Saturday, March 15, 2008

Moral Treatment for Material Minds

Lady Mary Shepherd, An Essay Upon the Relation of Cause and Effect, pp. 171-172:

Now Mr. Lawrence contradicts at once his own arguments for materialism, as well as nature, and fact; when he says (tauntingly) "thus we come to diseases of an immaterial being! for which suitably enough moral treatment has been recommended," inferring thereby the absurdity of moral treatment to a material mind.

Now moral treatment, according to his own notion of only a material capacity for thought, might still be proper, as it would still act on the material capacity for thought,--and though "arguments, syllogisms, and sermons" might not reach it, of an ordinary kind; yet, the persuasions of friendship; the influence of beauty, and of love; the pleasures of social intercourse; the calm discussions of reason; scenes that please the imagination, or enchant it, will reach it, and do. Nevertheless all this is "moral treatment," and which yet requires the brain and nervous system.

The passage from Lawrence's lectures in context:

Text not available
Lectures on Physiology, Zoology, and the Natural History of Man Delivered at the Royal College of Surgeons By William Lawrence

I take it that Lawrence's primary point here is that it makes no sense to talk of "diseases of the mind" when 'mind' is an immaterial being; but Lawrence does go much farther, as we see when we turn to the conclusion he draws from this, in the "arguments, syllogisms, and sermons" passage:

Text not available
Lectures on Physiology, Zoology, and the Natural History of Man Delivered at the Royal College of Surgeons By William Lawrence

But on Lawrence's own materialist principles, it is impossible to draw the line between moral and medical treatment as sharply as Lawrence does here; and Shepherd makes the point very clearly, I think, in the above passage.

Vincula, a.k.a., Links

* Michael Heller, Some Remarks on the Multiverse Concept (PDF)

* In a comment on an old post on the Euthyphro Dilemma, Sam recently pointed out this recent online discussion of the problem.

* Non-German Ph.D.'s in Germany who call themselves "Dr." can be interrogated by the police for breaking the law:

The German doctor rule has been in effect since the 1930s, but it has been only sporadically enforced in recent years.

That changed last fall, when an anonymous tipster filed a complaint with federal prosecutors against seven Americans at the prestigious Max Planck Society, which operates 80 scientific research institutes across Germany. Federal authorities forwarded the complaint to prosecutors and police in at least three states, who decided to take action.

Seriously, what type of person goes around filing complaints against eminent scientists for title abuse? (ht)

* Jonah Lehrer suggests a more Dewey-esque approach to teaching algebra in high schools.

* John S. Wilkins on a very bad philosophy talk. I actually think this is a fairly common problem among both those who self-identify as 'analytic' and those who self-identify as 'continental'. The problem in both cases is that what you're trained to do in both of those approaches is purely general, with a focus on these or those hot topics as paradigms; the ability to use it to good effect in particular fields has to be earned. There is certainly nothing wrong with muddling through, if you're learning; it's a great way to learn, in fact, just like getting lost several times in a city is a very effective way to discover all sorts of great (or bad) things about it. But that's not really a well-chosen time to do a talk on the subject. Perhaps that's a good reason to get a blog....

* Finally a journalist who did a journalistic investigation into how news stories about the Pope end up insanely and obviously wrong. This sort of snowballing error is found in a great many more cases than the one discussed; and the Pope is hardly the only religious figure to have to deal with it. (For that matter, I wouldn't be surprised if many of the wackier science news stories are due to the same snowballing effect.)

* Kenny discusses Berkeley's theory of reference and its use in the critique of materialism.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Sencerly (I Hate You)

This is hilarious. And kind of sad. But mostly hilarious.

Necessity and Connection Without Necessary Connection?

A slightly odd passage in Andrew Ward's "Proof and Demonstration: Hume's Accountof the Causal Relation," International Philosophical Quarterly, 48 (1), p. 33:

Although he does sometimes seem to equate the ideas of necessary connection and power, these are quite different ideas for Hume. It is significant that when Hume writes that "the terms of efficacy, agency, power, force, energy, necessity, connexion, and productive quality, are all nearly synonimous" (T 157), the expression "necessary connection" is absent.

