Spinoza’s cerebral mysticism

Dec 21 2019
Below is an excerpt from a video dialogue between Robert Wright, author of Why Buddhism Is True, and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of Plato at the Googleplex and Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity.

ROBERT WRIGHT: [Spinoza] kind of fascinates me… There's a phrase that's common now, people will say they're “spiritual but not religious.” And Spinoza strikes me as… maybe one of the first prominent philosophers you could call “spiritual but not religious.” He did use the word God, but not in a way that a lot of religious people would recognize, right?

REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN: Right. Pretty eccentric use of the word God.

By way of background, he was Jewish. His family had fled the Spanish Inquisition. They had been forced to pretend they were Christians. They went to Holland where they didn't have to pretend they were Christians and they could practice Judaism. And wouldn't you know it, their son almost immediately becomes a heretic and is excommunicated [from the Jewish community] at a very young age, in his early 20s, because his views on God and on Judaism are so radical, right?

Yes, yes.

So what was the problem? Where did he depart from orthodoxy? (Almost everywhere, I guess.)

He was put into—actually, in Hebrew it's called “herem”, and it's translated as excommunication, but it really means separation from the community—and usually there was … a term of separation, then you were allowed back in to the community. You did your penance and you came back in. Spinoza's is the only case on record in the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam where it was just “Get out, don't come back, we don't want you.” 

And the thing is that he was, as you say, very young—23, 24. And so, he had not yet published the great work for which we know him, The Ethics. Scholars have speculated for a long time what exactly had he done to so infuriate people. And I have a theory about what he had done, which was that it didn't really matter to him to be part of that community. The one thing about Judaism—and I think it's still quite true—is that the community, the identity with the community, is extremely important.

Spinoza is radical in many, many ways. One way, which really predates the Enlightenment by 100 years and, I think, really pushes us toward the Enlightenment, [is that] he thinks that the identity you're born into is not the important thing. That it's just a matter of the accidents of one's birth. We make our identity by becoming rational. And to the extent we're rational, we all partake of the same identity.

So, he was kind of an early cosmopolitan, in a sense?

Yes, he was. He was certainly an early believer in that we share the same identity, that ethics comes from understanding human nature, and that no supernatural, non-human source is at all relevant to the question of morality. That's pretty radical.

And his aversion to, you might say, tribal identity, tribal affiliation does grow out of his view of the universe and—well, his theology, if you want to use that term (although many people wouldn’t) … 

Let's start at the beginning, with the way he did use the word "God." He's commonly called a pantheist, which means that you basically think the universe is God. It's not that God is a separate thing that created the universe—God is the universe, God is nature. I think you have some quibbles about whether he's really rightly called a pantheist, but that's a good layperson's definition of pantheism, [and] he's commonly identified as a pantheist, so ... That's kind of close to what he believed, right?

It is. It's just that pantheism often means seeing God in the beautiful sunset and the bubbling brooks and the whispering trees, all of that. 

[What Spinoza] means by “nature” is something close to what physicists mean by “the final theory of everything.” That it would be a self-contained explanation [which includes] the final laws of nature—what’s making the whole thing run—but also includes an explanation for why these are the laws of nature and not some other set of possible laws. It would include … an explanation for why these laws of nature had to be realized in the universe, why there is something rather than nothing.

So, Spinoza's deep intuition is that … nothing is really arbitrary … If we get deep, deep down enough into nature—perhaps, beyond our capacity, there's no guarantee that we humans can ever get to it—we would understand why there's something rather than nothing, and why it took the form that it did.

And that would cause tremendous awe in us—actually, even just knowing the physics that we do causes a tremendous awe in us—a kind of gratitude, awe, the beauty, blah, blah, blah, which gives some motivation for identifying that with the notion of God. It's worthy of our awe. And [after] seeing it—even without seeing what it really is, but seeing that it must exist—we have a sense of transcendence, of being carried outside of ourselves.

So, he believed, in a sense, in a grand unified theory, that eventually there would be one. But he believed that we would know more than that, we would also know the answer to underlying philosophical questions about, as maybe Einstein or somebody put it, metaphorically, whether God had any choice in creating the laws of the universe.

