Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Spinoza on the Composite Self

It can seem surprising the degree to which our conscious experience is opaque as to what causes and/or composes it.  The revelations of neuroscience come only from third person investigation.  Even on its own first-person "turf", introspection has been shown to be a poor guide to analyzing our mental states, perceptions and memories.  The mind-body problem in philosophy is of course the story of the inability of the mind to perceive how nature constitutes it.

The fact that the brain/body is very much a composite system seems to be the reason for some of the difficulty.  Reading Spinoza's Ethics recently, it was interesting for me to see that he grasped this point in the 17th century.

Spinoza made his living as an expert lens grinder, working on components for telescopes and microscopes, and had some familiarity with contemporary scientific studies which utilized these instruments. For instance, he had heard of and may have gotten a look at Hooke’s Micrographia of 1665. So he was thinking through the implications of the revealed micro-structure of natural bodies when it came to his theory of mind (a model of mind/body parallelism).

Picking up the story at Part II, postulate 13:

“…we understand not only that the human mind is united to the body, but also what should be understood by the union of mind and body.”


“The human body is composed of a great many individuals of different natures, each of which is highly composite.”

So (IIP24):

“The human mind does not involve adequate knowledge of the parts composing the human body. The parts composing the human body pertain to the essence of the body itself only insofar as they communicate their motions to one another…and not insofar as they can be considered as individuals, without relation to the human body.”

Certain coordinated patterns of events within the brain/body system constitute the emergent unified conscious experience of our introspection. These are only a subset of all the processes going on, so it shouldn’t be surprising, after all, that that the full picture hasn’t been easy for us to figure out.


Anonymous said...

Just browsing but...Unsure if you have ran into it, but you may find neuroscientist Antonio Damasio's brain/body reading of Spinoza:

Steve said...

Thanks very much. I had read Damasio's two earlier books some years ago (Descartes' Error and The Feeling of What Happens), but I haven't read Looking for Spinoza. Now, having read Spinoza for the first time, it's pretty clear why Damasio would find Spinoza a kindred spirit of sorts. I should read it at some point.