Spinoza, Einstein, and the Failure of Reason
What is Truth? — Pontius Pilate
Every age has its heretics. To acknowledge this is to acknowledge that every age has its core beliefs that are not to be questioned. To question those core beliefs is to be cut off from society. This is harsh, but sadly necessary, for you cannot have a society without core beliefs. It is a shared set of core beliefs that enables a society to exist in the first place. Should those core beliefs fracture and cease to be a common denominator, then society itself will fracture and chaos will reign. Hence, society must always strive to crush the heretics before the heretics destroy society.
Modern society has its core beliefs just like any other society though we rarely talk about the foundations of modern society in such terms. A modern man does not have beliefs that he clings to. He always holds to reasonable beliefs and is willing to listen to any reasonable argument that would challenge those beliefs. The modern man recognizes no absolute wrong except to be unreasonable, and no absolute virtue except the practice of reason itself. But in describing modern man this way, we have hit upon the core belief of the modern era. It is reason that is the one true religion of the modern age. Belief in reason is the unifying force of modern society.
To be sure, modern society is full of squabbles. But those squabbles are like fights between medieval princes. They are contests for prestige and power, not arguments over the core beliefs of society. The intellectual fights between the liberal academic in his ivory tower, the libertarian writer, the neo-conservative in his think tank, and the Christian apologist all revolve around appeals to reason. The competing ideologies want people to acknowledge them as the most reasonable, for to be the most reasonable means that you deserve the greatest prestige and greatest power. If you are the most reasonable person than you are the one who is speaking with the voice of god (or reality if you prefer to use non-religious terms).
It is because modern society has this faith in reason that modern society is able to tolerate such diverse ideologies. A faith in reason means that a member of modern society believes that the truth is out there and it is perceivable to everyone who is willing to look for it. It means that they believe that the truth requires no faith, no revelation, and no authority other than a faith in reason and a submission to what reason reveals. A faith in reason means that one believes that reason can justify itself and needs no other justification. A faith in reason means that in a contest of ideas the most reasonable idea will win out. For if reason is the voice of god (or reality) than it must triumph in the end.
Such a faith is necessary for modern society to exist. How else could democracy function if society did not believe that everyone has access to the truth? How else could we tolerate hearing people who advocate beliefs and actions that we consider harmful if we did not believe that through reason the truth would prevail in the end?
But a society founded on the basis of faith in reason is a recent phenomenon. By comparison with societies that have been founded on the biases of various perceived revelations, modern society is but a blip on the time line. The older societies thought that truth came only from revelation. And in many cases it was thought that this revelation could only be properly interpreted by the proper authorities. Hence the one true religions with their attendant priesthoods and certified teachers.
As a kind of corollary, those beliefs in the necessity of authority also lead to the articulation of the divine right of kings and other authoritative systems of political power. If truth is not accessible to everyone, then it is natural to think that power should only go to those who have the truth. It took a long time for it to become a commonly accepted belief that disputes should be resolved by reason, or for people to even believe that that disputes could be resolved by reason.
Modern man likes to believe that such beliefs in the necessity of authority are on their way to the dustbin of history. Naturally enough, modern man will point to the miracles that reason has wrought for the justification of his faith in the eventual triumph of modern society. Who could stand in the way of the vast increase in prosperity and human knowledge that the advent of reason has brought? What revealed “truth” can stand before reason’s devastating criticism?
It is the way of all faithful to refer to miracles to justify their faith. It is also the way of all faithful to use their values to criticize the faith of others. But recent events have shaken this faith in the predestined triumph of modern society. It is now common to hear people who profess a faith in reason questioning whether the truth is really accessible to everyone. There are now some who advocate forcing people to be reasonable. But how far can you go down that road without having a revealed truth and an authoritative priesthood?
Faith in reason is being put to the test. It could even be said that faith in reason is beginning to fail.
Why is the faith in reason beginning to fail? After all, the modern age came about in spite of opposition from the proponents of revealed “truth”. Like all other gods, reason had its prophets. And like all prophets, they started out as heretics that society did its best to destroy. Yet in spite of the opposition from society at large, the prophets of reason managed to destroy the old faith in revelation that used to rule Europe and replaced it with a faith in reason. They made good progress towards accomplishing the same in America. All this was accomplished from a starting point where they were weak and persecuted. Today the proponents of faith in reason are powerful and generally respected. Why then is there all this self-doubt in the triumph of reason?
Many people would try to answer this question by pointing to demographic data. Others would try to minimize the scale of the problem that the faith in reason now faces. But both of those approaches have flaws. Demographics have always been against the founding of a secular society and so they do not explain why the march of modern society is slowing now. As for minimizing the scale of the problem, only time will tell whether that is the correct. But the trend over the last decade does not look good for those who would defend a faith in reason and there does not seem to be any prospect of that trend improving any time soon.
I am not trying to dismiss the idea that there are sociological and historical reasons for both the rise of the faith in reason and the problems that faith is now facing. But I don’t think that you can intelligently analyze the sociological and historical problems that the faith of reason is encountering without understanding that the faith in reason has always had certain weaknesses. It remains to be seen how devastating the weaknesses inherent in the faith in reason will really be. But there can be no doubt that those weaknesses are contributing to modern society’s current travails.
So what are these mysterious weaknesses in the faith in reason? To answer this question we must turn to Benedict de Spinoza’s little book Ethics; Demonstrated in Geometric Order. Unfortunately, it is not immediately obvious to most people why this is so. Most educated people have heard of David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, or Immanuel Kant. But mention Spinoza’s name and you will draw a blank unless you are talking to students of philosophy. This is a shame.
It is a shame because modern society’s understanding of reality finds its clearest expression in Spinoza’s Ethics. It is a shame because all of the modern sciences operate on the assumption that Spinoza is right about reality. It is a shame because no other philosopher so clearly spelled out the beliefs that were necessary for a faith in reason and thus the foundations of modern society. From socialism to libertarianism, all modern ideologies are based off of Spinoza’s strengths and they all suffer from his weaknesses. Thus, by turning to Spinoza’s Ethics we may lay bare the pillars of modern society and examine them for weakness.
This is quite a claim to make for an apostate Jewish lens grinder who lived in Seventeenth century Holland. The natural question arises: if he is so great why is he not better known? We could answer that in a number of ways.
We could talk about how society did its best to quell Spinoza’s heretical beliefs. We could describe in great detail how Spinoza’s family disowned him, the Jews excommunicated him, and his name was made so infamous that even after his death David Hume felt compelled to denounce him in his first major work.
If we did not feel like spinning sob stories to explain our hero’s obscurity we could name drop to prove that he was indeed influential. We could talk about how Thomas Jefferson had Spinoza’s books in his library or how that famous Spinozan acolyte Albert Einstein read Spinoza’s Ethics over and over again throughout is his life. We could explain how most of the people who have done the most to advance modern society have either read Spinoza’s books or have been directly influenced by others who had read him.
But the truth is that it does not matter why Spinoza is unknown or how much he might have influenced the development of modern society. We do not turn to Spinoza because he did so much to help form modern society (although he undoubtedly did). Rather we turn to him because he provides the clearest expression of the core beliefs of the modern world.
So what is it about Spinoza that enables him to be the clearest expresser of modern ideas about reality and ethics? To understand the answer to that question you must understand what separates Spinoza from almost all other philosophers. To understand that, you must understand what unites all philosophers.
All philosophers assume a priori that reason is only way to truly know something. That assumption is part of the job description. You cannot be a philosopher if you are not going to apply yourself to using reason in an attempt to find truth. Even philosophers who assert that we can know nothing arrive at that conclusion because of reason and they expect others to accept it because of reason. If people don’t use reason as a guide to the truth they are not philosophers; rather they are mystics.
As a philosopher, Spinoza makes the same a priori assumption about reason being the guide to knowledge and truth as all other philosophers. But Spinoza did not try to use reason to discover the truth behind what our senses tell us as so many philosophers do. Rather, Spinoza sought to spell out how reality had to be in order for reason to be the valid guide to the truth. In other words, instead of trying to figure out what we puny humans can know by reason, Spinoza lays out what type of reality, what type of truth, what type of “god”, had to exist in order for reason to be a valid method of divining truth.
Thus, Spinoza starts out Ethics in a manner that seems ass-backwards to most philosophers. He starts out by talking about the nature of reality before he establishes how it is that we can perceive reality. Spinoza was aware that this method would seem strange to some. But Spinoza thought that people who started out their philosophy by reasoning about human sensations were bound to tie themselves in knots. Spinoza thought that if you are going to start out a priori that reason will lead to truth you might as well start out by pondering what that a priori assumption implies about reality. As Spinoza says in his note on Proposition X in chapter two of Ethic’s; >…
I think the cause for such confusion is mainly, that they do not keep to the proper order of philosophic thinking. The nature of God, which should be reflected on first, inasmuch as it is prior both in the order of knowledge and the order of nature, they have taken to be last in the order of knowledge, and have put into the first place what they call the objects of sensation; hence, while they are considering natural phenomena, they give no attention at all to the divine nature, and, when afterwards they apply their mind to the study of the divine nature, they are quite unable to bear in mind the first hypotheses, with which they have overlaid the knowledge of natural phenomena, inasmuch as such hypotheses are no help towards understanding the Divine nature. So that it is hardly to be wondered at, that these persons contradict themselves freely.
Since I am quoting Spinoza out of context, I should be clear that when Spinoza uses the word God, he does not have what most people would think of as God in mind. Spinoza’s only “god” was reason. In Spinoza’s view, it is reason that is above all orders of knowledge and all orders of nature. In other words, Spinoza is arguing that you need to think about what reason requires before you can start talking about what your senses tell you. For it only by making sure that your senses are governed by the requirements of reason that you can ever hope to possess the truth.
If you think about it, you will begin to see that if you start with an a priori assumption that reason is the sure proof of what is true and what is false than you are putting certain constraints on what reality can be like. That is not to say that Spinoza denies a reality that has infinite possibilities. But Spinoza claims that just as a line is always 180 degrees though it is infinite, in a like manner the infinite reality is always governed by reason. In other words, reason puts certain constraints on what is possible even though the possibilities are infinite. By spelling out what reason required, Spinoza was able to make some bold statements about reality that anticipated some of the more startling finds of modern sciences.
