First Part of Spinoza’s Ethica: Concerning God

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The Existence of God: The Ghostbuster Argument

I believe in the God of Spinoza – Einstein

In the Appendix Spinoza lays his cards on the table and exposes for all to see that the logical conclusion of the First Part is meant to be that there is no God, or at least there is no transcendent God, which is pretty much the same thing (for if you subtract everything Spinoza considered superstition, most notably the belief in an anthropomorphic God, then it is hard to see anything left that could remotely be recognized as religion, the Christian religion in particular). Spinoza further promotes this contention by introducing additional reasons why belief in the existence of God is unjustified. These reasons introduce a form of argument that he would reiterate relentlessly in his Biblical criticism in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and would later be used, perhaps unwittingly as to its source, to great advantage by the celebrated Hume. The method of this argument comes down to taking some phenomenon or belief or purported occurrence which has been given one explanation in the popular mind or by the voices of tyranny and religion – an explanation whose validity would support or reinforce some doctrine that tyranny or religion find of interest to have believed – and to show by attention to new evidence and the unbiased examination of existing evidence that this phenomenon or belief or occurrence in fact admits of one or several alternative explanations which on the whole are much simpler and much more appealing to common sense. I call it the Ghostbuster Argument, for in it the philosopher turns detective and uses the tools not only of logic but also of the empirical sciences and simple no-nonsense research to debunk the fatuous and explode the fantastical. The Ghostbuster Argument would be the favorite hobby of educated secularists in the last and the 19th centuries who could trace their lineage thereby back to the blessed Spinoza. The Ghostbuster Argument in the Ethics is appended to a like-minded logical argument, although it would soon occupy pride of place in the Tractatus. For good reasons Spinoza held logical argument in higher esteem. The geometrical clarity with which the logical argument imposes itself means that, if valid, no reasonable objection can be brought against it. Even at its best, on the other hand, the Ghostbuster Argument is no more than persuasive. Concurrently, however, success through logical argumentation is very nearly unattainable. Spinoza also had a high regard for making metaphysical argument as unimpeachable as possible and for that reason he knew it had to maintain a certain abstraction and generality. The alternative at the time was to base metaphysical argument on some metaphysical theory whose success or downfall would entangle the arguments derived from it in its fate. If we may believe that Hobbes and Gassendi were partners in Spinoza’s atheistical project, then they placed their bets on a materialist metaphysics and, in Hobbes’ case, on a theory of mental faculties, which theories had other disadvantages besides their potential ruin. The restrictiveness of a positively asserted metaphysics of materialism courts the doctrinaire and intolerant and is out of step with the open-mindedness of proper metaphysical speculation. The unsuccess of Spinoza’s logical argument (and indeed the probable failure of any logical arguments involving the concept of existence or theories about what exists) does not vitiate Spinoza’s implied caution against opposing one doctrine with another. And of course Spinoza had the Ghostbuster Argument to back him up.

Spinoza’s actual argument is genetic in nature. That is, it shows the likely historical and anthropological sources of our ideas of God with the aim in view that, once we become aware of those sources, we will have good reason to understand we just made up the idea of God perhaps after a night of particularly hard drinking. These sources occurred as a stepwise series of faulty or at least unsupported conclusions primitive men drew in observing the natural world:

(1) Men mostly do things for reasons. They try to survive, they seek nourishment, they acquiesce to their lusts etc. Consequently they conclude, analogously and incorrectly, that everything occurs for a reason. Since all occurrences, e.g. the growth of plants, are for a reason, then the things involved in those occurrences, viz. the plants themselves, must be there for a reason.

(2) There are obviously no reasons to be found in the things or occurrences themselves. The things are just there and the occurrences just happen. So men erroneously examined their own motives and asked, “What would be my reasons if I were to ordain that these things exist or that these occurrences happen”

(3) Noticing that many parts of their own bodies clearly existed for the purpose of maintaining them in a pleasant existence, such as teeth for eating and penises and clitorises for tickling etc, they concluded analogously and incorrectly that all things including things outside themselves were there for the purpose of maintaining them in a pleasant existence. Thus, for example, the reason fish exist is to nourish men (All men except Vikings, of course). This inference contains two errors. First it is a mistake to conclude that all things exist to serve men; secondly it is a mistake to conclude that external things exist to serve men by analogy with the parts of their own bodies.

(4) Recognizing rightly that they were not responsible for most occurrences in nature and that they themselves did not create the things around them, they concluded erroneously based on (3) that since these things showed the signs of purpose, that someone else must be responsible for all this. You might call this the Wizard of Oz stage of theological infamy.

(5) Since the wizard clearly had their best interests in mind they concluded erroneously that he must be very much like them.

(6) However, it is difficult to see the beneficial purpose behind any number of occurrences like the odd hurricane. At this point the true spirit of horseshit first asserted itself in human civilization. Someone concluded: The wizard must sometimes act in ways we cannot understand. We are limited and cannot know everything. So let’s give the wizard the benefit of the doubt. His ways are mysterious and beyond the comprehension of finite mortals. By the way, let’s call him “God.”

