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Spinoza a Sephardi, not a Symbol • Adding It All Together, Or Not • Buddhist Reactions • Animals in Original Positions
Spinoza a Sephardi, not a Symbol
Dear Editor: As a Sephardi, I read the article on Spinoza in Issue 147 with interest. Readers of Philosophy Now are informed of his ‘excommunication’ (which we call a herem) from his local synagogue in Amsterdam. However, the article by Brad Rappaport glosses over the reality in favour of the mythology of Spinoza as a great hero of freethinking, standing up against the forces of religious obscurantism. As ever, discussion of Spinoza by non-Sephardim tends to miss out a great deal of the dynamics of the herem. But it is apparent to any student of our legal system, tradition, and culture, that Spinoza was happy to seriously misrepresent them to his audience in his Tractatus, whilst praising Christianity as ethically far superior to Judaism, in an apparent attempt to curry favour. This intellectual dishonesty should at least remove some of the burnish from his laurels. In particular, his declaration of victory over the arguments of Maimonides cannot be taken seriously. Spinoza made sure he was not likely to have to defend his position against anyone who knew better. His lifelong refusal to answer the charges against him, which would have allowed him to return to the community, echoes the arrogance with which he interprets our texts. It is not surprising that when asked to revisit the ban in 2014, a review by our senior expert in halakhah (Jewish law) found no basis on which to ask the community to repeal it.
It is sad that you illustrated this with a picture showing the local rabbis as boilerplate Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe, not Sephardim at all. It is a shame also that this article makes reference to ‘orthodox Judaism’. Rappaport is apparently unconcerned with the differences between this far later innovation, by the German rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-88), and the Sephardi halakhic tradition of Spinoza’s seventeenth century Amsterdam community.
I direct interested readers to the analysis of the Spinoza affair in Chapter 8 of Professor José Faur’s In The Shadow of History, a study of the influence of crypto-Jews on the development of secularism. Professor Faur wrote not only as an academic and a philosopher, but also as a hakham educated in the tradition of Maimonides. Despite the importance of philosophical analysis to our approach, Sephardim have long been silent in the face of the misunderstanding of our texts by those who do not understand our interpretative tradition. Jews are too often used as symbols of good and evil in the arguments of others, based on erroneous perception and ignorance. We owe it to ourselves to discuss these matters far more clearly and publicly in future.
Daniel Jonas, London
Adding It All Together, Or Not
Dear Editor: Paul Griffith’s essay ‘Against Direct Realism’ (Issue 146) discusses both the philosophy and science of perception. There are two parts to perception: an objective reality to perceive, and our ability to perceive it. One is obviously dependent on the other, and they need to be addressed in that order.
The first issue is whether there is a mind-independent reality at all. Perhaps, as Berkeley suggested, nothing exists unperceived, and that apart from the contents of minds there are only conscious agents. This is similar to the idea that we live in a simulation. There is, of course, one situation where we clearly do live in a simulation – when we’re dreaming. Here our brains create a simulacrum of reality which we can not only see but sometimes feel. And we’re usually only aware that it’s not reality when we wake up.
There is a major difference between this dream state and real life, and that is that reality can be fatal. This is key to understanding both aspects of perception. Our brains have evolved the remarkable ability to model reality in experience, yet we perceive it differently from other animals, colour being the most obvious example, which only occurs in some creatures’ minds. Birds can see in almost 300 degree vision, and bats and dolphins probably ‘see’ in echo-location, which we can’t adequately imagine. Not only that, but time passes at different rates for different creatures, which we can mimic with time-lapse or slow motion cinematography. However, all these means of perception are about keeping us and all these creatures alive. Therefore, the model in our minds must match external reality with some degree of accuracy. The model even predicts the future; otherwise you wouldn’t be able to catch a ball thrown to you.
One core attribute of both reality and its perception that’s rarely discussed is space and time. At the scale of our interaction with the world there are three spatial dimensions and one time dimension, so the models our brains create need to reflect that. The reason we can’t imagine a higher dimensional space, even though we can represent it mathematically, is because we don’t live in it.