This really should not be that surprising. After all, by their very nature the sciences are reasonable exercises. If reality was not reasonable, the sciences would never be able to function. Thus, it should be no surprise that the sciences often find that reality is consistent with reason.
So what kind of reality does reason demand? It is tempting to say: “Go read Spinoza’s little book on Ethics.” But for those who are too lazy to do so we shall endeavor to explore the main requirements of reason in a simpler and less rigorous manner than Spinoza did.
For starters, it should be obvious that reason requires that everything in reality be relational, for if things are not relational then reason can tell us nothing. When we say that people are being unreasonable or illogical we are saying that their thought process or their arguments are not properly relational. As an example of what I am talking about, consider what we are assuming when we make the argument that if something is green then it cannot also be red. We can make this argument only because we perceive there to be a relationship between the colors. In the same manner, reality as a whole can not be reasonable unless everything is relational at some level to everything else. This is not to say that everything in reality is the same any more than the color red and the color blue are the same. Yet it is to say that every thing in reality must operate on the same principles.
To restate this in another way, reason requires that reality be mathematical. After all, math is nothing more than the study of relationships between defined things. Therefore, if reality is relational it must be mathematical. Since reason depends on there being a relationship between things, we can say that math is the purest form of reason. As a corollary, we can also say that anything that is truly reasonable must therefore be mathematical.
If we understand that in order for reality to be reasonable it must ultimately be mathematical we are forced to acknowledge that in order for reality to be reasonable it must be composed of one substance. Now when we phrase it that way our mind can come up with a whole host of objections to that statement. But that is only because we are use to thinking of substances in the material sense.
It would be better to say that in order for reality to be reasonable the entirety of reality must be governed by the same set of axioms or laws in its entirety. For it is obvious even to those who have only a passing understanding of mathematics that math can only describe the relationships between things that are subject to the same axioms. But even if we were to rephrase Spinoza’s statement that everything was composed of one substance by saying that everything was governed by the same axioms we would not be saying anything different than what Spinoza said. For how we do we define one substance? By laying down the axioms or laws by which that substance is defined. It stands to reason than, that if everything is ultimately governed by the same axioms then everything is ultimately one substance.
So how do all the differences that we see around us come about if everything is composed of one substance? Well, Spinoza believed that anything that was possible according to the dictates of reason must actually happen. Spinoza felt that to argue otherwise was to argue reason would not be a reliable guide to the truth. But since there are an infinite number of things that are reasonably possible, Spinoza argued that any question of “why” would necessarily be an infinite question requiring an infinite answer. However, since it is Spinoza’s a priori assumption that reality is reasonable, he argued that every step of that infinite answer would reasonable.
Since every step of that answer must be reasonable, we still need to know what could reasonably differentiate the one substance. Since Spinoza felt that reality had to be composed of one substance in order to be reasonable, the answer could not be another substance. So Spinoza thought that the answer had to be that the one substance to be differentiated through relative speeds. Thus Spinoza argued that reason required that the basic building blocks of reality be parts (or forms) of the one substance going at various speeds relative to each other. Those forms combined to give us the reality that we see today.
We should note that when Spinoza says that reality is composed of one substance he means thoughts, emotions, and time as well as all the material things that we traditionally think of as having substance. In fact, Spinoza’s biggest complaint against Descartes was that Descartes made a distinction between thoughts and material things. Spinoza sought to prove that in order for reality to be reasonable nothing could be that was not composed out of the same underlying substances. Spinoza realized, though, that this would be difficult for the average person to accept. As Spinoza says in a note on <i>Proposition VII in the first chapter of Ethic’s; Demonstrated in Geometric Order…
No doubt it will be difficult for those who think about things loosely, and have not been accustomed to know them by their primary causes, to comprehend the demonstrations of Prop. vii.: for such persons make no distinction between the modifications of substances and the substances themselves, and are ignorant of the manner in which things are produced; hence they attribute to substances the beginning which they observe in natural objects. Those who are ignorant of true causes, make complete confusion–think that trees might talk just as well as men–that men might be formed from stones as well as from seed; and imagine that any form might be changed into any other. So, also, those who confuse the two natures, divine and human, readily attribute human passions to the deity, especially so long as they do not know how passions originate in the mind. But, if people would consider the nature of substance, they would have no doubt about the truth of Prop. vii. In fact, this proposition would be a universal axiom, and accounted a truism. For, by substance, would be understood that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself–that is, something of which the conception requires not the conception of anything else; whereas modifications exist in something external to themselves, and a conception of them is formed by means of a conception of the thing in which they exist. Therefore, we may have true ideas of non-existent modifications; for, although they may have no actual existence apart from the conceiving intellect, yet their essence is so involved in something external to themselves that they may through it be conceived. Whereas the only truth substances can have, external to the intellect, must consist in their existence, because they are conceived through themselves. Therefore, for a person to say that he has a clear and distinct–that is, a true–idea of a substance, but that he is not sure whether such substance exists, would be the same as if he said that he had a true idea, but was not sure whether or not it was false (a little consideration will make this plain); or if any one affirmed that substance is created, it would be the same as saying that a false idea was true–in short, the height of absurdity. It must, then, necessarily be admitted that the existence of substance as its essence is an eternal truth. And we can hence conclude by another process of reasoning–that there is but one such substance.
As always when one quotes from Spinoza out of context one risks seriously misleading people as to what Spinoza actually believed. The above passage is particularly tricky that way. If you will pay attention you will notice that Spinoza starts off the paragraph talking as if there is more than one substance and ends up by saying that there is only one. That is simply the most obvious way in which the above passage could be misleading. Nonetheless, as misleading as the paragraph is, it is necessary to quote it in order to give you an idea of the scope of Spinoza’s argument. This is because in the quoted paragraph Spinoza touches on a number of key points that he developed more fully throughout his book.
Obviously one of the key points Spinoza was building up to in the paragraph above was the already mentioned fact that Spinoza felt that reality had to be composed of one substance in order to be rational. But in the process of building up to that idea Spinoza also wanted people to realize the importance of understanding the underlying substance of things before one can hope to understand the things themselves.
To restate Spinoza’s argument; A man is different from a tree and they are both different than a rock. But a tree and a man will both eventually turn to dirt. What Spinoza argued from that process was that you could never understand the nature of man and trees unless you understood what they came from. Only when you truly understand dirt can you ever hope to truly understand men and trees.
But Spinoza argued that you cannot do the reverse. You cannot look at the form of a man and hope to arrive at an accurate idea of what he is composed from. According to Spinoza, the only way to arrive at true knowledge was to start at the foundation and work your way up. You cannot hope to do the reverse anymore than you can build a house by starting with the roof.
But how can we know what the foundation of reality is when all we can see are the forms of reality? Well, since reality must be reasonable (it is Spinoza’s a priori assumption after all) the study of reason must give us insight into the nature of reality. This is to say, the study of mathematics must give us insight into the truth.
A mathematical insight to truth is what Spinoza was after when he wrote Ethics. We can see how he thought this would work in his argument for the one substance. If reality is to be reasonable it must be relational. If it is to be relational it all must be composed of the same substance (or ruled by the same axioms as we have said earlier). Thus, everything has to be composed of one substance even though we perceive various different forms of that substance. So by the study of reason, we can assert that we know that at the foundation of everything that is there is one and only one substance without ever having to engage our untrustworthy senses.
But there is more to it than that. In order for reality to be reasonable the one substance has to be uncreatable and undestroyable.
Why is this so? Imagine if you will that a rock was created out of nothing right in front of a bunch of scientists. What would the scientist be able to tell their colleagues about the rock? Nothing that was scientific. Nothing that was reasonable.
As we have said before, the sciences are reasonable exercises that depend on a relationship existing between all things. If a rock was created out of nothing, scientists would not be able to repeat that fact. They would not be able to relate that event to anything else. They would not be able to use the creation of that rock to help them understand how other rocks came into being, for they could never know if the other rocks had appeared out of thin air or if they had been created by other processes.
If you understand this then you will realize why there is no way that reality could be reasonable if the substance that reality was composed of could appear or disappear at various times. The forms may change, but the substance of reality must be eternal in order for reality to be reasonable. This idea has scientific echoes in the principle of conservation of energy.
But this idea has consequences far outside the realm of what is thought of as science. If you understand the reason why the one substance must be eternal in nature you will see that on the same principle you must do away with God and the human sprit. If all things need to be relational in order for the world to be rational, then you cannot have a human spirit that is composed of a fundamentally different substance than the human body. If the substance of reality has to be eternal in order for the world to relational, then you cannot have a God who can create or destroy that reality and still have a rational reality.
In fact, the very idea of a God who can create or destroy makes reason meaningless for the same reason that a rock created out of thin air would stump the sciences. If God could create or destroy the truth of what reason tells you, you would always be dependent on the good graces of God to discover the truth. To be sure, you can say that reason leads me to truth because God has made it so that it will serve that function. But under that formulation, it is God that makes reason meaningful, not reason that makes God meaningful. Even a deist, who pulls his god out of the cupboard to jumpstart his clockwork world and then shoves him back into the cupboard again, is claiming that reason is meaningless without a god who is above reason (at least long enough to get things started.
Spinoza thought that it was insane to think of subordinating reason to anything. If the idea of “god” conflicted with the idea of a reasonable reality, than the idea of god was false. Spinoza felt that if you wanted to have a god that was eternal and all encompassing you could call the one substance that reality is composed of by the name of god.
But if you wish to call the one substance god, you must be careful as to what you say about it. You must not imagine that the one substance that you are calling god has any choice in what it does or that it cares for anything. Furthermore, you must realize that since everything is composed of this one substance everything is a part of what you are calling god. Nor can it be said that this god has created reality for reality must always exist in order to be completely rational. In fact, if you want to call the one substance god, then you must acknowledge that all of reality is god.
