Saturday, December 31, 2016

50 Voices of Disbelief, and an argument for a Spinozistic universe

Winter break is time for me to read some things I might not get around to during the school year.  My retired doctor brother in law, who shares my atheism, gave me a book for Christmas (a bit of irony there, I know) called 50 Voices of Disbelief:  Why We Are Atheists.  I love this book and would have it give it four stars on Amazon if I were reviewing it.  One of great things about it is that it covers a wide range of perspectives on disbelief, and most of these short essays are well-written too.  I read it from front to back, which seems strange since one could just pick and choose, but doing so assures that you get all of the perspectives including some that are pretty unfamiliar, for instance a couple on atheism in India. 

There is very little I can find to disagree with in this book...maybe a bit to knit-pick on, for example the claim by one author that teaching religion to children is child abuse.  I was brought up as a Christian, but although I rejected belief in God by the time I was fifteen I would hardly call my Christian upbringing child abuse.  It was even probably good for me to react against something as I was growing up:  it helped with my self-definition, figuring out who I am or was.  Prior to disbelieving in God I used to take long walks talking to God, asking for replies about the big questions.   I didn't get any answers, but then that led me to try to answer the questions myself.  Along the way I was influenced by such writers as Russell, Nietzsche and Sartre.  I was also influenced by the American transcendentalists:  Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, none of whom were atheists but all of whom questioned theism.  My struggle with belief was a major factor in my becoming a philosopher.  Each atheist has his or her own story about how he/she became an atheist, and that is part of what I like about 50 Voices. 

But I cannot go along with the idea that education in religion is necessarily child abuse.  My parents were pretty liberal, however, and when I began to question Christian belief they were willing to discuss it and even eventually were willing to let me stay home from church.  I was the oldest and my younger siblings were still required to go to church:  and so when they came home on Sundays they would call me "sinner" but everyone knew that the source of that was envy for my being able to stay in my pajamas and read the Sunday paper.   There was an interesting experiment where my mother insisted that I go to some church if not theirs (they were Episcopalian).   I tried out the Unitarians since they seemed the closest to being atheists, and they did seem to be fine people, but I didn't fit in, and I had little tolerance to listening to prayers and singing songs from every part of the world as opposed to just the Episcopalian ones.  

Back to the issue of child abuse.  My parents spanked me sometimes when I behaved badly, and I do not consider that child abuse either, although it is popular to think so these days.  So maybe I have a relatively high threshold for "child abuse" attribution (at least for a contemporary liberal).  Occasional light spanking and compulsory church attendance just do not rise to that level.  

But what really struck me about 50 stories was how much atheists share in common.  All of the arguments against belief were familiar to me, and they were ones I also had considered when choosing not to believe in God.  I won't review them here:  read the book for that. Another thing I liked about the book is just the contrast between reading this or reading one of the big-time New Atheists, e.g. Dawkins, Dennett, and so forth.  There is a lot of ego and no little amount of smugness in those big books. They are valuable books, but it is good to get beyond them.  (By the way, I appreciate it that Michael Martin, my old teacher from Boston University, gets a fair number of mentions in this book.  Oddly, I did not know that Martin was an atheist when I worked for him as a grading assistant. Only years later did I discover his excellent atheist writings. Towards the end of his life we struck up a short correspondence about this....something I cherish now.)  

But back to the interesting uniformity point.  The blurb on the back of the book refers to "a stunning diversity of viewpoints," but what is evident to me is the opposite.  Hardly any of the writers would disagree with what is said by hardly any of the other writers.  Could reason or "being rational" yield such results?  The main issues of disagreement seems to be on how aggressive one should be:  some atheists believe in taking a really aggressive stance and others do not.  But there seems to be no disagreement about what is wrong about the various reasons offered for belief, at least none I could see on one reading.  (Some authors prefer certain arguments over others....that's about it...a matter of taste.)  

What a contrast to religious belief!  There you really do have great diversity.  However I am a natural skeptic and I find it uncomfortable to belong to a club in which everyone agrees on the fundamentals.  So let me throw a little discord into this happy party. 

The first complaint is that despite talk of diversity, it turns out that some major figures in atheism are left out of the conversation. Heidegger was supposed to be a major atheist and his name is not mentioned once.  Sartre?  doesn't appear in the index although de Beauvoir gets mentioned in one list (no actual discussion of her arguments or beliefs, however).  Nietzsche is mentioned only in passing, and the only author who says anything about him is Miguel Kottow.  He writes, "I don't think Nietzsche killed anyone, he just didn't like the current idea of a god who did not care about the lousy conditions most humans lived it." (235)  This is the strangest thing to say about Nietzsche and God, and one wonders where Kottow got this idea about this.  No references are it is a mystery.  Freud turns up once, in an article by Tamas Pataki. Karl Marx gets two mentions, one more than Groucho!  Darwin however is covered frequently.  So you get the idea:  the book has a slant, only atheists of an analytic science-centric persuasion need apply.

