Saturday, March 19, 2005

Welcome to The Spinozist Mormon

The title "The Spinozist Mormon" exposes me to the charge of false advertising. Those looking for technical analyses of Spinoza's philosophy will be disappointed at not finding it here (at least initially); those looking for discussions that presuppose a believing Mormon viewpoint will also be frustrated (at least initially).

But a desire to try my hand at blogging requires that I come up with some title; and as I intend to blog about my thoughts, questions, studies, and attempts to discover truth, meaning, and beauty in life---in short, because this blog begins as an egocentric exercise of exploration I embark upon to iron out my identity---I have chosen this title as a concise attempt to convey something about where I'm at presently.

Taking upon myself the name of Spinoza began with the scantiest of justifications: my personal resonance with a book review in Nature (subscription required) of Antonio Damasio's Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. According to this review,
Spinoza stands out from his contemporaries by virtue of his resolute adherence to the rational, an attitude that makes him a supremely modern figure. He dared to deny the validity of the Bible's revealed truth, a stance that threatened every political structure that was underpinned by religious belief and dogma. He went so far as to argue that faith was "a mere compound of credulity and prejudices — aye prejudices, too, which degrade man from rational being to beast". Not surprisingly, such radical views made him an outcast from his family and community, culminating in a ritualistic excommunication from his synagogue.
I did eventually read the book; while I'm not bold to say it's a "must read" for everyone, I certainly recommend it warmly. Containing a neurobiologist's modern understanding of the nature of and distinctions between emotions and feelings, it also describes how Spinoza anticipated some of these views centuries ago. Spinoza's humanity---as well as Damasio's---are conveyed better than the reviewer's rather stark quote above manages. Upon reading the book, I found my initial resonance with Spinoza amplified; hence friends and relatives perplexed by the changes in my thinking, who find it uncomfortable to discuss them with me directly, might find an entree to understanding by proxy through a reading of this book.

I am also, indelibly, a Mormon born and bred. Whatever adjectives might ever describe me, I suspect they will remain modifiers to one noun---Mormon---that forms a core part of my identity. I have been produced from distinguished Mormon stock, passed the standard milestones, partaken of the usual experiences, and continue to attend Church weekly and participate in many of the rituals of Mormon family life. Whatever else my interests may encompass, some sliver of my attention will always be fixed on the history and doctrine of the faith and culture that shaped my early sensibilities and channeled the choices of my youth and young adulthood. Like intimate underclothing worn daily, Mormonism is more than the external Sunday best donned but weekly. It is the air one breaths, one's all-encompassing milieu. It sustains all things, it demands all things, it "explains" many things, and hopes to be able to explain all things. The shock and pain of detachment are such that I can barely bring myself to declare myself "apart", finding the heart to say so only elliptically and tentatively, through partial identification with a book review!

Let me, then, summon the courage to characterize my situation a bit more directly: I have not suffered Spinoza's fate, but still wish to avoid it; and while heterodoxy is too mild to describe my current state, my hope is that there is discernable daylight to be found between heresy and apostasy.

While this blog may turn out to be mainly an exercise in soliloquy, I would be much gratified by colloquy. I am particularly interested in thoughtful responses from the faithful, who might help me see alternative views on vexing issues. Because the gulf between secular and sacred perspectives often feels vast (I hope bridges may be built!), it is probably unavoidable that some of what I say will grate on the sensibilities of typical believers. I can also have a tendency to 'hammer away' in forceful argument. Should this happen, and offend anyone, I apologize in advance. I will try not to sound like I have a chip on my shoulder; in return, I ask that those who "[suppose] me to be deluded to ... [endeavor] in a proper and affectionate manner to ... [reclaim] me" (Joseph Smith---History 1:28). Feel free to disagree passionately---but strive to do so without anger, defensiveness, or condescension. Strive for elevated (or at least playfully witty) language, which covers a multitude of sins---at least in my book!

The Spinozist Mormon stands at the crossroads of the sacred and secular, where values are chosen and truth claims are strictly evaluated---all upon the sacred ground of individual minds and hearts, with their tentative thoughts and fragile feelings---a process fraught with profound consequences for precious relationships. May openness, curiosity, free expression, understanding, and mutual respect hallow this space. Let all who cross its threshold share a fearless love of truth, an abiding passion for its pursuit, and bold courage in expression; but recognizing that we are all thrown together headlong into a world short on manifest cosmic truth, but nevertheless impatient and insistent on forcing daily choices upon us, may any and all who pause here for deliberation find sweet refreshment and warm companionship---regardless of the particular paths arrived from, or chosen upon departure.

Welcome, and enjoy!


Christian, perhaps you know that Trader Joe's (eminent specialty foods store, for those sadly deprived of its retail utopia) sells a product called "The Bagel Spinoza." It comes in whole wheat, sesame, and "the works"; its marketing line reads "It bagels the mind." You could do worse than modeling the Spinozist Mormon on the Bagel Spinoza, and I expect nothing less from your blog: chewy, filling, versatile, satisfyingly tough to the teeth, loaded with all sorts of pleasing extras. And really, really good toasted with butter.