Spinoza was very careful to make the above points over and over again. For he felt that if you failed to keep these critical points in mind you would wind up with a reality that is unreasonable. In other words, it is important to remember that when Spinoza uses the word “god” he is not talking about anything other than reality itself, and what he is saying about “god” is nothing that an atheist would find objectionable. Spinoza makes this quite clear in the Appendix to chapter one in Ethics…
As they look upon things as means, they cannot believe them to be self-created; but, judging from the means which they are accustomed to prepare for themselves, they are bound to believe in some ruler or rulers of the universe endowed with human freedom, who have arranged and adapted everything for human use. They are bound to estimate the nature of such rulers (having no information on the subject) in accordance with their own nature, and therefore they assert that the gods ordained everything for the use of man, in order to bind man to themselves and obtain from him the highest honors. Hence also it follows, that everyone thought out for himself, according to his abilities, a different way of worshipping God, so that God might love him more than his fellows, and direct the whole course of nature for the satisfaction of his blind cupidity and insatiable avarice. Thus the prejudice developed into superstition, and took deep root in the human mind; and for this reason everyone strove most zealously to understand and explain the final causes of things; but in their endeavor to show that nature does nothing in vain, i.e., nothing which is useless to man, they only seem to have demonstrated that nature, the gods, and men are all mad together. Consider, I pray you, the result: among the many helps of nature they were bound to find some hindrances, such as storms, earthquakes, diseases, etc.: so they declared that such things happen, because the gods are angry at some wrong done them by men, or at some fault committed in their worship. Experience day by day protested and showed by infinite examples, that good and evil fortunes fall to the lot of pious and impious alike; still they would not abandon their inveterate prejudice, for it was more easy for them to class such contradictions among other unknown things of whose use they were ignorant, and thus to retain their actual and innate condition of ignorance, than to destroy the whole fabric of their reasoning and start afresh. They therefore laid down as an axiom, that God’s judgments far transcend human understanding. Such a doctrine might well have sufficed to conceal the truth from the human race for all eternity, if mathematics had not furnished another standard of verity in considering solely the essence and properties of figures without regard to their final causes. There are other reasons (which I need not mention here) besides mathematics, which might have caused men’s minds to be directed to these general prejudices, and have led them to the knowledge of the truth.
The above paragraph is not remarkable except for the fact that it was written in the Seventeenth century. It was for writing things such as the above that made the name Spinoza synonymous with the word atheist. But such tales are not really to the point of this essay.
What is to the point of this essay is that the above paragraph could have been written by almost any modern day philosopher and represents the opinion of the vast majority of highly educated people in the modern era. What we see here is Spinoza anticipating the modern explanation of how religion came about and expressing the modern view that reality is self created.
But this all raise’s the question; why then did Spinoza use the word “god” at all if his conception of god was nothing different than what an atheist might say about reality?
In the first place, everyone who is making an argument must establish some kind of common ground with the people he is trying to convince. Since Spinoza was surrounded by Jewish and Christian theologians and their followers he had to deal with the religious ideas that were prevalent amongst them. Therefore he took great care to show that the common principles that both the Jews and John Calvin asserted about nature of God (such as his eternal nature and how nothing could be conceived of apart from God) could only be true of the one substance that Spinoza felt all of reality was composed of. But at the same time Spinoza sought to show that those same principles could not be true (or at least reasonable which to Spinoza was the same thing) if God was distinct from a created reality. Nor could they be true if God punished people or any of the other things that the Jews and the Calvinists asserted about God. In other words, Spinoza was simply using the common debater’s trick of taking things that one agrees with from one’s opponents and using those things to demolish what you don’t agree with.
But it was not solely for the purpose of messing with his intellectual opponents that Spinoza used the word “god”. Just as some people can talk about math equations being beautiful and can get all excited about the beauty that they reveal, so, too, did Spinoza think that a reasonable person would see a beauty in reality and come to love it. In fact, Spinoza devoted quite a bit of the latter part of his work to showing why this “love” was not only reasonable but required by reason. So as a kind of acknowledgment of this beauty Spinoza calls the one substance “god.”
But the most important reason that Spinoza uses religious imagery is the previously mentioned fact that Spinoza’s god was reason. In order to highlight reason’s supreme authority he often talks of its dictates in religious terms. Take this statement from a note on Proposition XV for example..
This must be admitted by all who know clear reason to be infallible
In statements like this Spinoza is laying down a challenge. What will you accept as the ultimate authority on truth? What will you accept as god? A few old books full of apparent contradictions and the attendant self-perpetuating bureaucracies that specialize in arcane ritual? Or will you accept the dictates of reason as the only true path to truth? For Spinoza, there was no contest.
In spite of Spinoza’s general hostility to religion, many people still want to paint Spinoza as being a religious man. Only, instead of asserting that he was a religious follower of one of the Abrahamic faiths, they would have you believe that Spinoza’s beliefs were basically the same as Buddhism or one of the other eastern faiths.
This is as true and as false as saying that the beliefs of modern society are basically the same as Buddhism or other eastern religions. There are some superficial similarities between Spinoza’s thought and the thought of many eastern religions. But there are also some distinct differences.
The superficial similarity that is most commonly seized upon relates to Spinoza’s contention that reality is composed of only one substance. Since many of the eastern religions also believe that reality is all one, you can see how some people make the connection. In fact, many of the eastern religious practices are devoted to fully realizing this oneness with the whole of reality on a personal level. Ergo, some people argue, the beliefs of Spinoza and of the Buddhist are basically the same.
But this superficial similarity obscures a distinct difference between Spinoza and most eastern religions on the nature of reality. For many eastern religions, reality is malleable and reason gets in the way of coming to the truth. Often an analogy is drawn in the eastern religions between reality and our dreams. Many of the Eastern religions argue that just as we can change the nature our dreams by the power of our thoughts alone, so, too, can we change the nature of reality if we become one with it. Hence, the supposed levitation of meditating monks and other examples of mind over matter that are part of the staple beliefs of many eastern religions.
But to Spinoza the idea that the mind could overcome matter was absurd for if that idea were true it would overthrow the primacy of reason. You might as well have a god who can create and destroy as imagine a world where thoughts can change the relationship between things. In order for reality to be reasonable it cannot be malleable, for reason requires that everything have a fixed relation to all other things. Hence, Spinoza believed that reality dictated what is possible for us to think, as opposed to the common eastern belief that what we think dictates reality. As Spinoza says in Proposition XLVIII in chapter two of his book Ethics:
In the mind there is no absolute or free will; but the mind is determined to wish this or that by a cause, which has also been determined by another cause, and this last by another cause, and so on to infinity.
Thus our ideas are determined and we have no real freedom in what we think. More importantly, our ideas of reality are determined by the one-substance/god/reason just as much as reality is. As Spinoza says in Proposition VII of Chapter Two…
Before going any further, I wish to recall to mind what has been pointed out above-namely, that whatsoever can be perceived by the infinite intellect as constituting the essence of substance, belongs altogether only to one substance: consequently, substance thinking and substance extended are one and the same substance, comprehended now through one attribute, now through the other. So, also, a mode of extension and the idea of that mode are one and the same thing, though expressed in two ways. This truth seems to have been dimly recognized by those Jews who maintained that God, God’s intellect, and the things understood by God are identical. For instance, a circle existing in nature, and the idea of a circle existing, which is also in God, are one and the same thing displayed through different attributes. Thus, whether we conceive nature under the attribute of extension, or under the attribute of thought, or under any other attribute, we shall find the same order, or one and the same chain of causes-that is, the same things following in either case.
As we have already said, reason requires a fixed relationship between all things. Therefore, at some fundamental level thoughts must have a fixed relationship to things. This is true even of false (Spinoza calls them inadequate) ideas. For example, the idea of Zeus is an idea composed of ideas that are relational to things that really are (such as the nature of men for example). But that is not to say that the idea of Zeus is adequate to explain lighting. Spinoza devoted a lot of time to showing why he thought that inadequate ideas arose and how we could tell the difference between inadequate ideas and adequate ideas.
But it is not necessary for the purpose of this essay to go deeply into the subject of adequate and inadequate ideas as Spinoza defines them. It is sufficient to note Spinoza differed from the eastern religions in that he believed that reality was rigid and reason is the only guide to the truth where as most eastern religions believe that reality is malleable and that reason can get in the way of truth.
Why have we have spent so much time dwelling on Spinoza’s claim that the world’s religions are incompatible with reason and explaining why he uses religious language? Why did Spinoza himself stress so heavily that the religious explanations of reality were not compatible with reason?
The reason is simple. Your version of reality determines your ethic. If the reality you believe in is unreasonable, your ethic is going to be unreasonable as well. By demonstrating that the religious conception of reality was unreasonable, Spinoza was demonstrating that it was impossible for the religious to have a reasonable ethic. This was important to Spinoza because it is an ethic that forms a society. Without a reasonable ethic it is impossible for the religious to have a reasonable society.
It was a reasonable society that Spinoza desired above all else. He lived in an age where religion was a common excuse for wars and violence of all kinds. He lived in an age where expressing an unorthodox opinion would get you burned at the stake. He lived in an age when it was still common to hunt down and burn “witches.” Therefore, he desired to reform society’s conception of reality and its attendant ethic in order to bring about a society that was founded on a reasonable ethic.
So what kind of ethic does reason require? For that matter, what kind of ethic can reason produce? In certain circles it has long been argued that people would not live ethically if they should try to live their lives by reason alone. Such people argue that if you try to live your life by reason alone you will become selfish and immoral. According to this line of thought, people need some kind of impartial spiritual referee who will make sure that everyone plays fair and punishes people who step out of line. Those who argue this way would say that without such a referee, reasonable people will have no incentive to be moral.
Living in an age and nation where religion was still the pillar of society, Spinoza was well aware of such arguments. But he argued that on the contrary, only the reasonable could be truly ethical. As he said in his note on proposition XVIII in chapter 4…..
Note.–In these few remarks I have explained the causes of human infirmity and inconstancy, and shown why men do not abide by the precepts of reason. It now remains for me to show what course is marked out for us by reason, which of the emotions are in harmony with the rules of human reason, and which of them are contrary thereto. But, before I begin to prove my propositions in detailed geometrical fashion, it is advisable to sketch them briefly in advance, so that everyone may more readily grasp my meaning.
As reason makes no demands contrary to nature, it demands, that every man should love himself, should seek that which is useful to him–I mean, that which is really useful to him, should desire everything which really brings man to greater perfection, and should, each for himself, endeavour as far as he can to preserve his own being. This is as necessarily true, as that a whole is greater than its part. (Cf. III. iv.)
