Into the Last Remaining Unexplored Region on Earth: The Human Mind, by Charles M. Saunders

Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), ca. 1665, by an unknown artist

Why Spinoza, Why Now?

A Series of Six Essays for Ordinary Philosophy – A Condensed Version of the Ethics – Examined in Detail

Part 1: Into the Last Remaining Unexplored Region on Earth: The Human Mind

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was a respected scholar of Jewish ancestry who eventually became known for his philosophy and political writings. For his philosophy, he selected what he hoped would be a straightforward system: the geometrical method. Rather than lengthy and technically oriented arguments and rhetorical mechanisms, he wrote in somewhat simple Latin and in short, clear, concise statements. He assigns unique connotations to his lexicon which present additional challenges to those who attempt to study his writings. But these are not insurmountable.

In order to make his views on metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, ethics, and psychology clear and to present them as logically and as unadorned as possible, he selected a method which mimics that used by Euclid in his geometry. He was not seeking any type of mathematical certainty to support his hypotheses. But what he did hope would come through was the logical interconnection in descending inductive order within the axioms, definitions, propositions, explanations, demonstrations, and scholia (explanatory notes added to the margins) which make up the body of the text.

Unfortunately, what Spinoza thought would come across as a self-evidently true and accurately phrased demonstration has been and continues to be viewed as one of the most difficult documents to comprehend in the history of ideas. In order to begin the process of unraveling his Gordian knot of text, this essay presents a type of abstract from Letters to No One in Particular: a Discussion and Illustration of Spinoza’s Fragment or On the Improvement of the Understanding. That means, that to understand clearly and to grasp Spinoza’s intended meaning the study must begin outside the bounds of the Ethics itself.

For this first installment in the six essays which will comprise this ‘condensed’ study of the Ethics, it is critically important to begin with the brief treatise written prior to the it, On the Improvement of the Understanding (or, as it is also called, the Fragment), because it is the only place where Spinoza explicitly details his completely unique concept of ‘idea.’

The intended meaning of his ‘idea’ has effectively eluded and flummoxed even the finest minds that have commented on the Ethics. That is for two reasons: 1- Without an adequate grasp of the details in the Fragment which efficiently serves as the linchpin for the Ethics, Spinoza’s revolutionary grasp of human epistemology and the existence and operating functions of the active mind, will remain out of reach. And 2- Most if not all of the commentators on the subject, pre-supposed that by ‘idea’ Spinoza intended either: a judgment, a mental image, a propositional statement, or an abstraction formed from impressions from the sensible world. But he meant none of these things, and that is precisely why we are here today. An important reminder – In the Fragment [TIE] Spinoza emphasized that the ‘idea’ does not, in any way, involve words. With this firmly in mind, let us continue.

In this essay, an outline and explanation of the main message of the Fragment will be presented which will be accompanied by quotations from one of the true scholars of Spinozan explication, Professor Errol E Harris. The quotes are taken from his Salvation from Despair, A Reappraisal of Spinoza’s Philosophy (The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1973), pp 87-88.

In the Proemium to the Fragment, Spinoza announces his intention to make known and accessible to the reader the nature of the human character which comprises the innate and organic operation and functioning of the mind. He describes it thusly: ‘What that character is we shall show in due time, namely, that it is the knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature.’ (TIE). What we need to ferret out is exactly what constitutes this ‘union’.

From that axiomatic starting point, he sets out to discover if there is any possibility that the human mind has any built-in capacity or potential to obtain to any type of knowledge which can be affirmed to be absolutely certain, that is, true. To do this, Spinoza begins by detailing the four kinds of knowledge (perception) which taken together, constitute the spectrum of inputs which every person absorbs from the extended world.

The first three, he discovers, each serves its own limited purpose and can, up to a point, prove useful in everyday living (imagination), in gathering unverifiable information (sensation), and in solving problems and thinking rationally (reasoning). None of these three involves certainty because they are involved with ‘images’, and ultimately Spinoza realized that only with the fourth kind, intuitive understanding, could certainty be achieved. By ‘intuitive,’ he means a type of knowing which includes encapsulating the efficient or proximate cause of the object being considered.

