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Spinoza: God, Nature, and Freedom

Philosophy "ad more geometrico"

Life and Works
. . Method
. . Metaphysics
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Descartes regarded mathematical reasoning as the paradigm for progress in human knowledge, but Baruch Spinoza took this rationalistic appreciation even further, developing and expressing his mature philosophical views "in the geometrical manner." Thus, in the posthumously-published Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata (Ethics) (1677), Spinoza claimed to deduce the entire system of thought from a restricted set of definitions and self-evident axioms.

Drawing specific doctrines from Cartesian thought, medieval scholasticism, and the Jewish tradition, Spinoza blended everything together into a comprehensive vision of the universe as a coherent whole governed solely by the immutable laws of logical necessity. Rigorous thought reveals that there can be only a single substance, of which we (and everything else) are merely insignificant parts. Although we may find it difficult to take any comfort in Spinoza's account of our place in the world, we are bound to admire the logical consistency with which he works out all the details.

The Unity of Substance

The definitions and axioms with which Book I of the Ethics begins are critical to Spinoza's enterprise, since they are intended to carry his central doctrines as deductive consequences. Although they generally follow the usages of the scholastic tradition, many of them also include special features of great significance to the thought of Spinoza.

Substance, for example, he defined not only as existing in itself but also as "conceived through itself." (I Def. iii) This places a severe limit on the possibility of interaction between things, since Spinoza delared that causation is a relation of logical necessity, such that knowledge of the effect requires knowledge of its cause. (I Ax. iii-iv) Few will disagree that god is a substance with infinite attributes, but this definition carries some surprising implications in Spinoza's view of the world; notice also that freedom, according to Spinoza, just means that a thing exists and acts by its own nature rather than by external compulsion. (I Def. vi-vii)

The numbered propositions that follow make it clear what Spinoza is getting at. Since causal interaction is impossible between two substances that differ essentially, and no two substances can share a common attribute or essence, it follows that no substance can produce genuine change in any another substance. Each must be the cause of its own existence and, since it cannot be subject to limitations imposed from outside itself, must also be absolutely infinite. Things that appear to be finite individuals interacting with each other, then, cannot themselves be substances; in reality, they can be nothing more than the modifications of a self-caused, infinite substance. (I Prop. v-viii) And that, of course, is god.

"Deus sive Natura"

Spinoza supposed it easy to demonstrate that such a being does really exist. As the ontological argument makes clear, god's very essence includes existence. Moreover, nothing else could possibly prevent the existence of that substance which has infinite attributes in itself. Finally, although it depends on a posteriori grounds to which Spinoza would rather not appeal, the cosmological argument helps us to understand that since we ourselves exist, so must an infinite cause of the universe. Thus, god exists. (I Prop. xi)

What is more, god is a being with infinitely many attributes, each of which is itself infinite, upon which no limits of any kind can be imposed. So Spinoza argued that infinite substance must be indivisible, eternal, and unitary. There can be only one such substance, "god or nature," in which everything else is wholly contained. Thus, Spinoza is an extreme monist, for whom "Whatever is, is in god." Every mind and every body, every thought and every movement, all are nothing more than aspects of the one true being. Thus, god is an extended as well as a thinking substance.

Finally, god is perfectly free on Spinoza's definition. Of course it would be incorrect to suppose that god has any choices about what to do. Everything that happens is not only causally determined but actually flows by logical necessity from immutable laws. But since everything is merely a part of god, those laws themselves, and cause and effect alike, are simply aspects of the divine essence, which is wholly self-contained and therefore free. (I Prop. xvii) Because there is no other substance, god's actions can never be influenced by anything else.

The Natural Order

God is the only genuine cause. From the essence of god, Spinoza held, infinitely many things flow in infinitely many different ways. The entire universe emanates inexorably from the immutable core of infinite substance. Though we often find it natural to think of the world from the outside looking in, as natura naturata (nature natured), its internal structure can be more accurately conceived from the inside looking out, as natura naturans (nature naturing). (I Prop. xxix) Since all that happens radiates from the common core, everything hangs together as part of the coherent whole which just is god or nature in itself.

The infinite substance and each of its infinitely many distinct attributes (among which only thought and extension are familiar to us) are eternal expressions of the immutable essence of god. From each attribute flow the infinite immediate modes (infinite intellect and motion or rest), and out of these in turn come the infinite mediate modes (truth and the face of the universe). Thus, every mode of substance (each individual mind or body) is determined to be as it is because of the divine essence. Even the finite modes (particular thoughts and actions) are inevitably and wholly determined by the nature of god. Hence, everything in the world is as it must be; nothing could be other than it is. (I Prop. xxxiii)

Thought and Extension

In the same deductive geometrical form, Book II of the Ethics offers an extensive account of human beings: our existence, our nature, and our activities. Remember that we are aware of only two of the infinitely many attributes of god, extension and thought, and that each of them independently expresses the entire essence of the one infinite substance.

