Love, Voles & Spinoza

Benedict de Spinoza: moral problems and our em...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my previous essays I examined the idea that love is a mechanical matter as well as the implications this might have for ethics. In this essay, I will focus on the eternal truth that love hurts.

While there are exceptions, the end of a romantic relationship typically involves pain. As noted in my original essay on voles and love, Young found that when a prairie voles loses its partner, it becomes depressed. This was tested by dropping voles into beakers of water to determine how much the voles would struggle. Prairie voles who had just lost a partner struggled to a lesser degree than those who were not so bereft. The depressed voles, not surprisingly, showed a chemical difference from the non-depressed voles. When a depressed vole was “treated” for this depression, the vole struggled as strongly as the non-bereft vole.

Human beings also suffer from the hurt of love. For example, it is not uncommon for a human who has ended a relationship (be it divorce or a breakup) to fall into a vole-like depression and struggle less against the tests of life (though dropping humans into giant beakers to test this would presumably be unethical).

While some might derive an odd pleasure from stewing in a state of post-love depression, presumably this feeling is something that a rational person would want to end. The usual treatment, other than self-medication, is time: people usually tend to come out of the depression and then seek out a new opportunity for love. And depression.

Given the finding that voles can be treated for this depression, it would seem to follow that humans could also be treated for this as well. After all, if love is essentially a chemical romance grounded in strict materialism, then tweaking the brain just so would presumably fix that depression. Interestingly enough, the philosopher Spinoza offered an account of love (and emotions in general) that nicely match up with the mechanistic model being examined.

As Spinoza saw it, people are slaves to their affections and chained by who they love. This is an unwise approach to life because, as the voles in the experiment found out, the object of one’s love can die (or leave). This view of Spinoza nicely matches up: voles that bond with a partner become depressed when that partner is lost. In contrast, voles that do not form such bonds do not suffer that depression.

Interestingly enough, while Spinoza was a pantheist, his view of human beings is rather similar to that of the mechanist: he regarded humans are being within the laws of nature and was a determinist in that all that occurs does so from necessity—there is no chance or choice. This view guided him to the notion that human behavior and motivations can be examined as one might examine “lines, planes or bodies.” To be more specific, he took the view that emotions follow the same necessity as all other things, thus making the effects of the emotions predictable.  In short, Spinoza engaged in what can be regarded as a scientific examination of the emotions—although he did so without the technology available today and from a rather more metaphysical standpoint. However, the core idea that the emotions can be analyzed in terms of definitive laws is the same idea that is being followed currently in regards to the mechanics of emotion.

Getting back to the matter of the negative impact of lost love, Spinoza offered his own solution: as he saw it, all emotions are responses to what is in the past, present or future. For example, a person might feel regret because she believes she could have done something different in the past. As another example, a person might worry because he thinks that what he is doing now might not bear fruit in the future. These negative feelings rest, as Spinoza sees it, on the false belief that the past and present could be different and the future is not set. Once a person realizes that all that happens occurs of necessity (that is, nothing could have been any different and the future cannot be anything other than what it will be), then that person will suffer less from the emotions. Thus, for Spinoza, freedom from the enslaving chains of love would be the recognition and acceptance that what occurs is determined.

Putting this in the mechanistic terms of modern neuroscience, a Spinoza-like approach would be to realize that love is purely mechanical and that the pain and depression that comes from the loss of love are also purely mechanical. That is, the terrible, empty darkness that seems to devour the soul at the end of love is merely chemical and electrical events in the brain. Once a person recognizes and accepts this, if Spinoza is right, the pain should be reduced. With modern technology it is possible to do even more: whereas Spinoza could merely provide advice, modern science can eventually provide us with the means to simply adjust the brain and set things right—just as one would fix a malfunctioning car or PC.

One rather obvious problem is, of course, that if everything is necessary and determined, then Spinoza’s advice makes no sense: what is, must be and cannot be otherwise. To use an analogy, it would be like shouting advice at someone watching a cut scene in a video game. This is pointless, since the person cannot do anything to change what is occurring. For Spinoza, while we might think life is a like a game, it is like that cut scene: we are spectators and not players. So, if one is determined to wallow like a sad pig in the mud of depression, that is how it will be.