Again, as virtue is nothing else but action in accordance with the laws of one’s own nature (IV. Def. viii.), and as no one endeavours to preserve his own being, except in accordance with the laws of his own nature, it follows, first, that the foundation of virtue is the endeavour to preserve one’s own being, and that happiness consists in man’s power of preserving his own being; secondly, that virtue is to be desired for its own sake, and that there is nothing more excellent or more useful to us, for the sake of which we should desire it; thirdly and lastly, that suicides are weak-minded, and are overcome by external causes repugnant to their nature. Further, it follows from Postulate iv. Part II., that we can never arrive at doing without all external things for the preservation of our being or living, so as to have no relations with things which are outside ourselves. Again, if we consider our mind, we see that our intellect would be more imperfect, if mind were alone, and could understand nothing besides itself. There are, then, many things outside ourselves, which are useful to us, and are, therefore, to be desired. Of such none can be discerned more excellent, than those which are in entire agreement with our nature. For if, for example, two individuals of entirely the same nature are united, they form a combination twice as powerful as either of them singly.
Therefore, to man there is nothing more useful than man–nothing, I repeat, more excellent for preserving their being can be wished for by men, than that all should so in all points agree, that the minds and bodies of all should form, as it were, one single mind and one single body, and that all should, with one consent, as far as they are able, endeavour to preserve their being, and all with one consent seek what is useful to them all. Hence, men who are governed by reason–that is, who seek what is useful to them in accordance with reason,–desire for themselves nothing, which they do not also desire for the rest of mankind, and, consequently, are just, faithful, and honourable in their conduct.
Such are the dictates of reason, which I purposed thus briefly to indicate, before beginning to prove them in greater detail. I have taken this course, in order, if possible, to gain the attention of those who believe, that the principle that every man is bound to seek what is useful for himself is the foundation of impiety, rather than of piety and virtue. Therefore, after briefly showing that the contrary is the case, I go on to prove it by the same method, as that whereby I have hitherto proceeded.
Now all the usual caveats apply as to how it is misleading to quote Spinoza out of context. But in this case I think the biggest risk is that readers of this essay will dismiss what Spinoza has to say out of hand. This danger springs from not reading Ethics in its entirety. If you have spent the time trying to parse Spinoza’s dense and complicated proofs; if you have stopped to ponder what the implications would be if Spinoza was wrong; if you have actually put in the work that understanding Spinoza requires, then you will not lightly dismiss anything he says.
Yet because the conclusions that Spinoza reaches seem so modern, it is easy to assume that it is not worth the time it takes to understand him. Those of us who live in modern society are bombarded by messages that are Spinozan in nature every day. As a result, such messages are more likely to bring out the cynic in us rather than cause us to stop and think. At most, we might find it cool that one who lived so long ago was saying the same thing as modern thinkers.
But we have not dwelt so long on Spinoza because it is cool to hear modern opinions from a Seventeenth centaury man. Rather, we read Spinoza because he could not take anything for granted the way a modern man does. Living in a time when modern society as we now know it was nonexistent, Spinoza had to spell out everything that was necessary for a modern conception of reality and its accompanying ethic. He could not get away with all the unspoken assumptions that underlie so many modern arguments about ethics. When we read Spinoza, we are reading a defense of the modern ethic with all the cards on the table. Thus, what is interesting about Spinoza is not so much the expression of modern ethics quoted above, but the way in which he arrives at that expression of ethics.
As we have said, your conception of reality determines your ethic. If you understand Spinoza’s conception of reality, you will already have good idea of how he arrived at his ethic based on what was quoted above. Nonetheless, there are some key points in Spinoza’s formulation of his ethic that are worth pointing out in greater detail.
One point that is key to Spinoza’s articulation of his ethic is his contention that in order for reality to be reasonable there must be a fixed relation between ideas and the material at some level. We have already touched on this idea to explain how Spinoza and Buddhist thought conflict. But this same idea also serves as the core of Spinoza’s ethical thinking.
For starters, an idea that something exists is necessary to thought. I cannot consider whether I exist or not without first having the idea that there is an I. But since reason requires that everything (even thoughts) be relational, it stands to reason that if the idea of me exists I must also exist bodily. This is because it is not possible under the dictates of reason for an idea to exist independently of anything else. If you can follow this train of reasoning, you can see that it is impossible for anyone to deny their own existence.
At first this seems like a very arguable point. There is nothing to stop me from formulating any number of theories that could explain away my seeming existence. But Spinoza would reply that I could not believe that any of those theories were true. I could say that I did, but as soon as someone kicked me in the kneecap I would demonstrate that I had a deep and profound belief in my own existence.
Spinoza would explain it this way: all of our knowledge of the one substance (and thus reality) springs from other forms of the one substance impacting our bodies. The only reason we can consider the idea that we might not exist is because there are forms of the one substance that cease to exist as far as they impact our body. Rainbows would be a good example of this phenomenon. They exist fleetingly as far as they impact our bodies through our eyes. In other words, the only reason we can even play the devil’s advocate and argue that we do not really exist is that the idea of things not existing is relational to things that occur in the one substance. Thus we can entertain that idea in relation to ourselves.
But even though we can entertain an intellectual position that might imply that we do not really exist, we can never cease to be ruled by the idea that we do exist. In fact, because all of our knowledge of the one substance springs from other forms of the one substance impacting our bodies, we could not even consider the possibility that we did not exist if it were not for the fact that the idea that we did exist was ruling us. This is because it is necessary to have an idea of ourselves in order to have any idea of things impacting our body. To put it crudely, Spinoza argued that as long as we exist, the idea that we exist will always rule us because reason requires it. Conversely, reason requires that as long as the idea that I exist rules myself then I must in fact exist.
That is a very crude way of summarizing Spinoza’s argument and those who are familiar with Ethics will be crying out at the injustice of stating it that way. Indeed, I want to stress the importance of reading Spinoza himself to gain a true understanding of how complex the argument for the necessity of believing that you exist is. But as crude as my formulation of it is, it does bring us to another important point that Spinoza made.
In the process of showing how we come to knowledge of the outside world, Spinoza showed that while your conception of yourself as existing is necessary to thought, your conception of other people as existing is not. In other words, I can think without having any idea of the billions of other people that are out there. Yet I cannot form one single thought if I have no conception of myself.
How then do I come to an idea of other people? By the effect they have on my body. The effect that other people have on my body can come through my eyes, ears, or whatever. But the key point here is that by impacting my body, they must impact my idea of myself. This is because by the dictates of reason my idea of myself must be related to my material body. Therefore anything that impacts my body must impact my idea of myself.
In fact, Spinoza would argue that I don’t really have an idea of other people per se. I just have an idea of how things impact my body. According to Spinoza, I combined those ideas of how things are impacting my body with my conception of myself to form my image of other people. Spinoza goes quite a ways with this argument and it is key to his formulation of the difference between adequate (or true) and inadequate (or false) ideas. But as I have said, we do not need to go into that for the purposes of this essay. It is sufficient to note that according to Spinoza, all of our ideas are in some way founded on modifications of our idea of self.
But there is more to our idea of ourselves than just the idea that we exist and the fact that the idea can be modified. For our idea of ourselves must of necessity be complex (i.e composed of many different forms of the one substance) just as our body is complex. Or we could say that our body must of necessity be complex because our idea of ourselves is complex. However we formulate it, our idea of ourselves is a complex idea with many parts.
But simply saying that reason requires that we must acknowledge our own existences as complex beings does not get us anywhere in terms of our ethics. Ethics is not about debating whether we exist or not but about how we deal with our desires, frustrations, and other such things. But that all changes when we combined our understanding that we exist as complex bodies in reasonable reality with what Spinoza says in Proposition VII (found in chapter three)….
The endeavour, wherewith everything endeavours to persist in its own being, is nothing else but the actual essence of the thing in question.
Now the above might seem hard to understand but if you think about it is obvious. If the substance of all things is the same one substance; what is the essence of the various modifications? It is whatever keeps them in existence as modifications of the one substance. For example, a rock will remain a rock unless outside forces act upon it to change it into something else. Indeed, it will take a considerable amount of outside force to change a rock into something other than a rock. Thus in order to understand what makes a rock a rock, we need to understand what it is that enables a rock to keep its form.
Spinoza argued that reason required that the various forms would persist in being unless acted on by outside forces. After all, reality cannot be reasonable if we have un-relational (or spontaneous) actions for the same reasons that we can not have a god who can create or destroy. In saying this, Spinoza was articulating the reasonable necessity of Newton’s first law of motion.
So how does this all apply to ethics? Well, if you have been keeping in mind the fact that reason requires that all things be relational; and you have also kept in mind what that implies about ideas and material things; then you should be able understand how Spinoza can say that the essence of my idea of myself is the desire to keep on existing. In other words; for the same reason that a reasonable reality requires me to believe that I exist, it also requires me to desire to go on existing.
But we should not understand this desire to go on existing as being anything so crude as the simple statement “I don’t want to die.” Remember that Spinoza said that our idea of ourselves is necessarily complex because our bodies are complex (i.e composed of many different forms of the one substance). By the same token, our desire to go on existing is complex. Through a chain of reasoning that we do not need to go into here, Spinoza arrives at the conclusion that all of our desires spring from this basic desire to exist. Paradoxically, this includes the desires that would lead us to lay down our lives for others as well as the fears that would cause us to commit suicide.
In this Spinoza anticipated modern thought with its emphasis on evolutionary reason for all of man’s desires. For what is more key to the idea of evolution than the idea that all living things are driven to strive to keep on existing through the production of offspring or otherwise? This is not to say that Spinoza anticipated Darwin’s idea of evolution. In fact, Spinoza’s static view of reality is one of his few major differences with modern thought. Nonetheless, Spinoza arrived at an understanding of what drives man that agrees with modern thought simply by the process of trying to prove in geometric fashion what reason required man to be like. Thus, if Spinoza were alive today he would probably note that the demands of evolution and the demands of reason are one and the same.
Because the demands of reason are so in line with the demands of evolutionary theory, anyone who has a good understanding of modern evolutionary explanations of ethics will anticipate much of what Spinoza had so say about an ethic based on reason. Nonetheless, because many people think of evolutionary ethics as being an oxymoron, it is still necessary to sketch out the outlines of what Spinoza thought was a reasonable ethic.
In the first place, there is no such thing as absolute evil and absolute good according to the dictates of reason. Those terms only have meaning in so far as things are displeasing to us or pleasing to us. According to Spinoza, our sense of what is pleasing and what is displeasing is directly related to our desire to go on existing. Since we cannot help desiring to go on existing, we cannot help making moral judgments.
