Understanding Spinoza (part 3): Freedom and Necessity

When understanding Spinoza we discover that the most profound conclusion from his philosophy is to be found in Part I, Proposition XXIX.

‘In the nature of things nothing contingent is admitted, but all things are determined by the necessity of divine nature to exist and act in a certain way.’

There are a number of ideas and concepts wrapped up in this sentence and Spinoza’s philosophy is probably best explained by understanding what this one proposition entails. The first point to note is that Spinoza wants to make the assumption that all things are caused by other things. Basically there is a causal explanation for anything that exists. The one exception to this is the universe itself, which can only be self caused. There can only be one existing thing that is self caused, as was argued in the part 2 of Understanding Spinoza..

Now to say that a thing is determined is to say that the existence of a thing is caused by something else. In the case of inanimate objects such a position is without doubt. A table is caused by outside agents crafting the design; the table’s existence is fully determined by causes external to that table. With living and thinking creatures the certainty that all is externally caused is less obvious. We can say that I am determined by my parent’s acquaintance for example. My ideas and habits are caused by my past life experience. The events that have caused me to be how I am currently are outside of me. But can I then claim that I am free to make my own choices? Surely there is a case to state that my ability to be truly free depends on my past experience and that my education and training will determine my capability for truly free thinking.

But then we are accepting that freedom is again determined on past experience and that any free thinking is caused by agents outside of the thinker.

One way to fashion the question ‘whether I am free’ is to ask if I could have done some past act in a different way. Could I really have acted differently in identical circumstances? I made a choice given my assessment of those circumstances and acted accordingly. Just what would have caused me to behave in a different way given identical circumstances? Spinoza is clear in his view on this point:

‘In the nature of things nothing contingent is admitted, but all things are determined by the necessity of divine nature to exist and act in a certain way.’

Spinoza argues that nothing at all could be different than how things actually are. He even applies this idea to God or nature which he concluded are the same.

The one true existing free entity for Spinoza is God. But we have to be careful when we interpret exactly what Spinoza means by the term ‘free.’ For Spinoza, free in this context is to be free from being determined by outside agents. God or nature is not caused or determined by other things; rather God is self caused. God is not limited by outside agents; God is limited only by His own nature.

This is the most important difference between the pantheist God and the Theist God. The Theist God is assumed to have some kind of supernatural magic power which enables a magician like capability. The pantheist God has no such power. The pantheist God is restricted in His power by His own nature. He is not restricted by anything else, just Himself. The pantheist God is how He is because that is how He must be, determined by His own nature and by nothing else.

But a God who is determined by His own nature is a God with no will and no desire. God is how He is because it is in His nature to exist in that way. As Spinoza points out this is manifested in the way the universe is and how everything in the universe must be. Things are as they are because they could not exist in any other way.

If we consider Spinoza’s position we see that his claim is that there is one thing that exists. That one thing is God. Everything else is a part of, or an attribute of God. The universe and all things in it are God, or nature. Now atheists always state at this point in the discussion, why bother calling the universe God? Why not just call the universe the universe?

The fundamental reason for Spinoza is that if things could be no other way, then the universe has to exist in the way that it does. If the universe could not exist in any other way and is here as a result of self creation followed by a causal chain of events, then our existence is intimately wrapped up in the first cause itself. The universe at its core or essence necessarily contains thinking things (us) and has to contain thinking things because that is how the universe is. Spinoza was so convinced that this was the true nature of the universe that he argued any resistance to the idea was based on a refusal to think clearly or an unwillingness to attend to the necessary definitions.

For me, the idea of God and the universe being the same is a strong and valid metaphor. Any enquiry into understanding the world in which we live will require using ideas with which we are familiar in order to explain more complex ideas. Using the metaphor of God helps to emphasise the necessary nature of our existence and the intimate conjunction with the universe that we have. These ideas are some of the oldest explanations of existence that there are and predate theism by many centuries.

The concepts and definitions which can be applied to the pantheist God are the same as those used with the theist God, but are coherent and consistent. For example, to claim that God is omnipotent is to state that all power (think all energy) belongs to God. All things that exist are attributes of God. There is no thing outside of God. Similarly omnipresence; God is everywhere because all things are attributes of God. The concepts that theists wish to apply to their God but cannot, because they fall into contradiction, can be quite readily applied to the pantheist metaphor without contradiction. But of course the theist God evolved as a political tool. An all seeing, all knowing, eager to punish God of Big Brother Theism has been utilised for political control rather than as a means to knowledge and understanding. In understanding Spinoza we note that the pantheist God has existed only as a conclusion of rational enquiry.