In terms of the mechanistic mind, advice would seem to be equally absurd—that is, to say what a person should do implies that a person has a choice. However, the mechanistic mind presumably just ticks away doing what it does, creating the illusion of choice. So, one brain might tick away and end up being treated while another brain might tick away in the chemical state of depression. They both eventually die and it matters not which is which.

My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Enhanced by Zemanta
Leave a comment ?


  1. Mike,

    Towards the end you seem to fall for one of the mistaken objections to determinism and the illusory nature of free will. The problem arises because we don’t understand causality and time.

    If we start from the position of determinism and illusory free will, but for the moment make some simple assumptions about causation and time then we get the following.

    Events occur in time and are causally connected. When a rock A rolls down a hill and hits ‘stationary’ rock B, we say A causes B to move, and that the motion of B is determined by the action of A. A is the cause and B’s motion is the caused effect. Of course A was caused to move too, in turn; and so all moving objects from atoms to planets are causes and caused in turn. And so we have the classical determinism. But equally, B causes A to change its motion too. Cause and effect are mutual relationships, and cause and caused objects have a mutual causal relationship.

    In this sense human brains, their neurons, their outcomes, and any motor behaviour the brain-body systems performs are all caused events, and are in turn causes. Multiple humans can be considered to be a more complex case of a pool table break, were the same balls may interact multiple times in complex ways as they ‘bounce’ off each other and the environment.

    But brains are so complex internally that internal neurons can have effects on other internal neurons in complex feedback systems. In this respect there is nothing fatalistic about human behaviour. A brain can cause itself to change. This is not dualist free will. This is the caused behaviour of a complex automaton that can self-adjust in response to inputs and its own internal processing. The ‘program’ that determines the outcome, the behaviour, is a complex one that has components from evolution and from the continual re-programming of the system – experience, learning.

    This may well feel like we have free will, as if we have some free floating mind that is making decisions at least a little free of this immediate and long term causes, but that’s just the illusion we all suffer because we cannot detect the detail of all these causes. Our ‘decisions’ are like a child opening Christmas presents – we experience them as we open them and imagine them to be delivered magically because we don’t see our parents placing them under the tree. Worse than that: because we, our brains, are the objects making the decisions, being caused to make them, we are more like amnesic children that buy and wrap our own presents but forget all that when we come to open them in the morning. Our conscious selves merely experience thoughts and decisions appearing in our consciousness, unaware of all that went before to cause them.

    So, we can change ourselves, and we do, under this presumption of causation and time where the unwritten future is determined by the past. The problem is that we are caused to change ourselves.

    If I think X but Mike argues Y rather than X, and if my brain finds the argument for Y convincing then this state of affairs will cause my brain to change and I will think Y rather than X. If I have strong enough biases, or if my brain does not see the argument, then my brain will be caused to hold on to X and to reject Y.

    If I do change from X to Y then in a real deterministic sense Mike has caused the change in my brain – Mike has changed my mind on the matter of X or Y. It doesn’t matter that Mike uses free will language and precludes my change of heart with “I think you should agree with my better argument for Y”, as if he is saying, “I think you should choose to agree with my better argument for Y”. It doesn’t matter if I use free will language and say, “Your argument is convincing, so I will choose to agree with you.”

    Mike may feel he has freely willed to change my mind, but in reality he has in turn been caused to engage in an argument. This is just two humans trapped in the illusion of free will, using language that has evolved along with our thinking, that we have free will. Why do I keep dipping into these free will debates? Because I am caused to. Could I stop? If some other cause motivated my brain to focus on something else and stop visiting philosophy sites. Am I addicted? Possibly – perhaps not in the most usual sense of addictions; but in the sense that my brain has latched on to this interest in science and philosophy, in the sense that my brain has been caused to love my wife, eat serial for breakfast, …, then we become addicted to the motivations we are caused to have.