Congratulations on entering the bloggernacle; you'll make a tasty addition to the menu! 
Comment by Rosalynde | 3/23/2005 09:45:00 AM  

Thanks, Rosalynde, I'll do my best! I remember the Trader Joe's  in La Jolla, but as so often happens, I did not take sufficient advantage of what was readily available, and only truly appreciate it now that it's out of reach to us Tennessee Hillbillies. But I see that they have locations in Missouri! As Napoleon Dynamite said about Pedro's bike: LUCKY! 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/23/2005 11:01:00 AM  

Sorry to undermine any utopic shopping experience, but Trader Joe's is owned by the Aldi heirs. 
Comment by J. Stapley | 3/23/2005 03:31:00 PM  

I had no idea who the Aldi heirs were, but Google had this story  at the top of the list. Personally, I think Wal-Mart rules, and if Trader Joe's can bring exotic stuff to the masses at low prices, more power to 'em.
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/23/2005 04:11:00 PM  


What are the issues? There are so many ways to look at the problems that we face as we try to discuss incongruencies between what we see and what we believe/know to be true. I always enjoyed your openness and depth of thought in discussions about the gospel in San Diego. An exchange of this sort can be very enlightening when approached from the proper foundation that above all and regardless of what is seen or thought, the gospel of Jesus Christ is true. That is the jumping-off point. At least that is how I have come to deal with the uniqueness of the church and the doctrines. Also, if Rosalynde and John Welch are participating, it will be very interesting.

Comment by Mike Wilson | 3/30/2005 07:01:00 PM  

Hi Mike! Congratulations on your new(ish) baby! Say hi to Jenni for me... 
Comment by Rosalynde | 3/30/2005 09:21:00 PM  

Mike, great to hear from you! We miss you guys.

"The issues" can't be listed succinctly here, but I expect I'll be exploring them in posts over time. I understand the approach of taking the gospel's truth as a starting point, based on past experience. One has to start somewhere, and the gospel with its good life is a worthy choice. But at least at this particular stage of my history, a confluence of factors have led me to take seriously a saying that haunts me: "The only ones who can see the picture are those who step outside the frame."

I would be very glad if you (and Rosalynde and John, who unfortunately I didn't get to meet in person in San Diego) were among those who stop here from time to time.
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/30/2005 10:36:00 PM  

I agree with the concept of improving one's perspective by stepping "outside the frame." I feel like I have done this a bit with medicine and science. Once one is aware of imperfections or quirks, an entire laundry list of perceived deficiencies become obvious. I started my academic career with the intent of becoming a scientist for its noble goal of searching for truth. This misconception fell by the wayside as I was exposed on multiple occasions to falsification of data, corner-cutting, and political ambitions taking priority over correct and true results.

As I see the warts on the face of science and intellectualism, I feel as Uncle Buck did and have requested, in a personally intellectual way, that science take a quarter and "find an rat to gnaw that thing of [its] face."

Self-preservation is at the foundation of how we treat what we believe. Physicians don't want to consider the possibility that methods of health care (besides conventional medicine) are of worth because of potential loss of influence and standing. Religious persons don't want to consider the blemishes on their history or culture for fear of what they might find difficult to digest. Scientists are generally unwilling also to step outside their own box of learning truth in an empirical and naturalistic fashion (there are others ways) because of fear of a collapse of the system which provides them with their occupational foundation and validates and legitimizes what they do every day.

The difficult question is how far outside the frame we intend to step and for how long. Is it just long enough to get a different perspective, or do we dally there, entertaining concepts which conflict with what we fundamentally believe to be true?

And ultimately the question is how do we know what is true? Do we believe what we see, hear (this depends profoundly on the sources we chose for information), taste, touch, smell, as though it is incontrivertible evidence? Or can we accept that there is something outside ourselves that gives real knowledge, that "speaketh of things as they really are, and as they really will be."

That's probably enough rambling. I am currently involved in a political back-and-forth with my three brothers who are all more conservative than I. I feel like the heretic in that circle. It is good for me to write some things that are more in defense of my beliefs.
Comment by Mike Wilson | 3/31/2005 11:56:00 AM  

Great thoughts, Mike. At least as far as seeing what the big issues are, I think we're on the same page, and have a basis for some interesting (and hopefully enlightening) discussions.

On the warts of science, certainly they're there. It sounds like the scandals are much more prevalent in medicine than physics, though physics certainly has its share of spectacular cases. What gives me hope in the case of physics is that the questions are typically reproducible, and with everyone making a living by proving each other wrong, the false gets weeded out. I can see how in medicine one can be much less sure, with the "science" funded by parties with financial interest; without studies by others with competing interests at stake, there are no checks and balances.

I think your comment about self-preservation is extraordinarily profound---at least, I've been thinking so since I wrote this long comment  in the midst of a recent exchange. The two comments that follow it bring the general principle down to an example of this self-preservation instinct in academia.
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/31/2005 12:43:00 PM  

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