Sunday, December 31, 2017

Darwinian Neurobiology Supports Spinoza: Self-Preservation, Freedom of Philosophizing, and Lockean Liberalism

In the fall of 1972, I was in the second year of my graduate work in political science at the University of Chicago; and I was a student in Joseph Cropsey's course on Benedict de Spinoza's Ethics.  I wrote a paper for the course entitled "Spinoza on Preservation," which I typed on my manual Smith-Corona typewriter, using "white-out" to correct my mistakes.  (You millennials out there might have seen an ancient typewriter in a museum or in some old movies.) 

My grade for the paper was A-.  Cropsey had a bad habit of slipping with his pen and leaving a minus mark after writing an A.  (I have written some posts on Cropsey herehere, and here.)

I recently found this yellowed paper in an old file of papers and notes on Spinoza, and I read it for the first time in 45 years.  I was surprised by three discoveries.  First, I was surprised to see how much of my thinking in Darwinian Natural Right and other writings included ideas from Spinoza--particularly, the principle that the good is the desirable as rooted in the evolved biological nature of human beings.

My second discovery was noticing how much of what Spinoza said about the human mind as the activity of the human body and brain has been confirmed by research in neurobiology over the past 40 years, which is the argument of Antonio Damasio in Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain (Harcourt, 2003).  In writing Darwinian Natural Right, I was influenced by an earlier book by Damasio--Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (Putnam's Sons, 1994)--in which he shows that neurobiology refutes Kant's claim that morality depends on pure reason without emotion, and supports Hume's claim that morality depends on reason but also on the moral emotions that arise in the brain to guide us to survival and well-being as social animals.

My third discovery was seeing how Spinoza had formulated most of the foundational ideas for John Locke and the modern liberalism that Locke initiated.  This became especially clear to me recently when I read Wim Klever's unpublished paper "Locke's Disguised Spinozism," which is available online.  To support his assertion that Locke's thinking in The Essay Concerning Human Understanding, The Two Treatises of Government, and The Letter on Toleration derives from his reading of Spinoza, Klever places quotations from Spinoza and Locke side by side to show Locke's borrowing from Spinoza's thought and language. 

When Bishop Stillingfleet accused Locke of "Spinozism" in presenting Revelation as a product of human imagination, Locke responded: "I am not so well read in Hobbes and Spinoza to be able to say what were their opinions in this matter."  But as Klever indicates, the persecution of Spinoza--his reputation as a dangerous atheist, his expulsion from the Synagogue by the Amsterdam Sephardic rabbis, and the suppression of Spinoza's books--would explain why Locke, who himself lived in fear of being arrested and beheaded for his subversive writing, would need to hide his adoption of Spinozist ideas.

This has led me into thinking about how Spinoza's account of the biological nature of self-preservation supports Lockean liberal thought, and of how this might be confirmed by modern Darwinian neurobiology.  I also thought about how the empirical evidence for human progress over the past two centuries might show that the increasing freedom brought by Spinozist and Lockean liberalism has indeed increased the survival and well-being of human beings around the world.

Damasio says that when he was young, he read Spinoza and copied a quotation that he liked.  Years later, he renewed his interest in Spinoza when he decided to check the accuracy of the quotation that he had kept on a yellowed piece of paper.  He found it in The Ethics:  "the foundation of virtue is this very striving to preserve one's own being, and that happiness consists in man's being able to preserve his being" (IV, prop. 18, schol.)

As he continued reading The Ethics, Damasio found a second quotation that appealed to him as a neurobiologist who explains the human mind as the expression of the brain's mappings of the body's striving for survival and well-being: "The object of the idea constituting the human Mind is the Body" (II, prop. 13).  In my next post, I will probe this Spinozist neurophysiology of the mind as grounded in the body, in contrast to the Cartesian separation of the immaterial mind and the material body as two substances.

The first quotation points to how the biological striving to preserve one's own being provides the natural ground for the liberal understanding of the natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as rooted in biological self-ownership.  Damasio observes:
". . . It is an affirmation that at the base of whatever rules of behavior we may ask humanity to follow, there is something inalienable: A living organism, known to its owner because the owner's mind has constructed a self, has a natural tendency to preserve its own life; and that same organism's state of optimal functioning, subsumed by the concept of joy, results from the successful endeavor to endure and prevail.  Paraphrased in deeply American terms, I would rewrite Spinoza's proposition as follows: I hold these truths to be self-evident, that all humans are created such that they tend to preserve their life and seek well-being, that their happiness comes from the successful endeavor to do so, and that the foundation of virtue rests on these facts.  Perhaps these resonances are not a coincidence" (170-71).
Spinoza recognizes that grounding virtue in the natural concern for oneself will be criticized by those who believe "that this principle--that everyone is bound to seek his own advantage--is the foundation, not of virtue and morality, but of immorality"--the immorality of selfish individualism (IV.prop. 13, school.).  His response to this criticism is to argue that since human beings are naturally social animals who need the cooperation of others, "to man, then, there is nothing more useful than man," and man "can wish for nothing more helpful to the preservation of his being than that all should so agree in all things that the Minds and Bodies of all should strive together, as far as they can, preserve their being; and that all, together, should seek for themselves the common advantage of all."  Therefore, those men who are governed by reason in seeking their own advantage "want nothing for themselves that they do not desire for other men." 

