Somethingness is irresistible

Andrew Sullivan links to this fantastic exchange between the author of Betraying Spinoza, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and one reader, Michael Weiss, on the philosopher Baruch Spinoza. A Kibitz on Pure Reason is a sporty and high minded discussion of the philosopher's rationalism, exploring, among other subjects, the passions of supposition. It put me in mind of Jaron Lanier's hope, expressed at The Edge, that rationalism will become ever more romantic. Given that our conceptual faculties leave our senses wishing for more, it's a fond desire.

Goldstein certainly believes that behind his hyper-rationalism, Spinoza had a big heart.

But for me the the second day's dialog gets down to it, asking the question lurking behind that cool rationalism, a question that is the subtext for a great deal of philosophical inquiry:

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Rebecca Goldstein, commenting on Wiess' suggestion that the encounter between Gottfried Leibniz and Spinoza described in The Courtier and the Heretic was a bit of mismatch, touches on foundationalism, perhaps a lesser known bequest of the Enlightenment, in her answer:

Both of them were committed to there being an ultimate answer to that question. That question could serve as a fine way of dividing up philosophers, according to those who think that that question has an answer, even if it's one we can't get at, and those who think that there's simply no answer out there at all to that question. On this score, Spinoza and Leibniz were playing in the same band, tooting on the same horn and singing the same lyrics, to wit that there is, because there has to be, an explanation for the world at large.

The question that divided them was whether logic alone provided that explanation. Spinoza said it did, thus committing himself to the claim that this is the only logically possible world. Leibniz, who was by far the better logician—-in fact, the advances he made in mathematical logic are staggering, though he kept almost all of them to himself—said there was an infinite plurality of logically possible worlds, so logic itself can't answer the question of why this particular world is the one that got realized.

For Spinoza, logic has generative powers; logic is the only thing that explains itself, the very causa-sui itself—that's his famous Deus sive natura.  But for Leibniz, the logician, logic isn't generative. Logic is perfectly inert insofar as existence is concerned...

Logic generates itself? Of the two, I'll take Leibniz' view.

In another stab at the answer that has always appealed to me because it bypasses the head and goes straight to the gut, science author K.C. Cole suggests that oblivion is unstable. Nothingness is rather hard to maintain, "somethingness," irresistible.

Check out the Kibitz on Pure Reason if you get the chance. And fasten your rhetorical seat belts.

Wayne