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The Integrity of the Future

Some more musings on the difficult and perhaps absurd ideas of the last post…it kept me up last night, tossing and put me in a funk today.

Spinoza’s Letter to Balling feels like it has some clues for how I want to think on this. In the Spinoza example we have the story of a father who seemed to have heard the death sighs of his son before the boy had taken sick (presumably with the plague). It is unsure if Spinoza was only soothing a mournful father, but he in letter tells the friend that his imaginary hallucination may have come to through he and his son sharing an essence out of love (instead of being merely a product of the body). What Spinoza does not address is the interesting change of events that might have included the father recognizing the prophetic event for what it was, and whisking his son out of plague struck Europe. One wonders, would this chain of events have fit within Spinoza’s framework of essences?

Or, as I was thinking last night, could we conceive that a song, as it is being played is retroactively effected by the disastrous, atonal possibilities that exist in its possible future such that those atonalities  reach rippling back into the present selection of notes, a kind of chiaroscuro of reverberative possibilities. Does a song play itself in one direction? Deleuze and Guattari like to think of a melody as a line of flight, what if we took it to be a sphere of orbed becoming, a bubbling out of cogent line-walking at the edge of chaos and stability whose boundary reaches backward and forth beyond the present bifurcation (where we dream “choice” remains).

I want to say that there is a possible integrity of the future, that if with Spinoza we imagine an partaking essence-based concept of cohesive action, the conception that our demarcated and individualized directions are made in the process of a body-making, cognitive boundary laden whole, then where is it that we find the standpoint at which we deny that the future states of that whole do not through their very integrated character reverberate back, causally, upon states in the present (or even the past)? If one is going to subtend a specie aeterintatis in your thinking, do not the past and future necessarily fail and firm boundaries? Are not disasters forming the very wake of the bow of that boat?

Of course this is silly, there is a direction of the arrow of time, and even if entropy could be considered something of an illusion of Chaotic progression, where would the location of this ballast of the future recursively organized find a place to reside? But there is gravity here that does not seem to entirely be explained by psychology, or even the general teleological functionality of life forms, something that tugs at the idea…something that perhaps inverted itself in all sorts of eschatological waking dreams of prophets, and hand-of-God imaginings. It resides in the sense of the integrity of the future (which answers not to concepts of pure becoming, concepts of pure difference, concepts of continual creation), the way that we all orb ourselves into the future, the bow of us pre-existing what we are. How the water has been cut before we have arrived.

Anyways, some thoughts without discipline. I think this has something to do with Duchamp’s attraction to n-dimensional analysis which had interested me some time ago, perhaps more than a decade.

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Reverse Causation, Changes from the Future

Why the CERN accelerator won’t work

I’m unsure just why this made the New York Times just now (the original article is almost 2 years old, but perhaps the idea is picking up steam/heat), but Complete Lies brought this to my attention. It is the sci-fi idea that the CERN particle accelerator that has been plagued by curious difficulties, as well as other pursuits to produce the Higgs particles, are being interfered with from the Future, supposedly to ward off a potentially universal catastrophe that would be triggered by a successful uncloaking of Higgs particles.

New York Times article “The Collider, the Particle and a Theory About Fate”, a bloggist ridiculing the original thought “Respectable physicists gone crackpotty” and the original article “Search for Effect of Influence from Future in Large Hadron Collider”.

What is now getting attention seems to be the idea that CERN should avoid future unexpected costs and delays through an experiment involving a very large deck of cards. Only a very small percentage of cards would tell CERN to affect the operations of the huge device, and only one to be marked “close the LCH”. From the original article:

The experiment proposed in the present article is to give “foresight”, a chance of avoiding forced closure of LHC due to lack of funding or other form of bad luck, as happened to SSC.

We imagine a big stack of cards on which are written various restrictions concerning the operation of LHC, for example “allow the production of only 10 Higgs particles”. On most of the cards there should just be written “use LHC freely” so that they cause no restrictions. However, on a very small fraction of cards, there should be restrictions on luminosity or beam energy or some combination of them. One card may even have “close (shut down) LHC”. The crucial idea of this proposal is that if our model were true, then the most likely development sol with the P(sol) ≃ e−2SI (sol) factor included would be a development involving one of the cards which strongly restricts on the Higgs particle production at LHC.

The image is brilliant, a huge multi-billion dollar effort forestalled, yet again, but this time with everyone gathered around an enormous deck of cards, waiting to see if the future would reach back and influence the picking of a card in a kind of “anti-miracle”. One commenter on the blog cited suggested that the card need only read “close the LCH for 24 hours” with the proviso that another card is picked ever 24 hours thereafter. There is something just suitable about this image of science trying to avoid destroying the entire universe, or some other bit of “bad luck”, through such seemingly unscientific means.

Backwards Prone Causation

But I would like to consider some of the concepts involved here, apart from the science or even the science fiction. The ridiculing blog spent even more time criticizing the grammar of the article (which I do not believe was published), than its ideas, clearly with the sense that something more normative than even the direction of causation was at stake.

The general sense of repressed ideas, thoughts, desires, is that something occurrant now, if it was allowed to take effect would have disastrous consequences on the whole of coherence. Freud was of course big on this, and much of the critique of a philosophy of Presence comes out of the notion that the present coherence comes out of repressing something that lies in the margins. And, as we are told, the “repressed” always returns.

But what if we were allowed to think fantastically, that it is not an active, present day stranglehold that coherence exerts upon the margin (tarrying with its own genetic history), but that, in fine Philip K. Dick fashion, something from the future can exert itself back upon the past (our present), such as to avoid catastrophe. Now, surely the psychosis of such a regular interpretation of events is not to be recommended – the theory of the Higgs particle backwards causation is one in which boundary conditions themselves might be effected (if I understand the thinking here), and no average event can figure backwardsly – but the logic of the fantasy engages me.

At the psychological or even ideological level of our organizations of ourselves are there deck of card tests that we perform which are meant to allow the trace of a future, backwards activation (whether they be true tests or not)? Are there not small ways in which our future selves (if only in real fantasy projections) act backwards upon our current states? Spinoza theorized, or at least strongly mused, that events of the future can reach us if we share an essence with those conditions (as wild as that sounds for such a sobering philosopher). If we can think in terms of a “field” of organic relations that organize the meaning of events (not the universe, but here, socially, locally), and that this field is grounded in real participatory closure wherein actions at different times in the sequence actually work to bolster each other, recursively, could it not be that a real (possible) event late in the sequence if it thoroughly enough casts a shadow over the whole field can echo back and determine present conditions, if it is of a nature profound enough to effect the very fabric of our interactions? This is not to say that this is what is happening, but rather to imagine out the possibilities of this retaining some theoretical coherence.

The advantage to the thought is that the war over change is not just occurring presently, as if there were some vast system of effects that is ever pressing against a tide of eruptive multiplicities, but it is occurring retroactively, the way that we overcode our pasts, sewing them back up to the present (and future). This is not to evoke final causes, which are specific ends, but rather to suggest that the coherence of the field our behaviors and interactions with the world may be so anchored unto a ballasted field of being that the very fabric holds together aspects of our present moment due to the atemporal nature of world continuity, a kind of effect sub specie aeternitatis.  When we say to ourselves intuitionally, “We better not do that or we risk disaster” how does this differ logically from an effect from the future, or from the very domain of our possilities? Can deep, structural catastrophe tend to echo backwards and avoid itself? Or is it worth thinking/imagining how it can? Is there something to social organization that promotes this kind of thinking or effect?