Well, yes, strictly speaking, but as everyone can see, both "necessity" and "connexion" are right there, and it's hard to see why they would be there at all if it weren't for their association in the phrase "necessary connexion". A better argument, I think, would have been to point out the "nearly" and go on to show (as Ward does reasonably well) that at least some of the time the two can't be strictly synonymous. Weasel words, after all, are usually pretty important when interpreting Hume; he very often leaves himself a little wiggle room. It's one of the reasons why he is simultaneously very readable and very difficult to interpret.

A Letter from Lady Mary Shepherd

Frabjous day! Like everyone else I've had my frustrations with the Google Book search; but I'm feeling very generous tonight toward it because through it I found a letter written by Lady Mary Shepherd, in the Memoirs of Robert Blakey. I transcribe it here.

Cromsley Park, Henley-on-Thames,
May 26, 1843.


I feel very much flattered by your letter containing a prospectus of your interesting forthcoming work; but through weakness and indisposition I could not find energy enough to answer it as I could wish. Nor do I feel very well able to do so now.

The Essay on "Cause and Effect" is now entirely out of print; insomuch that Dr. Forster returned me his copy for a reprint. The ideas there advanced are the foundation of all sound philosophy. This copy I lent to a gentleman, who, I understand, has returned it to Mr. Shepherd, in Hyde Park Terrace. I have requested him to have it made into a parcel and sent to you.

This " Essay" and that on " Final Causes," together with that on " Single and Double Vision," are the three whose secret principle, I think, you will not find in any other authors named in your prospectus. They confute modern Atheism, founded, as it is, upon fallacious inferences, from Locke, Newton, Hume, and Berkeley. For unless there be a cause, there exists no first, essential, or necessary cause. Unless final causes are physical efficients, they could not operate, unless upon every theory of the mind. The fact of single and double vision cannot be explained consistently with any theory, and as being deducible from the general laws of causation. Such a theory is null, for two reasons; therefore, I encourage myself to hope for the future success and prevalence of my own notions. Firstly, for truth's sake, which is the Word of God ; secondly, for God's sake, because Atheists, more than all others, are feeling after Him, but cannot find Him, as ever existing, though invisible. To do this must be an honourable calling, and one which may prove successful whether I know it or not.

I should wish, therefore, my name were mentioned in your prospectus. I conceive there can be little doubt but that the Essay on " Cause and Effect" made a decided impression on the Edinburgh School. When I first married, about thirty years ago, every ambitious student piqued himself on maintaining there was no such thing as Cause and Effect. It was one of that school—but one wiser and better informed—that, on reading my Essay, was startled by the discovery, he was pleased to say, I had made, as to the reality and attributes of Causation. But through indisposition, I am scarcely able to discuss this greatest of all subjects which can occupy the spirit of man.

I am, yours respectfully,

R. Blakey, Esq.

Shepherd was in her sixties at the time; the prospectus mentioned in the letter was Blakey's History of Philosophy, which does have a brief section on her. Some parts of the letter I find obscure, but notable points:

(1) The importance placed on the vision essay is unexpected; but if she did think that it an especially significant example showing the superiority of her theory over others, that makes it much more interesting than it would otherwise be.

(2) Shepherd herself assesses the Enquiry as having had a definite effect on Scottish philosophy; I wish we knew who the member of the Edinburgh school mentioned in the last paragraph was.

[Incidentally, related to my research on Lady Mary, I'm looking for good works on Thomas Ignatius Forster, who was one of her biggest fans -- he gushes about her works in a number of his writings. If you know of any, or have found works on other topics that discuss him at some length, let me know.]

