Spinoza and the Hard Problem of Consciousness

The Hard Problem of Consciousness [HPC] is largely regarded as the insuperable but fundamental problematic of modern philosophy of mind. HPC is simply the question of how mind and matter are related – most often, this is approached generatively. The broadly hegemonic paradigm of physicalism in analytic philosophy demands that we explain minds in terms commensurable with, or even reducible to, the principles of (contemporary or future) physics. Therefore, HPC’s modern variant addresses questions of supervenience – that is, if minds just are realised by physical systems like brains, how is this possible?

Problematisations of the physicalist HPC occur through comparisons and commonsense inferences between conscious and non-conscious physical systems. For instance, rocks are obviously not conscious, but to claim that human brains are, we need to identify explanatorily sufficient differences between rocks and brains. That these differences are explanatorily sufficient is imperative because there are many superficial differences between rocks and brains which are obviously not commutative of consciousness. Brains are much more complicated physical systems than rocks are, in the sense of both the diversity of material constituents and the organisation of its internal structure.

A rock can be made out of just one element (e.g. salt crystals), but brains are all made of a plethora of them. Rocks are also not systematically organised in their kind (some crystals are comprised of intricate molecular structures, but some rocks are arbitrary mineral agglomerates), but brains are. Yet neither of these differences is explanatorily sufficient: the concept of ‘having a mind’ is not inferentially linked to ‘being made of more kinds of material things’ or ‘having a more intricate material structure’.

Responses to these difficulties in solving HPC tend to go one of two ways. In the first, panpsychist response, consciousness must be a part of the fundamental building-blocks of reality, such that there is a sense in which rocks are conscious, but which is relevantly demarcated from the sense in which brains are conscious to not be problematic. In the second, eliminativist response, mental facts are construed as either of the same fundamental kind as, or explicable wholly in terms of, physical facts. In both cases, an attempt is made to dissolve HPC without mounting a significant resistance against the conceptual inventory that gives rise to the problem in the first place.

The conceptual inventory of the HPC maintains a concept of the mental, and a concept of the physical, such that their relation demands an explanation that cannot be given in terms of either basic concept. Thus, a panpsychist or eliminativist will deduce an identity statement which was already rendered incoherent in an a priori phase of the investigation. In other words, by the time we have come to posing HPC, we are already in no position to overcome it by means of an identity statement of any kind. A philosophy of mind that begins by posing HPC as its fundamental grounding cannot transcend this problematic without abandoning it. This must be dissatisfying to the extent that a solution to HPC is the success condition of panpsychist or eliminativist philosophies of mind, existing as they do within it.

Very often in philosophy, insuperable problems are diagnosed, very simply, as poorly posed questions. There are many kinds of poorly posed question – for Bergson, the two main ones are those which confuse the lesser and the greater, and those which under-analyse their concepts. HPC is, I believe, a problem of the former sort: by addressing itself to the difference between mind and matter, it must present this difference to itself as ungrounded and primitive. In this respect, it is susceptible to interrogation in the same way as Bergson deflates the question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ The latter problem confuses the lesser with the greater by presenting nonbeing/nothingness as more elementary than being, whereas for Bergson the opposite is true. Along similar lines, HPC represents the differentiated as more elementary than their difference, while at the same time the nonrelation of the differentiated can be explained only by grasping the nature of their difference – meaning, that by virtue of which they are determined as irreconcilably different.

A representation of mind-body relations of this sort is readily available in Spinoza’s work, however most attempts to introduce Spinozism into contemporary philosophy of mind have misappropriated his philosophy in ultimately counterproductive ways. Spinoza is typically regarded as the originator or ‘neutral monism’ and its affiliated ‘dual-aspect monism’, but these function at best as counteractualisations to the paradigm in which HPC arises, not its replacement by a better question. For neutral monism, what fundamentally exists is neither mind nor matter, but is a third variety of thing which is capable of explaining both. Dual-aspect monism explains the manner in which mind and matter relate to this third thing, that is, as aspects of, or perspectives on fundamental reality, with neither aspect obtaining strict priority.