I would like to think more on this, as absurd as it rings, but that would likely take a novel. No doubt a science fiction novel of a kind. Perhaps.

Spinoza Transfigured and reExplained: “Idea” as Information

In two posts I began opening up the notion that Spinoza’s treatment of “Idea” has strong sympathetic correspondences to modern conceptions of information and organization. First in Is Spinoza a Cyberneticist, or a Chaocomplexicist? I raised the idea that Spinoza offered something of a Chaoplexic view of organizational development and ontological power, and then in Information, Spinoza’s “Idea” and The Structure of the Universe I adopted the general replacement of Spinoza’s “Idea” with an version of Stonier’s “Information” as the basic structuring element of the Universe.

To help with the thought-imagination of some of this it seemed interesting to offer some retranslations of Spinoza’s propositions dealing with “idea”. I had done this before, come out of some discusssions I had with David Chalmers, but I can seem to find them. The grammar does not always work fluently for such a replacement, and perhaps this will confuse the issue for some, but hopefully you’ll get the gist and the new propositions can bring about a change in the staid way “idea” has been conceieved:

Informational Propositions

E2D3: By informational structure [idea] I mean a mind’s concept that the mind forms because it is a thinking, informational thing.

E2D4: By adequate informational structure I mean information which, insofar as it is considered in itself without relation to its object,  has all the properties or intrinsic denominations of real information (a true idea) [verae ideae].

E2p7: The order and connection of informational structure is the same as the order and connection of material expression (things).

E2p11: The first thing that constitutes the actual being of the human mind [mentis] is nothing but the informational structure of a singular thing that actually exists.

E2p13: The object [obiectum] of the informational structure constituting the human mind is the body, or a certain mode of extension which actually exists, and nothing else.

E2p15: The informational structure that constitutes the formal being [formale esse] of the human mind is not simple [simplex] but is, through a multitude of informational structures, a composite.

E2p16: The information of any mode in which the human body is affected by external bodies must involve the nature of the human body and at the same time the nature of the external body. (The ability to to be changed informationally, to be reorganized by work.)

E2p4: The informational structure [idea] of Nature (God), from which infinite things follow in infinite ways, it is capable of only being singular [unica].

E2p23: The mind [mens] does not know itself except insofar as it percieves the information of the changes (affections) of the body.

E2p25: The information of any change (affection) of the human body does not involve an adequate cognition of an external body.

E2p26: The human mind [mens] does not perceive any external body as actually existing except through the information of the changes (affections) of its own body.

E2p27: The information of any affection of the human body does not involve an adequate cognition [cognitionem] of the human body.

E2p32: All information (ideas), insofar as it is related to Nature (God), is wholly real (true).

E2p33: There is nothing in an informational structure that is productive (positive) on accout of which it is called false (confused, untrue).

E2p35: Falsity consists in a privation of cognition, which involves partial (inadequate) or confused information.

E2p36: Partial and confused informational structure follows with the same necessity as adequate (whole) or clear and distinct informational structure.

E2p38: Those things which are common in all things, and which are equally in the part and the whole, can only be conceived adequately.

E2p40: Whatever informational structure that follows in the mind from informational structure that is adequate in the mind is also adequate.

E3p10: An informational structure which excludes the existence of the body cannot be in our mind, but is contrary to it.

E3p11: The information of any thing that increases or diminishes, aids or restrains or body’s power of acting, increase or diminishes, aids or restrains our mind’s power of thinking.

Def of Affects IV: Love is a joy (an increase in the power to act) coupled with an informational structure orientation towards an external thing, taken to be its cause.

E4p1: Nothing positive (productive) about false (partial) information is removed by the presence of real (true) information, insofar as it is real (true).

E5p18: No one can hate Nature (God). Dem: The informational structure of Nature (God) which is in us is adequate and perfect. Insofar as we contemplate Nature (God), we act. Consequently, there can be no sadness accompanied by an informational structure orientation toward Nature (God), that is, no one can hate Nature (God). 

E5p35: God loves itself with an infinite intellectual love. Dem: God is absolutely infnite, the nature of God enjoys infinite perfection, coupled with the informational structure of itself, the informational structure of its cause. And this is what we said intellectual love is.

General Defintion of the Affects E3: An affect (emotion) which is called a passive experience [animi pathema] (a pathema of the soul) is confused information whereby the mind informationally affirms a greater or less force-of-existing of its body, or part of its body, than was previously was the case, and by the occurance of which the mind [mens] is determined to think this rather than that.

Heine on Spinoza: Undulating Forest of Thought

I never really fully grasped the source of Negri’s political enthusiasm for Spinoza until I started looking at Heine, Heine who was inspired by the revolutionary potential Spinoza unleashed in terms of the Pantheism Controversy. Heine saw in Spinoza’s reclamation of matter as divine just what was lacking in Hegel’s turn to Idea and Spirit. And in this as well, an invocation of the proto, pantheistic, pre-Christian Teutonic religions of the earth.

This quote captures some of that pristine and material beauty, the way-point between both Plato and Aristotle. For those who find Spinoza utterly dry, they perhaps suggest an eruptive potential not always easily glimpsed. And one can see as well the “top” and “bottom” tension that Negri argues for as well.

“[With Spinoza] we become conscious of a feeling such as pervades us at the sight of great Nature in her most life‐like state of repose; we behold a forest of heaven-reaching thoughts whose blossoming topmost boughs are tossing like waves of the sea, whilst their immovable stems are rooted in the eternal earth. There is a peculiar, indescribable fragrance about the writings of Spinoza. We seem to breathe in them the air of the future.”

“Religion and Philosophy in Germany: A Fragment”

He says important, interesting things about the ownership of ideas as well and the possibilities of transforming Spinoza’s thinking beyond its argumentative form. Not to mention, here is the earliest comparison of his philosophy to a lens, and his lens-grinding that I have run across.

“Nothing is more absurd than ownership claimed for ideas. Hegel did, to be sure, use many of Schelling’s ideas for his philosophy, but Mr. Schelling would never have known what to do with these ideas anyway. He always just philosophized, but was never able to produce a philosophy. And besides, one could certainly maintain that Mr. Schelling borrowed more from Spinoza than Hegel borrowed from Schelling. If Spinoza is some day liberated from his rigid, antiquated Cartesian, mathematical form and made accessible to a large public, we shall perhaps see that he, more than any other, might complain about the theft of ideas. All our present‑day philosophers, possibly without knowing it, look through glasses that Baruch Spinoza ground.”

