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May 22, 2015

Freethought and Freedom: Benedict Spinoza

Smith discusses Spinoza’s controversial ideas about God, religion, and his criticism of the Design Argument.

In 1656, Baruch Spinoza (1632-77), a brilliant and heretical young Dutch scholar descended from Portuguese Jews, was excommunicated and anathematized by the elders of the Amsterdam Synagogue. Spinoza changed his name to Benedict (the Latin equivalent of Baruch) and thereafter made a modest living as a lens grinder. In 1673 Spinoza turned down the chair of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg, fearing that the position might compromise his intellectual independence. Spinoza published only two works during his lifetime. The first, an exposition of the philosophy of Descartes, was relatively uncontroversial; but the second—the Theologico-Political Treatise, published anonymously in 1670 under the imprint of a fictitious printer—was a bombshell that, in the words of Richard Popkin (The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Descartes, rev. ed., 1979), “is a devastating critique of revealed knowledge claims, which has had an amazing effect over the last three centuries in secularizing modern man.”

Although Spinoza completed his celebrated work on metaphysics, The Ethics, in 1674, he declined to have it published because of the outrage it would almost certainly provoke. And The Ethics, published shortly after Spinoza’s death, had precisely that effect. That book, though highly abstract and difficult to follow in many places, earned Spinoza dubious fame as the leading European atheist, and for many decades thereafter to be called a Spinozist was tantamount to being called an atheist. In his lengthy article on Spinoza in the Historical and Critical Dictionary, a massive work that would greatly influence Enlightenment thought, Pierre Bayle (1647-1706)—a notorious skeptic in his own right—called Spinoza “a systematic atheist” who made use of equivocation and artifice “to avoid showing his atheism plainly.” The Theologico-Political Treatise is “a pernicious and detestable book in which he slips in all the seeds of atheism,” so his followers “have hardly any religion at all.” Friends reported that, though Spinoza died “completely convinced of his atheism,” he had avoided this label because “he wished not to give his name to a sect.” Bayle continued:  

Very few persons are suspected of adhering to his theory; and among those who are suspected of it, there are few who have studied it; and among the latter group, there are few who have understood it and have not been discouraged by the perplexities and the impenetrable abstractions that are found in it.

The reason why Bayle regarded Spinoza as an atheist is the same reason that occurs to most readers: While praising God to the hilt as a necessary and infinitely perfect being who is the cause of all things, Spinoza explicitly identified “God” with “nature.” Spinoza expressly denied the existence of a transcendent being, i.e., a being that exists apart from nature and acts upon it as an external agent. Every change that occurs, every instance of cause and effect, is immanent within nature and takes place according to the deterministic laws of nature. 

Scholars continue to debate the question of whether Spinoza was really an atheist; and if this debate seems incapable of resolution, this is partially because the key term, “atheist,” is rarely used in a clear and consistent manner. Spinoza once remarked that “my opinion concerning God differs widely from that which is ordinarily defended by Christians and other theists. For I hold that God is of all things the cause immanent,” and “I do not bring in the idea of God as a judge.” Nature, according to Spinoza, “is the power of God under another name”; “in nature there is no substance save God, nor any modifications save those which are in God.” As for the attributes of God: “By eternity, I mean existence itself”; “reality and perfection I use as synonymous terms”; by “infinite” is meant that “the nature of the universe is not limited,” i.e., that it is “infinitely modified, and compelled to undergo infinite variations.” Moreover, “God does not act according to freedom of the will,” but is determined by the eternal laws of his own nature. To suppose that God can intervene in the natural course of events through miracles is absurd: “I have taken miracles and ignorance as equivalent terms.” “God can never decree, or never could have decreed anything but what is,” nor does God act “with a view of promoting what is good.”

