Oh God. What have I gotten myself into?
No, it’s OK David, it’s OK — you can do it.
Alright. Lemme just paste in Spinoza’s own introduction.
I pass now to explaining those things which must necessarily follow from the essence of God, or the infinite and eternal being — not, indeed, all of them, for we have demonstrated (by I.P16) that infinitely many things must follow from it in infinitely many modes, but only those that can lead us, by the hand, as it were, to the knowledge of the human mind and its highest blessedness.
Last time, we left off with the question “Yeah, but how does God do Its thing — specifically?”
And I said we are capable of understanding two of the ways It does it.
And those two ways are… you guessed it. Matter and Mind, basically.
Or, to use Spinoza’s terms, Extension and Thought.
God is an extended thing.
In other words: one of the infinitely many things Reality does is generate Space and Time. Space and Time are One Big Thing, which is in turn subdivided into a whole host of little things (like us) which have an area in space and a duration in time.
(Extension = Spacetime, basically.)
It’s a really neat way to talk about materialism. This way, we avoid a lot of the problems that materialist philosophers run into.
Such as, you know… “what is Matter?”
Which usually leads them to say crazy things like “Oh, these little lego pieces called atoms.”
Which begs the question: “OK… so where are these atoms? Show me.”
Which leads you straight into the tentacles of Cthulu.
[Like: if you want the world to kinda make sense, stick to the big picture, General Relativity stuff, and stop trying to drill down and slice up the indivisible.
You’ll end up covered in ash, worshipping Shiva, and mumbling cryptic paradoxes about quantum this or that.]
Whereas, with Spinoza, you just go “Well, matter isn’t really a thing… but basically it’s a label you give to those bits of Reality which are extended in space and time.”
Now, he actually has a rudimentary physics (mostly in II.P13), but it’s just some simple (and eminently skippable) Galilean stuff.
Basically: there are things, and they’re either in motion or at rest, and they interact.
If you want more than that, just slot in whatever the hell contemporary physics has gotten to at your point in time and say “yeah — Extension works this way”.
Now. Here’s the important bit.
A particular thing which exists in Extension is called a Body.
So, all that stuff we were talking about at the start — rocks, pebbles, a block of ice, a puddle of water, a puff of mist, a star, a planet, a crayfish… — those are all bodies.
And our bodies? Like, those things that hurt if you poke them with a sharp thing?
Those are also bodies.
Highly composite bodies, composed of smaller bodies (cells, molecules…).
And… (ay ay ay, here we go)… if a bunch of people get together and operate with the same level of coordination which the cells in our body are displaying… then that’s a body too.
It’s a res publica — a republic.
That’s the ‘Body Politic’.
And, of course… life on Earth is all one body… and the solar system is all one body… and the galaxy is all one body… and the observable universe is all one body… and all of Extension is One Big Body.
Extension is the Body of God.
A pebble is a particular body in Extension.
Socrates is a particular body in Extension.
Athens is a particular body in Extension.
The Milky Way is a particular body in Extension.
Extension itself is the body of God.
Spacetime is Reality’s body.
Extension is how God gets physical.
Extension is God/Nature being physics.
I… I hope that doesn’t sound too mystical cus I can’t think of a way to explain it further.
God is a thinking thing.
In other words: one of the infinitely many things Reality does is generate consciousness, and the mental objects that consciousness is conscious of.
Thought is pretty much what you thought it was, I think.
It is consciousness.
It is awareness.
It is qualia.
It is, basically, Mind.
A particular thing which exists in Thought is an Idea.
Now here’s where it gets a little technical.
An idea is, in general, any mental event.
But in particular, it is the mental event at its most basic level.
So, for example. By virtue of your reading this piece, you necessarily have an idea of me — David Leon. (It exists… it’s “human”… it writes…)
That idea is more or less clear and distinct, depending on how well you know me.
The more clear and distinct it is, the better it is as an idea.
Which is to say — the more clear and distinct it is — the more it exists.
If you’ve never met me, your idea of me is pretty vague.
If you have met me, your idea of me is still probably pretty vague… but you literally have MORE of an idea of me. The idea is richer, deeper, more complex.
So just like a boulder is a bigger thing in Extension than a pebble is, your idea of me if you know me really well is a bigger thing in Thought than someone’s idea of me who knows me less well.
(For example: you in the past when you had only just encountered me or my writing).
Pretty simple notion. Your idea of me exists more, in a certain sense, the more you get to know me.
Now. If you close your eyes and think of me, a certain image will pop up in your head.
Even if you were born blind, a certain image will still pop up — it just won’t be visual.
This image is not the fundamental idea.
It’s an idea, in the sense of “it’s not a physical object — it’s a particular thing in Thought”.
But it’s not the same thing as “your idea of David Leon”.
This image will change quite a lot.
(Let’s assume it’s a visual image.)
Maybe I’m wearing a blue shirt now.
Well, a second or a month later, maybe you’ll imagine me wearing a white shirt.
That’s a different image.
But it’s the same idea.
You don’t suddenly think I’m a totally different thing because I’m wearing a white shirt.
You don’t suddenly think I’m a totally different thing because I put on a high-pitched voice.
So that’s ideas and images.
You have a bunch of ideas in your mind. Of me. Of yourself. Of trees, and all kinds of physical objects in the world. And of concepts that don’t exist in Extension — numbers, unicorns, etc.
The Ethics is written in a geometric, logical style.
And so it describes Reality as a geometric, logical thing.
So an idea essentially involves affirmation or negation.
For Spinoza, existence is the only thing that exists.
Everything is about existence.
(Non-existence is not a thing.)
Which means ideas are about existence too.
Specifically — an idea is the affirmation that something exists.
You’re walking around.
You come across a rock.
You sense it. Most likely, you see it. Or you don’t see it, and so you… touch it really hard with your toe.
In either case, you form an idea of the rock.
