Ethics, Part 1: Concerning God

This will be the reading for Saturday, July 27.  A hypertext version of the same translation I used is available here.

The first part of The Ethics presents a sweeping vision of all that exists, and does so in a remarkably modern way.  In Part 1: Concerning God, cause and effect reigns with an iron fist and from a few simple axioms a vision of God and nature that has been claimed by mystics and atheists alike is developed.  What exists in-itself, independent and uncaused, is substance.  Substance expresses itself – that is, causes and conditions – attributes and modes.  Spinoza identifies God with substance, and explains why God does not have free will, and why good and evil are the results of human imagination.

Substance, Attributes and Modes

When you think of your computer, lurking in the background are the thoughts of the factory which built the computer, the parts inside it, and the uses you make of it.  Your computer is logically, conceptually and practically connected to, or dependent upon, a great many other things.  Everything we see is like that; everything in the world is logically and conceptually connected to many other things.  Your computer is also limited by other things.  It is a physical thing with borders.  Everything in the world is limited by other things.  Interconnection and limitation are the hallmarks of our world.  In Spinoza’s terms, things are conceived of through other things (interconnection or dependence) and finite-after-their-own-kind (limitation).

Can we conceive of something that is not conceived of through other things?  Can we think of something that is not finite after its own kind?  Spinoza can, and he calls this substance.  It is conceived of in-itself, and absolutely infinite.  Substance is what is really real, because it exists entirely on its own terms, and ultimately, everything else is conceived of via substance.

What do we actually experience in the world?  Computers, people, books, love, hate, jealousy.  Everything we experience in the world can be divided up into two categories: the physical and the mental, which are attributes of substance.  Individual things – from the thought “I like ice cream” to your computer – are modes, or modifications of substance.  Substance is divided into attributes and attributes are divided into modes.

The Absoluteness of Cause and Effect

There are a few simple points that we will use as our window into Part 1.  Definition 7 states, “A free thing exists only by the necessity of its own nature, and whose action is determined by itself alone.  A thing is constrained if it is fixed by something external to a definite method of existence or action.”  Axiom 3 states, “From a given definite cause an effect necessarily follows; and, on the other hand, if no definite cause be granted, it is impossible that an effect should follow.”  Axiom 4 states, “The knowledge of an effect depends upon and involves the knowledge of a cause.”

Let’s unpack these statements.  A thing either exists or acts a certain way because its inner nature necessitates that it exists or acts that way, or it exists or acts a certain way because something external created it or conditioned it.  There is no in-between; everything is either free or unfree.  Axiom 3 seems to be fairly uncontroversial, but consider the logic of it pushed to the very end: if a thing does not exist, then it either does not exist because it logically cannot (like a square circle) or because something external has precluded its existence.  If your computer did not exist, there would have to be a reason why it did not.  Later, he will state that nothing is contingent, but that everything is “conditioned to exist and operate in a particular manner” (Prop 29) – that is, nothing exists or happens just because.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, understanding a thing or an effect absolutely depends upon knowledge of its cause; if you do not know why a thing exists, then you do not actually understand it.  Whatever causes a thing’s existence or behavior also dictates its essence.

Prop 27 states “A thing which has been conditioned by God to act in a particular way cannot make itself unconditioned.”  We will discuss the nature of God below, but first let’s extract a key point here: a thing that has been conditioned to exist or act in a particular way cannot make itself unconditioned.  Things – and people as well – cannot act without being caused to act, or without being conditioned to act in a certain way.  Prop 28 makes this more clear:  “Every individual thing which is finite and conditioned cannot be conditioned to act except by a cause other than itself, which is also finite – a chain begins which goes on to infinity.”

Perhaps prop 32 is unsurprising:  “Will cannot be called a free cause, but only a necessary cause.”  His proof of this is that will is a mode of thinking, like intellect, so it cannot exist or act unless it is conditioned to act or exist by something else, on to infinity.  He means this in the strongest sense: there is no free will.  Below, we will see that this also applies to God.  Cause and effect is absolute.