In short, Spinoza’s God is neither supernatural nor transcendent; he does not intervene in human affairs or “act” in any meaningful sense at all. The God of Spinoza bears virtually no resemblance to what most people mean by “God.” He is a prime example of what Pascal contemptuously referred to as the metaphysical God of the philosophers, in contrast to the personal God of religion.

Nevertheless, although Spinoza did not believe that God should be the object of religious worship or prayer, he did exhibit a profound reverence for this perfect being (while also noting that all of nature is inherently perfect); indeed, one observer called him “God-intoxicated.” But we should keep in mind that Spinoza regarded truth and reality as two sides of the same coin, so when he contended that lasting happiness can only come from the contemplation of God, this appears to express nothing more than the pursuit of wisdom—a quest for universal knowledge that is certain, immutable, and eternal—that has captivated western philosophers for 2500 years. Indeed, in this respect Spinoza differed little from Aristotle, who also touted the contemplative life of the philosopher as the most desirable, and who labeled as “divine” our metaphysical knowledge of first principles.

Spinoza’s influence on later deists can be difficult to establish from their writings. Spinoza’s reputation as an atheist made him a dangerous precedent to cite, especially for those deists who sought to distance themselves from that odious label. Voltaire, the leading Enlightenment deist, viewed Spinoza’s atheistic ideas with disdain, and he criticized them vehemently. Here we should distinguish between Spinoza’s critical assault on revealed religion, as expressed in the Theologico-Political Treatise, and his positive metaphysical theories, as expressed in The Ethics. Many deists, even if they failed to mention Spinoza by name, clearly drew from his criticisms of the Bible and miracles; whereas his metaphysical views had far less influence on later generations of freethinkers. A notable exception was John Toland, who, though critical of Spinoza in some respects, coined and embraced the label “pantheist” to describe a person whose conception of God was very similar to Spinoza’s. Although Toland insisted that pantheists are not atheists, to many of his readers this appeared a distinction without a difference. (See my discussion of Toland here.)

From a theological perspective, the most troublesome part of Spinoza’s Ethics is the Appendix to Part One. Although this section specifically targets final causes, or purposes, in nature, it also qualifies as the most sustained criticism of the Design Argument in early modern philosophy. The Design Argument, long considered the most persuasive proof for the existence of God, prevented many eighteenth-century deists from taking the plunge into atheism. The Design Argument was defended by some of the most celebrated names in the history of science and freethought, such as Isaac Newton, Voltaire, and Thomas Paine; and it continued to be immensely popular well into the nineteenth century, until the Darwinian theory of evolution provided a naturalistic method of explanation for the complex, adaptive, and seemingly purposive nature of life.

According to Spinoza, we have a natural desire to understand the causes of natural phenomena (especially those that influence our welfare), and we also have a natural tendency to view nature in human terms. Thus, when we lack knowledge of natural causes, our imagination fills the void by attributing to nature the same kind of purposes and intentions that we observe in ourselves and other human beings. A kind of metaphysical transference is at work here. Many events and things affect us for good or ill. They are important to us, so we assume they were brought about with us in mind, by a being to whom we are important. We think that the world was specially created for our benefit, and that its complex structure and immense beauty must have been designed by a purposeful, powerful, and intelligent being.

The first problem with this theory, Spinoza contended, is that “it does away with the perfection of God; for, if God acts for an object, he necessarily desires something which he lacks.” Some theologians tried to get around this problem (which had been proposed by some skeptics of ancient Greece) by stipulating that God created the world for his own sake, not for the sake of his creation. But this reply (or any similar to it) is unsatisfactory, for it still implies that God—a perfect being who lacks nothing and therefore can desire nothing—“lacked those things for whose attainment he created means, and further that he desired them.” (An interesting sidebar is the fact that this argument was repeated by Ludwig von Mises in Human Action.)