Exactly. Stephen Hawking puts it really well at the end of A Brief History of Time, [in] that last paragraph that many people interpret as him being a kind of a real theist, in the conventional sense; but he's being a Spinozist when he says, “If we were to know that last theory, then we would know the mind of God.” We would know why the universe has to be this way rather than some other way. There's a faith here … [that] all that we need to really get the final answers is to really understand the nature of the universe. And in that sense, it's knowing the mind of God, or identifying the universe with God. 

But it has an emotional—it's interesting with Spinoza—he says, it has an emotional effect on us, the effect of awe, of gratitude, of being carried outside of oneself.

And yet, you’re distinguishing this, I think, from some people who might today say they are “spiritual but not religious,” and when you ask them what they meant, they would say, “Well, when I'm out in the woods hiking and I see a waterfall, I have feelings of tremendous awe and reverence.” You're saying it's more—what, more cerebral than that? Or there's a more rigorous foundation for the awe? It's not just “Whoa, amazing.”

Yes … For Spinoza—and this is a very Jewish idea, I must say—intellectual progress … is always emotional, and I think, in some sense, ethical. The more we understand, the more we appreciate, the more pleasure we feel, the more we get out of ourselves, the more perspective we have … I come from a very traditional orthodox background—as of course Spinoza did, there was nothing but orthodoxy when he was coming up—[and] in Judaism, the spiritual activity is learning. The word “yeshiva”, which is an institute of higher learning, comes from the word “sit”. You sit and you learn … And, actually, when you're in yeshiva, you never go out and look at the sunsets, you never go take a hike in nature. It's kind of a cerebral thing. 

And that’s true with Spinoza too, but it's more substantive with [him] because he's [saying] the universe is a certain way: it's such so that it contains its own explanation. He calls it "causa sui," the cause of itself. 

The universe is the cause of itself. Just to know that that's the case is a truly ... It's a powerful kind of experience, if you believe in it … You know, and it is a kind of transcendence, a feeling of awe before the universe itself … I'm very given to experiences of transcendence.

I'm in favor of those, if I can find them.

Now, in Spinoza's view they wouldn't be transcendent experiences in one common sense of the term. You often hear “transcendence” used in opposition to a materialist view of the world. In that sense, the idea of, say, a transcendent God is the idea that the material universe is not all there is. Spinoza would say the material universe is all there is. And yet within it, you can transcend … something. What is he transcending when he has a transcending experience?

It is one's own identification with one's own small, little self. It has a lot to do with identity, identification. The more you take in of the universe, and your mind becomes expanded, more in alignment with the universe—of course, we are finite, the universe, he says, is infinite, so we can never be a complete fit—but the more you expand outward in this way, the less you identify with small, purely personal things about yourself.

So that's more like an Eastern mystical experience.

Yeah. You know, I'm married to Steven Pinker. We had met in 2003. And, when I was telling him about Spinoza, he said, “Oh, he was the first Bu-Jew, the first Buddhist Jew.”

That's one way to look at it.

Yeah, which I thought was pretty funny. There is a way, in which that's true. The difference is [that] the way we do this ascent, this expansion, this getting outside yourself, is through careful, painstaking intellectual work.

So, he didn't have a meditative practice as far as we know.

No. It's a kind of ... If you do physics with the right emotions, this comes close to what Spinoza is talking about.

Sounds a little like Philo of Alexandria. He has moments of mystical transport that seemed to be more about the contemplation of the universe, if I'm recalling correctly.

I think that’s true.

That's a millennium and a half earlier, but…

And it goes, of course, back to Plato himself. I often think that Spinoza is the logical development of Plato. It's that notion of making ethical progress by getting outside of yourself and identifying with the universe itself. Plato comes close to seeing that sort of thing in Timaeus, which is my favorite dialogue of his.

Let me ask you one more question about this. I think you—or maybe Spinoza himself—has referred to this as “radical objectivity,” getting so far from your subjective self that you have a wholly different perspective. Thomas Nagel, [whom I think you have studied under], is famous for the phrase "the view from nowhere,” which is kind of the same thing … 

Is this meant just in the sense of a perceptual apprehension, or is it also supposed to refer to a moral perspective that would allow complete moral objectivity, would completely eliminate all selfish bias in adjudicating moral questions and so on?

Yes, I suppose that's the ideal … It does—certainly, Spinoza thinks that it does—have necessary ethical implications. Because what are we fighting against in ethics? Well, we're fighting against our own human nature. 

