Insights from Spinoza and the New Brain Sciences

Insights from Spinoza and the New Brain Sciences

Are we divided against ourselves, a mind in perpetual rebellion against a wayward body, and a body inherently desirous of those things that our mind tells us to resist? Is temptation the fate of the human? Can we envision a human future in which our internal bodily and mental-spiritual nature is unified, and our belonging in the universe a fundamental goal, so that our well-being and that of what we usually refer to as the natural world – as if we were not part of it! – reinforce each other in ecological balance and harmony?

Don’t we now know, given the threat and beginning real effects and experiences of global climate change, that the very survival of a human future on this planet depends upon just such an embrace of nature, our inner nature, as well as planetary and universal nature?

Yet are we then mere “animals,” with little control over our fate, within the massive forces of weather and geology – and even biology, psychology, and physiology? In the Psalms this tension is described as lying between human inconsequentiality – a mere blip in time, our days but a passing shadow (Psalm 144:3-4) within the vastness of the universe – and, on the other hand, our special gifts. For at the same time as our infinitesimalness, the human person displays greatness and even glory.  The Psalmist speaks out to God, saying,

8.4 When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars that You set in place,

8.5 what is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken note of him,

8.6 that  [Yet] You have made him little less than divine, (or, “the angels”) and adorned him with glory and majesty;

How can we account for human potential and yet understand ourselves to be within the vastness of nature, of the universe – a scale of vastness now being discovered to be beyond anything imaginable to the Psalmist, yet grasped by the Biblical author, in principle, nonetheless?  How can we reconcile our full naturalness – our Darwinian origins, our origination in variation, diversification and complexification (as Elizabeth Grosz in Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics, and Art has brilliantly described it), and our composition like everything else in the universe by stardust – how can we reconcile that with our capacity for self-awareness of just that?

Astronomers’ common observational wisdom is that there are 17 billion Earth-size planets in our own galaxy, the Milky Way.  The sun is about 1,400,000 kilometers wide. The Milky Way is 100,000 light years in diameter; that’s 950,000,000,000,000,000 (25 zeros) kilometers wide. According to the Hubble Space Telescope, there are hundreds of billions of galaxies, and we’re not even in a big one. And each galaxy contains billions of stars, each star with planets orbiting it. The sun is 1.4 x 1027 cubic meters in volume, yet it’s puny compared with some others.  There are stars that are 2.9 billion times the size of our sun in volume.

How do we come to understand ourselves, really become self-aware in terms of this vastness?  How can we develop a self that sees ourselves in true proportion and in true context?  Yet as far as we know right now, in our known world and experience, we human beings alone can do this. What’s the advantage? Is there one? Are there many? In the very act of recognition of our ephemeralness beyond ephemeralness, in the vastness and eternity of time, space, and nature, we begin to see both our glory and our tragedy. Our self-awareness confronts us with the scale of our smallness and brevity, but the very possibility of knowing this, of being self-aware in this way, is beyond anything else we know of in the universe.

For in the tiny dot in the corner of the universe that we inhabit at this brief split second in universal time, we alone, as far as we know, are self-aware – at least, that’s our existential reality. We alone can grasp our position and our fate, individual and collective and terrestrial. We realize that it is in this interim and in this locale wherein we reside.

And we can affect this little spot and moment, our home, for good and for bad – and we have. For example, 2023 shattered the record for the hottest year ever recorded (since 1850) on earth, according to NASA and NOAA. It was 1.8º C (2.12º F) beyond the 20th century average of 3.9º C (57.0º F). Some scientists are now referring to the geologic epoch on earth we have been in now in since mid-20th century (or some geologists say, since the Industrial Revolution) as the Anthropocene Epoch on the Geologic Time Scale, because of the scale and range of change introduced into planet Earth by human activity.

So we are confronted with the question of how to make the best use of it. How can our unique human awareness of the planet-wide reality of climate change, and our unique human self-awareness of the effects of our own human activities upon the earth, our planetary home, make a difference for ourselves, for our descendants, and for the earth upon which our human survival depends?

Enter Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632 and died in the Hague in 1677. His parents and ancestors had been crypto-Jews (Marranos) who had maintained their Jewish allegiance in the face of the forced conversions to Christianity that had swept the Iberian Peninsula beginning in Spain in 1391, finally reaching the remaining Jews of Portugal in 1497, where persecution had till then not been as intense. The Netherlands became a refuge for Portuguese Jews who had remained in the Iberian Peninsula and were still under the threat of the Catholic Inquisition when Holland achieved its independence from Spain in 1609, after a war of independence that had lasted nearly one hundred years.