For the most part, these theories do map out well onto Spinoza’s philosophy, but what is essential is lost in translation. Thought and extension for Spinoza are but two of the infinitely many, infinite attributes which express the essence of substance, and both express its essence in an equal capacity of parallelism. As Spinoza will put it in Ethics IIp7, “the order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things.” Phrased otherwise, because the attribute of thought expresses the same essence as does the attribute of extension, whatever happens in one also happens in the other.

The most obvious problem with trying to identify Spinozist parallelism with either neutral or dual-aspect monism is that, in the final analysis, the essence of substance is nothing other than its expression in the attributes. Thus, it is not a third thing that expresses mind-body relations, but the shared essence of thought and extension which is immanent to both. This way of unfolding Spinoza’s system leads once more to HPC, since it remains to be shown on this approach what is common to thought and extension that allows their univocity as their shared essence.

Another approach, one more familiar to Spinoza, begins by replacing the problematic of HPC with that of the transition between the infinite and the finite. This would begin, not with asking what is common to both mind and matter, but how the infinite attributes (natura naturans) can be expressed in finite modes (natura naturata). In other words, it would begin with an attempt to think the grounding of specific differences as they descend from nonexistence in the infinite, instead of commencing where difference is already insuperable. The existence of the infinite is dubious today – although some, like A.W. Moore give it a central place in their philosophies, a pronounced philosophical atheism makes the problematic of the infinite difficult to habilitate to modern circumstances. There is therefore a historical question to be posed with respect to this replacement: can sense at all be made of Spinoza’s works in our context today, habituated as we are to a narrow-minded scientism and anti-intellectualism?

Let us begin here: it remains to be shown in what way the problematic of the transition between the finite and the infinite is preferable to that between mind and body. The chief advantage of the former, as I hope to show, is that it is not stultified by its own immediate suppositions. To see why this is so, the terms must be clarified since, belonging as they do to another episteme than ours, their meaning is not given immediately to us. Indeed, the possibility of resuscitating an older problematic deserves to be put in doubt on the very grounds of its lack of immediacy to the modern thinker. The problem of wilfully exchanging problematics needs to be thought through, especially where we are now: at the point where an active problematic seeks its expansion into the past to overcome its own weaknesses.

As with every arche, the invocation of a past and preferable state of affairs in a discourse cannot be ignored, to the extent that, as a beginning or origin the purpose of which is to restore a discourse whose legitimacy is already in doubt, it is always an origin which nevertheless never lies at the origin. Therefore, an appeal to Spinoza cannot be fairly construed as the resuscitation of an old problematic, but must instead be a natural modification of present thought: there is no pure past, but a discourse of the past that occurs in its entirety today. The procedure with which Spinozism confronts us is thus one of invention rather than revival.

What, then, is the manner of this invention as it exists with respect to a period of thought whose key terms, mind and body, are already concretised and differentiated? It is to think, to pose in a way not posed before, the processuality of mind and matter’s concretisation-differentiation. Otherwise put, Spinozism presents us with the need to explore the grounds of modern philosophy of mind’s givens, to elucidate that darkness out of which the guidelights of res extensa and res cogitans gaze out at us like leering eyes. It will never be enough to understand post factum the possibility of scientifically surmounting a difference which is posed in the first place as ontologically basic. This is altogether to say that the basis of modern science in phenomenological consciousness, which is characterised in its first gesture by the separation of mind and body, must be problematised.

The only way to overcome HPC is to perform what Foucault would call an archaeology of science. That is, to excavate its foundations and to expose their very mobility. The chief foundation of modern science (considered under its aspect which is concerned with bridge principles and the like) is an abstracted and independent subject-knower, but this identity is not itself pure of historicity. As Negri has acutely argued in his The Political Descartes, the identity of the modern scientist arose just at the time when such an identity became the necessary fiction of market systems, through the expansion of the mercantile class in 17th century Europe. What would serve as a suitable replacement for this fiction, provided that we are satisfied that any thought grounded in its presence will be led to (re)discover HPC?

