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Spinoza’s Idea as Information

 

E2p13 The correspondent of the information contituting the human Mind is the Body, or a certain mode of Extension which actually exists, and nothing else.

A brief thought, which I constantly have imagined that needs to be said, but I have yet to say it fully to myself, and not to others. Is there not something in Spinoza’s notion of Idea (Adequate or Inadequate) which is readily implied by the concept “Information”? In many of the standard views of information we can more clearly see the implication of the thought that all things come in expressions of Extension and Information (Idea). Information would simply be the relations between material expressions. There are perhaps many potential pitfalls in translating Spinoza’s Idea as “information”, the greatest of these is perhaps reducing knowledge to an input/output model (but I sense that it is exactly this model that Spinoza’s theory of knowledge resists). What is most beneficial though, is that phrases like “Inadequate Idea” become “Inadequate information”, quickly making more clear at a glance why falsity is only a privation (of power), that there is no such thing as a completely false idea, (because information, even the most mis-directed, is still doingsomething; it just isn’t doing what you think it is). Talking of Idea as information does much to dispell the thought that Idea is a “representation” as in a picturing, which for Spinoza I don’t think it really is.

I cannot help but feel that there are several avenues to this understanding.

1. Chalmers panprotopsychism lays heavy on this possibility.

2. Bateson’s definition of Information, as “the difference that makes a difference” putting information (Ideas) in a matrix of vectored questions about what difference, how and where?

3. Understanding the non-representational, “direct realism” character of Descartes’ notion of Idea (Behan, Yolton, Nadler, etc.), from this heritage we get even a deeper sense of the non-representational character of Spinoza’s correction to Descartes. “Sign” as signification and representation. Idea as an action.

4. Related to 3, seeing the Scholastic heritage of Spinoza’s thinking, the way that he synthesizes a Scotist notion of the formal distinction, for instance, and a Plotinian concept of degrees of being, understood to be degrees of power. (The two alternate proofs, concepts of contingent existence and power, from Ethics Ip11)

5. An autopoietic idea of recursive organization, from Mantura and Varela’s biology, to possibly Luhmann’s social modeling, both being friendly to an informational conception of organization. (Importantly, see Gould’s use of the term exaptation)

These are but a few of the potential theories which may dovetail into a translation of Spinoza’s Idea into the concept of Information. If you are familiar with Spinoza, do a bit of an experiment. Each time you read a proposition of his which uses the term Idea, simply re-translate it as “information”. At first it is a bit jarring, like hearing the King James Version of the Bible in another diction. It ruins it. But then, let it sit. I cannot say that it is necessarily a better word because “information” is a heavily laden word in our culture (much as perhaps “idea” was in his), filled with numerous philosophical underpinnings, but it does free up Spinoza’s thought to new understanding.

 

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Does Spinoza present a Zombie World?

 

Kirk, in his Stanford Encyclopedia entry on “Zombies” cites Stout (Mind and Matter) in describing the proto-conception of what a possible Zombie World would look like, if materialism were true:

it ought to be quite credible that the constitution and course of nature would be otherwise just the same as it is if there were not and never had been any experiencing individuals. Human bodies would still have gone through the motions of making and using bridges, telephones and telegraphs, of writing and reading books, of speaking in Parliament, of arguing about materialism, and so on. There can be no doubt that this is prima facie incredible to Common Sense.

As new as this idea seems to be that such a world is a logical possibility, it is strikingly similar to Spinoza’s own metaphysical description of our own world. Could it be that if Spinoza is right, we already live in a Zombie World?

In the Emendation of the Intellect Spinoza makes the claim that given the nature of True Ideas, human beings are nothing other than “spiritual automata”:

[85] (1) As regards as a true idea, we have shown that it is simple or compounded of simple ideas; that it shows how and why something is or has been made; and that its subjective effects in the soul correspond to the actual reality of its object. (2) This conclusion is identical with the saying of the ancients, that true proceeds from cause to effect; though the ancients, so far as I know, never formed the conception put forward here that the soul acts according to fixed laws, and is as it were an spiritual automaton.

(It is interesting that like the novelty which has been credited to Chalmer’s Zombie world, Spinoza himself says that no one had ever had this conception of spiritual automata before. It is of interest that the possibility of a Zombie has been drawn from Descartes, and Spinoza saw his work as a correction of Descartes. In many ways Spinoza’s approach represents the core rejection of Cartesianism at its historic conception, and his original treatment of the mind and affect may be essential for non-Cartesian solutions to the mind-body problem.)

Further in the possibility that Zombie World = Spinoza Substance, Spinoza’s definition of affects, which can be equated with “qualia”, is that of passing from one state in the world to another state in the world more or less perfect than before (“General Definition of the Affects” from Ethics, at the end of Part III). Given that God’s (The One Substance) essence and existence is perfect, Spinoza’s ultimate view of the world is that of a Zombie World, wherein each person and living thing experiences the affects of their own increasing or decreasing imperfection, yet from the point of view of God/Substance, who is expressed perfectly in these creatures and all else, there is no affection at all. Affections are illusions of perspectives of expressive creatures.