Spinoza discovered that this certainty was only made possible due to the activity and presence in every human mind of the adequate idea. This idea is innate, within the mind, and serves as a tool or agency-in-act, which organically connects and effectively anchors the mind in its union existing between it and the whole of nature. This means that the extended world and the mind are virtually inter-operationally connected. A most startling and revolutionary claim, to say the least.

Let us pause here for a moment to dwell on the enormity of what has just been stated. What Spinoza discovered in the idea runs counter to virtually every depiction of any possibility for human knowledge ever discussed or imagined possible. Every philosopher before or after him and virtually all of contemporary science posit humans as passive receptors of impressions from the sensible world. These impressions then formulate, by various descriptions, mental images which serve as unverifiable judgments or mental entities, usually depicted as some distillation of the empirical paradigm or materialism.

Now along comes Spinoza and says, no way, my friends, you’ve got it all wrong.

Since the time and space available makes demands on us to be brief, elaboration on this revolutionary discovery by Spinoza will not be possible, for now. It is incumbent on us, to move along and to offer a bit more of detail on this process before signing off. At this point, Harris will assist us to flesh out Spinoza’s revolutionary assertion.

In order to expand on this organic aspect of the mind, its role as agency-in-act along with its element of the ‘idea,’ and its role of potency-in-act, we will lay a bit of groundwork for Harris’ compressed and succinct demonstration of the idea. The role of the idea, both in its role as conduit for the absorption of data cum knowledge, as well as performing as the active ingredient, so to speak, in its function of melding with the world of extension, represents Spinoza’s breakthrough in his discovery of the primary functioning operations in the assimilation and accumulation of an individual human’s knowledge base. One currently ascribed to misapprehension about human experience, which caused Leibniz to posit windowless monads, must be addressed.

As an integral part of the whole of nature, people are not segregated off from the world. We are as interconnected as any other integrated element in nature which comprises the universal system.

We have no problem dealing with animals being able to sense objects outside their visual range and to sense immanent unforeseen dangers in the form of severe storms and wildfire. Why should we believe that humans are walled off inside their bodies like kingdoms within a kingdom?

Once the significance of this comes clear, it becomes possible to begin to accept our active participation in the gathering of knowledge which has effectively allowed for civilization to grow and for science to advance. Now we must ask; How does this work? Enter Harris. Under the sub-title ‘Idea Ideae,’ in Salvation from Despair (p. 87). we find:

‘As the idea of the body is the mind, so the idea of that idea is the idea of the mind. In “de Intellectus Emendatione” [in TIE], Spinoza explains that every idea is the “objective essence” of its ideatum, of which the actuality is the “formal essence.” But the idea is a different entity (or mode) from its object (although they are identical in substance), if only because they exist in different attributes. The idea of a circle has no center or circumference [no properties]. So, he says, the idea has a formal essence of its own, of which the objective essence is the idea of the idea (idea ideae). This is further explained in the Ethics (II, xxi, S) as “nothing else than the form of the idea so far as it is considered as a mode of thought and apart from its relation to its object.” Its relation to its object, we already know, is substantial identity (or, as Spinoza says in some context of adequate ideas, exact correspondence).’

Simply stated, an idea has a real-time life of its own. For example: someone sees a movie, really enjoys it, and relates the entire experience to a friend. When that friend later views the same film, they report back that the experience of seeing the film was exactly the same as the ‘picture’ that formed in their mind when it had been described. That idea of the film was contained within the memory of one mind and conveyed, in its entirety, to the friend.

Thus the formal essence and the objective reality made a perfect match. The ‘idea’ is real. We use them every day; we just remain unaware of their presence and potency. That is, until now!

