Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Spinoza from Matthew Stewart's Courtier and Heretic

God became the name of a problem in the seventeenth century. No doubt many historical factors contributed to this unexpected devel-opment. The bewildering diversity of religious faiths arising out of the Reformation, for example, produced a crowd of new conceptions of the deity, none of which seemed to get along particularly well with the others; and this fact in turn stimulated much theorizing concern-ing their similarities and differences. The increasingly secular tone of public and economic life, too, eroded some of the evidence on which belief naturally rested. Among a small elite of educated Europeans, however, it was modern science that threw the most troubling spot-light on the Almighty. Learned individuals could not overlook the fact that recent advances in human knowledge rendered the biblically sanctioned stories on the genesis and structure of the cosmos unten-able. Eppur si muove—"and yet it moves"—Galileo's alleged words concerning the earth after his trial—had become the secret rallying cry of humankind's newest pioneers. In retrospect, of course, we know that science still had a long way to go. But even at the time, at least two farsighted philosophers could see where it was headed. The scientific investigation of nature, our heroes suspected, might one day unravel the mysteries of the world into a series of efficient causes. Miracles would dissolve into igno-rance, and the cosmos in all its splendor would stand revealed as a grand but ultimately self-sufficient machine. In that event, what would be left for God to do? In more recent times, the physicist Richard Feynman has framed the problem in a laconic way: when you understand the laws of physics, he pointed out, "the theory that it is all arranged as a stage for God to watch man's struggle for good and evil seems inadequate." Or, as the physicist Steven Weinberg put it: the more we know about the origins of the universe, the more pointless it seems.
The question for seventeenth-century philosophers was not yet about the existence of God—for no writer of the time, not even Spin-oza, explicitly doubted that—but rather about the function of. God. If science did eventually manage to explain all of nature in terms of mechanical principles, it seemed, then the providential, miracle-working God of old would be out of a job. Science and religion—or God and Nature—seemed locked in irreconcilable conflict, or so the seventeenth-century philosophers sensed. In his Ethics Spinoza presents his bold solution to the apparent conflict between God and Nature, a solution whose essentials had been undoubtedly already clear in his mind when he faced expulsion from the Jewish community in his twenty-fourth year. In Spinoza's view, to put it simply, God and Nature are not and never will be in conflict for the simple reason that God is Nature. "I do not differen-tiate between God and Nature in the way that all those known to me have done," Spinoza explains to Oldenburg. In Part IV of the Ethics he tosses off an enigmatic phrase that has since come to stand for the whole of his philosophy: "God, or Nature"—which really means: "God, or what amounts to the same thing, Nature." On the basis of this daring intuition, Spinoza constructs something that looks very much like a new form of religion—what should perhaps count as the first religion of the modern era (although it would also be true to say that in some sense it was the revival of an ancient and long forgot-
ten one). The "Nature" in question here is not of the blooming and buzzing kind (though it would include that, too). It is closer to the "nature" in "the nature of light" or "the nature of man"—that is, the "nature" that is the subject of rational inquiry. Inasmuch as Spinoza speaks of "Nature" with a capital N, he refers to a generalization over all these other "natures." It is the "Nature" of everything, or that which makes all the other natures what they are. One may also think of "nature" as an "essence"; Nature, in this sense, is the essence of the world that which makes the world what it is. The most important feature of Spinoza's Nature—and, in a sense, the very point of his philosophy—is that it is in principle intelligible or comprehensible. His philosophy is at a deep level a declaration of
confidence that there is nothing ultimately mysterious in the world; there are no inscrutable deities making arbitrary decisions, and no phenomena that will not submit to reasoned inquiry—even if that inquiry is inherently without end; in short, that there is nothing that cannot be known—even if we do not necessarily know everything. Spinoza's concept of God, or Nature has this in common with the more pedestrian notions of divinity: God is the cause of all things. However, Spinoza hastens to add, God "is the immanent cause of things, and not the transitive cause." A "transitive" cause lies "outside" its effect. A watchmaker, for example, is the transitive cause of his watch. An "immanent" cause is in some sense "inside" or "together with" that which it causes. The nature of a circle, for example, is the immanent cause of its roundness. Spinoza's