Why the supernatural?

One common idea about religion is that religious worldviews are ones in which we endorse the existence of the supernatural—phenomena capable of affecting the world around us to alter the course of natural events: for example, divinities, spirits, or apersonal animistic forces. What, though, is the supernatural?

The concept of the supernatural involves more than just a distinction between this world—the one all around us—and another. By that we could mean any number of things, and some of them clearly aren’t contenders. In making such a distinction, we could mean something as innocuous as the difference between Earth and Mars. Or “world” can signify a network of concerns and endeavors—the business world, for example, or the art world, the world of the student or farmer. But clearly, one need not endorse the existence of the supernatural in order to believe in other worlds in these senses, and think that they sometimes impinge upon ours.

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On so-called Spinozian resignation, part I: the case against Spinoza

Among Spinoza’s many notorious views is his necessitarianism: the view that everything that happens happens necessarily. Clearly, the view flies in the face of how we usually think. The coin comes up heads, we’re late for that appointment, we brake just in time to avoid the speeding car, and we think things might have gone some other way: it might have come up heads, we might have made the bus, we could easily have been t-boned and killed. Not so, though, Spinoza argues: nothing whatsoever could have been otherwise than it is.

Of course, most will reject this idea out of hand. And, the reasons for doing so are likely to run deeper than any commitment to abstract metaphysical doctrines, or even to simple common sense. The notion that all things that are are necessarily so doesn’t merely contradict many of our common beliefs. More than this, it can seem downright horrific. That is, a world in which all things are necessary can easily seem like one in which we’re utterly helpless, unable to make a difference: simply buffeted around by forces that are utterly indifferent to our efforts.

At this point, though, Spinoza will object. To put his point in anachronistic terms, such reflexive horror presupposes a libertarian view of freedom. As this term is used in contemporary philosophical parlance, it has nothing to do with its more common political meaning. Rather, it refers to the notion that in order for me to have done something freely, it must have been possible for me to do otherwise. And, Spinoza thinks this view of freedom is wrong. So to speak, our agency consists, not in doing what might have been otherwise, but rather in the necessities of Nature bringing something about through us—in his terms, in such a way as to be explained more through our own essence than through the essences of other things. Thus, a necessitarian world isn’t one in which we’re helpless at all.

However, all of this can easily strike one as mere intellectual parlor games. Very few philosophers —let alone laypersons—these days are likely to take necessitarianism seriously. Thus, while Spinoza’s criticisms of libertarian views of freedom might be of interest to some philosophers—since, that is, whether freedom is libertarian is a live issue in contemporary philosophy—the view in defense of which Spinoza raises them might seem like a mere historical curiosity.

I would like to shift focus, though, to a different element of Spinoza’s views on these matters—one that can to some extent be prised apart both from his views about freedom, and from his necessitarianism itself. That is, Spinoza doesn’t merely argue that horror at a necessitarian world is grounded in mistaken presuppositions about freedom. More than this, as he so often does, he considers what many of us would find to be nightmarish, and argues that, when properly understood, it is, quite the contrary, the source of the profoundest joys.

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Wonder as flicker and as mood

Consider two common ways we talk about wondering. On the one hand, there’s wondering whether, when, what, who, why, or how. In such wondering, we confront the world as a question: the unknown strikes us, and we linger before it, as if approaching what remains undisclosed. On the other hand, there’s wondering at: the experience of standing in astonishment.

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Fragility Itself: Henri Michaux’s Meidosems

As suggested by the title of the book into which the 20th century French poet and artist Henri Michaux incorporated his account of them, the strange race of beings he called the Meidosems exist in the folds. That is, folds are where the world collapses upon itself, bringing together what is otherwise apart; and withdraws from sight into the hidden-away. Likewise, unconnected multiplicities are what gather to become Meidosems. A Meidosem can be composed of any assortment of objects, undetached fragments, or even edges and surfaces—the limits of things. Some among a mass of bubbles; a tangle of vines twined about a tree, together with the veins of sap within; a nest of wires shuddering with electricity; even a scribble of lines cut through pure space—all of these can be Meidosems. Aristotle would have called them ‘mere heaps’.

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Spinoza and Humility before God

Humility tends to draw suspicious looks. If all it comes to is avoiding arrogance, then of course we’ll cheer it on. But anything more, and something unsavory can seem afoot. The humble concede, submit, and obey. We’re humble, yes, when absolutely necessary—to dot our moral i’s and cross our political t’s. But those who talk about making humility a fundamental life aspiration can seem as if they’ve gone too far: as if what they aspire to is groveling, and thus are on a path to self-destruction, resignation, or worse, to the betrayal of others out of slavish fear. Indeed, so much of our history has been spent trying to extract ourselves from under various boots that the aspiration to humility can thus seem positively reactionary: as if those who have it long for the ‘good old days’ when we were content to be trampled by oppressive power.

Such skepticism about humility as a positive value tends to make for a humility that’s reluctant. If an excess of humility walks us over a cliff, we must, then, only be humble with care, not letting our humility interfere with furthering our own interests, or standing in brave solidarity with others. Is the skeptic right, though? Is humility a dangerous proposition?

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Amorous reading and the amorous life

Amorous reading seeks out texts that will teach one how to read. When we imagine a person who reads in this way, perhaps we think of the aspiring preliterate child, hunched over and relishing their primer. If we do, it’s probably because learning how to read is something we usually think we did as children, and have been finished doing for a very long time. If someone were to ask us “Do you know how to read?” we’d raise our chins, insulted, and bark in anger “Of course!”

The kind of reading I have in mind, though, reads as if it’s not so sure. What prompts it are moments of elevating ignorance. You pick up a text, secure in your literacy, but as you begin reading are bewildered. Most of us would put it aside more times than not, never to return. However, for some reason you don’t. Perhaps you’ve done so many times with other such texts. Or perhaps there have been times when you persisted, but only to find assurance of your own cleverness, or simply to discharge some obligation. This time, though, amidst the confusion, and any other motives you might have, there’s something about the text itself that solicits you. It’s like encountering a language you’ve never heard before, and yet discovering to your shock that it’s your native tongue. It had never occurred to you that language could do quite this—whatever this is—and you set yourself the task of learning how to read anew, and thus learn the language that in a trivial sense you already speak. You plunge further into the text, striving to let it transform your practice of reading—or even that of using language at all.

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Naturalism as a religious view

Naturalistic defenses of religion often presuppose what we can call a segregationist view. On the segregationist view, natural science and religion have their separate domains of concern: respectively, Nature, and the supernatural. On the one hand, there’s Nature—the world around us—which we study through practices like physics, biology, chemistry, and so on. On the other hand, there’s religion, which concerns itself primarily with the supernatural—with what, in some sense that requires clarification, lies beyond the ordinary world with which we’re faced on a daily basis.

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