If you saw it, your idea is like “Oh, there’s a large hard thing over there. That’s some interesting moss on it…”
If you touched it really hard, your idea is like “AH THERE’S A LARGE HARD THING OVER HERE AND IT SHOULD DIE AND GO TO HELL.”
In either case, your idea of the rock means “that physical object exists”.
Thing is, an idea also necessarily involves negation.
Let’s say you were expecting to see a crater in front of you.
The moment you see/touch the rock, you form an idea of it.
That idea involves the negation of the crater.
To think “that rock” is to exclude everything else that might be there. Including various forms of gourmet ice cream. Which is unfortunate… but necessary.
And it works the same with ideas of things which aren’t in Extension.
For Spinoza, to think “63” means to assert the existence of the concept “63”.
Which is a distinct thing, which exists in that aspect of reality called Thought.
To think “triangle” is to assert the existence of the concept “triangle” (in Thought, in God).
Also — to think “63” means to negate every other number, for that instant of thought.
So long as you are thinking “63”, you are not thinking 64, 65… triangle… lettuce… mayonnaise… Zimbabwe…
When you think “Numbers”, you assert the existence in Thought of every number, and deny (for that instant of thought) the existence of everything else that exists in Thought.
[You’re hopefully starting to see what’s so special about God.
To think ‘God’ is to assert everything, and deny nothing.
For there can be nothing outside God for you to be negating.
Now that might all sound a little weird.
But the pay-off for this one is coming VERY Soon.
So those are ideas.
Our minds are full of them.
Our minds are pretty much the sum total of them.
And the Ethics is basically a collection of thoughts about thoughts — ideas about ideas — that help us sort out our ideas so that they stop causing us problems.
In other words: it’s all about helping you have adequate, rather than inadequate ideas.
The adequacy of an idea is less about “whether or not our ideas correspond with external reality” — whether or not the “idea agrees with its object” — as in most Western philosophy. That’s the standard for natural science, which is what we do once we’re perfectly clear on philosophy and psychology and religion (i.e. once we’ve finished reading the Ethics).
Rather, it’s about whether or not the idea works on its own. By its own standards. It’s about the idea being authentic. It’s about the idea being precisely what is is, and not muddled with something else. It’s about not getting confused by our own ideas.
We want every idea to be clearly and distinctly what it is.
To clearly recognize every mental event as being what it is.
There can be nothing better for the mind, by definition, than to have its contents, and to have its contents in an unmuddled fashion.
It’s just about recognizing everything for what it is, as and when the mind becomes aware of it.
And, if possible, directing the mind towards things it likes (clear, distinct ideas) which don’t cause it harm.
As far as your experience is concerned, there’s nothing more to life than that.
You are a thing which exists in these two Attributes of God.
You are not two different things that exist in two different realities. You are one thing — an event — that exists in one reality, which the mind divides into two for its own convenience.
Here’s the key analogy:
It’s like wave-particle duality.
For the last century, when physicists talk about light (and, at this point… pretty much everything else), they use the following phrase: “Now acting as a particle, now acting as a wave”.
But the point is that it is exactly the same phenomenon. There are not two phenomena. The light is the same. It’s just that we’re looking at it from one angle, and then from another.
So, this bit of light… when it’s acting as a particle, it bumps into things.
When it’s acting as a wave, it flows around them.
So the first big point Spinoza makes is that this is just one phenomenon, understood in two ways.
But the second big point he makes is TO KEEP THOSE TWO WAYS SEPARATE, DAMMIT.
Stick to your story, folks.
A physical event causes another physical event.
And a mental event causes another mental event.
So, your shin moved because your thigh moved and pulled it upwards.
But you went to see your friend because you were lonely and wanted to see your friend.
You know that these refer to the same event in God/Nature, but you keep these two explanations separate.
Let’s go back to the light analogy.
Light is light.
But when you say it’s acting like a particle, you DO NOT SAY it flowed around things.
If you want to say it flowed around things, you say it’s acting like a wave.
And when you say it’s acting like a wave, you DO NOT SAY it bumped into things.
If you want to say it bumped into things, you say it’s acting like a particle.
So eliminative materialism and eliminative idealism are both eliminated.
Matter does not cause Mind. Mind does not cause matter.
They are both fundamentally the same thing — which is Natura naturata.
Which is caused by Natura naturans.
And both these aspects of Nature are fundamentally the same thing.
But because you’re not an idiot who just lolls about all day, drooling and mumbling “Everything is One”… because you actually want to walk around and talk to people and basically have a life… then you have to try to understand these things. Which means you have to make these distinctions (…apparently).
But then, remember — and this is really Spinoza’s number one message to you — you’re not an idiot.
And so, you don’t then get these distinctions you’ve just made up confused.
So, like… it’s not as if your body is essentially divided into two distinct things: your left foot, and the rest. Your body is a single, cohesive thing.
But also… if someone is poking you in the eye… that’s not the same as prodding your left foot. Your eye and your foot are different things.
Or, like… you live in a house.
And you understand that… it’s all one house.
But because you actually want to live a nice life there, you separate it out so that you have a place where you prepare food (kitchen) and a place where you dispose of food, a.k.a. take a shit (toilet).
But then you don’t get confused and starting raving about how your house exists in two different universes and start calling your doors TRANSDIMENSIONAL CYBER PORTALS WHOSE PINEAL-LINTELS KEEP OUT THE CHAOS DEMONS. [Dualism]
And you certainly don’t get confused and start eating your shit and sticking frozen peas up your ass. [Eliminativism.]
Unless, you know, that’s your thing — in which case, fine, I guess. I’m not gonna stop you. I’m just going to think you’re a dirty pervert.
[I mean, I’ll think you’re a pervert if you’re a dualist/eliminativist.
I couldn’t give less of a shit about the shit-eating pea-butts.]
[I’m just kidding, I don’t give a shit about the dualists and eliminators either.
It’s a thing which can exist, and which necessarily therefore must exist.
And you have no free will, so it’s not your fault.
God made you, and I love God, so I love you too.]
