Spinoza, the God-Intoxicated Man

He is known as Spinoza, although he might just as well have been known as Espinoza or Espinosa. The de Espinosa family of Sephardic Jews originated in Spain before emigrating to Portugal and then Amsterdam to escape religious persecution. Spinoza was born in Amsterdam as Benedito de Espinosa, referred to himself as Benedict de Spinoza in his Latin writings, and is now often called Baruch Spinoza. He lived in the 17th century and was a truly great philosopher.

What follows is from “Why Spinoza Still Matters”, written by Prof. Stephen Nadler for Aeon:

Spinoza’s views on God, religion and society have lost none of their relevance…. In his distress over the deteriorating political situation in the Dutch Republic, and despite the personal danger he faced, Spinoza did not hesitate to boldly defend the radical Enlightenment values that he, along with many of his compatriots, held dear. In Spinoza we can find inspiration for resistance to oppressive authority and a role model for intellectual opposition to those who, through the encouragement of irrational beliefs and the maintenance of ignorance, try to get citizens to act contrary to their own best interests.

Nadler then gives an excellent summary of Spinoza’s basic position: 

Spinoza’s philosophy is founded upon a rejection of the God that informs the Abrahamic religions. His God lacks all the psychological and moral characteristics of a transcendent, providential deity. The Deus of Spinoza’s philosophical masterpiece, the Ethics (1677), is not a kind of person. It has no beliefs, hopes, desires or emotions. Nor is Spinoza’s God a good, wise and just lawgiver who will reward those who obey its commands and punish those who go astray. For Spinoza, God is Nature, and all there is is Nature (his phrase is Deus sive Natura, ‘God or Nature’). Whatever is exists in Nature, and happens with a necessity imposed by the laws of Nature. There is nothing beyond Nature and there are no departures from Nature’s order – miracles and the supernatural are an impossibility.

There are no values in Nature. Nothing is intrinsically good or bad, nor does Nature or anything in Nature exist for the sake of some purpose. Whatever is, just is. Early in the Ethics, Spinoza says that ‘all the prejudices I here undertake to expose depend on this one: that men commonly suppose that all natural things act, as men do, on account of an end; indeed, they maintain as certain that God himself directs all things to some certain end; for they say that God has made all things for man, and man that he might worship God’.

Spinoza is often labelled a ‘pantheist’, but ‘atheist’ is a more appropriate term. Spinoza does not divinise Nature. Nature is not the object of worshipful awe or religious reverence. ‘The wise man,’ he says, ‘seeks to understand Nature, not gape at it like a fool’. The only appropriate attitude to take toward God or Nature is a desire to know it through the intellect.

The elimination of a providential God helps to cast doubt on what Spinoza regards as one of the most pernicious doctrines promoted by organised religions: the immortality of the soul and the divine judgment it will undergo in some world-to-come. If a person believes that God will reward the virtuous and punish the vicious, one’s life will be governed by the emotions of hope and fear: hope that one is among the elect, fear that one is destined for eternal damnation. A life dominated by such irrational passions is, in Spinoza’s terms, a life of ‘bondage’ rather than a life of rational freedom.

People who are led by passion rather than reason are easily manipulated by ecclesiastics. This is what so worried Spinoza in the late 1660s, as the more repressive and intolerant elements in the Reformed Church gained influence in Holland. It remains no less a threat to enlightened, secular democracy today, as religious sectarians exercise a dangerous influence on public life.

In order to undermine such religious meddling in civic affairs and personal morality, Spinoza attacked the belief in the afterlife of an immortal soul. For Spinoza, when you’re dead, you’re dead. There might be a part of the human mind that is ‘eternal’. The truths of metaphysics, mathematics, etc, that one acquires during this lifetime and that might now belong to one’s mind will certainly remain once one has passed away – they are, after all, eternal truths – but there is nothing personal about them….

The more one knows about Nature, and especially about oneself as a human being, the more one is able to avoid the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, to navigate the obstacles to happiness and well-being that a person living in Nature necessarily faces. The result of such wisdom is peace of mind: one is less subject to the emotional extremes that ordinarily accompany the gains and losses that life inevitably brings, and one no longer dwells anxiously on what is to come after death. As Spinoza eloquently puts it, ‘the free man thinks of death least of all things, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death’.

Spinoza’s ideas concerning organized religion and the Bible were remarkable for the 17th century. Nadler continues:

Clergy seeking to control the lives of citizens have another weapon in their arsenal. They proclaim that there is one and only one book that will reveal the word of God and the path toward salvation and that they alone are its authorised interpreters. In fact, Spinoza claims, ‘they ascribe to the Holy Spirit whatever their wild fancies have invented’.

One of Spinoza’s more famous, influential and incendiary doctrines concerns the origin and status of Scripture. The Bible, Spinoza argues in the Theological-Political Treatise, was not literally authored by God. God or Nature is metaphysically incapable of proclaiming or dictating, much less writing, anything. Scripture is not ‘a message for mankind sent down by God from heaven’. Rather, it is a very mundane document. Texts from a number of authors of various … backgrounds, writing at different points over a long stretch of time and in differing historical and political circumstances, were passed down through generations in copies after copies after copies.

