsession, and what this person said or did is only a partial cause. As soon as this happen, then I am not longer in the thrall of this passive affect. The activity of reflection has dissolved it into an active affect as opposed to a passive one, because I realise it has nothing at all to do with them at all. In going through such a process my power of existence is increased because my understanding is.

Freedom then for Spinoza is self-affirmation and self-assertion of one’s individuality as a thinking being. The more I understand, the more I think, the more I express my power as a thinking being and the more express my individuality since I am no longer subject to the attachment to objects or persons whose partial causes I cannot explain or understand. The two conditions of freedom, therefore, for Spinoza, are detachment and affirmation. Its path is the realisation of the illusionary nature of my fantasies that have their basis in my inadequate ideas where I become a prisoner of my affects. Freedom is nothing less than self-determination. Of course this is a continual act of liberation for Spinoza, since I can always, as finite mode, because subject to other passive affects that I have not understood, but the route to understanding is always open to me.

Individuality is the highest expression of freedom that comes directly from Spinoza’s principle of conatus. It should not surprise us that this has directly a political meaning. In fact there is no separation of ethics and politics for Spinoza because both are thought ontologically. A superficial reading of the Ethics would confuse individualism as a retreat from political life, but precisely the opposite is the case. This is because at the very heart of Spinoza’s understanding of human nature is a sociability that is linked directly to conatus.

For Spinoza a right is an expression of power. Thus all things have rights to the extent that they have power. Yet since every individual thing is a finite mode, these rights are always limited. I have a right to the extent I have the power to assert that right and no more. This political realism is very explosive because it means that no state has absolute power over individuals. It can rule by consent or violence, but violent states will eventual fail when the power of individuals exceeds them (as we see in the recent example of Libya). The most powerful state would have the most right, because it would have the most power. We should not confuse that we tyranny and violence, however, since it is the most reasonable state that would have the most power, because it would be the one that would compose most with the individuals that made it up. To say that everyone is individual is not to say that everyone lives in isolation, for what makes an individual individual is the relation to other individuals. I am nothing but the encounters that form me.

The key proposition here is proposition 37 of part 4. To be guided by reason is seek what is useful to oneself. What is most useful is other people, because associating with others is what increases my own power to exist. This sociability is not based on equality but on difference. Each with our different abilities combines with others and therefore increases each other’s power. To desire others as useful to me is not to desire them to be the same as me, but exactly the opposite: to desire them in their difference; that is to say, as the individuals that they are. Such a collective individuality is what Spinoza calls friendship. But he knows that isn’t why most people end up together. There is also the affective genesis of a collectively which is not based on the rational idea of utility, but the fact that we love or believe in the same object. Such is the basis of patriotism, for example. In this case it is passive affects that are joining is together. If we were only rational creatures then we would live only in rational cities, but because we are not, we also live in affective ones. This isn’t a distinction between two cities, as though the rational one were ideal, and the affective one, real, which would be to read Spinoza as though he were Plato, but that every political institution is a combination of both. The political problem for Spinoza is to make sure that the affective does dominate the rational, because it will essentially unstable and conflictual. It is the state as such which has to ensure that this does not happen.

It is in his two political writings, the earlier Theologico-Political Treatise [hereafter TPT], and the later, shorted, and unfinished, Political Treatise, that Spinoza thinks about these ontological ideas in terms of political reality as such. In other words, what would be the best state to exist in? In the earlier work, there is no doubt that Spinoza’s writing reflects his own situation. The best state is the democratic one, which reflects the Dutch republic at the time under the De Witt brothers. Why would democracy be the best state? Because it instantiates the highest level of freedom that we have just described in that it allows the freedom of thought. The particular political problem is whether this freedom can also be granted to religion, which is more affective than rational. Spinoza’s solution is that one should separate private from public belief. In private, everyone should have the right to believe whatever they want, but in public worship should be regulated by the state. But reality was to show that Spinoza’s solution was a false one. As Balibar suggests, there were two reasons for this.(Balibar 1998, p.114) One, that the Dutch republic was not democratic at all, since it was founded on social inequality, but secondly, and more importantly, it was an illusion to think that the masses would be open to rational argument, and thus that the democratic state could negotiate between the rational and affective.