Baruch Spinoza was thus of the first generation of former Marranos to be born in the Netherlands, a member of the Portuguese (Jewish) community. In the Netherlands, former crypto-Jews could renew their Jewish commitments openly and return to a Jewish communal life. Spinoza had a strong Jewish education and was educated in the Jewish philosophical tradition as passed down in the Sephardic world. He was particularly influenced by Maimonides, Gersonides, Crescas, and Hebreo Leone. The influence of Maimonides and Judaeo-Arabic scientific naturalism is evident throughout Spinoza’s works, especially in his assessment of the relation, even identity, of the knowledge of God and the love of God.

A free thinker whose philosophic inquiry pushed him beyond customary bounds, Spinoza was excommunicated at age twenty-four from the still-precariously established Jewish community of Amsterdam. He never joined another religious community, turning down the Chair in Philosophy at Heidelberg, a post requiring a religious test. Holland was widely known to be the most tolerant country in Europe and a haven not only for persecuted Jews but for philosophers and other free thinkers escaping suppression in their own countries, Hobbes and Descartes among them. Spinoza took five years off from writing his major philosophic work, The Ethics, to write the Theological Political Treatise (TTP) in response to what he felt as an urgent demand of his time: the growing threat to liberty of conscience and thought, tolerance and freedom of worship in the Netherlands. In the Ethics, his major philosophical work and statement, Spinoza focused on the moral transformation of the individual.

Spinoza and Ethics

As the title of his major work suggests, ethics is at the center of Spinoza’s philosophical project. What he first called “my philosophy” he later changed to The Ethics. We see in this the centrality of ethics to Spinoza’s overall philosophical project and thinking. Another indication of the centrality and perhaps pervasion of all philosophy by ethics in Spinoza’s understanding emerges from the book in a different way: a book titled The Ethics actually begins with metaphysics and God and Nature and it ends with spiritual transformation – the human approach to God. So either everything is ethics in some Spinozistic sense, or ethics has come to be something else in the course of the book than what we thought it was at the beginning. Perhaps Spinoza was right and it is we moderns or postmoderns who are wrong to compartmentalize ethics in one discrete domain among many, separating it from cosmology, metaphysics, theology, epistemology, biology, and psychology, all of which contribute to ethics in his understanding.

Spinoza makes clear that the assimilation of all philosophy to ethics in some yet-to-be-determined sense is not to be found in any simple moralizing of the universe – that is, in theorizing a universe created by a just God where things turn out morally right in the end, the just rewarded and the unjust punished. For Spinoza famously embraced the phrase “God or Nature,” an equivalence whose weight is on the second term. God is Nature.

To clarify, he ended part 1 of The Ethics with an extended attack on the error of attributing teleology (purpose, moral or otherwise) to nature. He regarded the view that nature has inherent purposes and moral aims as intellectually suspect and mythic. Instead, he argued that nature follows strict and impersonal causal and logical sequences and is played out in natural laws that make manifest the myriad interactions of forces. Its operation is the necessary deterministic working-out of impersonal laws, like gravity or the second law of thermodynamics (to give contemporary examples) – laws that cannot be disobeyed, because they are descriptive rather than regulatory. It is these impersonal causal principles, and natural laws of science and metaphysics, that Spinoza proposed express the divine. Spinoza regarded the image of a “Just Law Giver in the Sky” as an anthropomorphism that he rejected and derided as much as Maimonides did in The Guide for the Perplexed. Spinoza saw himself as a Scientist of Ethics.

Spinoza as Scientist

Spinoza speculated about how ethics could emerge from biology and psychology rather than disrupt them, and recent evidence suggests he might have gotten it right. His radical deconstruction and reconstruction of ethics is supported by a number of avenues of research in the cognitive and neurosciences, and also in systems theory. Spinoza is famous for having been what philosophers call an “ethical naturalist.” He saw himself as putting the mind back into nature. Mind is as natural as the body is, he argued pointedly against Descartes.

In his Ethics, Spinoza offered what we today would call a moral psychology. His psychology was based on a view of the mind and body as one thing, rather than two separable things barely holding together, as Descartes had claimed. Spinoza’s wisdom is that to be rigorous and scientific and biologically rooted, looking at the human person without theological presuppositions, we need not make man into beast overlayed with a thin mental veneer.  And on this naturalist basis, he rethought ethics.

In the Theological Political Treatise (chapter VII), Spinoza, surprisingly, tells the reader that the scientific method of the discovery of nature and the method of the rigorous interpretation of literary texts, in particular of the biblical text, are by and large the same. He writes: “I hold that the method of interpreting Scripture is not different from the method of interpreting Nature. For the method of interpreting Nature consists essentially in composing a detailed study of Nature, as the source of our assured data,” while “in exactly the same way the task of scriptural interpretation requires us to make a straightforward study of Scripture … as the source of our fixed data and principles.”