Paul P Mealing, Melbourne
Dear Editor: Adrian Brockless (‘Is Mathematics in the Fabric of the Universe?’, Issue 146) argues that the rules of mathematics are not in the fabric of the universe and do not exist independently of human beings. He likens the rules of mathematics to the rules of chess. Both require public agreement on the meaning of terms and their uses. If we didn’t have rules for chess such that they constitute a shared practice, we would not have chess. He thinks the same is true of mathematics.
But consider chimpanzees, who have very limited language, and no shared practice of mathematics. Imagine that one chimp brings ** figs. Imagine that another chimp brings to the same place *** figs. Then there would exist in that place ***** figs. That fact does not depend on any shared practice of doing maths, and is true regardless of whether or not the chimps (or anybody else) have a language to talk about it.
The rules of mathematics are indeed a shared practice, but that practice is not arbitrary in the way the practice of chess is. You could make up slightly different rules and still have a game that looks like chess. You cannot make up different rules for what happens when you put this many ** and this many *** together. The rules of math are based on something external to human beings – something we might quite reasonably call ‘the fabric of the universe’.
Bill Meacham, Austin, Texas
Dear Editor: God cannot count! God is by definition everywhere and everything. Humans, on the other hand, are only ever somewhere at any given time and only ever finite objects in space. Because humans exist like this we are able to comprehend that we have an identity in space: that there is an ‘outside’ to our ‘inside’. This enables a subject to use the notion ‘there’ as separate from ‘here’, which is key to distinguishing material objects in the external world as numerically distinct from one another.
God is different. Being ‘omnipresent’ means God is everywhere simultaneously. As such, ‘everywhere’ is by definition God. God therefore does not have an ‘outside’, neither is ‘there’ a concept experienced by God, since no place can be devoid of God. This surely means that God cannot distinguish one object from another since he is all objects all the time, and so cannot begin to separate from the world in order to count it!
In fairness, however, this is not a question of God being unable to count, but more an issue of God being able to function without counting and operating more on an intuitive level. This might resemble the difference between a robot mouse being taught to run through a maze, which incorporates hundreds of hours of programming and calculations, and simply using a real mouse with cheese as an incentive. Both methods achieve the same goal, but by very different means.
Gary Williamson, London
Dear Editor: I much enjoyed Sean Moran’s article ‘Cogitating in Cambridge’ in Issue 146. The core of Moran’s argument is expressed as “Science overreaches itself when it claims exclusive access to the truth”. This is ‘scientism’: the inappropriate assumption that scientific thinking applies to domains where it has no warrant. The truth of mathematics is independent of science. Moral and aesthetic experiences and values also come into this category. That is to say, science has much of relevance to say about such experiences, but cannot evaluate their worth. Moran writes: “Somewhere between cynical closed-mindedness and naïve credulity is a happy medium for accessing knowledge of reality, including spiritual, aesthetic, and intuitional knowledge.” He is claiming knowledge from this source. But he needs to show that some combination of intuition, revelation, and spiritual, mystical and aesthetic experiences, can provide the necessary support for a claim that, for example, a spiritual world has an objective existence. However, he makes no attempt to give such evidence, apart from perhaps the intense intrinsic nature of the experiences, which, I suppose, is the claim that the experiences are self-veridical. But this is the open door to every fantasy imaginable. I haven’t had the pleasure of going to Evensong at the chapel of Kings College, Cambridge; but I have been moved by chamber music performances of Schubert and Mozart. These, on occasion, can cause reactions like the tingling of tear ducts, the raising of hairs on the back of the neck, and shivers down the spine. I see no reason to place the source of these phenomena outside of my physical being. So, for me, Moran’s assertion has inadequate support, and we are justified in being sceptical that such claims deserve to be classified as ‘knowledge’. I do not doubt that such experiences can be of great personal value to the individual, but to my mind, they provide no support for a spiritual world, and in particular, for God.
