Genus Specious
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Genus Specious

Hao Wang on Gödel, Spinoza, and Zhuangzi

Hao Wang’s second book on Gödel, A Logical Journey, explores a number of interesting relationships: between mathematics and philosophy, between Western and Chinese thought, between early modern and contemporary philosophy, etc.

One of the more interesting relationships it examines is between philosophy and what Wang calls ‘ideology’. There is a nice discussion of this in Chapter Three. The chapter begins:

Philosophy as an attempt to find the key to life and the universe has been suffering increasingly from the difficult choice between plausible irrelevance and exciting but unconvincing speculation (101).

And then a bit further on:

For most people, academic philosophy today is largely irrelevant to their deep concerns. Those individuals who ask for more than what business, science, technology, and ordinary politics offer have to look elsewhere for satisfaction: to the traditional religions or to popular psychology, combined, perhaps, with Zen, Taoism, or body mysticism, or with such grand philosophies and ideologies as Marxism, liberalism, conservatism, or neo-Confucianism (101).

Of course some people might be converted towards these ideologies by the works of academic philosophers, but presumably the majority aren’t (there was a related debate recently on Daily Nous).

In this context, Wang examines Gödel’s philosophical reflections on the existence of God and the possibility of life after death. Here Gödel believed that academic philosophy has much to offer to our everyday concerns:

He not only offers, in private, arguments in favor of belief in the existence of God and an afterlife; he also suggests that philosophical investigations hold promise of yielding definitive reasons for such beliefs, clearer and more convincing than his own tentative unpublished arguments (102).

Very few philosophers seem to have taken up the suggestion of philosophically demonstrating the existence of an afterlife, either before or after Gödel. Although Descartes’ Meditations promises, in its original title, to demonstrate the immortality of the soul, it only goes as far as proving the distinctness of the soul from the body. In terms of the Catholic orthodoxy of the time, this was a step in the wrong direction, since the concept of the soul as a separate substance departs drastically from traditional teaching since St Thomas. But Wang points out that in Chinese philosophy a different conception of immortality is prominent:

I am under the impression that, in the European (or at least the Christian) tradition, you have to have an afterlife to be immortal. This is not so according to the prevalent conception of immortality in China. According to this conception, there are three forms of immortality: (1) setting a good example by your conduct; (2) doing good deeds; and (3) saying significant things of one kind or another. The idea is that these achievements will remain after we die, for they will be preserved in the memory of our community and will continue to affect others. Since they are ours, this means that parts of us will continue to live after us and we will have gained immortality by achieving (1) or (2) or (3). (109)

Wang notes that this conception is found also in Western philosophy. For example: ‘In 1765 Diderot, for example, wrote in a letter “Posterity, to the philosopher, is what the world beyond is, to the religious man”’(109). According to Hannah Arendt (The Human Condition, ch.3), this idea of immortality is central to pre-Socratic Greek thought, where it is regarded as the only sort of immortality available to humans (gods can be immortal by simply failing to die, and the lower animals live on by not being really distinct from their progeny). The ‘world beyond’ is an innovation that has come to us through Plato. But if Wang is suggesting that immortality in the ‘Chinese’ sense is predominant within philosophy, that is probably right; after all, it is a tall order to prove the existence of a world beyond, whereas it is easy to arrive at the recurring platitude that we can live on through posterity.

Wang then switches abruptly to discussing Spinoza’s theory of eternal life, which, he claims:

has some affinity with the views of Taoism, especially those of Zhuang Zi, who would have endorsed the thought expressed by Spinoza in the next to the last paragraph of Ethics: ‘Whereas the wise man is scarcely at all disturbed in spirit, but, being conscious of himself, and of God [Nature], and of things, by a certain eternal necessity, never ceases to be, but always possesses true acquiescence of his spirit’.

Wang goes on to say that ‘eternal life’, in this sense, ‘is not an afterlife’. That may be so, but Spinoza doesn’t seem to be talking about immortality through posterity either. For one thing, such immortality can’t qualify as eternal, unless you expect the human race to go on existing and remembering you forever. Moreover, while Spinoza mentions a sort of acquiescence of spirit that comes through public recognition of one’s deeds and words (Ethics 4p58s), he has nothing good to say about it; it can’t be what he meant by the true eternal life of the wise person (this was one topic of my Aristotelian Society lecture).

The connection with Taoism is well-made, however. The final Scholium of the Ethics resonates quite profoundly with, for example, Chapter 33 of the Daodejing:

To understand others is to have knowledge;

To understand oneself is to be illumined.

To conquer others needs strength;

To conquer oneself is harder still.

To be content with what one has is to be rich.

He that works through violence may get his way;

But only what stays in its place

Can endure.

