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Monday, October 27, 2003

Some thoughts on Spinoza extracted from a take home midterm for Modern Philosophy
Spinoza: There is only one substance, thought that substance has mental and physical modes. God cannot create a world separate from his self, since something outside of God is something external and that which is external is limiting, making him, in some way, finite and unfree. Since a finite and unfree God is absurd, Spinoza says there is only one substance, God. A substance is that which is in itself, and that which is totally and absolutely in itself is the Necessary of Existence, which can only be God. All things possible of existence are not substances – since Spinoza wants to rigorously apply the idea of a “substance” as that which exists in itself – but attributes of the One, the Necessary Being, which absolutely exists within itself. Spinoza’s substance is, to steal language from Anselm, “that which none other than which can be conceived.” While that substance has finite modes (a word he uses instead of the traditional “accident”), it is finally one. There is only one, which exists through itself, and all attributes are attributes of the one. The substance is greater than the sum of modes and is beyond the many finite modes. The substance, that is God, is infinite and has infinitely many attributes, and can be divided into the kinds of mind and body. We know thinking things and extended things, which are both one substance and the substance is God.

Spinoza sees his view as neither a materialist nor a dualist, and sees free will and determinism as compatible. His view is strange enough as to be almost wholly outside of the materialism/dualism debate. A view like this, complete with talk of The Substance and the chorus of “all is one” is more akin to Parmenadis and Hereclytis than Descartes and Hobbes. To follow Spinoza is to back out of the traditional modern debate all together and take a different track from the ancient philosophical talk. This could be a profitable route, especially if one finds the dualism/materialism debate stagnating. I worry about the “all is one” but find the double aspect theory appeal in ways worth exploring.


Spinoza’s God is not transcendent if transcendent is taken to mean “over all.” Spinoza’s God is all, is the one substance and the only Necessarily Existent. Spinoza’s God is being itself, in that God = is. This would not be a God that one prays to, worships, serves or any of the other ways typical of the trappings of religion, but God one participates in as a mode of The Substance.

I don’t have a major problem with Spinoza’s ontology – I find his talk of a single substance with many modes interesting, and open to some possibly profitable directions. Theologically, to speak of the one substance as God is not only heretical, but also ridiculous. Similar to Anselm’s ontological proof, we find that Spinoza’s God and Anselm’s God aren’t worth much as Gods. If Spinoza’s line of thought on substances can be separated from the talk of God, it could be well worth the trouble to approach and handle his often complex and non-intuitive theory. I especially find interesting his two aspects theory, and might decide to use a modified form of this in some work on contemporary philosophy.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Why I Bought the Evil Genius a Beer: A conversation with Descartes’ Evil Genius on radical doubt, the Evil Deceiver game and the ability to think.
By Daniel Silliman
for Dr. Donald Turner