This leads me to my second thought, one quote that I find thought provoking and a bit disturbing.  (Again, isn't it strange that this is the only quote in the entire book that does this to least now after a first reading.)  It comes in an essay by Sean M. Carroll titled "Why Not?"  Here it is:

"Atheists do not believe in the existence of any categories truly distinct from the material world.  They believe that the world is made of 'stuff,' and that stuff obeys 'rules,' and those rules are never broken, and that's it.  Nothing more is required.  There may be categories which are not found within the basic building blocks of the world, but rather emerge from it, and serve crucial purposes in the lives of human beings - emotions, aesthetic judgments, rules of ethics and morality.  But none of these is separate, found outside of the world, or requires a truly distinct set of rules.  The physical universe is self-contained and complete."  (107)

I just can't subscribe to that.  I mean it all seems innocuous at first but doesn't it look pretty dogmatic?   Let's look at it line by line. One thing I am going to be suggesting is to at least experimentally look at all of this from a Spinozistic perspective, as a dual aspect theorist rather than as a materialist monist.  

"Atheists do not believe in the existence of any categories truly distinct from the material world."  A Spinozistic atheist, let's say one who rejects an all-knowing, all-good creator of the universe but does accept a spiritual "aspect" to reality, seeing reality as always two-sided, might not disagree of course, since the spiritual aspect of the world could not possibly be "truly distinct from the material world" but would disagree that all of the categories are categories ultimately of the stuff to which Carroll refers.

"They believe that the world is made of 'stuff,' and that stuff obeys 'rules,' and those rules are never broken, and that's it."  I have no trouble with the idea that the material stuff of the universe follows rules that are never broken, although I thought that quantum mechanics offers exceptions to this....still I never understand quantum mechanics, so I will accept it for now.  The problem I have is with "that's it."  So, this is reductionism:  the author is saying that the whole story of our lives is reduced to rules of the stuff.  But the author knows that this is not acceptable since he then brings in emergent entities which appear to follow rules of their own.

"Nothing more is required.  There may be categories which are not found within the basic building blocks of the world, but rather emerge from it, and serve crucial purposes in the lives of human beings - emotions, aesthetic judgments, rules of ethics and morality."  This looks to me like a contradiction.  Nothing more is required, but then, hey, something more is required.  We will cover up the problem with the phrase "emerge from it."  It turns out that almost all of the stuff that is important to us as humans falls into this category!   We must be talking about two very difference sense of "stuff" since the stuff that is important to me doesn't even count as part of Carroll's stuff.   At least it is not "required."  Required for what?   

"But none of these is separate, found outside of the world, or requires a truly distinct set of rules."   The Spinozist can grant this:  nothing of the important stuff now called "emergent" is "outside of the world" since after all, the world has two different aspects, the material and the spiritual.  But what about the idea of a "distinct set of rules?   Kant in his discussion of the artistic genius says that such a genius makes his (and it should also be "her," despite his youthful misogynous comments) rules, Critique of Judgment #49. How do these rules fit into all of this.  Is the work of a creative genius even possible under Carroll?  Apparently not.

"The physical universe is self-contained and complete."   Nothing ever changes I suppose.  Aside from the fact that "self- contained" is left unexplained, the notion of completeness...a rigid universe without the possibility of creative making goes contrary to everything that makes sense.  

Carroll goes on to say something very odd:

"Any consistent mathematical a possible universe; the job of science is simply to decide which one is right.  Here is a conceivable universe:  an infinite string of 1s and 0s, following the pattern of two 1s followed by a single 0, repeated forever....That's a universe.  It's not an especially interesting universe, and it is certainly not our universe, but its a possible universe.  The point being that there is no God serving as part of that universe, nor is there any reason for there to be.  And there is no God in ours, either."  (110)

How could he come up with this?  Clearly this posited universe is not only not our universe, it is not a Spinozistic universe.  God does not serve as part of the Spinozistic universe since the Spinozistic universe IS God.   This paragraph is not even an argument, although it has the appearance of one.  Somehow he is suggesting that since our universe is very much like the one proposed then since it is obvious that the one proposed has no God aspect than ours has no God aspect as well.  On what grounds does he believe that our world is very much like the proposed one?  It must be that subconsciously he thinks of our universe as really a giant computer that works with 1s and 0s, a machine.  If so, then the argument holds.   

I am not wholly convinced that the Spinozist view is correct, but until physicalist atheists can come up with something better than this I might be willing at least to entertain a very thin notion of God...not an eternal, all-knowing, all-good creator of the universe: that God is, or should be, dead.  I am simply talking about something like "the ground of creativity" which is itself the spiritual side of the material universe Carroll already accepts.   