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Some Comments on the Respecting Beliefs Discussion

Looking at the recent discussions of Blackburn's paper on the religion and respect, one notices a number of recurring confusions. One of the most obvious is the confusion between 'admire' and 'respect'; clearly the terms are not synonymous, but there is a tendency of opponents of the claim that we can respect false beliefs to try to gloss this as the claim that we should admire them. A similar sort of confusion occurs when people take the claim, 'we can respect this false belief', and assume that it means 'there is no significant different between false beliefs and true beliefs'. Yet a third confusion is the one that runs throughout Blackburn's own argument, the sliding back and forth between 'false' and 'irrational'. This is not a minor confusion. A very natural way of glossing the claim that a belief is 'irrational' is to interpret it as saying that it is unworthy of respect on rational grounds. If one assumes, as most people in the discussion seem to assume, that these are the only relevant grounds for respect, then to call a belief irrational is already to have evaluated it as unworthy of respect. Thus one of the most common arguments I have seen in the discussion turns out to be question-begging: namely, that such-and-such belief is irrational and therefore unworthy of respect. This is, on the assumption, a circular argument: you are merely identifying unworthiness of respect as your reason for not considering an argument worthy of respect. If we don't make the assumption, on the other hand, the argument is inconclusive: there are other relevant grounds of respect, and the conclusion does not follow unless they have also been eliminated. Either way, it's a non-starter of an argument: a thinly veiled attempt to dress up mere emphatic restatement in the form of argument.

Thus a rational process of determining whether a belief is irrational is nothing other than a process of determining where it stands with regard to one possible ground of respect. And note that I say 'rational process'; a mere vague feeling that it is so, or an inability to see how it is true are not rational processes for determining whether anything is irrational. Without actually identifying such a process, one that can withstand scrutiny, dragging irrationality into the mix is simply question-begging.

I've also noticed an odd tendency to try to enlist preference into the argument; this is found in Blackburn's argument, where "We would prefer them to change their minds" is given as a reason for saying that we cannot respect them for believing X in a sense stronger than 'minimal tolerance'. This, of course, is pure non sequitur. I would prefer my colleagues to change their minds about the advisability of teaching the rule of Addition as the disjunction introduction rule. This has no relevance whatsoever to whether I can respect their beliefs about that advisability; the fact that I would rather that someone change their mind about X does not imply in any way that I can only give minimal tolerance to X. Thinking that the one is relevant to the other is rather odd.

Richard has an interesting argument, one that doesn't involve confusions, that I want to say something about:

I'm intrigued by Brandon's suggestion that false belief contents may warrant respect "as beautiful, ingenious, or such". Such aesthetic values might ground respect for a fictional story or a mental state like imagining, which does not aim at truth. But belief aims at truth. So I do not think that these values can make the contents in question respectable as beliefs.

I think that this might be a reasonable argument if belief aims at truth. But while the mind may aim at truth, belief doesn't aim at truth. Indeed, it has no way of doing so; there are no means or mechanisms whereby it could, unless we assume that God has simply give believing that sort of teleology. I may know something by recognizing that it is true, but it makes no sense to say that I believe something because I think it true; thinking something true is nothing other than believing it. So what is the aim of thinking something true? I think there are only two possibilities: inquiry and practice. (Actually, since inquiry can be treated as a particularly important practice, we can treat it as one possibility if we choose.) These are the things belief aims at; its purpose is, given the fact that we need a way to inquire and act in the world, and both would be extraordinarily difficult without belief, to facilitate acting the world. (Of course, the inquiry of which the belief is a part may aim at truth.) And in both cases there is nothing that prevents false beliefs from contributing to the aim, even if, as we would tend to assume, they do not generally do so as well as true beliefs.

Directory to the Discussion

This was getting a little unwieldy in its original place, so I'm starting it again here. I'll add to it if there are any more. I have put asterisks beside the ones that I personally think are most worth reading, although it must be understood that this is comparative; it doesn't imply that the ones I don't mark aren't worth reading.

Regardant les nuages *
Crooked Timber
Mixing Memory *
A brood comb
Gene Expression
Greg Sanders
Minds and Brains
Philosophy, et cetera *
Mormon Metaphysics
Mixing Memory (II)
Faith in Honest Doubt
Mormon Metaphysics (II)
Free Thinking Joy

Notes and Links

* One of my friends from grad school was mentioned in the Washington Post the other day. I co-taught a course with Julie one summer; we were both very big on improving the way philosophy was taught. We had different teaching styles (she's better at it than I am) but it worked out very well precisely because we were both so interested in that. I'm delighted to see that she's still fighting the good fight on that front.

