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Spinoza - going rogue way before Sarah!


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A presentation on the Dutch philosopher Spinoza (1632-1677) - the man, his ideas, and his influence. Mostly visual, with photos, cartoons, and paintings, and much humor.

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Spinoza - going rogue way before Sarah!

  1. 1. Spinoza
  2. 2. The Spin on Spinoza by Dave Shafer Fairfield, CT
  3. 3. • Spinoza in his time and place (Spinoza in context) • Spinoza the philosopher • Spinoza the humanist Presentation outline
  4. 4. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677)
  5. 5. In 1632 Spinoza was born, then was circumcised by the mohel of the Portuguese Jews of Amsterdam
  6. 6. Spinoza, the man • Born and lived in Amsterdam (1632-1677) • Family was Portuguese Crypto-Jews, then later reverted to Judaism when left Spain for Holland • Mother died when he was 6 years old, father when he was 22 • Extended family was prosperous merchants • Education at Hebrew school, with added secular tutors at home.
  7. 7. Spinoza was a serious student
  8. 8. Spinoza the linguist • Knew Portuguese and Spanish from parents • Knew Dutch from his environment • Knew Hebrew from religious school • Learned Latin from a tutor • Knew some French and Italian • Maybe some German from a German tutor who taught him Latin • Self- taught in some Greek
  9. 9. Born in Amsterdam, died in the Hague
  10. 10. Amsterdam in 1660
  11. 11. Spinoza lived during the Dutch “Golden Age”. Cheap energy from windpower fed sawmills and made Holland a world boat building and shipping power (think Dutch East Indies). This prosperity and a society that welcomed artists, scientists, philosophers and religious diversity made Holland a hotbed for new ideas and an ideal place for Spinoza – who pushed to the limits and then far beyond, which ideas could be tolerated.
  12. 12. It was a “Little Ice Age” in Europe – unusually cold, for decades
  13. 13. Amsterdam Town Hall
  14. 14. Dam Square, commerce heart of city
  15. 15. Dutch tulip mania peaked in 1637, when Spinoza was 5 years old. This particular bulb type set a record as selling for 10X the annual earnings of a skilled craftsman, for just one bulb!
  16. 16. Dutch tulip mania – the first of modern “bubbles” bursting
  17. 17. Amsterdam synagogue built right after Spinoza’s death – regarded then as the 8th wonder of the world because of its size. Still there today.
  18. 18. Rembrandt was a Dutch contemporary Also Vermeer
  19. 19. Rembrandt was close to the Jewish community and used many Jewish themes and models Saul and David Ahasueras
  20. 20. We can see how some contemporary Jews, like Spinoza, looked and dressed, as in this Rembrandt painting.
  21. 21. Sephardic Jewish dress in 1600’s
  22. 22. Spinoza was a lens grinder, by profession Nobility kept ornately decorated lens grinding machines as art objects. Spinoza made lenses for spectacles, magnifying lenses, and telescopes. He eventually died from many years of inhaling glass dust.
  23. 23. Rembrandt painting, with a lens
  24. 24. The microscope had just been invented by Dutch scientist Van Leeuwenhoek
  25. 25. Tiny lenses were needed for it
  26. 26. The telescope had also been recently invented. It and the microscope both need lenses to operate
  27. 27. Spinoza made contributions to optics His theory of the rainbow correctly explains the role of water drops in its creation
  28. 28. This was an age of important optical discoveries, with the microscope and the telescope Science and this Age of Reason were opening up new worlds to explore, with important philosophical and religious consequences
  29. 29. New understandings about the universe and our place in it gave new perspectives on human possibilities.
  30. 30. Maybe there was even life on other planets, that might visit us. Got milk?
  31. 31. Spinoza the Philosopher Spinoza developed the first “theory of everything”. It is a lot to swallow in a short presentation like this one.
  32. 32. But let’s dive in and to try to assess it
  33. 33. It would be nice if there was a single big answer to all of our questions. Spinoza took off on a quest for the BIG ANSWERS.
  34. 34. Spinoza knew it is best to start simple and build up from there to greater complexity. Simplified chess game for kids
  35. 35. We will just give the highlights here of his complex thoughts
  36. 36. Spinoza took a deductive approach, like Euclid’s geometry Starting with a few premises he built up an enormous philosophical edifice – a theory of everything, people included
  37. 37. But the whole edifice is only as strong as those few starting premises If these are false or unclear the whole structure gets very unsteady, since it is resting on a very small pivot area
  38. 38. Then, like a house of cards, the whole thing tends to collapse. Most grand, expansive, philosophical theories are like that. They may contain very many interesting ideas but basically lack the logical rigor that good philosophy requires.