Spinoza further says of his biblical hermeneutic that “it demands no other light than the natural light of reason.” “The study of Scripture,” he held – as he, among a few others, invented the academic field of Biblical Studies – should proceed “by a process of logical deduction [by which] that which is hidden is inferred and concluded from what is known.”  The scientific method applied to natural phenomena has this in common with the academic study of the Bible: both take a detailed and disciplined look at the data, gather it together to discern patterns and propose classifications, and only then entertain possible explanations.  Both are as empirically committed as they are theoretically rigorous and disciplined. He further writes:

[W]e need a method and order similar to that which we employ in interpreting Nature from the facts presented before us. Now in examining natural phenomena we first of all try to discover those features that are most universal and common to the whole of Nature, to wit, motion-and-rest and the rules and laws governing them, which Nature always observes and through which she constantly acts; and then we advance gradually from these to other less universal features.  In just the same way we must first seek from our study of Scripture that which is most universal and forms the basis and foundation of all Scripture.

The investigation of Scripture employs the same procedure as the investigation of nature, namely, the discovery of what Spinoza calls the ‘definitions’ of its central features.  Nevertheless, the method of interpreting Scripture and that of investigation in the natural sciences differ in one crucial respect.  For in speaking of the Bible, Spinoza distinguishes between truth of fact and truth of meaning. Spinoza warns us that the biblical text, as a written document, in contrast with the scientific exploration of nature, yields, at best, only truth of meaning and not truth of fact. “The point at issue,” Spinoza writes, “is merely the meaning of texts, not their truth.” The aim in both natural science and the interpretation of texts is to discover, by rigorous application of an empirical and theoretical method, what is there, categorizing the data and exposing the regularities and patterns, and conjecturing about their etiology as well as their current state in the effort to understand. But only in the case of science, and not in that of religious literature (or any literature), can we be assured that by this method that we have achieved truths of fact – that is, that our method has yielded an account having anything to do with the way the world is and works. Science, but not literature, cuts nature at its joints, so to speak.

Spinoza further proposes the principle that the knowledge of Scripture must be sought from Scripture alone, just as the knowledge of nature must be sought from nature itself. Elsewhere in the Tractatus (especially in chapters I and II) Spinoza characterizes religion and religious literature as imaginative rather than rational and philosophic.  That is to say, it is the product of associative and symbolic and metaphorical thinking, an interpretation and explanation of the world that is often idiosyncratic and always culturally specific. So even though our method of studying this literature, our hermeneutic, may be as rigorous and rational as our inquiries into nature, what we can hope to find there and how it is conveyed differ markedly from what we find when we explore the natural world. Spinoza, in this, is breaking from his great 12th century philosophic mentor, Maimonides, who held that the biblical text, if understood correctly and according to its hidden meanings and agenda, would offer the rudiments of basic physics and a naturalistic scientific worldview. For Spinoza, in contrast, the Bible is literary and moral, not scientific.

At the same time, however, Spinoza insists that the division between nature and nurture,  i.e., convention, must not be exaggerated. For causes are continuous and understanding layered, but open and striving toward coherence. The imaginative mind, which expresses itself in culture, symbol, social conventions, and the idiosyncracies of personality, is a feature of the natural world as much as is the rational mind, rather than radically separate from it.  For the human mind is not, as it was for Descartes, “A Kingdom within a Kingdom,” as Spinoza puts it in the Preface to E III. The distinction between nature and nurture Spinoza articulates in terms of proximate versus distant and ultimate causes, local versus wider and widest vantage points.

Spinoza never tires of reminding us that, contra Descartes, his claim is that human beings, and particularly our minds and not just our bodies, are products of natural causes, external to us but also those internal to our minds. That we mentally internalize our worlds is a fact of nature and not just of nurture.    Nevertheless, although amenable to rigorous inquiry and understanding, literature is not science nor are its claims those of science. Pace Maimonides, as Spinoza insists. The Bible, he argues, is imaginative literature, not philosophy or science, and hence it ought not be seen as laying claim to scientific truth.  At the same time, however, by the rigorous and systematic empirical study of it, Spinoza says he has come to the conclusion that its narratives do convey imaginatively, which is to say in narrative form, some truths – namely, practical ethical principles. That the ethics of the Bible is true, however, cannot be gleaned from the Bible itself, whose imaginative literary genre precludes validating such a claim. The claim must instead be evaluated independently – namely, by philosophy and science itself. And that was a claim that Maimonides presaged and would agree to. Only science, natural philosophy, can yield insights into natural phenomena and regularities and causal explanations expressed in universal natural laws.

