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Has Philosophy Ignored Spinoza’s Theory of Science?

January 1st, 2010 | Posted by Dick in Papers | Papers - Things of Understanding | Philosophy

1)    The Language Shuffle

In preparation for this topic, I read Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. Reading Wittgenstein is the intellectual equivalent of having your mouth washed out with soap for using naughty words.

However, reading Wittgenstein is the necessary propaedeutic for discussing a philosopher’s theory of knowledge.  As he said, “philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”  1

Spinoza had similar concerns: “Indeed, most errors result solely from the incorrect application of words to things.” 2 This is why Spinoza’s first work, where he begins to develop his theory of knowledge is called; Emendation of the Intellect. Like Wittgenstein, Spinoza knew thinking had to be cured of its ‘mental’ intoxicants.

To stay free of the mental traps which accompany emotions, Spinoza knew he had to redefine words like: ‘soul,’ ‘mind,’ ‘understanding,’ ‘reason,’ ‘spirit,’ ‘idea’ and even, ‘God..

‘Understanding,’ is the most important word in Spinoza’s lexicon. Most of us read it as fixed stuff in our brains, i.e., ‘Now I understand algebra,’ but, as Wittgenstein says:

“Try not to think of understanding as a ‘mental process’ at all – for that is the expression which confuses you. But ask yourself: in what sort of circumstances do we say, ‘Now I know how to go on?” 3

Content analyses of Spinoza’s works suggest he used understanding as the alpha and omega of how to think. It is his guide for the ‘conatus,’ or the striving of the organism to preserve and enhance itself.

Understanding begins when objects in the universe inform us they have an individual and specific existence. It completes the circle when, as Einstein says, we are able to break out of the prison of self-interest…”by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” 4        Spinoza says reason is not “…the principal thing in us” but only like a staircase to understanding.5 His theory of knowledge was not the brainchild of a rationalist.

Many Spinozians believe there were two sides of Spinoza, even two Spinozas;’ the immature writer of the Emendation and Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being and the mature Spinoza of the Ethics and subsequent works. This view violates content analysis.

Spinoza begins his development of a theory of knowledge in the Emendation and completes it in the Short Treatise, which was so radical, he was afraid to make it public.

For Spinoza there are three ascending levels of how we can perceive the universe: For Spinoza there are three ascending levels of how we can perceive the universe: 1) Opinion, 2) True Belief and 3) Science. Opinion is the source of doubt and error in our thinking. Opinion arises from misconstruing the place of individual things in our random experiences and use of signs. Spinoza believed only individual things have existence, not general or universal ideas.

A ‘true belief,’ is “…a strong proof based on reasons,” 6 Spinoza said. Reason is not the third kind of knowledge or science, although it demonstrates a true path to follow to the understanding of science. Science “…does not consist in conviction based on reasons but in immediate union with the thing itself.” Science does what true belief cannot, “…make us enjoy intellectually…what is in us…” 7

[Note: Spinoza’s separation of science from reason (true belief), may have been due to an insight into the nature of things that physicists call, ‘’entanglement’8’ and to a related notion, ‘synchronicity.” 9 Reason, (true belief), operates in local knowledge while Spinoza’s concept of science is generated by non-local knowledge. Because of quantum weirdness in the universe and our brains, scientific discoveries leap over reason by jumping out of the whole].

 Science is the highest level of Spinoza’s theory of knowledge in the Short Treatise, but by the time he writes the Ethics, he has substituted the words, ‘intuitive knowledge,’ to describe the third kind of knowledge.10

White and Stirling translate this phrase as “intuitive science.” 11   Wittgenstein says the word, ‘intuition,’ is, ‘an unnecessary shuffle.’ 12.

Now for a radical hypothesis on Spinoza. After developing a theory of knowledge that reaches its highest apex of science in the Short Treatise, Spinoza devotes the rest of his writing primarily to ‘true belief or reason.’ No wonder he gets misidentified as a rationalist.

Why does Spinoza do an unnecessary shuffle on science? 