    “In terms of the mechanistic mind, advice would seem to be equally absurd”

    It’s absurd to say that the sun sets, given what we know about our solar system. But we still say it because that’s what we’re accustomed to and that’s how it feels – we cannot feel our rotating earth moving us away from the sun, so relative to an apparent stationary earth the sun appears to move and set. It’s absurd to think of ourselves as being solid, given what we know about atoms – it’s the interaction of atoms that gives us the impression of being solid, plus our inability to see the detail at the atomic and sub-atomic scale.

    So, giving advice is something other than our free will understanding of it – that’s illusory. It’s still a causal in that giving advice, written or oral, will be received, visually or aurally, and that will be one more causal input into another brain, to have some causal effect to change that brain as it accepts the advice – or not. And the advisor was caused to give the advice – so it’s no use ridiculing the advisor for giving advice by calling their advice giving and absurd act. Of course if one is caused to cling to the notion of free will then one is caused to think determinism absurd, or to think that advice is absurd in the face of determinism. As many dualist indeterminists think: determinism cannot be true because it would make giving advice and all other free will related ideas absurd – but you shouldn’t reject an idea because you don’t like its consequences for some other preferred idea.

    Having these mental experiences that are illusory isn’t a problem. If that’s how it is, but this is how it feels, we just have to get used to that distinction, that dichotomy of intellectual understanding and natural human feeling. We might make use of the intellectual knowledge of how reality actually is but we still have to live with how we perceive it. We have no trouble aligning the reality and the illusion of sunsets. Determinist incompatibilists have no problem aligning the feeling of having free will with the probability of not having it.

    The really interesting stuff comes when we examine causality and time. If the past and future are so deterministically linked then the future is already determined in every detail, then time itself is an illusion, or a rather meaningless uninteresting dimension. The laws of nature (i.e. our models of reality) are time reversible. If we take time to be an actual illusion then all past and future are is if in a single instant and any ‘determinism’ works ‘both ways in time’ – all these notions become rather flaky when removing time.

    Without time the very nature cause and effect becomes meaningless, even more meaningless than a deterministically causally connected past and unwritten future spread over time. Everything just IS – and as much as it is tempting to add FOR ALL ETERNITY, that doesn’t make sense. It just IS, is the only remaining concept we can speak of. This problem also applies when we talk of space and time coming into existence with the birth of the universe. What does that mean? What are the implications? We don’t have the cognitive tools to deal with this, because we are stuck IN time, or we are stuck with the illusion of time, and time allows us the illusion of causality.

  2. Cause-and-effect are merely words which we use such that we can talk about nature. In point of fact cause and effect do not exist out there in the real world which is a continuous entity, a dynamic system. The principles of cause and effect allow us to talk about the world. However to infer that these principles exist in reality is an unwarranted inference. To speak of cause and effect is to single out two events from what is in fact a continuous system. The human brain is such that it cannot embrace and simultaneously explain the complete system,which we might call Reality; however it has developed the process of considering small chunks of the system and predicting what is most likely to happen in the future. To assume that the whole of reality can be explained using this system is surely to commit the fallacy of composition. This is not to denigrate causation, it served us well so far and in the not too far distant future we are highly likely to inhabit the planet Mars. Our understanding of the world is a human construct and how far this matches reality seems currently indeterminate.
    I think a further problem arises here in relation to the decisions which we make that such and such is the case. Biological/Neurological science indicates that human decisions are made a few seconds before they enter the conscious state. The vast complexity of the human brain produces decisions, explanations, interpretations, etc. One of its most important functions, if not the most important, is survival of the organism which it serves. In this connection the organism reaches certain conclusions which are incorrect. For instant’s objects in themselves have no colour, brass bands make no sound, food has no taste and roses have no perfume. All of these experiences are constructs of the brain which the organism erroneously thinks inhere in certain objects in the outside world.
    So what does all this say about free will? We think we can do just as we please our common experience seems to suggest that we can, but our philosophical and scientific experience suggests very strongly that this is not the case. The brain is therefore not completely trustworthy, its main function is to keep the organism alive, and the innate propensity of Curiosity, upon which all our progress has been made, comes as secondary. It seems in the light of all this that there is considerable evidence to suggest that free will is nothing more than a further trick of the brain in its attempt to prolong the survival of the organism as a whole.