The Nature and Existence of Substance/God

With that framework of rigid cause and effect in mind, let’s look at his case for the existence and nature of substance, or in what amounts to the same thing, God.  The very first definition states “By that which is self-caused, I mean that of which the essence involves existence, or that of which the nature is only conceivable as existent.”  A self-caused thing exists because its nature is to exist; a not-existing self-caused thing would be like a square circle.  Axiom 7 states that if a thing can be conceived of as non-existing, then its essence does not involve existence.  If you can coherently think “my computer does not exist,” which of course you can, then your computer’s essence does not involve existence.

He identifies God as the self-caused, and offers three arguments in Prop 11.  He says “God, or substance, consisting of infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality, necessarily exists,” a statement which we should see in light of Def 1.  The commentary on Prop 11 goes on to say that this is true because existence belongs to the nature of substance.  God is only conceivable as existing; this is Spinoza’s version of the ontological argument.  More classically, the argument runs like this: I can conceive of a greatest possible being, and “existence” belongs to “greatness,” so a non-existent greatest possible being would be a contradiction, again like a square circle.

The second argument depends on his description of cause and effect; everything that exists needs a cause, and just as much, a thing needs a reason to not exist.  The reason must be internal to the thing, or external to it.  The reason for the non-existence of a square circle is internal to it – it would involve a contradiction.  The reason for the existence of substance is internal to it, as its essence involves existence.  If no reason prevents the existence of God, then we must conclude he certainly does exist.  Any reason against God’s existence must be either internal or external to God – and an external reason would have to be another substance.  That other substance would have to be God.

The third and final proof is that “The potentiality of non-existence is a negation of power, and contrariwise the potentiality of existence is a power, as is obvious.”  If only finite beings necessarily exist, then they would be more powerful than infinite ones, which is absurd.  He goes on to say “For, as the potentiality of existence is a power, it follows that, in proportion as reality increases in the nature of thing, so also will it increase its strength for existence.  Therefore a being absolutely infinite, such as God, as from himself an absolutely infinite power of existence, and hence he does absolutely exist.”

The Nature of Substance/God

Def 6 states “By God, I mean a being absolutely infinite – that is, a substance consisting in infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality.”  The explanation goes on to say, “I say absolutely infinite, not infinite after its kind: for, of a thing infinite only after its kind, infinite attributes may be denied; but that which is absolutely infinite, contains in its essence whatever expresses reality, and involves no negation.”  I will deal with two of these points.  First, he says God is a substance; in the course of the argument this will be changed to the only substance.  Second, God is wholly positive, or in other words, God is absolutely affirmative; there is no chance, no holes, no refusals, no lack, nothing faulty or broken or inadequate in God – therefore reality is also absolutely positive, without any negativity.

Rene Descartes argued for multiple substances; he said that thinking and extension are distinct substances, while for Spinoza they are attributes.  Spinoza argues that there is only one infinite substance.  The argument is found in the discussion of Prop 8, which states every substance is necessarily infinite.  There can only be one substance with an identical attribute, and existence follows from its nature.  It cannot be finite, because then it would be limited by something else, or there would be two substances with the same attribute.

How do we know there is only one substance?  First, he says the “true definition of a thing neither involves nor expresses anything beyond the nature of the thing defined.”  Second, no definition implies a certain number of individuals.  The definition of a triangle does not say how many triangles there are.  Third, every existent thing needs a cause.  Fourth, the cause either has to be in the thing itself or in another thing.  So if only 20 people exist, there must be a reason why there are 20, and not 19 or 21.  He brings these points together by saying, “as it has been shown already that existence pertains to the nature of substance, existence must necessarily be included in its definition; and from its definition alone existence must be deducible.  But from its definition, we cannot infer the existence of several substances; therefore it follows that there is only one substance of the same nature.”