What Thinking God Means to Spinoza

Thinking God and other Things

“Spinoza did not prove the existence of God; existence is God” – Goethe

Over at Deontologistics we’ve had a nice discussion of his claim that Spinoza committed a philosophical error called “onto-theology” which apparently is the taking of God or Nature or in Spinoza’s case Substance to be a kind of being. This is to say a dog is a being, and a cloud is a being, but Spinoza is arguing that Substance is a special kind of being, it is merely “a” being with unique qualities (one being that it is self-caused, rather than being caused by things other than itself, for instance). I don’t want to cover the discussion there as you can read it if you like, hereBut as a point of interest much of his point rests with the idea that God/Substance for Spinoza must be “a” being because God has both an “essence” and an “idea”, and anything that has one of these must be “a” being (to some minimum degree).

What this gives me to think about, and this is the subject of the post, is that the reason why Spinoza gives God/Substance both an essence and an idea is not to claim that God/Substance is “a” being, but rather to simply say that God is thinkable. And, to great significance, individual beings are not the only thing thinkable. In fact, the way in which Spinoza argues the nature of God and Substance undermines the very notion that thinking is confined to “beings” per se.

So what is it to “think God” for Spinoza? What does it mean for instance that God has an “idea”, that there is an “Idea of God”? And what connection does this have to us “having an idea of God”? It is here, right away, that we come right up against the non-representationalist view of “idea” for Spinoza. Quite apart from much of Cartesianism, and certainly far from the Idealist followings after Kant, to have an idea of something is not to represent it. In fact, as Spinoza tells us, when we are thinking about things in the world we are merely thinking ourselves. So if God has an Idea, and we can have an Idea of God, what does this mean? First off, we know that the Idea of God is not a representation of God. It is rather an expression of God, we might say. And when we have an idea of God this does not mean that we form a representation of what God is like. The last thing that Spinoza has in mind is the notion that we form an image of God, and perhaps it is not even correct to say that we have a “concept” of God (for our concepts of God change, but the adequacy of our Idea of God does not).

The Infinity Within The Boundaries of Our Thought

Part of a clue to this is that Spinoza claims that we can only have an adequate idea of God. Despite all the images and anthropomorphisms, or even atheistic beliefs, we automatically, by virtue of our capacity to think and be, have an adequate idea of God (as – it can be argued – do all things).  Understanding this may be helped by the holism both Goethe and Herder found in Spinoza, that each thing possessed a kind of “intrinsic infinity”. This is to say that while we regard individual things as bound, finite things, indeed within any bounded thing lies an infinity. As his letter 12 claims, this is an infinity of internal magnitudes, but it is also the nature of the infinity of God, that is to say, the Idea of God. In a certain sense, internal to a finite, determined being such as ourselves, lies the very infinitude of God, and the reason for this is because we literally are God, in action (as are all things). So when someone wants to compare God to our finitude and try to imply that God must be “a” being just as we are “a” being, they are looking through the wrong end of the lens. If one really had to choose, it goes the other way: instead, it is much more that we are an infinitude, because God is an infinitude (Hegel knew this well because he claimed that Spinoza actually produced an acosmism). 

So, when it is said that we have an idea of God this simply means that God  is thinking through us by virtue of his/its own ideational expression. In fact the combination of God having an essence and an idea is simply the groundwork for this kind of claim. Our thinking God is the case of our coherent powers of agency, and we cannot help but do so. And in such a case calling God “a” being really goes strongly against Spinoza’s very conception, the point he is trying to get across. 

Perhaps the meaning of this would be made more clear if I use my recent readjustment of Spinoza’s notion of Idea to correspond to the modern concept of “information”. We might say that Nature (all of it) has a kind of totality of Information which we could call the Idea of Nature. And we as natural informational beings, composed of and expressing information in a determined way, as we think about things in the world do so by virtue both of the specific information we are composed of, but also because in certain sense the totality of information is “thinking through us”; our informational structure connects us to the world due to the very informational order of everything. The whole moves through a part (in very complex ways). This is something akin to what Spinoza means when he says that we all necessarily adequate idea of God. We think the Idea of God/Nature/Substance by simply the virtue of being an expression of it.

Spinoza’s argument though makes all of this an expression of Substance, and as such the kinds of things we want to say about finite beings, are not the kinds of things we can say of the Immanent ground. While the cat is “a” being, and the lamp is “a” being, it makes no Spinozist sense to say that Substance is “a” being. God is not a super-quality version of us or other things. It is precisely this usual attempt to think God as a super version of regular things that Spinoza tries as best he can to upend. The reasoning goes the other way. It is the Infinite which opens up what the finite is. As Lessing put it to Jacobi, Spinoza will not prejudice human ideas.

Cybernetic Admixtures Toward Freedom

There is a very good reason why this tension between “beings” and their immanent cause is not resolvable by thinking of that cause as a special kind of “being”.  A good deal of this reason lies with Spinoza’s undermining of just what “a” being is, and in a way what we – as finite beings – are to think about ourselves and the world. What Spinoza ideational epistemology is organized to tell us is that the less that we think in isolated terms, the less that we think of things as separated from us, the less of “a” being that we become. That is, in what perhaps is best called a cybernetic view of human powers, the more that we combine with other things, and do so through our increasingly adequate ideas of their causes, the less that we can say that we are merely “a” being. Rather, “we” are exposed to be a combination of beings, the boundaries of which transpierce what we are. The mutualities which condition our very powers are the things that defy the actual Heideggerian Idealist (optical) notion of “a” being in the first place. I discuss these important differences between Spinoza and Heidegger here: Checking Heidegger’s Hammer: The Pleasure and Direction of the Whirr. Heidegger’s notion of beings is necessarily a story of alienation and occlusion, Spinoza’s is combinative and liberating at every turn.

This brings us to one more aspect of the argument that Spinoza is arguing that Substance is a special kind of being, and that is the idea that while each thing in the world is caused by things other than itself, but only one thing is its own cause. It is supposed that Spinoza is putting forth that Substance is just a different sort of “thing”. But because “thingness” itself is what is under revisement in Spinoza, the beingness of Substance is not the point at all. Rather, the emphasis is on the nature of freedom itself.  The principle of sufficient reason for Spinoza, the idea that the explanation of something is key to the nature of its power to act and be, is that which grounds the very ethics of Spinoza’s Ethics. This is to say, as we come to understand the causes of things this is not just an accumulation of knowledge, but rather is a real change in ontological power. This is something that is profoundly missing in so-called “flat ontologies” and is vital to understanding the nature of power and freedom itself.  As we understand the causes of things we come to be in combination with them, forming a mutuality. It is not simply the (optical) Heideggerian question of whether the thing we describe “hides” from us or not, but rather the change in the degree of being, our very power to act and exist, that occurs when we have more adequate ideas in the world. This is the true meaning behind Spinoza’s self-caused idea of Substance. As we approach towards Substance’s own self-determined nature, becoming more like Substance as we go, our very “a” beingness is under transformation. It is this freedom through combination that literally operates our distinctions making valleys and mountains out of what otherwise would be taken to be flat.