  3. Don,

    I agree with your explanation, but it also goes to show the difficulty of talking about things that we don’t understand. The whole notion of surviving brains, survival, a cause and effect relationship between some object, its environment and time, is meaningless without cause and effect.

    Before long we end up back at inferring either of: I think therefore I exist solipsistically; or I don’t exist at all, but what then is suffering the illusion that I do exist?

    Philosophy runs into a dead end. No more so that science of course, but at least science is productive – or at least appears to be, in a very convincing fashion; sufficient to convince Dr Johnson’s big toe.

    It appears that if we are anything, we are machines. If we’re not machines, then we don’t know what we are at all.

  4. Don Bird has it dead right. I found Mike’s article an interesting and stimulating read, as always. However, of Spinoza’s philosophy, we need to ask what real import it has. This criticism goes back to comments on the first of Mike’s ‘voles in love’ article. I suggested there that mere introspection has not proved to be a robust means of analysing and understanding the world. I questioned how ‘progress’ can be detected in philosophy.

    In the present context, perhaps brutally, we can ask ‘so what?’ if Spinoza came to a view of determinism and its consequences for free will and/or love. Spinoza’s thinking didn’t result in a great philosophical leap forward. Plenty of philosophers – never mind the ever-present ‘divines’ – persisted, and persist still, in their contrary views. Yes indeed, Spinoza’s view now seems ever more plausible. But any plausibility is founded on an increasing body of scientific evidence. If the matter is resolved, the answers will not come from introspection and any resultant fine words. Indeed, the very questions themselves cannot come from philosophical work: the research programmes of those working on the neuroscience of love or free will are not usefully informed by philosophers’ musings.

    The drift of the informed remarks from Don and Ron above reinforces that the current debate finds its drive in modern insights gained from hard evidence plus the scientific weighing of that evidence. It matters not a jot whether we ‘like’ the idea of love being explained in mechanistic, deterministic ways. If that’s the way it is, then philosophers will have to accept the traffic cop’s imperative to ‘move along – nothing of interest here’. That’s what has happened to such much of what was previously exclusively ‘their’ territory. Is a philospher actually some sort of intellectually glorified journalist ‘commenting’ on matters where others really do the digging?

  5. s. wallerstein

    Dr. Caffeine:

    If you’re wondering why Spinoza matters, you might take a look a this book by Jonathan Israel on the Radical Enlightenment, which, according to Israel, goes back to Spinoza.

  6. Yes, of course. Spinoza is regarded as one of the trigger thinkers of the Enlightenment. And one might argue, as many do (evidently including Jonathan Israel), that that thread leads right up to the present day through the liberation of thought upon which modern science critically depends. But apart from the fascination and pleasure to be had today in following a (his)story, it is hard to lay claim to progress being a clear result of Spinoza’s writings, or any other such. Much as we have no reason to worry now about Newton’s alchemy (what a waste of his time!), so too I think it valid to judge that the philosophy project failed to deliver unequivocal progress. Science (and its practical application) has held the trump card since its beginnings; it works. It is independent of the observer (or ‘user’). It is universally (or at the very least world-wide) valid. There are no ‘popes’. When correctly conducted, the outcome of science rules, not any particular scientist.

    We fall into an easy trap when looking backwards if we identify resonances of today’s plausible views in older writings. Of course, we can’t do the experiment of removing these purported influences and seeing whether we would still reach today’s insights. However, we can see that the sheer breadth of philosophical notions in Spinoza’s time is no less today, nor at any time in between. Where is the achievement of clarity, the generally accepted sidelining of error in philosophical thought? How does philosophy tell what within its project is robust, reliable, correct? How would it ‘know’ it had made progress? What I believe the scientific method has uniquely achieved in human thought is to reduce uncertainty and to contrain speculation usefully to those understandings that are both possible and probable. When the sceintific test of the hypothesis fails we can tick off one explanation confidently, permanently. The answer must lie elsewhere.