claim is that God does not stand outside the world and create it; rather, God exists in the world and subsists together with what it creates: "All things, I say, are in God and move in God." In simple code: Spinoza's God is an immanent one. Spinoza also refers to his "God, or Nature" as "Substance." Sub-stance is, very generally speaking, that stuff in which "attributes"—the properties that make something what it is—inhere. By way of skirting the arcana of Aristotelian and medieval metaphysics, one may think of substance as that which is "really real," or the ultimate constituent(s) of reality. The most important thing about substance is that no substance can be reduced to the attribute of some other substance (which would then, of course, constitute the "real" substance). Sub-stance is where the digging stops—where all investigations come to an end. Before Spinoza, it was generally taken for granted that there are many such substances in the world. With a chain of definitions, axioms, and proofs, however, Spin9za claims to demonstrate once and for all that there can in fact be only one Substance in the world.This one Substance has "infinite attributes" and is, as a matter of fact, God. Leibniz accurately sums it up: According to Spinoza, he notes, "God alone is substance, or a being subsisting through itself, or, that which can be conceived through itself." According to Spinoza, furthermore, everything in the world is merely a "mode" of an attribute of this Substance, or God. "Mode" is just Latin for "way," and the modes of God are simply the ways in which Substance (i.e., God, or Nature) manifests its eternal essence. Leibniz once again hits the nail on the head in his note on the dis-cussion with Tshirnhaus: "All creatures are nothing but modes." At this point it would be quite normal to experience some diffi-culty in breathing, and not just on account of the high level of abstraction in Spinoza's thought. The philosopher's rather unsettling message is that everything in the world—every human being, every thought or idea, every historical event, the planet earth, the stars, the galaxies, all the spaces between them, yesterday's breakfast, andeven this book—it is all in some sense just another word for God. Being itself, in a sense, is the new divinity. Little wonder, then, that the Ger-man writer Novalis branded Spinoza as "that God-intoxicated man." Hegel—who was fond of both his tipple and bibulous metaphors—claimed that in order to philosophize "one must first drink from the ether of this one substance." Perhaps Nietzsche came closest to the spirit of. Spinoza when he said that the philosopher "deified the All and Life in order to find peace and happiness in the face of it." Spinoza deduces many things from his concept of God, but one in particular deserves mention for its central role in subsequent contro-versies. In Spinoza's world, everything that happens, happens neces-sarily. One of the most notorious propositions of the Ethics is: "Things could not have been produced by God in any manner or in any order different from that which in fact exists." This is a logical inference from the proposition that the relation of God to the world is some-thing like that of an essence to its properties: God cannot one day decide to do things differently any more than a circle can choose not to be round, or a mountain can forswear the valley that forms on its side. The view that there is a "necessary" aspect of things may be referred to by the sometimes inappropriate name of "determinism." Of course, Spinoza acknowledges, in the world we see around us, many things seem to be contingent—or merely possible, and not nec-essary. That is, it seems that things don't have to be the way that they are: the earth might never have formed; this book might never have been published; and so on. In fact, Spinoza goes on to say, every par-ticular thing in the world is contingent when considered solely with respect to its own nature. In technical terms, he says that "existence" pertains to the essence of nothing—save God. Thus, at some level, Spinoza stands for the opposite of the usual caricature of the deter-minist as reductivist, for, according to his line of thinking, we humans are never in a position to understand the complete and specific chain of causality that gives any individual thing its necessary character; consequently, we will never be in a position to reduce all phenom-ena to a finite set of intelligible causes, and all things must always appear to us to be at some level radically free. (In this sense, inci-dentally, he should count as a radical empiricist.) In somewhat less technical terms, we could say that, from a human point of view, everything must always seem contingent; even though from a divine or philosophical point of view, everything is nonetheless necessary. From the philosophical point of view—and only from the philosoph-ical point of view—the distinction between possibility and actuality vanishes: if something may be, it is; if it may not be, it is not. Spinoza takes pains to show that his determinism does not restrict God's freedom. To be free, as he defines it, is to be able to act in accor-dance with one's own nature (as opposed