Lastly: The Barking Dog and the Dog in the Heavens

“Further (to say a word here concerning the intellect and the will which we attribute to God), if intellect and will appertain to the eternal essence of God, we must take these words in some significations quite different from those they usually bear. For intellect and will, which should constitute the essence of God, would perforce be as far apart as the poles from the human intellect and will, in fact, would have nothing in common with them but the name; there would be about as much correspondence between the two as there is between the Dog, the heavenly constellation, and a dog, an animal that barks.”(E1p17cor, sch)

 

Kant’s Criticism of the Purpose of Spinoza’s God

John Zammito’s The genesis of Kant’s critique of judgment is a compelling book, in particular for those interest in the after effects of the “Pantheism Controversy”. Zammito provides a convincing explanation on how much of Kant’s third Critique flowed from his difficulties with Jacobi, and the need to clarify his own rational position against Jacobi’s attempt to collapse all bravely followed rationality (rationality taken to its rational ends, no matter where they go), results in “Spinozism” something roughly posited as atheistic, fatalistic and nihilistic. Not to address these mischaracterizations of Spinoza here, or even Kant’s position towards them, there is this very nice little bit on Kant’s attack on Spinoza which has interest.

Here Zammito takes up Kant’s somewhat misdirected critique of Spinoza’s “God” along the lines of God’s purpose, a denial of God’s causality through Idea. Kant attempts to apply a truly anthropomorphic projection of purpose, based upon Representation, upon Spinoza’s ultimate ground, Substance, and finds it lacking. In a certain sense Kant rejects Spinoza’s God’s causal force because this God simply is not anthropomorphic enough:

What is interesting about this projection of the human discursive reality, leaving aside its place in the general context of his critique of Spinoza, is the way it seems to reveal in sympathy just what I have always felt is just so anthropomorphic about Graham Harman’s own (misnamed) Object Oriented Philosophy. One can see this most plainly in Harman’s so-called theory of causation, which is whole-heartedly representationalist, even as it tries to describe the events of causation between dustballs, interest rates and summer’s breeze. For Harman each of these must possess within their molten cores representations which link them to the rest of the world. (If unfamiliar with his thinking, here is my summation of the thought, and some of my criticism: How Do the Molten Centers of Objects Touch?; Harman approved of my summation.) The point comes back to me that the general mistake that Kant makes in the above in criticism, applying human discursive reality to the Spinoza non-human, is by Harman multiplied to a true infinity. It is taking an anthropomorphic, representational conception of not only “idea” as actualized by praxis but broadcasting it into each and every object kind imaginable. Harman treats these representations – what he calls vicars – as mysteriously the means of causation, leaving the issue of freedom and action behind.

Spinoza of course denies the kind of human freedom that Kant so theoretically valued, granting freedom solely to God (and his modes in degrees), and he did so by virtue of treating Ideas NOT as representations, but actional, ontological expressions of power and freedom. It is rather from the non-human that Spinoza brings his attack upon the human realm itself, all the while arguing a vigorous ethics of action and an ecology of cares, ultimately effacing the categorical “I” (and the not-I) that would inspire much of Idealism after Kant. In Spinoza an Idea is distinctly trans-human, not as a representation, but as I argue elsewhere, an informational interconnection of expression itself. It seems that if there is to be true object orientation, or appreciation, it can only be arrived at by not grasping at the kinds of representational conceptions that historically have marked out human reality as privileged and unique (for obvious theological reasons). These Kantian notions of representation go deep, as they can even be found in the notion of the internal Umwelt in biosemiosis, talked about here. Even these far flung boundaries defined by internal representational realms need to be opened up and inter-connected.

This is just a passing reflection in my reading, not a whole argument, but I do suggest reading the chapter linked above on Kant’s critique of Spinoza, and the previous one focusing on the “pantheism controversy” influence upon Kant. The link between subject/object representational insistence and the political-theological fears raised in the controversy is no small thing.

Seeing Machines and Modes of Slavery

The Human Machine

Corry Shores puts up a wonderful response to some of my optical research on Spinoza, drawing on some threads and putting them together in a way that I just had not yet: Seeing Machines. There he picks out what for me are several vital issues that are found in not only Spinoza’s, but also Descartes’ preoccupation with optical matters, both theoretical and practical, and really touches the primary concern. How do these modes of production (ideas, machines) reflect, express and criticize the very rise of instrumentality and really Capitalized labor (and merchant class related freedoms) in which they arose?

Consider how Descartes proposed his own notions of a transcendent God and free will. His sharp division between mind and body was essential for his project. Spinoza, however, reconciled the two [by means of his parallelism]. He was not so narrowly focused on abstract rational conceptions. He did not just design lenses for seeing things with greater focus. As well, he ground and polished them with his own hands. Ideas and their material instantiations cannot be divorced. In fact, kvond writes, “a calculation, for Spinoza, must be seen as an act, the mathematical point, as a relation and expression, and an instantiation, a persistence.” We do not just see, we see from a certain conceptual perspective. [Descartes saw the world mechanically. This perspective might view slaves as machines and not people.] Kvond puts it that we are always seeing-with.

In my view this connection is exactly right. Descartes’ preoccupation with the narrow focus of optical (and mental) clarity, and the attendant vision of machinic Instrumentality, is precisely related, ultimately, to the question of human slavery. It is no mere metaphor that Spinoza uses in his Ethics when he devotes his fourth part to the subject matter of “Human Slavery”. He is speaking of the emotions, but for Spinoza ideational over-focus was material over-focus. Emotional Slavery expressed itself in physical slavery. And he is not only thinking of individuals. It would seem out of place to give Descartes responsibility for 17th century slavery (why not, so much else gets laid at his feet!), but there are valid, thematic, if not arguments, parallels to be drawn between Descartes’ pursuit of a machinic world vision (paired from Mind), his attempt build automated devices that would not be stained by human hand interference, the attempt to mentally isolate clarity in terms of a point of focus, and the general colonial trend towards labor efficiency that would eventually replace indentured servitude (practical slavery) with outright slavery itself (the evaporation of the “human” in the name of production). I see in the very “object” oriented, optical preoccupation with central clarity – the hallmark of much, if not all of Idealism that followed – the conceptual cornerstone for Instrumentality itself, the mode of thought that regards a clarity and sureness of an intentional part as the grounds for what human beings should know, and what they do.

Additionally, it is precisely how we eroticize the boundary (that which lies outside our view of clarity, the “object” of our orientation), that fuels – both literally and imaginarily – our very Instrumentalities.

This is no mere theoretical question, but a large scale question of concept and human action. Much, if not all of the value of philosophy is that at the widest level in a certain register, what hu/man is capable of thinking becomes reconfigured, and I cannot help thinking that the preoccupations with optics and lenses that distinguished many of the great, newly affluent minds of the mid-17th century, bears a conceptual connection to the real human and institutional relationships that constituted the nature of their wealth. Optics, Instrument and slavery are not divorced, or at least Spinoza would refuse to divorce them. Corry did not realize it, but in the time of my optical study of Spinoza I also found compelling the likelihood that Spinoza, and the Spinoza family had at the very least tangential ties to the slave trade enhanced sugar buisness, leaving me with the suspicion that slavery and its connection to commerce lead in part to Spinoza’s decision to leave the occupation of family merchant behind, and devote himself both to philosophy and lenses.