    The aspect I raised above is that the very questions being asked are not set by philosophy, much less are realiable answers forthcoming there. At present we can see, for example, that neuroscience (in the broadest sense) might well make progress in understanding consciousness. But even if not, the ‘better-frying-pan’ spin-offs remain fantastic. (And I include it providing the substrate for the present debate; Love, Voles et al.) Perhaps “fantastic” the more so for being unplanned, unimagined, unexpected. Science hadn’t set out explicitly to explain the origins of Mankind when Darwin (and so many others) addressed the biological question of the origin of species. But that previously unstated question found its answer. Indeed, in many ways the ‘answer’ provoked the ‘question’ in reverse. The consequences have been tremendous, not least for understanding the human condition in ways previously, quite literally, unimaginable. Philosophers might well still be picking over the bones of that discovery on what they take to be ‘their’ territory, but it can’t be construed as having arisen from philosophical deliberations, those of Spinoza or anybody else.

  7. s. wallerstein

    Dr. Caffeine:

    First of all, Jonathan Israel does claim that progress is a result of Spinoza’s writings, not scientific progress as such, but the intellectual climate of critical inquiry and tolerance which Spinoza advocates in his works and which spreads through Europe as a subversive tendency known as “Spinozism”. That climate makes scientific investigation possible.

    However, you raise a broader question about the value of philosophy.

    I don’t see philosophy competing with science. If it does, it will lose, as you point it.

    I’m not a professional philosopher nor have I ever studied it systematically, but it seems to me that philosophy is a bunch of people who enjoy asking what my father called “sophomoric questions”. That’s how it started out, with Socrates asking his sophomoric or silly or stupid questions and after all the pretentions to compete with science are over, that’s how it may end. Since you enjoy commenting here, I get the impression that you too like asking questions and being around others who do. It’s a form of sociability; it harms no one; it’s not fattening; it doesn’t hurt your liver or pollute the environment.

  8. @ s wallerstein

    Yupp, your analysis (of me) is right. These sophomor(on?)ic questions are irresistible to some of us. I agree with your hope that neither our livers nor the environment is harmed by this – no animals were harmed in the making of these comments …

    As for Spinoza’s influence, it is then just as I had suggested. Jonathan Israel did indeed draw a thread backwards to conclude that the intellectual environment required for free-thinking science came from the work of Spinoza’s and other near-contemporary philosophers . My point is that this is itself a philosopher’s assertion (I think Jonathan Israel can be described as such), albeit a very common one.

    However, it must be just as credible to assert that there was, by Spinoza’s time, the clear beginnings of real, uncontestable success by science (i.e. by the modern scientific method) in untangling patterns of the physical and biological world for the first time. The work of e.g. Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Vesalius, Harvey, Huygens, Pascal, Toricelli etc (who significantly predate Spinoza) or of Newton, Leibnitz, Hooke, Boyle and many others (near contemporaries of Spinoza) was already bearing clear fruits in application(industry, commerce, navigation, medicine) as well as in raw theory.

    Remember that the philosophers had been asking their sophomoric questions for millenia with little obvious of progress (or Enlightenment) until this period of modern scientific flowering. However, once science had started to throw off the shackles (in western thought, those imposed by an overweaning church for well over 1000 years) and proved practically successful, then philosophers too could (had to?) begin to ponder and publish, the previously unthinkable. It doesn’t appeal to my own romantic or political sensitivities much, but it could well be that the huge ‘mercenary’ value of successful science forced the intellectual and political world to realise that those old shackles had to come off. In short, there was money in it and lots of it.