So why do our moral judgments differ so radically if we all desire to go on existing? We have already said our idea of ourselves is a complex one. Therefore, our desire to go on existing is a complex one as well. It drives us in many different directions at once.
The stomach for example, is a quite different form of the one substance than the brain. Because their forms are different, reason requires that their essences are different, for if different forms could have the same essence than what would cause the differences in form? Yet both the stomach and the brain depend on each other to go on existing. Because they both depend on each other to go on existing, we can say that even though they are both separate forms, they are at the same time part of a more complex form with its own essence. From this example, we can say that any forms that are mutually interdependent are part of a larger and more complex form, because their essences are bound up together (the essence of a thing being that which causes it to go on existing).
But just because their essences are bound up together does not mean that all the forms so connected are the same or that their essences always pull in the same direction. For example, imagine that a person’s arm is trapped under a rock. Imagine that there is no hope of rescue. Imagine that there is no hope for this person to get unstuck except to amputate his own arm. In some situations like this, some people are able to amputate their own arm. But other people are unable to make the sacrifice of their arm even though they have the means to do the job and refusal means death.
In such situations you can clearly see how a man’s desire to exist could be pulling him in different directions. A man’s strong desire to exist is what makes him desire to become unstuck. At the same time, man’s reluctance to cut off his own arm also stems from his desire to go on existing. Hence the man who cuts his arm off and lives and the one who cannot bring himself to cut his arm off and dies are both being governed by the desire to go on existing.
If you can accept that, you can understand how it is that Spinoza thought that the desire to go on existing leads people to commit suicide. For the desire to avoid pain is part of our desire to go on existing, but it is also the impetus for committing suicide.
We can see how our desire to go on existing can lead to quite complex problems. Yet these problems only become more complex when we factor in the fact that we are dependent creatures rather than independent creatures. We are not just a complex collections of forms of the one substance that are dependent on each other. We are also dependent on other outside forms to go on existing. We need food, water, shelter, and air at the bare minimum. Thus, it is possible for our desire to go on living to cause us to “love” forms that are not part of the interdependent forms that make up our being.
For example, a man in a desert with only one spring of water will cherish that spring of water as he cherishes himself, even though the spring of water is completely indifferent to his fate. In fact, the man will fight to the death to keep from losing that spring of water, for it would be his death to lose that spring of water.
From the above example, we can see how it as at least possible for the desire to go on existing to cause one to give up one’s life for something that is not part of the interdependent forms that make up one’s self. But we are not all dependent on the same things to the same degree. A modern man who has been raised all his life in a city might very well fight to the death to keep from having to live in an environment that a bushman would feel at home in. In part, this is for the obvious reason that a city man will not have the skills to get food, water, and whatnot in the bush environment. But it is much more than that if you accept Spinoza’s argument.
We are affected in some way by everything that we hear, taste, feel, or see. All of these things affect our body and thus affect our idea of ourselves in some way. What this means is that if the essence of you is the desire to go on existing, it can take more than just food and water and whatnot to fulfill that desire. Take the example of the city man; he will deeply miss the cultural life of the city if he is forced to live in the bush, even if he somehow manages to get enough food and water to keep going. It is possible, therefore, that he could love his culture enough to risk his life for it.
What keeps mankind from bursting apart because of all of this conflicting complexity? Why, reason, of course. Man’s ability to reason is a necessary part of all of mankind’s existence. Only through reason can a man determine how to satisfy his complex desire to go on existing. Even the mentally handicapped must use reason to some degree. The people who are so far gone as to not be able to reason must be kept alive by other reasonable creatures or they will die.
But even after saying that reason is the only thing that keeps man’s complex desires from destroying himself, we have to admit that in many cases those complex desires have destroyed people. Many people overeat even though they know that they are overeating and they don’t want to overeat. Many people have fought over water even when there was enough to go around. Many people have resisted change in their culture even when it was necessary for the culture to change in order for people not to die. In short, many people have done things because of their desire to go on existing that destroyed them or shortened their life by much more than was necessary.
Spinoza felt that all of the above problems stemmed from peoples’ failure to properly value reason. People often don’t bother to reason out things even when they have the ability. They prefer to live by the dictates of their most pressing desire, no matter how this relates to their needs as a whole. Thus, they often harm themselves and others unnecessarily. If you understand that Spinoza felt that anything that hampered man in his basic quest to go on existing had to be considered bad, you will understand why he considered an unreasonable man immoral. Likewise, Spinoza felt that only a person ruled by reason could truly be consider “moral”.
In saying this, Spinoza meant that a reasonable man was the one who could best meet the demands of essence. But drawing on all the points that we have made so far, Spinoza also felt that a reasonable man would strive to better others just as hard as he strove to better himself. This is why Spinoza spelled out is such detail how it was that he thought that things related. He wanted people to understand that because a reasonable man must acknowledge all things as being interrelated he must love all things as much as he loves himself in order to be consistent with reason.
That might seem like it is stretching things, but if you accept the argument so far, you will acknowledge that man is a collection of interdependent forms that depends on relationships with other forms (such as the air we breathe) in order to maintain itself. You will remember that you must also accept that man must desire to go on existing according to the dictates of reason. Now let us go all the way back to the beginning where we said that in order to be reasonable, everything must be relational.
If you can understand that, you should be able to understand that the fact that man is continuously dependent on forms that are independent of himself (such air, food and water) means that mankind is ultimately dependent on all of the one substance. Thus, the more reasonable a man is, the more he will come to see how his idea of himself must relate to all things. If you understand how it is that a man can be said to love a spring of water in the desert you will understand how it is that a perfectly reasonable man must be perfectly selfish and perfectly selfless.
As an example: A man who is not ruled by reason either does not understand or does not consider the harm that comes to him from shooting a man to take his sneakers. A rational man on the other hand, desires everyone to be as well fed and secure as he is, for he understands that in that way he increases his own safety and security. Both the irrational man who desires a pair of shoes and shoots a man for them, and the rational man who desires that everyone be as well fed and secure as he is, are motivated by the desire to go on existing. But we would say that one is immoral because his actions are not properly relational to what his essence requires. On the other hand we call the other man moral, because he understands the relationship between his own essence and the well being of others.
This is a crude example. But hopefully I don’t need to belabor the point. All modern ideologies, from libertarianism to socialism, are based off the premise that a reasonable man will be a moral man. Indeed, it is hard for me to avoided thinking of Ayn Rand’s The virtue of selfishness when Spinoza says….
PROP. XX. The more every man endeavours, and is able to seek what is useful to him–in other words, to preserve his own being–the more is he endowed with virtue; on the contrary, in proportion as a man neglects to seek what is useful to him, that is, to preserve his own being, he is wanting in power.
Indeed, there are many striking parallels between the ethical argument laid out by Rand and the one laid out by Spinoza, for they are both based of off the idea that virtue springs from the reasonable pursuit of man’s own desires. But it is not only the libertarian whose ethic is based off a Spinozan conception of reality. The socialist also argues that a reasonable man will be moral because of self interest. Only a socialist bases his ethic off of Spinoza’s idea that…
Therefore, to man there is nothing more useful than man–nothing, I repeat, more excellent for preserving their being can be wished for by men, than that all should so in all points agree, that the minds and bodies of all should form, as it were, one single mind and one single body, and that all should, with one consent, as far as they are able, endeavour to preserve their being, and all with one consent seek what is useful to them all.
Thus a socialist argues that reason will cause a man to give up his individual identity because it is in his reasonable selfish interests to do so. A socialist would argue that any man who refuses to do so is ultimately getting in the way of what is best for him. A libertarian on the other hand, will argue that reason will lead us to cherish and defend everyone’s individual identity, because whatever crushes one person’s individual identity ultimately threatens us all.
For what it is worth; Spinoza would have taken a position in between those two extremes. In this, as in so many other things he is a good representative of much of modern thought. But for the purposes of this essay it does not matter where Spinoza falls on the question of the collective vs the individual. What is important to note, though, is that all modern ideologies base their attempts to show how their beliefs are reasonable on the Spinozan idea that there is only one substance and that all things are therefore related. To rephrase that, all modern ideologies are materialistic.
At this point most people will be saying “no duh, what’s your point?” After all, most people would readily acknowledge that modern ideologies are materialistic. So why go through all the work of showing modern ideologies are materialistic? But to ask that question is to miss the point.
The real point is that if you wish reason to be the guide to ethics you can allow for nothing beyond the material. If you allow only reason as a valid guide to ethics you must say that morality is understanding how all things are relational. Moreover, if you assert that morality requires understanding that all things are relational then you must say that religion is immoral. For as we have pointed out previously, religion is the assertion of non-relational things (or irrational things, to use the more common term).
This is particularly true of the Abrahamic faiths. In such faiths, a believer’s reward is non-relational to everyone else’s. Thus, even if no one else is saved, you will still get your golden crown. Even if no one else is righteous you will still get your 72 virgins. By holding such a view, religious people divorce what is good for them from any kind of fixed relationship to other people and the world around them.
Such ideas have consequences. It is quite easy to see those consequences in the Muslim suicide bombers. But such consequences appear even in the better-regarded Christian martyrs.
It tends not be as big an issue in this day and age, but the reasonable Romans used to accuse the early Christians of hating their children. For by their refusal to make any kind of concession to the society around them, early Christians brought about adverse affects on their own children. To many Romans this was immoral, for the concessions that society was demanding were not that great, and the harm that came to your children from refusing was extreme.
After all, no kid wants their parents fed to the lions. It hinders proper childhood development. Thus, even reasonable Romans who might believe that the state’s violence towards Christians was wrong would still think that a Christian’s refusal to compromise was immoral. For how can you justify bringing harm on your children just because you do not wish to make a little sacrifice to the emperor? In other words, even if you are not the direct cause of harm, the relationship between the harm that your decision brings about and the needs of your essences are not proportional. Thus, a reasonable man would say that the early Christian martyrs were immoral.
This is not to say that a reasonable man would say that all atheists are more moral than members of the Abrahamic faiths. There is far more to being reasonable than simply not believing in God. Nonetheless, a man who believes that to be reasonable is to be moral must regard any belief that is not reasonable as immoral. Thus, all the irrational parts of religion, which is to say all of the spiritual parts, must be considered a hindrance to morality, at the very least.