John Radcliffe, Welwyn Garden City
Dear Editor: As both an amateur philosopher and long-term follower of Buddha, I was gratified to read the ‘Buddhist Metaphysics’ essay by Brian Morris in PN Issue 146. I was particularly interested in his portrayal of the two types of enlightenment: ethical and metaphysical. In my own long quest to find enlightenment, or at least meaning in life, I have continually stumbled or bounced between these two concepts. The article claims that “Many contemporary Buddhists are dissatisfied with what they see as the overemphasis on meditation and the attainment of individual enlightenment.” But in all of the Zen temples I have been associated with, this has not been my experience. Every teacher has emphasized that individual enlightenment and social engagement are to be equally honored, and that each person finds their own path to walk, individually or with others. This is, I believe, a fine example of Buddha’s ‘middle way’. I also think his middle way correlates with nothing more than an open mind and willingness to find both truth and goodness. I get a feeling that Buddha might advise all of us (especially me) in the following manner: “Hey, relax, just let it happen, and don’t overthink it!”
My thanks to Professor Morris, Philosophy Now, and the Buddha!
Tim Strutz, Michigan
Dear Editor: I was glad to see a feature on Buddhism in your issue about reality (‘Buddhist Metaphysics’ by Brian Morris, Issue 146), but I felt that in his eagerness to debunk certain Buddhist teachings on metaphysics, the author missed the target. While I’m no authority, I have studied and practiced Buddhism for thirty odd years, and I would like to offer a contrasting view.
According to the Vajrayana school (whose great iconography accompanied the article), the Buddha gave three great cycles of teachings, each presenting a subtler view. The Buddha addressed each audience at its level of understanding. When these different teachings are gathered together, it can create the deceptive appearance of incongruity that Prof Morris picked up on. But the ‘worldview’ of Buddhism is not a ‘mixture’, but a series of views that are each perfectly coherent. As for the ‘middle way’, this refers to avoiding the extremes of eternalism and nihilism – the erroneous views that things have an enduring essence or that they are nonexistent. The middle way is less a position in itself than an attitude.
The Buddha did not present himself as a philosopher, and many big questions he pointedly declined to answer. Nonetheless, Buddhist philosophy is profound, and deserving of respectful treatment. What must be kept in mind is that in the Buddhist view, all conceptual knowledge is relative and therefore of only conditional validity. Absolute knowledge is nonconceptual and attainable only through meditation. Unless this is understood, we wind up eating the menu and not the meal.
Paul Vitols, North Vancouver
Dear Editor: I enjoyed Brian Morris’s challenging exposition of Buddhist ideas in Issue 146. At the end of his section on ‘Mystical Idealism’, Morris quotes the monk Kelsang Gyatso, concluding that his view suggests that the things we encounter in every day life are ‘purely illusions, devoid of reality’, in the sense of not really existing. But this misses an essential aspect of the Buddhist notion of ‘emptiness’. The basic point is that the mere appearance of things is deceiving, and proceeding without questioning the assumptions we make based on appearances leads to ignorance. Attaining the right view in the Buddhist sense is not to dismiss appearances altogether, but to approach them from a position of insight, understanding that they are empty of a fixed, singular reality or existence, not empty of existence altogether.
In the section that follows, Prof Morris suggests there is a contradiction between an empirical approach and a mystical approach. However, in the application of Buddhism, the contradiction does not exist. Rather, it is through the empirical experience of oneself and the world through various meditative practices such as mindfulness that the mystical or spiritual is approached. Buddhist philosophy does not distinguish between empirical investigation in the Western sense of acquiring knowledge of objective reality, and meditation in the sense of exploring the mind: world and mind are always mixed in perception.
