Philosophy? Meh! So what does that feel like? You have to tune In. And here’s why…


Wow! Spinoza.
This week again short
but hopefully sweet. I take another run
at some of the ideas in contemporary Cognitive Science,
making a personal connection with what it feels like to think,
what it feels like to take on the ideas
of enlightenment philosopher Spinoza for example,
to understand them from our 21st Century frame
and to feel a physical
empathetic connection with them
even after they have been around for so many centuries.

We are after all embodied selves.
Perhaps it is time to make that part of our everyday rationale.

Philosophy? Meh! So what does that feel like?
Well, to find out
you have to tune In.
And here’s why…

One of the things I do,
when I’m philosophising,
or when I’m thinking
about the kind of stuff
that might get called philosophy
is that I take it personally.

That realisation came to me today.
And what I mean is that
I’ve become conscious
there is a physical effect
to all of this thinking.

Its not just something that happens,
in your head,
Not just something goes on in your mind
and has no physical effect on the body.

And not just the kind of thing leaves you hunched over,
like you are,
hour after hour of screen time.

I feel what’s going on…
a shift sometimes
or maybe dissonance…

And I’m thinking this experience is
how George Lakoff’s ideas about linguistic framing
and how the mind is embodied
get expressed, in the wild.

George Lakoff is an American cognitive linguist and philosopher,
best known for his thesis that lives of individuals 
are significantly influenced
by the central metaphors they use to explain stuff.
He explains how our minds are intrinsically linked with our bodies.

It is as though when I read,
and when I think in,
what is for me,
a deep and profound manner
about stuff
there will be a point
or a period where I can be conscious of,
or of knowing that
everything is just going over my head.
It just won’t soak in.

But if I persist,
with it,
then there will be that shift.
The concepts will have been internalised.

In my previous article,
“When The Map Won’t Fit”,
I wrote of having come across
a philosophical position
that brought my own position into question,
and rocked my very foundation.

I wrote of having felt
that I’d been cast adrift,
philosophically paralysed, as I got to grips with it.

To be honest this is precisely what I set out to do,
So I can’t complain
but it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be startled by it.

I’m saying now that this is cognitive dissonance.
The feeling you get when you find two or more beliefs are in conflict.
As set out by Leon Festinger in the 1950s.
This is what it feels like.

And as I said earlier I’m equating it here,
using George Lakoff’s definitions,
to being part of a process of neurologically-reframing concepts.

And why not?

The process of research
is a quest
to empathise
with the words of others
on a particular concept.
To essentially reach a consensus

We know that is how communication works.

I say a word – my brain fires up.
You hear it – the same pattern happens.
Just like when you see your child get first prize,
You feel it too.
That pride.
Communication is pure empathy.

In the first place however,
when something new is going over your head
maybe, you and the author
share no common reference.

And this is nothing to do with intelligence…
it is about shouting
til you are blue in the face
and still unable to communicate if you are not careful.

The linguistic frames,
and the connected roles and relationships
with which the author might be familiar,
don’t necessarily have a place in your neural network.
They can’t be directly replicated in your own mind.
They don’t spark the same emotional and conceptual circuits in your head.

The concept simply goes over your head.

So to extend the thinking here
and to bring in the endocrine system,
if the right cocktail of hormones
have been triggered,
your brain may feel disposed to learn this something new.

We have Dopamine…
making us focus,
providing motivation and ensuring
fond memories of a situation.
We have Oxytocin – increasing our generosity, and levels of trust;
Increasing our ability to relax and to bond.
And we have the endorphins, again relaxing and promoting creativity.

This is how it is.

If I tell you a story full of suspense, jeopardy, a cliff hanger…
You’ll focus. You’ll be motivated.
You’ll remember me fondly.
And If I choose to make you laugh…
you’ll relax,
you’ll be responsive,
and more creative.
And if my words get you to feel what I am feeling,
to feel empathy with me…
we will be bonding.
You will trust me,
you’ll be more generous to me.

We have the conditions there so that
your brain can seek to reset.
It can take the time and energy to modify
the existing frames and linguistic systems,
the neurological networks
or perhaps create others anew.

It won’t happen instantly
and you won’t need to concentrate on it..
But
You will be familiar with that snap of consciousness,
that occurs when everything falls into place,
when you return to the subject,
or should I say when it returns to you.

(I love these metaphors)

The dissonance…
is that feeling created
as the brain searches
around for a familiar framework
to hang the new concepts on.

That was me
bumping and banging around in the cellar,
opening drawers and cupboards
at random…
Where did I put that thing?
Where could it be?

But that snap of consciousness,
of re-cognition,
is what we feel when
the neurological circuits
now have the framework to fire
simultaneously.
The penny has dropped.
You the reader,
understand the author.
You are in sync.
That is everything, falling into place.

