spinoza

On his wise shoulders through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins

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Two theoretical frameworks have been proposed to account for the representation of truth and falsity in human memory: the Cartesian model and the Spinozan model. Both models presume that during information processing a mental representation of the information is stored along with a tag indicating its truth value. However, the two models disagree on the nature of these tags. According to the Cartesian model, true information receives a “true” tag and false information receives a “false” tag. In contrast, the Spinozan model claims that only false information receives a “false” tag, whereas untagged information is automatically accepted as true. […]

The results of both experiments clearly contradict the Spinozan model but can be explained in terms of the Cartesian model.

{ Memory & Cognition | PDF }

art { Richard Long, Dusty Boots Line, The Sahara, 1988 }

‘Depression is sadness gone wrong.’ —Lewis Wolpert

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Spinoza is quoted approvingly […] to the effect that the free man is the one who thinks about, or fears, death the least. Such fear he considers to be a passive emotion, or affection, which is a bondage to pain, symptomatic of our impotence and servitude. Spinoza writes,

Hope is nothing else but an inconstant pleasure, arising from the image of something future or past, whereof we do not yet know the issue. Fear, on the other hand, is an inconstant pain also arising from the image of something concerning which we are in doubt. If the element of doubt be removed from these emotions, hope becomes Confidence and fear become Despair. In other words, Pleasure or Pain arising from the image of something concerning which we have hoped or feared.

The free man, in this light, is one who has not only cultivated the stronger active emotion of acquiescence to the univocal chorus of necessity, but has also learned to disengage external factors which are coincident with such passive emotions.

{ James Luchte | Continue reading }

You + Me = Meant to be

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What makes Spinoza’s philosophy unsustainable in Goldstein’s view is the fact that “in its ruthless high-mindedness, it asks us to renounce so many passions. (Among the passions we must renounce is romantic love, which, Spinoza deduces, will almost always end badly…)” Any love that is dependent on something that must inevitably change and cannot truly be possessed — such as another person — Spinoza explains, is asking for trouble.

{ Salon | Continue reading }

‘To win the fame, babe, it’s all the same, babe.’ –Michael Jackson

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The pursuit of honors and riches is likewise very absorbing, especially if such objects be sought simply for their own sake, inasmuch as they are then supposed to constitute the highest good. In the case of fame the mind is still more absorbed, for fame is conceived as always good for its own sake, and as the ultimate end to which all actions are directed. […] The more we acquire, the greater is our delight, and, consequently, the more are we incited to increase both the one and the other; on the other hand, if our hopes happen to be frustrated we are plunged into the deepest sadness. Fame has the further drawback that it compels its votaries to order their lives according to the opinions of their fellow-men, shunning what they usually shun, and seeking what they usually seek.

{ Spinoza, On the Improvement of the Understanding | PDF }

photo { Richard Learoyd }

Everything, whether it be more perfect or less perfect, will always be able to persist in existence with the same force wherewith it began to exist; wherefore, in this respect, all things are equal.

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What number is halfway between 1 and 9? Is it 5 — or 3?

Ask adults from the industrialized world what number is halfway between 1 and 9, and most will say 5. But pose the same question to small children, or people living in some traditional societies, and they’re likely to answer 3.

Cognitive scientists theorize that that’s because it’s actually more natural for humans to think logarithmically than linearly: 30 is 1, and 32 is 9, so logarithmically, the number halfway between them is 31, or 3. Neural circuits seem to bear out that theory. For instance, psychological experiments suggest that multiplying the intensity of some sensory stimuli causes a linear increase in perceived intensity.

In a paper that appeared online last week in the Journal of Mathematical Psychology, researchers from MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE) use the techniques of information theory to demonstrate that, given certain assumptions about the natural environment and the way neural systems work, representing information logarithmically rather than linearly reduces the risk of error.

