Monday, December 17, 2012

Steven Nadler, A Book Forged in Hell (2011)

In 1632, Galileo Galilei published a book entitled Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World SystemsThe book compared the Copernican System, in which the earth is described as orbiting the sun, with the Ptolemaic System, in which everything in the universe circles the earth.  A year later, based on the views expressed in the Dialogue. Galileo was convicted of heresy and the book was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books, a list of publications prohibited by the Catholic Church because they were considered immoral due to theological errors.   Galileo knew the Church might be provoked by the book, because it defended the Copernican System.  Despite the fact that three paragraphs in the Bible stated that the earth did not move and the sun circled around the earth, Galileo had hopes he could persuade friends in the Church that the Copernican System was not a theological error.  St. Augustine, after all, took the view that not every word in the Bible was to be taken literally, and this should be the case with respect to the biblical assertions that the earth did not move. Galileo did not prevail with the Church in his defense of the Copernican System.  His book was banned, and he lived another nine years, the remainder of his life, under house arrest.   Of course, we now know that Galileo and Copernicus were right, the Church was wrong and it took the Church a couple of centuries to admit it was wrong.

Baruch Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632, the same year that the Dialogue was published:  a coincidence tinged with irony given the course Spinoza's life would take over the next 45 years.  A Book Forged in Hell, Spinoza's Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age is Spinoza biographer, Steven Nadler's third book about Spinoza's life, but in this book the subject is narrowed to Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico Politicus and what prompted Spinoza to not only write the book but also publish it during his lifetime (albeit anonymously, deceptively listing the location and name of the publisher).  Spinoza had written a number of unpublished works, several of which were never completed, and some of which were manuscripts circulated among a small group of intellectual sympathizers who questioned the divinity of Jesus, the nature of God, and organized religion and its relationship to the State.  In 17th century conservative, Calvinist Netherlands, these views were heresy. Fortunately for Spinoza, control of the Dutch Government was in the hands of Johan DeWitt and his States faction who favored religious toleration and opposed government oversight and censorship of religion. Spinoza did not rush to publish, because he knew he faced a Galilean type threat as well.  As Nadler describes it, Spinoza hoped to undercut ecclesiastic influence in politics and other domains and weaken the sectarian dangers facing liberal Netherlands.  Notwithstanding a formal policy of freedom of religion, Spinoza was taking on powerful clerical voices who sought to influence public policy.

In the March 12, 2012 post discussing Spinoza's Emendation of the Intellect (1660), his first unpublished, unfinished manuscript, the origin of Spinoza's post-excommunication intellectual journey is revealed.  "After experience had taught me the hollowness and futility of everything that is ordinarily encountered in daily life," he wrote, "and I realized that all the things which were the source and object of my anxiety held nothing of good or evil in themselves save insofar as the mind was influenced by them, I resolved at length to enquire whether there existed a true good, one which was capable of communicating itself and could alone affect the mind to the exclusion of all else, whether, in fact, there was something whose discovery and acquisition would afford me a continuous and supreme joy to all eternity."  He seeks to know "true good" by understanding "the circumstances with which the fictitious, the false, and the doubtful perception are concerned, and how we may be delivered from each of them."  The "true good" can be discovered by being delivered from superstition.  The pursuit of being delivered from superstition remained with Spinoza in writing the Tractatus, and through the end of his life.

By the time Spinoza published the Tractatus Theologico Politicus (Theological Political Treatise) in 1670, he had more or less completed his Ethics, which remained unpublished until after his death in 1677.  The Ethics was Spinoza's systematic view of nature, which he labeled 'god,' expressed in a Cartesian manner of postulates and proofs.  (See March 6, 2012 post).  A few friends had seen manuscripts of The Ethics, but for most reading the Tractatus, they would not have appreciated Spinoza's systematic view of nature, god and religion.  He had a reputation across Europe for being an atheist, although there was nothing in print by his hand that confirmed that reputation.  According to Steven Nadler, correcting that reputation was one of Spinoza's motivations for publishing the Tractatus.  The Tractatus failed to change his reputation, but ironically if we are looking for one book --- more than any other --- to discover the roots (although perhaps not the blueprint) of the American Constitution --- democratic, representative government that protected the individual's freedom to philosophize or practice religion and express himself without public sanction, it would be the reputed atheist's Tractatus.  Modern American religious fundamentalists would shiver and bristle at that notion, but it is undeniable.  Why would they shiver and bristle?  Here is how Nadler's fine biography about a book summarizes Spinoza's views in the Tractatus:

