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Baruch Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza (Thoemmes)

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Introduction to Philosophy

Baruch Spinoza, "Human Beings are Determined"

Abstract: Baruch Spinoza argues against the doctrine of free will. He argues that physical activity of our bodies is equivalent to the activity of our minds. The mind is more or less active (or contemplative) in accordance with the body's activity or sensing.

  1. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) argues for the unity of Nature and God. Since God is the same thing as Nature, in effect, the mind and the body are two aspects of the same thing. He believes that all that exists is one substance and the mental and the physical are different attributes of that substance.
    1. Spinoza defines substance as that which exists in itself and is conceived in terms of itself. Substance, then, is the cause of itself. Spinoza assumes causality is the same thing as logical implication.
      1. In proposition VII of the Ethics, Spinoza writes, “Substance cannot be produced by anything eternal, it must therefore, be its own cause—than is, its essence necessarily involves existence, or existence belongs to its nature. (Spinoza, Ethics, in The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza trans. R.H.M. Elwes (New York: Dover, 1955), 48.)
      2. Substance is conceivable in the sense that it can be thought without contradiction.
      3. To know what is thinkable-without-contradiction is also to know what exists.
      4. There are an infinite number of attributes of substance; these attributes constitute the essence of substance. (Ethics, Proposition 56)
      5. Even so, human beings are only aware of two attributes of substance: extension (essential to matter) and thought (essential to mind).
      6. In sum, “Whatever is, is in God” (Ethics, Proposition 15.)
    2. All existent things, then, are modifications of God or Nature.
      1. Minds are modes of God viewed as the attributes of thought. (Understanding and apprehending are main characteristics of mind.)
      2. Bodies are modes of God viewed as attributes of extension. (The most important quality of bodies or physical or material existence is that they are extended, i.e., materially or physically existent things take up space. Movement and rest are characteristics of bodies.
      3. Mind and body, then, according to Spinoza, are two aspects of one and the same thing.
      4. The mind is the idea of the body, and the body is constituted of various ideas of the mind.
    3. Spinoza defines “free” and “necessary” (or “constrained”) in this manner: “That thing is called free, which exists solely by the necessity of its own nature, and of which the action is determined by itself alone. On the other hand, that thing is necessary, or rather constrained, which is determined by something external to itself to a fixed and definite method of existence or action.” (Ethics, Definition VII)
      1. God, then, (or Nature, which is the same thing) is free in the sense that of being self-caused and self-determining.
      2. Human beings, then, are constrained in that they are part of Nature. Man is a modification of Nature or, what is the same thing, God.
      3. Spinoza writes, “I shall consider human actions and desires in exactly the same manner, as though I were concerned with lines, planes and solids.” (Ethics, 129.)
  2. Benedict Spinoza Library of Congress LC-USZ62-75337. Questions from the reading selection:
    1. Notes are arranged in response to the questions stated above in reference to chapter “Human Beings are Determined” by Baruch Spinoza from The Ethics: Demonstrated in Geometric Order. Translated by R.H.M. Elwes. 1883. Part III: On the Origin and the Nature of the Emotions—Note to Proposition 2 in Reading for Philosophical Inquiry.
      1. Explain as clearly as possible Spinoza's two objections to the belief that human behavior is the result of the free will of the mind.
      2. What counter-objection does Spinoza raise against his view that mental and physical states are merely coincidental and the mind neither controls the body nor controls events in the physical world?
      3. How does Spinoza define "decision" from the standpoint of thought, and how does he define it from the standpoint of extension?
      4. According to Spinoza, why do many persons believe human beings have free will? How can we become conscious or discover the causes of our decisions and the unconscious “appetites” upon which they depend?
    2. Answers from the reading:
      1. Explain as clearly as possible Spinoza's two objections to the belief that human behavior is the result of the free will of the mind.
        1. First, Spinoza states that those who believe in free will are mistaken in the belief that the body does not move unless the mind is active.
          1. Spinoza replies that experience shows that just as the mind is more-or-less active or contemplative so also the body is active and sensing accordingly.
          2. Hence, physical activities of the body correlate exactly to the activities of mind.
        2. Second, he contends that the believer in free will is mistaken in the belief that the mind determines whether or not many kinds of actions are performed.
          1. Spinoza admits human beings are free to the extent they can substitute some other thought in place of a given moderate impulse, but he states strong desires (as in violent emotion) cannot be overcome.