Further, and seemingly synonymous with Chalmer’s Zombie definition, God itself is a “thinking thing”, “Thought is an attribute of God, or God is a thinking thing” (EIIP1). God thinks, but in zombie fashion has no affects).

And what of consciousness in Spinoza. Indeed humans have ideas about the bodily states they are in, and even ideas about ideas, but there is a fundamental illusion (not unlike a zombie illusion), which results from their ignorances of the causes of their thoughts. Famously for instance in his discussion of free will he spoke of the hypothetical consciousness of a stone that might imagine that it is it freely flying through the air because it failure to understand the causes which lead to that action:

Further conceive, I beg, that a stone, while continuing in motion, should be capable of thinking and knowing, that it is endeavouring, as far as it can, to continue to move. Such a stone, being conscious merely of its own endeavour and not at all indifferent, would believe itself to be completely free, and would think that it continued in motion solely because of its own wish. This is that human freedom, which all boast that they possess, and which consists solely in the fact, that men are conscious of their own desire, but are ignorant of the causes whereby that desire has been determined. Thus an infant believes that it desires milk freely; an angry child thinks he wishes freely for vengeance, a timid child thinks he wishes freely to run away. Again, a drunken man thinks, that from the free decision of his mind he speaks words, which afterwards, when sober, he would like to have left unsaid.

Letter to Tschirnhausen, Oct. 1674

In a certain sense Spinoza is arguing that we are really like such stones flying through the air. Like these stones our consciousness has a kind of hypothetical nature, born of our ignorance of causes. We operate not only under the illusion of free will, but also in certain respects with the illusion of consciousness (though the ideas that form our minds are real).

It seems that as these two versions of reality seem to homologically collide, a hotly debated hypothetical of the logical conceivability of a possible world, and Spinoza own logical assertion of how the world really is, we are left with a strange sort of conclusion. Either Spinoza presents a view which has no explanatory value to the nature of human consciousness itself (for instance it disengages the highly prized first person authority of experience, in favor of an ontological/metaphysical understanding of affect), or Chalmers has accidentally stumbled on the nature of the world (under the guise of mere logical possibility) as suggested by consciousness itself.

It is interesting that one of Chalmer’s solutions to the mind/body problem, F-type monism, or what he calls panprotopsychism, is not too far from Spinoza’s own panpsychism.
Perhaps the intrinsic properties of the physical world are themselves phenomenal properties. Or perhaps the intrinsic properties of the physical world are not phenomenal properties, but nevertheless constitute phenomenal properties: that is, perhaps they are protophenomenal properties. If so, then consciousness and physical reality are deeply intertwined.

Chalmers writes:

This view holds the promise of integrating phenomenal and physical properties very tightly in the natural world. Here, nature consists of entities with intrinsic (proto)phenomenal qualities standing in causal relations within a spacetime manifold. Physics as we know it emerges from the relations between these entities, whereas consciousness as we know it emerges from their intrinsic nature. As a bonus, this view is perfectly compatible with the causal closure of the microphysical, and indeed with existing physical laws. The view can retain the structure of physical theory as it already exists; it simply supplements this structure with an intrinsic nature. And the view acknowledges a clear causal role for consciousness in the physical world: (proto)phenomenal properties serve as the ultimate categorical basis of all physical causation.

In its protophenomenal form, the view can be seen as a sort of neutral monism: there are underlying neutral properties X (the protophenomenal properties), such that the X properties are simultaneously responsible for constituting the physical domain (by their relations) and the phenomenal domain (by their collective intrinsic nature). In its phenomenal form, can be seen as a sort of idealism, such that mental properties constitute physical properties, although these need not be mental properties in the mind of an observer, and they may need to be supplemented by causal and spatiotemporal properties in addition. One could also characterize this form of the view as a sort of panpsychism, with phenomenal properties ubiquitous at the fundamental level. One could give the view in its most general form the name panprotopsychism, with either protophenomenal or phenomenal properties underlying all of physical reality.

“Consciousness and its Place in Nature”

The ubiquity of “phenomenological properties” and the possible intrinsic relationship of those properties to physical properties, could be seen to fall close to Spinoza’s monistic conception of Immanentism, whereby the two are simply the expression of a Single Substance. But not where one causes, is responsible for, or interacts with the other. The connection between the two would not be “bridge laws” but the causal parallel between the two, for as Spinoza asserts rather tantalizingly, but opaquely: “The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things.(EIIP7)”

As for affects themselves, the reality of which suffers most deeply in either the Zombie World, or in Spinoza’s ultimate view of Substance, these would have to be characterized as intensive parts which work to express and bind bodies together, parts which also interact extensively under a physicalist description of relations. The consciousness of these intensive parts is a necessary perspective on being, but only a seeming of that perspective. Like zombies, our experiences only seem to be “like” something. It is a seeming that has very real effects, but a seeming all the same.

[written January 16th, 2008]