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August 6th, 2011 | Posted by Dick in Biographical | Philosophy | prison


By Dick DeShaw

              Thoughts on substance. Here’s how I describe the substance of my life: The lives of human beings are like the fractals of a rocky shoreline (see Benoit Mandelbrot). The symmetrical patterns we seldom see, define the whole of what we are. Carl Jung called these patterns, ‘synchronism.” These patterns are the expression of energy (what the ancient Greeks called, ‘demonstration,’ i.e. knowledge inside us.  This is, by the way, how Spinoza described science, i.e. …”the eyes of the mind.”

            Let me demonstrate with some patterns in my life:

1) In high school I am required to take one math course. I take Geometry. It is Euclidian Geometry, stripped of all its flesh. It is boring. I skip classes to play on the golf team.  I get a D. Afterward I avoid math like the plague.

2) An abortive math attempt in pre-med at university, caused by an unavoidable math requirement. I receive an F.

3) After marrying, I return to university majoring in psychology. There’s a humanities requirement, either English or Philosophy. As a poor speller, I choose philosophy though I don’t know what it is. In that first class the heaven’s opened!  I add a second major in philosophy.

  A favorite teacher influences me towards phenomenology and American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce.

4) Apply to University of Waterloo graduate school in philosophy. Birth control method fails and I leave, taking a social worker job.

5) Return to university at York, (after three years as a social worker), running a group home with my wife and three children. I major in sociology and get an M.A.

6) Decide to pursue a PhD in Social & Political Thought to combine my sociology and philosophy background. I take a class from Brady Polka who introduces me to Baruch Spinoza. The start of the Emendation of the Intellect leaves an indelible imprint on the synapses of my brain. Especially, “…to change my plan of life …was forced to seek a remedy…like a man suffering from a fatal illness…”

7) I move to Kingston with my wife, buy a house, live upstairs and run the first floor as an out of print bookshop. I work with prisoners for a street organization till it loses its grant and teach sociology part-time for St Lawrence College while completing my dissertation long distance.

   Running into problems with the sociologists on my committee (they didn’t want KANTent), and not seeking the advice of my chairman, Brady Polka (which I should have done), I shove my completed dissertation into a shoe box and become a prison guard.

8) While working midnights in prison, I read Charles Sanders Peirce, who leadsme to the study of logic, mathematics and science. I write several articles on prisons using mathematical models. These are published and republished in a Russian journal of science, two textbooks, the American Journal of Corrections, The Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, the Ottawa Citizen and The Whig Standard.

9) Having the bookshop gives me first choice of all philosophy, math and science as well as the opportunity to sell books from my library, particularly all the works of Heidegger and Sartre. I had moved on from phenomenology.

  One day the Queen’s university physics department called. It concerned the library of a physics professor, H.M. Cave, who had died. He had studied in Vienna when quantum theory got its start. We were given his books. What he had was a classic collection of science and math. Among his books were the 3 volume Dover edition of Euclid’s Elements, translated and annotated by Thomas L. Heath. I put Euclid on my shelf and ignored him.

10) Reason didn’t help me cope with the stress of prison. After a prisoner stabs me, I am labeled with PTSD (Post Trauma Stress Disorder) and put on disability. I bring home the “…suffering from a fatal illness…” 

  Reading a book on quantum theory, I seek to understand the mathematical logic, topos theory. My wife goes on line and finds me four topos theorists in Siberia. They refer me to a European philosopher who has written a paper on quantum foam, topos, knots and Spinoza.

  Fascinated, I get out my Spinoza Selections, edited by John Wild. I begin to see Spinoza’s writings as a ‘how to’ deal with inadequate thinking caused by my PTSD.

11)  Reestablish my friendship with Brady Polka and ask him about more complete translations of Spinoza. He refers me to Samuel Shirley: Spinoza’s Complete Works. My daughter buys it for me at Christmas.