Prop 16 states “From the necessity of  the divine nature must flow an infinite number of things in infinite ways – that is, all things which can fall within the sphere of the infinite intellect.”   His proof of this is that we can learn about a thing’s properties from its definition; if a thing is infinite, then it has infinite properties.  The upshot is that God is the efficient cause of all that can fall within the sphere of an infinite intellect.  Prop 17 states “God acts solely by the laws of his own nature, and is not constrained by any one.”  The proof of this is that God is the cause of all things, and nothing exists outside him – so nothing can condition him.  There can be no cause which moves God to act, other than his nature.  God is the sole free cause, because God alone exists by his nature.  But this does not mean God is a free cause because he can choose to make a thing or choose to not make it; that is like saying God could make a square circle.  God does not choose to create things; rather, an infinite number of things flow from him with necessity, just like a square’s four sides flows from its definition.  Intellect and will, as we recognize them, have nothing to do with God.  Just because we prize our intellects and will as our highest perfections does not mean they can be attributed to God.

Natura Naturans and Natura Naturata

Spinoza’s idea of cause and effect needs to be complicated somewhat.  There are actually two levels of causation, and I have to admit I am guessing about the difference between the two.  In the discussion of Prop 28, he says that which is finite is not produced by the absolute nature of any attribute of God – it flows from an attribute considered as modified, for substance and modes make up the sum total of existence.  Modes are modifications of the attributes of God.  “But from God, or from any of his attributes, in so far as the latter is modified by a modification infinite and eternal, a conditioned thing cannot follow.  Wherefore it must follow from, or be conditioned for, existence and action by God or from one of his attributes, in so far as the latter are modified by some modification which is finite and has a conditioned existence.”  A chain of conditioned causes begins.

But some things must be immediately produced by God – those things which necessarily follow from his nature, through the means of his primary attributes.  God is the absolute cause of those things immediately produced by him, but the remote cause of individual things.

That which is entirely the result of a chain of causes, or in other words the mere modifications of attributes, is passive nature (or natura naturata).  Passsive nature is, I think, like pool balls rolling around on a table; it roughly corresponds to our common sense notion of physical causation.  The second form of causation, the immediate production of God, is active nature (or natura naturans).  Active nature is that which is in itself, or conceived in itself, or through attributes of substance – in other words, God as free cause (and remember that “free cause” means produced because of God’s nature, rather than a free choice or external cause).

The difference between active and passive is absolutely central to the ethical system that takes up the greater part of the book, so there will be a more detailed presentation in later parts.  Suffice to say that much of human thought is concerned with nature as passive: events in the world which are a part of the chain of causes and our own emotions, which are buffeted about by various external causes.  The only human experience of nature as active may be the intellectual love of God, which is an emotion immediately produced by God (as opposed to objects in the world).

The Appendix: Trivial Afterthoughts

The foregoing was about the nature and properties of God.  He necessarily exists, is one, and acts solely by the necessity of his own nature.  There are a few misconceptions yet to be cleared up.  The first misconception is the idea “that all things in nature act as men themselves act, namely, with an end in view.” (71)  People also think God directs things towards an end – like God made man so that man might worship him.  Teleology, in a word.  It is a delightful polemic that deserves to be heavily quoted.

Spinoza’s starting point is  “that all men are born ignorant of the causes of things, that all have the desire to seek for what is useful to them, and that they are conscious of such desire.” (71)  From that it follows we think we are free, because we are conscious of our choices and desires.  And we do things for an end: what is useful to us.  People only look for final causes, and when these are learned, they stop looking.  If they cannot figure out the causes of things from external sources, then they look at themselves, and think about what end would have caused them to bring about such an event.  The world really does contain many things which are at our disposal, like eyes for seeing, plants and animals for food, the sun for light and so on. It is easy to jump to the idea that the whole of nature exists to provide us with such conveniences.