Finally, a selection of these writings was put together (with some arbitrariness, Spinoza insists) in the Second Temple period, most likely under the editorship of Ezra, who was only partially able to synthesise his sources and create a single work from them. This imperfectly composed collection was itself subject to the changes that creep into a text during a transmission process of many centuries. The Bible as we have it is simply a work of human literature, and a rather ‘faulty, mutilated, adulterated, and inconsistent’ one at that. It is a mixed-breed by its birth and corrupted by its descent and preservation, a jumble of texts by different hands, from different periods and for different audiences.

Spinoza supplements his theory of the human origins of Scripture with an equally deflationary account of its authors. The prophets were not especially learned individuals. They did not enjoy a high level of education or intellectual sophistication. They certainly were not philosophers or physicists or astronomers. There are no truths about nature or the cosmos to be found in their writings…. Neither are they a source of metaphysical or even theological truths. The prophets often had naïve, even philosophically false beliefs about God.

Spinoza held that “there are no values in Nature” and “nothing is intrinsically good or bad”, but, according to Nadler, that didn’t stop him from believing that the Bible conveyed a crucial message:

[The Bible’s authors] were … morally superior individuals with vivid imaginations, and so there is a truth to be gleaned from all of Scripture, one that comes through loud and clear and in a non-mutilated form. The ultimate teaching of Scripture, whether the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Gospels, is in fact a rather simple one: practice justice and loving-kindness to your fellow human beings.

That basic moral message is the upshot of all the commandments and the lesson of all the stories of Scripture, surviving whole and unadulterated through all the differences of language and all the copies, alterations, corruptions and scribal errors that have crept into the text over the centuries.

Such were the views that got Spinoza labeled as a “renegade Jew … from Hell” and, more recently, as a “God-intoxicated man”.

Water, Water Everywhere? A Highly Surprising Graphic

If all the water in the world were collected and put next to the planet Earth, it would look like this:

waterlessearth_woodshole_960

After seeing this, it seems much more plausible that all our water came from comets and asteroids. It also makes our planet’s water seem even more precious.

There’s more here at NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day.

As the Climate Changes, So Will Our Understanding

William Gail is a past president of the American Meteorological Society. He calls attention to an aspect of the global warming crisis I hadn’t really considered: climate change will mean that we’ll know less about the world.

Civilization’s understanding of Earth has expanded enormously in recent decades, making humanity safer and more prosperous. As the patterns that we have come to expect are disrupted by warming temperatures, we will face huge challenges feeding a growing population and prospering within our planet’s finite resources. New developments in science offer our best hope for keeping up, but this is by no means guaranteed.

Our grandchildren could grow up knowing less about the planet than we do today. This is not a legacy we want to leave them. Yet we are on the verge of ensuring this happens.

His op-ed article is here.

From the Cicada’s Perspective (Again With the Cicadas!)

Having a perspective is one of the things that generally sets us apart from inanimate objects (putting aside some inanimate objects like radio telescopes). A cicada has a perspective too, although it’s presumably not quite as nuanced as ours.

From our perspective, it can seem rather sad that these living things are stuck underground for 17 years, only to spend a few days or a few weeks in the open air before dying. It doesn’t seem like much of a life.

On the other hand, if we were to go very far out on a limb and attribute emotions and conscious reflection to these little creatures, we might suppose that they are perfectly happy living underground, away from birds and car tires, resting comfortably in the dark, taking sustenance from tree roots.

The years go by and one day they have to leave their homes, exposing themselves to all kinds of strange goings on, climbing trees, going through metamorphosis, flying around, making so much noise looking for a mate. What a pain! Can’t I stay down here for another decade or so?

Or maybe they feel suddenly liberated? Having been imprisoned in the earth, serving what amounts to a life sentence, they finally get to leave their jails, have some fun if they’re lucky and then call it a day. What a relief! I’m glad that’s over. I’ve done my bit and now it’s time to shuffle off this mortal coil.

The Remarkable Cicadas in a Remarkable Video

The soil in our town recently grew warm enough for the cicadas to emerge. I don’t think we’ve seen any around here since 1996. This bunch has been living underground for 17 years.

We find them (or the outer skeletons they’ve left behind) every morning, mostly on tree trunks, but also on our garage door, our front steps and even our car tires. They’re looking for a temporary home in a hospitable tree. If they find a safe place to rest and mature, they’ll make an amazing amount of noise and attempt to mate. The females who survive will give birth to a new generation. In 3 weeks or so, all of the adults will die.

A filmmaker named Daniel Orr is trying to finish an hour-long documentary about these remarkable animals. He’s using Kickstarter to raise money. If you visit the site below, you can watch 7 minutes of his film. One viewer (no fan of the cicadas, she thought they were really creepy the last time she saw them, when she was 8) called this short video “terrifying, beautiful, disgusting and sad”.

It seems irrational to feel sorry for these insects. Or to feel any other strong emotion about them. Yet it’s hard not to feel something when you watch Mr. Orr’s video. Maybe we imagine ourselves waiting such a long time and then coming into the light.

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/motionkicker/return-of-the-cicadas

P.S. — This morning, the ones who made it into the trees are proclaiming their presence to the world!