Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Spinoza on the Nature of God

The following is an excerpt from Will and Ariel Durant's abstract and discussion of Benedict Spinoza's view of the nature of 'God', as found in his posthumously-published work, Ethics. As the Durants point out, Spinoza's original full title of this work was (in Latin): Ethica ordine geometrico demonstrata, which (if my Latin is not too rusty) is in English something like "Ethics, Demonstrated from the Rules of Geometry." This discussion is found in pages 636 through 641 of The Age of Louis XIV, in Chapter XXII, "Spinoza".
I include it here in this web-site because first and foremost I am absolutely amazed to discover (for I only read it for the first time about two days ago) that MY idea of the nature of 'God' is almost exactly the same, word for word, line for line, idea for idea, as Spinoza's. (Other previous writings of mine will demonstrate this fact.) And I developed my parallel view quite independently of having read this abstract of Spinoza (practically my only contact thus far with the ideas of Spinoza, though his name has been familiar to me for many years). I don't necessarily think that I am any great 'genius'--certainly not compared with those who undoubtedly were (or are), and I am definitely NOT anything like a MATHEMATICIAN (as Spinoza was); yet I was (somehow) able to independently develop a conception of 'deity' almost exactly identical in depth and breadth to that of one of the unquestioned greatest minds this world has ever produced. This is the source of my profound amazement. I feel much as Nietzsche admitted he felt upon first discovering the works of Stendhal and Dostoevsky.
The second reason I include this excerpt here is in the hope that by drawing attention to it here, I may help to spread the influence of these ideas (which I think need to be disseminated); hopefully this clear and concise discussion (the most clear and concise I have yet found) will be of greater benefit to others than it has even been to myself.
And the third and final reason why I include it here is that it constitutes a very apt and relevant continuation of my earlier discussion of theology and my own personal journey of spiritual, theological, and intellectual development.
Where I would differ from Spinoza is only in this: he says that 'God' contains no emotion [as in 'love', etc.]. I would, however, argue--and this argument is consonant with the rest of Spinoza's framework of ideas, I think--that 'God' does, indeed, contain or possess emotion (as in love), BUT ONLY INSOFAR AS 'HE' CONTAINS OR POSSESSES ALL THAT EMOTION (OR 'LOVE', ETC.) WHICH IS CONTAINED OR POSSESSED BY THE TOTALITY OF ALL THINKING, FEELING, 'LOVING' BEINGS--I.E., "HUMAN" BEINGS--since 'God' is (as Spinoza affirms) the sum totality of all that exists. Thus, my earlier statements that 'God' is LOVE still hold true; but we must add that 'God' is also everything else as well. The same would also hold true with the idea that 'God' also possesses 'personality', 'consciousness', and 'intelligence'--i.e., only in the sense that 'God' is the sum total of all that 'personality', 'consciousness', and 'intelligence' which exist in the entire universe. I only wonder why Spinoza apparently did not admit this, since it follows quite clearly and logically from everything else he said. And yet I want to add here--almost (seemingly) despite all of the following--that I believe that 'God' does, indeed, possess a very powerfully-strong personality and consciousness and intelligence and emotion--as the sum total of all that of the same which exists in the universe--a being or entity, indeed, comprising the sum total of all that exists in the universe (but a being or entity nonetheless), of such a power and magnitude that by comparison to it, we mere, puny humans, would indeed be completely dwarfed, absorbed, or overwhelmed by it, were we not somehow kept apart and separated from it. (In passing, I believe this has much to do with the so-called 'Big Bang'.) We, as individual conscious humans, are merely tiny atoms or corpuscles in the mind/body of 'God' himself (along with all the other mind-matter existing in the universe). All of this follows quite clearly from the basic idea that the universe itself IS 'God'. And God said, "Let there be light!" And there was light. ... And the Creation (which is 'God' himself) sprang into material/spatial/temporal 'existence' (once again), continually creating and re-creating itself anew. ...
Spinoza began with definitions, mostly taken from medieval philosophy. The words he used have changed their meaning since his day, and now some of them obscure his thought. The third definition is fundamental: "I understand Substance to be that which is in itself and is conceived through itself; I mean that, the conception of which does not depend upon the conception of another thing from which it must be formed." He does not mean substance in the modern sense of material constituents; our use of the word to mean essence or basic significance comes closer to his intent. If we take literally his Latin term substantia, it indicates that which stands under, underlies, supports. In his correspondence he speaks of "substance or being"; i.e., he identifies substance with existence or reality. Hence he can say that "existence appertains to the nature of substance," that in substance, essence and existence are one. We may conclude that in Spinoza substance means the essential reality underlying all things.