We now know what's determining that—“the selfish gene”—we are vehicles doing the bidding of our genes and it tends to give us [unquestioned] reasons for acting in our own self interest. When somebody asks, why are you doing that…

You have a reason. You come up with a great reason to be selfish.

Exactly. But do we have reasons for acting for other people's interest, even sometimes against our own self-interest? This view of coming outside yourself, seeing yourself in perspective—or so Spinoza tries to convince us—has to have consequences in terms of how we act. ...

The more I think about Spinoza, the more appropriate I think he is for our time. He's a good post-Darwinian, … post-theistic spiritual thinker. If you look at what people are doing now by way of “spiritual but not religious,” a lot of it is grounded in this Eastern mysticism, certain forms of which I think he'd be fine with. His insistence on transcending your individual perspective, but also whatever tribal perspective you happen to have been born with, seems to me to make only more sense in light of [what science tells us about the human nature].

Exactly. This vision is completely compatible with a very scientific view of human nature. And what's so interesting is that he got that basic idea that morality is a strictly human affair, and it really comes from understanding human nature. And he even had this notion of conatus, which is the drive for our own perpetuation, for survival and flourishing, which is a very Darwinian idea. He's like almost ... of course, doesn't know the mechanism of it, but … he identifies this conatus, this drive to persist in one's own being with one's very identity. It is what makes one the individual that one is—that one is committed to this thing's survival when there won't be anything that cares in quite the same way about the survival and flourishing of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. 

That's another way of saying, I'll be dead. I'll be gone, right? … We will always carry that within us, but we can expand outward. That doesn't mean that we're going to be closed in by our worldview that is conditioned by conatus, by the drive for our own survival. So, it's a battle between these two things. … Very, very compatible with modern Darwinian thinking.

When we talked about Spinoza's version of mysticism—in other words, the experience of transcending your own perspective and deriving some sort of joy or awe in further identifying with the larger whole, the workings of nature, whatever—when I was talking about one of his predecessors, Philo of Alexander, you said, Plato, too, in a way makes sense. And it's certainly true that a number of mystics after Plato's time are traced to Plato's influence, certainly the neoplatonists—the name kind of says that—but, in general, Plato was thought of as having some mystic in him, right? Where is that in this thought? Why is he considered in some ways a mystic?

Well, first of all, Plato was very influenced by the Pythagoreans, and there, it's really blatant. This was this sect in Italy, and when Socrates was executed, Plato left Athens for 10 years and he did spend time with the Pythagoreans, and he's really influenced by them. That's this view of… By doing mathematics—these abstract, beautiful, formal, necessary internal truths—again, you sort of get out of yourself. It's identifying with the eternal, with things that exist outside of space and time. That’s something you get in Plato very much, …  these abstract ideas as represented by mathematics. ...

So, they’re real as, like, numbers?

Yeah. They’re real as numbers. The one place in contemporary philosophy where Platonism is still a very, very important view is in philosophy of mathematics. There's a view of Platonism that mathematics is descriptive. We're not making it up in these formal systems, it's not like chess—that we're making up the rules and seeing the consequences of our rules—we are discovering truths that … inform our systems, but are not dependent on our systems.

I have a book also on Gödel's incompleteness theorem, and Gödel was a very passionate Platonist in math. So, this is an idea that perpetuates, the notion [that] the human mind is capable—although we are spatio-temporal creatures, and mortal, and passing, our lives are brief, we are finite, all of these terms—that we are able to grasp something that maximally expands us and puts us into a relationship with eternity. That's a pretty mystical idea.

Well, it is. Although his Allegory of the Cave I would take to suggest that it's not easy to apprehend the ultimate, the eternal, whatever. The idea there is that our ordinary consciousness is like being in a cave when the real thing is out there beyond our view. That is mystical in the sense that that's also the premise of Buddhism—that our ordinary consciousness is a delusion, and it's through mystical experience (and through rigorous thought also) that you start seeing the truth. So, I guess it all adds up. I mean, Plato presumably would emphasize the difficulty but possibility of apprehending the eternal?