But my intention in writing all this has not been to write a screed against religion. There are enough such screeds out there. Instead, I have been laying out the requirements of reason with a more evil (in the Spinozan sense of word) end view. And since I am not a very rational person, my conscience does not bother me in the least. Though I will confess I wish that I had the talent to have handled Spinoza’s ideas better.
In what I have written so far, I have mangled Spinoza’s carefully constructed arguments by restating them in my own words and with my own examples. Even worse, I put forward my own interpretation of Spinoza without acknowledging that most other readers of Spinoza would differ with me on some points. I have asserted many points that I should have proven in greater detail. And I have ignored many important questions that could have been raised.
But though I would have preferred to do a better job, my intention was not to lay out an airtight case for all that a reasonable reality requires. If you want to read somebody trying to do that, you should read Ethics itself and skip the intermediaries. My intention is more modest. I simply wanted to remind people of the implications of trying to be completely reasonable.
So often we get caught up in debating whether the evidence supports point of view A or point of view B that we forget the implications of the a priori assumption that we are making when we attempt to engage in a reasonable debate. It is often forgotten that reason requires you to think about things in a certain way before you even consider any evidence. It was for the purpose of showing the basis of modern thought apart from all references to evidence that I have drug up Spinoza from the obscurity that he often languishes in.
But though it is necessary for the purposes of this essay to consider the requirements of reason apart from all evidence, we must acknowledge that man is a creature of revelation. If there were no evidence that supported Spinoza’s philosophy nobody would pay any attention to him regardless of how reasonable all his arguments were. But as I have said, science has done much to confirm Spinoza’s conception of reality.
In fact, no other philosopher has so anticipated the finds of science as much as Spinoza has. We could list countless different parallels between Spinoza’s conception of things and current science to demonstrate this. We have already mentioned a few of them, such as the principle of conservation of energy and Newton’s first law of motion. But the greatest vindication of Spinoza’s conception of reality came through the work of Albert Einstein.
It is impossible to read Spinoza’s conception of reality without being constantly reminded of Einstein’s work. Who after all, can read Spinoza’s argument the world is composed of one substance without thinking of Einstein’s famous equation e=mcÂ²? But as big as a vindication for Spinoza as that famous equation was, there are other ways in which Spinoza’s view of the reality finds support in Einstein’s theories. Since Spinoza felt that all things were composed of the same one substance, the only way he could allow for various forms to come about was through relative motion and geometric shape. In other words, the same methods that Einstein used to explain his theories. Take for example Spinoza’s thoughts on time….
Further, no one doubts that we imagine time, from the fact that we imagine bodies to be moved some more slowly than others, some more quickly, some at equal speed.
The similarities between Einstein and Spinoza are not accidental. Long before Einstein published any of the work that made him famous, he was reading Spinoza’s Ethics and he would continue to read it over and over again throughout his life. This is a commonly known fact, and is often used as a starting point by those who wish to explain Einstein’s ethics. But I think that it is obvious that Spinoza influenced more than just Einstein’s ethics. It seems clear that from the very start of his scientific career Einstein was driven by a Spinozan faith.
This explains Einstein’s lifelong horror of any scientific facts that did not seem to be relational and his lifelong endeavors to unify scientific knowledge into a coherent whole. All of the great success that made Einstein so famous resulted from him taking on scientific results that did not seem relational and coming up with a theory that showed that they were in fact relational.
I don’t mean to take any credit away from Einstein or the other scientists who laid the groundwork for Einstein’s success by saying this. Many people have read Spinoza and none of them ever came close to matching Einstein’s achievements. But I can’t help but believe that Spinoza helped spark Einstein’s creativity. After all, Einstein himself said that the secret to being creative was to hide your sources.
Regardless of whether this is true or not, who can deny that Einstein did the most to demonstrate the power of Spinoza’s conception of reality? After all, what proponent of a revealed religion has made as successful a prediction as Einstein’s prediction of how the light of a distant star would behave? What proponent of the revealed religions has ever come up with something as powerful as the atomic bomb? And how did Einstein make his prediction, and how did he lay the theoretical ground work the atomic bomb? Through the power of reason alone. It could be said without too much hyperbole that through the work of Einstein reason has been revealed to be awesome and powerful on a religious scale.
But this essay is not titled “Spinoza, Einstein, and the Failure of Reason” for nothing. For as true as it is that Einstein’s work is one of the best demonstrations of the power of reason, it is also true that Einstein’s life and times are also one of the best ways to demonstrate the failure of reason.
You see, both Spinoza and Einstein believed in something that was unreasonable. Paradoxically, the irrational thing that they believed in is that reality and reason are equal. Or to put it another way, they failed to realize that the dictates of reason require that truth be greater than reason. To say the same thing in yet another way, reason requires that reality will always seem irrational. In fact, even if our knowledge were to become infinite, reality would still seem irrational. Since we define things by what we know of them, I think we can safely say that reality (or truth) is irrational.
Before we prove this point, let us consider how it is that we might be able to make reasonable statements if reality was irrational. Let us imagine for a moment that reality was in fact irrational. Let us say for example, that rocks really were appearing out of thin air. Now remember that we said that science could tell us nothing if a rock appeared out of thin air?
Strictly speaking this is not quite true. Science could say “a rock appeared out of thin air.” That might not seem like much, but it is a start. If the rocks kept appearing out thin air in identifiable patterns, scientists might be able use those patterns to predict where the rocks would appear. Would that make the appearances of rock out of thin air rational?
Absolutely not. The appearance of rocks out of thin air would never be rational unless we could relate the appearance of those rocks to something. No matter how good scientists got at predicting the times that rocks would appear, the appearance of those rocks would still be irrational.
An educated reader will anticipate that I am going to start talking about Quantum Mechanics and will be groaning at the cheesiness of such an obvious ploy. Let me hasten to assure such a reader that I am well aware that it is cheesy to use Quantum Mechanics to cast aspersions on a reasonable reality. After all, there have been many apparent contradictions throughout the history of science and they have all been resolved by reason. For this reason, I want to take care to point out that the problems with reason do not stem from evidence, but rather from the very nature of reason itself. Nevertheless, I can hardly talk about how science has done much to confirm Spinoza’s view of reality without mentioning Quantum Mechanics, now can I? So bear with me for a bit…
If anyone knows anything about Quantum Mechanics, they know that the reality that it describes is irrational. But for the purposes of this essay, much of the so-called irrational effects of Quantum Mechanics are irrelevant. For example, the biggest problem that bothers scientists about Quantum Mechanics is that it has no relationship to the Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. If the theory that best describes gravity (General Theory of Relativity) has no apparent relationship with the theory that we use to describe everything else (Quantum Mechanics), it makes reality seem irrational. For if reality were rational it also would be relational.
But from a historical viewpoint this phenomenon is not new. Humanity has always had to deal with a certain amount of conflict between the way that it thought about one set of facts and the way it thought about another set of facts. This was always attributed to the fact that humanity lacked complete knowledge. The standard line is that as knowledge increases, humanity’s view of reality will become more rational. Most people would argue that from a historical perspective, having only two theories in major conflict is a great advancement in the overall consistency of humanity’s understanding of reality.
But let us pretend that the General Theory of Relativity goes away. Even if we imagine such a world, Quantum Mechanics still would not be a perfectly reasonable theory. The fundamental problem of Quantum Mechanics is not the weirdness that people tend to get excited about. Rather, the fundamental problem of Quantum Mechanics is that Quantum Mechanics requires that the observer of quantum effects operate under a set of axioms that contradict the axioms that govern the particles that he is observing. In other words, nobody would accept that probabilistic nature of Quantum Mechanics as being valid if they did not believe that the observer of those effects was a deterministic creature.
As an example of what I am saying, consider a coin toss. It has a 50% probability of coming up with heads, right? Now consider if everything involved in the coin toss was probabilistic. Let us say that there is only a 50% chance that you exist; let us say that even if you do exist that there is only a 50% chance that you will be in the same location for long enough to allow the coin to land; furthermore, let us say that there is only a 50% chance that the coin will not go right through your hand if it manages beat the odds and actually land on it…..
We could go on and on. But the point is that if everything is probabilistic, nothing is remotely probable. In fact, if everything is probabilistic nothing can be known, for even the probabilities of the probabilities of a probabilistic reality will be probabilistic. In other words, unless you have a deterministic foundation to stand on, you cannot define probabilities. Thus, Quantum Mechanic requires an absolutely deterministic background against which to measure the irreducible probabilistic nature of quantum facts.
As we have said, if reality is to be reasonable it must be governed by the same set of axioms in its entirety. But how can the irreducibly deterministic relate to the irreducibly probabilistic if you say that the irreducibly probabilistic is the foundation for all of reality? It is an unsolvable paradox unless you are willing to proclaim that Quantum Mechanics is not a complete description of reality.
The only problem with doing that, is that there is no evidence that would allow one to claim that Quantum Mechanics is not a complete description of what goes on at the quantum level. This was the part that really bothered Einstein. He could accept that Quantum Mechanics was an improvement in human knowledge. What he could not accept was that it was a complete description of reality. Therefore he turned his considerable brain power towards thinking up ways of demonstrating that Quantum Mechanics could not possibly be a complete theory. But as everyone knows, other scientists demonstrated that Quantum Mechanics provided the answer to every one of the problems that Einstein came up with.
In spite of this, and in spite of the opinions of most other scientists, Einstein resolutely refused to concede that Quantum Mechanics could possibly be a complete description of reality. To do so would have required him to give up his Spinozan faith in a reasonable reality. But he fully admitted that he had no evidence on which to base his faith that a better alternative to Quantum Mechanics would be found. Einstein even made fun of himself on that point, saying…
“I cannot base this conviction on logical reasons — my only witness is the pricking of my little finger.”
The prickling of Einstein’s little figure may yet prove correct. Certainly, many people think seem to think that String theory or some other mathematical theory will provide a better answer. On the other hand, others are now starting to argue that String theory is nothing but religion dressed up as science because there is no realistic way of testing it.
But for the purposes of this essay it does not really matter. For even if a new theory that is regarded as better in some way by scientists manages to come along, it will still be inconsistent with itself just like Quantum Mechanics. Moreover, Quantum Mechanics is not the only scientific theory that is inconsistent with itself. Although most people do not seem to realize it, the classical understanding of physics is just as irrational as Quantum Mechanics. In other words, Einstein’s theory of General Relativity suffers from the same problem as Quantum Mechanics. In fact, all theories that try to describe reality in a reasonable (i.e. mathematical) way must necessarily be irrational or incomplete. To understand why this is so, we must turn to Einstein’s good friend Kurt GÃ¶del.