First, his ‘true belief’ background, was in theology and philosophy. It is easy in both disciplines, to let language go on ‘holidays.’ 13  While Spinozians always praise Part One of the Ethics, with its so-called, ontological argument, George Boole suggests it is not very logical. 14

Near the end of the Ethics, Spinoza says his demonstration in Part I was only ‘true belief,’ and inferior to the knowledge of particular things (that he describes as science in the Emendation and Short Treatise.15

Another reason for Spinoza’s shuffle might be his times, making him cautious  about revealing his true belief about science. His motto was ‘caute.’ Spinoza’s admonition at the end of the Treatise and his turning back from publishing the Ethics, suggest this. 

The reason I believe it is true, is that Spinoza developed the gift he received in understanding, (‘now I know how to go on,’), from his circumstances. His philosophy grew out of stress, what we might call PTSD, today.

How can Spinoza be described as an ‘ivory tower’ philosopher, in light of what he said at the start of the Emendation?

      “By persistent meditation, however, I came to the conclusion that if only

      I could resolve, wholeheartedly, [to change my plan of life], I would be giving up

certain evils for a certain good. For I saw that I was in the greatest danger and that I was forced to seek a remedy with all my strength, however uncertain it might be- like a man suffering from a fatal illness, who, foreseeing certain death unless he employs a remedy, is forced to seek it, however uncertain, with all his strength.” 16

            This is not language on holiday. Spinoza found, ‘how to go on,’ (understanding), in exploring a theory of knowledge that would cure his intellect of the inadequate thinking that was caused by the circumstances of his body. Just as ‘mental,’ bewitches us in language, so it does in discussing the health of the body.

            Having found a theory of knowledge that cumulated in science in the Emendation and Short Treatise, Spinoza began a preliminary study of the passions that arise in our body as a result of circumstances that affect us, and further developed it in the Ethics. This study, as he clearly notes, is carried out by reason,’ not science.

            If Spinoza lived today, when neuroscience is making significant discoveries, he might have included these discoveries in his discussion. How excited Spinoza would have been with Jean-Pierre Changeux’s, Neuronal Man 17  and Antonio Damasio’s,  Looking For Spinoza:Joy,Sorrow and the Feeling Brain.18

After the Treatise, Spinoza carries out ‘true belief’ discussions on ethics, religion and politics. However, his understanding of science is always peeking around the edges of these works. In them, science takes a not unnecessary shuffle in God talk, considering his time.

What would Spinoza’s theory of knowledge be like in our day? What is the difference between scientific and ‘true belief’ thinkers in our understanding? We need Spinoza’s definitions of God for this.

Curley says, “Spinoza’s God is an ultimate principle of explanation.”19   Spinoza’s discussions on God in the Treatise, describe it as the operative and generative cause of every single thing that exists. For Spinoza, God and nature are abstract words describing the same thing. This is how Spinoza could say God is immanent in everything that exists in the universe, including us.

Spinoza says we know two attributes of God: thought and extension. Thought is the operative cause and extension, is the generative cause of everything that exists. We have thinkers whom we relate to as operative causes or ‘true belief,’ and we have thinkers we relate to as generative causes or seminal. The former are related to language and ‘strong proofs,’ (logic) and the latter are the ‘seed’ or ‘semen’ in the evolution of our thinking.

      Spinoza’s understanding of Euclid is seminal. Contextual evidence supports this conclusion. Then there’s Aristotle. The ‘true beliefs’ influence in Spinoza’s life, starts with Descartes, then Hobbs, Bacon, Maimonides and others,  more, ‘true belief,’ influences than seminal ones.

      II. Spinoza’s Theory of Knowledge.

      In the Emendation, Spinoza lays the foundation of his theory of knowledge and completes it in the Treatise.  This foundation, which never changed throughout his writing, is based on the operation of science and its language, mathematics/logic.

