Portraits of Spinoza's God
According to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, "of all the philosophers of the seventeenth-century [which include Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, and Leibniz on my list of fittest philosophers], perhaps none have more relevance today than Spinoza." When Albert Einstein was asked in 1929 whether he believed in God, he responded by writing: "I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings." Why such reverence for the man?
Last week I wrote about Descartes dividing the universe in two—his Cartesian dualism that separated mind and matter into distinct realms and created the so-called mind-body problem of philosophy. Twenty-six years after "cogito ergo sum" was first offered to the world, Spinoza published his critical examination of Descartes in 1663 under the title Rene Descartes's Principles of Philosophy. It was to be the only work Spinoza published under his own name in his lifetime. Although
Just what was this one substance? The world would have to wait until after Spinoza's death to find out, for times were tough for freethinkers in the 17th century. In 1656, seven years even before RD'sPoP was published, Spinoza had already been issued "the harshest writ of herem, or excommunication, ever pronounced by the Sephardic community of Amsterdam. It was never rescinded, and we do not know for certain what Spinoza's 'monstrous deeds' and 'abominable heresies' were alleged to have been, but an educated guess comes quite easy. No doubt he was giving utterance to just those ideas that would soon appear in his philosophical treatises." Prior to being excommunicated, Spinoza had been "questioned by two members of his synagogue about the nature of God, and Spinoza apparently responded that God has a body and nothing in scripture says otherwise. He was later attacked on the steps of the synagogue by a knife-wielding assailant shouting 'Heretic!' He was apparently quite shaken by this attack and for years kept (and wore) his torn cloak, unmended, as a souvenir." Spinoza, therefore, was understandably secretive about his continued work. (He reportedly wore a signet ring to mark his letters, which was engraved with a rose and the word "caute", Latin for "cautiously.") And yet, when he saw the principles of toleration in Holland being threatened by reactionary forces, he put aside work on his masterpiece Ethics, to anonymously publish Theologico-Political Treatise in 1670 in which he "put forth his most systematic critique of Judaism, and all organized religion in general," concluding that "the civil authorities should suppress Judaism as harmful to the Jews themselves." When the public reactions to this book were extremely unfavourable, Spinoza decided to refrain from publishing any more of his works. When he died just seven years later in 1677, he was still writing his Political Treatise, which was soon edited and published by his friends, along with Ethics and a few other unpublished writings.
And so, with Spinoza safely locked away in his tomb, the world finally got to hear his most influential thoughts. To begin, Spinoza presented the basic elements of his picture of God in Ethics, since that was the one thing that he believed united Descartes's two worlds. God, to Spinoza, was "the infinite, necessarily existing (that is, uncaused), unique substance of the universe. There is only one substance in the universe; it is God; and everything else that is, is in God." In case that wasn't clear, Spinoza's definition is neatly summarised with the use of one synonym that occurs in the Latin edition of Ethics, where he said Deus, sive Natura. God, or Nature. In context, Spinoza used the synonym this way: “That eternal and infinite being we call God, or Nature, acts from the same necessity from which he exists." Spinoza could be understood as trying to either make nature divine or make God natural, but there is no mistaking Spinoza's intention to redefine "God" in such a way as to take out all of the supernatural elements that other men had put into that word. Once he had gone that far, I say why bother using the term God at all? But look at the trouble Spinoza got into for going as far as he did, and we understand. We also appreciate the following quotes a little more warmly, even as we are about to coldly evaluate the rest of Spinoza's thoughts for their survival among the fittest philosophers.
Schisms do not originate in a love of truth, which is a source of courtesy and gentleness, but rather in an inordinate desire for supremacy.
I believe that if a triangle could speak, it would say that God is eminently triangular, while a circle would say that the divine nature is eminently circular. Thus each would ascribe to God its own attributes, would assume itself to be like God, and look on everything else as ill-shaped.
In practical life we are compelled to follow what is most probable; in speculative thought we are compelled to follow truth. We must take care not to admit as true anything which is only probable. For when one falsity has been let in, infinite others follow.
Of all the things that are beyond my power, I value nothing more highly than to be allowed the honor of entering into bonds of friendship with people who sincerely love truth.
Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677 CE) was a Dutch Jewish philosopher considered one of the great rationalists of 17th-century philosophy, laying the groundwork for the 18th century Enlightenment and modern biblical criticism. His magnum opus, the posthumous Ethics, in which he opposed Descartes’ mind–body dualism, has earned him recognition as one of Western philosophy’s most important contributors.
Spinoza opposed Descartes' mind–body dualism. He contended that everything that exists in Nature (i.e., everything in the Universe) is one Reality (substance) and there is only one set of rules governing the whole of the reality that surrounds us and of which we are part. Yes. Everything has evolved within this universe. Nothing has come from outside of it.