Anonymous said...


This is slightly off topic but I would like to hear your thoughts.

Do these extracts from Morrison's paper 'Why Spinoza Had No Aesthetics' make sense to you?

What do you make of Spinoza's indifference to art and beauty?


The reasons for Spinoza's lack of interest in aesthetics are not solely or primarily due to a merely personal indifference to art and beauty. Nor does he openly express his reasons for his indifference or hostility to art and beauty. Rather, his reasons are philosophical and must be inferred from what he explicitly says. The general character of Spinoza's philosophy, as well as some of his central doctrines, not only provide no adequate philosophical basis for an aesthetics but lead to the neglect of aesthetics altogether. That is, I shall argue that Spinoza's philosophy represents a certain type of philosophy and "cast of mind" which is fundamentally alien to, even hostile towards, art and beauty. For Spinoza, works of art do not constitute a special domain of beings. He regards them merely as physical objects with physical predicates. Art and beauty belong to the life of imagination, sense, and passion. If the goal is to free ourselves from bondage and misery we must turn away from art and beauty, which are inseparable from them. Nevertheless, Spinoza allows that art and beauty do have a limited "medicinal" value.


The problem is not just that Spinoza's philosophy offers a "barren soil" for cultivating an aesthetics. Rather, the ground it supplies is too hard and intractable to motivate anyone from even attempting to sow it. In other words, Spinoza's basic philosophical position, especially what I have called his naturalism and rationalism, together with their reductionist implications, provide no motivation for taking art and beauty seriously as themes of philosophical aesthetics. Naturalism means that works of art have no special metaphysical status (i.e., are not irreducible to physical objects) and that beauty is not a real (objective and absolute) quality of things. Rationalism means that only by thought (not the imagination or senses) can we know the true nature of things. Now it can be objected that none of these doctrines logically implies that art and beauty cannot be the subject-matter of a philosophical aesthetics. I am willing to grant this. But I maintain that when these metaphysical and epistemological doctrines are combined with moral rationalism the implications for aesthetics become more evident. For, as we have seen above, Spinoza's moral rationalism means that the emotions, which are linked to the imagination and senses, are the source of unfreedom, vice, and unhappiness. This implies that the good life is possible only if the passions are mastered; and this, Spinoza holds, can only be done by reason and the intellect. Herein lies, I believe, the ultimate basis of Spinoza's philosophical neglect of aesthetics. For once the good life is identified with the life of reason, and reason is opposed to emotion, imagination, and sense..... art and beauty become suspect. They are regarded as either irrelevant or hostile to man's highest and deepest interests.

RTWT here:



Tom Leddy said...

Hi Matthew.

I am not in a position to evaluate whether Spinoza is accurately described here since I am no Spinoza expert. I do not even like reading him. I will say however that Spinoza as described here seems remarkably similar to Descartes, who at least had some small interest in aesthetics, but whose philosophy is basically anti-aesthetic. See my posts on Descartes and aesthetics. Also Spinoza reminds me of the early Buddhists of the Pali Canon who were also deeply anti-art and anti-aesthetic (unlike Zen Buddhists). I discussed them a few days ago.

What surprises me is that someone like Spinoza, who is a monist with a dual-aspect theory of reality and who therefore rejects dualism. could not take a great interest in aesthetics (and could not also free himself from Cartesian rationalism, which, I think, depends on dualism!). Naturalism in itself does not militate against aesthetics since Dewey was a naturalist and a great aesthetician.

Matthew Stewart's “Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Revolution," is a great book that deals with the influence of Spinoza's deism on the founding fathers. Isn't it interesting that this deism fits in well with Emerson's transcendentalism, and that Emerson is really big on aesthetics?

So, oddly, Spinoza is not barren ground for cultivating aesthetics: it is just that he did not know that, or he was hindered by his Plato-like obsession with the negatives of passion and imagination.

Although Morrison is right that "Naturalism means that works of art have no special metaphysical status (i.e., are not irreducible to physical objects) and that beauty is not a real (objective and absolute) quality of things" he is wrong to think that physical objects are themselves reducible to something mechanistic and wrong that naturalism cannot ally itself with the deep interest in aesthetics: witness both Nietzsche and Dewey as well as Emerson again. It all depends on what you mean by "naturalism."

Morrison may be on to something here though: perhaps it was Spinoza's Cartesian rationalism that got him into trouble, not his naturalism or his deism!

I also want to clarify that although I have been thinking about a very thin form of deism along Spinozistic lines I am still very much an atheist: there is no god as agent in my universe, no afterlife. But there is the realm of non-reducible potentiality, of creativity and imagination: it is just another aspect of our natural world.