            1. It must be admitted here that Spinoza does not seem to be consistent with respect to strict determinism here and in several other passages.
            2. At the conclusion of the Ethics, he writes, “If the way which I have pointed out as leading to this result (i.e., power over the emotions by which the wise man surpasses the ignorant man) seems exceedingly hard, it may nevertheless be discovered. Needs must it be hard, since it is so seldom found. How would it be possible, if salvation were ready to our hand, and could without great labour be found, that it should be by almost all men neglected? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” (Ethics, 271)
            3. To preserve any sort of consistency here, Spinoza must maintain that the “overcoming” of desires are part of the causal process and, so viewed, are simply descriptions of human behavior from what is commonly thought to occur. If so, then Spinoza's ethical views reduce simply to descriptive psychological statements.
          2. In cases where people cannot restrain their impulses, they think they chose the desired thing by their own free will, but free decisions of this nature are illusory.
          3. In every case, the individual is not aware of the causes of the action, but is only aware of the action, itself.
          4. Hence Spinoza concludes that appetites, emotions, and desires vary according to bodily states and, in fact, are simultaneous with them.
          5. In this manner, human decisions can be viewed equally as either an attribute of thought or as an attribute of extension.
          6. That we do not have free will of thought is evidenced by the fact that we cannot freely decide to remember or forget a so-called idea of the mind. Forgetting or remembering is, instead, a natural causal process.
          7. All purported acts of will are deducible from the laws of Nature.
      2. What counter-objection does Spinoza raise against his view that mental and physical states are merely coincidental and the mind neither controls the body nor controls events in the physical world?
        1. Spinoza rejects the indeterminist's objection that natural law cannot explain the origin of human art and construction because cultural artifacts can only be produced by means of the creativity of human beings.
        2. He points out that nature produces phenomena far more complex than human beings could create; indeed, the human body, itself, far exceeds in complexity anything found in human art.
        3. From natural causes, infinite results follow. Human beings are a part of Nature just like anything else.
      3. How does Spinoza define "decision" from the standpoint of thought, and how does he define it from the standpoint of extension?
        1. A mental decision is regarded under the attribute of thought is a caused idea.
        2. A decision as a conditioned state or appetite is regarded under the attribute of extension.
        3. A mental decision and a bodily appetite, according to Spinoza, are the same thing.
      4. According to Spinoza, why do many persons believe human beings have free will? How can we become conscious or discover the causes of our decisions and the unconscious “appetites” upon which they depend?
        1. Spinoza argues that the causes (that which brings forth the actuality or essence) of human action are presently unknown.
        2. He disagrees with the view that the mind can control the body by means of thought or will power.
        3. Spinoza recognizes the ranges of the possibilities of the functions and activities of all aspects of the human body cannot be known or explained.
        4. Thus, Spinoza concludes that the belief that actions and functions of the human body are activated by thought or will power is meaningless.
        5. The notion of free will is ontologically the same sort of thing as an idea of imagination or memory. “Decisions” have the same necessity as any other kind of idea or object of Nature.

Further Reading:
  • Baruch Spinoza: This entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Steven Nadler of the University of Wisconsin contains a biography and short bibliography together with analyses of the Ethics and the Theological-Political Treatise.
  • Benedict De Spinoza: This article from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes Spinoza's life and works. Spinoza's Ethics is examined in some detail.
  • A Dedication to Spinoza's Insights: A wide-selection of topics, introductions, indices, links, e-texts, notes, and other resources are by Joseph B. Yesselman.
  • The Philosophy of Benedictus de Spinoza: Rudolf W. Meijer's authoritative site contains a hypertext edition of Spinoza's Ethics, the Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione, and the Tractatus Politicus together with a selection of letters, all with valuable internal links.
  • Studia Spinoziana. Links to Websites related to Spinoza and 17th and 18th Century Studies by Ron Bombardi of Middle Tennessee State University.
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“Spinoza denied free-will, because it was inconsistent with the nature of God, and with the laws to which human actions are subject. … There is nothing really contingent. Contingency, free determination, disorder, chance, lie only in our ignorance. The supposed consciousness of freedom arises from a forgetfulness of the causes that dispose us to will and desire. Volitions are the varing appetites of the soul.” Alexander Bain, Mental Science (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1868), p. 414.

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