Most of these are conjectural sketches, but because it seems that no one in Spinoza scholarship has much brought up the matter, they perhaps form a sketch of what is worth thinking about: Spinoza the Merchant, Caliban and the Prophetic Imagination, The London Question, Spinoza and the Ethiopian, The Sephardim and the Slave Trade, Spinoza Family Sugar Trade Timetable, Gabriel Spinoza and Barbados.

In this way it is possible perhaps to address the knot of questions behind recent talk about Ontology and Politics. The relationship between the two is I think best expressed by Spinoza’s political expression of ontologies, achieved through the erasure of the human/natural-world divide, descriptively turning Man into a force of nature, which is likely what it always was. But, as Corry helps me remember, this is not just a conceptual position, but also a part of the very intimacy philosophy bears to its time.

The 129 Enemies of Spinoza: The “dead dog” of Philosophy

[click on text for larger image]

Reading up on the so-called “Pantheism Controversy,” perhaps in terms of study the most neglected philosophical event in European history bearing ramifications from Kant (his writing of the Third Critique) to the rest of German Idealism flowering, I came across this little tidbit that Spinoza was the proving ground for the orthodoxy of newly christened doctors. From The fate of reason: German philosophy from Kant to Fichte by Frederick C. Beiser.

But Beiser does not let us rest with this stereotype of universal rebuke. In fact among the Left-wing radicalism of its time, Spinoza remained a kind of (closet) hero:

I would like one day to post on this Controversy, as  it had tremendous echo throughout Western Philosophy, echo I suspect has not abated. In order to understand much of what followed one has to grasp the “fear” of Spinozism (both in the philosophical sense, but also in the social/political sense). In particular, Beiser’s reading of Spinoza as 18th century radical Lutheranism without the Bible has something significant to say about the political aspects of Spinoza application for our day, and ultimately one must ask if we are still living in the aftermath of the 18th century fear that Spinozism would erase both God (separate from Creation) and Man.

Information, Spinoza’s “Idea” and The Structure of the Universe

Ideas as Information

This is a difficult post to write, particularly because the ideas it addresses are just plain large. And these large ideas have such permeating ramifications, both towards Spinoza philosophy and contemporary Science it is indeed very difficult to do any justice to them. Instead it must be taken as a kind of rough draft, a sketch, of what may be conceptually possible when bringing the philosophical concepts Spinoza employed into contact with the Information. The thoughts here must be taken as provisional conjecture, but this is not to say that I do not find the comparisons offered here to be valid. Rather, I suspect strongly that what Spinoza was talking about, the relationships in the world that he was attempting to systematize, are very much the same ones that Science today talks about when thinking in terms of information.

All this comes into view with Tom Stonier’s radical Scientific proposal that Information is an essential component of the Universe, found in his speculative book Information and the internal structure of the universe: an exploration (1990). I’ll cite at length from his work below to present the core of his ideas about information, but first I need to make a conceptual leap which will make future thoughts of my application of Stonier’s ideas more clear.

Stonier’s abstraction on the left, Spinoza’s on the right:

Matter = Extension

Energy = Conatus (striving)

Information = Idea

I don’t want to justify these equalizations, but rather just let them remain as starting points, at least until Stonier’s vision of information is made more clear. I will say that the first of these seems obvious. What we mean usually by matter is precisely what Spinoza is attempting to describe through the Attribute of Extension. The second of these is both instinctively appealing but also has some difficulties in translation, mostly due to the much debated theoretical role conatus plays in Spinoza’s philosophy. Perhaps though in reading conatus as energy in the specific context of information theory important aspects of Spinoza’s conatus thinking may come into relief. And lastly, most importantly, the third of these, the equation of 21st century information with 17th century Spinozist idea, is the keystone of the entire comparison, and hopefully will reveal as much about what Spinoza was thinking, as about what he was trying to describe.

But now let us present Stonier’s idea that “information” comprises the universe just as much as matter and energy does.

Information is Real

Stonier spends much of his time hewing out a concept of elemental information from the concept of “energy”, leaving “matter” to remain relatively self-evident. It is in particular the way that we are able to see energy as existing in different forms yet to remain an objective measure of how things are composed, that provides the footing for how information is to be conceived. Much of what Stonier argues is that some of our energy descriptions are better handled as information transformations:

Just as there exist different forms of energy – mechanical, chemical, electrical, heat, sound, light, nuclear, etc – so do there exist different forms of information. Human information represents only one form of information..human information itself, maybe stored and communicated in a wide variety of ways and represent many different forms (9)

Right of the bat we have a very important idea, and one that communicates itself quite well with Spinoza’s notion on the limits of human thinking and epistemology. What we commonly refer to as “meaning” which is ever context bound, is only a form of information, just as mechanical energy is just a form of energy. The ideas we have as human beings are not reducible to the meaning of their expression in language. Rather, as Spinoza sees it, the ideas we have are rather best seen as dispositional relations to really only one thing, the whole of the Universe. The ideas we have are informational or organizational states, what Stonier will call “structure”. Let me quote at length what Stonier describes as the “heart of the concept”. I quote at length both because Stonier’s book is not accessible on-line, and also because he does a pretty good job of expressing himself on what he means:

Information and organization are intimately interrelated.

From this axiom we derive the following theorems;

  1. All organized structures contain information, and as a corollary: No organized structure can exist without containing some form of information.
  2. The addition of information to a system manifests itself by causing a system to become more organized, or reorganized.
  3. An organized system has the capacity to release or convey information.

Let us examine the above theorems, beginning with the first. Any physical system which exhibits organization contains information. Information organizes space and time. The definition of the term “information” becomes analogous to the physical definition of the term “energy”: Energy is defined as the capacity to perform work. Information is defined as the capacity to organize a system – or to maintain it in an organized state. As we shall discuss later, it becomes impossible to perform “useful” work without an input of both energy and information. Conversely, all work brings about a change in organization, hence information.

Organization is a reflection of order. A structure or system may be said to be organized if it exhibits order. Order is a non-random arrangement of the parts of the structure or system. Randomness is the opposite of order, keeping in mind that certain forms of apparent randomness exhibit significant order, eg, a perfectly uniform distribution. For this reason, the terms chaos and disorder are preferable. Any quantitative analysis of information must be based, at least in part, on measuring either the order, or the chaos of the system.

Analyzing the information content of a chaotic system is made more problematical by the fact that a system may only appear to be chaotic: That is, such a system actually is responding to a simple algorithm – the apparent unpredictability reflects the fact that trivial variations in initial conditions may have a major impact on the system’s final behavior.

Organization and information are, by definition, closely interlinked. However, they are different: One cannot have a shadow without light, but a shadow and light are not the same thing. A shadow is the manifestation of light interacting with an opaque object. Likewise, organization is the manifestation of information interacting with matter and energy.

It is important to emphasize the conceptual necessity for an abstract term such as “information”. Information is a quantity which may be altered from one form to another. Information is a quantity which may be transferred from one system to another. This is not true, at least to the same degree, for the more concrete terms “order”, “organization”, “pattern”, or “structure”. The matter parallels the difference between the terms “energy” and “heat”. Energy is being capable of being transformed from one form to another, as well as being transferred from one system to another. In contrast, the limitations of the less abstract concept “heat” (a quantity directly perceptible to our physical senses), cannot explain how heating a boiler causes a locomotive to move, or a light bulb to light up in response to the electricity generated by a steam turbine.