Kurt GÃ¶del is one of the most influential mathematicians ever. He proved a number of theorems that are critical to the modern understanding of mathematics and all that other good stuff. But the only accomplishment of his that concerns this essay is the fact that he proved the incompleteness theorems. As stated in their original proofs, you would need to have a good grasp of higher mathematics to understand these theorems. But they have been paraphrased into plain English for the rest of us. GÃ¶del’s first incompleteness theorem is sometimes stated as….
For any consistent formal theory that proves basic arithmetical truths, it is possible to construct an arithmetical statement that is true but not provable in the theory. That is, any theory capable of expressing elementary arithmetic cannot be both consistent and complete
GÃ¶del’s second incompleteness theorem is even more paradoxical and can be stated as saying…
If an axiomatic system can be proven to be consistent and complete from within itself, then it is inconsistent. (emphasis put there by the web site I am quoting)
These theorems may seem hard to believe as stated, but they have been mathematically proven. Of course, saying that does not help those of us who lack higher math skills, but who are inclined to distrust authority. But while it is impossible for those who lack higher math skills to understand the proof, I think that it is possible for us to come to some degree of understanding of how GÃ¶del came up with his theorems.
For starters, you need to remember that reason requires statements that are assumed to be true (axioms). It is only when you have assumed something to be true that you can make deductions. If you think about the necessary contrast in reason between assuming things are true and proving things to be true (making deductions), I think you will begin to understand how it is that reason has limitations. That limited understanding is a long way from proving that reason has its limitations like GÃ¶del did. But once you understand that there is a necessary paradox at the very heart of reason between assuming and proving, it will be easier to swallow that fact that GÃ¶del could prove something as paradoxical as his theorems.
Now, if you understand the implications of those theorems, you understand that every scientific theory must be either incomplete or inconsistent. You cannot escape this problem even by coming up with exotic theories like the Many Worlds Theory, because GÃ¶del proved that his theorems were true even if you tried to construct a theory with an infinite number of axioms. The only way you can escape the problem is if you avoid formulating your theories in a scientific (i.e. reasonable) manner.
To state the above in a somewhat more correct manner; if you construct a series of axioms (i.e. scientific theory) that is capable of generating statements (i.e. predictions) that can be checked against all the axioms of your theory for consistency, your theory will be either incomplete or inconsistent.
How can the study of pure math dictate what physics can hope to accomplish? If you have been following the argument so far, the answer should be obvious. You cannot have advanced physics without math (i.e. advanced reason). The fact that physics is a rational exercise necessarily means that physics cannot exceed the bounds put on it by reason. What GÃ¶del proved was that reason itself has limits, thus those limits must bind all truly reasonable exercises.
When GÃ¶del first presented these theorems and their accompanying proof, it stunned the mathematical world. The implications of GÃ¶del’s proofs are still being discussed in mathematical circles today. But strangely, GÃ¶del’s theorems do not seem to have made that big of a splash in scientific circles. Stephen Hawking has done some public musing on their implications for physics, but other than that nobody else of note in physics seems to have paid GÃ¶del’s theorems much mind. This is puzzling, for how can physics hope to come up with some mathematically complete and consistent theory that describes everything, when mathematicians say that such a thing is not possible?
Probably a large part of this silence on the part of physicists on the implications of GÃ¶del’s incompleteness theorems for physics stems from the fact that a Spinozan faith dominates the sciences (particularly physics). That is not to say that most scientists study Spinoza the way that Einstein did. Heck, most of them probably don’t even know who Spinoza is. But even though they may not have heard of Spinoza, scientists overwhelmingly believe that reason is equal to reality. That is to say, they believe that reality can be defined and explained in a complete and consistent manner.
But to hold this belief, scientists must ignore the implications of their own theories as well as the implications of GÃ¶del’s incompleteness theorems. In fact, scientific theories have pointed to the irrational nature of reality since the first truly scientific theories were formulated. The only thing that GÃ¶del’s incompleteness theorems have added to the previous indications of an irrational reality was proof that these indications of irrationality derived from the reasonable process itself and not from a lack of information (or axioms). Thus, you will pardon the cynical observation that it is easy for scientists to ignore the implications of GÃ¶del’s incompleteness theorems when they have had so much practice ignoring the implications of their own theories.
Spinoza was as guilty of ignoring the irrational implications of his own theory as any modern scientists. You will remember that Spinoza anticipated many scientific discoveries remarkably well. In fact, it could be argued that the only major findings of classical physics that Spinoza failed to anticipate in some way were the finite nature of the universe as a dynamic object and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Spinoza’s failure to anticipate these two findings did not stem from any flaw in his conception of reality as being composed of one substance. Rather, the failure to anticipate those findings of science stemmed from Spinoza’s unwillingness to deal with his conception of the one substance in a consistent manner.
You will remember that Spinoza said that the only way that the one substance could differentiate itself was through motion. But you will also remember that Spinoza said that motion could not happen without cause. So what caused the motion in Spinoza’s rational conception of reality? Spinoza tried to say that the causes of that motion were infinite. In other words, Spinoza would argue that you could never go back to a time where there was no motion. But this is not possible according the dictates of reason.
If reason requires that reality be relational, it also requires that motion anywhere be transmitted everywhere. Since reason requires that motion not occur without a cause, motion in the system cannot increase. Since no two objects in a relational system can have a completely exclusive relationship anymore than an object can only be related only to itself, and since motion cannot increase, then motion throughout the relational system must become constant and thus there will be no differentiation in the substance. Once a relational (reasonable) system gets to the point where motion is constant (equilibrium), it can never get out of it because new motion cannot happen. Since Spinoza’s system must necessarily have an end point, it must necessarily have a beginning. But that is irrational because motion cannot happen without cause.
Spinoza would argue that I am assuming a finite system. He would say that if you acknowledge the one substance and the motion that differentiates it to be infinite you would not have this problem. But you cannot have a relational system where the one substance or motion can be considered infinite and at the same time say the relational nature of that infinite system is finite. In other words, such a system must be infinitely relational. If the one substance is infinitely relational, motion can never differentiate the one substance because an infinitely relational system will always act as one whole. Thus, the one substance must be finite if it is to be differentiated.
We can see that if Spinoza had been consistent with his own axioms he would have traced out the outlines of modern classical physics. But if Spinoza had been consistent with his own axioms he would have been inconsistent with his own axioms because he would have had to say the universe started without cause. That is to say; he would have to say that the universe started irrationally. In other words, in Spinoza’s carefuly constructed argument we can see GÃ¶del’s incompleteness theorems at work.
Of course, classical physics suffers from the same problem. That is why I say that Einstein’s theories (which are just the culmination of classical physics) are just as irrational as Quantum Mechanics. For Einstein’s theories say that the cosmos will move towards and arrive at equilibrium. But Einstein’s theories also say that nothing can move the cosmos out of equilibrium once it arrives at that place. Again the universe must necessarily be finite. So you can think of Einstein’s theories as being complete since they perfectly predict what they are suppose to predict, but inconsistent because they are assuming something that cannot have happened without contradicting Einstein’s theories.
Problems like these have been a used as a “proof” that God exists from the beginning of the scientific era. This has always made those who hold a Spinozan faith very angry. They have always argued that the fact that inconsistencies exist in our current scientific understanding does not prove that God exists. They argue that the idea of God is irrational and you cannot prove the irrational. Moreover they would say that we have always found explanations for the irrational (i.e. things thought to be caused by God) in the past. Thus, they say that to invoke God to explain something is to destroy science/reason.
If those of the Spinozan faith would just stick to saying that you cannot prove the irrational, they would be right. The fact that scientific theories are inconsistent no more proves that God exists than they prove that a pink elephant with wings exists. But they are wrong to believe that the march of science/reason leads to a more consistent view of reality. Instead, the march of science/reason just brings the fundamental irrationality of reality/reason into clearer focus.
As a kind of crude example of what I am saying: Say you threw a rock into calm water. Now say that after a while the water has become perfectly calm again. Now let us say that you start to apply reason to the implications of this fact. At first, you will find that the idea that the water becomes calm again is perfectly reasonable. But the more that you ponder the implications of that, the more you wonder where you got the energy to throw the rock in the first place. After all, if the pond returns to equilibrium after it has been disturbed, why isn’t the whole of reality in equilibrium? In a similar manner, the more science tries to explain things, the more it becomes clear that things are fundamentally unexplainable.
So is it reasonable to believe in God or not? Strictly speaking, the question is absurd. Reason depends on statements that are assumed to be true (i.e axioms). Thus, all you need to do to make the idea of God reasonable is to construct the necessary set of axioms. But here is the catch: According to GÃ¶del’s incompleteness theorems, the more reasonable you make your idea of God, the more your idea of God is going to be inconsistent and incomplete.
To state this more formally, if you can construct a series of axioms about God that can generate statements that can be checked for consistency by your series of axioms, then your idea of God is incomplete or inconsistent. Thus, the only way you can keep your idea of God from being inconsistent or incomplete is to avoid having a reasonable idea of God.
This is the very way that Spinoza proved that the idea of God was unreasonable. He showed in great detail that all attempts to reasonably explain God’s nature were inconsistent or incomplete. Since being inconsistent or incomplete is contrary to the idea of God, Spinoza said that if you believed in God your belief must necessary be unreasonable.
A lot of people thought that Spinoza landed devastating blows on the idea of God. But if you have been following the argument so far, you will understand that the same thing that can be said about God can also be said about reason itself. Or rather, the same problems that hold true if you try to use reason to explain God in a detailed manner also hold true if you try to use reason to explain anything in a detailed manner. Shall we say that people who use reason to try to explain reality (i.e. scientists) are irrational? In other words, you can not rule out the idea of God on the grounds that it is unreasonable as Spinoza tried to do without ruling out every reasonable explanation of anything.
It is for reasons like this that people like to think that we should divide ourselves into two parts; the irrational/religious part and the rational/scientific part. This is the God-as-grease theory. It is embraced by people who want a reasonable, clockwork-like world but are aware of the problems inherent in such a world. They would say that the answer to such problems is to recognize that the clockwork reality needs a little lubrication. According to this theory, whenever the inconsistent nature of reason gets too bothersome, invoke “God,” but otherwise don’t worry your pretty little head about coming up with a theory that reconciles your scientific views with your religious views.