This striving to leave in peaceful mutual cooperation with others is an extension of the striving to preserve oneself.  Evolutionary theorists today recognize this as showing the evolved propensity for cooperation based on kinship, mutual aid, and reciprocity.  The propensity to reciprocity includes the right to punish cheaters who are not trustworthy cooperators.

In the state of nature without government, human beings can enforce the natural law of cooperation by rewarding those who are cooperative and punishing those who cheat or aggressively attack others; and thus the state of nature can be a state of peace. But since many people are not rational enough to obey this natural law, the state of nature can become a state of war.  To escape this state of war, people can consent to a government to secure their natural rights through enforcing formal laws for peaceful cooperation and the punishment of aggressors.  Government thus rests on a social contract.

Hobbes had also argued for government being based ultimately on consent, but the difference between Hobbes and Spinoza was that unlike Hobbes, as Spinoza said, "I always preserve natural right unimpaired" (letter 50).  Even when they live under an established government, people have a natural right to resist oppression, and when government becomes too oppressive, it will so provoke the people that they will rebel and seek a new government better designed for their safety and happiness.

Another difference from Hobbes is that Spinoza, in The Political Treatise, ranked monarchy as the least desirable form of government, aristocracy as a better form of government, and democracy as the best.  Spinoza was thus the first major philosopher to clearly and forcefully endorse democracy as the best form of government.  He conceded, however, that in certain historical circumstances monarchy could be best for a society.

Spinoza suggested that the fundamental principle of politics is that the power of political leaders depends on their having the support of what some political scientists today call a "minimum winning coalition." (I have written about that here.)  No ruler can rule alone.  Even an absolute dictator needs a small coalition of powerful people who are loyal to him, and so the dictator must do everything necessary to win and maintain their loyalty.  Consequently, the private interest of the dictator's small coalition of supporters is advanced at the expense of the public interest of the people at large, and that provokes resentment among the people who will become rebellious.  For that reason, the larger the minimum winning coalition supporting a government, the more powerful it is.  Democracy approaches being the most absolute form of government.

Spinoza saw a liberal democracy as the best form of government, because it is "the most  natural state," "the one which approached most nearly the freedom nature concedes to everyone" (Theological-Political Treatise, xvi, 36).  This idea that a modern liberal democracy approaches the freedom that human beings enjoyed in the state of nature of human hunter-gatherer ancestors has been part of my argument for the evolution of Darwinian liberalism.

Another difference from Hobbes is that while Hobbes denied that there was any highest good (summum bonum) for life (Leviathan xi, 1), Spinoza affirmed that the philosophic or scientific life of understanding the laws of nature was the perfection of our nature and thus our highest end, and that a liberal democracy that cultivates the arts and sciences and secures the freedom for philosophizing allows those few human beings capable of such philosophizing to achieve that highest human life (TTP iv, 9-12).  (Locke agreed that "the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness" [ECHU 2.21.51].)

The Dutch Republic had moved far towards such intellectual freedom--providing refuge for people like Locke--but still, as Spinoza's life indicated, even the Dutch Republic put some limits on freedom of thought and expression.  Spinoza's primary aim was to promote the future achievement of a "free republic" where "everyone is permitted to think what he wishes and to say what he thinks" (TTP xx). 

So while Spinoza's life did illustrate what Leo Strauss saw as "persecution and the art of writing," Spinoza foresaw that the future triumph of liberalism would secure a liberty for the philosophic life that would make esoteric writing unnecessary.  I have argued for this in some posts  here and here.  I have also argued, against Strauss and the Straussians, that this shows how the bourgeois virtues of a liberal open society include the moral and intellectual virtues of  the highest human excellence (here).

In a series of posts in November and December of 2016, I surveyed the empirical evidence for human progress through the Liberal Enlightenment of the past two centuries.  We have more freedom--both personal freedom and economic freedom--that has promoted human survival and well-being more fully than ever before in human history.  We have more lives and longer lives.  Life is healthier.  Life is richer and less impoverished. Life shows more equality of opportunity.  There is more freedom for people to think what they wish and to say what they think.

Spinoza was right.

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