Spinoza Made a Difference

Baruch (sometimes Benedict) Spinoza was a 17th century Jewish philosopher who famously referred to reality as either God or nature. Scholars have been arguing about what he meant ever since, but whatever he meant helped get him “excommunicated or expelled from the people of Israel” in 1656. In 2012, a rabbi declined to remove the ban, citing Spinoza’s “preposterous ideas, where he was tearing apart the very fundamentals of our religion”.

From Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English by Jonathan R√©e (Spinoza wrote in Latin but couldn’t be left out of the book):

Christians had never taken much interest in atheism: the Bible dismissed it as the delirium of “fools”… After Spinoza, Christians would find themselves doing battle not only with heresy and heathenism, but also with sheer unbelief. Atheism was still a dangerous word, however, and it was sometimes replaced by a new coinage: deism, which implied rejecting revelation, ritual and tradition, while retaining a residual belief in an impersonal divine power, perhaps on the lines of Spinoza’s “God or nature”.

Ordinary Christians were alarmed: “at this day Atheism is slily [i.e. “slyly”] called Deism by those that are indeed Atheists”, as an English pamphleteer observed in 1695: “they would disguise it by a false Name, and thereby hid the Heinousness of it”. By that time, a clandestine network of atheistic and deistic pamphleteers was operating across northern Europe, building on Protestant contempt for Catholic superstition and extending it to religion as a whole. They used the arguments of various “new philosophers” — principally Descartes, Gassendi, Hobbes and Spinoza — to attack beliefs in miracles, apparitions and omens, and derided the doctrine of transubstantiation, which asserts the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in consecrated bread and wine.

As far as they were concerned, everything in the physical world was governed by universal laws of nature, and the Bible was no holier than any other book. “Such is human malice and stupidity” — to quote a notorious¬† pamphlet called the Trait√© des trois imposteurs — that men choose to pass their lives in duping each other and worshiping a book handed down from an ignorant nation”. Manuscript copies of the Trait√© circulated in Latin and French in the 1690s, promoting the idea that religion is a fraud perpetrated by “the three imposters — Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. The pamphlet grew larger and bolder as time went by, and when it was printed at the Hague in 1719, it was bound with other works under a title that was not much less provocative: La Vie et l’Esprit de Spinoza….

[Sophia, Electress of Hanover, who almost became Queen of England] spent several years mingling with scholars in Heidelberg… Above all, she became an admirer of Spinoza: she described his Tractatus as “extraordinary and entirely reasonable” and supported a plan to offer him a professorship. She was appalled when he died shortly afterwards, suspecting that he had been murdered by partisans of “faith without reason”, and reflecting that “most of the human race … lives on lies”.¬†


If you’d like to know more about Spinoza’s philosophy, including his critique of religion and the Bible, as well as his liberalism and secularism, give his Theological-Political Treatise a try. When it was published, it was denounced as “godless,” “full of abominations,” “a book forged in hell . . . by the devil himself”. Stephen Nadler’s A Book Forged In Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age is another option. If anyone was ever born before his time, it was Baruch Spinoza.

Religion and I (Continued Again)

Did a powerful being create the universe? If so, does that being know absolutely everything about its creation? And could that being change the way its creation works with no difficulty at all? Damned if I know.

Of course, many of us claim to know. I never have. When I was little, I was impressed by the miracle stories. Later on, I learned that stories about miracles are much more common than miracles themselves. 

Eventually, I concluded that I was an agnostic. It seemed like the only reasonable position to hold. Take the proposition that God exists. The possible responses are: 

  1. I know that God exists;
  2. I don’t know if God exist;
  3. I know that God doesn’t exist.

Choosing¬†(2)¬†means you’re an agnostic. (You could also say (4) “I don’t know what ‘God exists’ means”, but let’s put that aside as overly argumentative.)

But consider a proposition like “The Easter Bunny¬†exists”. If we replace¬†“God” with “the Easter Bunny” in those¬†three sentences, it feels easier to choose (3): “I know that the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist”. Why? Well, because I know there’s no Easter Bunny.

Seriously, only little children believe in the Easter Bunny; there is no worldwide religion devoted to believing in the Easter Bunny; no philosophers or theologians have argued for the existence of the¬†Easter Bunny (well, some have in a way, but not many). Under pressure, I might agree that it’s not completely impossible that the Easter Bunny exists, but I’m much closer to believing (3) “it doesn’t” than (2) “I don’t know”.