The problem with the God-as-grease theory is that your axioms dictate what you can think. If there is nothing that limits the axioms that people can use then there is nothing to limit what they can think. To understand why this is a problem, let us perform a thought experiment…
Let us say that there is a man for whom the belief that God is all powerful is axiomatic. Let us further say that for this man, it is also axiomatic that an all powerful God has made it impossible for humanity to go to the moon. Now, how could you use reason to convince this man to believe that it was possible to go to the moon? If you took him to people who said they had been to the moon, our subject would have to say that those people were either lying or deluded. In this he would be perfectly reasonable because his axioms would require such a belief. If you showed him pictures, this man would say that the pictures were fake. Again the man would be reasonable because that is what his axioms would require. Even if you forced the man to take a ride with you to the moon itself and left him there to die of lack of oxygen that man still would not believe that it was possible to go to moon right up to point of death. And he would die a reasonable man.
We will not just pick on the religious. Let us assume that God exists. Let us assume that there is a man for whom the belief that there is no God is axiomatic. Short of supernaturally changing the man’s axioms, what could God do to convince this man that he existed? Anything that God did to convince this man that he existed would just make the man think that he was having a mental breakdown. If God came down out of heaven and whacked him over the head with the Ten Commandments our axiomatic atheist would just believe that the resulting headache was just part of his mental breakdown. If God came down and handed him a book that told him all the major events that would happen in the next year, it still would not change our friend’s mind. Even if he became convinced that book really told him the future he would just think that somebody from the future had a time machine and was messing with him.
The above examples are overly simplistic. We humans are not such simple creatures that we can get away with just having one or two axioms. On the contrary, we tend to have lots and lots of axioms. Thus, in true reasonable debate we try to show that our opponent’s axioms contradict each other. But why should our opponents should care if their axioms contradict each other or not? After all, classical physics contradicts itself and we keep right on using it to explain things. So why should our opponent give up any of their axioms? More to the point, since our reasonable theories must necessarily contradict themselves, what ground do we have to stand on and cast stones?
This is why reasonable debates so rarely accomplish anything useful. We might be willing to give up axioms that don’t mean much to us. But any axiom that we truly believe in we will keep even if it contradicts other axioms we might hold. An astronomer is not going to give up classical physics just because it happens to be inconsistent. Classical physics simply predicts things too well for him to discard it just because the theory says that the universe cannot start moving for no reason and then turns around and assumes that it does just once. The same thing could be said for a deeply religious person. If they are willing to be tortured and killed for their beliefs, they are not going to give them up just because they are a little inconsistent.
One might argue that to say this is to make a false equivalence. Classical physics predicts things. In fact, it predicts things pretty much perfectly on the cosmic level, notwithstanding its internal contradictions. What has religious beliefs ever predicted? Who builds planes off of their religious beliefs?
This is a perfectly valid point. But you should consider the implications of what you are saying when you advance that point.
To say that physics is superior to religious belief because it predicts things is to say that pure reason cannot justify itself. Reason needs proof for its conclusions to be considered true. By proof, we do not mean a reasonable (i.e. mathematical) proof. Rather, by proof we mean a sensory revelation. This is what keeps the sciences from being equivalent to mathematics. In mathematics, you don’t need any sensory revelations.
But once you have said that sensory revelations are necessary to justify reason you have let the cat out of the bag that Spinoza strove so hard to keep closed. For sensory revelations are used by the mystics and the religious to justify their beliefs. You might jump up and down and yell that religious revelation is totally different from the sensory revelation that justifies sensory facts. But once you have said that pure reason is not sufficient to prove truth, you don’t have any way to prove that that the two types of revelation are different. You can try to calmly show that scientific revelation is a revelation that is available to all and can be cross-checked by everyone’s senses and thus is the only legitimate proof of facts.
Strictly speaking, this is not true. People with severe physical or mental handicaps cannot prove many things for themselves. But minor quibbles aside, point granted.
But so what? Do you expect people to allow your axiom that only group revelation is a proper justifier of truth to govern their axioms? Remember, the reason that you demanded sensory revelation in the first place was because pure reason was not sufficient.
In other words, you will never be able to prove to the insane that they are insane. The thing that makes people insane is not that they lack the brains to reason, but that their sensory experiences are totally different from the rest of us. Because their sensory experiences are so different, their axioms are different. And as we have already seen, you can’t reason people out of their axioms.
Truly religious people are the same as the insane. They feel strongly enough about whatever feelings (or sensory revelation) that create their religious beliefs so that such beliefs are axioms for them. In other words, their sensory experiences have created their beliefs, not their ability to reason. As one Christian song writer said, “I did not make it, no, it is making me.”
But you should not feel superior to those poor insane religious folk, because every single human being is truly religious. That is to say; every single one of us depends on special revelation for our ethics.
By special revelation, I mean sensory experiences that are not available to everyone the way that scientific facts are. Now we only need to prove this for a very small percentage of the population. After all, most people are admittedly religious in some way. That leaves only the atheist and the agnostics as people who will try to claim that they have no special revelation. But where does an atheist/agnostic get his ethic?
Let us start out with the simplest case. Let us say that an atheist/agnostic has no ethics to speak of. In other words, they believe that anything that they want to do is the right thing to do no matter how much it harms other people. If you think about it, you will see that this is a form of special revelation. The selfish man is basing his ethic off of something that is only available to him, namely his own pleasure.
Now let us say that an atheist/agnostic believes in the Spinozan idea that everyone is interrelated and you should base your ethic off of what is going to be good for everyone. But how will you prove what is good for everyone?
Why through the sciences, of course. But the sciences only talk about the effects of things, they do not label them as good or bad. In order to say that the sciences prove that something is good for everyone you must get everyone to agree on what “good” means. Since you can’t, you must fall back on your own personal feelings (or special revelations) to define what is good or bad. In other words, you are depending on special revelation.
It was because of problems like this that Spinoza sought to lay the ground work for a reasonable explanation of reality that was consistent and complete. Spinoza knew that it was only through such a theory that you can say through reason alone (with no reference to revelation) that is unreasonable to believe certain things or to have certain ethics. In other words, it is only when you can come up with a complete and consistent explanation of reality that you can have a morality that is independent of special revelation. But as we have already shown, there is no possible way of coming up with such a theory.
It is for this reason that many people like to display their intellectual sophistication by saying that “we can’t know anything for sure.” This has the dual advantage of seeming to be an intelligent thing for oneself to say while at the same time saving oneself from the necessity of thinking.
But as a practical matter, we cannot truly believe this statement anymore than we can truly believe that we do not really exist. There will always be times when our private revelation requires us to say that something is wrong. For example, those who say that we cannot say anything for sure are at the forefront of those who are sure that religious fundamentalism is wrong.
When we started this essay, we started out talking about society. And all the things that we have been saying in this essay really only have relevance insofar as we apply them to society. For if we only consider ourselves as individuals, the fact that we depend on special revelation does not matter. It is only when we consider how we should try to interact with other people that the problems start to arise. This is particularly true if our special revelation leads us to desire a reasonable society.
Obviously, the meaning of “reasonable society” is dependent on the axioms that you use to define it. But I think we all generally agree that a reasonable society is one in which force is not used to change peoples’ beliefs. But figuring out how to create and maintain such a society is a tricky proposition. It is clear that some beliefs would destroy a reasonable society if they ever came to dominate a society. But how do we prevent such beliefs from coming to power?
The typical answer is that we will use reason to convince people with “bad” beliefs that they are wrong. But we have shown the limitations of reason to change people’s axioms.
This was a problem that Albert Einstein faced with the rise of Nazi Germany. Because of his Spinozan beliefs, Albert Einstein was a pacifist. But because of the rise of Nazi Germany, Einstein advocated the creation of an atomic weapon whose creation was based off his own theories. Surely it is one of the great ironies of life that the most deadly weapons in history were created from the theories of, and at the urging of, a pacifist.
But this irony is intrinsic to the very nature of a reasonable society. If you say that you must never use force against an idea that will destroy a reasonable society until the proponents of that idea actually start to use force to implement their ideas, then you are saying that a reasonable society could theoretically sit back and allow a bad idea to get strong enough that a reasonable society would not be able to use force to defend itself.
It is for this reason that some people argue that if we are to preserve a reasonable society we must not tolerate certain axioms even if they are not a current threat. For example, Richard Dawkins argues that no one should be allowed to teach their children any religious beliefs because he believes that those beliefs are intrinsically threatening to a reasonable society.
But leaving aside the question of why religious ideas are more of a threat to a society than atheistic ideas, it seems to me that the only thing that makes a reasonable society different from all other societies is that it will tolerate ideas that are dangerous to it. No society uses force to crush ideas that are not considered dangerous. But only a reasonable society will tolerate ideas that it does consider dangerous. Thus to say that a reasonable society should not tolerate ideas that it considers dangerous is to say it should become like a theocracy.
If the issue were not complicated enough, most people who advocate a reasonable society argue that force should be used to prevent people from practicing certain beliefs. To take an extreme example, there are some people who would use historical facts to argue that adults having sex with a child is not harmful and should be allowed. But most people who believe in a reasonable society will argue that should not be allowed.
That idea that adults should be allowed to have sex with children is easy to dismiss. But it is the idea that a reasonable society should not allow harmful things to be done to children that allow Dawkins to argue that a reasonable society should not allow parents to teach kids their religious beliefs. Dawkins’ position is a natural result of believing that a reasonable society will see that children are not harmed and that religion is dangerous to a reasonable society.
Most readers of this essay will hopefully agree that it would destroy a reasonable society to use force to implement Dawkins’ ideas. Thus, we can see that even ideas from people who desire to preserve a reasonable society can be dangerous to a reasonable society. So then how do you preserve a reasonable society without turning it into something other than a reasonable society?
This is an age-old question. Most of the time this question is phrased in the context of some threat from evil religious fundamentalists, evil communists, or evil Nazis. But if you have understood this essay, you will understand that the root problem facing a reasonable society is the nature of human reason itself. We are all religious fundamentalists who cling with a blind faith to our axioms.
The great failure of reason is that it can never change that fact.