One final thought from Harris and we will sign off. When Spinoza titled his Fragment [TIE] On the Improvement of the Understanding, what follows is what he had in mind. Harris continues:

‘The inherent self-reflectiveness of consciousness is what enables us to purify the intellect and progress from confused and inadequate ideas [the first three kinds of knowledge mentioned above] to clear and true knowledge [the fourth kind of knowledge, intuitive understanding]. It is because we can reflect upon what we think, and know that we know, that we can criticize and improve our thinking. Idea Ideatum, therefore, is nothing but the consciousness of one’s own thinking, or the idea of one’s own mind. Spinoza speaks of a series of ideae idearum (ideas of ideas) ad infinitum, strictly no regress is involved, only an unlimited capacity for reflection or self-knowledge. The object of an idea and the idea of the object are substantially identical. Both are the same essence, one formal and the other objective. Thus the idea of an idea is strictly the same object or entity merely conscious (or more fully conscious) of itself.’ (Salvation from Despair)

Because it is so vital to see Spinoza’s idea at work in our own minds, let’s consider one more example:

Each morning when a person gets into the driver seat of their car and starts the engine or motor, they have no need to ask themselves if they know how to drive. They know that they know how to drive. Beyond that, if called upon to do so, anyone who drives could teach someone else to do so. This would involve dictating to the learner, from memory, the steps involved, such as: open the door, seat yourself, and attach your seatbelt. Before starting the car, check the mirrors, make sure your field of vision is unobstructed, etc, etc. In fact, many people could prepare a written outline of the entire process which would then serve as a training manual. Once the trainee obtains their operator’s license, it can be said that the instructor captured the idea encapsulated in their mind and transferred that adequate idea of how to drive to another person who successfully absorbed the contents of the idea, made it their own, and re-converted it into the reality of driving an automobile. This transfer of the idea from one mind to another demonstrates that the idea is a quantifiable, measurable entity and fulfills any empirical stricture placed upon it.

This idea exists as a real entity. It is measurable; remember the training manual. The idea (in mind) and the object (driving) are the same things expressed as micro-sets in modality of the two infinite attributes of thought and extension. Finally, the driver’s manual serves as the idea, of the idea (in the mind) of the idea (driving lesson). The manual, which could be used by virtually anyone to teach themselves how to drive, demonstrates the existence of an idea independent of the mind!

Exhausted yet? Have no fear, this is extraordinarily difficult to track and to take in whole.

Take all the time necessary to reflect on this information, it is admittedly difficult to absorb and perhaps even challenging to accept. Find ways to see it operating in your own life. Once you have successfully accomplished this task you will stand ready to join those of us who understand that a human being is much more than a passive receptor. We are full-fledged and engaged participants in one of the universe’s most unique and ever-evolving possibilities, the creata!

Semper Sapere Aude! (Always dare to know!)

Charles M. Saunders

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*All views and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ordinary Philosophy’s editors and publishers

Bad Things Happen for a Reason, and Other Idiocies of Theodicy, by Jason Blum

Ancient of Days by William Blake

Ancient of Days by William Blake

The problem of evil is a classic dilemma in the philosophy of religion. The relative ease with which the problem can be stated belies the depth of the challenge that it presents to traditional monotheism. Roughly, it can be summarised as follows:

If God is omnipotent, then He has the power to create a world without evil.

If God is omniscient, then no moment of evil goes divinely unnoticed.

If God is omnibenevolent, then He has the desire to rid the world of evil.

Therefore, the world should be perfect, or at least free of undeserved suffering. Yet, a cursory glance reveals a world that clearly is not inherently just or free from undeserved suffering.

Hence, the problem of evil: how can a perfect deity allow such injustice and rampant evil in the world that He created?

Many solutions to the problem of evil – called ‘theodicies’ – have been proposed. There is the argument of free will, attributing evil not to God but to humanity’s misuse of its own freedom. Others have argued that certain kinds of moral goodness – compassion, for instance – are not possible in a world without evil, and the value of these types of goodness outweighs the evils on which their existence depends. There is also what I call ‘the big-picture defence’, claiming that evil only appears as such from our limited perspectives. Were we able to see things from the perspective of God, we would see that, in the grand scheme of things, every apparent evil plays a necessary role in making the world more perfect.

The philosopher Gottfried Leibniz’s simple solution was to argue in 1710 that this world is necessarily the best of all possible worlds. Leibniz depicts God assessing in His infinite mind all the various possible worlds that He could create. Because He is a loving God, the one He chooses to create is surely the ‘best of all possible worlds’. Leibniz’s argument suggests that it is ultimately meaningless to complain about this evil or that injustice; because this is the best of all possible worlds. We should take comfort in the fact that everything is, in the final analysis, as good as it can possibly be.

