Sunday, January 27, 2008

Reflections: Thought Exercise

Here is a little mental exercise which may provide some insights into the relationship between Truth and Freedom:

First, consider the epistemological implications of Rebecca Goldstein’s statement concerning the quintessence of Spinoza’s philosophy [the following excerpts are from Goldstein’s book, Betraying Spinoza]:

Reality is ontologically enriched logic.

How does what we are—the conditions of our existence—relate to what we can know?

Next, consider the following excerpt from a letter written by Spinoza in response to the letter of a former tutee, who has converted to Catholicism and subsequently written to Spinoza, condemning Spinoza’s system of thought:

If you ask me in what way I know [that I understand the true philosophy], I answer: In the same way as you know that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles: that this is sufficient, will be denied by no one whose brain is sound, and who does not go dreaming of evil spirits inspiring us with false ideas like the true. For the truth is the index of itself and of what is false.

As explained by Goldstein:

Spinoza is claiming here that since he has relied on nothing but a priori reason to deduce his system, just a mathematics relies on nothing but a priori reason, his conclusions (granted that his deductions are valid) enjoy precisely the same degree of certitude as mathematics. His conclusions, just as those of mathematics, must be necessary truths, those which could not possibly have been otherwise.

Now consider the following statements of D-503, the thoroughly conditioned and indoctrinated narrator/protagonist of Eugene Zamiatin’s fictional dystopia, the United State, in the novel, WE:

The ancient god created ancient man, i.e., the man capable of mistakes; ergo, the ancient god himself made a mistake. The multiplication table is more wise and more absolute than the ancient god, for the multiplication table never (do you understand – never) makes mistakes! There are no more fortunate and happy people than those who live according to the correct, eternal laws of the multiplication table. No hesitation! No errors! There is but one truth, and there is but one path to it; and that truth is: four, and that path is: two times two. Would it not seem preposterous for these happily multiplied twos suddenly to begin thinking of some foolish kind of freedom? – i.e., …of a mistake?


Both Spinoza’s philosophy and the totalitarian doctrine of the United State claim to provide man—in direct opposition to religion—with his only hope of salvation. With this in mind,

1) Compare and contrast the relationship between Spinoza’s philosophy and the totalitarian doctrine of the United State, as expounded in Zamiatin’s novel.

2) If Spinoza’s philosophy cannot be shown to be fundamentally in error, what is the relationship between intellectual freedom and Objective Truth? Does the latter negate the former?

3) Consider the question: If, as is implied by the above, what we normally mean by “freedom” is a logical impossibility, what, then, are the implications for our concept of “free will”?

4) Is political “freedom” actually—if paradoxically—bondage to imaginative error and avoidable contingency?