A central tenet of Spinoza's system, as explained in The Ethics, is the unity of nature:  everything in nature consists of substance (what I would label material); nature operates by discoverable laws.  Spinoza does not elaborate on this in the Tractatus, and hence the reader of the Tractatus in Spinoza's lifetime does not fully appreciate the worldview that Spinoza brings to the Tractatus.  The unity of nature has consequences for the proper way to look at religion: mind and body are both part of the single substance; there is nothing in the nature of the infinite universe that is immaterial, there are no forms that exist separate from reality, there are no spirits, no ghosts (holy or otherwise), and there is nothing transcendent.  This leaves little room for the way the human mind typically conceives the attributes of god and the human "soul."  Human mental life is made up of various passions and actions, which are determined just like everything else in nature. We know this now, nearly four and one-half centuries later, and Spinoza was not the first to advance the materiality of everything in the universe.    And even if the reader of the Tractatus in Spinoza's lifetime had read The Ethics and appreciated Spinoza's systematic worldview of the universe, humanity, and mental life, it is doubtful Spinoza would have been able to save his reputation.  While it is true, as I say, that we know now that thought and action are both material, it is also true that we still don't know it now.

Humans are natural born dualists, says Michael Gazzaniga.  (See September 27, 2009 post).  Paul Bloom has documented that dualism emerges early in the child's mind; children naturally see the world as two distinct domains: physical objects and real events, and mental states and entities.  While children show they know they have a brain and they use it for thinking, they do not understand that the brain is needed for physical action and consequently thinking and action are assigned to different parts of reality.  As Pascal Boyer writes in Religion Explained, "A human mind is not condemned to consider and represent only what is currently going on in its immediate environment.  Indeed, human minds are remarkable in the amount of time they spend thinking about what is not here and now.  Fiction is the most salient illustration. . . One of the easiest things for human minds to do is to produce inferences on the basis of false premises,such as, 'If I had had lunch I would not be hungry now.'  This can focus on future possibilities too.  Worries about what would happen if the roof caved in and came crashing down on your head do not require the usual input (e.g., seeing the roof coming down) and do not produce the normal output (an attempt to dash off as fast as possible).  This is why psychologists say that these thoughts are decoupled from their standard inputs and outputs. *** Decoupled cognition is crucial to human cognition because we depend so much on information communicated by others.  To evaluate information provided by others, you must build some mental simulation of what they describe."  Previous posts have elaborated on this decoupling mechanism within the human brain.  (See June 12, 2011 post, June 28, 2011 post, and February 15, 2012 post).  This "decoupling of thoughts from their standard inputs and outputs" is part and parcel of what enables humans to engage in self-deception and deception, the subject of Robert Trivers' The Folly of Fools. (See February 4, 2012 post).  Religion has its foundation in this decoupling.  (December 5, 2012 post, February 4, 2012 post, June 12, 2011 post, May 22, 2011 post and September 9, 2010 post). And as I have said in previous posts, so does science.  (See July 30, 2011 post).  The difference is that science is subject to test and verification. Religion is not and resides entirely in the imagination.  Spinoza's materialism or monism is at the core of his differences with the ecclesiasticals of his time, and it would be at the core of any differences with religious fundamentalists today.