* Speaking of education, I'm largely in agreement with Bora about the 'Facebook scandal'. On that particular scandal: rules that are unenforceable except in unusual cases are poor pedagogy. This precisely what that rule was. If it were essential that the assignment be done individually, each student in isolation, this should have been arranged by the instructor; as it was, the instructor was pretending to have authority and jurisdiction he did not, and students are suffering as result of such incompetence. On more general matters, some food for thought from Bora's post:

This all stems from the old German universities of a couple of centuries ago, where getting a degree was essentially a hazing process. Toughening the individual. For what? For replicating and preserving the hierarchy, both within the academia and in society as a whole. The educational systems around the world, at all levels, are still based on such outrageous ideas.

No individual can know everything needed knowing. No individual can make the necessary societal changes on one's own. So why teach them as if it is all up to an individual? Both learning and social change are communal processes. What we need to be teaching is how to be a member of a community, how to network, how to contribute, how to share, how to pull together in order to increase the global knowledge and, by using this knowledge, to increase the global welfare.

There are, of course, many ways to do something like this, and how one goes about it will vary a bit from discipline to discipline. But it's not a minor issue. As Randall Collins has noted in a few works, every system of credentials goes through boom and bust cycles; the pressure is always toward credential inflation, which reduces the value of the credentials. Institutions that keep to the same evaluative approaches, and that do only the same things as everyone else, suffer or fail, while those institutions weather the collapse best that have been innovative rather than stagnant in their approach.

* An interesting paper arguing for a different understanding of Judith Jarvis Thomson's famous paper, "A Defence of Abortion": Michael Watkins, Re-Reading Thomson (PDF) in vol. 20 of the Journal of Libertarian Studies

* The Washington Post editor who came up with this headline ought to be given a bonus. (ht)

* Tim McGrew has a nice annotated bibliography on major works of historical apologetics (1697-1893) that are easily accessible online. (ht)

* Per Caritatem recently had a series of posts on Hobbes's religious views: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV

* Currently reading: Baez and Stay, Physics, Topology, Logic, and Computation (PDF)
Robin Hanson, Economic Growth Given Machine Intelligence (PDF)

* The first 44 episodes of Philosophy Bites

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Some Atheists Should Be Respected for Their Atheism

Contrary to what Simon Blackburn tries to argue in his Religion and Respect essay (PDF). I've noticed that this has been going around recently. See the following blogs for discussion of the topic:

Regardant les nuages
Crooked Timber
Mixing Memory
A brood comb
Gene Expression
Greg Sanders
Minds and Brains
Philosophy, et cetera
Mormon Metaphysics

I already discussed Blackburn's argument in 2005. I wouldn't focus on quite the same things today, and the reasoning is more clumsy and roundabout than I would hope to express now. The point about Blackburn's absurd conflation of falsehood and irrationality -- much of his argument depends on the assumption that false beliefs are irrational -- still stands. Consider:

We can respect, in the minimal sense of tolerating, those who hold false beliefs. We can pass by on the other side. We need not be concerned to change them, and in a liberal society we do not seek to suppress them or silence them. But once we are convinced that a belief is false, or even just that it is irrational, we cannot respect in any thicker sense those who hold it—not on account of their holding it. We may respect them for all sorts of other qualities, but not that one. We would prefer them to change their minds.

Note the 'or even just', the natural implicature of which is that falsehood is worse than irrationality.

The more general problem with Blackburn's argument, as I noted then, is that it makes impossible the following: (a) respect for the belief in light of the reasons why they hold it; (b) respect for the content of what is believed, even if false, as beautiful, ingenious, or such; and (c) derivative respect for the belief due to respect for the person. For instance, it requires us to say that, if we are physicists who think that such-and-such scientific theory is false "we cannot respect in any thicker sense" than mere toleration "those who hold" the belief that it is true, to the extent that they hold it, even if they have pretty decent reasons (all things considered) for holding it; it requires us to say that a non-pacifist cannot respect, rather than merely tolerate, the views of the pacifist even for the pacifist's idealistic commitment to peace and the attractiveness of his view; and it requires us to say that a non-Muslim cannot extend a little more respect than mere toleration to the Muslim view of the Quran than he otherwise might, because he has come to admire his good friend Ahmed, who firmly believes it. All of these eliminations are seriously problematic. If I take a belief I'm pretty sure is false -- atheism, for instance -- I should nonetheless, in my attitude toward the belief, take into account the atheist who holds it (if he or she is admirable in some way relevant to it), consider the attractions of this or that form of atheism plainly and seriously (respecting them for what they are, and not pretending that the belief doesn't have such attractions merely because it is false), and consider seriously their reasons for holding it, taking those into account. None of this will in the least reduce my certainty that atheism is false. But I owe it to myself, to God, and to my fellow human beings not to treat the human mind and its actions as lightly as Blackburn's position would require me to treat them.

