The other evening I was reading my Kindle with a cup of coffee on the little bamboo table next to my chair, the gas fire gently popping and farting in the background. All very comfy. Sainsbury's instant coffee in a Sainsbury’s mug too – no expense spared.
Anyway, I began to wonder how I was able to reach out, hook my index finger into the loop of the cup handle, lift the cup, swing it round to my lips and take a sip.
“Hang on,” I thought, “I’ve no idea which muscles and nerve signals to use here, I just do it. But how?” I took another sip just to check - works every time. Almost.
I know the words to describe all this of course – how to describe these semi-automatic physical movements we learn as we grow up. I know about that – as we all do.
But what if it went wrong?
What if I started tipping the coffee into my ear? Okay, it’s only Sainsbury’s instant coffee, so it’s not an enormous loss, but how would I put the situation right? Clearly if my autonomic bits failed in some way, I almost certainly wouldn’t be able to correct it via some voluntary action or sheer willpower.
“So is it the same with opinions?” I asked myself as I took another sip, my ear thankfully remaining free of coffee. "Is it possible for opinions to be much the same as our autonomic nervous system?"
Well I suspect there is a similarity of sorts. We can’t want our opinions, we just acquire them as we wend our way through life. They become autonomous aspects of what we are. Not entirely true of course, if we are blessed with a modicum of self-awareness – awareness of how we are influenced by the outside world and our reactions to it.
Yes, I think so - blessed. Spinoza used the word and I think it’s a good one. Understanding is quite synonymous with blessedness. We are blessed with an understanding. Or not, as the case may be.
Simplicity and truth of character are not produced by the constraints of laws, nor by the authority of the state, no one the whole world over can be forced or legislated into a state of blessedness; the means required for such a consummation are faithful and brotherly admonition, sound education, and, above all, free use of the individual judgement.
Benedict Spinoza - Tractatus Theologico-Politicus