Marjorie Grene, in her Introduction to the collection of essays she edited with Debra Nails on Spinoza and the Sciences (D. Reidel, 1986), says of Spinoza that he was doing science, and understood himself as a practitioner of science:

What traditional history of science has generally overlooked … is that Spinoza was a practitioner of science, though not of experimental physics.  … He was a practitioner of scientific hermeneutics. And that was science. The fruit of the new method was to be a new science, not only of nature, but of human nature, not only of those hard solid impenetrable particles … but of ourselves. … Once we rid ourselves, in imagination, of the distinction in kind between ‘natural’ and ‘human’ science, we can take seriously, as contributions to the science of his time, Spinoza’s research[.] (My emphasis.)

All Virtue Is Intellectual Virtue

We need to ask ourselves how, in such an impersonal, natural universe of cause and effect, does Spinoza derive ethics, an account of virtue? How can knowing the laws of physics, for example, transform us morally and spiritually? The link turns out to be intellectual, for it is both the breadth of knowledge and the integrity and honesty of the search that demarcate the line between the ethical and the nonethical. That is so, Spinoza argues at great length in The Ethics, insofar as we include self-knowledge in our scientific endeavor, extending from the self proper infinitely out into the universe and back.

Perhaps Spinoza is the greatest practitioner and interpreter since Socrates of the Delphic maxim, Know Thyself, as the beginning of wisdom. For Spinoza’s ethical theory, his account of virtue, identifies all moral principles as specifications of, and all moral actions as flowing from, the integration of a searingly honest self-reflection, with a push outward toward rigorous scientific investigation of all things in the universe. The “highest good,” that is, virtue, Spinoza tells us in the beginning of the early Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect (TdIE) (his first, aborted, attempt at writing his philosophy), can be discovered only in “the knowledge of the union that the mind has with the whole of Nature.” This is the goal and the project from which Spinoza never strayed.

That attainment was “as difficult as it was rare,” and he believed he had accomplished it in the Ethics, a work he regarded as perhaps not the most beautiful philosophy but the true one. For Spinoza demonstrated in the Ethics that the scientific method of the tracing of causes and the discovery of causal principles – which he outlined in the The Theological Political Treatise (TTP, ch. 7) as the general method of rigorous scientific inquiry – and the integration of the resulting bodies of knowledge into an overall universal explanatory framework – as he attempted in the Ethics – could and ought to be applied to the understanding of oneself as well.

What distinguished the search as ethical rather than narrowly scientific is the application of broad theoretical natural causal explanations to the self, mind as well as body – that is, the inclusion of the self within the universal framework of natural causes. Hence, it is where the exploration begins and ends, not its content per se, that render the scientific method a moral praxis. Its ethical power to transform self-deceptions and social deceptions lies in its capacity to engage and modify one’s self-understanding. Hence, for Spinoza, ethics is the path of knowledge-of-self-in-world and world-in-self, thereby transforming a person from nonmoral or premoral to moral, from opaque to oneself to self-conscious and self-aware, a kind of knowledge that has profound implications for action.

Spinoza harks back to an ancient Greek moral sensibility of sin as a form of ignorance. He writes in part 4, Proposition 23: “Insofar as a man is determined to some action from the fact that he has inadequate ideas, he cannot be said, without qualification, to be acting from virtue; he can be said to do so only in so far as he is determined from the fact that he understands.”

Yet Spinoza is calling our attention not to an innocent ignorance but to what we today designate, “motivated ignorance.” He writes of it (part 5, Proposition 42 Scholium) that “the ignorant man … lives as if he were unconscious of himself, God, and things.” It is a subterranean ignorance that disguises an unconscious or not fully conscious psychology of the uncritical acceptance of prevailing beliefs, even devolving at times into a denial justifying the dishonest embrace of self-serving illusions that skirt hard truths about self and world. It is here that desire comes into the picture, for ignorance of this kind is more an affective failure, a failure of desire, than it is a strictly cognitive one. While ethics is a matter of understanding and self-understanding, it is desire – one’s motives, pleasures, and emotions – that drive thinking to be self-related. Thus, desire is the wellspring of virtue, for it is the source of the capacity for intellectual honesty – and also marks its failure. To illustrate this Spinozist principle, let’s now turn to the Holocaust as the source of poignant examples. 

Examples of Decision Making in the Holocaust

Good people can be induced, seduced, initiated into behaving in evil . . . ways . . . that challenge our sense of the stability and consistency of individual personality, character, and morality. . . . Thus any deed that any human being has ever done, however horrible, is possible for any of us to do.