Strange things happen when one spends too much time reading philosophy. I fell asleep while studying in the student union Tuesday night, trying to work out something clear for this paper with the cigarette smoke curling in the air, Descartes open before me, coffee going cold in my hand. I was awakened by an odd fellow, black hair and unshaven face marking him as distinctly evil.
“Hello,” I said feeling uneasy.
“Hi. Whatcha reading.”
“Descartes on Evil Genius. I’ve gotta do a paper on him for Modern Philosophy. It’s due tomorrow and I’ve waited too long, of course, and now I’m struggling with it.”
“Perhaps I can help,” he said with a slight grin. “I’m real familiar with the situation.”
“You do philosophy?” I asked. His name tag read “TED.”
“Very much so. I’ve done my share of philosophy. Worked with Rene a lot.”
“Well,” I said, “to start I have to explain the Evil Genius. Sometimes they call him the Evil Deceiver.”
“The Evil Genius is much better, as a name,” he said.
“Okay, well I don’t find this part too hard. Descartes wants to be certain about what he believes—no one wants to be deceived and he wants to do all the hard work to make sure he’s justified in what he believes. He wants to know that what he knows is true, so he commits himself to only believing things he can’t possibly doubt. He wants to be totally thorough. He goes to sense experience, but he realizes that all of this stuff, the world around him and all the things we perceive and know empirically could be an elaborate hoax. God or some bad version of God could be making me think I know that I know that this is a table and this is tobacco I’m smoking. But maybe I’m dreaming. Maybe I’m just a brain in a vat and I’m being fed all these perceptions. Some weird alien experiment or just this really smart dude, this genius who’s evil and wants me to think all this stuff is real but he’s just making it up.”
“Updated versions of what Rene said, but yes.”
“Right. So, I can’t know that I know that what I perceive is right. I can doubt it, so Descartes doesn’t want to make that his standard. He’s gotta keep going back for some epistemological ground that can’t be called into question.”
“Indeed. And since everything he can produce as evidence could be another bit of fakery—his perception that he perceives is just the Evil Genius feeding him a perception—he wants something a layer deeper.”
“Yeah,” I said, moving through the meditations, “so he goes to the fact that he perceives. ‘Cause even if he is wrong he’s still thinking, and even if he doubts his thinking he’s still proving it by doing the doubting. So he grounds his thought in that, ummm, where’s the Latin phrase,” I leaf through the book, “Cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am. Even the evil deceiver couldn’t trick him into that.”
“Yes,” he said, “but that’s only a moment by moment confirmation, any future or past could be a deception so he’s stuck as this floating formless thinking that can’t even validly do any thinking but to wrongly doubt his own ability to exist.”
“Right. I’m a bit puzzled here.”
“Yeah, he makes this move to Clear and Distinct things that can’t be doubted and that’s supposed to save him. Like, first he can’t doubt he’s around doubting stuff and then he posits this second thing, ideas that are so flipping obvious that they can’t be doubted because they’re clearly and distinctly the way they are. So, a triangle has three sides and that’s really clear and distinct and how do I know a triangle has three sides? Because it clearly does. It seems like a pretty easy way out. Like maybe he’s missing his own question. I don’t want to knock Descartes, I mean he’s the big philosopher and I’m just sitting in college, but doesn’t this unfalsifiably get him out of possible doubting anything? We can invoke clear and distinct perception anywhere. Look, I clearly and distinctly see that I am deceived by an Evil Genius. So am I deceived? Of course. It’s just like it’s so because I say it’s so and you can’t question me because I see and it’s obvious. I know that I know and I can’t be wrong and you can’t question me.”
“Indeed, and most insidious when he’s talking about God because that allows him to pull a very small circle indeed. God giving clear and distinct perception and clear and distinct perception. Not a very rigorous logic, eh?”
“No. And it’s like I just stop and say ‘Really?’ but he just pounds the table and looks at his hand and says ‘I can’t be wrong.’ If we are just brains in vats, Descartes is really the last person who would accept that just because he didn’t think it was true and no one could talk to him about anything.”
“He’s rather trapped himself I’d say.”
“Soooo,” I say, “I don’t know what to do. How can I beat the Evil Genius? How can I get out?”
He lauged. “You can’t,” he said. “I’ve got you. You can’t win.”
“What d’you mean ‘You’ve got me?’”
“I’m the Evil Genius.”
“Un huh. I’m the man. Sometimes they call me the Evil Dude, or TED, short for The Evil Deceiver. And I always win this game. Even if you were to beat me you wouldn’t/couldn’t know it, so I win. It’s worse than playing chess with Bobby Fischer because this is my game. I always trump. I mean, we’re playing poker and every time you get a semi-descent hand I don’t just beat you, I take away all your cards.
“Later, when philosophy developed a little, some of the better guys just granted me the game. Realized they were checkmated bloody and moved on. Like Wittgenstein. He knew that nothing was indubitable, that one never escapes doubt. He said ‘the difficulty is to realize the groundlessness of one’s beliving.’ Then he moved on. Turned my game on its ear: he asked what one had to doubt and accepted everything until he had to doubt it. See, you can doubt everything, just not all at once. This is something Descartes never got—ambitious French bugger—you have to work with doubt and you never eradicate it. There is no knowledge beyond doubt like Descartes wanted, but actually you don’t need that. That sort of strict Rationalism isn’t required for solid thinking, and actually is too restrictive and stops thinking.”
“So doubt’s not a bad thing,” I said, “It gives one room to think?”
“Yeah. There’s that shadow of turning that opens up the field to thinking. Consider: thought that is certain is unthorough; thought that is thorough is uncertain.”
My head hurt a little and I lit another cigarette. He watched as I exhaled.
“Because,” I said, “because certain and indubitable thought is clear and distinct and appeals to direct knowledge, stuff that we can’t talk about. An idea that has really certain grounds can’t be talked about because it appeals to wholly inner and private grounds. There aren’t any public reasons. But doubtable thinking is always in a constant non-finalization and a process of an emerging, a fuller and deeper process for being explorable and doubtable.”
“You’re right. See, I didn’t think you were dull.”
“Thanks. Y’know what bothered me about Cartesian doubt?”
“How it didn’t make any real difference. I mean, if you have deceived us into believing everything and we can’t know and we can’t know that we know, the world’s not really any different than if the world is like I thought it was. That kind of doubt is a fun exercise but it doesn’t go anywhere.”
“Exactly,” he said, “because if I deceive you about what you perceive or if I don’t you still think you precieve and act like the world is really out there. My world’s not really deceptive because I can’t deprive you of anything.”
“Certainly,” he said. “And really, what difference does it make to normal living? Look, you think you’re smoking are cigarette but maybe you’re not. Maybe you have no lungs and there is no cigarette and maybe it’s all I dream I’ve created but, really, that doesn’t change anything and you can shut off all your sense but still you think you’re smoking a cigarette and you’re not going to act any differently, are you?”
“No,” I said, “I’m still gonna smoke.”
“Right. I’m really a pretty nice guy for an Evil Deciever. I coulda been constructing mass mayhem and tyranny, totally uncatchable and unaccountable, and instead I just sort of don’t let you know anything for certain sure and, actually, you couldn’t do much worthwhile thinking unless I did that.”
I lit another cigarette and thought on that. We sat for a few minutes in silence.
“Can I buy you a beer?” I said. “I’d really like to buy you a beer.”


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