Metaphysical Fulcrums

in philosophy •  last month

Back in my tree planting days, while cresting a hill, a moose popped out of the tree line. This huge 500 kg beast didn’t even make a noise. They’re bloody majestic, and yet, absolutely terrifying. Ok. Sure, they aren’t carnivores baring razor-sharp teeth, but that trophy-sized rack will surely put a few dents in the paint job. They are aggressive to the point of literally charging an automobile, and while I wouldn’t be too concerned sitting in the cab of a large pickup, I’m not sure I’d like my chances in a VW bug, so you can imagine that standing there, nothing but a small shovel in my hand, my vulnerability was pretty damn apparent.

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So there I am, completely paralyzed. I wouldn’t exactly say it was by fear, so much as having no idea what the hell to do other than pray. I was simply dumbfounded. Do raise your arms above your head in an attempt to appear a bigger threat, as you’re supposed to when encountering a bear? I still have no clue, but my days of popping seedlings in the ground thousands of times a day in western Canada are thankfully long behind me.

Following me up the treeline was a fellow planter, Liz. Now, I was far from Liz’s favorite person. Living in a tree planting camp you made fast friends and faster enemies. In my younger incarnation tact was in short supply, and during our first few weeks on the same crew, sharing the cab of the same truck day after day, I hadn’t held back on voicing my opinion of Liz’s personal hygiene. Needless to say, there was some tension between us, but I still managed to turn to Lizzie for advice.

“Liz, what do I do? I don’t know what to do.”

Liz looked up from the Albertan muck with tight lips and a furrowed brow, manifestations of anger surfacing at the mere sound of my voice, and with an annoyed tone said “What do you mean what do you do? You fucking plant.”

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This woman was so consumed by hatred that she failed to notice the largest member of the deer family standing a couple of meters behind me, which presented one of the most satisfying comedic moments of my life when I got to say “uhmm,” in a belittling “what the F are you smoking lady?” manner, while throwing my thumb real slow and exaggerated over my shoulder towards a potential VW shit kicker.

Mr. Moose took off like a shot after Liz’s stunned and wide-eyed “Ohh…” of recognition, and I’m happily here today without any hoof like holes to relate the story.

Today enlightenment ideals have surely won out, and it’s obviously due to the rapid advances we’ve enjoyed in science and technology, you know, things like portable showers for people working on remote sites… I’m sure that most of you accept the fact that if you’re in a packed auditorium watching a lecture, somewhere in the crowd a human head is missing, and that your attention is selective to the point that you can intently watch a basketball game while missing a dude in a gorilla suit hopping around the 3 point line, or perhaps even miss a moose towering over a ridiculously good looking young man in the temperate coniferous forests of Alberta.

We view these distortions as biological shortcomings. We understand that the appearance of reeds bending in a pond is due to the varying speeds of light traveling through different mediums, and regard our immediate experience of these plants as a twisted version of reality, a false image. We think that accumulating scientific facts is like having a backstage pass, that scientific understanding is the corrective to the deceptive tricks staged by the five senses.

The fact that the context with which we talk about any subjective experience is always as a corollary to empirical data and scientific theories is telling. Formal distinction, a concept brought to being by a true star of scholasticism, when serious metaphysics were carried out under the umbrella of eschatology, predestination, and trinity type jargon, will help us understand the importance, relationship, and power behind ideas which are corollaries. Formal distinction was introduced by the philosopher-theologian Duns Scotus in the high middle ages and later adopted by the infamously excommunicated Jewish philosopher Spinoza as the fulcrum of his shockingly unique, and wicked, substance monism. A formal distinction is understood as a real, yet not a numerical distinction. It is the idea that there are different ways of understanding the same identity through different descriptions. Qualitatively plural, and yet, a quantitative singular identity.

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Spinoza saw mental and physical reality, thought and extension, as two distinct explanations describing the same substance (in the case of the entire universe: god), and therefore, maintained an explanatory boundary between these two conceptual models, causality crossing the divide is strictly prohibited. Any scientist worth his salt understands this Spinozist principle. It’s very rare that you will hear something along the lines of “a spike in dopamine causes you to feel euphoric.” What you will hear is that “a spike in dopamine correlates to your feeling of euphoria,” a subtle linguistic difference, and yet a profound conceptual difference.

Recently, the analytic philosopher Donald Davidson, inspired by Spinoza, developed a similar concept which he dubbed Anomolous Monism. While the technical details are beyond the scope of this article, the main difference between the two ontologies is that Davidson allowed that physical causes could explain some mental events, e.g., you ringing the doorbell causes my awareness of someone being at the door. Davidson thought that if Spinoza were alive today he would accept Anamolous Monism because while it does allow a causal interface between thought and extended reality, it introduces the caveat that there are no strict laws relating mental and physical descriptions.

Technical differences aside, the consequences of the overarching theme of monism is what the continental philosopher Deleuze enigmatically termed the Plane of Immanence; the denial of any form of transcendence whatsoever. What these philosophers all share is a total rejection of any manner of divinization, whether it be of god, self, or humanity. They believe that everything in the universe plays by the same rules. This project is exquisically elucidated by Richard Rorty in his Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Rorty sums up the spirit of the plane of immanence as the call for us to give up the search for a total theory of everything, a theory that corresponds or maps onto “the one reality,” and instead realize that different vocabularies, like different tools, serve different purposes, allowing us to describe one and the same reality in different ways.