Quick note to make sure you got the implications right.
So, we are a thing which exists in (what appears to us as) two aspects of a single Reality.
Both each of those aspects is infinite.
And there are infinitely many other aspects.
……soooooo… small-g gods? Spirits? Ghosts? Aliens? Angels and demons? Unicorns and dragons and gremlins and TRANSDIMENSIONAL CYBER-JESUS?
You ain’t even scratched the surface of the surface of the surface if that’s all you think is out there.
All that stuff is entry-level.
It’s weak, man.
That’s the problem with you superstitious people — you’re too small-minded! Try being more of a rationalist, dude.
Now, whether you think you can convince any of those things to help you out somehow is up to you. I’m rather more of the mindset “Thank God none of it seems to want to fuck with me.”
Now. My conscience compels me to pause for a moment and address what is generally considered to be the one greatest flaw in Spinoza’s otherwise fairly consistent Grand Theory of Everything.
And that is The Problem of Individuation.
Basically: how can there be distinct bodies if Extension is one big field, and distinct minds if Thought is one big field?
And how can a cell be a distinct body, but a human body also be a distinct body, and a human society also be a distinct body? If they overlap, how can they be distinct?
But I’m really scared of
- making this too long, and
- overcomplicating things
so I’ve put it over here instead.
It’s 750 words.
But basically: it’s like currents in the ocean.
A current is not really separate from the other bits of the ocean.
You can’t pinpoint precisely where it stops and where another one starts.
But they can still push each other this way and that, and navigators can distinguish between them, and you can bunch up a lot of the smaller ones together into something like the Gulf Stream.
And what we’re trying to do here is navigate ourselves into a good life.
So it’s fine.
Alright. So. Here we go.
God is infinite.
Therefore, it can think infinitely many thoughts, a.k.a. ideas.
Because there are infinitely many ideas, there is necessarily an idea for every single bit of Extension.
Now, get ready.
This is the million-dollar insight.
The crux of Book I was “God is infinite and eternal (and therefore free and good and…)”.
This is the crux of Book II.
Everything else is just developing these two insights.
Alright, this is it.
You are God’s idea of your body.
In other words:
Your mind is the distinct thing in Thought which corresponds to your body in Extension.
In other words:
Your mind is the Universe experiencing what it’s like to be your body.
So you know how your mind is a thing which has a bunch of different ideas? That is that rock, this is this book, that is some guy named Peter.
All those are singular mental events in your mind.
Well your mind in turn is just such a singular mental event in the mind of God — which, remember, is the attribute of Thought itself.
So, your body is a thing happening in Extension (Spacetime), and your mind is a thing happening in Thought (Consciousness), whose object is your body and nothing else.
[There are two exceptions to this.
Your mind can be aware of God. We’ll come to that when we talk about Intuition. But it does that through your body, which will come in handy in Part 5.
And it can be aware of itself.
But let’s pretend I didn’t say that — we’ll just enter that loop again: the mind’s idea of the mind is the mind itself, etc. etc.
The only real point of the distinction (…I… think…?) is to differentiate between object-oriented awareness (which is always the mind’s awareness of the body), and objectless awareness.
But this is an obscure footnote in the Ethics.
By contrast, it is the centrepiece of the Yogachara thought of Asaṅga and Vasubandhu, which is what I’m going to be devoting next month to personally exploring.
So just forget about it for now. All in good time.]
So, to keep things simple: the only thing your mind can ever, ever, ever, ever, ever experience is your body.
True, I do experience my body. Hands, feet, lips… though my shins seem to go missing unless I poke them…
But I experience all kinds of other things as well, that aren’t my body.
Like that rock, this book, that dude named Peter.
And Spinoza shakes his head, sighs, and says:
…see, that’s where you people keep going wrong.
What you’re truly experiencing is an affection of your body.
Your body is actually an amazing thing.
It is able to modify bits of itself so that it can make a representation of things that aren’t itself, in itself. Specifically, it has these very soft bits, that are very ‘plastic’, very malleable — like clay — and which can thus be moved around easily by external things, or other bits of your body.
That’s what your sense organs are. The miniscule impact of a photon will register on your retina. And these tiny vibrations of air will register on your eardrum.
(This is in opposition to your muscles and bones, for example, which are hard, and very much not supposed to be appreciably altered by every passing photon. That would be… bad.)
And that’s what your brain is. It is the ‘softest’, most malleable physical object in the known universe.
So what you’re experiencing when you think you’re experiencing the “external world” is actually just the soft parts of your body, which are rearranging themselves to represent other parts of Extension.
And what you’re experiencing when you’re thinking — e.g. about mathematics, or about unicorns or whatever — is just the soft parts of your body, which are rearranging themselves to represent other parts of Thought.
The thing is, these soft parts just so happen to attract your mind’s attention a *lot* more, cus they’re constantly moving around, while the hard parts are staying relatively still.
You know… by definition.
So, the key point here is that, when the mind fixates on a particular affection of the body (essentially, a particular arrangement of neurons in the brain), what happens is that it regards the thing which the affection of your body is trying to represent AS PRESENT.
And it will continue to do that until something else happens that denies that the object is present.
Your mind is lazy.
Your mind — like everything in Galilean physics — is fundamentally characterized by inertia.
That is: it will keep doing what it’s doing until something makes it change direction.
So, when the photons bounce off the rock, hit your eyeball, go up your nerves, push your brain into a new shape, and you see the rock… what’s happening is that your mind is regarding the rock as present.
And then, once you’ve walked past it… and different photons hit your eyeball, go up your nerves, push your brain into a new shape… then you see an open meadow. This new affection of your body negates the rock. And so you stop regarding it as present.
And that’s good. That’s very good. That’s extremely useful to us. Means we can navigate the world without bumping into things.
And when you have a pleasing sexual fantasy, what’s happening is that your mind is regarding that imaginary partner as present.