Animals can be used in any way by people for the benefit of the human race, according to a rational consideration of the benefit as well as the animal’s status in nature. This sounds wrong to many modern ears, but key to its survival is the requirement to conduct a rational consideration of benefits. Just as humans must cooperate with each other to survive, we must cooperate with other animals to survive as well. Conservation is one form of cooperation. Husbandry can also be mutually beneficial to species - especially where we have created domestic species that willingly live in homes and on farms. Enslavement of animals is detrimental to their well-being, and through the poisons of stress and disease, and diet-induced obesity, to our health as well. Scientific experimentation on captive animals is rarely beneficial enough to compensate for the way it undermines the ethic of cooperation that must constantly be upheld to be truly meaningful.
Needs to Adapt
Spinoza's philosophy has much in common with Stoicism in as much as both philosophies sought to fulfill a therapeutic role by instructing people how to attain happiness. However, Spinoza differed sharply from the Stoics in one important respect: he utterly rejected their contention that reason could defeat emotion. On the contrary, he contended, an emotion can only be displaced or overcome by a stronger emotion. When used properly, reason can direct the emotions. Better cognitive appraisals help us replace negative emotions with positive emotions - no matter how strong they are. The strongest emotion is the joy of being alive. In that sense, Spinoza is correct. Reason helps us discover which actions lead to this ultimate emotion, and it can use that emotion as motivation for actions that require sacrifice and the endurance of unpleasant emotions in the short-term.
Good and evil are related to human pleasure and pain. Spinoza held good and evil to be relative concepts, claiming that nothing is intrinsically good or bad except relative to a particular individual. What is good is what ensures survival. What is evil is what brings extinction. We have evolved to feel pleasure for survival and pain for extinction. We use reason to recognize and avoid short-term pleasures that cause long-term pain. Judgment of the balance that must be achieved is sometimes difficult or even impossible to know ahead of time. In this sense, present choices between good and bad must be judged with probability under relative circumstances. After the fact though, judgments of good and evil are not relative to particular individuals. They are known objectively.
All rights are derived from the State. (Rights are legal, social, or ethical principles of freedom or entitlement; that is, rights are the fundamental normative rules about what is allowed of people or owed to people, according to some legal system, social convention, or ethical theory.) This is true by definition. But the State must recognize its purpose in aiding society to survive. Where it does, the rights it grants will be just. Where it does not, the restrictions it creates are wrong.
Spinoza was a thoroughgoing determinist who held that absolutely everything that happens occurs through the operation of necessity. For him, even human behavior is fully determined, with freedom being our capacity to know we are determined and to understand why we act as we do. He wrote: "men are conscious of their own desire, but are ignorant of the causes whereby that desire has been determined.” Extreme versions of free will and determinism are just that - extreme. The truth lies in the middle and is easier to understand when timescales are introduced. In the short-term, on biological timescales such as those concerning biochemistry, molecular biology, and cellular biology, events are determined by their current states. In the medium-term, on biological timescales such as those concerning organismic biology, and sociobiology, free will is not only possible, it determines the states that arise in the short-term and the long-term. In the long-term, on biological timescales such as those concerning ecology and evolutionary biology, the characteristics of competitiveness, cooperativeness, and adaptability are required for survival. In that sense, the long-term is determined. The free will that occurs in the medium-term, and the randomness of destructive cosmological events, means that who survives is unknown. Evolution is blind. We are not.
Spinoza believed that God exists but is abstract and impersonal. Everything done by humans and other animals is excellent and divine. In the universe, anything that happens comes from the essential nature of objects, or of God/Nature. According to Spinoza, reality is perfection. Reality is harsh. There is nothing divine about the history of extinction in the universe. We must do what we need to do to survive.
Spinoza built his entire philosophy off his grounded view of a natural universe, but I didn't mention Spinoza's political thoughts, which were the rational result of the rest of his philosophical groundwork. They presented a passionate defence of the need for freedom, best summed up in this quote from Theological-Political Treatise:
The ultimate aim of government is not to rule, or restrain, by fear, nor to exact obedience, but, contrariwise, to free every man from fear, that he may live in all possible security; in other words, to strengthen his natural right to exist and work without injury to himself or others. No, the object of government is not to change men from rational beings into beasts or puppets, but to enable them to develop their minds and bodies in security, and to employ their reason unshackled; neither showing hatred, anger, or deceit, nor watched with the eyes of jealousy and injustice. In fact, the true aim of government is liberty.
This isn't the Tea Party's view of liberty from any rules at all—anarchy weakens our "natural right to exist." It is instead a view of liberty to become all that we can be, while living in a world where we can think what we need to think. (Spinoza's quote was, after all, from his final chapter titled "That In a Free State Every Man May Think What He Likes, and Say What He Thinks.") Coming from a man whose curtailed liberties surely stopped the world from gaining something even more valuable than he already offered it—this is particularly meaningful. For me, someone who freely publishes subversive philosophical thoughts—this liberty that Spinoza called for is vital. I strongly believe that an evolutionary philosophy can only improve through a process analogous to the natural selection of organisms—namely that the competition, cooperation, survival, merger, or extinction of ideas are all required to lead those ideas towards their fitness for purpose—so I don't take my liberty for granted and I cherish the opportunity I have to grow these ideas in my own lifetime, without fear of being made extinct myself. Thanks to all of you for helping with all of this as well.