(If I were re-writing my 2005 post today, I think I would take the trouble to show what is worthy of respect in Blackburn's conclusion. For it is fairly obviously false; but there are, indeed, aspects of it that make it worthy of a certain amount of respect. One can see this if one compares it to less sophisticated and more vulgar versions of this same general belief than Blackburn holds; unfortunately, it doesn't take much to dig such versions up. But Blackburn's is rationally supported, even though problematically; it clearly is motivated by an honest desire to value truth as it should be valued, even though unsuccessful; and Blackburn himself deserves that we treat his claim with a little more respect than mere toleration, even though the claim is clearly false.)

A Poem Draft and a Re-Draft

Before the Ravens

No rain and no bread
for long endless days;
the land is half dead
from idolatrous ways.

The prophet is hid
from the wrath of the king;
to do as God bid
was a dangerous thing.

By Kerith a brook
flows in trickle and stream,
to those who might look
like a mirage and a dream.

By Kerith a man
now covers his head
as he lies on the sand
and waits as if dead.

Colt of an Ass

I am nothing special,
I only bear my Lord
through Zion's dusty gates.
They sing vain Hosannas,
cloaks spread on the earth,
palms triumphantly waving,
none seeing or knowing me;
but in all this chanting crowd
I alone serve the one they hymn.

Hume on Human Mutual Dependence

The mutual dependence of men is so great, in all societies, that scarce any human action is entirely compleat in itself, or is performed without some reference to the actions of others, which are requisite to make it answer fully the intention of the agnet. The poorest artificer, who labours alone, expects at least the protection of the magistrate, to ensure him the enjoyment of the fruits of his labour. He also expects, that, when he carries his goods to the market, and offers them at a reasonable price, he shall find purchasers; and shall be able, by the money he acquires, to engage others to supply him with those commodities, which are requisite for his subsistence. In proportion as men extend their dealings, and render their intercourse with others more complicated, they always comprehend, in their schemes of life, a greater variety of voluntary actions, which they expect, from the proper motives, to co-operate with their own.

Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, VIII, Part I, par. 17. Hume goes on to argue, plausibly, that this requires that human actions be relatively uniform and predictable; although it's questionable that it requires it to be as uniform and predictable as Hume thinks it does.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Formal and Material Cooperation

[Since people occasionally land on this, I should say that my current view is that the scenario actually does involve an indirect kind of formal cooperation, because it involves contributing to the act by general counsel, contrary to my suggestion here that it is merely a very grave kind of immediate material cooperation, which was based on not taking adequately into account indirect ways of contributing to the very character of an act; however, it is still true that the major factor in gravity here is scandal.]

As a tangent to a post at "Zippy Catholic" there was some discussion of the terms 'formal cooperation' and 'material cooperation'. At one point Alexander Pruss suggested a line of reasoning, and, because it was tangential to the main post, and couldn't be discussed adequately in a comments box, I decided to post about it here. Alex said:

Suppose that I hate Irishmen, and I put, in a public place not frequented by Irishmen, a barrel of baseball bats and a sign: "Take one and smash an Irishman's window." My intention (assuming there isn't some weird reverse psychology going on) is that Irishmen's windows be smashed. I have performed an act here, the act of putting out the baseball bats and hanging up the sign, with the intention that that act should help with the smashing of Irishmen's windows. That I do not know who, if anyone, will complete the task is irrelevant. It's not a mere velleity--an act has been done, and the act's intention is clear.