That is, in the natural world (god's body), the attribute of extension, modified by varying degrees of motion and rest, produces the face of the universe, which includes all of the particular physical events which are the modes of extension. (This is almost exactly like Descartes's account of the material world.) Similarly, in the mental realm (god's idea), the attribute of thought—modified by infinite intellect—produces the truth, which includes all of the particular mental events which are the modes of thought. Since they arise from distinct attributes, each of these realms is causally independent of the other and wholly self-contained: the natural world and the mental realm are separate closed systems.

Despite the impossibility of any causal interaction between the two, Spinoza supposed that the inevitable unfolding of each these two independent attributes must proceed in perfect parallel with that of the other. "The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things." (II Prop. vii) (And so, of course, must be the order and connection of each of the infinitely many other attributes of god.) Since the development of each aspect of the divine nature follows with logical necessity from its own fundamental attribute, and since all of the attributes, in turn, derive from the central essential being of one and the same infinite substance, each exhibits the same characteristic pattern of organization even though they have no influence on each other.

Thus, for every object of the natural world that exists as a mode of the attribute of extension, there is a corresponding idea in the mind of god that exists as a mode of the attribute of thought. For every physical event that takes place in the material realm as the result of exclusively physical causes, a corresponding mental event must occur in the infinite intellect as a result of purely mental causes. Since everything flows from the same infinite being, we may suppose that the structure of thought in infinite intellect comprises an accurate representation of the structure of every other attribute.

Mind and Body

Consider what all of this implies for each of us as a living human being. We are not substances, according to Spinoza, for only god or Nature is truly substantial; we can exist only as modes, depending for our existence upon the reality of the one real being. Since the one infinite substance is the cause of everything, each of us can only be regarded as a tiny cross-section of the whole.

Of course, that cross-section does include elements from each of the infinitely many attributes of that substance. In particular, we know that in each case it involves both a human body, the movements of whose organic parts are all physical events that flow from god via the attribute of extension, and a human mind, the formation of whose ideas are all mental events that flow from god via the attribute of thought. Although there can be no causal interaction between the mind and the body, the order and connection of their internal elements are perfectly correlated.

Thus, in principle, the human mind contains ideas that perfectly represent the parts of the human body. But since many of these ideas are inadequate in the sense that they do not carry with them internal signs of their accuracy, we do not necessarily know our own bodies. (II Prop. xxviii) If, for example, there must be in my mind an idea that corresponds to each particular organic state of my spleen; but since I am unaware of its bodily correlate, it provides me with no clear awareness of that representational object.

Human Knowledge

Spinoza maintained that human beings do have particular faculties whose functions are to provide some degree of knowledge. I typically assume, for example, that there may be some correlation between thought and extension with regard to sensations produced by the action of other bodies upon my eyes, ears, and fingertips. Even my memory may occasionally harbor some evidence of the order and connection common to things and ideas. And in self-conscious awareness, I seem to achieve genuine knowledge of myself by representing my mind to itself, using ideas to signify other ideas.

Near the end of Book II, then, Spinoza distinguished three kinds of knowledge of which we may be capable: First, opinion, derived either from vague sensory experience or from the signification of words in the memory or imagination, provides only inadequate ideas and cannot be relied upon as a source of truth. Second, reason, which begins with simple adequate ideas and by analyzing causal or logical necessity proceeds toward awareness of their more general causes, does provide us with truth. But intuition, in which the mind deduces the structure of reality from the very essence or idea of god, is the great source of adequate ideas, the highest form of knowledge, and the ultimate guarantor of truth. (II Prop. xl)

Spinoza therefore recommends a three-step process for the achievement of human knowledge: First, disregard the misleading testimony of the senses and conventional learning. Second, starting from the adequate idea of any one existing thing, reason back to the eternal attribute of god from which it derives. Finally, use this knowledge of the divine essence to intuit everything else that ever was, is, and will be. Indeed, he supposed that the Ethics itself is an exercise in this ultimate pursuit of indubitable knowledge.

Action, Goodness, and Freedom

The last three Books of the Ethics collectively describe how to live consistently on Spinozistic principles. All human behavior results from desire or the perception of pain, so (like events of any sort) it flows necessarily from the eternal attributes of thought and extension. But Spinoza pointed out a crucial distinction between two kinds of cases: Sometimes I am wholly unaware of the causes that underlie what I do and am simply overwhelmed by the strength of my momentary passions. But at other times I have adequate knowledge of the motives for what I do and can engage in deliberate action because I recognize my place within the grander scheme of reality as a whole.

It is in this fashion that moral value enters Spinoza's system. Good (or evil) just is what serves (or hinders) the long-term interests of life. Since my actions invariably follow from emotion or desire, I always do what I believe to be the good, which will truly be so if I have adequate ideas of everything involved. The greatest good of human life, then, is to understand one's place in the structure of the universe as a natural expression of the essence of god.

But how can we speak of moral responsibility when every human action is determined with rigid necessity? Remember that, for Spinoza, freedom is self-determination, so when I acquire adequate knowledge of the emotions and desires that are the internal causes of all my actions, when I understand why I do what I do, then I am truly free. Although I can neither change the way things are nor hope that I will be rewarded, I must continue to live and act with the calm confidence that I am a necessary component of an infinitely greater and more important whole. This way of life may not be easy, Spinoza declared, "But all noble things are as difficult as they are rare."

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