That’s… well… generally speaking, that’s good! It makes you happy. And that’s good! (According to Part 3.)
…but then, you eventually open your eyes. And you see a bunch of empty air, and then your ceiling. And that negates the presence of your fantasy partner. And so, well, you know… ='(
But see, when an embarrassing memory pops up… your mind is regarding that situation as present. You start reacting as if it were literally happening now. Heart rate increases, adrenaline is released….
That’s… not so good.
And when you think about your death, your mind starts regarding your death as present.
In other words: for you to contemplate death is to think you’re dying.
That’s… umm… pretty much very not good.
And it’s basically never accurate.
You know… by definition.
Insofar as you’re actually dying, you’re less and less there to even know it anymore.
You see, we’re actually a bit stupid.
But don’t worry.
We can become less stupid — that is, we can learn to generate adequate ideas.
And that basic stupidity — that the way we think of anything is to think it’s actually happening — comes in handy when we think about God.
Because to think of God is to regard It as actually present.
Which we are always 100% correct about, every time we think it.
That is a completely, universally adequate idea.
In this insight — that everything we perceive is actually an affection of our body — lies the main way we can start to “wake up” and liberate ourselves from our misery.
Essentially, we remind ourselves that everything we’re experiencing in our minds isn’t actually what we think it is.
It’s actually our body, putting on a very convincing costume.
And sometimes, that costume is “its own non-existence”.
In other words: sometimes, it wears black, and stands in front of a black screen, to try and pretend it isn’t there.
Which is, when you think about it, hilarious.
So when we remember that, we just take the costume off, see that whatever we were just thinking is actually just a fleshy bit of our body, see that our body is actually this luminous emanation of the eternal Divinity — and we’re clear.
But we’ll return to this at the beginning of Part 5.
For now: you see why the knowledge generated by natural science — empirical knowledge — will never be entirely adequate? It’s never perfect. It’s never exactly what it is.
It is always indirect; always a reflection.
We’re never actually knowing other parts of Extension — rocks, stars, frogs, etc.
All we’re knowing directly is how our brain is arranged when it observes other parts of Extension.
An octopus-scientist or an alien-scientist would look at exactly the same thing, make out exactly the same pattern, but experience and articulate it differently.
So empirical knowledge is always costume your brain is wearing — what’s really going on is that you’re watching your brain.
So, yes — the expansion of natural science is what humanity will do with the rest of its history. Spinoza is already pretty much the patron saint of that. It is the study of Natura naturata. Thus, it is the study of God. It is, quite literally, a sacrament — a sacred task.
That’s what everything is fundamentally all about — at least, in that portion of reality we exist in: God coming to know Itself.
But, see — as an individual mind, you can never be satisfied that you possess any kind of perfect knowledge through that.
Those are the toys and trophies you fill your house with.
Spinoza thinks those toys and trophies are very, very good.
But they’re not much use to you if your house is falling apart.
And the Ethics is essentially about making sure your house isn’t falling apart.
Now. Remember that point about affirmation/negation?
That was very important.
- Each idea is made up of the same stuff — Consciousness itself — a.k.a. the Attribute of Thought, a.k.a. the Mind of God.
- The Mind of God In General observes all and affirms the existence of all, all at once.
- But depending on the particular thing, there is within the Attribute of Thought a particular idea of the thing.
- And for your body, that’s your mind.
- And an idea is the affirmation of the existence of something.
So your mind is the universe declaring — “This person’s body exists.”
Soooo… what happens when, through an affection of the body, the mind is presented with the idea of the body’s non-existence — a.k.a. death?
It negates itself.
Because the affirmation of your body’s existence is the very essence of the mind.
And, see: for any given moment, in any given place… your mind is the universe declaring — “Ah! This person’s body is existing…. LIKE THIS.”
Soooooo… what happens when, through a subsequent affection of your body, it is presented with the idea that your body is NOT existing like this?
So, your mind’s like:
OK, OK, OK, my body is currently mating with this very attractive person… and now it has opened its eyes… and… … ….oh.
It’s not mating with this very attractive person at all!
I… I…. I am not a very good mind, am I?
God told me to watch this one little body, and I was watching this body very, VERY hard… but then… I messed up somewhere, and, and…
I’m… I’m the worst mind ever, aren’t I…?
And then it crawls off into a corner and shrinks in on itself.
Soooooooooo… what happens when, through an affection of your body, the mind is presented with the idea that your body exists… and is currently doing something that will allow it to continue to exist.
It imp— no, no, the other one.
It puffs up.
I AM MIND.
I AM GOOD MIND.
ALL IS FANTASTIC RIGHT NOW.
ALL WILL BE FANTASTIC LATER.
THEREFORE, EVERYTHING IS FANTASTIC.
AND I AM ESPECIALLY FANTASTIC.
OK. This is one of the last really weird things I’ll be throwing your way.
By reality and perfection I mean the same thing.Book II
Everything is about existence.
To exist is to be real.
And to be real is to be perfect. Cus you are what you are. And that’s necessarily the best thing for you to be.
OK. But… it is actually possible to be more or less perfect. To be more or less real. To exist more or to exist less.
[Of course… understood through the thing itself, this is not the case. Understood through itself, each thing is perfect in its own kind.
It’s only relative to other things that something is more or less perfect.
So, at the end of the day, you want to understand yourself through yourself… so that way you can be perfectly perfe—-
Just let Spinoza have this one, OK?
He’s trying so hard.
Throw him a bone.
So. Your body can’t exist any more or less than it does.
Sure, it can take up more space. You can eat more and gain mass.
And you can take up more time. You could invent the pill of immortality and last a trillion, trillion, trillion years, until Ragnarok hits. You just can’t know, at any given point in time, how far you’re going to be extended in time.
But the key thing is… that doesn’t make you any more or less real.
[And — understood properly, through Reason — you know you’re really a given thing, happening all at once, eternally.
You just don’t know the details.
That’s what Imagination is for.
But more on this later.]