–Philip G. Zimbardo, social psychologist and deviser of the Stanford Prison Experiment

One is almost incredulous when Robert Jay Lifton quotes a Nazi doctor as saying, “I would remove a gangrenous appendix from a diseased body. The Jew is the gangrenous appendix in the body of mankind.” Now that we see the linguistic sleight of hand, we wonder why anyone, especially doctors who were educated people, would believe this rather absurd lie. More broadly, how do people come to hold beliefs, and under what circumstances do they adopt or refuse a belief? And who goes along and who refuses to go along?

The evidence seems to suggest that it is the uncritical adoption of a particular and generally implicit or unconscious (or not fully conscious) interpretive framework for a given situation that is at the center of perpetration when it comes to normal people – like the Nazi doctors and the middle-aged army reservists. Acceptance of the implicit social meaning and rules of a situation involves the passive acceptance of authority in defining and redefining social (and institutional) reality through language, and the enactment of it in playing a role.

How do individual choices and personal decision-making come in, then? The members of the SS, for example, have been classified into three categories: (1) those who enjoyed and identified with their positions and roles (often extreme ideologues) who gladly engaged in brutality; (2) those who adjusted to their roles and did their jobs, often changing their views to fit their actions; and (3) those who abhorred and were repulsed by what they were supposed to do and tried to lessen the burden on the victims but did not otherwise protest. 1Zimbardo, Lucifer Effect, 287. Zimbardo reports these findings and the analysis of John Steiner, a survivor and sociologist at Stanford University, who conducted decades of interviews of Nazi SS, from privates to generals.

Philip Zimbardo, social psychologist and deviser of the Stanford Prison Experiment, and Robert Jay Lifton observed exactly the same threefold categorization in the student prison guards and in the Nazi doctors. Individual differences in decision-making seem to have played a role in the way that those in each particular category approached their assigned roles and in their type of identification with those roles, but in no case did those differences result in decisions to pose a challenge to either the authority or the legitimacy of the system or the persecution. This is how individual differences, differences in decision-making, weighed in. Normal people are potentially followers, rather than architects, of evil.

The meanings of situations are largely social rather than independent, individual understandings and inventions. Cognitive framing of situations, social and cultural interpretations, group interpretations and the authoritative voicing and transmission of those interpretations, are the filters through which we encounter the world and upon which we base our decisions and choices. They were glaring in the Holocaust because of their extremity, so they become more visible to us than in normal circumstances, but not different in kind, only in degree.

Now for the good news. Rescue was also generally a collective affair, depending on situational interpretations and social belonging as much as perpetration did. The Oliners’ ten-year study of rescuers of Jews, in which they interviewed more than seven hundred rescuers and nonrescuers who had lived in Poland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy during Nazi occupation, identifies the many groups and networks that were dedicated to aiding Jewish rescue. Nechama Tec found in her study of Polish rescuers that what they had in common was one form or another of an outsider identity, a less than full sense of belonging. “Being on a periphery of a community,” she writes, “means being less affected by the existing social controls.” 2Tec, When Light Pierced the Darkness, 160. This is one of the crucial sources of the moral courage that enabled bystanders to intervene with saving action. The rescuers interpreted the situation in ways that defied and countered the Nazi interpretation and that of its anti-Semitic sympathizers; many had a form of outsider identity.

The amassed evidence of how normal people actually behaved in the morally crucial but also extreme situations of the Holocaust – as perpetrators, bystanders, and surprisingly as rescuers – challenges the notion of independent individual decision-making.  People acted as group and subgroup understood and interpreted the situation.  And those beliefs were contextual and depended largely on social authority and norms.

Turning to the New Brain Sciences

The new brain sciences can help us understand why interpretation is so variable, why it is so self-protective, and why it is so social – all truths that Spinoza anticipated and accounted for. I want to point to three important new ways of thinking about the brain that come together to inform both moral agency and the moral problem – how we come to be ethical and what are the ways that our brains work that present obstacles to ethics.

The first is the almost infinite possibilities of interpretation – that is, due to the vastness of human neuroplasticity. The degree to which our brains are open to retraining throughout life, as well as initially – even in such seemingly hardwired capacities as sight and hearing, for example – turns out to be far greater than was anticipated. There are 100 billion neurons in the human adult brain, and a neuron firing lasts about one-thousandth of a second. Many fire at the same time. There are thirty billion neurons in the human cortex alone. That means that our brains have the capacity to make one million billion synaptic connections, and the possible neural circuits made up of these connections reaches a number impossible even to grasp: ten followed by a million zeroes! 3Doidge, pp. 293-294 and Note p. 399 in which Doidge gives the source of his citation from Gerald Edelman as: G. Edelman, 2002. A message from the founder and director. BrainMatters. San Diego: Neurosciences Institute, Fall, 1 (my emphasis).

