Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Spinoza Smiles on Farhad Manjoo

Spinoza set the European world on a dangerous and interesting path, he asserted that reality is one substance, and that what we perceive as differences are really different modes of the same substance. This can lead into deeply superstitious imposition of theology into our reality, or it can lead to the growing understanding that our perceptions of reality are limited, and that our names for them are in capable of encompassing the wide range of reality. Spinoza's pantheism points towards the belief that God and Nature are the same thing, and that God is the name we give to the personification of nature. From these elevated heights, one wonders what there is to write about.

That about is Farhad Manjoo's True Enough, and its critique of the "post-fact" reality. This is not a limited book, churned out to meet some overwhelming short term pulse in the marketplace of pseudo-ideas. It is not the exploitation of some minor tempest, nor the spilling of some old teapot filled with old arguments between old men. It is vibrant and important, and deeply rooted in the Spinoza's dangerous idea: that substance is one, and not merely our views upon it. Farhad is writing, not as a popular author looking for immediate gratification, but in the long line of humanist thought, which goes back in to the distant past, and we must hope, forward.

In Spinoza's world, there are no facts established by consensus, however broad. Reality is not what we pour it into in words, but a thing of itself, to which we must go, leaving behind prejudices and biases. There is a veritable cult among scientists for Spinoza, and with good reason. It is to nature that they go for illumination, and they seek to become like it, and not the other way around.

Farhad is alarmed then, not merely by things being "post-fact," but by the rise of a world where perceptions are treated as realities, if the political cost of altering thos perceptions is seen as being too great. To take one example, he writes about how all three major Presidential contenders have pandered to the disproven notion that vaccines cause autism, and how people, out of fear of this, are refusing to have their children vaccinated, thus putting even more people at risk.

His diagnosis in his book is not reductive. He is not blaming the internet as is easy for lesser thinkers to do, nor is he blaming some unnamed group of other people. Instead it is a conflict between the need to belong, and have an agreed upon social reality, and the trust on which all social realities rely. The result, he argues, is a spiral. As we trust others based on inter-subjective and objective means less, we trust only people who say things we already agree with. Instead of thinking, as Russell said, we have people rearranging their biases in large groups.

This is why his opening salvo, "Reality" is splitting, is so sharp an indictment of the "post-fact" world, it is a direct affront to one of the most important principles of modernity: that reality is one substance, and the same rules govern all of it within a particular mode.

Denial is the disease that he points to, and it is a very Spinoza-esque thing to say. Spinoza's ethics propounds naturalism in its earlies form, and his response to the challenges to this naturalism include the proposition that concepts of good and evil and other moral concepts are no different from anything else that is the product of nature. For Spinoza nature produces ethics. Central to the groups that gather on the internet to deny some particular reality, is that group morality can dictate reality. If people feel something strongly enough, then reality must conform to that feeling.

In documenting the rise of an anti-naturalist, anti-modern, world, Farhad Manjoo is, in no small sense, doing his best to defend the world of a natural and rational relationship with reality as nature, against the wide tide of people who see nature as the product, not the source, of our perceptions.

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