Pascal, Spinoza (LH); LISTEN: Susan James on Spinoza on the Passions (PB)... Podcast
2. (T/F) By limiting his "wager" to a choice between either Christian theism or atheism, says Nigel, Pascal excludes too many other possible bets.
3. Spinoza's view, that God and nature (or the universe) are the same thing, is called _______.
4. Spinoza was a determinist, holding that _____ is an illusion.
6. Susan James says Spinoza's "main claim" is that we're always striving to make ourselves more ____.
2. Is the choice between God and no-god 50/50, like a coin toss? How would you calculate the odds? At what point in the calculation do you think it becomes prudent to bet on God? Or do you reject this entire approach? Why?
4. Can a rationalist pantheist endorse delusional sources of happiness? Or cheer meaningfully for the home team? (See my dawn post...)
5. Was Einstein being disingenous or misleading, when he affirmed "Spinoza's God"?
6. Comment: "There isn't an inch of earth where God is not."
Thursday, March 19, 2015
Pascal & the mind
Somewhere in Walden Thoreau says something about needing a little water in his world, to provide a reflective glimpse of eternity. He also has things to say to today's headliner Pascal, about not being cowed by the scale of the cosmos. Pascal famously confessed: "the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me." (No wonder he was frightened, say J & M.) Henry said, in reply to neighbors who wondered if he wasn't lonely out there by the lake in the woods:"Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way?" Unlike his French predecessor, our transcendentalist was at home in the universe. He was less so, sadly, in the society of his peers.
Trivial pop-culture factoid: last night on "Madam Secretary," the husband (a teacher)mentioned Pascal.
Less trivially, Voltaire (we'll soon see him skewering Leibniz) intervened in the Pascal-Montaigne conflict. He called Pascal a "sublime misanthropist" whose vision of humanity as imprisoned and terrorized by the immensity and uncertainty of the cosmos was "fanatic."
Bertrand Russell mostly felt sorry for him, approvingly citing Nietzsche's critique of Pascal's "self-contempt and self-immolation." He meant Pascal's intellectual suicide, driven by fear.
Fortunately there’s much more to Blaise Pascal than his famous Wager [SEP], which we've already encountered in CoPhi.
Besides his mathematics and "Pascaline," his proto-computer, there are all those thoughts ("Pensees"-you can listen for free, here) and there’s also his antipathy for his fellow philosophe Francais, Montaigne. I usually compare-&-contrast Montaigne and Descartes, so this makes for a nice new menage a trois. Blaise is hostile to both Rene and Michel but is a cautious gambler, finding Descartes’ God too antiseptic and too, well, philosophical. And he finds Montaigne a self-absorbed, trivia-mongering potty-mouth.
But Montaigne would not at all disagree that “the heart has its reasons which reason knows not.” And isn’t it funny to think of Descartes philosophizing in his hypothetical armchair, asking if his fire and his body (etc.) are real, pretending to speculate that all the world and its philosophical problems might be figments of his solipsistic or dreamy or demon-instigated imagination? And then funnier still to come across this quote from Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” But look what happens when a philosopher sits quietly in a room alone: you get the Meditations!
Pascal also said
“Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.” And “It is man’s natural sickness to believe that he possesses the Truth.”
“There are two equally dangerous extremes: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.”
“The nature of man is wholly natural, omne animal. There is nothing he may not make natural; there is nothing natural he may not lose.”*
“The weather and my mood have little connection. I have my foggy and my fine days within me…” [Or as Jimmy Buffett says, carry the weather with you.]
And all military veterans especially should appreciate this one:
“Can anything be stupider than that a man has the right to kill me because he lives on the other side of a river and his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have not quarrelled with him?”
And this will be an epigraph for my Philosophy Walks (or its sequel Philosophy Rides):
“Our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death.”
Reminds me of what Montaigne said about needing to kickstart his mind with his legs.
But Pascal does finally blow the big game of life, for betting too heavily on self-interest. He’s obsessed with “saving [his] own soul at all costs.” That’s a losing proposition.