Gods and Prophets.  Nadler describes Spinoza's account of God as follows.  "[B]ehind the major organized religions lies a a certain convenient but ultimately irreverent and harmful conception of God.  The superstitious rites and ceremonies of Judaism and Christianity, calculated to win God's favor and avoid his wrath, rest on the false assumption that God is very much a rational agent, endowed as we are with a psychological life and moral character.  God is, in other words, supposed to be a kind of person, possessed of intelligence, will, desire, and even emotion.  The Judaeo-Christian deity is a wise and just God, a transcendent providential being who has purposes and expectations, makes commands and judgments, and is capable of great acts of mercy and vengeance.***It is precisely this traditional religious picture of God that Spinoza rejects [in The Ethics] as foolish anthropomorphism.*** God is not some goal-oriented planner who then judges things by how well they conform to his purposes.  Things happen only because of Nature and its laws. *** To believe otherwise is precisely what leads to those superstitions that are so easily manipulated by preachers and rabbis."

Spinoza rejects revealed religion.  "Central to all faiths in the Abrahamic tradition is prophecy," Nadler says, "or the idea that certain people are endowed with the special gift to receive and pass on the word of God.  Like the power of diviners and seers of pagan antiquity, this endowment is usually construed as the ability to access information not available to others or by ordinary means.  The prophet may be someone who is the direct recipient of divine revelation, a beneficiary of angelic mediation, or simply an inspired interpreter of signs that God has placed before humankind.  He may have a real foreknowledge of the future, or a less infallible but still reliable ability to predict what the outcome of events will be, based perhaps on special interpretive powers to read the significance of past and present states of affairs.  Prophetic power may, on some accounts, be a supernatural gift or it may be grounded in natural faculties.  The information can come to the prophet by way of visions, or dreams, or (in the rarest instance) it might result from an unmediated encounter with God himself."  The evolution of this profession within human social structures was the subject of the previous post. "In Spinoza's system," says Nadler, "there is no transcendent God exercising supernatural, ad hoc communications.  There is room for divine revelation, but only in a very particular sense.  Because for Spinoza God is identical with Nature, and all human knowledge is natural, it follows that all human knowledge is divine.  If God is Nature understood as active, substantial cause of all things, then whatever is brought about by Nature and its laws is, by definition, brought about by God.  The human mind being as much a part of Nature as anything else is, its cognitive states all follow ultimately from 'God or Nature.'***When 'prophecy' or 'divine revelation' is correctly understood in this broad sense, as whatever knowledge casually and cognitively depends on God, then it includes natural knowledge.  More specifically, it includes philosophy and science, as well as other products of the intellect, and is therefore 'common to us all men."  And here is the crux of what bothers Spinoza about prophecy: prophecy is no more or less divine than any other kind of knowledge including science and philosophy, and prophets, ecclesiasticals, rabbis and preachers have no special claim to the truth and there is no reason why their authority should be superior to any other authority.  We see here, Spinoza continuing the theme that he began with in the Emendation of the Intellect (see March 12, 2012 post):  "I resolved at length to enquire whether there existed a true good, one which was capable of communicating itself and could alone affect the mind to the exclusion of all else, whether, in fact, there was something whose discovery and acquisition would afford me a continuous and supreme joy to all eternity."  Although Spinoza does not exactly say it this way, Spinoza is telling us exactly what I said two paragraphs ago in the penultimate sentence:  "science is subject to test and verification. Religion is not and resides entirely in the imagination."  For Spinoza, Nadler says, "prophecy is a highly subjective affair.  It is an individualistic product shaped by both nature and nurture.*** Since Joshua was no astronomer, he believed that the earth does not move and that the sun goes around the earth."

Miracles.  Spinoza's treatment of miracles rests on the same foundational view of Nature.  "Nothing happens in Nature that does not follow from her laws . . .her laws cover everything that is conceived even by the divine intellect, and . . . Nature observes a fixed and immutable order."  Belief in miracles, according to Spinoza, is not an expression of divine insight, but of ignorance.  "Miracles and ignorance are the same," wrote Spinoza.  "The word miracle can be understood only with respect to men's beliefs, and means simply an event whose natural cause we --- or at any rate the writer or narrator of the miracle---cannot explain by comparison with any other normal event."  Spinoza does not merely anticipate David Hume nearly a century later, (see February 27, 2011 post) who believed that miracles were not believable because a person does or does not have good reason to believe something, but Spinoza says that miracles are impossible.  This is the Spinoza of the Emendation of the Intellect written ten years earlier in pursuit of a true good that was capable of communicating itself, free of superstition.