Bertrand Russell says we are inclined to take the ‘logical foundation of things,’ including mathematics, for granted. 20 Spinoza discovered the logical foundation of things in Euclid. This turned Spinoza’s thinking away from religious and secular goals for his life. He rejected God as a transcendent goal or end of living and said God is the immanent logic in everything that exists in the universe. 27

This discovery got Spinoza kicked out of the Jewish religion, barred from contact with all Jews, including family, and lost him his job. It is suggested it almost cost him his life when a hit man, sent by the synagogue, tried to kill him.

Talk about trauma! Spinoza’s ‘fatal illness’ talk, was no sham. 29   Having secular goals yanked away, he examines wealth, fame and pleasure and says they will not endure nor satisfy. Spinoza says there is only one goal or good that never fails humanity: “…the knowledge of the union that the mind has with the whole of nature.” 21

In the Emendation, Spinoza identifies this knowledge as science, although his description is caught up in the language shuffles of ‘essence,’ and ‘intuition.’  Human perfection is the one goal of science. Everything else is useless, he said.  To achieve this goal, Spinoza sets out to know as much of nature as he could, to reform society. All of Spinoza’s works are based on this endeavor. 22

However, we have to be sure our own thinking is not messed up: “…we must devise a way of healing the intellect…so that it understands things successfully without error and as well as possible. “ 23 This begins with understanding how we perceive nature, to know both nature and our power of knowing it.24

Spinoza says we inherit most of our ways of knowing things, through what we experience and the language by which we express these events. The former is limited to only our experiences, and the latter, as Wittgenstein says, can ‘bewitch us,’ and both lead into error.“ 25

So we turn to education, (self and taught). We learn to seek the causes of things in the accumulated wisdom of humanity. But, the proofs of our teachers are often in conflict, catching us up in language games of, ‘webs of belief.’ 26

When Spinoza called reason, ‘true beliefs,’ he was being gracious, wishing reason could be confined to ‘adequate ideas ’and ‘common notions.’27 Reason, however, is a child of language and caught up in its inherent relativity or shuffles.

The ancient Greeks believed in demonstrations, not in external proofs about the things we experience (reason) but rather how these things ‘coincide’ with the operation of the brain we call thinking.   This is what Spinoza meant by ‘immediate union with the thing itself or science.

Thomas Heath’s introduction to Euclid’s Elements is the best description of the language and concepts at Aristotle and Euclid’s time. A quote from Aristotle shows how he uses the word, ‘demonstration.’ It plants the seed of Spinoza’s usage:

      “Now that which is per se necessarily true and must necessarily be

      thought so, is not a hypothesis nor yet a postulate. For demonstration

      has not to do with reasoning from outside but with the reason dwelling

      in the soul…It is always possible to raise objection to reasoning from

      outside, but to contradict the reason within us, is not always possible.”28


Euclid is ‘projaculated’ throughout Spinoza’s writings; Spinoza’s intellectual father. Euclid’s common notions, emphasizing equality, are, as Spinoza understood, the foundation of mathematics and ethics.

The word, ‘equal,’ is so common, it is often overlooked. However, it is the glue that holds mathematics and logic together. Euclid’s common notions on equality are:

1)    “Things which are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another.”

2)    “If equals be added to equals, the whole are equal.”

3)    “If equals be subtracted from equals, the remainders are equal.”

4)    “Things which coincide with one another are equal to one another.” 29


Their profundity is only surpassed by the simple line with which Euclid began his

definitions: “A point is that which has no part.” 30 No wonder Spinoza considered Euclid the master!

            Spinoza’s understanding of God/Nature was derived from Euclid’s fifth common notion:  “The whole is greater than the part.” 31

It was in Euclid’s Common Notions, that Spinoza discovered the logical foundations of things. These notions we take for granted: equality and whole/part, are the operations of the brain that coincide with things themselves.

Science is the operation of our brains that adds, subtracts, and coincides parts and wholes to find them equal. This is the operation in our brain that leads to the discoveries of mathematics and logic and ultimately unites them.

What is science? Spinoza could go only so far with his insight by saying it is”…immediate union with the thing itself.” 32 The discussion continues with George Boole’s, Laws of Thought, 33 and Seth Lloyd’s Programming the Universe. 34   Lloyd’s work gives an overview in which to fit Spinoza’s Theory of Knowledge.