This reality is perceived by us in two forms: as extension or matter, and as thought or mind. These two are "attributes" of substance; not as qualities residing in it, but as the same reality perceived externally by our senses as matter, and internally by our consciousness as thought. Spinoza is a complete monist: these two aspects of reality--matter and thought--are not distinct and separate entities, they are two sides, the outside and the inside, of one reality; so are body and mind, so is physiological action and the corresponding mental state. Strictly speaking, Spinoza, so far from being a materialist, is an idealist: he defines an attribute as "that which the intellect apprehends of substance as constituting its essence"; he admits (long before Berkeley was born) that we know reality, whether as matter or as thought, only through perception or idea. He believes that reality expresses itself in endless aspects through an "infinite number of attributes," of which we imperfect organisms perceive only two. So far, then, substance, or reality, is that which appears to us as matter or mind. Substance and its attributes are one: reality is a union of matter and mind; and these are distinct only in our manner of perceiving substance. To put it not quite Spinozistically, matter is reality externally perceived; mind is reality internally perceived. If we could perceive all things in the same double way--externally and internally--as we perceive ourselves, we should, Spinoza believes, find that "all things are in some manner animate" (omnia quodammodo animata); there is some form or degree of mind or life in everything. Substance is always active: matter is always in motion; mind is always perceiving or feeling or thinking or desiring or imagining or remembering, awake or in sleep. The world is in every part of it alive.
God, in Spinoza, is identical with substance; He is the reality underlying and uniting matter and mind. God is not identical with matter (therefore Spinoza is not a materialist), but matter is an inherent and essential attribute or aspect of God (here one of Spinoza's youthful heresies reappears). God is not identical with mind (therefore Spinoza is not a spiritualist), but mind is an inherent and essential attribute or aspect of God. God and substance are identical with nature (Deus sive substantia sive natura) and the totality of all being (therefore Spinoza is a pantheist).
Nature has two aspects. As the power of motion in bodies, and as the power of generation, growth, and feeling in organisms, it is natura naturans--nature "creating" or giving birth. As the sum of all individual things, of all bodies, plants, animals, and men, it is natura naturata--generated or "created" nature. These individual entities in generated nature are called by Spinoza modi, modes--transient modifications and embodiments of substance, reality, matter-mind, God. They are part of substance, but in our perception we distinguish them as passing, fleeting forms of an eternal whole. This stone, this tree, this man, this planet, this star--all this marvelous kaleidescope of appearing and dissolving individual forms--constitute that "temporal order" which, in On the Improvement of the Intellect, Spinoza contrasted with the "eternal order" that in a stricter sense is the underlying reality and God:
By a series of causes and real entities I do not understand ... a series of individual mutable things, but the series of fixed and eternal things. For it would be impossible for human weakness to follow up the series of individual mutable things [every stone, every flower, every man] ... Their existence has no connection with their essence [they may exist, but need not], or ... is not an eternal truth ... This [essence] is only to be sought from fixed and eternal things, and from the laws inscribed in those things as their true codes, according to which all individual things are made and arranged; nay, these individual and mutable things depend so intimately and essentially (so to speak) on these fixed ones, that without them they can neither exist nor be conceived.
So a single, specific triangle is a mode; it may but need not exist; but if it does it will have to obey the laws--and will have the powers--of the triangle in general. A specific man is a mode; he may or may not exist; but if he does he will share in the essence and power of matter-mind, and will have to obey the laws that govern the operations of bodies and thoughts. These powers and laws constitute the order of nature as natura naturans; they constitute, in theological terms, the will of God. The modes of matter in their totality are the body of God; the modes of mind in their totality, are the mind of God; substance or reality, in all its modes and attributes, is God; "whatever is, is in God."
Spinoza agrees with the Scholastic philosophers that in God essence and existence are one--His existence is involved in our conception of His essence, for he conceives God as all existence itself. He agrees with the Scholastics that God is causa sui, self-caused, for there is nothing outside him. He agrees with the Scholastics that we can know the existence of God, but not his real nature in all his attributes. He agrees with St. Thomas Aquinas that to apply the masculine pronouns to God is absurd but convenient. He agrees with Maimonides that most of the qualities we ascribe to God are conceived by weak analogy with human qualities.
God is described as the lawgiver or prince, and styled just, merciful, etc., merely in concession to popular understanding and the imperfection of popular knowledge ... God is free from passions, nor is he affected with any emotion [affectus] of joy or sorrow ... Those who confuse divine with human nature easily attribute human passions to God, especially if they do not know how passions are produced in the mind.