Likewise, if I don't put out any bats, but just hang up a sign encouraging people to smash Irishmen's windows, I have done an act whose end is the smashing of Irishmen's windows, and the intended means to the end is that this should be done by people incited through my sign.

But here is something interesting, which may be related to what you're getting at. These two cases are somewhat different from the "standard case" of formal cooperation where one is a secondary agent. For in cases of incitement to an evil, the inciter is actually the primary agent, and the incitee is the secondary agent.

In fact, I think we do recognize this--we treat the person who incited a riot as the guiltiest of the bunch (even if he broke no windows or heads).

(There will, however, be cases where the distinction between primary and secondary agent disappears, because the deliberative structure is too complex to separate out one of the decisions as primary.)

I think this is an interesting line of argument, but I disagree with quite a bit of it. Now, it may help to understand what is meant by formal cooperation and material cooperation. The distinction was made, or at least developed to the point of being generally useful, by Alphonsus Liguori. The difference between the two is that in formal cooperation you are cooperating with someone in one act: you are contributing something the act requires; whereas in material cooperation you are facilitating an act circumstantially. To take a modern example, if you drive someone to an abortion clinic in order that they may have an abortion, you are contributing something essential to the abortion itself -- namely, getting the person to where they can get one -- and doing it deliberately in order that they may have an abortion. You are not actually performing the abortion; you are merely a cooperator. But you are a cooperator in such a way that by your intention and effort you are involved in the particular form or nature of this particular act.

Contrast this with putting the address of abortion clinics on a bulletin board for general viewing. This is cooperation with abortion, of course. But if someone checks the bulletin board, gets an address, and goes to have an abortion, you weren't at any point intending that particular act, so your cooperation can't be formal. Instead of making a contribution to the particular character of particular acts, you are contributing to circumstances that make such acts in general more feasible. Circumstances are as it were the material of human actions, so you are a material cooperator.

Now, if I hate Irishmen, and put out the sign and baseball bats for smashing the windows of Irishmen, I am materially cooperating with any window-smashing that goes on. I'm providing materials that assist acts window-smashing in general. I want Irishmen's windows to be smashed; but this is not enough for intention in the old moral-theology sense in which these technical terms are usually expressed. To determine that you have to look at how I have set about disposing the world in my act: and all I have done is encourage the general practice of smashing of Irishmen's windows. Any actual window-smashing beyond this requires a new intention. Thus I have, indeed, done an act, and its intention is clear: to encourage the smashing of Irishmen's windows. But the smashing of Irishmen's windows is merely a velleity. I am not trying to smash them myself; nor am I formally cooperating with any act of window-smashing. I'm merely providing the materials for window-smashing and hoping that people act on them.

I don't think the inciter is the primary agent in these cases of incitement. The inciter is certainly an agent: he's an advisory cause. But he's not the primary agent, because he's not the one primarily giving the act form. The person who actually commits it is the primary agent; the inciter is a secondary agent, someone who facilitates the acts of the primary agent. The inciter is the guiltiest of the bunch not because he is a primary agent for anything (except incitement) because deliberate incitement to wrong action is, in and of itself, very, very serious. It is what is called the sin of scandal. If I deliberately incite you to murder John, you have committed a very serious sin, that of murder. But I, having worked to destroy your soul and contribute to the murder of John, have committed a worse one. That's how serious the sin of scandal is.

Spinoza's Christ

Previously I mentioned a passage from Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus in which Spinoza speaks of Christ in very laudatory terms:

We may be able quite to comprehend that God can communicate immediately with man, for without the intervention of bodily means He communicates to our minds His essence; still, a man who can by pure intuition comprehend ideas which are neither contained in nor deducible from the foundations of our natural knowledge, must necessarily possess a mind far superior to those of his fellow men, nor do I believe that any have been so endowed save Christ. To Him the ordinances of God leading men to salvation were revealed directly without words or visions, so that God manifested Himself to the Apostles through the mind of Christ as He formerly did to Moses through the supernatural voice. In this sense the voice of Christ, like the voice which Moses heard, may be called the voice of God, and it may be said that the wisdom of God (i.e. wisdom more than human) took upon itself in Christ human nature, and that Christ was the way of salvation.

