Adequate Explanations

I once wrote a long chapter in my book Models.Behaving.Badly about Spinoza’s theory of the passions (affects) and how to free oneself of bondage to them. Here is a map of how the higher level emotions are related to the lower level primitive affects, according to Spinoza as drawn by me.

But in the last few weeks I got interested in Spinoza’s Ethics again, and his theory of how one is supposed to escape bondage. The very simplified version goes something like this, writing from ancient recall:

Humans obey laws of nature too. They don’t have the free will one imagines they have. They can do what they want (but they don’t know why they want it), but they can’t want what they want. Their Will is a mystery. And their wants cause them to suffer the pain of the passions — passions because one suffers them passively.

To escape this, one must have Understanding of the Will.

Understanding means understanding the laws of human behavior as well as the laws of inanimate nature. You can’t be angry with a rock for rolling down a hill and falling on your head because it’s obeying the law of gravity. Similarly, thinks Spinoza, you cannot be angry with X doing Y to you (or not doing Y to you) because X too is obeying the laws of nature.

Obeying a law of nature is an adequate explanation for something. If you ask why the rock falls, gravity is an adequate explanation. A recursive argument is an inadequate explanation. So, saying that I did Z to X because X did Y to me is an inadequate explanation. It just pushes causality one step back, and there’s nothing to stop further recursion.

We can understand the will when we have adequate explanations for it. I have only one example right now, the following excerpt from the book I wrote that I referred to above:

Adequate Knowledge

When my son was a little less than two years old, I used to play a game he liked, bouncing him up and down on my knee while chanting a nursery rhyme:

Half a pound of tuppeny rice
Half a pound of treacle
Mix them up and make them nice
Pop goes the weasel!

On “Pop goes the weasel!” I would sharply drop my knee all the way down and let him bump to the floor. He always chortled.

One day he liked the game so much he asked me to repeat it over and over again, laughing at each bump except the last one, when he turned to me in surprise and asked: Why it’s not funny anymore?

From outside himself, he understood something within himself. He had discovered that something repeated over and over again becomes progressively less funny until it’s not funny at all. This is an example of adequate knowledge.

Adequate knowledge is an explanation that is self-contained, that leans on nothing else. The Dirac equation, the theory of evolution, Freud perhaps: these are adequate explanations. There is no need to ask ‘Why?’ when something is adequately explained. The explanation is sufficient, the theory is the fact. Dirac discovered that electrons satisfy the Dirac equation. My son discovered that funniness fades with repetition. That’s how God’s world works.

Adequate knowledge is global knowledge: it transcends a single individual or a singular occurrence. It is always-true knowledge rather than ad hoc knowledge. Adequate knowledge is a comprehension of relationships rather than causes. In Spinoza’s words,

I call that cause adequate whose effect can be clearly and distinctly perceived through it. But I call it partial, or inadequate, if its effect cannot be understood through it alone.

Theories are adequate knowledge. Models are inadequate.

So, an adequate explanation of my son not laughing is that a joke repeated over and over again is no longer funny. No deeper explanation is required, nor would a deeper explanation add much.

I’m interested in other examples of adequate explanation or adequate knowledge. I suppose some of this sounds a bit like behavioral economics, in which case Spinoza was way ahead of his time, and much smarter. If you have any examples of explanations that sound self-evident in this way, I’d be interested.

Here, for the sake of completeness, and because I have it, is a map of logic of escape from bondage as I once understood it, in Spinoza’s Ethics. It tries to show the logic by which the passive responses to the emotions can be overcome by trying to attain adequate knowledge, which is God’s knowledge (tho Spinoza isn’t a traditional believer).

From my book (and I take “God” as an ideal if you don’t want to believe in God):

We can, Spinoza claims, convert our passions into actions by understanding their true causes.

If we can be the adequate causes of any of these affections, I understand by the affect an action; otherwise a passion.

Freedom is the unification of understanding and volition, of reason and desire. Will and Understanding are one and the same. Understanding is merely Will perceived from the inside.

With this understanding, you become close to Spinoza’s God, who does not think about what to do—this is what it means to operate with intuition. God does not consider the possibilities, and then do the right thing. He does what he does and he is what he is. He’s the Understander and the Understood all by himself.


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