God is not a person, for that means a particular and finite mind; but God is the total of all the mind (all the animation, sensitivity, and thought)--as well as of all the matter--in existence. The human mind is part of a certain infinite intellect (as in the Aristotelian-Alexandrian tradition). But "if intellect and will appertain to the eternal essence of God, something far else must be understood by these two attributes than what is commonly understood by men." "The actual intellect, ... together with will, desire, love, etc., must be referred to the natura naturata, not to the natura naturans"; that is, individual minds, with their desires, emotions, and volitions, are modes or modifications, contained in God as the totality of things, but not pertaining to Him as the law and life of the world. There is will in God, but only in the sense of the laws operating everywhere. His will is law.
God is not a bearded patriarch sitting on a cloud and ruling the universe; He is "the indwelling, not the transient, cause of all things." There is no Creation, except in the sense that the infinite reality--matter-mind--is ever taking new individual forms or modes. "God is not in any one place, but is everywhere according to his essence." Indeed, the word cause is out of place here; God is the universal cause not in the sense of a cause preceeding its effect, but only in the sense that the behavior of anything follows necessarily from its nature. God is the cause of all events in the same way that the nature of a triangle is the cause of its properties and behavior. God is "free" only in the sense that He is not subject to any external cause or force, and is determined only by His own essence or nature; but He "does not act from freedom of will"; all His actions are determined by His essence--which is the same as to say that all events are determined by the inherent nature and properties of things. There is no design in nature in the sense that God desires some end; He has no desires or designs, except as the totality contains all the desires and designs of all modes and therefore of all organisms. In nature there are only effects following inevitably from antecedent causes and inherent properties. There are no miracles, for the will of God and the "fixed and unchanged order of nature" are one; any break in "the chain of natural events" would be a self-contradiction.
Man is only a small part of the universe. Nature is neutral as between man and other forms. We must not apply to nature or God such words as good or evil, beautiful or ugly; these are subjective terms, as much so as hot or cold; they are determined by the contribution of the external world to our advantage or displeasure.
The perfection of things is to be judged by their nature and power alone; nor are they more or less perfect because they delight or offend the human senses, or because they are beneficial or prejudicial to human nature ... If, therefore, anything in nature seems to us ridiculous, absurd, or evil, it is because we know only in part, and are almost entirely ignorant of, the order and interdependence of nature as a whole; and also because we want everything to be arranged according to the dictates of our human reason. In reality that which reason considers evil is not evil in respect to the order and laws of nature as a whole, but only in respect to the laws of our reason.
Likewise there is no beauty or ugliness in nature.
Beauty ... is not so much a quality of the object beheld, as an effect in him who beholds it. If our sight were longer or shorter, if our constitutions were different, what we now think beautiful we should think ugly. ... The most beautiful hand, seen through the microscope, will appear horrible ... I do not attribute to nature either beauty or deformity, order or confusion. Only in relation to our imagination can things be called beautiful or ugly, well-formed, or confused.
Order is objective only in the sense that all things cohere in one system of law; but in that order a destructive storm is as natural as the splendor of a sunset or the sublimity of the sea.
Are we justified, on the basis of this "theology," in calling Spinoza an athiest? We have seen that he was not a materialist, for he did not identify God with matter; he says quite clearly that "those who think that the Tractatus [theologico-politicus] rests on the identification of God with nature--taking nature in the sense of a certain mass of corporeal matter--are entirely wrong." He conceived God as mind as well as matter, and he did not reduce mind to matter; he acknowledged that mind is the only reality directly known. He thought that something akin to mind is mingled with all matter; in this respect he was a panpsychist. He was a pantheist, seeing God in all things, and all things in God. Bayle, Hume, and others considered him an athiest; and this term might seem justified by Spinoza's denial of feeling, desire, or purpose in God. He himself, however, objected to "the opinion which the common people have of me, who do not cease to accuse me falsely of atheism." Apparently he felt that his ascription of mind and intelligence to God absolved him from the charge of atheism. And it must be admitted that he spoke repeatedly of his God in terms of religious reverence, often in terms quite consonant with the conception of God in Maimonides or Aquinas. Novalis would call Spinoza "der Gottbetrunkene Mensch," the God-intoxicated man.
Actually he was intoxicated with the whole order of nature, which in its eternal consistency and movement seemed to him admirable and sublime; and in Book I of the Ethics he wrote both a system of theology and the metaphysics of science. In the world of law he felt a divine revelation greater than any book, however noble or beautiful. The scientist who studies that law, even in its pettiest and most prosaic detail, is deciphering that revelation, for "the more we understand individual objects, the more we understand God." (This sentence struck Goethe as one of the profoundest in literature.) It seemed to Spinoza that he had honestly accepted and met the challenge implicit in Copernicus--to reconceive deity in terms worthy of the universe now progressively revealed. In Spinoza science and religion are no longer in conflict; they are one.
(This "challenge implicit in Copernicus" mentioned above, was discussed by Joseph Campbell in the beginning pages of his The Inner Reaches of Outer Space [q.v.].)