Scripture.  If there was one subject in the Tractatus that was likely to confirm in the minds of god-believing persons that Spinoza was an atheist, it was Spinoza's view of scripture.  He was very knowledgeable about the contents of the The Bible.  He studied The Bible closely, and he had studied the views of others who commented on it.  Spinoza was not the first to adopt the view that scripture was a human document --- like a novel or a work of history --- and was not supernaturally delivered.  "It is not a message for mankind sent down by God from heaven."  Spinoza's view of the historical compilation and editing of The Bible is now widely accepted.  The ultimate teaching of scripture, says Spinoza, whether it is the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Gospels, is found in the various expressions of a single, universal mantra:  the Golden Rule (reciprocal altruism).  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  And as the previous series of posts have demonstrated, this universal expression across all cultures has natural, not divine supernatural origins.  (See September 12, 2012 post, September 17, 2012 post, and November 21, 2012 post). 

Judaism and Christianity.  In his discussion of organized religion, Spinoza says that what really defines them is their ceremonial rituals.  These rituals contribute nothing to blessedness.  They contribute only to group identity.  Rituals are not divine or supernatural in their origin.  Organized religions are a source of divisiveness in society.  (See for example December 2, 2011 post and April 1, 2012 post). Nadler points out that Spinoza's critique of organized religion focuses heavily on Judaism, and less so on Christianity.  This led some to believe that he had a favorable view of Yeshua and that he had accepted Christianity.  Nadler dismisses this for the simple reason that Spinoza's systematic worldview of nature, his view of miracles, prophets and God, would not tolerate that conclusion.

Religion and the State.  If Spinoza's views on scripture, organized religion, miracles and prophecy were not enough to alarm the ecclesiasticals, his views on the proper form of government would have alarmed the political leadership across Europe, many of who claimed their political legitimacy by the Divine Right of Kings.  Religion and political power, though separate, were mutually accommodating because they needed each other.  (See previous post).  Religious leadership curried favor with national crowns and was highly influential; political leadership reciprocated to legitimize the purported divine derivation of its authority.  It should not be surprising that ecclesiasticals and monarchs would share a common view of Spinoza.

Spinoza was a social contractarian.  As Nadler writes about Spinoza's views, "Political obligation is, at least in principle if not in historical fact, the result of a rational, voluntary agreement among individuals to hand over their right and power to pursue their own advantage to a common authority and to be governed by the will of all insofar as this will is guided by reason.  What they receive in turn is peace, a more secure life, and the stable enjoyment of the goods they value."  For this reason, individuals submit to an all-powerful state.  But for Spinoza, unlike his contemporary Thomas Hobbes, who shared Spinoza's views on religion, the all-powerful state does not have to invest sovereignty in a single individual or monarchy.  For Spinoza, it can be given to the people at-large.  A democratic polity is more stable from Spinoza's point of view:  when a sovereign becomes tyrannical and self-serving, citizens will resist authority and take back the power they originally gave to the sovereign.  "Democracy is the most natural form of state; approaching most closely to that freedom which nature grants to every man.  For in a democratic state nobody transfers his natural right to another so completely that thereafter he is not to be consulted; he transfers it to the majority of the entire community of which he is a a part." 

Notwithstanding his views on democracy, Spinoza was skeptical about the wisdom of the masses.  As Spinoza states in The Ethics, "It rarely happens that men live according to the guidance of reason.  Instead, their lives are so constituted that they are usually envious and burdensome to one another." Nadler is not the first to observe that Spinoza did not hold common humans in high esteem.  This is not to say that he was contemptuous of the masses.  But he did believe that there were certain people who, like Plato's "philosopher king," were "philosophically gifted," and enjoyed a capacity to understand Nature in a way that most people did not.  Those who were philosophically gifted were not enslaved to passions, gullible to superstition, or stuck in ritual.  Obviously, Spinoza would have treated himself as philosophically gifted.  But Spinoza believed firmly that a democratic sovereign would properly reflect the public will and determine the public good.