The Political Treatise was a response to these real problems, and initially it might appear that Spinoza was giving up on democracy as an ideal, but this is only apparent. The real difference of the approach is that Spinoza now sees the purpose of the state as security (this ties in with the principle of conatus in the Ethics). A state that could embody the collective security of individuals would be absolute or most perfect state. It is clear that a democratic state might not ensure this at all. The real problem is how one would reach a consensus about what would be security for all. It is here that Spinoza sees that what is fundamental is the question of the multitude or the masses. In the TPT, the masses were what was regulated by the state, but now Spinoza sees that the state is the masses, and the masses the state. Desire is always already collective. The key political question is how the passive affects of the masses can be transformed into active ones. We already know the answer to this and that is knowledge and understanding. So effective political power would always be the power that increases the knowledge and understanding of the masses. Such a power, again following Balibar, we might call democratisation as opposed to democracy, since even democracy require democratisation. It would the increasing of knowledge and communication because that increases knowledge and understanding generally and therefore the security of the state, because the majority would know what their common interest would be and would not be attached to the partial understanding of external objects and thus the violence and vacillation of passive affects.

Works Cited

Balibar, E., 1998. Spinoza and Politics, London: Verso.

Kashap, S. ed., 1972. Studies in Spinoza, Critical and Interpretive Essays., Berkeley: University of California Press.

Spinoza, B., 1995. Spinoza : the Letters, Indianapolis Ind. ; Cambridge: Hacket.

Advertisements

Falsification

November 3, 2013

What we want is some criterion which will allow us to distinguish science from any other discourse. In other words what makes science, science, as opposed to religion? What is specific to the method of science? Our simplest response to this question is that science deals with facts that are objective (out there in some way) and that religion has to do with belief and is subjective. We might want to say, then, that science is true, and religion is not. When we looked at this simple definition, however, the less certain and clear it seemed. For the idea that science is made up of many observations of facts that are then converted into theories breaks down in the problem of induction, which in its most succinct form, is the impossibility of leaping from a singular judgement to a universal one. No amount of logical finessing will get you from a particular to a universal. This would seem to imply that science is no more objective than religion, and that a theory is as much a belief as any faith.[1] Moreover, it was also clear that the inductionist picture of science was not accurate at all, since facts are not just littered throughout the world such that we pick them up and notice common characteristics from which we then construct some universal law. On the contrary, we already come to facts with a pre-existing theory, which determines which fact we take as relevant or not (or even which fact we can see). As Ladyman explained, Newton did not find the law of gravity in Kepler’s data, he already had to have it in order to interpret the data (Ladyman 2002, pp.55–6).

This reversal of the relation between theory and facts, that theory is first and facts second, is the basis of the next philosophy of science that we shall look at, Popper’s theory of falsification, and indeed rose out of the insurmountable problems of ‘inductionism’. His argument is that we should give up induction as the basis of science, but such a rejection would not lead to irrationalism. Rather we substitute for induction, deduction. But did we not argue already in last lecture that deduction could not be the basis of science, since deduction is merely tautological? Deductive logic tells us nothing new about the world, but only analyses what we already know, whereas as would say that science actually tells us something about nature that we didn’t know before.

Deduction does not work as a basis of science only if we move from the singular to the universal, but if we go from the universal back to the singular then deduction does work. Indeed, this move from the universal back to the singular is exactly, Popper argues, how science operates. We do not start with facts and then make laws, rather we start with laws and then we attempt to test them with facts. The logical point is that we can’t go from observations to theories, even if the observations themselves are true, but it is possible the other way around. We can go from theories then back to observational statements to show that the theory is false. Thus to use Chalmers example, if someone was to see a white raven outside the lecture room today, then this would prove deductively that the statement ‘All Ravens are black’ is false. Such deductive arguments are known as modus tollens, which take the form if P, then Q. ⌐Q, therefore ⌐P (Chalmers 1999, p.61).

