Spinoza: a brief sketch of problems

Spinoza is a fascinating Rationalist philosopher who I’ve encountered before, but as we’re looking closer at Spinoza in one of my classes this semester (a Philosophy class on ‘Rationalism’) I figured I’d take the time to read him more attentively and think seriously about how I would respond to Spinoza as a Catholic.

I suppose first thing to say is that Spinoza is a strange kind of theist, suspected sometimes of atheism (though I think wrongly) because of how odd his ‘theism’ really is. He defines God in a way which is recognizably in line with classical philosophical conceptions on some points, but diverges radically on others. God is that than which nothing greater could be conceived, but God is not a ‘being’ who is personal and so on (at least in the ‘theistic’ sense). Rather, Spinoza suggests that God and Nature are synonyms. He says that this one Substance (God or Nature) is what truly exists, and it is the only thing which truly exists.

Curiously in his ‘ethics’ he expresses the Principle of Sufficient Reason as an axiom by saying the following: “From a given determinate cause there necessarily follows an effect; on the other hand, if there be no determinate cause, it is impossible that an effect should follow” (The Ethics Part 1 Axiom 3). Therefore, concerning God, Spinoza says: “By what is self-caused I mean that whose essence involves existence; or that whose nature can be conceived only as existing” (The Ethics Part 1 Definition 1). It seems to me that Bonaventurian-language might be helpful here – That God is the ground of ‘being’, or is conceptually ‘being’ itself. The problem is perhaps that Spinoza takes this one step further than the Medievals would be comfortable with, and instead of saying that all things live and move and have their being “In God”, rather, Spinoza simply suggests that everything that is is simply God. There is only one substance (God or Nature) and this one substance (call it ‘being’ itself) is such that its essence involves existence.

On the face of it, this seems to be a tidy solution to Descartes problem of relating ‘res-extensa’ and ‘res-cogitan’, since they are no longer different substances. Rather, Spinoza suggests, Substance has different ‘modes’ and different ‘attributes’. He uses the term ‘mode’ for what was classically called a ‘substance’ or ‘a thing’. So a particular human being would be, for Spinoza, a Mode of the Substance of God/Nature. Now, the difference between res-cogitan and res-extensa would be a difference of ‘attributes’ for Spinoza. The one substance has infinitely many attributes, but the only two that the human mind has access to are ‘thoughts’ and ‘bodies’. Curiously, everything which exists exists under all attributes, therefore a chalk exists both as a body and as a thought. However, for it to be a thought, it doesn’t require for something else to perceive it, but rather there just IS a corresponding thought of it along with its existence. That may explain how we can come to ‘see’ something in the world and recognize it as an idea (that is, conceive of the substance by means of its accidents). In one sense, the chalk ‘thinks itself into existence’. Thus, God ‘thinks’ the chalk into existence, or retains it in existence, but only ‘God’ considered under the mode of ‘chalk’.

So, there is one Substance, with many modes, and infinitely many attributes. The one substance is God. Briefly we should say that Spinoza wrote “The Ethics” in order to, first, provide a philosophical system which was self-evident and as far beyond contest as Euclid’s geometry was thought to be.

Briefly I should also say that he was a determinist. He says “That thing is said to be free which exists solely from the necessity of its own nature, and is determined to action by itself alone. A thing is said to be necessary or rather, constrained, if it is determined by another thing to exist and to act in a definite and determinate way.” (The Ethics, Part 1 Definition 7). Therefore it seems, at least at first blush, that God is the only ‘free being’, but upon closer analysis this is a terrible way to summarize. First of all, because anything which acts in a deterministic way according to its own nature is acting ‘freely’, and that might as well be something like a computer program which brings it about that ‘X’ not by reason of anything other than itself, but simply by reason of itself. However, it still necessarily brings about ‘X’. Second, because ‘God’ is simply ‘everything’ the summary doesn’t do justice to Spinoza’s subtlety. Now, although creation doesn’t happen for Spinoza (and thus his philosophy of time is notably not Augustinian but closer to Aristotelian) at least as a finite event, still we might use the category ‘creation’ legitimately for a thought experiment here. For God to ‘create’ the world freely would simply be for God to be the cause of the world by reason not of anything external to himself, but by reason of himself alone. In other words, he created because it was in accord with his nature, or perhaps determined by his nature.

