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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Philosophy Part X: Spinoza, the first of the Fab 5

Descartes: You aren't real!  Go away!
Well, that's it.  All the nuggets along the way have been gathered and examined, we are now at the doorstep of what is called "modern philosophy" and about to get to the Fab 5.  Leading up to Spinoza are some 1-hit wonders: Montaigne traveled outside the cocoon of Europe and realized that, instead of booming proclamations from an ivory tower, philosophy should perhaps include something called "tolerance"; Descartes quipped: "I think, therefore I am", which actually means nothing since he concluded everything outside his skull was just a dream; Pascal wagered that even though God probably didn't exist, he better believe in Him because the consequences of being wrong were pretty nasty (ahhh... another victim of that manipulative Fear of Fire).

Spinoza in happier times
Spinoza was a troubled man.  He was a free-thinking Jew who, like most poor saps who use their noodle, was excommunicated.  (Jewish excommunication can be done apparently.)  He spent the rest of his unhappy life grinding lenses and died at a fairly young age from the inhaled dust.  Spinoza claimed that all individuals are part of the same substance, which is also God.  Thus our sense of isolation from one another is an illusion.  For those who have been reading along, I'm sure you will notice the striking similarity of this idea with previous ones like Brahman and Tai Chi.  Since this One Substance has always and will always exist, we are guaranteed our immortality.

How many people today claim to see The Light during near-death experiences, calling them "home"?  I have to admit, the idea of some glorious final synthesis with that Something Greater upon my death is a very appealing idea.  What would it feel like, that moment where you merged with the Ultimate?  It would be the greatest high ever, like dropping 10 tabs of ecstasy all at once and staring at the most incredible supernova imaginable, all while climaxing during sex.

Its getting hot in here
(Check out this bizarre website!)

But then the image vanishes.  Its just too good to be true.  Maybe we just "die" and after that flash of warm light, it goes dark.  Forever.  I know that as a good scientist that's what I should really believe.  And even if I did merge with The Ultimate, what then?  If my "illusion" of individuality is wiped away, what do "I" become?  All my mortal labors on the Earth to carve out my own little piece of contentment were wasted.  Will I just become another drop of water in the Vast Ocean?  That doesn't sound so fun.  I suppose I want to merge but somehow still maintain my sense of who I am, otherwise, what was the point of being alive in the first place?

Then again, perhaps these are silly questions that my dumb animal brain asks only because I couldn't understand the Answer anyway.

Deep Thoughts
Deep Thought: "The Answer to The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything is .... 42."
Seekers: "42???!!!  What kind of crap is that?"
Deep Thought: "Look, I checked it very thoroughly, and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you is that you've never actually known what the question was."

Spinoza was perhaps the first philosopher to recognize one of the most important keys of happiness.  We want what we cannot have, while being blind to the fact that we already have what we need (namely, union with each other and the Highest Power).   This epiphany is trite today with its adoption by every self-help guru and immortalized in Rolling Stones' You Can't Always Get What You Want.  But perhaps that is because it rings of truth.

Spinoza claims that by rejecting our daily passions we gain control over our lives and eventually we can get to a state of "acceptance."  And just like Buddha claimed, this mindful awareness leads to the emotion of "bliss."  Spinoza may not have been directly influenced by Indian yogis but he certainly mirrored their ideas.  Perhaps glimpses of truth come naturally to any great thinker, no matter their origin.

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