    Remember too that the history of the enlightenment has been written by arts-side folk. Thus, it seems to me, their assertion of that history has been left uncontested for too long. They have it that the chicken and egg of Western progress started with an arts-side Enlightenment that then ‘released’ the empiricist physicists, chemists, mathematicians, biologists and medics. Most scientists, at least the greatest of them, have not devoted time and energy to the bookish pursuit of telling the Story of the Enlightenment. The writing of the story has thus been left, by default, to those who territory routinely covers these matters of history and of cultural evolution. You frequently read in such histories of the ‘interest’ shown, even dabblings in, contemporary science by arts-side heroes and heroines. Such an arts-based, but patronising, reportage of the relative significance of the sciences in Enlightenment thought has thus become the accepted story, at least to arts-side readers!

    So, to my way of thinking, the philosophers once again do not show progress. Even what they trumpet as their own best hobby horse (a nice mixed metaphor, no?), the Enlightenment, is not down to them.

  9. s. wallerstein

    Dr. Caffeine:

    As you well know, in the 17th century, the arts-science divide was not at all clear. Pascal and Leibnitz, whom you cite above as scientists, were also philosophers (and Pascal a bit of a theologian).

    Spinoza himself experimented with light and lenses: he was a lens-grinder. He was in contact with the Royal Society in Great Britain: his letters, discussing light, to Henry Oldenburg are available in his collected correspondence.

    He was not a great scientist. Perhaps besides being a seminal liberal thinker, in favor of tolerance and open debate of ideas, he and Hobbes (who was a bit older) are the first clearly naturalist philosophers, his philosophy having no room for anything supernatural. Whether he was a pantheist or an atheist is not clear: the Spinoza expert, Steven Nadler, claims that he is an atheist.

    I think that you would be mistaken if you try to analyze the 17th century in terms of the 21st century. While today’s scientists may need to read no philosophy before getting to work, scientists in the 17th century may have benefitted from Spinoza’s naturalism, since no thinker before him had developped such a consistently naturalistic viewpoint, as far as I know.

    Jonathan Israel, by the way, is not a philosopher, but a historian at Princeton University. Since the study of history depends on evidence, letters, documents, diaries, contemporary accounts, etc., I wonder why you exclude it from your list of kosher evidence-based sciences.
    I know that history departments are grouped with less evidence-based fields such as literary theory, but that is a bureaucratic division, which does not reflect methods used.

    A good historian is like a detective, not an arm-chair metaphysician.

    It seems strange that someone like you would endorse the post-modern theory that history is only a story. While history is not an exact science, some historical accounts are more accurate than others. I am not enough a historian to say whether Jonathan Israel’s account is the most accurate, but in order to refute him, you’d have to provide more evidence than you have so far.

  10. Yes, thanks for the admonition, that’s all fine. I must acknowledge that I haven’t justified my ‘case’ very well above. That book remains to be written, so excuse if you can my corner-cutting and cheap-headline approach. But I still believe Spinoza sits in just the place I described; he is somebody whose philosophical notions retain interest for us now (and yes, have done continuously in ‘enlightened’ thought) principally because he found himself on the side that was increasingly supported by the new knowledge. If not, his work would be on the heap to which little attention is paid, except by those engaged in the fascinating (and valid) disciplines that excavate the history of thought. But being found on the correct side post hoc doesn’t require, or show, that he was in any significant sense breaking the ground for contemporary or later scientists.

    My contention remains that the interpretation of Spinoza’s standing (eg by historian Jonathan Israel) remains heavily coloured by the ‘arts-side’ analysis (ok, perhaps too patronising a label as I have used it). This goes back to a point I made in response to Mike LaB’s first piece in this Vole series – that introspection, pure philosophy’s sole tool, can’t deliver the goods. I’m asserting that, when it seems to deliver, it is because a retrospective analysis, the ‘history’ if you will, can’t fail but pick up those strands that fit the most-plausible current story. Thus, I don’t think it is hair-splitting to differentiate what I might call the scientist-philosphers, who are in the driving seat, from the philosopher-scientists, who are fellow travellers. I’m suggesting that the interpretation of the events, or at least the emphasis in an analysis like Israel’s, is understandably reversed because such writers come from what became a fundamentally different tradition. In modern times, the gulf between any scientist-philosopher and philosopher-scientist is much wider than in Spinoza’s day. Thus, profound scientific advances expounded in a philosophical vein by the likes of Feynman, Hawking, Dawkins or Crick stand in a different place to what some would judge (another disparaging description) as the ‘commentary’ by jobbing philosophers (no names, no pack-drill). (The recent spat triggered with philosophers by Stephen Hawking as to whether scientists ‘need’ philosophy is a case in point.)