When we look at the history of science, this seems exactly what happens. Take for the example, Eddington’s proof of Einstein’s theory that gravity bends light. If the theory was correct then a star that was beyond the sun should be displaced from the direction of the observer so that we could see it. Normally the light from the sun would mean that these starts would not be visible to us, but would be if the light of the sun was blocked. Eddington managed to measure just such a displacement with the eclipse of the sun in 1919. For Popper, the point of this story is that he could have proved otherwise. In other words, Einstein’s theory could have been falsified, if there had not been any displacement.

The real difference between science and religion, or any other discourse that is not science, is not the theories or hypotheses that they put forward, but how they test them. Popper is adamant that science is creative as any other human discourse and that the origin of this creativity is outside any logical explanation. That someone comes up with such an idea at such a time cannot be rationally explained. Thus we don’t know how Galileo or Einstein came up with their ideas, and why not someone else, or at different time and place, but what we do know that what makes these creations scientific, as opposed to anything else is that they can be falsified (this is the difference between context of discovery and context of justification). In the opposite case, it does not seem possible to falsify a religion logically. I can always find a reason to believe something. Think for example of the classic problem of evil in theology. How do I justify the existence of God with evil in the world? It is perfectly possible to find such a reason, as Leibniz did that this is the ‘best of all possible worlds’, and it is just our lack of human understanding that prevents us from seeing it so.

Here we might need to know a little of the story of Popper’s life. When he was young he was a communist and of course Marxism was treated as a science. He says that one day in went on a march with his friends and they were attacked by the police and some of them were killed. He was so shaken by this incident that he had to speak about to his political leaders. They told him that these deaths were necessary for the political emancipation of the workers as was explained by scientific Marxism. But what then would falsify Marxism, for they did not seem to be any instance, including the death of his friends that could not be explained by it.[2]

This is precisely the difference between a science and a pseudo-science (religion is only a pseudo-science when it takes itself to be answering scientific questions, otherwise it is perfectly meaningful for Popper): a pseudo-science has the answer to everything and can never not be true, whereas a science does not have the answer to everything and can always be false. It is this that demarcates, to use Popper’s word, empirical science, from anything else and it is a question of method, rather than logical form, by which he means the positivist obsession with the correlation of statements with aspects of reality. Metaphysics and religion are only pseudo sciences when they pretend to be sciences. If they do not, then there is nothing intrinsically wrong with them. They are certainly not meaningless which is just derogatory word, rather than having any useful philosophical sense.

If what makes a scientific theory scientific is falsification, what exactly makes a falsification? Can any falsification be scientific? Such a broad generalisation does not seem to be correct because just to falsify something would not make it a scientific theory. I could falsify physics, by quoting Genesis but no one would think that I was being scientific. The answer here is intersubjective testability. One cannot conceive of how it would be possible to set up an experiment that would test my falsification of physics that claimed God had created the universe in the way that it is described in Genesis. One can imagine, however how it might be possible to test the falsification of Newtonian science through the prediction made by Einstein, which is entirely what the example from Eddington proves, and it is perfectly possible that other scientists could conceive of such an experiment, whether in principle or in practice.[3]

Could a theory always secure itself by simple adding an ad hoc modification every time a falsification was produced? Thus, to use Chalmers’s example, we could take the generalisation that all bread was nutritious to be falsified by the death all the members of French village who ate bread. We could then qualify our theory by saying that all bread is nutritious except when it is eaten by these members of the French village and we could do this every time any falsification was discovered. Such ad hoc modification would completely destroy any progress in scientific discovery. How then can we distinguish between an authentic and inauthentic ad hoc modification (Chalmers 1999, p.75). In this example, the modification cannot be falsified, so it does not tell us anything new about the world. It in fact tells us less than the original theory that all bread nourishes. So an authentic modification must be one that is also falsifiable. If we had said instead that all bread nourishes except one that is contaminated by certain fungus called Claviceps purpurea, then this would be an authentic ad hoc modification, since it could be tested and falsified, and thus does tell us something new about the world.