Likewise, “information” maybe transformed from one form to another, as for example, when dictating a manuscript: Patterns of sound waves end up transcribed as words on a printed page. It’s easy to understand that the information was transformed via the stenographer and printer, from the spoken to the written word. It is not clear how the oscillating molecules of air comprising the sound pattern end up as apparently unrelated patterns of dye molecules on a printed page. The matter becomes even more mysterious when one eliminates the human intermediaries and speaks into a voice-to-print device. The structure of the phonemes making up a word is not the same as the structure of the printed syllables making up the same word. The information content, however, may be considered the same for both.

Information, like energy, is an abstract quantity. Communications engineers have recognized since Hartley’s time, over half a century ago, that information may be treated as an abstract quantity. What the present work proposes is more than that, viz, that information, like energy is a physical reality.

To be more precise, heat (involving uncorrelated photons in a crystal or randomly moving molecules in a gas) is the product of the interaction between matter and energy. Structure is the product of the interaction between matter and pure information. Energy, in pre-relativity physics, was considered as the more abstract quantity which, when added to matter, manifests itself as structure (organization).

As will be discussed in a later chapter, such a conceptualization of information leads to a different quantitative definition from that of the communications engineers. Such a definition also differs from the standard dictionary definition which defines information as, for example: knowledge, news, or what is told. Dictionaries go on to define knowledge as all that is, or maybe known. Knowing is defined as: recognizing, perceiving with certainty, being aware (of), being acquainted with. There are other, more specialized meanings provided by dictionaries, but the gist is that information is either a form of knowledge, or equivalent to it. Dictionaries define knowledge and information purely in implicitly human terms. This is in marked contrast to the principle that information is a property of the universe – that it comprises the “internal” structure of the universe.

Human information may involve the perception of that “internal” structure. Every time scientists define a constant such as the gas constant, Avogadro’s number, Boltzmann’s or Planck’s constant, etc, they have discovered another aspect of the organization of the universe. Each such discovery represents the human perception of the information contained within physical systems.

Aspects of human information systems, including the terms knowledge, meaning, significance, intelligence, etc will be explored in a future work, Beyond Chaos. The present work is concerned with the physics of information systems – systems whose reality is independent of human perception and which therefore transcends it.

To sum up: All regular patterns contain information. The mathematics of chaos had demonstrated that even apparently highly irregular patterns, may be the product of some rather simple algorithm which underlies the chaos. To the argument that what we are really talking about is “patterns” and “organization”, the answer is that “information” is a more abstract generalization which, in the long run, one needs in order to measure it by some universal measure such as “bits”. It becomes as difficult to measure quantitatively a pattern or a structure in terms of bits without the aid of the abstract concept “information”, as it is to measure in joules the output of light by a lamp without the more abstract concept of “energy”.

Information is an implicit component in virtually every single equation governing the laws of physics. (25-28)

The first thing that needs to be addressed if we are to make a successful comparison between Stoniers concept of information and Spinoza’s notion of Idea is the thought that information can be “transferred”. I think that this is related to the way in which we view energy as some form of primal substance that can be poured into (or drained out of) various containers. I’m not sure how helpful this image is in either the case of energy or information. The addition of energy to a system is a transformative one. The system itself is changed. And I think Stonier is onto this with his idea that information itself, when added, changes the structure of what it is added to. There is, therefore, something of competing images here, images that have to do with how we view the boundaries of things. From a Spinozist point of view, therefore, when Stonier says:

  • The addition of information to a system manifests itself by causing a system to become more organized, or reorganized.
  • An organized system has the capacity to release or convey information.
  • I think it is better said that an organized system has the capacity to improve the organization of (the adequacy of the ideas of) systems outside of it. Information does not pour out of a system, into another, but rather communicates itself, interactively, through the improvement of the organization of things beyond it. In this way the physical object of a book does not “release or convey” but rather through interaction, re-organizes the materiality of the reader. Key to changing the metaphor we use to describe informational relations is to see that when there are such interactions nothing is being passed back and forth, but rather what is involved is the substantive change in the relational capacities of each distinct thing, in the context of something larger than each (be it a larger system, or the Universe itself).

    Stonier in his re-imagining of information uses the concept to address itself to the problem of entropy. He works to show that entropy is not strictly equivalent to “heat” (which is one of its manifestations), a difference that actually marks out the need for an information science as structural changes in matter do not exclusively follow heat changes. As such he places organization and heat at odds to each other (heat, the move towards randomness, works against the move towards organization), but energy and information are actually part of a triangle of universal elements:

    The application of energy expresses itself as heat which causes particles (molecules, photons, plasmons, etc) to vibrate and to move at random. In contrast, the application of information causes particles to be bound into fixed patterns and ordered motion. In that sense, heat may be considered as the antithesis of organization.

    If heat is the antithesis of organization is heat, and by implication, energy the antithesis of information, that does not preclude the possibility that energy and information may interact to provide a mix which might be viewed as “energized information”, or alternatively as “structured energy”. INFORMATION and ENERGY must not be viewed as the opposites of a bipolar system, rather, they must be considered as the two angles of a triangle, with MATTER comprising the third (74-75)

    This is problematic to a Spinoza/Stonier comparison, and I think Spinoza actually helps out here. Stonier wants to see something like a crystal at very low temperature as possessing an ideal of information, a structural coherence with very little entropy (heat). I think that this is a mistake in his visualization. Because I view the conatus as equivalent to energy, actually all things that exist possess both informational structure (what I want to call informational or ideational lean towards the Universe), and also the energy (tendency) to maintain that lean (entropy will be handled at another time). In fact the informational and energy dispositions are mutual expressions of each other. The introduction of heat (randomness) is actually an informational transformation from the outside. Instead of thinking of information as merely the internal structure of a thing, it is both the internal and relationship organization of a thing.

    We can see this on the most fundamental level in examples of “energy” transfer, reconfigured to reflect exchanges of information. Stonier uses the classic of billiard balls: 

    …consider two billiard balls, one red, one white, rolling along on a billiard table at equal speed. The red one is moving in a north-easterly direction, while the white one is moving in a south-easterly direction. Let them meet in such a way, that the collision results in a reversal of direction: The red one now traveling south-east, while the white one travels north-east.

    The question that one may ask is whether the two balls exchanged energy, or whether they exchanged information. Certainly the collision, involving a glancing blow, seemed not to affect appreciably the energy content of the system as a whole. Nor did the energy content of the individual balls appear to be affected appreciably since they continued moving at virtually undiminished speed. What was altered however, was the direction…To restate the question: Is the conservation of momentum a reflection of the fact that the two bodies merely exchanged information? (81)

    Instead of seeing energy as conserved and “transferred” between objects, one can also describe such an interaction as an exchange of information. In fact, I suggest it is not the exchange of information so much as the informational re-orientation of each. The ideas of each ball, its informational properties, has changed through interaction. We can see the foundations of Spinoza’s panpsychism wherein each thing “thinks” (is made of ideas that make a difference in its capacities in the world).