The democratic state, in Spinoza's view, could not tolerate the intermeddling of the ecclesiasticals, who "represent a threat not only to progress in philosophy and science, but to the well-being of the state as well," says Nadler.  "In fact, the ability of clergy to exercise censorship over philosophical inquiry is directly proportional to the influence in domestic politics.  Spinoza's argument in the Treatise for the freedom of philosophizing in the state is thus, at the same time, an argument for a state in which sectarian religious authorities have no influence over public affairs, including intellectual and cultural matters.  In the end, Spinoza goes even further and argues that religion, to the extent it is a matter of practice and public activity, is to be controlled by the secular leaders of society."  This latter view does not sound entirely in sync with the First Amendment of the American Constitution and it is not.  According to Nadler, Spinoza did believe that when it comes to religious belief, people should be left alone to believe (or not believe) whatever they want.  Furthermore, Spinoza believed that the free expression of one's religious beliefs should be tolerated by the state and the state should not prosecute anyone for heresy or atheism.  But for Spinoza, the expression of religion was not entirely free from political regulation.  That is true for the First Amendment of the American Constitution to a very limited extent, where the Government can show a compelling state interest.  But the First Amendment's separation of church and state has been interpreted by the US Supreme Court to prohibit the State from endorsing a particular set of religious practices or forms of worship.  For Spinoza, the sovereign was responsible for the "interpretation of religion."  The governing body in a democracy has authority to decide how religion is to be translated into practice, since it has the authority to decide what conduct is consistent with the public good. It was Spinoza's view, according to Nadler, that the "greatest threat to civil peace --- both in theory and as ancient (biblical) and contemporary (Dutch) events have shown --- is the divisions introduced into society by sectarian religion.  The multiplication of large, unregulated religious bodies, even the existence of one sizable congregation independent of the official public one, poses a danger to even a powerful and prosperous society.  Organized religions set citizens against each other --- Christians against Jews, Protestants against Catholics, Protestants against other Protestants --- and more important, against the state itself.  As soon as there are alternative sources of authority besides the sovereign, the citizens are divided."   Recall that in Spinoza's view, God is not a ruler, lawgiver.  The sovereign people are lawgivers.  "When priests and preachers acquire the authority to issue decrees and to transact government business, their individual ambitions will know no bounds, and the will each seek self-glorification both in religious and secular matters.  They will fall out among themselves, increasing sectarian divisions in society.  Corruption will necessarily follow, as the affairs of state will be run according to the self-interest of whichever sect happens to gain the reins of power."

But we find in Spinoza's Tractatus the combination of democratic republican government, the free expression of religion and the right of even heretics to be free from government persecution.  What Spinoza is more broadly interested in is the freedom to philosophize, free from not only government persecution but also from religious persecution.  This also reflects the freedom of speech component of the First Amendment as well.  It is this combination of democracy and tolerance that finds its way into the American Constitution and puts Spinoza as the seminal advocate for the political religious foundations that became enshrined in the American Constitution.

As with Galileo's book, the ecclesiastical authorities marshaled support from the political authorities to ban the Tractatus, even in the tolerant Netherlands.   Spinoza was never able to to persuade the Christian community, as he hoped.  It is difficult to categorize Spinoza, including claiming he was an atheist, and this is true for the ecclesiasticals of his time as well the 20th century Nazis who could not figure out why German intellectuals held him in high regard.  (See April 1, 2012 post).  But Nadler correctly concludes, "Without a doubt, the Theological Political Treatise is one of the most important books in the history of philosophy, in religious and political thought, and even in Bible studies.  More than any other work, it laid the foundation for modern critical and historical approaches to the Bible.  And while often overlooked in books on the history of political thought the Treatise also has a proud and well-deserved place in the rise of democratic theory, civil liberties, and political liberalism.  The ideas of the Treatise inspired republican revolutionaries in England, America and France, and it encourage early modern anticlerical and antisectarian movements."

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