The universe is made up of single things, (bits). These singular things send and receive information. All information is generated and operates through logic gates of 1 or 0, yes or no.  The universe is in a quantum state of both 1 and 0, (waves and particles) until information is processed.

The first and second laws of thermodynamics, informed by entropy, say that these singular things are conserved as energy and expanded as information. A singular thing could be as diverse as an atom’s spin, a hippo stepping on your foot, or a riot inside prison.

Our body receives information from the whole of information and the singular things (or bits) which express it. This information is processed by ‘senses,’ in our neuronal system.

The neuronal system, like the rest of the universe, is in quantum flux. The system is not binary until certain events occur. If our brain is like a computer, it would be a quantum one.

Neurons pass information from one to another through synapses (electrical or chemical gaps). Following George Boole and Seth Lloyd, we can describe synapses as logic gates. The information in those logic gates can be processed as 1 or 0, (yes or no) or both 1 and 0.

This passing is throughout the entire body, not just the brain. All physiological systems are guided by synapses which even hover in our DNA, determining whether we will be human or a rat. (Same DNA).

Neuroscience is a relatively young discipline which will give us a wealth of understanding about how the brain operates and how language arises and operates in our brain. These discoveries will confirm George Boole’s laws of signs as paths of logic gates, (synapses) in the brain. 

III Spinoza’s Tourist Traps

In the Emendation, Spinoza says: “the…intellect, by its inborn powers, makes intellectual tools for itself.” 35 He also says: “…in order to know that I know, it is necessary that I must first know.” 36 In other words, singular things send us information. Spinoza redefined mental constructs as intellectual tools that we use, in going on in our thinking. ‘Mind,’ ‘soul,’ ‘God,’ ‘idea,’ ‘understanding,’ ‘certainty,’ ‘objective essence,’ ‘truth,’ and ‘body,’ are different intellectual tools to demonstrate how we receive information from singular things and their totality in the universe, (Nature/God).

Each tool has a different function in Spinoza’s theory of knowledge. ‘Mind’ is the totality of information. He calls this totality, ‘substance’ and its expression, an ‘attribute.’ The sending and receiving information by singular things (including us), is a subset of mind or a mode. He calls this, ‘soul’.

This totality of sending and receiving information is Nature/God. The singular thing and the information it sends are expressions of the same thing. Mind, (thought) and body (extension), are identical. There is no ‘mental’ in the universe or in us. ‘God thinks,’ is not an anthropomorphism by Spinoza

            For Spinoza, the totality of information is not bounded by space and time. The unbounded, he calls, ‘eternity’. Modern scientists waver in their opinions about this.

Because all things, including us, are subsets of mind or the totality of information, everything is, always has been and always will be. Therefore, the part of us which is the subset of mind can never die and is eternal. This is what Spinoza means by necessity. The soul is how we receive information through our receptor, the body. It is the form of mind that has duration. This tool ceases when duration ends and translates into a different form in the totality of information.

Simply put, the soul, like the body, dies. But the conservation of energy and expansion of information it demonstrates, is eternal.  Spinoza means, by ‘body’, what physiologists and neuroscientists understand as body. (The brain, like head, legs and so forth, is body. There is no mental substance). Spinoza, however, says body was never created but existed in a different form before it was generated (evolved) to its present form.

Different scientists have expressed the translation of information by saying the DNA of humanity exists in our genes; we are condensed energy, waiting to be liberated. Stardust.

When Spinoza said creation never happened, the soul dies with the body and God is the totality of information (mind) in nature, this did not make him very popular with religious people.  So he hid these comments, mostly in footnotes in the Short Treatise that were not meant for public consummation. These ‘heresies’ did, however, leak out. Spinoza’s redefinition of God has only been appreciated by select individuals like Einstein.

An ‘idea’ is a neurological connection of our body to the information sent us by things. Understanding is the eternal causal connections of how to go on, that is in the totality of information (mind) and finitely in our brain (body). ‘Certainty,’ ‘objective essence,’ and ‘truth,’ are different linguistic moves in describing how we receive information.