[*That statement about us being "omne animal" sounded flattering, to me, being a philosophical naturalist and a friend to animals. But later epigraphs indicate Pascal's platonist perfectionism and his derogatory attitude towards humanity and its natural condition. Without God's grace, he writes, we are "like unto the brute beasts." He doesn't seem pleased about that, but I'm with Walt Whitman: "I think I could turn and live with animals, they're so placid and self contain'd... They do not sweat and whine about their condition... They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God..."]
Julia Sweeney, donning her no-god glasses, gets to the nub of what’s wrong with Pascal’s Wager:
So how can I come up against this biggest question, the ultimate question, “Do I really believe in a personal God,” and then turn away from the evidence? How can I believe, just because I want to? How will I have any respect for myself if I did that?
And probably not Richard Rorty, for whom philosophy is not about nailing down the unequivocal Truth but rather continuing the never-concluding Conversation of humankind.
Rorty was the most controversial philosopher on the scene back when I began grad school, having just published his brilliantly and infuriatingly iconoclastic Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.
Everybody had to have a view on it, and on his view that philosophy's long quest to represent "external reality" accurately was a waste of time we were free to give up. We could ditch our "comic" efforts "to guarantee this and clarify that."
Philosophers get attention only when they appear to be doing something sinister--corrupting the youth, undermining the foundations of civilization, sneering at all we hold dear. The rest of the time everybody assumes that they are hard at work somewhere down in the sub-basement, keeping those foundations in good repair. Nobody much cares what brand of intellectual duct tape is being used.My current position, after several oscillations, has settled at last into the earnest wish that more philosophers wrote as wittily and as well as he did. Almost none do. Did he get pragmatism and truth right? I guess that's what he'd call a duct tape question.
Rorty, with his metaphor of mind as (cloudy) mirror, is a good segue to the discussion of philosophy of mind, also on tap today.
Dualism gets us ghosts and spirits and other non-physical entities. Scary! But not for most students, I've found, so deeply have most of them drunk from the holy communion trough. It's not a question of evidence but of familiarity and fear, in many cases - fear of the alternative. A student expressed that just the other day, asking with incredulity and contempt how anyone could possibly ponder facing the end of mortal existence without an immortal safety net firmly in place (in mind).
Why do they think the evolution of mind so closely parallels that of the brain? They don't think about it, mostly.
Nor do most think much about the possibility of mind and body being on parallel but never-converging tracks, pre-arranged to keep a synchronous schedule and never throw up a discordant discrepant "occasion." And forget too about epiphenomenalism (which Sam Harris seems to be trying hard to revive).
If neuroscientists ever succeed in mapping the brain (TED) and modeling the causal neurological events correlated with thinking, will that solve the mystery of consciousness? [John Searle's view...] Is there a gap between the explanation and the experience of pain, pleasure, happiness, etc.? I say no and yes, respectively. But let's try and draw that map, it may take us to interesting places none of us have thought about.
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Spinoza & art
Today in CoPhi: Baruch (nee Benedict) Spinoza (and Susan James on his concept of thepassions).
Spinoza ("Spinozer," my old teacher from Brooklyn called him) believed in Einstein’s God (or would have), and vice versa. Gambling with your soul? Einstein famously said God does not play dice with the universe. God doesn’t play at anything, or listen to anyone, or save or punish or forgive or do anything intentional and deliberate. No more than nature does, anyway. God just is. Paul Davies:
Sometimes (Einstein) was really using God as just a sort of convenient metaphor. But he did have, I think, a genuine cosmic religious feeling, a sense of admiration at the intellectual ingenuity of the universe. Not just its majesty, but its extraordinary subtlety and beauty and mathematical elegance.
You could say the very same of Spinoza.
In HAP 101 last year we tried to make sense of the Buddhist-inspired statement that we're not part of nature but all of it. Spinoza offers another take on that disorienting notion.
In so far as the mind sees things in their eternal aspect, it participates in eternity.
I do not attribute to nature either beauty or deformity, order or confusion. Only in relation to our imagination can things be called beautiful or ugly, well-ordered or confused.
I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.
