Sunday, April 20, 2008

Antonio Damasio's "Looking for Spinoza"

An affect cannot be restrained or neutralized except by a contrary affect that is stronger than the affect to be restrained. In other words, Spinoza recommended that we fight a negative emotion with a stronger but positive emotion brought about by reasoning and intellectual effort (12).

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. . . his (Spinoza's) notion that the human mind is the idea of the human body (12).

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Spinoza prescribed an ideal democratic state, where the hallmarks were freedom of speech--let every man think what he wants and say what he thinks, he wrote--separation of church and state, and a generoud social contract that promoted the well-being of citizens and the harmony of government (15).

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Emotions play out in the theater of the body. Feelings play out in the theater of the mind (28).

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The single word homeostasis is convenient shorthand for the ensemble of regulations and the resulting state of regulated life. . . . We can picture the homeostasis machine as a large multibranched tree of phenomena charged with the automated regulation of life. . . .

In the lowest branches: metabolism, basic reflexes, immune system

In the middle-level branches: behaviors associated with the notion of pleasure or pain

In the next level up: drives and motivations (hunger, thirst, curiosity, play and sex) Spinoza lumped them together under a very apt word, appetites, and with great refinement used another word, desires, for the situation in which conscious individuals become cognizant of those appetites.

Near the top but not quite: Emotions-proper

Top: Feelings

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It is apparent that the continuous attempt at achieving a state of positively regulated life is a deep and defining part of our existence--the first reality of our existence as Spinoza intuited when he described the relentless endeavor (conatus) of each being to preserve itself. Striving, endevor and tendency are three word that come close to rendering the Latin term conatus, as used by Spinoza in Propositions 6, 7, and 8 of the Ethics, Part III. In Spinoza's own words: "Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being" and "The striving by which each thing strives to persevere in its being is nothing but the actual essence of the thing" (36).

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Emotion is all about transition and commotion, sometimes real bodily upheaval (63).

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Any complex mental function results from concerted contributions by many brain regions at varied levels of the central nervous system rather than from the work of a single brain region conceived in a phrenological manner (73).

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Feelings emerge when the sheer accumulation of mapped details reaches a certain stage. Coming from a different perspective, the philosopher Suzanne Langer captured the nature of that moment of emergence by saying that when the activity of some part of the nervous system reaches a "critical pitch" the process is felt. Feeling is a consequence of the ongoing homeostatic process, the next step in the chain (86).

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For a while after an occasion of such feelings behins--for seconds or for minutes--there is a dynamic engagement of the body almost certainly in repeated fashion, and a subsequent dynamic variation of the preception. We perceive a series of transitions. We sense an interplay, a give and take (92).

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And so it must be for brotherly love, the most redeeming of all feelings, a feeling that depends for its modulation on the unique repository of autobiographical records that define our identities. Yet it still rests, as Spinoza so clearly gleaned, on occasions of pleasure--bodily pleasure, what else?--prompted by thoughts of a particular object.

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Likewise, pleasure and its variants are the result of certain map configurations. Feeling pain or feeling pleasure consists of having biological processes in which our body image, as depicted in the brain's body maps, is conformed in a certain pattern. Drugs such as morphine or aspirin alter that pattern. So do ecstasy and scotch. So do anesthetics. So do certain forms of meditation. So do thoughts of despair. So do thoughts of hope and salvation (124).

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[Contrasting the human body and the airplane] The reasonable candidate for the title of critical elementary "particle" of our living organism is a living cell, not an atom (128).

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The nerve sensors that convey the requisite information to the brain and the nerve nuclei and nerve sheaths that map the information inside of it are living cells themselves, subject to the same life risk of other cells, and in need of comparable homeostatic regulation. These nerve cells are not impartial bystanders. They are not innocent conveyances or blank slates or mirrors waiting for something to reflect. Signaling and mapping neuros have a say on the matter signaled, and on the transient maps assembled from the signals (129).