  For the first time I read all of the ‘Short Treatise On God, Man and His Well-Being.’  My Selections , edited by Wild, primarily dismissed this work as ‘the immature Spinoza, as many philosophers do. I find it fascinating.

12) My wife’s father is dying in Washington state. We stay with her brother who has an adopted son, Scott, with Duchane’s syndrome. While the disease has ravished his body and taken away his ability to speak, he can type with two fingers, albeit painfully, to communicate with me. I spend much of our visit with him, sharing what I am learning from Spinoza.

  The last day of our visit, a delivery truck arrives with a book for me: A Spinoza Reader, edited and translated by Edwin Curley. It is a gift from Scott which he ordered as a surprise for me, over the internet while we talked. We go to my sisters and in quiet moments, I read the Ethics. Spinoza’s work stops being a ‘how to,’ and becomes living flesh and spirit when I read: 

  “The first thing which constitutes the actual being of a human mind is nothing but the idea of a singular thing which actually exists.” (Ethics, Prt II, Prop. 11, p. 122 in Curley’s Spinoza Reader).  I call this proposition: Scott’s Gift.  My wife’s brother gives us a ’94 jeep and we drive it back across Canada to Kingston. Shortly afterward, her father dies.

   In our discussions, mine verbal and Scott’s typed onto a computer screen with two fingers, we discussed how the universe is like a quantum computer with us as part of the programming. I told Scott that Spinoza says this programming does not stop when we die. Since computers gave Scott the continuing ability to lead his life in some fashion, he loved that thought.

  Several months after the death of my wife’s father, Scott decided to let himself go into the programming of the universe, rather than be placed on a machine which would have to do his breathing for him.

13) I get Vol I of Curley’s The Collected Works of Spinoza.  I consider Shirley more a poet of Spinoza translations and Curley the scholar.  Together they made me see that Spinoza formulated his theory of knowledge in the Emendation and the Short Treatise.  Curley especially opened up the Short Treatise for me.

  After writing these works, Spinoza, as Gilles Deleuze says, ‘expressed,’ his ideas in his later works, especially the Ethics. Spinoza never leaves the foundations of knowledge that he formulated in the Emendation and Short Treatise but he gives them flesh in ethics, hermeneutics, religion and politics.

14) Reading Spinoza, I realize that while he was influenced by Descartes, Hobbes and others, his theory was warp and woof a demonstration of Euclid’s Common Notions.  I pull down my Euclid’s Elements and begin to read it for the first time. Heath was an excellent scholar. His notes place you back in the ideas and currency of Euclid’s times. He put back on Euclid the flesh that mathematicians have stripped off.  As both Euclid and Spinoza said, the common notions of equality and ‘the whole is greater than the part,’ are the foundations of thinking. This is substance.

  Equal is the glue that holds together logic, mathematics and ethics. I suggest that Spinoza cannot be understood without seeing the influence of Euclid’s Common Notions in his thinking.  They are recurring themes.

  Finally;   ‘A point is that which has no part,’ is the essence of Spinoza’s idea of God, (Eternity = Now) and the essence of human life. Buddha discovered this as ‘Nirvana.’

  Later on I also found, in a neglected book on my shelf, that Euclid’s Common Notions were the foundations of George Boole’s, The Laws of Thought that created the mathematical language of computers.

  Euclid, Spinoza and Boole are the heroes of my thinking along with contemporary thinkers; Seth Lloyd (Programming the Universe) and a neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio  (Looking for Spinoza).

  I suspect my  nephew Scott smiles and approves of how I have used the gift he gave me.

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One Response

  • John Williams says:

    If you are well versed in mathematics and physics and like different viewpoints I would suggest looking at Dr. Randell Mills “Grand Unified Theory of Classical Physics”. I have gone through it and find his cosmological theory exceptionally beautiful, simple and logical. I recently discovered Ethics and found it very enlightening. I only recently became interested in philosophy and appreciate the list of reading material. I am especially interested in Euclid now. Thanks.

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