Friday, June 6, 2008

Spinoza is not so strange... maybe

I’m getting more and more intrigued by Spinoza these days. I still can’t make sense of the ways that he connects his propositions in the early (and in my view the most interesting) parts of Ethics, but nevertheless I think I’m beginning to get a picture of what he’s really saying.

What strikes me about him is that on the one hand his philosophy is initially so bizarre as to make it hard to take him seriously, especially if one reads him too quickly; however, on the other hand, when one invests a little bit of patience and slowly mulls over his philosophical moves, he kind of sounds like he belongs to the 21st century.

In a very brief secondary text that I use for my History of Philosophy II course, Wallace Matson uses a nice metaphor to illuminate Spinoza’s monism. Jonathan Bennett, whose work has definitely impressed itself on me, also uses imagery of this sort. He asks us to consider a perspective of the cosmos as energy that is differentiated not in individual stuffs but only in degree of relatively frozen/stable states of regions of Stuff.

This would imply (at least) two levels of description of phenomena in that cosmos. Any purported individual-stuffs-language, especially descriptions of the motion of alleged individuals, would ultimately be analyzed by Stuff-language, perhaps like so:

Imagine if an alien being were to “enter our Universe” (per impossible). Or, if you don’t like that, imagine that an alien being were to be spontaneously generated. This alien being has vastly different sense modalities than we do. In fact, it only registers the relatively frozen/stable states of regions of Stuff, plus times. The purportedly individual-stuffs are frozen relative to the more fluid regions of less frozen Stuff.

Example: There is (a) the computer in front of me and (b) the region of space surrounding it. (a) is relatively frozen/stable vis-à-vis (b) which is relatively fluid. Throw in (c) some time indices.

How might that alien report its perceptions? [Philosophical aside: That there is an alien observer is irrelevant. I throw it in to help imagine the scenario; it actually plays no philosophical role.]

What we call an “individual thing” could be reported as an ordered pair that consists of a slice of space-time like so: t1 and a spatial region R, where at t1, R consists of (i) a relatively frozen/stable sub-region and (ii) a surrounding relatively fluid region.

Suppose that the computer moves from one region to another through time.

How might this be reported?

It could be reported as sequential sets of ordered pairs described above: {R1, t1}, {R2, t2, ... {Rn, tn}. The conditions are as follows: (i) the times are continuous, and (ii) R-members are continuous when taken in order.

This provides the raw materials for an analysis of “There are individual things whose positions alter through time.”

What is ultimately being analyzed (in fact, reduced) is reference to “individual things.” All reference to individuals (understood as res) must be reduced to reference to modes of energy (or rather, Energy), specifically its distribution in regions of relatively frozen/stable or fluid states.

Like so: “There are sequences of ordered pairs, {R1, t1}, {R2, t2, ... {Rn, tn}, and the R-members are not identical.”

The upshot is that you can get “movement through regions of space” without any individual res doing any movement. Instead, it’s simply, at the bottom level of analysis, a fact about relative distributions (i.e., modes) of the one and only thing that exists (i.e., Energy).

This is why Spinoza belongs to the 21st century (and also maybe why his work presages that monism, mysticism, and 21st century physics would converge in unexpected ways).
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