As I was thinking about writing these posts, I came across something called the Dawkins Scale. It’s from a book by the biologist Richard Dawkins. It’s also known as the Spectrum of Theistic Probability. In theory, each of us belongs somewhere on this scale:


Although I usually think of myself as an agnostic, Dawkins would say I’m an atheist, i.e. (6) “De-Facto Atheist: I cannot know for certain, but I think God is very improbable”. Not everyone agrees with the way Dawkins defines the word “atheist”; some of his critics¬†think that to be an atheist, you have to be completely sure that¬†God doesn’t exist.

I’d forgotten, however, that ten years ago, when I stood in front of the congregation at the Unitarian Church, reading my “theology” or “credo”, this is what I said:

This leaves me as either an atheist or an agnostic, depending on how those words are defined. Using language from the biologist Richard Dawkins, my position is that I cannot know for certain, but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that God is not there.

Hence, ten years later, still number 6 on the Dawkins Scale.

Even so, I recently began watching a Public Broadcasting program called “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians”. Most of the program was familiar from books I read years ago, and it was a little annoying how often they stopped the narrative for ethereal singing and beautiful video¬†of the sun and clouds. But listening to¬†how the New Testament was written and cobbled together decades after Jesus lived, it occurred to me¬†that it might be interesting to read the “books” of the New Testament in chronological order.

I don’t mean “chronological” in the¬†sense of “as the events supposedly occurred or will occur”. That would mean¬†starting with the birth of Jesus and continuing on to¬†the Apocalypse. I mean reading the parts of the New Testament¬†in the order in which¬†they were written. (There is at least one version of the New Testament, called¬†Evolution of the Word, arranged that way. The book’s description says it “reveals how spiritually and politically radical the early Jesus movement began and how it slowly became domesticated”.)¬†¬†

Scholars believe the first book¬†of the New Testament was written by Paul the Apostle roughly¬†20 years after Jesus died. That’s 1 Thessalonians, written around the year 50. That was followed by six or seven other letters written by Paul. The first gospel, Mark, wasn’t written until the year 70 or so. The first gospel¬†that appears in the New Testament, Matthew, was written around 20 years after that (60 years after Jesus died).

Maybe reading the New Testament in the order it was written will show something important¬†about how Christianity began. So far, I’ve read three of Paul’s letters. He comes across as a true¬†proselytizer, someone¬†saying whatever he can to turn his audience into followers of Jesus. I’m not sure I’d have trusted him, since he seems like such a self-promoter, although it would have been a relief to hear him say it wasn’t necessary to follow the Jewish dietary laws or be circumcised in order to become a Christian.

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul blames his fellow¬†Jews for killing Jesus. I assumed that was an accusation from later times created in order¬†to foster¬†anti-Semitism. In Galatians, he calls the world “evil”. Paul emphasizes that faith in Jesus is the one true path to salvation. When Jesus returns, the faithful will be lifted up into the clouds, after which they’ll live with the Lord forever. ¬†

I don’t know if I’ll keep reading, or if I’ll share what I read. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that I won’t be moving higher or lower on the Dawkins Scale. ¬†¬†

A Guide to Reality, Part 15 (the End, or Maybe Not Quite)

The final chapter of Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions is “Living With Scientism”. Rosenberg defined “scientism” in his first chapter as a worldview that isn’t merely consistent with atheism, but is:

the worldview that all us atheists (and even some agnostics) share…[It’s] the conviction that¬†the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything; that science’s description of the world is correct in its fundamentals; and that, when “complete”, what science tells us will not be surprisingly different from what it tells us today…Science provides all the significant truths about reality, and knowing such truths is what real understanding is all about [6-7].

Anyone who accepts scientism as Rosenberg explains it may well¬†be an atheist, since there is no scientific evidence for the existence of God or gods. But the idea that all atheists accept Rosenberg’s version of scientism is clearly false. Rosenberg’s scientism is an extreme example of what might be called¬†“nothing-but-ism”.¬†The universe is nothing but subatomic particles. Everything can ultimately be explained in terms of those particles and their interactions. In Rosenberg’s words, physics fixes all the facts.

Yet one can¬†deny the existence of God or gods but believe without contradiction that there are ethical truths and that some higher-level phenomena cannot be reduced to physics. Rosenberg himself calls attention to so-called “secular humanists” who may be atheists but who also “treat the core morality we share as true, right, correct and really morally binding on us” [277]. Rosenberg, of course, thinks that morality, as well as meaning and purpose, are all illusions.