The Sun has a lot more mass, and lasts a lot longer, than a bubble blown by a child and popped by the fickle breeze.
But it’s not more real. They’re both just two events in Extension, of differing characteristics.
Your mind, however…. can be more or less real.
The more it affirms the existence of your body… the more real it is.
The less it does so, the less real it is.
So, a unicorn exists… as an idea. But not as a thing in Extension (here on Earth). So the idea which affirms the unicorn’s existence in Extension here on Earth… doesn’t exist at all! It’s very unreal. It’s very imperfect.
So what you want is to affirm the idea of your body a lot.
So, if you’re rational, what that means is making sure that you think the most accurate things about it. Cus that way, you’ll never be disappointed, and rudely forced to shut your mind off a bit.
And the Ethics is a book which is trying to convince the greatest number of people possible to be rational (Books 3 and 4).
However, it knows how difficult that is. …because of the very nature of the mind. To convince someone with an inaccurate belief that their belief is inaccurate is very hard…. because it requires the mind to deny many of the affections of its body, and thereby, deny itself. Which, by definition, it doesn’t want to do. But we’ll cross that bridge later.
So, in addition to making sure to avoid inadequate ideas, what your mind wants most of all is a way to affirm your body eternally. Cus that way, it can exist totally. (Second half of Book 5).
In the ensuing books, Spinoza will use this basic insight to explain virtually everything about your life.
So, here’s this situation you come across. And here’s how it allows the mind to assert your body’s existence, and thus exist more.
And here’s this other situation you come across. And here’s how it forces your mind to deny your body’s existence, and thus exist less.
So that’s what you have to look foward to.
Now check out what Spinoza says at this point.
Here, no doubt, my readers will come to a halt, and think of many things which will give them pause. For this reason I ask them to continue on with me slowly, step by step, and to make no judgement on these matters until they have read through them all.II.P11.S.
You can just see him sitting there being like:
I’ve just blown these bastards’ minds.
I know this with the same certainty I know that there are four corners on a square.
I better step in and make sure the shockwave doesn’t blow them out of orbit before I get to the bit where I tell them to stop being dicks.
A couple of weird implications before we move on.
The implication of “for everything that exists in Extension, there exists an according idea in Thought” is that everything is conscious.
Otherwise known as panpsychism.
As with almost everything about Spinoza, this point is oft misunderstood.
So… yes. Rocks are conscious.
But… they’re less conscious than you are when you’re in deep sleep.
Because there’s… just not much of interest going on in the body of a rock, compoared to your brain. So its mind is accordingly… pretty darned dim.
So it’s actually a less hippie-dippy notion than you might be thinking.
But… yes. It implies that computers not only will become conscious… but are conscious already.
Conscious like us, or conscious like a rock? That’s what the debate’s about.
Will they ever have affects (emotions)? Or does that require a fleshier, softer body?
But the real big one, I reckon, is the composite bodies we’re a part of. Families. Tribes. Societies. Life on Earth itself… Those are all probably coordinated enough to be considered bodies. Which means there’s an idea in God of them too.
When you start thinking of it that way… it gets dizzying.
But… look. If Carl Jung gets to be taken seriously in our society, with his Collective Confusion (sorry, I mean, Collective Unconscious), then I’ll be damned if Spinoza doesn’t get a fair hearing as well.
Anyway. If that’s all still too out-there for you, here’s my one and only argument for why you might want to reconsider.
And it is, obviously, a question, not an argument.
Where do you draw the line?
If you think that some things are conscious and some things aren’t… and that it isn’t a spectrum, but a definitive “either you are or you aren’t” kind of thing… then where exactly does it stop and start?
I’ve read… a fair amount on the topic. And every single time I’ve come across someone drawing a line somewhere, it has come with a host of extremely obvious objections and counter-examples.
So, I’m not declaring confidently that there isn’t a line.
I’m just saying that figuring out its location is a you job, not a me job.
I personally have no horse in this race.
But if you slam a coupon I can only use at the hippodrome into my hand… I’ll put my money on panpsychism.
It may be an inelegant solution. The intellectual equivalent of carpet-bombing an entire city when you just want to assassinate one person.
But hey. At least this way, I know the motherfucker’s dead.
I mean, conscious.
Your mind is… basically kind of dopey
Your mind only really knows itself through the affections of your body.
So, basically… your mind is just, like… there. Chillin’. In the same place where God stores its awareness of that rock, that tree, etc.
But it only notices itself when your body is affected in some way.
So basically, your conscious mind — the bit of you that’s reading this — only pops into existence when there’s a significant change in your body.
So, the bit of your mind that you are — that you recognize as your self — is the mind’s recognition of itself, through the affections of your body.
Which is why it goes away when we sleep, and the body stops moving so damned fast. It gets slightly closer to the oscillation levels of a rock. And that slight downturn is enough to convince us that it doesn’t exist anymore. So the mind dims down accordingly. (Which just goes to show how ridonkulously fast we were going a minute before.)
But beyond explaining the whole conscious/subconsious thing, the main insight is that, even though the object of your mind’s awareness is your body, it actually doesn’t know your body directly.
So, your body has to move a bit of itself around (in the brain) to let itself know what the rest of it is doing… and that’s the bit you actually notice.
Which is weird. But it is, indeed, exactly what appears to be happening.
The bits of your body other than your nervous system are, in Spinoza’s rather simple terms, just moving too slowly to notice, by comparison.
So, like, if you cut a bit of yourself off — your foot, for example — but somehow block the affection of your body which exists to represent that to itself — in the brain — then your mind does not experience your foot being cut off.
Because your mind — that is, the recursive self-knowledge that we naively consider to be all of our mind — is actually kind of dopey.
Which makes it cute, in my opinion.
But in case you were wondering how come there’s so much of our body we’re not aware of at any given moment — that’s why.
It’s cus the bit of your body you’re not aware of isn’t moving the other bits of your body fast enough for your mind to have its attention drawn to it.