Humans are aware they did not make these things, so some other being must have.  Because they see things as means, these things could not have been self-created – but rather, a creator endowed with human like reason created these things for human use.  They see God as ultimately comparable to a human ruler, so everyone figured out that worshipping God would make God love him more than his neighbors:

 “Thus the prejudice developed into superstition, and took deep root in the human mind; and for this reason everyone strove most zealously to understand and explain the final causes of things; but in their endeavor to show that nature does nothing in vain, i.e., nothing which is useless to man, they seem only to have demonstrated that nature, the gods, and men are all mad together.” (72)

He says people who believe in final causes have created a new mode of argumentation: reduction, not to the impossible, but to ignorance.  For example, if a stone falls on someone’s head and kills him, they ask how could so many circumstances come together to create that event if he was not God’s will?  If you say the stone fell because the wind was blowing, and the man just happened to be walking that way, they will ask why the wind was blowing, and why the man was walking that way.  If you say the wind blew in from the ocean, and the man was invited to his friend’s home, they will ask why.  And so,

 “[T]hey will pursue their questions from cause to cause, till at least they take refuge in the will of God – in other words, the sanctuary of ignorance.  So, again, when they survey the frame of the human body, they are amazed; and being ignorant of the causes of so great a work of art conclude that it has been fashioned, not mechanically, but by divine and supernatural skill, and has been so put together that one part shall not hurt another.” (74)

“Hence, anyone who seeks for the true causes of miracles, and strives to understand natural phenomena as an intelligent being, and not to gaze at them like a fool, is set down and denounced as an impious heretic by those whom the masses adore as the interpreters of nature and the gods.  Such persons know that, with the removal of ignorance, the wonder which forms their only available means for proving and preserving their authority would vanish also.” (74-75)

Men also formed abstract notions for the explanation of the nature of things, like “goodness, badness, order, confusion, warmth, cold, beauty, deformity,” and so on, and from the belief they are free agents rose praise, blame, sin and merit.  “Everything which conduces to health and the worship of God they have called good, everything which hinders these objects they have styled bad,” and insofar as people do not know the causes of things, but only imagine they do, they imagine there is an order to nature.

When things are easily understood or remembered, they are called “well-ordered.”  For the opposite, they are ill-ordered.  And since we prefer order to confusion, we assume there is order in nature.  It is the same with beauty and ugliness; these are only words for what pleases and displeases us. People are just different, and have different tastes.  And finally, if everything follows from a perfect God, why are there so many imperfections?  Because God produces infinitely, everything – even the things we consider bad.


2 thoughts on “Ethics, Part 1: Concerning God

  1. What can we tell about the three definitions on a quick examination? It is clear that substance is fundamentally different from attributes or modes insofar as substance is what it is independent of modes and attributes, while modes and attributes both presuppose substance. What it means to be a mode is to be an affection of a substance, and an attribute is what the intellect perceives of substance, as constituting its essence. Consequently substance has pride of place among the basic entities in Spinozas ontology.

    These definitions also point toward another of Spinozas basic distinctions, a metaphysical distinction between natura naturans and natura naturata. The Latin expression Natura naturans means naturing nature or nature insofar as it natures. Spinoza understood this to denote na- ture considered as fully actual and causal (ip29s). Natura naturata literally means natured nature or nature insofar as it is natured. All modes are natura naturata since they are not free causes causes arising only from their own essences or natures (id7) but rather they are what they are in and through another. They are natured , they derive some of their essence or nature from another. Thus there is a kind of divide in Spinozas metaphysics with substance and attributes, natura naturans, on one side, and modes or natura naturata, on the other. When taken all together they are the whole of nature.”

    This comes from Aaron Garrot’s *Meaning in Spinoza’s Method* (page 21-22)

  2. Ah, thank you for the literal translation of those terms. I was wondering about that.

    So he does seem to agree that the distinction between natured and naturing nature is one of being affected by modes vs being affected by God. Do you think Garrot would agree that the only mode directly affected by God is intuition, aka the third kind of knowledge, aka the love of God?

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