Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Psychology and Ethics of Spin

That would be a splendid title for a book. It might be about the art of making facts our servants rather than our masters in argument: what is possible, and what is permissible, in this regard. Or, it could be a more esoteric and pretentious volume on the behaviour of elementary particles, explaining the difference between fermions and bosons on psychological grounds.1

Of course, it was neither of these things, just a truncation performed by the electronic gadget for self-checking-out library books, on a par with the well-known spam subject line ‘Surprise your girlfriend with a hug’.

And of course I couldn’t find what I was looking for in ‘The Psychology and Ethics of Spinoza’. Not precisely. So I went to the primary sources as I should have from the start. Was Spinoza a moral relativist? Was he a pantheist? I had a look at his Ethics, which was published posthumously and hence likely to reflect his mature philosophy:

Definition 4.1: By good I understand that which we certainly know to be useful to us.
Definition 4.2: But by bad I understand that which we certainly know will prevent us from partaking any good.
Proposition 4.27: We know nothing to be certainly good or evil save what is truly conducive to understanding or what prevents us from understanding.
Proposition 4.28: The greatest good of the mind is the knowledge of God, and the greatest virtue of the mind is to know God.

Whatever we understand Spinoza to mean by ‘God’, this is not moral relativism, is it? It is of course thoroughly consequentialist, as is the morality of all sane creatures:

From the Prologue to Part 4:

‘As for the terms good and bad, they indicate nothing positive in things considered in themselves, nor are they anything else than modes of thought, or notions, which we form from the comparison of things mutually. For one and the same thing can at the same time be good, bad, and indifferent. E.g., music is good to the melancholy, bad to those who mourn, and neither good nor bad to the deaf.’

And what *does* Spinoza mean by ‘God’?

Definition 1.6: God I understand to be a being absolutely infinite, that is a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence.
Proposition 1.11: God necessarily exists.
Proposition 1.15: Whatever is, is in God, and nothing can exist or be conceived without God.
Proposition 1.18: God is the indwelling and not the transient cause of all things.
Proposition 1.19: God and all the attributes of God are eternal.

‘God’ can be translated, and often is, ‘God or Nature’, but the definition given above is certainly much closer to the God of the Abrahamic religions than it is to the finite ‘Nature’ Dawkins finds in the experimentally observable universe. In one of his letters, Spinoza explicitly disavows the identification of his beliefs with pantheism:

I say that all things are in God and move in God, thus agreeing with Paul, and,
perhaps, with all the ancient philosophers, though the phraseology may be
different; I will even venture to affirm that I agree with all the ancient
Hebrews, in so far as one may judge from their traditions, though these are in
many ways corrupted. The supposition of some, that I endeavour to prove in the
Tractatus Theologico-Politicus the unity of God and Nature (meaning by the
latter a certain mass or corporeal matter), is wholly erroneous. (Letter of
Spinoza to Oldenburg- #21 here)

It seems to me that Spinoza is neither a moral relativist or a pantheist. It seems to me that Spinoza teaches an austere monotheism in the Judaeo-Islamic tradition. His universe is filled not with an infinite and eternal absence, but an infinite and eternal presence, before which we are humbled into infinitesimal motehood. All the transient emotions which Dakwins valorises Spinoza sees as forms of slavery. In Spinoza’s morality the free man seeks the knowledge of God above all things. Dawkins ought to read what Spinoza wrote.

1: ‘Electrons may be spiritually inert, they may be something like sensations, they may be good spirits or evil spirits. The physicist, however, can only tell us that they repel one another according to a certain law, are attracted by positive charges according to another law, and so on.’ (JBS Haldane)


Marco said...

That is very revealing. I do like Spinoza's approach much better, the more I find out about it. Perhaps the established churches criticized Spinoza, and that is why Einstein in his time and Dawkins latched on to his more reflective stance on the Universe. This in contrast to some religions dictatorial stance on the universe - The universe is this way because the bible said it is.

Jenny said...

This reminded me of a discussion on good and evil based on the existance of God which goes (disclaimer: based on my shoddy memory);
If God exists and all things were created by God, then all thing belong to God. All things should therefore strive to please God as their primary goal. Those things that please God are those things in Gods nature (AKA Good). Those things that do not are those things outside of Gods nature (AKA evil).

Therefore our understanding of good and evil should be based on our understanding of the nature of God....and there's the rub