Rather than res cogitans, thinking-being, Spinozism begins from the perspective of automatum spirituale, the spiritual automaton. Spinoza introduces this idea in his Treatise on the Improvement of the Understanding in the following paragraph: “We have shown that a true idea is simple, or composed of simple ideas; that it shows how and why something is, or has been done; and that its objective effects proceed in the soul according to the formal nature of its object. This is the same as what the ancients said, i.e., that true knowledge proceeds from cause to effect—except that so far as I know they never conceived the soul (as we do here) as acting according to certain laws, like a spiritual automaton.” The distinction Spinoza draws between his theory and that of the ancients is of critical importance because it reflects his metaphysics of parallelism.

That the subject in Spinoza’s philosophy is a spiritual automaton means two things, principally. In the first case, it is in keeping with his strong necessitarianism: we are just automata, complicated machines engaged constantly in complicated stimulus-response systems. However, that we are spiritual automata specifically is added by Spinoza in recognition of the fact that, unlike many other kinds of robots or machines around us, we are of the bizarre kind that has a mind. We often go as far as using our possession of minds (or our being minds) as evidence against our existence as mere machines, specifically insofar as consciousness delimits a certain realm of freedom. But the confluence of these two characteristics in Spinoza is meant to counteract that anthropocentric tendency.

Not only is the spiritual automaton a defence against anthropocentrism, it is, to borrow Deleuze’s term, a form of thorough-going materialism, describable as a “devaluation of consciousness (in favour of thought)”. Deleuze is undoubtedly an exceptional, even if iconoclastic reader of Spinoza. Justifying his reading, he offers the following comments: “[for Spinoza] it is a matter of showing that the body surpasses the knowledge that we have of it, and that thought likewise surpasses the consciousness that we have of it. […] In short, the model of the body, according to Spinoza, does not imply any devaluation of thought in relation to extension, but, much more importantly, a devaluation of consciousness in relation to thought: a discovery of the unconscious, of an unconscious of thought just as profound as the unconscious of the body.” What do these comments mean?

It is hardly controversial to recognise that there are more to bodies, even our human bodies, than we presently know. Indeed, following psychology and its relative weakness as a science, it makes sense overall to disclaim much knowledge of thought, which would be to cast a part of thought outside of the light of consciousness. Some philosophers (such as Sartre) have thought this manoeuvre to be self-contradictory based on their identification of thought and consciousness. However, because for Spinoza thought infinitely exceeds consciousness, such that any consciousness is only a mode of the attribute of thought, consciousness cannot reign supreme.

Why does the subordination of consciousness to thought in Spinoza, by virtue of our characterisation as spiritual automata, help us out of our Cartesian aporia? It is just because all moments of consciousness are thereby circumscribed by the mechanistic laws of thought, in the same way that all moments of physical reality are circumscribed by the mechanistic laws of matter. For Spinoza, these would even be (formally) two ways of saying the same thing, as per EIIp7. What Deleuze draws out in his reading of Spinoza is that, from the perspective of the spiritual automaton, even the concept of the spiritual automaton, as a mode in the attribute of thought, is developed by the same universal reason as is everything else. Indeed, all philosophical concepts become differentiations of a more primitive, universal and infinite attribute.

Because all philosophical concepts can thus be grasped as a part of the unfolding of the attribute of thought’s inner nature, it is possible to pose again the question of the difference between mind and matter without returning again to their absolute difference. That is, by positing their difference as a moment of thinking qua philosophical concept, it is possible to think them through their difference as modes of the attribute of thought. This in no way returns us to HPC, because the difference between mind and body is not left uncharacterised except by their mutual exclusion by essence. It is insufficient for the self-aware spiritual automaton to pronounce res extensa and res cogitans irreconcilable because they, as characterisations of being, always-already have being folded back upon them. Their essential exclusion of each other exists within a higher unity, that of substance, in the light of which their irreconcilability is simply no problem whatsoever. There would be nothing to be explained.

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