That’s the source of the vast flexibility, the openness of human learning and thinking and behavior. Jaak Panksepp, the founder of affective neuroscience, characterizes the openness as “undedicated computational space.”  He quickly points out that by this term he does not mean that the brain is like a computer, but rather refers to openness to transformation.

Our neuroplasticity gets pinned down, and the brain not only filled in with content, by experience and learning, but they can be structured and restructured by them as well. Pathways and patterns of neurons firing together become more and more etched into our brains as we repeat them. There are periods of openness and then pruning.

The implications are paradoxical. The nearly ungraspable vastness of neuroplasticity alerts us to the openness of behavior.  For all practical purposes, it is infinite, and the interpretations and beliefs that drive our actions are also infinitely vast. Yet, at the same time, our patterns of belief and action are stubbornly persistent. They are largely shaped by cognitive frames, as George Lakoff the philosopher-linguist describes in detail. Our minds are not receptacles of isolated pieces of information, but rather built of cognitive frames through which we organize and interpret our experience and the world around. These frames are largely unconscious as well as emotionally laden; we absorb them from the cultural, familial, institutional, and historical environments we grow up in. Lakoff points out that language uses “frames, prototypes, metaphors, narratives, images, and emotions” in shaping our understandings or interpretations of ourselves and our contexts. These “frames tend to structure a huge amount of our thought.”[v]

The second feature of our brains that I call attention to is what I call, tongue-in-cheek, our “selfiness.” Our selfiness, as I call self-interestedness, is the urge to maintain, promote, protect, and further our embodied organic selves, not only the body but also the mind and its contents. There is growing evidence that the emotions, which are self-promoting and self-protective, drive and inform our thinking and beliefs, for cognition and emotion are generally wired together. The overall tendency of our minds is to avoid what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. The emotional shaping of our thinking makes our beliefs about ourselves prone to selfishness, manipulativeness, self-deception, hypocrisy, and self-justification. This is Spinoza’s conatus, which is the desire of all organisms for self-protection and self-furthering, which he holds pervades both body and mind, that is, both physical and mental processes.  He anticipated the vast openness of thinking, and also how interpretation is  always permeated with emotion and motivation as an operation and expression of a living being maintaining and promoting itself.

Despite all the ways that selfiness distorts and corrupts our beliefs and actions, we can nevertheless begin to discern the possibility of where a sense of moral concern and responsibility might come from, for our selfiness is mitigated by what I call our ‘groupiness’.  Generally we are selfy in a groupy kind of way.  The self we further and protect is more often than not the group self.  This is a third piece of the puzzle and it is both good news and bad news for ethics.  Spinoza anticipated this, too, with his concept of the Group Mind.

The Self Beyond Itself: The “I That Is We” and the “We That Is I”

 Where do you stop, and where does the rest of the world begin?  There is no reason to suppose that the critical boundary is found in our brains or our skin.[vi]

 –Alva Noë

It’s not what is inside the head that is important, it’s what the head is inside of.

–James Jerome Gibson

The weight of neurobiological and other discoveries is pushing us toward the realization that the boundaries of the self can, and generally do, extend beyond the scope of the body. Taken together, the amassing evidence ought to begin to change where we look when we search for ethics. We should begin our search by looking not inside the individual and to individual genetic endowment, as we have assumed, but rather outside, in the environment, to the ways individuals and contexts are co-constructed; the person and the environment must be understood together, for the self is permeable and relational (as well as self-promoting, self-protecting, and self-furthering) rather than closed, discrete, and playing out its own internal program upon the world stage.

Neurological body maps, for example, extend the “me” to include the hammer I use when I nail the picture on the wall or the car when I’m driving. The neuroscientist of the emotions, Antonio Damasio, contends that we incorporate extended biographical and cultural aspects of the self within the neural self-maps that give us the moment-by-moment feeling tone of our bodily experience, and also of our body’s feeling state as a whole.[vii] Environmental situations and self-responses are paired together, he says, and amassed and etched into the neural self-maps as self over time. Meanings and feelings are brought together as well. In this way we discover the world within ourselves as self and self-related, and we find our selves being built up as world-related.

At the same time, we also discover our self beyond itself and located in the world, in the contexts – groups, projects, institutions – we become part of and identify with. The psychologist Timothy Wilson points out that we are often “strangers to ourselves,” so introspection does not give us the kind of direct access to our true selves that we think it does. Descartes was wrong about this. Instead, we ought to look more often to context and environment to discover our selves, our motives, and even our emotions.

Neurophilosophers have begun to explore the phenomenon of “distributed agency,” which refers to a subject of action that is larger than the individual.  The actor, at times, can be the group. This is possible because our neurobiological feeling of self, what feels like “me,” has not turned out to be confined to within our skin!