When one dies one is not lost; there is no other longevity. (Arthur Waley trans.)

The references to self-understanding and self-contentment are reminiscent of Spinoza’s ‘acquiescence of spirit’. But the immortality intimated here sounds more like posterity than eternal life. What Waley renders ‘longevity’ — shòu (壽) — I have seen translated other ways (the Addiss and Lombardo translation has ‘die without perishing and your life will endure’). But it certainly doesn’t seem to mean eternal life: the point seems only to be that you can extend beyond your biological death.

Wang refers to the Zhuangzi, however. There, I think, we find a third doctrine: not an afterlife in another world, nor postmortem survival through posterity, but survival in this world via transformation into other forms. This is what seems to be discussed in passages like these:

When a skilled smith is casting metal, if the metal should leap up and say, ‘I insist upon being made into a Mo-yeh!’ he would surely regard it as very inauspicious metal indeed. Now, having had the audacity to take on human form once, if I should say, ‘I don’t want to be anything but a man! Nothing but a man!’, the Creator would surely regard me as a most inauspicious sort of person.

…perhaps in time [the Creator will] transform my left arm into a rooster. In that case I’ll keep watch on the night. Or perhaps in time he’ll transform my right arm into a crossbow pellet and I’ll shoot down an owl for roasting. Or perhaps in time he’ll transform my buttocks into cartwheels. Then, with my spirit for a horse, I’ll climb up and go for a ride. (Burton Watson trans.)

It’s not clear that Spinoza would buy into this idea of survival through transformation; in the Preface to Part Four of the Ethics he insists that a horse would be destroyed if it were transformed into a human being or an insect. But there is also, in the Zhuangzi, an emphasis on escaping death in the sense of not being bothered about it, which might be regarded as somewhat Spinozist. The last passage quoted continues:

I received life because the time had come; I will lose it because the order of things passes on. Be content with this time and dwell in this order and then neither sorrow nor joy can touch you.

This is the connection Wang sees between Spinoza and Taoism, or Chinese philosophy more generally: ‘Like Confucius, Spinoza thought about life rather than death’ (110). Spinoza does emphasise that a free person thinks about life and not about death (Ethics 4p67), but at this stage he doesn’t explain how the free person comes to this state of mind. Given what he says later, it seems that the most informed way to come to it is to recognise that ‘the human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body; but something of it remains, and that is eternal’ (Ethics 5p23). As I read it, this involves a reference to a world beyond, in which the self is preserved in some sense. It seems different from the notion in the Zhuangzi, of triumphing over death by abandoning selfhood, at least as Angus Graham explains it:

The liberation from selfhood is seen above all as a triumph over death. Chuang-tzu’s position is not that personal consciousness will survive death, rather than in grasping the Way one’s viewpoint shifts from ‘I shall no longer exist’ to something like ‘in losing selfhood I shall remain what at bottom I have always been, identical with all the endlessly transforming phenomena of the universe (The Disputers of the Tao, 202).

I don’t know whether Spinoza would have respected the Zhuangzi as offering an alternative path to forgetting about death and therefore to true ‘acquiescence of spirit’.

Perhaps there is a similarity that is more important than the difference, relating to Wang’s ‘choice between plausible irrelevance and exciting but unconvincing speculation’. Wang’s view is that:

On the whole, philosophy in the Chinese tradition concentrates more on such problems of life than does the western tradition; like literature, it is less specialized, more widely accessible, and bears more directly on our everyday concerns (126).

Gödel’s philosophy is an exception, in Wang’s view. Spinoza’s also appears to be. Both were keenly interested in everyday concerns, for all their mathematical abstruseness — especially the prospect of consolation in the face of death and loss. On that point the Zhuangzi’s speculation is perhaps less exciting and unconvincing: we already know that after death our matter is recycled into other things. So that form of immortality seems more definitely accessible than one depending on the existence of a world beyond the visible.

But then perhaps it takes more to be consoled by this notion than by the notion of eternal life in Spinoza’s sense. Either, in any case, seems better than the doctrine that Wang finds to be most popular among philosophers both Western and Chinese, according to which we are immortal because our ‘achievements will remain after we die, for they will be preserved in the memory of our community and will continue to affect others’. Here St Thomas’s refutation seems to me decisive:

Boethius says, ‘You seem to bring eternity upon yourself when you think of your fame in the future.’ Thus beatitude consists in fame or glory.

But, on the contrary, beatitude is the true human good, whereas fame or glory can be false. As Boethius says, ‘Many often owe their good name to the false opinion of the crowd. Can anything uglier be conceived of? For those falsely praised would themselves have to blush at the praise’. Therefore beatitude doesn’t consist in fame or glory.

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