Although professional scientists are often rigorous when discussing sensory data, making sure to maintain the Spinozist principal of correlation, we’re constantly criss-crossing from one distinct understanding of the world into another distinct understanding of the world. By attributing physical causes to mental states that are conceptually correlated we are effectively adopting world views that are incoherent. We erroneously attempt to explain the feeling of friendship towards our dog by the fact that oxytocin increases when we’re looking into our best buddy’s eyes, or explain our feeling of triumph after a long run by an increase in our dopamine levels. The reason that this type of explanation is off the table, even under Davidson’s attenuated monism, is that my feeling of friendship or triumph would, in effect, be identical to an event where there is an increase in oxytocin, or an increase in dopamine levels. It’s akin to explaining why a sleeping pill works by appealing to its dormative properties, essentially circular and useless, other than possibly highlighting and strengthening our bias to place physical explanations above the mental in the causal hierarchy of importance, considering vocabularies that describe the extended world as somehow more real than vocabularies entangled in mental descriptions.

Of course, we should concern ourselves with how physical explanations correlate to mental phenomena, but we need to avoid using explanations of physical states as crutches for our descriptions of subjective states. Trying to anchor subjective experience to our physical logic prevents understanding the inherent causality embedded within the relationship of ideas to other ideas, and how ideas determine and affect the emotions.

Even if an idea is mistaken, perhaps it is has misconstrued an effect for cause; a dream state where you believe a snake has wrapped around your ankles, and yet it’s the bed sheets to blame. It is still the case that this idea is, in turn, the cause of other ideas. I can easily imagine Australopithecus viewing a sunrise and embarking on an expedition akin to Neo’s journey to find the source. Knowing that the sun is actually 150 million miles away from earth would certainly have stopped our ancestor in her tracks, but the only way to make sense of someone taking such a journey would be to understand the original thought of the sun being 200 miles away. Our beliefs and emotions motivate behaviour, and that behaviour would be incomprehensible without an understanding of the inadequate along with the adequate ideas, the emotions that they engender, and the vocabulary they were hatched in.

Part of the Spinozist project is to bring about an understanding of passions as material forces. The Ethics is so compelling because as Deleuze says, “it’s a philosophy of the street.” It’s a framework which can make sense of the particular and the mundane. Spinoza charts an economic view of passion where the value, or cost of an idea, is a change in our power of action, conceived as being our ability to both affect, and our capacity to be affected by our environment. Liz’s hate was born of sadness, at the root of every hatred there is always pain and sadness, leading to a diminishment in ability;

Pain has an element of blank;

It cannot recollect

When it began or if there were

A day when it was not.

Emily Dickens, The Mystery of Pain.

Pain deletes. Pain and sadness irradicate connections, while pleasure and joy foster relationships. The labour of life is to increase our joyous encounters and decrease our sad encounters, and it’s childish to think that only one particular vocabulary will give us the understanding to accomplish that feat when a multitude of vocabularies have the ability to affect the way we communicate and interact with the world and each other.

I’m sure Liz’s oversight of a moose could be explained by a neurological model, but it many ways it would surely be useful, and far more effective, to understand the conceptual architecture of the personal narrative that gave rise to the blinding rage, and surely, some of that architecture is going to be difficult to parallel in a physical accounting. Understanding an event in terms of thought as identical to an explanation in terms of extension increases our ability to adapt, to moderate and focus our passions, not just by utilizing strategies that target our chemical, physical, and biological makeup, but strategies that target our desire, beliefs, and ideas. “Man is not a kingdom within a kingdom.” Our thoughts and emotions operate according to the same causal determinism as matter, the principal of sufficient reason; effects are determined and explained by causes.

Emotions are “the affections of the body by which the body’s power of activity is increased or diminished, assisted or checked, together with the ideas of these affections.

Thus, if we can be the adequate cause of one of these affections, then by emotion I understand activity, otherwise passivity.” Ethics III D3

Joy increases our capacity to act, a great hook from your favorite artist propels you through a workout, the you-tubers Rockyesque montage of change inspires you to get off the couch, the exhilaration of a metaphor in a poem allows you to empathize and deepen your marital bond, and then there are hates which decrease our capacity to act, the jealousy after bumping into a former lover with a new flame that arrests all other thought, the resentment of your social position paralyzing you into inaction, the disgust of a radical politics striking fear in your heart causing you to shutter the doors and turn out the lights.

I can explain getting off of my lazy ass as caused by a re-invigorated sense of purpose that I found by listening to an uplifting podcast, or I can explain it in terms of a concentric contraction of my Gluteus Maximus and hamstrings. But I would argue that understanding the logic of my own desire, and what inspires my idiosyncratic loves and hates, what lifts me out of that ratty sofa, or what keeps me in a Dorito crumbed apathy, is going to be far more useful if my goal is to become more productive by stirring up joyous affects.

Differing descriptions serve different purposes, and which description offers more value is going to be dependent on the circumstances. Smashing atoms, building a house, delivering a speech, and conquering fear all require us to use different vocabularies, but our implicit divinization of enlightenment ideals has eroded our reverence for alternative forms of understanding, specifically emotional and poetic. We have stepped away from the Delphic maxim and replaced it with “knowing the world” alienating us from a vast repertoire of innate power to adapt and act. We are in possession of a multi modal sets of vocabularies to avoid such rigid and stale forms of being. To achieve an active state, to achieve wisdom in the Spinozist sense is to stop searching for one ultimate vocabulary, at the cost of allowing others to atrophy, and open ourselves up to the plethora of possible truths and ways of being in the world.

At the bottom of this article, I have linked Deleuze’s lectures on Spinoza which I think is a wonderful introduction to the philosopher. At the very least, think of it as one more tool in the shed.

Deleuze on Spinoza

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i love it. very interesting , funny and nice