    One of the arguments I offered in evidence is that the ‘questions’ are neither set by philosophy, nor are ‘answers’ forthcoming. In my reading, ‘answers’ of interest to philosophers spill out of science all the time. These emergent truths can then define where philosophy might sensibly go. But philosophy could not have driven us to the now-plausible idea that love might be ‘just’ hormones. (An extreme shorthand, but you know what I mean). There are many other examples. I am particularly interested in insights gained from ‘neuro’ phenomena such as ‘blind-sight’ (Nicholas Humphrey); here we discover that sight (=vision) does not require conscious awareness. The whole edifice of philosophical thought around the concept of ‘idealism’ (as in Plato, or in Bishop Berkeley’s writing – interestingly reviewed on Radio 4 today in the UK) can be sidelined. We have great difficulty in comprehending what blind-sight ‘means’, yet it is a phenomenon that reveals something profound about the processes we label as human consciousness and the mind. Such insights into brain function could not come from introspection. Whether or not such phenomena can be ‘interpreted’ as consistent with Cartesian, Lockeian, Berkeleyian or Humeian thought will no doubt have provided fodder for philosophy PhDs.

    I contend that the challenge remains whether philosophical propositions – notions gained from pure introspection – are capabable of delivering new insights (=progress). Here I acknowledge that pure introspection does work in the realm of (pure) mathematics. But we are well aware that the rules, as well as the language, of that game are qualitatively different from philosophy. (Not for nothing is mathematics described as the queen of the sciences.) So I still contend, as in my earlier remarks, philosophy sensu stricto failed to deliver the Enlightenment; that required the modern scientific method to gain traction (albeit that many of its exponents dabbled, less productively, in some philosophising!). That 17th and 18th century philosophy rather abruptly had a lot more grist to its mill and thus flowered in its own terms, I take to support that contention.

  11. s. wallerstein

    Dr. Caffeine:

    It seems very strange that someone like you who becries armchair metaphysics refuses to accept the historical scholarship of Jonathan Israel about Spinoza’s role in the enlightenment, which is based on evidence and research. You seem to be doing armchair history.

    As I said previously, I am not a philosopher nor have I studied it systematically. However, as I also said above,
    I see philosophy as Socratic, as asking questions (hopefully good questions and the question of what is a good question is a philosophical question) and trying to get people to examine their lives. While I would do say, with Socrates, that the unexamined life is not worth living, I would say that the examined life is worth living.

    You ask: why do philosophy today? Well, that is a philosophical question. So when you ask “why do philosophy”?, you are doing it.

    Now no one knows less about the philosophy of science than I do, so I will not try to stand up for it. It may be that scientists like Hawkins ask good philosophical questions about science, better ones than philosophers of science do, and that means that Hawkins is doing philosophy of science.

    I can’t see how science can function without philosophical questions of some sort, although they may be raised by working scientists rather than by professional philosophers.

    You seem to confuse at times philosophical questions and those asked by professional philosophers. Not all professional philosophers ask good philosophical questions all the time. However, if Hawkins and Dawkins sometimes ask better philosophical questions than some professional philosophers, that is not a criticism of philosophical questions.

    The Socratic method seems to go better with ethical questions than with those involved with the philosophy of science, but I assume that among scientists and philosophers of science a Socratic dialogue is possible and would be fruitful.

    Good ethical questions are raised by many philosophers, among them, Peter Singer, who gets me to reflect upon what I owe to poor people on the other side of the planet and to examine whether my eating habits are consistent with my other ethical principles.

    It is true that to a certain extent we select the ethical thinkers we read to justify or rationalize what we already believe and do ethically, but we also learn from dialogue, as I have from this dialogue with you.

