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.

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Understanding Spinoza

If you are ever going to get more than a brief understanding of pantheism then it is vital to get to grips with understanding Spinoza. Spinoza was not the first pantheist, but he is probably the most influential pantheist since the time of the enlightenment. The decline of theism and the rise of alternative beliefs can be traced back directly and indirectly to Spinoza. He was not only a chief architect in the rise and success of science; he was also a fundamental force behind the gradual decline of theological authority. Understanding Spinoza is not easy, but the difficulties involved in grasping his ideas are no less worthy of making the effort.

If you were to take a random page and quote form Spinoza’s main work, the ethics, you will no doubt find a sentence in which you understand all of the individual words. Yet I am reasonably sure that you would also find a sentence which is seemingly incomprehensible too. For example: The first axiom that Spinoza presents is “Everything which exists, exists either in itself or in something else.”

An axiom is something that is assumed to be self evidently true, so Spinoza must have presented this axiom as something which he believed to be one of nature’s ultimate and self evident truths. The whole of Spinoza’s philosophy is set out in this way. He begins with a set of definitions, which he then uses to write his axioms. He then moves to working out how the universe must be given his definitions and on the assumption that his axioms are in fact true. To that extent his work is a work in logic, similar to a Euclidean system. It is probably the case that if you were to agree and accept just one of his axioms then you are logically committed to accepting his other axioms which follow rationally and necessarily from each other. In doing this Spinoza creates a set of principles and consequently a metaphysical system which he considers to be how the universe must be.

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Define Pantheism

Pantheism is one of the oldest belief systems there is which purports to offer an overall view about the nature of the universe. It is a metaphysical scheme that is robust to criticism more than most and a worldview which is often supported by intellectuals and scientists. How we define pantheism can allow for a very broad range of beliefs under the pantheism umbrella; it allows for a material interpretation as well as spiritual interpretations and dualist accounts. Before investigating the precise nature of pantheism, we should first offer an account of how to define pantheism.

When we define pantheism we have a long history of belief to work from. We also have many different varieties that we can use as a resource. Pantheist groups have existed within all the major religions, independently from organised religion and sometimes even atheist groups have claimed to hold a pantheist system of how to understand the universe. So how can we define pantheism to accommodate such a wide range of beliefs?

The Most Interesting Worldview

Pantheism, in its most simple expression, is the belief that God and the universe is the same thing. For most people the implications of such a statement are not immediately obvious, the common response is often a “so what.” Richard Dawkins accuses pantheism of being no more than sexed up atheism, which is a very simplistic philosophical view whilst Einstein, Carl Sagan, Kurt Godel amongst others were often heard to be speaking of God with the implication that it was the Pantheist God to which they were referring.

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Atheism Symbol

I had intended to move on from atheism and theism and look at pantheism but I came across an article about atheism symbols and became intrigued.

I touched upon the definition of religion in an earlier post. Religion is not just having a belief in God but extends to include purpose and worship of artefacts, places or even symbols. Proudly displaying a symbol is a basic sign of religious behaviour and it seems the atheist community are scrambling around in an attempt to come to some agreement as to what that symbol might be.

An atheism symbol certainly takes atheists one step closer to becoming a religion. Whatever next? Soon we will see organised groups of atheists taking a pilgrimage to the Galapagos Islands in tribute to their founder. Will Galapagos become the New Jerusalem? An atheist location as a place of ultimate worship, hmm, another criterion ticked for what it is that defines a religious group.

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Compare Theism and Atheism

There are a number of ways that we can compare theism and atheism. In a debate that is increasingly politicised, in the USA at least, it is important to understand the objective or emotion of any person who is engaged in such a debate. This post is a brief look at the charge levelled against atheists that they too are expressing religiousness.

The simple view would be that to compare theism and atheism is trivial as one side (theism) offers a position of belief, whilst the other (atheism) counters with the negation or rejection of that belief. However, there are a number of different ways we can make a comparison particularly when we see either side stray from the real notion of what they are in fact supporting or denying.

Emphasised in earlier posts has been the point that theism is the assertion that there is a God who exists separately from the universe that he has created. Atheism is the denial of this claim. This is the “in a nutshell” definition of what theism and atheism entails.

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Define Theism and atheism

The definitions of theism and atheism should both be very clear. Yet at times because of the heat of debate in which theism and atheism are discussed the real meaning of each becomes blurred. Dictionaries are often considered the arbiters of definition, though reaching for a dictionary should be a last resort. Dictionaries are not definers of words. Dictionaries list words and how they are used in common speech. As a philosopher it is quite legitimate to define ones own terms provided one is clear that is what you are doing. If a philosopher defines a term to have a specific meaning then the dictionaries definition is irrelevant. Should a philosophers use of a term become standard then it will be the dictionary that adapts to the new usage. It is not the public who adapt to a dictionary definition, rather the dictionary changes to how words are used.

Theism can be a difficult word to define because theists themselves have so many different ideas of what their theism entails. Not only are there three primary theist religions, there are a number of sub groups within each religion further diluting any notion of there being a clear and distinct definition.

Atheism is easy to define. Atheism is the belief that theism is false. But as that definition rests on our understanding of what theism entails we are back to the problem of seeking a clear definition of theism. So for the purpose of this blog I shall make clear precisely how I define the concept of theism and by default how atheism then becomes defined.

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Theism vs. Atheism

Though Darwin didn’t casually forsake his religious faith, many of his scientific descendents have been much less reticent to equate evolutionary theory with atheism. Indeed, many theists see their religious belief system as incompatible with evolution; consequently the theism vs. atheism debate is often fought in the theory of evolution arena. This is unfortunate as the idea of evolution has no bearing on the claim that God does or does not exist. Evolution no more proves that God does not exist than gravitational theory.

Theism is at its most embarrassing and cringe worthiness when it adopts a contrary position to evolutionary theory. It plucks out of the air a ridiculous idea called creationism and subverts its own self by imposing the artificial claim on the bible that it is some kind of ancient scientific text. Any value that the bible has is immediately lost as it is used to propose an alternative unscientific account of the creation of the universe.

At a stroke, creationism turns what was once a sacred text into a competing scientific treatise. It was never the intention of the biblical authors to create a mundane scientific document, yet today that is what the most determined literalists insist it should be. If we are to view the bible as something which should be of scientific interest then we completely miss the intentions of the biblical writers.

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