What Out-of-Body Experiences and Experiments Can Tell Us

How radically our sense of self can overshoot the boundaries of the skin has been demonstrated by Olaf Blanke and Thomas Metzinger’s research on out-of-body experiences. Out-of-body illusions locate the feeling of self as coming from an illusory body outside one’s own actual physical body. The sense of where our body is and where its feelings come from can be projected onto parts of the environment and felt as coming from elsewhere.[viii]

In trance and trancelike experiences, and in Buddhist meditation, there is also weakening of the self-in-body feeling, which becomes diffused into the environment or beyond the skin. Research into this Buddhist and trance experience of loss of self is now proving to be produced by a temporary attenuation of self-maps.

From this we learn that the feeling of self is a mental capacity that can be projected inward, but also outward onto the world and onto others, and onto groups. It is a feeling of ownership, of selfiness, and it is malleable and expandable. We make parts of the world feel like self, and we fill our feeling of self with our engagements, projects, and memberships and identifications in the world. Our self is in fact in the world and not hidden within ourselves, as Descartes claims and people generally assume. It is always, and from the beginning, made up of the relations of self and world. It is both historical and biographical, and a moving target.

The Chemistry of the Self Beyond Itself

Donald Pfaff of Rockefeller University shows that the feeling of self and where we draw the line between self and other, self and world, depends upon particular neurochemicals. These chemicals that produce the self-other divide, he says, are sometimes turned off, and when they are we experience others as if they were ourselves. This neurochemistry that produces the feeling of self as distributed into others, he argues, underlies ethics.

Mirror Neurons: Shared Action, Emotion, and Understanding

“Mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology.”

–V.S. Ramachandran

Mirror neurons are an “action/observation/execution matching system.”[ix] Scientists invented the term mirror neurons to describe a set of brain cells that fire both when we are motivated to do an action and do it and also when we see someone else doing that action but are not ourselves doing it. The mirror system enables not only joint action and agency but also a form of immediate understanding of other people’s actions, goals, and emotions, too. 4Giacomo Rizzolatti, Leonardo Fogassi, and Vittorio Gallese, “Neurophysiological Mechanisms Underlying the Understanding and Imitation of Action,” Nature Reviews/Neuroscience 2 (September 2001): 662, 667. In understanding others’ actions and emotions, we reproduce them inside ourselves minus the final execution of the actual action or emotion. Thus we understand others from the inside out! We and they are internally and subjectively joined.

Evolutionary Cooperation and Group Selection

We are social primates. Human beings are “groupy” to an astounding degree, as well as selfy. From an evolutionary biological standpoint as well as, we shall see, from an adaptive-systems-theory standpoint, the group, not the individual, is often the significant actor. New thinking about evolution is now focusing not just on competition among individual members of a species as the driver of selective pressures, but, crucially, on group-against-group competition within species and between species. According to Martin Nowak, director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard University, cooperation is as vital and ubiquitously operative an evolutionary principle as competition.

Complex Adaptive Systems

The mind leaks out into the world, and cognitive activity is distributed across individuals and situations. This … is a brave new world. Why should anyone believe it? . . . One part of the answer lies in the promise of dynamical systems theory.  . . .   Insofar as the mind is a dynamical system, it is natural to think of it as extending not just into the body but also into the world. The result is a radical challenge to traditional ways of thinking about the mind. (Me: And the individual.)

—Philip Robbins and Murat Aydede

 When the individual ‘makes’ a decision, that decision has usually been made within a wider framework of distributed cognition, and in many instances, it is fair to ask whether the decision was really made by the distributed cognitive cultural system itself, with the individual reduced to a subsidiary role. …  Distributed systems are able to change where in the system each component that influences a certain decision is located.5Merlin Donald, p. 202 (My emphasis.)

–Merlin Donald

Spinoza was right about the group mind!  The insight that a person is an open system in relation to other open systems, natural and cultural, has begun to be rigorously articulated and theoretically worked out in the developing field of systems theory. Thinking about human behavior in terms of systems changes dramatically the way we conceive agency: what it means to act and who is doing the acting. 6Merlin Donald, “How Culture and Brain Mechanisms Interact in Decision Making,” in Better than Consciousness? Decision Making, the Human Mind, and Implications for Institutions, ed. Christoph Engel and Wolf Singer (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 192. It is the system that often makes the decision. 7Ibid., 192.

The control in a complex adaptive system is decentralized and widely distributed, rather than being under some central control. In addition, diversity plays a crucial role in Complex Adaptive Systems.  The hallmark of complex adaptive systems is perpetual novelty. 8This is known as the recycling effect. A complex adaptive system does not settle into locked-in patterns but keeps producing change, and most importantly perhaps, self-correction.