Spinoza is fascinating. However, I do obviously disagree with him. One of my convictions as a theist is that God, which is simply the ‘Ultimate Reality’ (in the language of Fredrick Streng) is ultimately personal, and that there is a necessary creator-creature distinction. Here, then, are my amateur objections to Spinoza. To these following objections solutions may perhaps be found in the future, but I don’t mind sketching these out tentatively anyways.

The First and most serious objection is that his notion of God is irreconcilable with Apophatic theology. That is to say, the conviction common to Christian theism is simply that saying what God is not is fundamentally the only way to say anything about God (therefore the name apophatic or ‘negative’ theology).

This is because, as Aquinas would say, God is not a substance of any genus. In other words, God is not ‘a thing’. This is why nobody can predicate anything truly of God in a univocal sense, but only in an analogous sense, since predication belongs properly to substances (to ‘things’). Now, of course, some philosophers and theologians have disagreed with this. Notably Duns Scotus argued, in disagreement with Aquinas, that there is at least one thing that we can say of God which is univocal: namely that “God exists”. That means that by “God exists” I mean that God exists in exactly the same way that I mean “a table exists”. However, as any Thomistic philosopher worth her salt would respond, “God exists” is technically redundant since the concept of God involves existence by definition, and thus we can translate it to “That-which-exists/That-which-exists-such-that-it-cannot-not-exist exists”. But that’s obviously not quite the sense we take from it when we’re talking about a table or a chair or a person. Rather, we must predicate accurately of God in an analogous language game (that is, in a language in which the proper subjects related to predicates are, ideally, substances or ‘things’). Spinoza seems to disregard this entire conversation, as he wants to speak intelligibly about Substance/God/Nature in a univocal language game. I suspect that this is a fundamental difficulty not only for Spinoza’s appeal (he’s got plenty of problems in that area already) but for Spinoza’s system. If what I am proposing is correct, and what I said about Spinoza is not misconstrued or misinterpreted, then it seems to me that Spinoza’s system is doomed to fail (along with all systems like it).

Second problem I have with Spinoza’s system is that modal distinctions seem to collapse. If I say that Unicorns exist as an idea, and everything (every mode) which exists under any attribute must also exist under all attributes, then unicorns must exist both as thoughts and as bodies, since no mode can exist in only a finite number of attributes.

If one responds that ‘unicorns’ are composed simply of smaller more ‘atomic’ ideas then I challenge them to provide me with what an ‘atomic idea’ looks like. It seems to me hard to differentiate, on Spinoza’s system, a human being from a ‘heap’ of grains: both are simply aggregates. Speaking of aggregates, what else would a logically possible world be but a great big aggregate? If ideas of human beings exist with a corresponding body, then why not Unicorns, or indeed logically possible worlds?

Moreover, I take it that Extreme Modal Realism is not something Spinoza could endorse as a monist, since the identification of one Substance as ‘Nature’ or ‘God’ indicates the the universe as we conceive it cannot have a duplicate (that is, that the same attribute exists twice such that two modes expressed under one each could have nothing to do with each other in principle). If something can exist in one ‘universe’ and cannot in principle touch what is in this universe then, for Spinoza, you simply must be talking about different attributes, not the same attribute (res-extensa) twice. So, Extreme Modal Realism, which seems to imply something analogous to multi-verses (though in a strictly metaphysical and non-physical sense) seems problematic. No? I think so.

That’s about enough of that for now I guess. I hope you enjoyed reading.

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About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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