Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain

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Antonio Damasio and Spinoza.

The following is a review of Antonio Damasio‘s book, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain.

So who is this Spinoza character and why is Antonio Damasio, one of today’s leading neuroscientists, looking for him? Bento (sometimes Baruch and other times Benedict) Spinoza was a rationalist and Dutch philosopher from the seventeen century. In defining the brain as a feeling machine in all the glorious details that Damasio is able to provide his readers, Antonio used Spinoza’s philosophy. Perhaps, Spinoza’s greatest philosophical text was Ethics—with a title like that, I wish that I knew Latin so that I can read it for myself. Perhaps there’s an English version out there?

Damasio and Spinoza cover much of the same topics, though Damasio’s work is rooted more in empirical science. For instance, both men have discussed what is known as Substance Dualism or the Mind-Body Problem. This refers to the question of whether or not the mind is a physical part of the body. Now we have to remember that, in the seventeen century, religion and the idea of a non-physical spirit wasn’t just something that you didn’t believe in. Damasio and Spinoza’s views meet on this subject at a point in which the mind is a physical thing enveloped somewhere in the electrical circuitry of our brains. As you can imagine, this belief proved rather dangerous for Spinoza to have. What other beliefs did Spinoza have that marked him as a dissenting blasphemer when he was alive and a the man who paved the way for the eighteenth century Enlightenment after he died? “Spinoza’s system [of ethical behavior] does have a God but not a provident God conceived in the image of humans,” (Damasio, 273). With a view like this, it is not surprising that Spinoza was excommunicated from the church. Spinoza believed that it was unfitting to harness perceived after-death rewards or punishments as a basis for ethical behavior; he believed that being an ethical person promoted homeostasis, wherein lies the reason to behave ethically. Spinoza greeted death with the idea that “the conflict between the view that suffering and death are natural biological phenomena that we should accept with equanimity…” (279).

And what does Damasio say about the spirit as it causes the Mind-Body Problem? Damasio says that religious experiences, like experiencing your own non-physical spirit, are felt when the body is in a state of perfect homeostasis. What’s more, is that without emotions and subsequent feelings “there might have been no drive toward the creating of religion. There would have been no prophets, nor would there have been followers animated by the emotional tendency to submit with awe and admiration to a dominant figure entrusted with a leadership role, or to an entity with the power to protect and compensate for losses and the ability to explain the unexplainable. The conception of God, applied to one or many, would have been hard to come by” (158).

But we do, when in the presents of an emotionally competent stimulus or by the faculty of our memory, have emotions and feelings that have played a role in the creation of religion. Perhaps it is the continuance of having emotions and feelings, whether they be rooted in joy or sorrow, that have led many to seek answers outside of religion. The same power that humans have within their skulls that dreamed up religion is also responsible for empirical science. Hooray for the feeling brain!


About evinhughes

I am a graduate of Georgia Southern University. I have a bachelors degree in Information Technology and a bachelors in Writing and Linguistics.
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