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

The Triage of Truth: Do Not Take Expert Opinion Lying Down, by Julian Baggini

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine…’ by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The thirst for knowledge is one of humankind’s noblest appetites. Our desire to sate it, however, sometimes leads us to imbibe falsehoods bottled as truth. The so-called Information Age is too often a Misinformation Age.

There is so much that we don’t know that giving up on experts would be to overreach our own competency. However, not everyone who claims to be an expert is one, so when we are not experts ourselves, we can decide who counts as an expert only with the help of the opinions of other experts. In other words, we have to choose which experts to trust in order to decide which experts to trust.

Jean-Paul Sartre captured the unavoidable responsibility this places on us when he wrote in Existentialism and Humanism (1945): ‘If you seek counsel – from a priest, for example – you have selected that priest; and at bottom you already knew, more or less, what he would advise.’

The pessimistic interpretation of this is that the appeal to expertise is therefore a charade. Psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated the power of motivated thinking and confirmation bias. People cherry-pick the authorities who support what they already believe. If majority opinion is on their side, they will cite the quantity of evidence behind them. If the majority is against them, they will cite the quality of evidence behind them, pointing out that truth is not a democracy. Authorities are not used to guide us towards the truth but to justify what we already believe the truth to be.

If we are sincerely interested in the truth, however, we can use expert opinion more objectively without either giving up our rational autonomy or giving in to our preconceptions. I’ve developed a simple three-step heuristic I’ve dubbed ‘The Triage of Truth’ which can give us a way of deciding whom to listen to about how the world is. The original meaning of triage is to sort according to quality and the term is most familiar today in the medical context of determining the urgency of treatment required. It’s not infallible; it’s not an alternative to thinking for yourself; but it should at least prevent us making some avoidable mistakes. The triage asks three questions:

  •  Are there any experts in this field?
  •  Which kind of expert in this area should I choose?
  •  Which particular expert is worth listening to here?

In many cases there is no simple yes or no answer. Economic forecasting, for example, admits of only very limited mastery. If you are not religious, on the other hand, then no theologian or priest can be an expert on God’s will.

If there is genuine expertise to be had, the second stage is to ask what kind of expert is trustworthy in that domain, to the degree that the domain allows of expertise at all. In health, for example, there are doctors with standard medical training but also herbalists, homeopaths, chiropractors, reiki healers. If we have good reason to dismiss any of these modalities then we can dismiss any particular practitioner without needing to give them a personal assessment.

Once we have decided that there are groups of experts in a domain, the third stage of triage is to ask which particular ones to trust. In some cases, this is easy enough. Any qualified dentist should be good enough, and we might not have the luxury of picking and choosing anyway. When it comes to builders, however, some are clearly more professional than others.

The trickiest situations are where the domain admits significant differences of opinion. In medicine, for example, there is plenty of genuine expertise but the incomplete state of nutritional science, for example, means that we have to take much advice with a pinch of salt, including that on how big this pinch should be.

This triage is an iterative process in which shifts of opinion at one level lead to shifts at others. Our beliefs form complex holistic webs in which parts support each other. For example, we cannot decide in a vacuum whether there is any expertise to be had in any given domain. We will inevitably take into account the views of experts we already trust. Every new judgment feeds back, altering the next one.

Perhaps the most important principle to apply throughout the triage is the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume’s maxim: ‘A wise man … proportions his belief to the evidence.’ Trust in experts always has to be proportionate. If my electrician warns me that touching a wire will electrocute me, I have no reason to doubt her. Any economic forecast, however, should be seen as indicating a probability at best, an educated guest at worst.

Proportionality also means granting only as much authority as is within an expert’s field. When an eminent scientist opines on ethics, for example, she is exceeding her professional scope. The same might be true of a philosopher talking about economics, so be cautious about some of what I have written, too.

