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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 as a result of demonstrating that the activity of our minds is equivalent to the activity of our bodies. The mind is more or less active (or contemplative) in accordance with the body's activity or sensing.

  1. Overview of Spinoza's Ethics:

    From a number of intuitive definitions, axioms, and postulates, Spinoza (1632-1677) seeks by means of the geometric method of proof to understand the essential nature of all existent things from what he believes to be clear and distinct ideas. He views the unity of Nature and God as the only existent uncaused substance and the necessary and efficient cause of all other things. Since God is the same thing as Nature, he concludes by means of this method that the mind and the body are two aspects of the same thing. Thus, all that exists is composed of one substance, and from all of the infinite attributes or modes of that substance, we can know only two: the thought (the mental) and extension (the physical).
    1. Spinoza defines substance as that which exists in itself and is conceived in terms of itself. Substance, then, is uncaused and so, in a sense, can be taken to be the cause of itself. Unlike David Hume and other empiricists who distinguish causal necessity from logical necessity, Spinoza assumes causality is the same thing as logical or absolute necessity. Hence, he assumes the effects of causes have the same kind of necessity as that of valid arguments. Thus, the laws of nature are logically necessary.
      1. In proposition VII of the Ethics, Spinoza writes, “Substance cannot be produced by anything external, it must therefore, be its own cause — that is, its essence necessarily involves existence, or existence belongs to its nature.” (Spinoza, Ethics in The Chief Works of Benedict De Spinoza Vol. II: De Intellectus Emendatione — Ethica, trans. R.H.M. Elwes, rev. ed.(London: George Bell and Sons, 1891), 48.)
      2. Substance is conceivable in the sense that it can be thought without contradiction.
      3. Likewise, to know what is thinkable-without-contradiction is also to know what exists.
      4. Substance, or God,consisting of an infinite number of attributes, each expressing the essence of infinite substance, necessarily exists (Ethica, I, Prop. XI).
      5. Even so, human beings are aware of only two attributes or modes of substance: extension (essential to matter) and thought (essential to mind).
      6. In sum, “Whatever is, is in God” (Ethica, I, Prop. XV).
    2. All existent things, then, are modifications of God or Nature.
      1. Minds are understood as 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. From this, Spinoza argues, mind and body, then, are actually two aspects of one and the same thing.
      4. Put another way, 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” (Ethica, 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 amounts to the same thing, a modification of God.
      3. Spinoza declares, “I shall consider human actions and desires in exactly the same manner, as though I were concerned with lines, planes and solids.” (Ethics, 129.)
      4. Although we cannot control the effects of physically existent causes upon us, Spinoza believes from our own nature we have an essential capacity of insight into knowledge of the world considered sub specie aeternitatis, i.e., the universal, eternal, and necessary knowledge of the essence of God and of what necessarily follows from his nature. It is this knowledge which gives us some measure of freedom: the ability to regard all external events and their accompanying affects or emotions in our everyday temporal and subjective lives with equanimity. In this manner, there is, so to speak, a diminution of their significance, and attention is directed “in obedience to virtue”:
        ”From this third kind of knowledge [of attributes and essence of God] arises the highest possible mental acquiescence [peace of mind].” Ethica, V. Prop. XXVII.
        In other words, “Acquaint thyself with [God] and be at peace …” (Job 22:1 The Scofield Reference Bible: The Holy Bible (1909 New York: Oxford University Press, 1945) Print).
  2. Benedict Spinoza Library of Congress LC-USZ62-75337. Questions from the assigned reading:
    1. The following notes are arranged in response to the questions (stated below) taken from the chapter reading Baruch Spinoza, “Part III. On the Origin and the Nature of the Emotions — Note to Proposition 2.” The Ethics: Demonstrated in Geometric Order. Translated by R.H.M. Elwes. London: George Bell and Sons, 1883.

      The reading is excerpted as Chapter 19 “Human Beings are Determined,” available in PDF and HTML, in the open-source textbook Reading for Philosophical Inquiry, available in PDF and HTML.

      If you have any difficulty with this reading, use Prof. Jonathan Bennett's reliable, helpful, and eminently readable version here: Ethics “Part III, Note on 2,” pp.51-54.
      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 their belief that the body does not move unless the mind is active. As human beings do not know the causes of their behavior, they are deceived in thinking themselves free.
          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. Human actions are determined by other countless finite modes in accordance with the causes of nature.
        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. Just as the body is subject to nature's laws, so likewise the mind is subject under a different attribute.
          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. He thinks this “freedom” is consistent with determinism. Nevertheless, he believes persons are not free to do or not do some particular thing; as well, there can be no spontaneity, no any uncaused event. The “freedom” here referred to by Spinoza is the successive proximation of the freedom of self-causedness achieved by reason replacing affect.
            1. Spinoza writes in Prop. LXVII, “ A free man in one who lives under the guidance of reason, who is not led by [emotion] … but who directly desires that which is good“ (Ethica, 232). It must be admitted that Spinoza does not seem to be consistent with respect to strict determinism here (and, indeed, in several other passages as well).
            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” (Ethica, 270-1).
              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.

            [Return to Questions]

      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.

          [Return to Questions]

      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.

          [Return to Questions]

      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.

          [Return to Questions]

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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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