  12. @Jim Houston

    Thanks again for another valid admonition. (It’s daunting to realise how many thoughtful and careful readers and writers there are out there – well perhaps ‘encouraging’ is more appropriate). Yes, I have lazily used ‘intospection’ as a feeble shorthand for whatever it is that goes on in conscious thought alone. Could I perhaps have deployed ‘ratiocination’ to describe what ‘pure’ philosophy might be using?

    Part of the problem is that we have no clear concept, and thus no cast-iron term, to describe the process of thinking. Indeed, it’s not so clear whether there are truly different modes of thinking that rigourously distinguish amongst the mathematical-rational, linguistic-grammatical and creative-fanciful versions of grey-matter doings. I wanted to try the idea that ‘introspection’ might convey some sense of what happens when we ponder the goings-on that are our own mind (or ‘of our own mind’ as some would put it). I mean here ‘investigation’ without any neurophysiological, anatomical, psychological other scientific (i.e. observer independent) tools being deployed – i.e. simply thinking about it. I am reinforcing that ‘looking inwards’ is all one has in such circumstances.

    But the words really do count, it’s certainly all we have on this website, so thanks for making the critique.

  13. I see introspection as a method the brain uses to think about its own thinking processes (or about its bodily experiences, feelings, and so on), rather than the process of thinking generally, about anything and everything. These are all reasonable things for a brain to do.

    This becomes complicated and problematic when the brain is using introspection to think about its own thinking process and then inferring from that conclusions about how brains actually work.

    There are two distinct tasks brains perform in this respect: there is the personal thinking about introspective experience as a mental experience a brain has; and then there is the third party empirical science about the brain, whether it’s one’s own or brains generally.

    I think the main objection to some modern philosophers, with regard to brains, is that they think they can achieve something of the latter by only engaging in the former.

    On the point of philosophy, or philosophers, I appreciate what both s wallerstein and DrCaffeine are saying. I think the general point is that yes, philosophers, and theologians for that matter, contributed to The Enlightenment, as one would expect of educated people embarking on or contributing to an emerging set of disciplines that would become science. However, just as science as been developed to improve the rigour of its methodologies, from very simple and often mistaken or poor methods to the far more controlled investigations we have now, it has left pure reasoning philosophy behind as a means of investigating the world. Any ‘natural philosophers’ became scientists, by their actions.

    The philosophy of Locke, Hume and others was a starting point, and was important in that it started to challenge the grip on thinking that theology had. Descartes in digging deep into his doubt in good philosophical fashion lost it completely on the way back up, because he was committed to finding the God that he’d already decided was there. This is a common problem for philosophy today – prior commitments to old philosophical notions, probably instilled through a philosophy education and academia devoid of science.

    But even where the enlightenment philosophers were still comitted theists, or merely judicious ones, their free thinking contributed to thinking about stuff, if not to actually doing stuff. They were enlightenment thinkers if not enlightenment doers. It was the doing, the empirical investigations, that proved useful, but free thinking gave reign to free investigation.

    Nor must we dismiss the fact that much nascent science was thought by its investigators to be discovering God’s works. If we can allow theologians credit for the empirical work they did, while criticising the theological faith based assertions that motivated them, I don’t see why we can’t acknowledge the contribution to free thinking, where it occurred, even if those philosophers also had some cock-eyed ideas too. I mean, it’s not as if today we don’t have respected scientists that have crazy ideas (Francis Collins).

    This history doesn’t stop philosophers now studying and engaging with and commenting on science, no more than anyone else. Some do it very well. But any philosopher that wants to comment on the brain, or it’s mental model, the mind, needs to engage thoroughly with the brain sciences. It’s no good bleating about how important philosophy is, compared to science, while commenting on science and at the same time clearly not being aware of what current science is telling us. DrCaffeine mentioned ‘blind-sight’. There are lots of other details that address many simplistic philosophical notions about mind and consciousness that still persist from less informed times.

Leave a Comment

NOTE - You can use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>