This triage gives us a procedure but no algorithm. It does not dispense with the need to make judgments, it simply provides a framework to help us do so. To properly follow Immanuel Kant’s Enlightenment injunction ‘Sapere aude’ (Dare to know), we have to rely on both our own judgment and the judgment of others. We should not confuse thinking for ourselves with thinking by ourselves. Taking expert opinion seriously is not passing the buck. No one can make up your mind for you, unless you make up your mind to let them.Aeon counter – do not remove

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

~ Julian Baggini is a writer and founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. His latest book is A Short History of Truth (2017). (Bio credit: Aeon)

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On Being Part of Something Bigger Than Oneself

Sometimes, I’m carried away by the awesome realization that I’m part of so many things that are larger than myself. In fact, I feel quite mystical at these times.

I’m part of a particular family; part of many communities of friends and of people who share passions and common goals; part of a cultural group; part of the whole human family. I love and am loved in return. I cooperate with my husband, with my family and friends with my coworkers, with the people I interact with everyday, be it in everyday life, in romance, in play; in conversation, in sharing meals, in commerce, in navigating traffic, and in other countless ways. I share in the business of life and in the struggle to survive, which for human beings necessitates this high level of cooperation, because with our relatively weak teeth, slow gait, blunt ‘claws’, big clumsy bodies, and expensive brains, we are much more vulnerable, as individuals, than most other animals to predation and hunger. So I share in this great community of empathy, some to a greater or a lesser degree, and we all do what we can to be good and decent people, at least much of the time.

I’m part of the history of human thought, part of the rich legacy of human curiosity and wonder over the millennia, whose love of learning and of doing our bit more to expand human understanding makes us, as Carl Sagan so beautifully put it, ‘..a way for the universe to know itself.’ And every one of us who takes part of this quest to understand the world get as far as we do only because those before us passed down what they learned and what they invented so we can build on it. No one human being can, on their own, invent languages to create and organize ideas, observe the full vastness of the universe, and form the myriad theories that make up the incredible body of knowledge we can access and enjoy today. But millions of human minds, sharing in this knowledge quest, have achieved a level of understanding that our ancestors could never have dreamed of, and our descendants will do the same. When we think about it, each of our individual minds is filled with the words and ideas created by others, which we rearrange and build on to create our own, which we then pass along. In this sense, it’s hard to tell where our own minds end and others’ begin; we all share in one human stream of consciousness, millennia-old, from which we draw, and into which we contribute, constantly, all of our lives. This is one sense in which we’re immortal.

I’m also a part of the great creative outpouring of humanity. We all participate in this, some as the makers, some as the enjoyers, most of us as both, to some degree or another. I am inspired by the beautiful, interesting, innovative, and curious things others create, which inspires me to create things I think are beautiful as well. I dance to music others make, some of us make our own, and some of us sing along and pass the songs on to our friends and to the next generation. I cry and laugh and smile and immerse myself as I read the stories and hear the jokes and watch the movies that our fantastically, restlessly, endlessly creative species never stops coming up with.

Finally, I’m part of the great workings of the universe, of the great process of evolution, where all the stuff I’m made of was forged in stars and crafted into what eventually became me, by the myriad forces that arranged every molecule in my body, in new formulations in each successive environment through the ages. Every bit of me used to be something else, and I’m intimately related to every single other thing in the universe; every human being, every plant, every insect, every thing that lives and moves is my cousin.

I often hear people expressing discontent, that they’re searching for something that’s missing, that they want to be part of something bigger than themselves. So we join cults, buy self-help books, immerse ourselves in various ‘spiritualities’ and ‘philosophies’, even immolate ourselves and destroy each other for the sake of some extremist ideology, in restless pursuit of that quest. It’s all too easy, in day to day life, to forget the all the amazing, myriad ‘something bigger”s that all of us are a part of just by virtue of existing. 

I’m now in a happy time in my life when I’ve learned to recognize and appreciate this fact more than ever before. These days, I have other ways to more fully participate in these ‘something bigger”s. I have an insatiable hunger for reading and learning in the last few years to a greater degree than any other time in my life, and since I left the stifling religion of my childhood, I’ve found the entire range of ideas available for my consideration, and the whole of humanity and of all living things is my spiritual community. I’ve taken a job in a new field so I’m learning something new every day, I’ve taken up writing and spending more time creating and developing my art, and trying to be more prudent with making and spending money so I can help out my family and travel more. We all have our own ways.

Being a part of something bigger is the simplest thing there is. It’s realizing it that’s the hard part.