  39. 39. Adding complexity to a fatally flawed system does not make it any stronger
  40. 40. The weight of Spinoza’s huge structure could not be supported by his weak and flawed premises
  41. 41. • Premise 1 Some things (e.g. watches) are very complicated. They contain many parts which fit and work together in an orderly and regular manner to achieve their end (e.g. telling the time). Premise 2 This complexity is evidence of design - the parts could not have come together in this way by chance - they must have been put together deliberately to achieve their purpose. • Premise 3 Where there is evidence of design, there must be a designer. In the case of a watch, this is the watchmaker. • Premise 4 The universe shows evidence of design. Nature has many complicated parts which work together to achieve their end (e.g. the eye, the pollination of flowers by bees, the orbits of the planets, the conditions of the Big Bang). They could not have come together in this way by chance. • Conclusion If the universe shows evidence of design, then it must have a designer. This we call God. Therefore God exists This argument is not from Spinoza Argument by design, for the existence of God Premise #2 and #4 are false, so conclusion is not justified. Extremely simple recursive rules in nature can lead to extreme complexity, in physics and in biology. Evolution then keeps those biology results that work well. No designer is needed. (Flawed premises invalidate conclusion)
  42. 42. The questions are the key to fame Most philosophers become famous for the questions they ask, not for the very flawed answers they give, like Descartes (here) and his “Mind-Body problem”, or Spinoza and his struggles with religion and human destiny.
  43. 43. Tough questions Descartes – “how can the physical brain think?” Spinoza – “Do we have free will? (his answer – “No!”)
  44. 44. Descartes tried to doubt the existence of everything and concluded that at least he existed (“I think, therefore I am”). Seeing the fly here is not enough to know that it truly exists. But then he waffled and accepted God as a given. Spinoza was a braver man and excluded all supernatural content from his system, since it can be doubted and is unnecessary.
  45. 45. Spinoza’s influence • Spinoza was very important for his own ideas • And his critique’s of the ideas of others, like Descartes. • But few take seriously his grand philosophical project, a theory of everything. One modern philosophical journal rejected a submitted article about Spinoza, saying “we are not now, have never been, or will we ever be interested in Spinoza”
  46. 46. Spinoza the pioneer Unlocking Spinoza’s complex ideas about ethics, nature, psychology, emotions, politics and biblical criticism is not easy. But he tackled the very big questions and had some shocking ideas for his time.
  47. 47. In the world of ideas Spinoza was never a follower. Always a leader
  48. 48. Way before Einstein, Spinoza tackled the really hard questions
  49. 49. Some things in life are simple, like men, but Spinoza’s thought is not one of them
  50. 50. We should try to learn from a deep thinker like Spinoza, to help us with life choices We are always facing both large and small issues and have decisions to make
  51. 51. Spinoza the humanist Getting into Spinoza’s metaphysics is heavy lifting, but Spinoza the humanist is much more accessible, and of greater interest to our group here.
  52. 52. We all know where we are headed, so Spinoza’s views on religion are of special interest
  53. 53. “Relax, honey – change is good.” It is hard to put a good spin on death
  54. 54. What comes at the end of life – a great adventure, something awful, or nothing?
  55. 55. Spinoza came down firmly on the side of “nothing”
  56. 56. Spinoza rejected all supernatural ideas
  57. 57. He wasn’t a real skeptic (a doubter) – instead he completely disbelieved in anything supernatural
  58. 58. Spinoza the skeptic A willful blindness to the flaws in religions was not his cup of tea. Spinoza tried to see clearly and bravely, starting with “God”
  59. 59. A skeptical thinker will have a hard time with the way God and religion are often presented
  60. 60. Spinoza rejected the anthropomorphic images of a god, like Jupiter here, as do most skeptics
  61. 61. Today, of course, we can even joke about God, but not at all back then.
  62. 62. Spinoza also rejected traditional ideas about heaven and hell
  63. 63. Spinoza was willing to bravely set off on a dangerous train of thought, with no care about where it might lead him.
  64. 64. Spinoza rejected a literal reading of the bible Adam and Eve, by Von Stuck
  65. 65. These are unsophisticated religious ideas that are taught to small children before they are old enough to know any better.
  66. 66. He valued reason way above sense impressions, and rejected miracles
  67. 67. Spinoza was very familiar with Christian thought and had many Christian friends Water into wine miracle
  68. 68. Some basic truths about Spinoza • Spinoza was a deeply religious man (this needs to be explained, but is still quite confusing) • He believed in a pantheistic God, a god of Nature, who is conscious and omniscient but has no free will or purposes, with no care for us • He rejected free will and was a complete determinist. Minds as well as bodies are part of deterministic Nature • He distanced himself a very long way from Judaism. Jews cannot really say that he was “one of us”, although many do say that
  69. 69. Most people find complete determinism to be a very disturbing idea
  70. 70. The one exception we might not mind is romance, where we may feel that we were fated (kismet) to be with some particular person
  71. 71. Spinoza and free will • We think we have free will but it is an illusion. Everything is predetermined by physics = Nature, which is the same as God • Nature = God has no free will of its own • All we can control, in a free will sense, is our emotions – to some degree • We can change our emotions some by understanding why we feel that way (he was a very early precursor to psychoanalysis)
  72. 72. Spinoza advised an early form of psychoanalysis
  73. 73. Spinoza ideas that shocked his contemporaries • Spinoza thought that a mind is that part of God’s mind that is aware of a particular body • There is no causal connection between mind and body, just a parallel correlation • We are not morally responsible for our actions, since they are determined in advance • Both our thoughts and our bodily actions are predetermined
  74. 74. Spinoza would accept this line of thought
  75. 75. This is a rather grim view of the world
  76. 76. Spinoza saw that it is a dangerous place out there
  77. 77. Spinoza thought that fear is what keeps most of us from evil deeds
  78. 78. Spinoza considered everyone to be out for themselves
  79. 79. Yet Spinoza urged a life of virtue
  80. 80. Spinoza seemed to have incompatible ideas about how we should live a life of virtue if we also have no free will
  81. 81. It’s hard to see how living an ethical life can be married to complete determinism
  82. 82. Spinoza’s noble impulses were dragged down by the weight of his fatalistic philosophy of complete determinism
  83. 83. It’s hard to put a good face on this basic flaw
  84. 84. Spinoza’s thought Spinoza’s thought teeters between bold radical ideas about God, man, free will, ethics, etc. that are clearly expressed, and fuzzy concepts that are supposed to ground everything in the rigor of logical deduction. But without a solid basis his ideas become just very interesting opinions, like much of philosophy through history.