He has an answer, however, for anyone who wonders why someone with his beliefs would bother getting out of bed in the morning:

Luckily for us, Mother Nature has seen to it that most of us, including the secular humanists, will get up most mornings and go on living even without anything to make our lives meaningful. The proof is obvious. There is nothing that makes our lives meaningful, and yet here we are, out of our pajamas [280].

Natural selection (aka Mother Nature) has made human beings¬†generally capable of¬†surviving and reproducing. Some of us do better at the components of being alive and some do worse, as should be expected. Anyone who worries too much about the meaning of life can look¬†to religion, philosophy or science for answers, although there aren’t any answers to be found, since¬†life has no meaning. Fortunately, we¬†who need special assistance getting out of bed can seek medicine from psychiatrists¬†or conversation with therapists, either of which may rewire our brains¬†and relieve our suffering. As science progresses, it will become easier for psychological problems to be¬†addressed. But we should remember that:

Your neural circuits, and so your behavior, may get modified as a result of the therapy, but it is an illusion that the change results from thinking about what the therapist said and consciously buying into his or her diagnosis. In therapy, as in everything else in life, the illusory content of introspective thoughts is just along for the ride [286].

With respect to morality, Rosenberg endorses what he calls “nice nihilism”, the view that moral distinctions¬†have no basis in reality (that’s the nihilist part), but most people behave morally anyway¬†as the result of¬†natural selection (that’s the nice part). He points out¬†that moral disagreements usually¬†concern¬†facts, not values.¬†For example, some argue that¬†capital punishment is morally acceptable because it’s a significant deterrent. But that’s a question that can¬†be answered by¬†looking at statistics. Some¬†moral disagreements result from¬†conflicting ethical¬†ideals. In those cases, there are¬†no “right” answers.¬†

Rosenberg argues¬†that scientism is most consistent with tolerance toward¬†other people’s ethical views and willingness¬†to question our own.¬†We shouldn’t assume that people who disagree with us are evil; they’re simply misinformed. And since scientific conclusions are almost always subject to revision, we should admit¬†that our own scientifically-informed ethical views may be mistaken.

As Rosenberg¬†points out, most scientists (not all of whom accept Rosenberg’s brand of scientism, of course) are on the political left. As evidence, he could have cited a 2009 poll showing that¬†81% of American scientists are Democrats or lean that way, while only 12% are Republicans or lean right. (These numbers shouldn’t be a surprise, since scientists tend to know about science, and therefore about reality, which¬†has a well-known liberal bias).

Furthermore, Rosenberg thinks that anyone who accepts scientism should oppose retributive punishment and¬†favor political egalitarianism. In his view, there is no free will, so nobody is really responsible for the painful things they do or the pleasant¬†things they accomplish. He concludes that prisons should resemble hospitals: sick people (criminals) should be treated and seriously infectious people (those can’t be rehabilitated) should be¬†quarantined. Meanwhile,¬†society’s goods should be distributed rather evenly. None of this should be done for ethical reasons, since ethics is an illusion, but for practical or prudential reasons. For example, people with lots of money can interfere with the operation of free markets, which tend to benefit society as a whole (of which we are a part), so it makes sense to redistribute some of their wealth.

Rosenberg concludes with the suggestion that we¬†consider emulating the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. He was ahead of his time in believing that everything in the universe, including our minds, is¬†made of atoms. He also thought that pleasure and pain are the best guides to what’s good and bad or right and wrong. He didn’t favor riotous living, however. As Rosenberg explains:

A tranquil self-sufficient life along with your friends was the key to securing the good and avoiding evil…The tranquility he commended requires that we not take ourselves or much of anything else too seriously…. Epicureanism encourages a good time [313].

Epicurus also argued that death is nothing to fear. There is no such thing as immortality, so death is the end of our existence. Since we no longer exist when we are dead, we have no reason to fear death (although the process of dying may be very uncomfortable, as Epicurus realized)..

When I started writing about Rosenberg’s book almost two years ago, I¬†thought it would be an interesting experience, but didn’t anticipate taking¬†so long¬†to get through it. (You never know if you’ll enjoy reading a book a second time, even if you¬†really enjoyed¬†it the first time.) This was going to be my¬†last entry on this topic, but a few final thoughts may be appropriate. Not tonight, however, unless they’re yours.