Morris further posits that Buddhist mystical notions of the ‘emptiness’ of all conditioned phenomena are ‘completely at odds with the Buddha’s ethical philosophy’. This is incorrect. The fact that deep insight into the nature of reality reveals a view of impermanence accepted within Buddhism does not mean that we do not live and suffer in our day-to-day experience, or that our perceptions of life are entirely illusory. Buddhism requires us to relate to both of these realms. The whole philosophy is captured in the four noble truths: suffering, the causes of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path to the cessation of suffering. A wholly secular approach to Buddhism which eschews mysticism entirely, risks pulling the carpet out from under Buddhist practice.
Buddhism requires so much more of us than simply denying the ego and obligating ourselves, but also compassionate action. Without the practice of meditation, I fear the would-be practitioner of Buddhism will never discover the ground which makes right action possible.
Nick Fry, London
Animals in Original Positions
Dear Editor: Our Zoom Philosophy in Pubs group enjoyed a wide-ranging discussion on veganism which coincidently took place a few days after your Issue 146 featuring the topic came out. My son as a teenager tried largely unsuccessfully to convert the family. Something being natural did not mean it’s good – as he explained so persuasively that his stepfather promised not to eat whales, great apes, or Yetis – none of which featured on the family menu.
The ethical arguments for veganism our Zoom group discussed were:
1. The cruel conditions in which many farm animals are reared and slaughtered.
2. It’s speciesist to believe we have the right to use other species as we see fit.
3. It’s unnecessary for peoples’ health to eat meat and other animal products.
4. Animal husbandry adds hugely to greenhouse gases.
No one thought it was better to eat meat; but some that it might be justifiable to eat a little. Surely lamb is never factory farmed? This however does not address global warming. This applies to vegans too. Keeping a large dog causes as much greenhouse gas emission as owning a four by four. And often, owners treat their dogs badly, leaving them shut indoors while they go to work.
Some challenged the idea that speciesism is wrong, saying that humans should value all humans over animals (although one person told of a philosophy professor who advocated that if a pig and a serial killer were on a lifeboat sinking slowly because it was overloaded,they should vote to throw the killer overboard and keep the pig). But the reason given for putting humanity first should not be because humans are superior: we have messed up the planet and carried out absolutely ghastly practices, including factory farming. As Yuval Harari says, “Modern animal farming is one of history’s worst crimes.” However, we are human which means we perhaps suffer more than other species because we worry about the future and regret things in the past. And farm animals and pets are saved some of the suffering humans can endure due to ill health and old age.
Not being a pet owner but understanding how dog-owning adds to many peoples’ well-being, I feel that no dog owner should give up their pet. I will continue to buy leather shoes (longer lasting and biodegradable), and eat lamb twice a week. Would Aristotle have approved?
Corrie Lowry, Retired Physics Teacher
Dear Editor: In PN 146, Matthew Chalmers makes a strong case against the factory farming of animals. He also argues that reciprocity need not be a factor when considering ethics. However, a considerable proportion of animals are carnivores. If all humans adopted veganism, the seventy billion animal deaths per annum cited by Chalmers would cease. That may appear a large number, but it is relatively small in comparison to the total number of animal deaths caused by non-human carnivores. So veganism would only slightly improve the chances of not having a premature end to their lives. It may be decided that this small reduction is outweighed by the advantages of eating meat. And if the best abattoir conditions are adopted, it is far from clear that this early termination of life involves greater suffering than death by a predator. I do not seek to negate veganism; rather to show that the Original Position does not advocate veganism as Chalmers claims.
Michael Shaw, Huddersfield
Dear Editor: I must thank Jonathan Head for his article on Anne Conway in PN 145. I found her ideas on the soul’s journey through reincarnation fascinating, although i t would seem that in many ways her philosophy raises many questions. For example, is there a connection between evolutionary processes and spirits ascending through life-forms?
As I was reading it, I noticed that my cat sitting next to me always seems most contented and happy when I’m reading. Could this be a sign of a human spirit within her becoming more dominant? I was inspired to write a haiku:
Exposed to reading
Feline lovingly reaches
As if ascending
Thomas R Morgan, Essex