    Stonier himself provides an interesting example of the primary dichotomy he would like to set up between heat and organization, with an implicit tension between energy and information, that if warm-blooded mammalian brains. This is more than a mere exception I would suggest, but rather points to the problem of Stonier absolute contrast between energy and information itself. As he writes of the mammal and heat (randomness):

    Present-day biological systems, with minor exceptions (eg, certain chemosynthetic bacteria), obtain their energy from the sun. Light, as we shall discuss later, is a form of energy with a high information component. In general, biological systems eschew heat – either as an energy input, or as a product. When heat is generated, it is the by-product of metabolic reactions and usually reflects an inefficiency in the system. The one clear exception is the production of heat to maintain efficiency of advanced metabolic systems operating in highly organized environments. To maintain the very high levels of structural information in the system, the changes in entropy associated with changes in temperature must be kept to a minimum. The most advanced information processing system known is the mammalian brain. When the temperature rises only slightly above a critical threshold (as with a high fever), the system begins to fail as the individual hallucinates. A relatively slight drop in temperature, on the other hand, leads to narcosis. Thus even relatively minor (heat-inducing) changes in entropy, change the delicate organization of the system so as to interfere with effective information processing.

    Therefore, in the one exception where biological systems do produce heat and utilize heat, the function of the added heat is not to provide energy, but to maintain a stable temperature so as to minimize externally induced entropy changes. In other words, heat is used to help stabiliize organization – it is the one instance where the controlled application of heat constitutes an input of information. (66-67)

    As I have argued elsewhere when considering Spinoza as a Chaoplexicist, Is Spinoza a Cyberneticist, or a Chaocomplexicist?informational increases cannot be seen solely in terms of an internally defined relation, for instance the structure of crystal. Instead they have to be read as edge-riding properties at the border of chaotic distributions. For instance there cannot be any such heat/organization polarity. If the Universe achieve a degree zero state it would not have reached a state of maximum information. Instead, the heat (randomness) use by mammalian lifeforms is not an exception, but an expression of the informational transformations that make up the structure of the Universe. Organization is best not seen in contest with Energy, but rather Energy expressions are necessarily informational ones. Even a purely random, equilibrium distribution is informational. And information increases (what for Spinoza would be increases in the adequacy of ideas) are not expressed sheerly as “structure” but rather the ability to bestride structure and chaos. This is precisely what lifeforms do with “heat”, not eschewing it, but surfing it.

    The locus of this reasoning I believe is found between the two, conflicting theories of Information and its relationship to entropy. Shannon, famously, linked the information content of a message to the surprise factor of its distribution. So if you received absolutely random message (taken to be utterly entropic), its information would be at maximum. Stonier, because he is not dealing with messages, but states, but an absolutely random distribution as the minimum of information structure. Truth be told, the answer lies between these two. A distribution, when seen as a message and measured for information, carries with it its relational capacities found in the reader of that distribution. In keeping with Shannon, the work that must be done in application of informational decoding of a random message is very high, so the message contain maximum information. If one is surprised very little by a message, it is composed of very few differences that make a difference to the reader. Its information is low. With Stonier, a random distribution of gas molecules composes very few differences that make a difference to the observer, so the information is low, but the reader/observer and the system/message have to be taken as a whole. The antithesis between these two perspectives is in their framing. If for instance we were to play a game where the exact distribution of gas molecules in a box near equilibrium state provides clue the game’s aim, suddenly the box is brimming with information, differences that make a difference. In fact, real world information differences, organizational relations that make a maximum of differences in the world, are those that oscilate or rather surf between both Stonier concept of fixed, structural, very low energy information, and Shannon’s very high entropy notion of message information. Maximal information, as lived, rides between this balance between structure and chaos. It is as Spinoza says,  

    E4p38Whatever so disposes the human Body that it can be affected in a great many ways, or renders it capable of affecting external Bodies in a great number of ways, is useful to man; the more it renders the Body capable of being affected in a great many ways, or of affecting other bodies, the more useful it is: on the other hand, what renders the Body less capable of these things is harmful.

    To use a Stonier example, for a crystal at low temperature to be in a maximum state of information its constellations of elements would have to be in state in which they can effect or be affected in the greatest number of ways, and one is not sure that this is the case. Such a state is not just useful, I would say that it demarks the greatest adequacy of ideas , or informational orientation, as is historically possible. Part of this is because for Spinoza there is such thing as a state that has no information or organization.

    There are additional difficulties to be handled in the equation between Spinoza’s “Idea” and Stonier’s “Information”, for instance the reality of entropy and the ultimately question of whether, or to what degree a “closed system” actually exists, has to be worked through. And there are several other aspects of Stonier’s theory that lend themselves to an elucidation of Spinoza’s thinking, for instance the way in which he re-reads changes in “potential energy” as changes in “information”, the moving of a system into a less probable state. These are things I cannot take up right here, hopefully in the future. It is more that Stonier’s view that information comprises an essential, transformational component of the Universe, just as energy and matter does provides a highly effective backdrop for understanding just what Spinoza means by Idea. What he means by Idea is Information. And it is precisely the distinction between human information and information as an abstraction that best brings out the differences Spinoza meant in both his epistemology and his ontology, the way in which there are distinct limits to what we know, but also that in knowing anything we are changing our informational relationship to both it and the world. Improving the Adequacy of our Ideas is perhaps best seen as improving our Informational organization of ourselves, thinking is position altering. And all things must be regarded as, in some sense, thinking.

    I hope that this presentation has not be unfair to Stonier whose theory and book deserves much better treatment. I am not one who enjoys the detailed summaries of positions, and have used Stonier only as a peering into the possibilities of Spinoza’s thinking, both in terms of what he really meant, and how it might help us understand how things are. But Stonier’s theory is beautiful in its own right worth serious study for what he claims. My Spinozist adaptation is at best provisional.

    Spinoza “Following the Traces of the Intellect”: Powers of Imagining

    How Far Can We Imagine the Sun to Be?

    My discussions with Eric Schliesser on the issue of a skepticism towards mathematical (and empirical observation) knowledge have continued (my recent post). Between us has raised the subject of just what Imaginary Knowledge is for Spinoza. I think that this is an important point for anyone studying Spinoza’s epistemology, and it occurs to me that the fascinating letter to Peter Balling contains some very important distinctions on this front, at least some worth posting. As I expressed to Eric in private correspondence, I take as exemplary of Imaginaray knowledge Spinoza’s thought that we imagine the Sun to be much closer to us than it actually is:

    Similarly, when we look at the sun, we imagine it about 200 ft. away from us, an error that does not consist simply in this imagining, but in the fact that while imagine it in this way, we are ignorant of its true distance and the cause of this imagining– E2p35sch

    For Spinoza I think, imaginary knowledge is really phenomenological experience, that is something akin to what he calls “thinking in pictures”. It is the way that we “picture” the world. And when we picture the sun as being only about 200 ft away (I’m not sure who does picture it that way), we are in a state of confusion. Spinoza actually is borrowing this example from Descartes’ La Dioptrique, Sixth Discourse, where Descartes explains the phenomena as a product of the brightness of the Sun and the shrinking of the pupil. No doubt Spinoza has Descartes’ explanation in mind when he qualifies this imaginary knowledge via the combination of the sun’s essence and our own body’s essence, a causal relationship of which we can remain ignorant:

    …For we imagine the sun so near, not because we do not know its true distance, but because an affection of our body involves the essence of the sun insofar as our body is affected by the sun (ibid.)