In his attempt to understand that the universe is made up of singular things that send and receive information, Spinoza took us on a philosophical holiday. But the anthropological tourist traps were fun.


IV Spinoza and Modern Science

Spinoza’s concept of science was as old as Aristotle and Euclid, as modern as information theory.  His concept of God as the operative and generative cause of everything that exists, finds its equivalent in ‘It from Qubit.’ 37 Spinoza’s theory of knowledge operates in the same way as ‘logic gates’ operate in information theory.

            We could wish Spinoza had said more about science as his third kind of knowledge, not disguised it in the shuffle of God talk, but his cover-up was necessary. Today we can put Spinoza’s theory of knowledge into the context of modern science.

            It begins with George Boole’s The Laws of Thought. 38   His investigation into the laws of thought gave us Boolean algebra which underlies the language of artificial thought – the computer.

            Like Spinoza, Boole believed, “…language is an instrument of human reason and not merely a medium for the expression of thought…” 39   However, Boole does a modern rationalist shuffle on Spinoza’s concept of science as “…immediate union with the thing itself…”

Boole comes down on the side of what is called, ‘modernity,” even though his actual discussion leaves the question of demonstration versus modernity, open.40

            However, Boole considers his three laws of signs as, ‘instruments of language.’ His first two laws are operations of the brain, independent of language and the source of language. 41   Essentially, we do not model our thinking on mathematics and logic but rather they are modeled on the operations of our brains.

            Here are the three elements of Boole’s laws of signs: 1) Literal symbols as x, y, & c, representing things as subjects of our conceptions.  2) Signs of operations as +,-, x, standing for those operations of the mind by which the conception of things are combined or resolved so as to form new conceptions involving the same elements.. 3) The sign of identity, =. 42         Using these three elements, Boole classifies language:


    Class I

            “Appellative or descriptive signs, expressing either the name of a thing

            or some quality or circumstance belonging to it.” 43


Class II


“Signs of those mental operations whereby we collect parts into a whole or separate a whole into its parts.” 44



  Class III


“Signs by which relation is expressed and by which we form propositions.”45


            Frege, Russell and Whitehead expand significantly on Boole’s discussion of ‘class.’ 46   For them, the elements got lost in the class. Frege’s idea of thought is confined to Boole’s third class. He does an idealist shuffle. 47

            Boole’s genius was in his next step, after introducing the laws of thought and classifying them. He produces the “…axioms which the symbols introduce…” 48   He draws the general axioms from Euclid:

            “1st. If equal things are added to equal things, the wholes are equal.”

                “2nd. If equal things are taken from equal things, the remainders are equal.” 49

            While we will not repeat Boole’s ingenious application of the rule of transportation, to draw an analogy between logic and algebra, while realizing its limitation, he comes to the conclusion that gave birth to the language of computers, the special law of logic: X2 =X: 50

“Now of the symbols of number, there are but two, viz, 0 and 1, which are                    subject to the same formal laws. We know that 02 = 0 and that 12=1;

and the equation X2=X considered as algebraic, has no other root than 0

and 1.” 51


            Thus began the discipline of mathematical logic.  This discipline has grown rationally well beyond Boole’s early description.


            Boole, like many modern thinkers, misidentified the elements of science as language, when they were operations of our brain. This is why today’s ‘science’ has separated into parts and seldom finds its way back into the whole.


            Spinoza’s theory of knowledge was based on the operations of the brain, which he derived from Euclid’s common notions, (as did Boole). Spinoza called this process, ‘ideas of ideas’, (reflection) which gives us method.


A true method follows the path by which we receive information from the singular object as ideas, (synaptic connections) re: their existence and essence – what makes them a certain kind of thing) and relates them to other ideas.


To know, we must first have a true idea, (synaptic connection). The information we receive from singular things, teaches us how to go on, (understand) in our use of this information. We relate these ideas to other ideas (synaptic connections) of how to go on and connect them to the unity of information out of which they arose.


