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Spinoza on the relation between mind and body


To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Spinoza on the relation between mind and body
Date: 15th September 2010 13:35

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 5 September, with your essay for the University of London Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant module, in response to the question, 'What account did Spinoza give of the relation of a human mind to a human body? Is it coherent, or even intelligible?'

This is a long, and painstakingly thorough examination of Spinoza's views on the relation between the modes of thought and extension, with which I could find very little to disagree. I was glad that I didn't have to wrestle with footnotes (although I wondered whether maybe the footnotes disappeared in the process of converting your file to a format readable in Mac OS 9?).

However, my main problem with Spinoza's account is that it is so fantastical (regardless of the claim that he anticipates 'contemporary non-reductive monism', which is true, in a sense, but also anachronistic: Spinoza would hardly wish to claim the credit) that I can barely get my mind around it. By comparison, Leibniz's theory of monads is transparently easy and straightforward.

It was only when I reached the last part of your essay, where you discuss three 'allegations of inadequacy' against Spinoza's theory, that I found myself beginning to formulate an objection which you don't consider, but which is strongly suggested by your account of how the universe under the mode of ideas is complete in God, but at the same time partial and incomplete in an individual human being: your nice analogy of network, server and terminals.

Let me see if I've got this right: There is a true story of the universe, which is told in the computations made by the God-server. The human-terminals, and their error-proneness are part of this story. That's OK because although the God-server has no 'eyes' or 'ears' besides those of the human-terminals, it doesn't need the information anyway. It is what it is, the whole truth, which includes false perception and belief in much the same way as the course of nature includes injury, suffering, destruction and death.

Yet this way of defending Spinoza suggests (to me) that far from being inadequate, Spinoza's theory of thought and extension is redundant.

Let's start with the 'naive' or pre-philosophical view of the universe according to which there are material things, some of which are conscious or capable of experience while others are not. In other words, the view for which Locke attempts to provide a philosophical justification.

In claiming identity, Spinoza has no thought of mental properties emerging or being produced by sufficiently complex physical systems. Every material thing has it's corresponding idea in God's mind. In other words, this is an 'identity theory' which requires no explanation, no 'work' for an investigator to do in demonstrating the physical basis for thought or consciousness.

Included in the universe as thought or idea, are ideas we call 'perceptions' or 'representations of objects in space'. Everything we know and experience, everything we do as 'agents', is fully accounted for. But in that case, why does one need the mode of extension?

The picture I have just alluded to is Berkeley's theory of a universe as 'ideas in the mind of God'. No doubt, Berkeley has his work cut out explaining how finite spirits are 'separate' from the mind of God, and the mechanism (if that's the right word) of perception involving a relation between archetypes of perceptual objects in God's mind and ectypes in human minds. But Spinoza has to do all this too. There are no short cuts. So why carry the extra baggage? What are material/ extended things for? What work do they do in the theory?

If there is an answer to this question, it seems to lie in Spinoza's Stoic legacy, his thoroughgoing physical determinism. Instead of God (conceived as a quasi-person) pulling strings, spinning a tale about ideas, which is sufficiently consistent to make the world which we experience, in Spinoza every change is necessarily ground out on the physical level. The world under the aspect of material things obeys immutable physical laws, and whatever the world under the aspect of ideas does must mirror the physical. This puts 'reason' under strenuous discipline. On this picture, these are not two equal aspects or modes: the physical is indispensable only because the direction of explanation is (as indeed in modern reductive material monism) physical to mental.

Yet it also occurs to me (although this too is perhaps anachronistic) that recent speculations about 'experimental metaphysics' - the idea that it might be possible in principle to formulate a Theory of Everything that includes a logical/ rational explanation for the necessity of the Big Bang - is thoroughly Spinozist in inspiration. Then, perhaps, we could say that there is no privileged 'direction of explanation' and the two modes are indeed equal in every way.

All the best,