to someone else's nature). In other words, Spinoza supposes that the opposite of freedom is not necessity, but compulsion or constraint. Since God—and God alone —acts purely from the necessity of its own Nature, God is absolutely free. Leibniz assimilates this point quite well, too: "[Spinoza] thinks freedom consists in this, that an action or determination results not from an extrinsic impulse, but solely from the nature of the agent. In this sense he is right to say that God alone is free." If the heady notions still leave one guessing just a little about what Spinoza thinks God is, there can be little doubt about what he thinks God is not. (And the intuition tha,t Spinoza's God is more compre-hensible in the negative, as we shall see, turns out to have crucial implications.) Spinoza's God is not the God of Sunday school and Bible readings. It is not the kind of supernatural being who wakes up one morning, decides to create a world, and then stands back at the end of the week to admire his achievement. In fact, God has no "per-sonality" at all: it isn't male or female; it has no hair, no likes or dis-likes, is not right- or left-handed; it does not sleep, dream, love, hate, decide, or judge; it has no "will" or "intellect" in the way we under-stand those terms. It also makes no sense to say that God is "good," according to Spin- • oza. Inasmuch as everything in the world follows of necessity from God's eternal essence, in fact, then we must infer that all those things we call "evil" are in God just as much as that which we call "good." But, Spinoza elaborates, there is no good or evil in any absolute sense. Good and evil are relative notions—relative to us and our particular interests and uses. Spinoza's God—or Nature, or Substance—may be perfect, but it isn't good. Spinoza's God does not intervene in the course of events—for that would be to countermand itself—nor does it produce miracles—for that would be to contradict itself. Above all, God does not judge indi-viduals and send them to heaven or hell: "God gives no laws to mankind so as to reward them when they fulfill them and to punish them when they transgress them; or, to state it more clearly, God's laws are not of such a nature that they could be transgressed." All of the traditional notions of a bearded deity blowing hot and cold from the heavens, in Spinoza's view, are contemptible instances of the human fondness for anthropomorphism. Besotted with our unruly imaginations, we humans often attribute to God whatever is desirable in a man. But, "to ascribe to God those attributes which make a man perfect would be as wrong as to ascribe to a man the attributes that make perfect an elephant or an ass," as Spinoza scoffs to Blijenburgh. "If a triangle could speak," he adds, "it would say that God is eminently triangular." In Spinoza's adamant rejection of the anthropomorphic concep-tion of God we may glimpse a very deep link between his meta-physics and his politics. According to the political analysis first laid out in the Tractatus, the orthodox idea of God is one of the mainstays of tyranny. The theologians, Spinoza suggests, promote the belief in a fearsome, judgmental, and punishing God in order to extract obei-sance from the superstitious masses. A people living under Spinoza's God, on the other hand, could easily dispense with theocratic oppres-sion.The most they might require is a few scientists and philosophers. Spinoza's concept of divinity is so clearly drawn as the antithesis of
the theocratic one, in fact, that the question naturally arises whether he invented his new God in order to save himself or in order to destroy the reigning political order. Inasmuch as Spinoza's God is easier to understand in the negative—that is, in terms of what it is not: a personal, providential, creator deity—than in the positive—what it is—then to that extent his political commitments would seem to be prior to his philosophy. That is, his metaphysics would be intelligible principally as the expression of his political project, to overthrow theocracy. There are many more subtleties to Spinoza's bracing concept of God, and the philosopher draws out many more implications than those listed here. His Ethics is at first glance a thorny thicket of archaic terms and forbidding abstractions; but the rewards for penetrating the verbal barriers are great. Not the least attraction is the aesthetic expe-rience, for the intricate web of definitions, axioms, and propositions is in some ways a prose poem, a dazzling intellectual sculpture. But the final point to consider here is just the method Spinoza claims to follow in his exposition of the nature of God. Embodied in that method is Spinoza's most ambitious claim. His concept of God is not an intuition or a revelation or a preference, he maintains; rather, it follows with rigorous necessity from the guidance of reason. He avows that he can see God just as clearly as he can see the results of a proof in geometry: "I know it in the same way that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles," as he famously says. He also maintains that any other reasonable person will see the same God, too.

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