Understanding Spinoza (Part 2)

This post is to develop further towards understanding Spinoza’s metaphysics and to look at the crucial ideas he raises. Spinoza’s main work, The Ethics, in effect introduces a set of definitions and elucidations of each of the fundamental notions of substance, cause, attribute, freedom and necessity, explaining each in terms of the others. When Spinoza has defined these logically connected notions he defines what it is he means by God or nature.

An important point is that Spinoza does not present his definitions as one arbitrary set of alternative possible definitions. Rather he insists that to conceive the world in any other way than this is to be involved in contradiction, or to be using words without any clear meaning attached to them. It is the interconnectedness of Spinoza’s definitions that gives force to his position.

In understanding the universe the notion of substance is a good place to start. What actually exists? The story of understanding the world can be viewed as one which is attempting to answer this one question. In answering the ‘what exists?’ challenge we have to unravel the world into those things that exist by necessity and those things that exist as modifications or attributes of necessity. In stripping substance down to its fundamental and necessary components we can get a true understanding of reality. Those things that exist but are not fundamental are attributes of substance.

Descartes explained this very well with his lump of wax. He asked ‘what are the fundamental characteristics of the wax?’ and he decided that it was essentially the fact that it existed in three dimensions – or had extension. Wax, as a solid lump is white and solid. In moving the wax towards a heat source we notice that the wax turns into a liquid and becomes transparent. The essential characteristic of the wax, that it exists in three dimensions, remains. The attributes of the wax, its colour and solidity however change.

When Spinoza applied the idea of substance to the world as a whole he realised that there are some definite ideas we are forced to conclude. For example, any substance has to be the cause of itself. If a substance were caused by some other substance then the two substances would have characteristics which were the same. There would be something more fundamental underpinning the two different things. Anything we identify as a fundamental substance therefore must be explainable only through reference to itself and to no other thing. If there are two substances, then neither can be the cause of the other, each must cause itself and they must not contain any attributes which are the same. Two different substances have to be independent from each other, have nothing in common and not be the cause of each other.

Now any rational understanding of the universe is undertaken by an examination of causation. Rational explanation is explaining those causes. To abandon an investigation of causes is to abandon all hope of knowledge. If there are two substances which co-exist and which are completely independent of each other we would have to ask just how can two independent things coexist that are separate. Both substances would have to be causes of themselves and to have two such substances would be impossible. There can be only one self caused entity and that entity gives rise to all else that exists.

Now we can apply the consequences of this argument in a few different ways. First of all how we interpret the ontology (what things exist?) of the universe and secondly how we view the notion of God as a creator.

Theists argue that God and the universe are two separate entities. But if the universe is a consequence of God’s necessary existence, ie: if God created the universe then the universe and God must have some characteristics in common. The universe must be an attribute of God’s existence. God and the universe could not be made of two distinct substances. If God causes the universe then they must have some attributes in common. This is a denial of theism as defined because God and the universe cannot be two separate things. A Deist account or a pantheist account can sidestep this argument but a theist account cannot.

Spinoza drove home this position very strongly by describing how theists approach their discussions and descriptions of God. He had a clear and logical description which associated the idea of nature precisely with God or the one true substance. He argued that it is the association of anthropomorphic and personal imagery which obstructs reason in the logical necessity of this identification. When we dissociate the word “God” from all of these figurative descriptions and no longer picture the deity as a person, then mere logic forces us to recognize that God and nature are precisely the same.

As Theists have insisted on making a distinction between God the creator and His creation, so they are constantly forced into contradiction. Imagining God as some super-person, with a will and purpose can only lead to logical difficulty. The perennial contradictions and controversies eg: the problem of evil, of God’s freedom of choice and His reasons for choosing the actual world in preference to other possible worlds.

There are more clear logical arguments which seriously refute the theist position. In having a creator God and a separate creation the all powerful nature of God is contradicted. God’s eternal existence is also demolished if He set the universe up and then stood back.

There are however some very important consequences and surprising conclusions if we accept Spinoza’s arguments. Toward the aim of understanding Spinoza further I shall deal with these in the next post.