You know, as you're talking I'm thinking about… For me, the moral downside of all of this—Plato and Spinoza—is the extreme difficulty that they think it represents—and, maybe, it does represent—that it's not open to everybody. There's a kind of elitism in this…

Certainly, in Plato. There is generally…

Boy, is there ever! It's just out there, the “noble lie” in his Republic: look, there are just different kinds of people, and some can apprehend and make this ascent, and for the rest—we should tell them how to think, because they can't do it well for themselves.

And did Spinoza also think that enlightenment was not accessible to everyone?

Unfortunately, he did. It's like they're saying: You have to understand the universe; the universe is extremely complicated; and only certain minds are suitable.

Unfortunately, with Spinoza, and this hurts my heart… He died young, prematurely. He supported himself through grinding lenses—didn't want to become a university professor, he thought that that would impede his philosophical freedom, which is pretty interesting. And so, he ground these lenses, the dust exacerbated a precondition—tuberculosis or whatever it was—he died at 42, 43. But—and that's a sad, sad thing, the man died so young, but—as long as he was going to die young, I wish he had died just a few days earlier. Because he was in the midst of writing a paragraph arguing that women can't do philosophy.

Well, maybe it was after that writing that, that he was struck down by the pantheistic god. Maybe it was a lightning bolt from the universe. God's way of saying “Don't go there.”

Don't go there. Yes. But the notion that it's difficult, that it's not given to everybody is part of it, and it’s a part I don't like. Because, if this is what it is to really behave ethically, … it denies ethical agency to a great number of people. Also, it's a privilege. You have to be educated, you have to have funds, you have to have leisure. The democrat in me rebels against this aspect of it. … 

Though I’ve gotta say, I’m probably one of the few … New York Jewish intellectuals who’s never been in therapy. … I turned to Spinoza in moments of despair [instead].


I resonate. It gets me out of myself and puts me into this larger perspective, … gives me that distant, more objective, disinterested attitude.

So, it's that particular idea of the "view from nowhere" or transcending your individual perspective that you find consoling or inspiring.

I really do. Seeing my little being in relation to the whole massive everything. … It makes me feel very grateful.

Now, that's an interesting thing. Feeling grateful even if you don't think that there's a being to whom you're grateful. A non-theistic gratitude.

Exactly, non-theistic gratitude. … There is a kind of perspective that comes, … and the emotion of gratitude that one is part of being—it sounds corny; I’m going to put it as cornily as I put it in my own head—that one has had the privilege of existing is the emotion that I get. And It helps me.

And when you said that, my first feeling was a sense of sorrow that I'm going to cease to exist. So, I guess that means I need more work on the enlightenment front.

It is a sorrow for us. It is.

I mean, it's a bittersweet thing, this conscious existence thing.

It really is. That we're going to... and the people we love. We've all lost people we love dearly. You asked me way, way back: are you a happy atheist? Do you miss [any consolations of religion]? 


What I do miss is I no longer give any probability to an afterlife. And that is not a sadness for me, but it is a great sadness that the people I love are gone. 

I think that's such a hard thing to wrap your head around. To love a person is to know what a huge thing a person is, right? There's such a universe contained in each person, and to love a person is to have such an appreciation of that universe. And for that to go missing from the world is very... I still find very hard to wrap my head around. … 

I lost a sister, a wonderful, wonderful sister. I find myself longing that all of that wonder that was my sister somehow persists in the universe. In that sense, I'm not a happy atheist.

Right. Spinoza can't especially help with that kind of thing.

Exactly. He gives us a kind of consolation, but it's a cold consolation when it comes to that kind of thing.

And it works better when you think about yourself than it does when you think about the death of others.

Yes, it does. I feel like I'm reconciled to my own death, but not so much to the people I've loved.

Yeah, I can see your point. I mean, the only close relatives I've lost are my parents, and that's a different kind of thing. And to me what almost matters there is that whatever the truth is, they thought they were going to heaven. I'd rather them have thought that than not thought that, weirdly.

Yes, I agree. As did my sister who was very religious and had tremendous courage and fortitude in the face of her death. But, yeah.

Well, I suppose that's a sufficiently serious note to end on. But you also brought up gratitude recently, and that's a good note to end on, too. Thank you so much, Rebecca, for doing this. It's really been an interesting conversation. … 

I just have to say, Bob, it's such a pleasure to talk to you about the things that matter.

The feelings are definitely mutual … Thank you so much.

Thank you.

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