In Spinozistic terms, the comparison with Moses is very much in Christ's favor. While Moses is regarded as one of the greater prophets in the Tractatus, 'prophet' always has at least a slightly derogatory tone in Spinoza's works; the prophet is always a sort of poor man's imitation of the philosopher. The phrases by which Christ is described here, e.g., "a man who can by pure intuition comprehend ideas which are neither contained in nor deducible from the foundations of our natural knowledge," on the contrary, are in Spinozistic terms high praise indeed. Indeed, there is no one in all of Spinoza's corpus that Spinoza praises more highly.

Now, at first glance it is slightly odd that a Jewish freethinker would rate Christ so highly. At least, one can assume that he doesn't intend to affirm Christianity in so doing, and that raises the natural question of what he does intend. It might be helpful to add to the mix a passage from a letter Spinoza wrote to Henry Oldenburg:

Lastly, in order to disclose my opinions on the third point, I will tell you that I do not think it necessary, for salvation to know Christ according to the flesh: but with regard to the Eternal Son of God, that is the Eternal Wisdom of God, which has manifested itself in all things and especially in the human mind, and above all in Christ Jesus, the case is far otherwise. For without this no one can come to a state of blessedness, inasmuch as it alone teaches, what is true or false, good or evil. And, inasmuch as this wisdom was made especially manifest through Jesus Christ, as I have said, His disciples preached it, in so far as it was revealed to them through Him, and thus showed that they could rejoice in that spirit of Christ more than the rest of mankind. The doctrines added by certain churches, such as that God took upon Himself human nature, I have expressly said that I do not understand; in fact, to speak the truth, they seem to me no less absurd than would a statement, that a circle had taken upon itself the nature of a square.

All of the passages on Christ that we find in Spinoza's have puzzled commentators, and I don't pretend to have a perfect account. But one of the common interpretations seems to fit the evidence in the best way: Spinoza regards Christ as an exemplary predecessor to his own work. After all, one way to regard Jesus is to think of him as a Jew who broke away from the parochial doctrine of the Pharisees in order to teach a universal morality of love of God and neighbor. Given that Spinoza himself is a Jew who breaks away from the parochial doctrines of rabbinical Judaism (the descendants of the Pharisees) in order to teach a universal morality of love of God and neighbor, I would suggest that this is exactly how he views Christ: Christ is the ideal pre-Spinoza.

And everything seems to bear this out. Spinoza obviously has no interest in seeing Christ as the founder of the Christian Church; he considers the Church to be nothing other than the collapse of Christ's pure doctrine into the darkness of superstition and irrationality. Likewise, he holds that many of the terms in which Christ is described can be seen as metaphorical expressions for the summit of philosophical life. (In a sense, this is doing to Christian doctrine what he already thinks the early Christians did to Jewish doctrines, namely, interpret figuratively things that had originally been taken literally.) He very explicitly makes this move in interpretation in another letter when talking about the resurrection of Christ, which he argues is a spiritual resurrection, a metaphor for Christ's "giving by His life and death a matchless example of holiness", and thus rising above the 'dead', i.e., the people of this world (cf. Mt. 8:22); similarly, his disciples are raised from the dead in the sense that they imitate his life of holiness.

Thus Spinoza accepts that Christ is filled with the Spirit of God -- in the sense that the Idea of God dominates his mind. This idea of God can be called divine Wisdom indwelling the man who is Christ, and since Christ's life perfectly expresses this idea, we can say that divine Wisdom took on human nature in him. Christ is the way of salvation in the sense that he lives a life worthy of all imitation, one governed by reason and love of God and neighbor, that rises above superstition to contemplation of nature; and without the divine Wisdom, i.e., the Idea of God, that we can learn from Christ's example, no one can attain to perfect, stable happiness.

Not Quite So Guaranteed

Eliezer Yudkowsky argues:


"Why do I have free will?"
"Why do I think I have free will?"

The nice thing about the second question is that it is guaranteed to have a real answer, whether or not there is any such thing as free will. Asking "Why do I have free will?" or "Do I have free will?" sends you off thinking about tiny details of the laws of physics, so distant from the macroscopic level that you couldn't begin to see them with the naked eye. And you're asking "Why is X the case?" where X may not be coherent, let alone the case.

