Spinoza and the Elephant in the Room: Thinking in Jewish XXVII
Men would never be superstitious, if they could govern all their circumstances by set rules, or if they were always favored by fortune: but being frequently driven into straits where rules are useless and being often kept fluctuating pitiably between hope and fear by the uncertainty of fortune’s greedily coveted favors, they are consequently, for the most part, very prone to credulity.
Baruch Spinoza, A Theologico-Political Treatise
Underlying Spinoza’s critique of religion is the simple truth that where human beings do not have clear answers for what appears to be mysterious their first response is to turn to mystical answers, hence the credulity of belief. It is far easier to explain the unexplainable by fantasy, stories that explain without evidence or basis in fact, than it is to seek rational explanations for that which appears to be unexplainable. Notice that I place emphasis on the word appears. I do so because appearances are deceiving. What yesterday was clearly outside the realm of understanding is today understood rationally. This fact cannot be overlooked as one faces the world as it appears to be.
Appearances are also hampered by existential time, that infinitely brief moment in which each separate, isolated individual encounters one’s very existence. Once the moment arrives it is always already gone, leaving behind a trace, a memory engram that is unreliable as time appears to pass on. In this sense, we always live our entire existence in the present moment, in this very moment, the moment that cannot be recognized as it is always already replaced by the next moment. The appearance of historical time, of temporality, is dependent on the trace left behind subject to recall; the remembrance of which is always already tempered by the human tendency to smooth over the rough spots and recall things as better than they were.
We now have two factors to consider. First, the rationality which exists in linear or temporal time and the existential moment of time in which lives are separately led. They merge in an accumulation of knowledge that is archived and made readily available for us to study in the form of books, papers, and documents left behind by both the living and the dead. A vast library of historical artifacts that have frozen ideas in time, that are available for reference, for learning from, for building upon is available to any who wish to take advantage of them. Through a rich and rewarding search of these records one may learn how ideas about the world are altered by rational thought applied to experimental exploration of phenomena found in the existential moment; how, in short, discovery alters the very appearance of the world in which we live.
When one denies this natural progression of knowledge, a progression based on curiosity and what Feinman called “The Joy of Finding Things Out,” one is liable to be duped by the fanaticisms of those with with ancient stories that hardly pass the giggle test when placed against the reasoned and rational discoveries of science. Spinoza, writing in the mid 1600’s CE, at the very beginning of the Enlightenment, began his quest into the credulity of religion and religious thought with the understanding that mankind seeks answers, even answers that defy reason, where no other answers seem to be available. Spinoza favors rationality over irrational fear and the fickle nature of fortune. It seems that, even in the face of advances in scientific knowledge over the past 400 years, Spinoza’s critique still is a force to be reckoned with.