            If we follow this method in our understanding, Spinoza says, we understand, “…both our own powers and the order of nature.” Therefore, we can lay down rules for our own guidance of how to go on and, by understanding, the order of nature, restrain ourselves from, ‘useless pursuits.’  This is Spinoza’s whole method or theory of knowledge.52


All of the operations of mathematics are ways we can think about how to go on, (understand). Wittgenstein said: “We do not realize that we calculate, operate with words and in the course of time, translate them sometimes into one picture, sometimes another.” 53

Language finds its direction in symbols and operations but finds its ‘bewitchment,’ in relations, or, as we so often misuse the word, ‘relative’ thinking. Wittgenstein’s pictures.

The shuffle of language leads to what Spinoza calls, ‘inadequate thinking.’ 


This is a beginning in understanding the radical break. Spinoza made with the philosophies of his day and how his work reverberates in modern concepts of science. All of the labels that have been applied to Spinoza: rationalist, humanist, atheist, pantheist,  are attempts to co-opt him back into the fold of the bewitchment of our intelligence that he left when he wrote the Emendation of the Intellect and the Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being.                                                                             



            1) Wittgenstein, L. trans. Anscombe, G.E.M., 1958, Philosophical Investigations, New York: Macmillan

            2) Spinoza, B., trans. Samuel Shirley, ed. Michael Morgan, The Complete Works, 2002, Indianapolis, Cambridge, Hackett

            3) Wittgenstein, op cit. p. 61e

            4) Herbert, N. 1985, Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics, Garden City, New York, Anchor/Doubleday, p. 250.  Herbert ends his book with Einstein’s quote.

            5) Spinoza, Shirley, op cit. p. 100

            6) Spinoza, B. trans & ed. Edwin Curley, 1985, Collected Works of Spinoza, Vol 1, Princeton, Princeton U. Press

            7) Spinoza, Ibid p. 102

            8) Albert, D.Z. and Galchen, R. March, ’09, A Quantum Threat to Special Relativity, Scientific American, pp. 32-39

            9) Peat, F.D. 1987 Synchronicity: The Bridge Between Matter and Mind, New York: Bantam

            10) Spinoza, Curley, op cit. p. 475

            11) Spinoza, B. trans. White, H.L. and Stirling,   The Ethic of Benedict D. Spinoza, 1937, 4th ed. London: Oxford U. Press

            12) Wittgenstein, op cit. p. 54e

            13) Wittgenstein, op cit. p. 19e

            14) Boole, G. 1854 (1958 ed.) An Investigation of the Laws of Thought on Which are Founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probability, New York” Dover,, pp. 185-218

            15) Spinoza, Curley, op cit. p. 475

            16) Spinoza, Curley, op cit. p. 379

            17) Changeux, J. trans. Gorey, L. 1985   Neuronal Man: The Biology of Mind, New York: Oxford, Oxford U. Press

            18) Damasio, A. 2003, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain, New York: Harcourt

            19) Curley, E. 1994, A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works, Princeton: Princeton U., p. xxiv

            20) Russell, B. 1919, Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, London: Allen & Unwin

            21) Spinoza, Curley, op cit. p. 11

            22) Ibid pp 13-16

            23) Ibid p. 11

            24) Ibid p. 15

            25) Wittgenstein, op cit. p. 47e

            26) Quine, W.V. Ullian, J.S. 1970, The Web of Belief, New York, Random House

            27) Spinoza, Curley, op cit. p. 478

            28) Euclid, trans. Heath, T. 1956, The Thirteen Books of Euclid’s Elements, Vol 1, New York: Dover, p. 118

            29) Ibid, p. 155

            30) Ibid p. 153

            31) Ibid p. 155

            32) Spinoza, Curley, op cit. p. 102a

            33) Boole, op cit.

            34) Lloyd, S. 2007, Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes on the Cosmos, New York: Vintage/Random House

            35) Spinoza, Shirley, op cit. p. 10

            36) Ibid

            37) Lloyd, S., NGY, .J. Black Hole Computers, Scientific American, Nov. ’04, pp. 52-61

            38) Lloyd, op cit.

            39) Boole, op cit. p. 24

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