The Problem of Universals
This has been the structuring question of a lot of Western Philosophy.
Basically: ok, so that’s Pete, and that’s Paul, and that’s Phaedra — but what is a Human?
So that’s a chair and that’s a chair and that’s a chair… but what is Chairness?
And Spinoza’s like:
Universals aren’t a thing.
Let me explain what happened to you.
You encountered a bunch of these talking-monkey-things.
And then light… air waves… eye… ear… brain… and then a bunch of different images popped into your mind.
But your brain is small, so it couldn’t store all these images.
So it started muddling them together… and left you with this vague, composite image which you have labelled Human.
But depending on the particular disposition of your brain, that composite image is totally different.
So, people who happened to notice these monkey-things’ stature and skin tone have formed the image of a Human as a featherless biped.
And people who happened to notice their thinkyness have formed the image of a Human as a rational animal.
And every philosopher’s brain is in a different state, so they all have different muddled notions of all these humans they’ve met… so they will always disagree about the nature of Humanness.
……and that’s the last hyper-technical point I’m gonna be making in this exposition of the Ethics. Everything from here on out should be fairly directly relevant to your actual life.
OK. Your mind is the awareness of your body, with a few funny hangups that keep causing it confusion.
So. What can it do?
According to Spinoza, three things.
The example he uses to showcase the difference is (IMHO) pretty epically awful. So I’m gonna be forced to wing it here.
Remember there were ideas and images?
This is why.
Imagination is the layer of our mind concerned with images.
So… when we have a sexual fantasy about someone… that’s Imagination.
And… if we’re actually having sex with someone… that’s also Imagination.
Everything you see and hear and feel is Imagination.
The world you probably think you live in is all part of Imagination.
It’s a massive collage of images that the Mind is constructing based on the status of your brain.
And sometimes that status of your brain is based on the status of your sense organs.
But the point is… you’re imagining it either way.
So, for Spinoza, all our problems come from this part of the mind. Imagination is the only cause of error. And our mind has to shut itself down when it catches itself in error.
If you can somehow come to a proper understanding of the nature of your imagination, then it will transform from your greatest weakness to your greatest strength.
If you know how to handle it, it can be the perfect warning system to the presence of actual danger — to something which can actually harm your body and prevent it from continuing to function.
And if you can somehow remember what’s actually going on well enough to allow yourself to picture things without freaking yourself out, then you will be able to experience basically anything you want.
You can, you know. Make a map of the world. Which is handy. And visualize incredibly complex mathematical and physical ideas, for example — and with those, alter the very fabric of the universe.
Or you can go on the most wild and exotic shamanic vision quests ever.
But if you keep freaking yourself out each time you venture a few steps out of your mental comfort zone… if you allow your mind to keep regarding every bloody little image as actually present… then your imagination will literally be your worst nightmare.
So, Reason is “common notions and adequate ideas about the properties of things”.
[That’s common notions, OK?
Not Transcendental notions: like Being, or Thing. Those don’t exist.
And not Universal notions. Like Human, Chair. Those also don’t exist.
Common notions. Alright?
Which are……… different.
…..what? Why are you looking at me that way?
They are different! They totally are!
They… they totally are!…..ne…necess……by… be def…..
Just SHUT UP, OK?!]
[…I’m being too harsh on him.
But the dig was just too easy to resist.
Common notions are a different thing.
But, in my simplifciatin of Book II, I’ve eliminated all the technical tools required to make that case.
So we’re just gonna have to leave it.]
Basically…. reason is understanding.
It’s when you get at an underlying pattern beneath things.
So, like… let’s say you were to ask me what happened in a football match.
I could watch it and tell you that this team won, and they played in this or that way. But that’s inherently subjective. It depends on which bits of the pitch my eyes tend to drift towards, what I think is notable. And perhaps I had a stroke, and am totally misremembering the results.
Or, I could appeal to Reason. “One team won, and the other lost. Or they tied — unless it was a cup match. Each team fielded 11 players, and possibly ended with fewer, due to red cards and injury. Each team passed the ball between them. The other team intercepted them. etc. Because That’s Football.”
See — play your cards right, and your Imagination can give you power.
But your Reason will never lead you astray.
That example was kind of stupid. Lemme show you how this actually works.
So, you Imagine that the time is passing.
But through Reason, you know it’s not. You know that everything is happening all at once. If you abstract from your reconstruction of the ‘present moment’, your mind realizes that it’s sitting there in a timeless place, and that your Body is just One Big Thing which exists eternally. But then you zoom back in, and re-enter the ‘flow of time’. Which is a thing that is actually happening to your body — which is giving it its structure. But your experience of this is a reconstruction of your mind, through Imagination.
Reason lets you figure that out.
In Imagination, we can view something as possible. As potential. As contingent. You know “maybe this thing will happen. Maybe it won’t. If this happens, then that might happen. etc.”. And that’s useful. It allows your body to take effective action — by thinking things through before it acts.
But with Reason, you know that whatever happens is what is determined to happen, through the total array of proximate causes, and its very essence, as directly engendered by God. Reason forces you into the View from Eternity. You zoom out of the universe and see it all happen at once, as it were, in your Mind’s Eye.
So, with Imagination, you might imagine something bad is happening to you. And that, as we’ll see, is very useful.
But with Reason, you know nothing bad can ever happen to you.
You are necessarily what you are.
The number 2378356 is necessarily 2378356. After “83” necessarily must come “56”.
And if what you are is “someone whose life ends with them getting taken in by the Gestapo, beaten, and shot”… then, when you get taken in, beaten, and shot… well… I’m sorry, but that’s apparently a necessary part of being you.
Your experiencing of this is, ultimately, good. You’re successfully finding out which bit of the universe you are.
(Of course, the more powerful you are — the more you understand your environment — the better your experience will be. But, insofar you are able to understand that the best thing for you is to be clearly aware of anything that might happen to you, you will be better able to cope with any circumstance. Which is the best thing to aim for, experientially.)