To ascribe purpose to nature is essentially an argument from ignorance, according to Spinoza. Nature is infinitely complex, so we can never claim to know that a given phenomenon could not have been produced by natural causes. So rather than attempt the impossible, rather than attempt to prove that a natural cause is impossible in a given case, theologians appeal to ignorance instead. Theologians attribute what we don’t presently understand, or what science has failed to explain, to God – a “sanctuary of ignorance” that satisfies the imagination but not the understanding. Quoting Spinoza:

[I]f a stone falls from a roof on to someone’s head, and kills him, [theologians] will demonstrate by their new method, that the stone fell in order to kill the man; for, if it had not by God’s will fallen with that object, how could so many circumstances (and there are often many concurrent circumstances) have all happened together by chance? Perhaps you will answer that the event is due to the facts that the wind was blowing, and the man was walking that way. “But why,” they will insist, “was the wind blowing, and why was the man at that very time walking that way?” If you again answer, that the wind had then sprung up because the sea had begun to be agitated the day before, the weather being previously calm, and that the man had been invited by a friend, they will again insist: “But why was the sea agitated, and why was the man invited at that time?” So they would pursue their questions from cause to cause, till at last you take refuge in the will of God—in other words, the sanctuary of ignorance.

Similarly, those who do not understand how nature could have produced the human body will often “conclude that it has been fashioned, not mechanically, but by divine and supernatural skill.” And “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.”

Spinoza’s use of the term “miracle” in this latter passage is highly significant. The argument from design is ultimately an appeal to miraculous causes, i.e., causes that do not, and cannot, occur in the natural course of events. This is why an “explanation” via design is not a legitimate alternative to scientific and other naturalistic modes of explanation. To refer to a miraculous “cause” is to refer to something that is inherently unknowable, and this “sanctuary of ignorance” explains nothing at all. However much it may soothe the imagination of the ignorant, it does nothing to satisfy the understanding of a rational person.          

Another feat of the imagination is to “firmly believe that there is an order in things,” and that things which further this order are metaphysically “good.” Spinoza’s objection to this view is perhaps the most radical part of his critique, for even atheists will often speak of an order inherent in nature. Spinoza disagreed. Nature is what it is, and things behave as they do in virtue of what they are. Nature exhibits neither order nor chaos, good nor evil, beauty nor deformity; these and similar assessments are derived from human standards, not from nature per se. We evaluate a natural phenomenon as “well-ordered” when it can be easily understood or when it affects us favorably—whereas we speak of “confusion” (or “chance” or “chaos”) when confronted with a phenomenon that eludes our understanding or brings unforeseen evils upon us.

In thus relegating “order” to the same status as “beauty” and other subjective evaluations, Spinoza undercut the Design Argument at its roots. If the fundamental facts of nature—their ultimate explanation, so to speak—are that things exist, that things are what they are, and that things behave as they do in virtue of what they are, then to attribute “order” to natural phenomena is simply to restate these fundamental facts in an abbreviated form. It is to say that these fundamental facts are comprehensible. If, however, we wish to say more than this—if by “order” we mean that nature exhibits beauty, harmony, goodness, or the like, then we are merely importing additional evaluations into our set of fundamental facts. And this means that we need only explain these evaluations, not the facts they purport to describe.

Hence, according to Spinoza, if we wish to explain the “purpose” and “design” in nature, we need only to look within ourselves, to the reasons and causes that generate these evaluations. It is as unnecessary as it is absurd to posit the existence of an unknowable cause (God) who uses unknowable means (miracles) to bring about results that no perfect being—no being with unfulfilled wants—could possibly desire. Spinoza concluded:

[A]ll the explanations commonly given of nature are mere modes of imagining, and do not indicate the true nature of anything, but only the constitution of the imagination; and, although they have names, as though they were entities, existing externally to the imagination, I call them entities imaginary rather than real; and, therefore, all arguments against us drawn from such abstractions are easily rebutted.

In this essay I have sketched some of Spinoza’s ideas about God and religion. In the next essay I shall discuss some of his important insights about freedom of conscience and social diversity.

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