A nonbeliever's SECOND reading of the Bible

A nonbeliever's SECOND reading of the Bible
Hunc tu caveto.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Baruch Spinoza's theory of ethics is still applicable today, and is even more relevant then ever in light of recent shifts in the views of religion. Being that I am writing this over 300 years after Spinoza, I will tweek it to fit a more modern understanding of the issues being brought up.I don't mean to reinvent the wheel, just to evolve it. Maybe throw some treads on it and attach it to a robot. Haha… I will also examine one particular example of how Spinoza's ethics can come in handy, and that is my own experience with smoking.

Spinoza wrote about his views on ethics and his concept of God at a time when Christianity was a dominant and militant force in Europe. His views were deemed heretical and he was subsequently sent into exile. He probably would have seemed fairly normal by today's standards, as the influence of the church, while still great, is such that it no longer administrates punishment for heresy.

Spinoza's ethical theory relies greatly on gathering more knowledge. He believes that we have a free mind, but not a "free will." In fact, humans are deterministic in the sense that they are slaves to their desires. By increasing knowledge, however, Spinoza argues that the desire for the most basic needs and wants in life can be largely superseded by a desire for higher things in life, such as wisdom. This switching of "masters" allows a person to free his mind, if not his will.A free mind doesn't control the body, but a human's individual desire does. This is because a body has certain affections that it needs in order to persist. So, when our body craves something – like something we are addicted to - our mind will crave it as well. This craving for something by the mind and the body is "appetite," and when the craving is tied to our consciousness, when we are constantly aware of it, is called desire. To illustrate, a drug addict will choose his drug of choice over sobriety over and over again because the drug has the effect of bringing him back to a perceived state of normality.During his ordeal however, a drug addict can think of what it must be like to not be addicted, even if just reflecting on the times prior to his addiction. He is free to think as he wishes, but not to act. His addiction is not necessarily connected to his intellect, but his actions are connected to his addiction.In order to begin to adopt more positive behaviors, Spinoza suggests developing good habits and most importantly, acquiring knowledge. Acquiring knowledge, specifically intuition toward particular instances (like drug addiction), will free us from our limited desires and replace the desire for lesser things, like drugs, with higher things, like knowledge.

To me, a human living more than 300 years after Spinoza, I can't help but admire his insight. Albeit his vocabulary is somewhat archaic, he touches on something that is relevant, even to one who is living in 2009. Today, of course, we are relatively familiar with fields in science that study the structure of matter right down to the atoms. And the strange thing about matter is that when we get down to the heart of it, it almost seems like it isn't there. It exists as a sort of energy.

That said, humans are caught in a weird situation. Given the vast expanse of space and time, an individual human is infinitesimally small and seemingly insignificant, yet for some reason a human comes from the default perspective that he or she is the center of the universe. Our perspective is largely why the reality of how insignificant an individual human is largely goes unnoticed by humans.The word "desire" is also antiquated. I would suggest that the word "addiction" be used to describe carnal desires, as it would be a better word to differentiate that particular kind of desire. Addiction, after all, is precisely what Spinoza was speaking about; physical and mental cravings tied to consciousness. Desire itself merely describes all appetites that our attached to our consciousness.

When humans with the proper faculties (not severely mentally handicapped) begin to seek knowledge about the world, there is a sort of satisfaction that is met as more knowledge and understanding is acquiesced. By learning more about the world, understanding our own mortality (memento mori), and discovering the connections between all of us, we are actually feeding another desire that we all have. Some call it "the need for God," while another may simply call it natural curiosity.For example, we don't actually see the thing out there in the world that light emanates from; we only see how it affects our eyes. And the way we interpret these things depends largely on the systems we've developed throughout our life to understand these phenomena. One's own religion, his understanding of science, and his own philosophy are what people use to understand reality, because we do not have any true perception of what "reality" is.So, a drug addict can overcome his addiction by seeking other things, and that's why many former drug addicts seek God. In a way, it's just filling one addiction with another. A drug addict overcomes addiction by focusing on a perceived truth (like God). He can remain relatively stupid (as far as book smarts go), but still conquer his addiction by focusing on something other than the problem.What Spinoza was talking about, however, is something more profound then simply switching addictions. And while his way isn't necessarily the only way, his solution of acquiring knowledge about particular things is better, and I can only speak from personal experience. Not by mistake, what Spinoza is describing has been mentioned by all mystics, religious and philosophical; from Buddha and Plato to Spinoza, and are still continuing on to the present.Humans naturally have a curiosity to understand their place in the universe, to understand the reality of it. Whatever it is, feeding this curiosity functions in much the same way as the drug addict who suddenly finds God, but structurally it is different. It removes the focus away from the addictions and/or bad habits; and gives us an objective understanding (yes, I think it’s possible to have an objective understanding) of why such behaviors are bad, and therefore unties the addiction from our consciousness. Colloquially speaking, the addiction seemingly floats away.

A Spinozan approach to addiction is better than adopting religion because the addiction isn't simply switched around, it actually is removed. It also begins to replace the addiction for the bad habit with a value judgment that has been determined by the person to be more valuable then the addiction itself.What makes these judgments valuable to a person is that they are in accordance with self-love and compassion; they are behaviors that make a better person. This is freedom, according to Spinoza. In essence, true freedom comes when we are able to make all our addictions float away. Philosopher Andrew Youpa said it this way, "... an individual in bondage is one whose value judgments result from his emotions and desires. A free individual, on the other hand, is someone whose emotions and desires result from his value judgments."

Next time, I will discuss how all this can be applied to practical situations like ending addictions.

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