Reason is hardcore.
Spinoza is gentlest of the gurus.
But he is also extremely hardcore.
To be honest, the best demonstration of what Reason is comes in the next part. So just wait til I’m done with that.
Spinoza hasn’t seen a single detail of your life. But I bet you’ll agree that he has understood it pretty well.
That is thanks to Reason.
…but it would be boring if I just left it at that. And the concept has been rather neutered in the common usage of our contemporary society.
So let me go a little wild to try and communicate to you what’s so great about this aspect of your mind.
Śvetaketu went away to become a student at the age of twelve and, after learning all the Vedas, returned when he was twenty-four, swellheaded, thinking himself to be learned, and arrogant.
His father then said to him:
“Śvetaketu, here you are, my son — swell-headed, thinking yourself to be learned, and arrogant; so you must have surely asked about that instruction by which one hears what has not been heard of before, thinks of what has not been thought of before, and perceives what has not been perceived before?”
“What is that teaching, sir?”
“It is like this, son.
By means of just one lump of clay, one would perceive everything made of clay.
The transformation is a verbal handle, a name.
While the reality is just this:
It’s clay.”Chandogya Upanishad 6.1.1-4
Patrick Olivelle translation
That, basically… is Reason.
What do you know about everything you’ll ever see?
It is some arrangement of colour and shape.
Which colors? Which shapes? Depends.
But it will definitely be shape and colour.
What do you know about everything you’ll ever hear?
Oh, but that’s a clap of thunder! That’s the roar of an engine! That’s the loving coo of my darling-doo!
Yeah yeah, kid. Great.
But really…… it’s all just sound.
I’ll go a bit further.
Imagination allows you to “live your life”.
It allows your mind to witness more or less what it is that your body is doing while it goes around various places and does various things.
And what you want in life is, basically, to experience your life.
I mean, it’s kind of the only thing you can want, actually.
But, see… Reason allows you to experience your life immediately — in an instant.
You just close your eyes, and reflect:
What’s in a day?
Wake, do various things… eat, defecate… have some pleasurable experiences… have some painful experiences… then fall asleep.
That’s what’s in a day.
Then… all the rest of my life will be that.
And thus, you open your eyes a fulfilled being.
……….you’re not impressed.
So, (going by the Mahāsaccakasutta [MN 36]) the ascetic Gotama puts an end to his extreme self-mortifications, recalls the pleasant feeling of having lain under a rose-apple tree as a child while his father was working, and passes through the four jhanas in the approach to his full awakening.
With his mind having attained such a state of purity and calm, he turns his attention to his past lives: and he recalls many kinds of them, with features and details.
(If you don’t like the use of the word “past” in that context, replace it with “alternative”.)
With that knowledge having been achieved, he turns his attention to karma — the causal chain of Thought which dictates the arising and passing away and arising again of all manner of minds and mental states.
With that knowledge having been achieved, he turns his attention to the Āsavas — the defilements — to negative states of mind. And he discerns their nature, their origin, their cessation, and the way to bring them to cessation.
These three knowledges having been attained, he realized that he has accomplished it. He has pierced the veil. He has escaped from the fetters of this world. The holy life has been lived. The spiritual journey has been completed. What needed to be done has been done. The game is over.
Whatever you imagine happened to the ascetic Gotama under that tree… it can be very gainfully understood as a perfect example of a certain, highly advanced use of Reason.
Just so we’re clear on the kind of power of the mind we’re dealing with here.
Intuition is, for Spinoza, the highest form of knowledge. It is the greatest thing your mind is capable of. It is knowing something directly. Immediately. Perfectly.
So, the obvious example is mathematics.
You know that 1 = 1… and by virtue of that, you know that 1 + 1 = 2, and so forth.
You know that a square has four corners, and a circle has none.
You just know that.
But that’s kinda trivial.
There’s one major thing you know by intuition.
…I bet you know what it is, by now.
(By sheer force of repetition, if nothing else.)
By intuition… you know God.
You just do.
You know that reality is infinite and eternal, and you know that you are part of it, and you know that this is good, blibbity bloopity bla.
And here we come to Spinoza’s basic theory of knowledge.
Knowledge, like God, is self-justifying.
When you know something, you know that you know it.
(And know that you know that you know, and so on, to infinity.)
((…I’m not kidding. That’s what he says. II.P21.S))
[Now, you know me well enough by now to guess that I’m not the #1 biggest believer in this whole “knowledge” thing. To be honest, I think it’s a bit of a myth. But my feeling here is the same as with panpsychism: if you are gonna believe in some form of absolute knowledge then surely this has got to be your story. Every other attempt I’ve ever come across to justify knowledge by anything else is ridiculously full of holes. So at least be like Spinoza, and have the courage of your convictions. What’s true is true because it’s true — don’t run away and hide somewhere else. It’s not gonna be any easier if you just procrastinate and kick the can down the road.]
…so if you buy all that, then great: the entire Ethics is now an incontrovertible fact.
But basically, no Western philosophers after Spinoza agree with him on this point.
Partly because, if they did, there would be no Western philosophy after Spinoza.
But if you’re not quite sure about the point yet and wish to inquire further… then, I dunno, go ask literally any Sufi teacher — they’ll sort you right out.
So Spinoza’s view of the world is basically backwards from what people normally think.
You know God. (Intuition)
And from that, you can work out certain patterns. (Reason)
And with those patterns, you can make sense of this mess of guesses your mind is mostly made up of. (Imagination)
But, see… here, we once again run afoul of the same old problem.
Western philosophy has tended to separate psychology into these very distinct fields, which are strictly never supposed to meet.
- philosophy of mind, answering the question “what is the mind?”
- epistemology, answering the question “what is knowledge?”
- phenomenology, answering the question “how does the mind appear to us? what does it look like it’s doing?”
- psychology (+psychoanalysis, psychiatry…), which is now a natural science, and not part of philosophy at all.