The point here is that I had come
to a state of shock.

Out of my belief
in a rational self,
able to observe and to control non-self,
I’d come to realise just how
trapped we were in our animal brains,
I’d come to realise the extent of our determination…
for want of a better phrase,
and it had as I say effected me deeply,
physically
and psychologically.

And I don’t really know what brought me to Spinoza.
All I had heard of him was an intriguing reference made by Jordan Peterson
in which he likened Sam Harris’ atheist position to being just the God of Spinoza.

What I do know is that after some time
I got it,
got that snap of re-cognition.
And this might sound woolly
but it’s so hard to pin down at this stage,
what it was that brought this on.

But so many of the themes and ideas attributed to Spinoza
were familiar.
They brought comfort.
They were a relief to hear.
And out of that if I can use the phrase “satori”
it was as if I’d been handed back the compass.
I was able to take that simple first step,
put one foot in front of the other.
The journey was joined again…

So who was he?
He was a Portuguese Jew, one of the earliest thinkers of the enlightenment.
He was born in 1632
and lived a relatively simple life,
earning his keep as a lens grinder,
until it helped kill him in 1677.
Having said he led a simple life it ought to be noted
that he was ex-communicated twice,
once as a Jew and
once as a Christian,
for atheist beliefs,
And this whilst most of his work was dedicated to a discussion of the nature of God.
And many, many times he is quoted as being the most loved, prince of philosophers.
Hegel for example and Einstein were among his fans.

His timeline starts a little after the Tulip Bulb Crash in Holland
and after Descartes, who was hugely influential to him,
and it runs concurrently with that of Vermeer, the painter.
He lived within 4 miles of him.
Both shared an interest in optics!

Key to Spinoza is that he rejected Descartes duality
of mind and matter and his overarching God,
Spinoza said no… it’s all the same.
Why should we humans, be a dominion within a dominion?
With souls, autonomous and separate from Substance.
We are part of the whole.
And it is all intelligible.
It therefore all must be related one to another.
God is substance.
“That which is, can be called God or Nature…”

In this he redefined God akin to
The Uncarved Block of Taoism…
and so to Christianity or Judaism
proved himself an atheist.

At the same time,
He defined man as an animal
with appetites, or passions,
constantly wanting to be on the move
or elsewhere.

and believed that to be human
is to suffer with a constant sense
of the inadequacy of what you’ve got.
A very modern concept.

He believed that these passions
were the result of
the “Conatus”
or the life-force that drives us,
as part of a whole
in the need for enlightenment,
to need to have more,
to thrive
or to become closer
to an understanding of the universe.

He believed we are on an intellectual journey,
driven to experience knowledge,
but not just as an intellectual exercise
also through the passions, or emotions.

And Spinoza probably more than any other
had been responsible for removing the grounds
for believing in a transcendent judgemental God
but he didn’t stop short,
to leave us struggling with our emotions.
He was acutely aware of the consequences of such a conclusion.

In his Ethics he desperately tries to rationalise the passions.
He was driven to ground morality out of human nature itself.
The C19th romantics saw him as a pantheist,
replacing god with a reverence for our part in the whole.

I don’t have a deep understanding of Spinoza.
Hands up!
My understanding
is at first glance.
But what I do take from him,
is the fondness,
that both Einstein
and Hegel expressed.

His is a very human philosophy,
born of intuition,
and which has proved,
time and again to be
so accurate, and far-reaching.
Take a lens of cognitive science,
for example.
He’d approve –
but also take the work of writer’s
as diverse as Nietzsche.

I don’t know how,
or even if,
he makes a case
for where our ability
to become free observers emerges from.

His position is primarily
that humans are animal minded, robots.

But he was
fundamentally of the opinion
that we, as humans
can and do,
observe our determined selves.

He believed that through metaphysical thought,
through reason over empirical evidence,
we may come to know “better”. My quotes.

Here is a man truly seeking to understand,
how humans work, and how we fit in,
not only grounding our ethics,
but also for me,
even philosophy itself.

It was some sort of osmosis,
allowed me to gain
an instinctive understanding of Spinoza’s position.
And an emotional bond to his hopes and ideals.
And it was this process,
this cognitive exercise of organisation
and re-mapping
this physical exercise to redefine
established frames and to set new paths between them
that brought perhaps certainty,
familiarity and relief.
Yes what I know of Spinoza
remains sketchy.
And it remains to be seen if the frame I have stuck him in,
will stand up to scrutiny.
But it worked…

We don’t just need to understand
the weird ideas about stuff.
It’s what that understanding does for you
that counts.

We feel his passion.
We feel his humanity
And we feel connected.

Wow! Spinoza!

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