A Guide to Reality, Part 13

Chapter 8 of Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions¬†is called “The Brain Does Everything Without Thinking About Anything At All”. Without thinking about anything at all? That¬†sounds like¬†another of Rosenberg’s rhetorical exaggerations.

He¬†grants that it’s perfectly natural for us to believe that our conscious minds allow us to think about this and that. Yet he claims that science tells us otherwise:

Among the seemingly unquestionable truths science makes us deny is the idea that we have any purposes at all, that we ever make plans — for today, tomorrow or next year. Science must even deny the basic notion that we ever really think about the past and the future or even that our conscious thoughts ever give any meaning to the actions that express them [165].

But despite this claim about science and the title of the chapter, Rosenberg doesn’t really “deny that we think accurately and act intelligently in the world”. It’s just (just!) that we don’t “do it in anything like the way almost everyone thinks we do”. In other words, we think but we don’t think “about”.

Before getting to his argument against “aboutness”, Rosenberg offers the observation that¬†science is merely “common sense continually improving itself, rebuilding itself, correcting itself, until it is no longer recognizable as common sense” [167]. That seems like a correct understanding of science; it’s not as if science is a separate realm completely divorced from what’s called “common sense”. When done correctly, science is a cumulative process involving steps¬†that are each in turn commonsensical, i.e. based on sound reasoning or information:

Science begins as common sense. Each step in the development of science is taken by common sense. The accumulation of those commonsense steps … has produced a body of science that no one any longer recognizes as common sense. But that’s what it is. The real common sense is relativity and quantum mechanics, atomic chemistry and natural selection. That’s why we should believe it in preference to what ordinary experience suggests [169].

So, if¬†you have a mental image of the Eiffel Tower or suddenly remember that¬†the Bastille was stormed in 1789, ordinary introspection suggests¬†that you’re having a thought about Paris. But, according to Rosenberg, that’s a mistake. Assuming that this thought of yours that’s supposedly about Paris consists in or at least reflects activity in¬†your brain (the organ you use to think), that would imply that there must be something in your brain that represents Paris. We know, however, that any such¬†representation isn’t a tiny picture or map of Paris. Brain cells aren’t arranged¬†like tiny pictures.

But¬†perhaps there’s a kind of symbol in your brain, an arrangement of neurons that your brain somehow interprets as representing Paris? Rosenberg rejects this possibility, arguing that any such interpretation would require a second set of neurons:

[The second set of neurons] can’t interpret the Paris neurons as being about Paris unless some other part of [the second set] is, separately and independently, about Paris [too]. These will be the neurons that “say” that the Paris neurons are about Paris; they will be about the Paris neurons the way the Paris neurons are about Paris [178].¬†

Rosenberg argues that this type of arrangement would lead to an unacceptable infinite regress. There would have to be a third set of neurons about the second set, and so on, and so on.

I confess that I’m having trouble understanding why the regress is necessary. In Rosenberg’s notes, he references¬†a book called Memory: From Mind¬†to Molecules, by the neuroscientists Larry¬†Squire and Eric Kandel, which he says explains “how the brain stores information without any aboutness”. Maybe it’s clearer there.

However, if we grant that Rosenberg’s argument is correct and one¬†part of the brain interpreting another (symbol-like) part of the brain would require an impossible infinite regress, it still seems questionable whether he has shown that nothing in the brain can be about anything. What his argument will have shown is that one part of the brain can’t interpret some other, symbolic part of the brain. Perhaps thoughts can be “about” something in some other¬†way.

Rosenberg next offers an interesting account of how our brains work. Briefly put, human brains work pretty much like the brains of sea slugs and rats. Scientists have discovered that all of us organisms learn by connecting neurons together. Individual neurons are relatively simple input/output devices. Link them together and they become more complex input/output devices. The key difference between our brains and those belong to sea slugs and rats is that ours have more neurons and more links.

When a¬†sea slug is conditioned to respond a certain way to a particular stimulus (like one of Pavlov’s dogs),

[the training] releases proteins that opens up the channels, the synapses, between the neurons, so it is easier for molecules of calcium, potassium, sodium and chloride to move through their gaps, carrying electrical charges between the neurons. This produces short-term memory in the sea slug. Training over a longer period does the same thing, but also stimulates genes in the neurons’ nuclei to build new synapses that last for some time. The more synapses, the longer the conditioning lasts. The result is long-term memory in the sea slug [181].