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Social conventions and ethical rules may be seen in part as extensions of the basic homeostatic arrangements at the level of society and culture. The outcome of applying the rules is the same as the outcome of basic homeostatic devices such as metabolic regulation or appetites: a balance of life to ensure survival and well-being (169).

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[From Proposition 18 in part IV of The Ethics] ". . . the very first foundation of virtue is the endeavor (conatum) to preserve the individual self, and happiness consists in the human capacity to preserve its self." . . . It contains the foundation for a system of ehtical behaviors and that foundation is neurobiological, The foundation is the result of a discovery based on the observation of human nature rather than the revelation of a prophet (170, 171).

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The brain is imbused at the start of life with knowledge regarding how the organism should be managed . . . . Many mapping sites and connections are present at birth; for example, we know that newborn monkeys have neuros in their cerebral cortex ready to detect lines in a certain orientation (205).

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The arrangement underscores the "body-mindedness" of the mind. The mind exists because there is a body to furnish it with contents. On the other hand, the mind ends up performing practical and useful tasks for the body . . . . The brain's body-furnished, body-minded mind is a servant of the whole body (206).

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But what exactly is the indispensable contribution that the conscious-mind level of biology brings to the organism? . . . The answer, then, is that mental images would allow an ease of manipulation of information that the neural-map level . . . would not permit (207).

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Now we should consider what the sense of self brings to the process. The answer is orientation. The sense of self introduces, within the mental level of preocessing, the notion that all the current activities represented in brain and mind pertain to a single organism whose auto-preservation needs are the basic cause of most events currently represented (208).

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. . . [Spinoza] said, in The Ethics, Part I, that thought and extension, while distinguishable, are nonetheless attributes of the same substance, God or Nature. The reference to a single substance serves the purpose of claiming mind as inseparable from body, both created, somehow, from the same cloth. The reference to two attributes, mind and body, acknowledged the distinction of two kinds of phenomenon, a formulation that preserved an entirely sensible "aspect" dualism, but rejected substance dualism (209).

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[From Part II of The Ethics] Proposition 15: "The human mind is capable of perceiving a great number of things, and is so in proportion as its body is capable of receiving a great number of impressions."

. . . Proposition 26: "The human Mind does not perceive any external body as actually existing except through the ideas of the modification (affections) of its own body."

. . . No body, never mind (212, 213).

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The notion of "ideas of ideas" is important on many counts. . . . it opens a way for creating an idea for self. I have suggested that the most basic kind of self is an idea, a second-order idea. Why second-order? Because it is based on two first-order ideas--one being the idea of the object that we are perceiving; the other, the idea of our body as it is modified by the perception of the object. The second-order idea of self is the idea of the relationship between the two other ideas--object perceived and body modified by perception (215).

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For practical purpose God is naure and is most clearly manifest in living creatures. This is captured in an often quoted Spinozism, the expression Deus sive Natura--God or Nature (273).

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This path includes a life of the spirit that seeks understanding with enthusiasm and some sort of discipline as a source of joy--where understanding is derived from scientific knowledge, aesthetic experience or both. The practice of this life also assumes a combative attitude based on the belief that part of humanity's tragic condition can be alleviated, and that doing something about the human predicament is our responsibility. One benefit of scientific progress is the means to plan intelligent actions that can assuage suffering. Science can be combined with the best of a humanist tradition to permit a new approach to human affairs and lead to human flourishing (283).

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First, I assimilate the notion of spiritual to an intense experience of harmony, to the sense that the organism is functioning with the greatest possible perfection. The experience unfolds in association with the desire to act toward others with kindness and generosity. Thus to have a spiritual experience is to hold sustained feelings of a particular kind dominated by some variant of joy, however serene. . . . Conceived in this manner, the spiritual is an index of the organizing scheme behind a life that is well-balanced, well-tempered, and well-intended (284).

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Second, spiritual experiences are humanly nourishing. I believe that Spinoza was entirely on the mark in his view that joy and its variants lead to greater functional perfection (285).

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