"Why do I think I have free will?", in contrast, is guaranteed answerable. You do, in fact, believe you have free will. This belief seems far more solid and graspable than the ephemerality of free will. And there is, in fact, some nice solid chain of cognitive cause and effect leading up to this belief.

But this seems to me to make assumptions that don't stand scrutiny. It will no doubt often be the case that the second question is safer, due to the relative ease with which we access our thoughts compared to the relative difficulty of accessing other things that happen (when, in fact, access to thoughts is easier than access to other events -- a good case can be made that the one is not always easier than the other), but the one is no more guaranteed than the other. The belief may or may not be more "solid and graspable" than what the belief is about; but it may not exist at all: on reviewing the matter, for instance, you may find that really you don't believe it at all -- it's just that verbally you weren't distinguishing it adequately from something else that you do believe, and hadn't done the work to show it. Likewise, if X is not coherent, it becomes problematic to affirm that I think X, since there is no coherent X to think. So here, too, we can ask "Why do I think X is the case?" when thinking X may not even be coherent, much less the case.

Moreover, it's a bit misleading to say that there is a "solid chain of cognitive cause and effect". What we really find when we look at the causes of any belief is not a "solid chain" but a complicated and continually shifting net, in which some nodes remain relatively stable and easily discernible, while others are not stable, or not easily discernible, or are neither. A great deal of cognitive science over the past few decades has been devoted to exploring this unstable and difficult-to-discern aspects of human thinking, with often interesting results (one thinks of studies of blindsight or of motivated reasoning). It is laughable, from the cognitive science perspective, to say that beliefs sit solidly in your mind, as Yudkowsky does later. If I move from asking the question, "Why do black holes exist?" to "Why do I think black holes exist?" I am not moving to a question that is more easily answered; I am moving to a question that is extraordinarily difficult to answer completely, due to the sheer complexity of the phenomenon. All I can do is pick out a few of the more obvious threads that (one hopes) are sufficient for practical purposes. Indeed, one could argue that the former question is clearly the simpler and more easily answered question; it doesn't drag in any weirdness about human thinking but lets you focus on two points: the coherence of the notion of black holes and the evidence that they exist.

So, short of a dubious quasi-Cartesian assumption that self-knowledge is relatively easy, there appears to be no general improvement in moving from the first type of question to the second. Whether there is so in the case of free will has to be determined not, as Yudkowski attempts to do, on general principles, but on the particular character of the subject of the question. What Yudkowsky really seems to mean is just that we step back from the question of why something happens to the question of what evidence we have that it happens at all (although he says things that are not strictly consistent with this, so I'm not wholly sure) -- which may be salutary advice on occasion, but hardly because the latter is "guaranteed answerable". And, of course, it might just be salutary in this case to step back from the question, "Why is the first question, in sending us off to consider minute details of physics, less useful than the second question, which is guaranteed answerable?" in order to ask the question, "What actual evidence do I have either that the first question requires us to get into minute details of physics or that the second is guaranteed answerable?"

Similarly, with regard to what Yudkowsky says later, one might step back to ask whether the second question is really a "cognitive science question" and therefore "answerable"; rather than a bit of folk psychology that has practical use but falls short of what is required for serious cog. sci. inquiry, much less for cognitive science answers.

Whately on the Golden Rule

That invaluable rule of our Lord's, "To do to others as we would have them do to us," will serve to explain, when rightly understood, the true character of moral instruction. If you were to understand that precept as designed to convey to us the first notions of right and wrong, and to be your sole guide as to what you ought to do and to avoid in your dealings with your neighbor, you would be greatly perplexed. For you would find that a literal compliance with the precept would be some times absurd, sometimes wrong., and sometimes impossible. And probably it is through making this mistake that men in general apply the rule so much seldomer than they ought. For the real occasions for its use occur to all of us every day.

Richard Whately, Lessons on Morals and Christian Evidences (PDF), Lesson IV. Whately goes on to note that application of the Golden Rule presupposes both that you have a conscience and are reasonable and suggests that the "real design of it is to put us on our guard against the danger of being blinded by self-interest."