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A Little Reason In Your Reasoning?
Oh, how far we haven't come. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein writes in The New York Times of 350th anniversary of the excommunication of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza from the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam:

The exact reasons for the excommunication of the 23-year-old Spinoza remain murky, but the reasons he came to be vilified throughout all of Europe are not. Spinoza argued that no group or religion could rightly claim infallible knowledge of the Creator’s partiality to its beliefs and ways. After the excommunication, he spent the rest of his life — he died in 1677 at the age of 44 — studying the varieties of religious intolerance. The conclusions he drew are still of dismaying relevance.

The Jews who banished Spinoza had themselves been victims of intolerance, refugees from the Spanish-Portuguese Inquisition. The Jews on the Iberian Peninsula had been forced to convert to Christianity at the end of the 15th century. In the intervening century, they had been kept under the vigilant gaze of the Inquisitors, who suspected the “New Christians,” as they were called even after generations of Christian practice, of carrying the rejection of Christ in their very blood. It can be argued that the Iberian Inquisition was Europe’s first experiment in racialist ideology.

Spinoza’s reaction to the religious intolerance he saw around him was to try to think his way out of all sectarian thinking. He understood the powerful tendency in each of us toward developing a view of the truth that favors the circumstances into which we happened to have been born. Self-aggrandizement can be the invisible scaffolding of religion, politics or ideology.

Against this tendency we have no defense but the relentless application of reason. Reason must stand guard against the self-serving false entailments that creep into our thinking, inducing us to believe that we are more cosmically important than we truly are, that we have had bestowed upon us — whether Jew or Christian or Muslim — a privileged position in the narrative of the world’s unfolding.

Spinoza’s system is a long deductive argument for a conclusion as radical in our day as it was in his, namely that to the extent that we are rational, we each partake in exactly the same identity.

Spinoza’s faith in reason as our only hope and redemption is the core of his system, and its consequences reach out in many directions, including the political. Each of us has been endowed with reason, and it is our right, as well as our responsibility, to exercise it. Ceding this faculty to others, to the authorities of either the church or the state, is neither a rational nor an ethical option.

...Statecraft infused with religion not only dissolves the justification for the state but is intrinsically unstable, since it must insist on its version of the truth against all others.

Posted by aalkon at July 30, 2006 5:24 AM

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Comments

> to the extent that we are rational, we each
> partake in exactly the same identity.

No! No no no no!

Posted by: Crid at July 30, 2006 10:55 AM

I looked at that askance at first, too, but I thought she meant identity as merely human, as opposed to tribal identities.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 30, 2006 11:58 AM

That's even worse!

Posted by: Crid at July 30, 2006 12:14 PM

Why?

And I have to say, I'm not of the "all people are equal" camp. Some people are better than other people. But, I'd like to see law and policy made based on basic human concerns, not religiously motivated concerns.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 30, 2006 1:07 PM

I don't know who Spinoza is or what he meant to people. But -

1. This perspective always turns quickly into some authority figure saying 'My way or the highway.' (Isn't that your complaint with Bush and stem cells?) In such a context, progress is not possible. If reason is truly to be applied 'relentlessly', an issue must never be considered closed. That's OK by me: Evolution stands so far above intelligent design as an explanation for human life that we cede no fertile territory in describing it as "theory."

2. We can't always know when people are being rational and when they aren't. The dots are best connected in retrospect. If rational thought could fall into a single checklist of points, we wouldn't need so many different people around. It would be OK just to have one really bright person to memorize it. But that's not how life works.

3. It's not how science works, either. The more you look at it the more you see that science is a wickedly, embarrassingly human process. Matters of funding, faith, ego and horrific dumb luck do as much to kick the ball forward as does the scientific method.

4. Arguing for the "one best way" is contrary to the Postrel view of the world, which is very risky indeed.

5. I think the great feminine error on this planet is the belief that feelings, and the feelings of loved ones, are of paramount importance. Women seem often to believe that if we're all feeling the same thing, then we're all kind of the same person... Or that in times of deep feeling, identity is less important. Maybe I'm a butch reactionary, but I think this isn't true. So I hear coercive overtones when Goldstein says "we each partake in exactly the same identity."

Who you callin' "rational", paleface? Keep your distance, whydoncha.

Posted by: Crid at July 30, 2006 5:41 PM

What a fascinating discussion! But, Crid, I frankly don't understand anything you are saying!

1. Separation of church and state leads to totalitarian rule? Or does totalitarianism arise from the idea that all people are equal under the law (which is what I assume Spinoza means by equality--obviously not everyone is equal in height, in trumpet-playing ability, etc.)? These are interesting opinions--I have no clue how anyone would arrive at them, though.

2. Most often, we CAN know when people are being rational, by applying our own critical thinking, especially when there is evidence to back them up. It's a much more productive process than studying the patterns of bones thrown on the ground or basing our thinking on the psychedelic ravings of illiterate mystics.

3. Science is a human, messy process. But the results it produces have a better track record of being useful and true than so-called truths produced by the messy human process of, as was often done in the ancient world, funding, faith, ego and luck WITHOUT observation and experiment, resulting in "people making shit up".

4. I don't know who Postrel is or what he meant to people. But -

5. Umm, are we off on a tangent? You could just as easily argue that interpreting the world through "feelings" leads to just the kind of unilateral, faith-based solipsism that Spinoza was trying to escape.

Posted by: Jeb at July 31, 2006 5:39 PM

"If reason is truly to be applied 'relentlessly', an issue must never be considered closed."

That's okay if you don't have a job and can afford to stay awake all night masturbating. Unfortunately, sometimes when we use reason to help guide our decisions, the conclusions are completely equivocal. Sometimes, no matter how much reason you bring to bear on the situation, it really is a coin-toss between the 7-inch Voyager and the 8-inch Starship Enterprise.

Posted by: Lena "Legs Spread" Cuisina at July 31, 2006 8:19 PM

I don't at all mean that we're all feeling the same thing, but that we consider choices and policy we make based not on principles of Catholicism and Islam and Judaism and Wiccan or whatever, but on what makes the most sense for humans. What she's trying to get at with that statement, I believe, isn't touchyfeelyism, it's anti-tribalism.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 31, 2006 9:21 PM

> 1. Separation of church and state

Huh?

> Most often, we CAN know when people
> are being rational

True. It's just that smug people give me the willies, especially people who get smug about their own handsome rationality. One way to recognize truth is that it's uncomfortable and politically incorrect.

> the results it produces have a
> better track record

Yep! I loves the scientific method, but loathe many claims made under it

> just the kind of unilateral, faith-
> based solipsism that Spinoza was
> trying to escape.

True. But what fun are blogs if you can't be a blowhard?

> That's okay if you...

My life hasn't been that way for *weeks!* HOw dare you, Lena.

> Sometimes, no matter how much reason
> you bring to bear

Amy's right to trust reason instead of faith... Listen, didn't that passage ("partake in the same identity") strike anyone else as being super weird? 'Tribalism' and 'identity' are kinda the same thing. THere's no one true way to make good things happen in the world. So successful science types seem no less likely to be standoffish assholes than do successful business people or composers or warriors or doctors.

Posted by: Crid at August 1, 2006 9:26 PM

"successful science types seem no less likely to be standoffish assholes than do successful business people or composers or warriors or doctors."


You can drop the politeness of "seem no less likely," Crid. Most successful scientists are complete assholes.

Posted by: Lena at August 3, 2006 9:59 PM

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