The process in your brain was similar¬†when you learned to recognize your mother’s face. Rosenberg cites an experiment in which researchers were able to temporarily disable the neurons that allowed¬†their subject to recognize her mother. Since she still recognized her mother’s voice, she couldn’t understand why this stranger sounded just like her mother.

Rosenberg concludes that there is nothing in our brains that is “about” anything:

None of these sets of circuits are about anything….The small sets of specialized input/output circuits that respond to your mom’s face, as well as the large set that responds to your mom [in different ways], are no different from millions of other such sets in your brain, except in one way: they respond to a distinct electrical input with a distinct electrical output….That’s why they are not about anything. Piling up a lot of neural circuits that are not about anything at all can’t turn them into a thought about stuff out there in the world [184].¬†

Of course, how the activation of neural circuits in our brains results in conscious thoughts that seem to be “about” something remains a mystery. Today, for no apparent reason, I had a brief thought about Roxy Music, the 70s rock band. Maybe something in my environment (which happened to be a parking lot) triggered¬†that particular¬†mental¬†response. Or maybe there was some¬†seemingly random electrical activity in my brain that suddenly made Roxy Music come to mind.¬†

I still don’t see why we should deny that my thought this afternoon was about Roxy Music, even if the neural mechanics involved were quite simple at the cellular level. If some of my neurons will lead me to answer “Roxy Music” when I’m asked what group Bryan Ferry was in, or will get me to think of Roxy Music once in a while, perhaps we should accept the fact that there are arrangements of neurons in my head that are about Roxy Music.

Philosophers use the term “intentionality” instead of¬†“aboutness”. They’ve been trying to understand¬†intentionality for a long time. How can one thing be “about” another thing? Rosenberg seems to agree that intentionality is mysterious. He also thinks it’s an illusion. Maybe he’s right. In the last part of chapter 8, he brings computer science into the discussion. That’s a topic that will have to wait for another time.

God and Modern Moral Philosophy

I’m halfway through J. B. Schneewind’s The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy. “Modern” in this case¬†doesn’t mean “contemporary”. Philosophers generally consider Rene Descartes to be the founder of modern philosophy and he died in 1650. Schneewind’s book concludes¬†with¬†Immanuel Kant, who died in 1804. (Philosophy¬†isn’t one of those disciplines that leaves the past behind.)

Moral philosophy hasn’t stood still since Kant, but he’s still a very important figure. Kant¬†argued that in order to act ethically, we must subject ourselves to a moral principle (the Categorical Imperative)¬†that we freely and rationally adopt. We must be autonomous agents, not someone else’s followers.

However, as¬†Schneewind tells the story in the¬†first half of The Invention of Autonomy, moral philosophers in the early modern period¬†were deeply concerned with an issue that wasn’t modern at all.¬†Plato presented the problem¬†in one of his early dialogues, Euthyphro: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”. Or, in modern form, “Is the¬†morally good commanded by God because it’s morally good, or is it morally good because it’s commanded by God?”.

Not surprisingly,¬†there were a variety of answers to this question. Some philosophers and theologians argued in favor of “intellectualism”:¬†God commands what is morally good because God recognizes the principles of morality. It isn’t in God’s power or nature to prefer the immoral to the moral. Richard Cumblerland, for example, argued that morality is rational and¬†God is supremely rational. Hence, God’s commands must be¬†the right ones. God cannot¬†make mistakes.

But if God couldn’t have issued different commands, doesn’t that limit God’s power? And doesn’t it mean that morality somehow stands apart from God? It would seem that¬†God might not even be¬†necessary for morality.¬†Concerns like that¬†convinced some¬†to argue for “voluntarism”: God’s commands define morality. God voluntarily chose the morality we have, so what is moral or¬†immoral¬†would have been different if God had chosen differently. Descartes was an extreme voluntarist, for example. Schneewind notes that, according to Descartes,

Eternal verities must depend on God’s will, as a king’s laws do in his country. There are eternal truths, such as that the whole is greater than the part; but they would not be true unless God had willed them to be so [184].

Maybe it made sense for the early modern philosophers to spend so much time trying to figure out what God was thinking, and whether God could have chosen differently, and how morality and God are related. Living in a world subject to the idiosyncratic decisions of kings and queens, it must have been natural to view morality in terms of divine commands.

Eventually, however, the intellectualist side prevailed (to the extent that God remained in the picture at all). It became clear that¬†morality and religion aren’t necessarily connected. All that speculating¬†and arguing about the relationship between God and morality was an enormous waste of time. If you don’t believe me, read the first half of The Invention of Autonomy.