    While I agree with Eric’s claim that Scientific/Mathematical knowledge cannot give us access to the essences of external things, I do think it a mistake to not see that such knowledge in fact works to increase our awareness of the causes of things, and thereby increase our agency in the world (a primary Spinoza aim). In fact in Spinoza’s example he relates what he takes to be a fact about the size of the Sun, giving it a diameter of 600 times that of the Earth. Clearly Spinoza regards the latter figure as more correct than the former (and the even more correct answer, apparently, is that the Sun is 109 earth diameters). Spinoza is contrasting these two knowledges of the sun. It makes little sense at all say that both knowledges of the sun are merely “imaginary”.

    What we can say is that if we picture the sun 200 ft away, and we picture  the sun to be 600 earth diameters, both are forms of imaginary knowledge (as Spinoza’s incorrect diameter figure may attest). Imagining the world to be a certain way, phenomenologically, is key to our ability to find our way around in it. Imagining is a good thing.  But what must be accounted for is the difference between the powers of imagining it one way (200 ft away) and another (109 earth diameters). This is not just a difference in “usefulness” (which itself must be qualified and explained), but an increase in our ability to act in the world – knowing the size and distance of the sun actually allows us to do such things as send probes into space. In my view, any of these increases in the capacity to act, however they manifest themselves in imaginary or phenomenological experiences, must be understood as Ideational increases in adequacy (admitting with both Eric Schliesser and Micheal Della Rocca that we can never have completely adequate ideas about the external world).

    Clues from Balling’s Prophetic Imagination

    So, of what does this difference of pictures consist? An important clue to what Spinoza means by “imaginary” and its relationship to the intellect can be found in his letter to Peter Balling in 1664, a copy of the full text is included at the end of this past post: How Long was Peter Balling’s Son Dead?. I will address the usual reading of the letter in which Spinoza responds to his friend Peter Balling’s account of a premonition he hauntingly received of his very recent son’s death. A certain “rasping” he imagined, a difficulty in breathing apparently long before his son took mortally ill. This is really a striking letter for Spinoza theorizes about the different sources of imaginary experiences, retelling his own account of a waking dream; but also for our purposes how he in this letter reasons that the imaginary follows the intellect exposes why picturing the Sun one way is better than picturing it another way.

    Spinoza suggests to Balling that there are two sources for imaginary experiences. There are dispositions of the body, for instance how a fever might compel a hallucination, and then there is the constitution of the soul [ab animae constitutione] which may produce imaginary experiences of a different power; a power even perhaps capable of foresaging the future. I think that there are some significant problems with such a dichotomy of sources as the parallel postulate and also the definition of the soul as the idea of the body pretty much make such split extremely difficult imagine or justify (a problem perhaps to be resolved with an appeal to levels of conscious awareness or to shared ideas); but we may by-pass that for the moment. What is key is that Spinoza tells Peter Balling that indeed, because his soul partook in the very essence of his son’s soul by virtue of his very powerful love, making them literally and ontologically One, he was able to imagine his son’s future, however confusedly. In short, the father’s confused premonition of his son’s breathing actually is born out of an ideal, for Spinoza, intellectual relationship. And as such his imaginary experience held or expressed a certain power.

    However skeptical one might be of such an extreme example, in his explanation Spinoza provides the very framework by which we can consider what imaginary knowledge is. To put it briefly, the phenomenological picturing of the world, how we experience it to be, bears a dependent relationship to our ideational states and thus our relationships to others. Spinoza says that the imagination follows the traces of the Intellect:

    We also see that the imagination is to a certain extent determined by the constitution of the soul [ab animae constitutione]; for, as we know by experience, in all things it follows the traces of the Intellect [vestigia in omnibus sequitur], and its images and words out of an order, just as the demonstrations of the Intellect, it organizes, so one after another it connects; so that I submit that there is hardly nothing to discern [intelligere] by which the imagination will not, from a trace [vestiglia], form some image.

    Aside from the Balling issue, here we have a key connective between the images of the imagination and the ideas of the soul. The way that we phenomenologically experience (or even in fantasy dream up) the world follows the traces of the Intellect.  We can also read a certain parallel between the physiological sources of the illusion that the Sun is 200 ft away (as explained by Descartes) and the physiological sources of a fevered hallucination in the letter to Balling. In each there is an illusion which involves a certain ignorance of the causes of its production. In the case rather of the picturing of the Sun’s accurate size and the father’s premonition of a death, Spinoza reads the imaginary event as following the traces of the Intellect, the connections of our ideas. When we ideationally understand something about the world, there is almost nothing which we understand which will not produce a produced image.

    Again I think Spinoza is a little inconsistent in his theory of two sources, but we have here the groundwork for understanding why one image of the sun is superior to another. The scientific calculation and observation of the sun and other celestial bodies, using the entia rationis which are maths, help composes a sequence of related and dependent ideas, upon the traces of which the imagination will form images. The real, rational processes of intellectual progression which composes scientific explanation of the sun and much else allow a more productive imagination of how the world is.

    The Actions of Calculation

    But in keeping with Eric Schliesser’s thesis that scientific observation or mathematical calculation can never produce the very essences of external things, and that Nature cannot be adequately rendered in, or reduced to, a mathematical language, Spinoza tells us that an ens rationis should not be confused with ens reale. That is to say in another way, the semiotic impact of a difference in thought which constitutes its ontological force, is not to be confused with whatever it is supposed to be describing or referring to. When I am rationally calculating as a mathematician or a Scientist I am changing my ontological lean towards the World (Substance, Nature), gaining or losing degrees of Being with the coherence of my thought which connects me to others and the world, providing traces for imaginings, but I am necessarily not describing the World precisely or absolutely adequately as it is. My actions as a finite being are always connective and collaborating, but not subsuming.

    Put far less opaquely, the rational work that we do as we link our more clearly conceived thoughts to each other (in whatever field), is to construct an armature upon which we are better able to imagine or phenomenologically experience the world. The web of our more adequate ideas composes the traces upon which our more powerful imaginings are built. This can be said to be the case whether in terms of ideology or physical fact. It is not that we are to dismiss the imaginary or phenomenological, but rather to build the most far-reaching and connective imaginations/experiences possible. And it is here that we receive our explanation for what Spinoza likely meant in Letter 12 when he called Number an “aid [auxilia] to the imagination” all the while identifying it as an ens rationis. What is an aid to the imagination (which strives to imagine that which increases the body’s power of acting – E3p12), is that which allows its images to be related to the greatest number of causes. Because the imagination follows the traces of the intellect, the more adequate our ideas, the more powerful our imaginings. And in a very real sense, the imagination of the sun being 200 ft away is related to a greater number of, one might say, constituent causes than the image of the sun being 109 earth diameters.

    More thoughts on the powers of Imagination in Spinoza’s framework: Spinoza and the Caliban Question and Spinoza and the Metaphoric Rise of the Imagination