Nothing in nature is by chance... Something appears to be chance only because of our lack of knowledge.
The passions of hatred, anger, envy, and so on, considered in themselves, follow from the necessity and efficacy of nature... I shall, therefore, treat the nature and strength of the emotion in exactly the same manner, as though I were concerned with lines, planes, and solids.
They were pantheists, Spinoza and Einstein, a lot less tormented by the vast and starry universe than Pascal (“the eternal silence of these infinite spaces" etc.) with his personal and possibly punitive God. As we note Jennifer Hecht noting, there’s a howling statistical error at the heart of Pascal’s specious reasoning: “We may be struck by lightning or not, but that doesn’t make it a fifty-fifty proposition.” Pascal's fright contrasts sharply with Spinoza's cosmic bliss. "What Pascal decried as the misery of man without the Biblical God, was for Spinoza the liberation of the human spirit from the bonds of fear and superstition."
[Descartes to Deism... Tlumak on free will...Descartes before the horse (& Spinoza/Einstein slides)... Spinoza @dawn...Pantheism SEP... FAQs... He's back (Goldstein)... The Curse]
Spinoza, says Susan James, was interested in our capacity to maintain ourselves as ourselves, which he called our conatus. How do we do that? By breathing, sleeping, fighting, friending,... but ultimately he thought our best bet was to resign ourselves to an acceptance of rational necessity.
"Spinoza thinks that, in so far as you're passionate," subject to external influence, "you're in bondage and unfree." How to free yourself? Become mentally active, get "a better understanding of yourself and the world," and experience his version of cosmic bliss or supreme happiness. And what does this maximal understanding come to, in a word? Pantheism.
In Spinoza's vision, there is no ultimate distinction between different individuals. We are all part of the same single substance, which is also God. This means that our sense of isolation from and opposition to one another is an illusion, and it also means that our sense of distance from God is mistaken... Given that the universe is God, we can therefore be confident that whatever happens to us happens for a reason. Passion for Wisdom
And still they called him heretic and atheist, and excommunicated him despite his "intellectual love of God," which he said was "the highest felicity." God only knew why.
He's still a good guy to follow on Twitter, btw.
Spinoza Quotes @BenedictSpinoza6 Oct
"[True #happiness & blessedness does not consist in enjoying wellbeing not shared by others or in being more fortunate than others]." (TTP)
Spinoza Quotes @BenedictSpinoza5 Oct
"It is the #nature of reason to conceive things under a form of eternity." (E5p29pr) @philosophyideasBut, there are difficulties involved in trying to internalize a "Spinozism of freedom"...
Spinoza is led to a complete and undiluted pantheism. Everything, according to Spinoza, is ruled by an absolute logical necessity. There is no such thing as free will in the mental sphere or chance in the physical world. Everything that happens is a manifestation of God's inscrutable nature, and it is logically impossible that events should be other than they are. This leads to difficulties... Bertrand Russell
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Also today: art. We'll try to discern the artfulness of Duchamp's Fountain, Dewey's ballplayer, maybe even Mapplethorpe's transgressive iconoclastic work. We'll introduce Wittgenstein's family resemblance, the Institutional Theory, and more.
And then we'll be done with Philosophy: The Basics.
Arthur Danto, premier aesthetician of his generation (and former MTSU Lyceum speaker), had interesting thoughts on what makes Andy Warhol's Brillo cartons and Marcel Duchamp's urinal (click, then scroll to the bottom to see his "Fountain") works of art. In a word: interpretation. Or in another word: philosophy. "Things which look the same are really different" is Danto's "whole philosophy of art in a nutshell." Thus spake the "weightiest critic in the Manhattan art world" of his generation. [The end of art]
I don’t claim to know what art is, or if Marcel Duchamp’s “fountain” should count. But like most of us, I know what I like: I like John Dewey’s approach in Art as Experience.
Dewey’s antipathy for spectator theories of knowledge did not block his acute perception of “the sources of art in human experience [that] will be learned by him who sees how the tense grace of the ball-player infects the onlooking crowd.”
The crowd at the fountain had best be careful not to be infected by something less delightful.