{ MIT | Continue reading }

photo { Rupp Worsham }

Take ‘em to ecstasy without ecstasy

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Bento de Spinoza was born on November 24, 1632, to a promi­ nent merchant family among Amsterdam’s Portuguese Jews. This Sephardic community was founded by former New Christians, or conversos—Jews who had been forced to convert to Catholicism in Spain and Portugal in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centu­ ries—and their descendants. After fleeing harassment by the Iberian Inquisitions, which doubted the sincerity of the conversions, many New Christians eventually settled in Amsterdam and a few other northern cities by the early seventeenth century. With its generally tolerant environment and greater concern for economic prosperity than religious uniformity, the newly independent Dutch Republic (and especially Holland, its largest province) offered these refugees an opportunity to return to the religion of their ancestors and re­ establish themselves in Jewish life. There were always conservative sectors of Dutch society clamoring for the expulsion of the “Por­tuguese merchants” in their midst.8 But the more liberal regents of Amsterdam, not to mention the more enlightened elements in Dutch society at large, were unwilling to make the same mistake that Spain had made a century earlier and drive out an economi­ cally important part of its population, one whose productivity and mercantile network would make a substantial contribution to the flourishing of the Dutch Golden Age.

The Spinoza family was not among the wealthiest of the city’s Sephardim, whose wealth was in turn dwarfed by the fortunes of the wealthiest Dutch. They were, however, comfortably well-off. Spinoza’s father, Miguel, was an importer of dried fruit and nuts, mainly from Spanish and Portuguese colonies. (…)

mainly from Spanish and Portuguese colonies. To judge both by his accounts and by the respect he earned from his peers, he seems for a time to have been a fairly successful businessman. (…)

Spinoza may have excelled in school, but, contrary to the story long told, he did not study to be a rabbi. In fact, he never made it into the upper levels of the educational program, which involved advanced work in Talmud. In 1649, his older brother Isaac, who had been helping his father run the family business, died, and Spinoza had to cease his formal studies to take his place. When Miguel died in 1654, Spinoza found himself, along with his other brother, Gabriel, a full-time merchant, running the firm Bento y Gabriel de Spinoza. He seems not to have been a very shrewd merchant, however, and the company, burdened by the debts left behind by his father, floundered under their direction. Spinoza did not have much of a taste for the life of commerce anyway. Financial success, which led to status and respect within the Portuguese Jewish community, held very little attraction for him. (…)

By the early to mid-1650s, Spinoza had decided that his future lay in philosophy, the search for knowledge and true happiness, not in the importing of dried fruit.

Around the time of his disenchantment with the mercantile life, Spinoza began studies in Latin and the classics. (…) Although distracted from business affairs by his studies and undoubtedly experiencing a serious weakening of his Jewish faith as he delved ever more deeply into the world of pagan and gentile letters, Spinoza kept up appearances and continued to be a mem­ ber in good standing of the Talmud Torah congregation through­ out the early 1650s. He paid his dues and communal taxes, and even made the contributions to the charitable funds that were ex­ pected of congregants.

And then, on July 27, 1656, the following proclamation was read in Hebrew before the ark of the Torah in the crowded syna­gogue on the Houtgracht: “The gentlemen of the ma’amad [the congregation’s lay governing board] hereby proclaim that they have long known of the evil opin­ ions and acts of Baruch de Spinoza. (…) Spinoza should be excommunicated and expelled from the people of Israel. By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse, and damn Baruch de Espinoza. (…) No one is to com­municate with him, orally or in writing, or show him any favor, or stay with him under the same roof, or come within four cubits of his vicinity, or read any treatise composed or written by him.”

We do not know for certain why Spinoza was punished with such extreme prejudice. That the punishment came from his own community—from the congregation that had nurtured and edu­ cated him, and that held his family in high esteem—only adds to the enigma. Neither the herem itself nor any document from the period tells us exactly what his “evil opinions and acts” were sup­ posed to have been, or what “abominable heresies” or “monstrous deeds” he is alleged to have practiced and taught. He had not yet published anything, or even composed any treatise. Spinoza never refers to this period of his life in his extant letters and thus does not offer his correspondents (or us) any clues as to why he was expelled.

{ Steven Nadler, A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age, Chapter 1 | Continue reading }

painting { Baruch Spinoza by Samuel van Hoogstraten, 1670 }

If the way which I have pointed out as leading to this result seems exceedingly hard, it may nevertheless be discovered

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{ Dutch 1,000-guilder banknote featuring Spinoza }

Essence involves existence

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A thing is called finite after its kind, when it can be limited by another thing of the same nature ; for instance, a body is called finite because we always conceive another greater body. So, also, a thought is limited by another thought, but a body is not limited by thought, nor a thought by body.

