Spinoza, Newton and Feynman

Reading The Graphic Spinoza, I was reminded of some thoughts I had concerning a quote from physicist Richard Feynman:

My son is taking a course in philosophy, and last night we were looking at something by Spinoza – and there was the most childish reasoning! There were all these Attributes, and Substances, all this meaningless chewing around, and we started to laugh. Now, how could we do that? Here’s this great Dutch philosopher, and we’re laughing at him. It’s because there was no excuse for it! In that same period there was Newton, there was Harvey studying the circulation of blood, there were people with methods of analysis by which progress was being made! You can take every one of Spinoza’s propositions, and take the contrary propositions, and look at the world – and you can’t tell which is right.

As pointed out at Hummings in the Fly-Bottle, “of course you can’t tell which of Spinoza’s propositions is true by looking at the world; you are not supposed to! Spinoza was not doing bad science; he was doing metaphysics”.

While Newton’s work has undoubtedly been foundational for our bedrock that is science, we need not judge the merits of one enterprise by the merits of another. Yes it was Newton’s framework and not Spinoza’s that set the stage for scientific progress to be made, but still, despite issues with its rationalist metaphysics, there is still good to be extracted and derived from Spinoza’s work. I don’t think that Feynman exhibits enough care in such matters to analyze the work in context. Spinoza’s philosophical enterprise is of significant historical, sociopolitical and ethical importance, laying the groundwork for the 18th-century Enlightenment and modern biblical criticism, including modern conceptions of the self and our place within the universe.

Newton was an ardent Christian and spent much time preoccupied with studying and dealing with literal interpretation of the Bible. Given the progress that has been made on understanding religion, Christianity and the Bible over the last few centuries, I shall appropriate Feynman’s quote from above and say that

I read about Newton’s work on occult studies and religious tracts dealing with the literal interpretation of the Bible, and I started to laugh. Now, how could that be? Here’s this great English natural philosopher, and I’m laughing at him. It’s because there was no excuse for it! In that same period there was Spinoza ushering in the modern age, shattering religious superstitions and offering insightful biblical criticism!

Before finishing, this brings to mind another quote from Feynman that I thought could be turned on its head: “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds”. Well, in a way ornithology is very useful to birds! Among other things, it plays an important role in avian conservation.

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