And so, this stuff about Imagination/Reason/Intuition is shunted into epistemology, and that’s that.
But, obviously, Spinoza didn’t see things that way.
And I reckon this stuff might be a bit clearer if you look at it from the perspective of phenomenology.
The way I experience it, these three terms basically refer to three layers of consciousness. And depending on which one you’re at, you come up with different thoughts. And when it comes time to share them, you can let people know where your mind was when you thought it.
(So that’s my phenomenology of epistemology.)
Intuition is basically your mind being Natura naturans.
At the base-level of every single point in space and every single moment in time, the origin of all things is down there, generating it. And with Intuition, your mind sinks down to that base level and just goes “woah”. Or, if it can still remember that words exist: “…so that’s ‘effulgence’, huh…”.
Reason is your particular mind doing its best impression of the Mind of God. It is a mini-version of the Attribute of Thought in general. It abstracts from all the subjective details you know about things, and tries to see them from their own perspective. It’s your mind’s attempt to recreate the whole world. But your mind can’t really do that… by its very nature. But the more excellent your body is, the better you can do it.
And Imagination is… you know… normal life. It’s your mind’s attempt to recreate the story of your body. Just you, going about. Snacking on something. Occasionally getting bored and maybe looking at something. Occasionally getting exceptionally bored and doing some work.
Once you get good at Intuition and Reason… it’s basically super chill.
(…so long as you don’t do anything difficult… like try to make the world a better place… or, you know… talk to anyone past “good morning!” or “nice weather today!”.)
We’re almost there.
Just one more substantive point and then we conclude.
This next one is solid gold, guys.
Your body’s there.
When it is acted on by another body, that leaves an impression in the brain — an affection — through which the mind is able to perceive the other body.
This affection thus involves both our and the external body. Both of those things had a hand in its creation.
OK. So far, so good.
When the body is affected by two bodies at once, it forms a connection between them.
And thus, when it brings one body to mind, it brings the other body to mind also.
This connection is called an association.
And… as you’ll soon see… it’s going to be explaining a…. a lot.
Here are the examples Spinoza gives to illustrate how it works.
- There’s a Roman.
There’s an apple.
Light… eyeball… brain…
Roman sees apple.
Someone says “pomum“.
Roman hears “pomum“.
This happens several times.
Roman now associates the fruit ‘apple’ with the word ‘pomum‘.
Even though there is no necessary connection between these two things…
…say the word “pomum“, and the Roman will think of the fruit.
…show the fruit, and the Roman will think of the word.
OK, now get a load of this one.
- Two dudes are walking down a country road.
They see a hoofprint.
They have both associated “hootprint” with “horse”.
And so… in the next moment… they both think of a horse.
Here we go.
The first dude is a farmer.
The second dude is a soldier.
So the first dude goes from thinking “horse” to thinking “plow horse”.
And from “plow horse” to “a field of crops”.
But the second dude goes from thinking “horse” to thinking “warhorse”.
And from “warhorse to “battlefield”.
….Spinoza cuts the story short there. But you can imagine how it plays out.
Either the first guy goes “Hmm. Maybe I should plant cabbages next Spring…”, and the second guy gives him a weird look.
Or the second guy cringes and goes “…..mommy!”, and the first guy looks at him as if he’s insane.
…so… just sit on that one for a while.
I’m sure you can cook up quite a number of tasty insights in the time it’ll take me to get the next post ready.
So that’s the mind.
Like everything else in Nature, it’s a determinate thing, which works in certain, determinate ways.
And the more it understands those ways, the more it can determine itself — whereby it gains a degree of freedom from the snares of external challenges and the pitfalls of its own devising.
And that was my first attempt at trying to nail it down.
It… wasn’t as much of a disaster as I was fearing.
In fact, I’m pretty happy with it, all things considered.
There are about 50 things I want to add… but to be honest, I think I’ve covered everything I’m gonna need for the later sections — I think it’s more a question of clarifying and streamlining things in later drafts.
So let’s just conclude with II.P49.S.IV.
It remains now to indicate how much knowledge of this doctrine is to our advantage in life. We shall see this easily from the following considerations:
[A.] Insofar as it teaches that we act only from God’s command, that we do this the more, the more perfect our actions are [see: opening of Part 3], and the more and more we understand God. This doctrine, then, in addition to giving us complete peace of mind, also teaches us wherein our greatest happiness, or blessedness, consists: namely, in the knowledge of God alone, by which we are led to do only those things which love and morality advise.
From this we clearly understand how far they stray from the true valuation of virtue, who expect to be honored by God with the greatest rewards for their virtue and best actions, as for the greatest bondage — as if virtue itself, and the service of God, were not happiness itself, and the greatest freedom.
[B.] Insofar as it teaches us how we must bear ourselves concerning matters of fortune, or things which are not in our power, that is, concerning things which do not follow from our nature — that we must expect and bear calmly both good fortune and bad. For all things follow from God’s eternal decree with the same necessity as from the essence of a triangle it follows that its three angles are equal to two right angles.
[C.] This doctrine contributes to social life, insofar as it teaches us to hate no one, to disesteem no one, to mock no one, to be angry at no one, to envy no one; and also insofar as it teaches that each of us should be content with his own things, and should be helpful to his neighbor, not from unmanly compassion [...teehee!], partiality, or superstition, but from the guidance of reason, as the time and occasion demand. I shall show this in the Fourth Part.
[D.] Finally, this doctrine also contributes, to no small extent, to the common society insosfar as it teaches how citizens are to be governed and led, not so that they may be slaves, but that they may do freely the things which are best.
And with this, I have finished what I had decided to treat in this scholium, and put an end to this our Second Part. In it I think that I have explained the nature and properties of the human mind in sufficient detail, and as clearly as the difficulty of the subject allows, and that I have set out doctrines from which we can infer many excellent things, which are highly useful and necessary to know, as will be established partly in what follows.
Click here to see what follows!
(Spoiler alert: …part 3 follows.)
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