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Friday 29 November 2002, 23:02 - 23:30

PROGRAMME 7: Sir Harry Kroto on Baruch Spinoza

Picture of idealist philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza was one of the founding fathers of the Idealist school of philosophy, and was described by Bertrand Russell as, "the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers".

Brauch Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632 to a family of Portuguese Marranos. (Marranos were Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity, under the Inquisition, but had secretly kept their Jewish faith). A star pupil at the local Torah school he may have been expected to become a Rabbi, however the death of his father forced him to cut short his studies in order to help out with the family import/export business.

By 1656 Spinoza seems to have abandoned his earlier faith and was excommunicated by the Jewish community for his, "monstrous deeds" and "abominable heresies".

Spinoza then wandered around the Netherlands, supporting himself on grants, pensions and bequests as well as working as a lens-grinder. This work was to prove his undoing, it is thought that the glass dust contributed to his early death by tuberculosis, in 1677.

Looking at Spinoza's thought it is not hard to see the reasons for his excommunication. Spinoza publicly argued that the scriptures don't claim that God has no body, that angels exist, or that the soul is immortal.

Spinoza's earliest work was The Principles of Descartes' Philosophy (1663). In it he rejected the notion of Cartesian dualism. Whereas for Descartes mind and body are different substances, Spinoza holds that the two are different aspects of a single substance, which he called alternately God and Nature.

Thus God is the universe, the one substance in which all natural phenomena exist. (Here substance means something the existence of which does not require another object). All natural phenomena are states of God just as my moods are states of myself (my moods requiring the substance of self in order to exist, but the self not relying on the moods for existence).

But God is not merely the physical universe. The essence of God is expressed in an infinite number of ways, so the physical world is God in his physical aspect, rather than the totality of what God is. God (or the universe) is thus both an infinite physical thing and an infinite thinking thing (as well as an infinite number of other infinite things the nature of which is beyond our, limited, perception).

With a pantheistic deity freewill was an illusion, "due to the fact that people are conscious of their actions, but not of the causes of their actions".

The concept of a pantheistic, physical embodiment of God was radical enough, however Spinoza's metaphysics doesn't end there.

Spinoza's God does not love nor hate. God/nature exists independently of us and is indifferent to our desires and aspirations, - gone is the notion of a personal saviour. As for the concepts of good and evil, they exist, but only to the extent that they fit our own personal inclinations. "Such things as please us, we denominate good, those which displease us, evil." (In this sense he echoed the Hobbesian ideas of a social contract).

These ideas were unacceptable at the time and Spinoza was forced to produce his major work, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, anonymously with a false frontispiece and binding. His attempts to publish his other works, notably Ethics, were thwarted during his lifetime.

Picture of Nobel Prize winning chemist, Sir Harry Kroto.Harold Kroto was born in 1939 in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, and brought up in Bolton, Lancashire. He studied Chemistry at the University of Sheffield (1959 - 64) before beginning his academic career at the University of Sussex (Brighton) in 1967, becoming a professor in 1985.

His greatest achievement was serendipitously uncovering the existence of C60 Buckminsterfullerene, a new form of carbon, which has revolutionised our perspective on carbon based materials.

In 1996 he recieved a Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work on the discovery of C60 Buckminsterfullerene and was knighted.

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