{ Spinoza, The Ethics, published posthumously in 1677 | Continue reading }

photo { Louis Porter }

‘If the mind has once been affected by two emotions at the same time, it will, whenever it is afterwards affected by one of the two, be also affected by the other.’ –Spinoza

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‘The mind can only imagine anything, or remember what is past, while the body endures.’ –Spinoza

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Feelings, especially the kind that I call primordial feelings, portray the state of the body in our own brain. They serve notice that there is life inside the organism and they inform the brain (and its mind, of course), of whether such life is in balance or not. That feeling is the foundation of the edifice we call conscious mind. When the machinery that builds that foundation is disrupted by disease, the whole edifice collapses. Imagine pulling out the ground floor of a high-rise building and you get the picture. That is, by the way, precisely what happens in certain cases of coma or vegetative state.

Now, where in the brain is that “feel-making” machinery? It is located in the brain stem and it enjoys a privileged situation. It is part of the brain, of course, but it is so closely interconnected with the body that it is best seen as fused with the body. I suspect that one reason why our thoughts are felt comes from that obligatory fusion of body and brain at brain stem level.

{ Antonio Damasio/Wired | Continue reading }

Antonio Damasio is David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, where he heads USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute.

Damasio’s books deal with the relationship between emotions and feelings, and what their bases may be within the brain. His 1994 book, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, is regarded as one of the most influential books of the past two decades.

In his third book, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, published in 2003, Damasio suggested that Spinoza’s thinking foreshadowed discoveries in biology and neuroscience views on the mind-body problem.

{ Wikipedia | Continue reading | USC }

photo { Nathaniel Ward }

You say, Anyway’s the only way

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{ 1 | 2 }

What’s in a name?

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The grave of Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (24 November 1632 – 21 February 1677) at the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) on the Spui in The Hague, the Netherlands.

Bento was the name Spinoza received at his birth from his parents, Miguel and Hana Debora, Portuguese Sephardic Jews who had resettled in Amsterdam. He was known as Baruch in the synagogue and among friends while he was growing up in Amsterdam’s affluent community of Jewish merchants and scholars. He adopted the name Benedictus at age twenty-four after he was banished by the synagogue. Spinoza abandoned the comfort of his Amsterdam family home and began the calm and deliberate errancy whose last stop was here in the Paviljoensgracht. The Portuguese name Bento, the Hebrew name Baruch, and the Latin name Benedictus, all mean the same: blessed. So, what’s in a name? Quite a lot, I would say. The words may be superficially equivalent, but the concept behind each of them was dramatically different. (…)

I also can imagine a funeral cortege, on another gray day, February 25, 1677, Spinoza’s simple coffin, followed by the Van der Spijk family, and “many illustrious men, six carriages in all,” marching slowly to the New Church, just minutes away. I walk back to the New Church retracing their likely route. I know Spinoza’s grave is in the churchyard, and from the house of the living I may as well go to the house of the dead.

Gates surround the churchyard but they are wide open. There is no cemetery to speak of, only shrubs and grass and moss and muddy lanes amid the tall trees. I find the grave much where I thought it would be, in the back part of the yard, behind the church, to the south and east, a flat stone at ground level and a vertical tombstone, weathered and unadorned.

Besides announcing whose grave it is, the inscription reads CAUTE! which is Latin for “Be careful!” This is a chilling bit of advice considering Spinoza’s remains are not really inside the tomb, and that his body was stolen, no one knows by whom, sometime after the burial when the corpse lay inside the church. Spinoza had told us that every man should think what he wants and say what he thinks, but not so fast, not quite yet. Be careful. Watch out for what you say (and write) or not even your bones will escape.

{ Antonio Damasio, Looking for Spinoza, 2003 | Continue reading | Amazon }

Spinoza could not be buried in the Jewish cemetery in The Hague as a cherem (boycott) had been imposed on him by the Jewish community of Amsterdam. In the summer of 1956, 279 years later, his admirers erected a basalt tombstone behind the church with a portrait of Spinoza and the Hebrew word “עַמך” (amcha) meaning “your people” on it. The Jewish community of Amsterdam was represented by Georg Herz-Shikmoni, a sign that Spinoza was once again recognized as a member of the community.

The Latin inscription on a stone slab laid in the ground in front of the tombstone reads “Terra hic Benedicti de Spinoza in Ecclesia Nova olim sepulti ossa tegit” and means “The earth here covers the bones of Benedict de Spinoza, long interred in the New Church”.

{ Wikipedia | Continue reading }