Protecting diversity, especially by nurturing diverse groups with diverse opinions, is absolutely vital to the possibility of moral agency, for it makes available critical perspectives that foster whistle-blowing, bystander intervention, and creative thinking and solutions. It is Spinoza’s notion of Universal Perspective, sub specie aeternitatis, the view from Eternity, the Divine View. It is from groups, often marginal ones, with critical perspectives on those in power and less likely to succumb to a knee-jerk loyalty to the presumed legitimacy of institutions and hierarchies and all kinds of groups, that critical perspectives, whistle-blowing, bystander intervention, creative thinking, and even truth-telling can emerge. Such critical and broader perspectives and the actions that follow from them turn out to be not matters of will or even of individuals in isolation. Instead they come on the scene more often than not from the periphery, rather than the centers of power and normative beliefs and practices. Moreover, it is just such diversity that enables social systems to adapt to changing environments instead of stagnating. The isolation and insularity of groups of any scale form the great dangers to social justice, allowing and even instigating bad and evil actions while stifling dissent and broader and critical perspectives, even before atrocities ensue. Marginal groups are often just as prone to the dangers of insularity, group think, as are normative ones.  They too need to be challenged from inside and out.

Moving On

The upshot is that sociality trumps individuality in human beings as a species – for good and for bad. Spinoza’s ideal of cultivating independence of mind, freedom of thought, is a difficult and heady achievement, “as difficult as it is rare,” he opined. A transformation in moral viewpoint toward a self that embraces and integrates broader and critical (and self-critical) points of view would be revolutionary. It leads to the rediscovery of oneself as at home in, and at one with, larger and larger social and natural worlds. That was Spinoza’s great insight. It leads us toward an ecological and universal perspective, sub specie aeternitatis, Under a Certain Form of Eternity.

We cannot all get there through philosophy, through a Spinozist education of desire. But all of us can be set on a new path through changes in institutional structures that foster broader social diversity and the critical perspectives they offer on entrenched norms, legitimacies, and hierarchies. We can popularize ideas that support a new moral vision of freedom and joy for all individuals. Our default localism and provincialism can and ought to be socially, politically, and environmentally challenged and broadened, and scientifically informed, to bring out the best in us and also point the way to broader identification with others and with the natural world. Our very human survival, as well as our moral integrity, lie in the balance.

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Dr. Heidi Ravven, Professor of Classical & Religious Studies and Professor of Jewish Philosophy at Hamilton College, held a Scholar-in-Residence Weekend at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, NJ on April 5-6, 2024).


1 Zimbardo, Lucifer Effect, 287. Zimbardo reports these findings and the analysis of John Steiner, a survivor and sociologist at Stanford University, who conducted decades of interviews of Nazi SS, from privates to generals.
2 Tec, When Light Pierced the Darkness, 160.
3 Doidge, pp. 293-294 and Note p. 399 in which Doidge gives the source of his citation from Gerald Edelman as: G. Edelman, 2002. A message from the founder and director. BrainMatters. San Diego: Neurosciences Institute, Fall, 1 (my emphasis).
4 Giacomo Rizzolatti, Leonardo Fogassi, and Vittorio Gallese, “Neurophysiological Mechanisms Underlying the Understanding and Imitation of Action,” Nature Reviews/Neuroscience 2 (September 2001): 662, 667.
5 Merlin Donald, p. 202 (My emphasis.
6 Merlin Donald, “How Culture and Brain Mechanisms Interact in Decision Making,” in Better than Consciousness? Decision Making, the Human Mind, and Implications for Institutions, ed. Christoph Engel and Wolf Singer (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 192.
7 Ibid., 192.
8 This is known as the recycling effect.

One Comment

  1. Jacobs

    This is great. Spinoza as a young 25 year old student could relate to Reconstruction Judaism. He could Rigorously uphold his ethics and shelter a Muslim in danger of mortal persecution in his house at the risk of his life. He would accept the great moral principles expressed as I heard this protection story from a righteous Hindu. M. Kaplan personally told me at age 96 in a Phila. symposium he arranged that he believed one could pray to G-d. Our ethics to be effective have to have authority behind them that simplifies ethics and its’ life saving, peace promoting capacity, for the non-scientist “water drawer, woodchopper, truck driver,
    street cleaner can dedicate their life to them and “teach them to their children.” The Torah Linked to our sages does this.
    references some : scientifically all humans are cousins and children of the Moral principles that create us and that demand cooperation for living in moral freedom for all. Tzedekiah tzdkeyahu 4:6 Malachi 2:5-7. Want more Key Hebrew bible references? ask me.

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