  85. 85. Spinoza’s influence • Many writers, artists, scientists and philosophers have been inspired by the boldness of his ideas, his personal courage, and his putting reason as the source of all knowledge • His exemplary personal life was one of generosity, humility, frugality, and a kind of “saintly” disposition – a model for many people
  86. 86. Even today Spinoza casts a big shadow
  87. 87. People were starting to hear about Spinoza’s alarming and radical ideas
  88. 88. When heard, these were startling thoughts for his day.
  89. 89. Certainty from belief in a Holy Book was being attacked
  90. 90. In the Age of Reason, religious certainty was about to take a big plunge
  91. 91. Spinoza’s heretical ideas got the authorities very upset
  92. 92. His chances of being accepted by the establishment were about as dim as the prospects of this hitchhiker
  93. 93. Spinoza was excommunicated in 1656
  94. 94. The Church was also trying to stamp out heresies and the Dutch Jews did not want to offend their Christian host community by tolerating an atheist within the Jewish community
  95. 95. Spinoza’s 3 top heresies 1) Angels don’t exist – they are imaginary
  96. 96. 2) God is purely material (= Nature) And is controlled by the laws of physics, just like everything else – which is only natural since god = everything = pantheism
  97. 97. 3) The soul dies with the body
  98. 98. The “soul” and the body are somehow different aspects of a single substance. The soul is not “in” the body in a normal location sense, but it is so closely associated with the body that it cannot survive the body’s death. Hence, no afterlife. No heaven or hell.
  99. 99. But Spinoza did not mind being cut off by excommunication, and had left most of Judaism behind
  100. 100. He felt he could no longer fit in the way he would like
  101. 101. For Spinoza the bible was ready for a great fall – and he undertook a radical critique
  102. 102. Today we have critical biblical thinkers like Sonny and Cher, who have benefited from Spinoza’s efforts hundreds of year ago. Or not.
  103. 103. Spinoza took aim at the weaker aspects of the bible, as a document He thought the Torah had been written by Ezra, not Moses, and that it was a purely human inspired work
  104. 104. Spinoza read the bible with the same skepticism that we bring to the supermarket tabloids. My own favorite tabloid headline = “Skydiver eaten by starving birds” Spinoza was a pioneer in critical biblical scholarship
  105. 105. Spinoza was a very brave man, like these strollers here. He boldly and willingly, without any safety net, abandoned both his community and his culture
  106. 106. Spinoza died in 1677 in The Hague, with his main works yet unpublished
  107. 107. Spinoza was a mensch • He won a legal dispute with a stepsister over his father’s estate, yet gave her almost all of it. • A close friend wanted to make him sole heir. Spinoza declined and also declined a very large money gift. • When the friend died and left him 500 florins, he would only accept 300. • He was very widely liked, even by his religious and philosophical opponents
  108. 108. The bleakness of Spinoza’s philosophy is at odds with the warmth and appeal of the man He thought we should seek fulfillment in each other
  109. 109. We can help each other towards happiness
  110. 110. As far as we know, Spinoza never had much to do with women
  111. 111. Spinoza had many good friends, but never married. He was a happy bachelor, married to his ideas
  112. 112. Spinoza did not become discouraged or bitter over his ideas about life, like nothingness after death and complete determinism
  113. 113. Spinoza had an upbeat spirit that endeared him to his many friends
  114. 114. Spinoza never gave in to a grumpy last stage of life.
  115. 115. He remained fully engaged with life, with his friends, with his ideas, right up until the end.
  116. 116. Like Nietzsche, Spinoza’s thought has been widely misrepresented and very selectively used. Theists, deists and atheists have all claimed Spinoza as one of their own, by willful misreadings
  117. 117. This can make for some strange bedfellows
  118. 118. These days everyone is climbing on board the Spinoza bandwagon, mistakenly or not. The diversity of his thought and his appealing personality have attracted many.
  119. 119. But now we are out of time and must close.
  120. 120. Enough already – The End
  121. 121. This slideshow presentation is online at