This distinction between authentic and inauthentic ad hoc modifications of scientific theories, however, tells us that we should not overestimate falsifications of theories. When we look at the history of science we can see that ad hoc modifications can confirm rather than deny a theory. Take the case of the discovery of Neptune. Irregularities in the orbit of Uranus predicted that there must be another planet that had not be observed. Rather than reject Newton’s theory, scientists argued that a planet must exist that would explain it. Thus, the fact that Neptune was found in 1846 confirmed Newton’s theory rather than falsified it. Rather than seeing science as just a series of falsifications which lead from theory to the next, Aristotelianism to Newtonism to Einstein, we should see it as the confirmation of bold conjectures and the falsification of cautious ones. For what difference does it make to science if one falsifies conjectures such as the universe is made of porridge or confirms a cautious one? But how then do we determine what make a bold conjecture? The only answer to this must be background theories themselves, for only in relation to them could we know what would be bold or timid. The background knowledge is therefore the cautious conjecture (what we take to be correct) and the bold conjecture flies in the face of what everyone thinks is the case. We can see, then, what the real fundamental difference between the falsificationist and inductionist is. The first takes the history of science seriously, and the second has no conception of the history of science at all. There is no background knowledge. Rather facts are accumulated as though there were no context at all and science existed in the eternal present.

Is falsification immune to criticism then? The answer must be unfortunately not. The real problem is still the relation to the theory and the observation. All we can say deductively is that if there is O, then the falsity of T follows if the O is not given, but it tells us nothing about the standard of the evidence itself. What if the evidence is incorrect? Perhaps when person who said that the raven was white and no idea what white was. Perhaps the photograph of the white raven was created in Photoshop, and no such evidence exists. Popper does not have a better story about the correctness of evidence than the positivist.

Moreover, when we actually look at science, it does not take the simple form of ‘All swans are White’…. Rather, sciences are made up of complex collection of universal statements which are interrelated to one another. Now if a prediction tells us the theory is false it tells is that one of the premises might be wrong but not which one or even that our own experience might be the problem. It might not the theory that is out, but the ‘test situation’ itself, because we cannot isolate the premise which allows us to falsify the theory (this is known as the Duhem/Quine thesis). So to use Ladyman’s example, if we were to try and predict the path of a comet, the law of gravity would not be sufficient, so if the prediction were incorrect we would not know that it was the theory of gravity that was being falsified or something else (Ladyman 2002, pp.77–8).

Even if such an isolation were possible, falsification does not seem to capture actually what science and scientists do, for when we look at the history of science we do not find one great conjecture following another, but that scientists stick to their theories despite the fact that they can be falsified or they adopt a new hypothesis even though all the known evidence at the time should have killed them off at birth. This is what we find when we look at the detail of the eventual transition from the Aristotelian to the Copernican view of the world as Feyerabend and Kuhn describe it. It is certainly was not the simple falsification of the one by the other. Science works, to some extent, because scientists are dogmatic and not open to falsification. If that is the case, how is it possible to differentiate, or demarcate, science from any other dogma? Will we not have to use different criteria?

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.

Popper, K.R., 2002. Unended quest, London; New York: Routledge.

 


[1] When we look at science as a method this is a problem. We might ask, however, if think of science as an activity, whether it is such a problem.

[2] The source of this story can be found in Popper’s autobiography (Popper 2002, pp.30–8).

[3] Does this open Popper to a more pragmatic account of science than an epistemological one? For if testability is inter-subjective how are we to describe it? Popper appears to want to separate questions of method from question of practice, but later criticisms will in turn want to question this distinction by asking whether it is really the case, when we look at the history of science, that scientist really are committed to the principle of falsifiability.