Sources, Influences, Shout-Outs, and all that Good Stuff

As I write these essays for publication in my own blog, I find that it’s liberating not to have to cite my sources in the same formal, painstaking way I would have to if I were writing a student paper or a formal scholarly work. I know that every single thought I have (and this is true not only for myself, but every thinker out there) is almost entirely possible because of other thinkers that came before me, and those who share their thoughts every single day. In this way, it’s actually impossible to really cite all my sources and properly thank all who influence and inspire me, so developing and writing down my thoughts without the added effort of laboriously disentangling those sources which I can consciously identify and those which I can’t remember helps this whole process flow much more freely.

But I also feel a sense of great indebtedness to all those thinkers out there who make the world such a fascinating place. I get to learn and think because, collectively, the human race is so generous when it comes to sharing their thoughts, purposefully altruistic (think Thomas Jefferson: “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me”or otherwise. This great pool of human consciousness, the sum of human thought up to now, in fact, is central to my own concept of transcendence, that ‘mystical’ state of reaching for and belonging to something larger and greater than myself (a topic for another essay that I’ve been plotting for some time). When I’m in the throes of figuring something out, I’m often conscious of the fact that that so many parts of the puzzle have already been worked out by others, and I’ve only gotten to where I’m at because of them. While I’ll continue to link to and quote sources as I write, I probably won’t be thorough about it in this informal setting, so this list serves as a catch-all to what I’ve missed.

So here’s my informal, unscholarly list of my sources and influences, of shout-outs to all of you wonderfully curious, intelligent, creative, witty, and thoughtful creatures out there without whom I couldn’t think much of anything at all, let along write about it. This will be an open-ended blog post, and I’ll add to it as I’m inspired, but it’s in no way exhaustive. It can’t be, because, like everyone, most of the things I ‘know’ I don’t know how I know, because I don’t remember who I learned it from.

In no particular order:

– All human beings who have contributed to the sum of human knowledge and creative thought
– My dad, John Cools, for patiently answering my endless questions throughout childhood and beyond
– My husband Bryan, my lover, best friend, and constant conversational partner
– John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (excerpts)
Randy Newman
– John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, The Subjection of Woman, and excerpts from Utilitarianism and other works
– John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Two Treatises of Government (well, the second one) and excerpts from other works
– Ernestine Rose: feminist, atheist, socialist, Polish, Jew, human rights crusader, incredible in every way
– Montaigne, Essays
– My uncle, Timothy Harrod, for his willingness to regularly engage in honest, no-holds-barred, but respectful and friendly debate (he was my confirmation sponsor – you Catholics know what that is – and he’s been kindly trying to re-convert me and save my soul for years)
– My uncle Mark Cools, for similar reasons, while letting me stay at his house for free when I attended college
The philosophy department and other instructors at Sacramento State University, especially Gregory Mayes, Lynne Fox, Thomas Pyne, Bradley Dowden, Russell DiSilvestro, and Clifford Anderson
– David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, excerpts from various other works

– Daniel Dennett, Breaking the SpellIntuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, lectures, interviews, and essays
– Susan Jacoby: Freethinkers and The Age of American Unreason

– Eric Gerlach
– Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate, lectures and essays
– Michael Sandel, Justice and What Money Can’t Buy
Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind
– Elizabeth Cady Stanton, fierce feminist and freethinker

– Clay Jenkinson, scholar and podcaster of the Thomas Jefferson Hour
– The various authors of the Bible
Shakespeare
– Leonard Cohen
– Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories
– Robert Ingersoll, 44 Lectures
M. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage and The Moon and Sixpence
– Carol Tavris, Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me, interviews and lectures
– Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and countless other stories, essays, and quotes
– Neil DeGrasse Tyson, essays, interviews, and lectures
– Bertrand Russell, History of Philosophy and various other works
– Townes Van Zandt
– Gabriel Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude 
– The wonderful student heathens at Sac State
– Cervantes, Don Quixote
Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great, debates, lectures, and interviews
– Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel
Jennifer Michael Hecht, Doubt: A History, interviews 
– Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man (excerpts; one day I intend to read them all the way through)
– Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale, interviews, lectures, and essays
– My friend Tracy Runyon, with whom I’ve had so many depthy and exciting discussions