Voltaire derided Leibniz’s solution, writing a book to satirise it. In Candide (1759), the eponymous hero and his companions stumble through the world, constantly beset by bad luck and predations. They witness even greater tragedies in the world around them. Their troubles arise from the uncaring forces of the natural world, but also from the naiveté of Candide, who is constantly assured by his mentor, Professor Pangloss, that this is indeed the best of all possible worlds. In juxtaposing vivid depictions of myriad cruelties and Professor Pangloss’s blind insistence on the ultimate goodness of the universe, Voltaire demonstrates that there is a poignant reality to the experience of suffering that cannot be rationalised away. The claim that justice naturally inheres in the order of things does not bear scrutiny.

There is also a profound moral danger to certain types of theodicy.

The essential difficulty of the problem of evil is how to reconcile its apparent existence with a loving, all-powerful deity. One popular method has been to reassert the inherent justice of the world, implying, if not explicitly claiming, the righteousness of the suffering that we witness throughout it. The result is, essentially, a theological form of victim-blaming.

For example, the American evangelical preacher Pat Robertson explained the 2010 earthquake in Haiti – which killed between 220,000-316,000 people, and injured another 300,000 – as the fault of the Haitian people. The people of Haiti had apparently sworn a pact with Satan in exchange for delivering them from French rule, and the earthquake was divine retribution for that bargain (delivered approximately two centuries later). Robertson similarly suggested that both Hurricane Katrina and terrorism were divine punishment for the fact that abortion is still legal in the United States. Robertson, of course, is not alone. An Iranian mullah has blamed earthquakes on women dressing immodestly; a New York rabbi blamed the advancement of gay rights in the US for another earthquake in 2011; many Burmese Buddhists blamed a 2008 cyclone that killed approximately 130,000 people on bad karma.

The desire that motivates these interpretations is understandable. Natural disasters and terrorist attacks are either random events in a chaotic world, or they are explicable events within a discernible pattern. In the former case, we inhabit an essentially amoral universe: bad things happen to good people, children die premature deaths, and tragedy strikes without remorse, all without rhyme or reason. In the latter case, we inhabit a much more hospitable universe where there is some sort of inherent order: a place where morality is inscribed into the very fabric of things, assuring us that, if only we play by the rules, evil will be punished, goodness will be rewarded, and justice will reign supreme.

It is easy to understand the attraction of that vision. But it has a substantial dark side. Like any theodicy, it cannot simply unmake suffering, and so it instead tries to justify it. The claim that the universe is inherently just then implies that those who suffer deserve it. The existence of a just God and a moral universe is gained at the cost of condemning victims of misfortune as blameworthy. And so, hundreds of thousands of Haitians died because their ancestors made a pact with the devil. Women and homosexuals agitating for equal rights are blamed for deadly natural disasters.

Such a worldview conveniently scapegoats someone, usually whatever population someone wishes to demonise: women, homosexuals, the poor, etc. It also normalises social ills that could otherwise be addressed and meliorated. In a dark irony, holding that the universe is ultimately a just place ends up condoning the suffering and injustice that happens within it, often on the backs of those most in need.

Visions of a just universe need not function this way. Theodicy authorises only the suffering of the less fortunate when it indulges in willful blindness and insists on justice as a foregone conclusion, denying reality in favour of comforting ignorance. Alternatively, when justice is construed as hope – as a vision of what the world could possibly be – it functions as a lodestar. This acknowledges the disturbing realities with which we are surrounded, and refuses to be disillusioned by them. By regarding justice as an ideal rather than a present reality, one’s vision of the inequalities and brutalities of the present moment remains unobstructed, allowing them to be faced. The just universe in which we should believe is the one that can be created only through dedicated effort and real action on our part. But that can happen only if we refuse to take shelter in soothing fantasies. Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Jason Blum is a visiting assistant professor on the college writing programme at Davidson College in North Carolina. His first book is Zen and the Unspeakable God (2015). (Bio credit: Aeon)

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

*All views and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ordinary Philosophy’s editors and publishers