I am clearly making the primitives in our genetic reconstruction sound like 18th century shepherds. I will leave it to the reader’s imagination to supply all the grunting, screeching, massacres and tortures and other assorted mayhem that more likely than not accompanied this incipient philosophizing. Accordingly, in the spirit of the Spinoza of the Tractatus who said some fairly reasonable things about Joshua, Jericho, the sun and all that, let us apply this model to one of mankind’s earliest anthropological records, the Eden myth. One could easily imagine that Adam and his consort were on the cusp of a rather radical climate change and, while things were not perfect in the endless summer of the tropical region they inhabited, their situation from the retrospect of some particularly bitter winter must have felt like Paradise. The warmth permitted them to romp in unfettered nudity (Presumably they had evolved far enough to forget that great grandma was covered with hair) and being curious creatures they were always on the look out for new sources of food. Adam came up with a reason for this and explained to the ever attentive Eve that some good natured but unknown fellow was wont to leave new things hidden in the bushes to tickle their palates. It simply amused that fellow to do so and Adam dubbed their situation the Great Edenic Easter Egg Hunt. One day Eve found some remarkable fruits that tasted suspiciously like Jacobean apples. But a neighboring tribe felt particularly possessive of the apple tree and concluded not unreasonably that if its fruits were left for the taking there would quite soon befall an insufficiency of apples. So the neighbors determined to send over the largest and most imposing member of their clan to inform our common parents in no uncertain terms that the apples were off limits. Eve would have none of it however and so, once the giant was out of sight, she boldly bit into the forbidden fruit. She quickly apprised Adam that the threatened consequences might not be forthcoming and the pair gorged themselves on this tasty delight. Around this time for reasons known only to Newton the jet stream brought polar winds unnaturally far south beginning a trend that was to last a rather long time. The apples and much other nourishment disappeared and for the first time in their lives Adam and Eve went to bed hungry. It was natural for Adam to conclude that the good fellow who had been leaving them treats was displeased and that he was also responsible for the cold weather since, if he was powerful enough to strew apples hither and yon, he must also be in possession of some super thermostat. Of course, because of the cold, nudity was now out of the question which did not bother Adam and Eve much since they were getting a little tired of each other anyway. (Adam sometimes found himself musing that sex might be much better if he could just score with one of those Cro-Magnon babes.) In a fit of sexual lassitude Adam told Eve she looked ridiculous and that she should fit herself for a fig leaf, or at least a hot bikini. Eve naturally took great offense and inwardly resolved that Adam would never see the goodies again unless he agreed to do all the foraging and support her in the style to which she was soon to become accustomed. So she threw on not a bikini but a shapeless bear skin and from that time on women only became nude for at least $500 an hour. Adam was not finished, however, particularly since Eve looked worse than ever in her bearskin; so he began to blame Eve for the climate change. He suspected that the apples were the property of their benefactor and the cold was his punishment for their poaching. He even intimated that the benefactor might somehow be in league with the threatening giant. Peevishly Adam reproached Eve for the discovery of the apples in the first place and demanded how she could even think of devouring someone else’s property (Adam was clearly a Lockean before the fact). Stung by his reproach Eve defended herself as best she could. A dialogue ensued which should not be unfamiliar to anyone who has had to deal with an adolescent female:

“I didn’t want to do it but he told me to do it.”

“Who told you to do it”

“You know, he did.”

“I heard you the first time. Who is he”

Eve had been staring disapprovingly all this time at Adam’s penis for our unfortunate ancestor had in the heat of the moment deferred the act of covering himself. So she said,

“The snake!”

“What snake”

“The snake that was in the apple tree, silly.”

“I didn’t know that snakes could talk.”

“This one can. He said, ‘Godammit, eat the apple!’ ”

“Clearly God acts in mysterious ways”

At that moment the giant reappeared, furious over the disappearance of his tribe's apples and he drove Adam and Eve to distant lands where they tearfully filled the ears of their offspring with tales of the lost Paradise. And thus is explained not only how men got their ideas of God but also the origin of sin and the source of most roundhead preaching.

Typically for Spinoza four threads of argument get intertwined in the Appendix. The first is his genetic treatment of the origins of our notions of God. The second is the status of causal or teleological reasoning as a way of demonstrating the existence of God. The third is the status of causal or teleological reason as a framework for scientific research. Finally Spinoza examines the doctrine that our knowledge of God’s purposes is imperfect – a doctrine used by Descartes and others to explain error in judgment and falsehood – in order to dismiss it as a clearly concocted excuse for the occurrence of natural disasters and other misfortunes. These threads are confused because Spinoza argues that men came to a notion of a God by means of a faulty teleological interpretation of nature.

Spinoza anticipates Hume here as in so many other loci by broaching what would come to be called the design proof of the existence of God. This argument maintained a certain shabby respectability at least sufficient to draw the scorn of Spinoza and Hume and the grudging respect of Kant until advances in genetics and biology pretty well killed it off. Any nostalgic respectability it may have retained, however, was reduced to mere farce when, under the name of “intelligent design” or “creationism” it was resurrected by a party of roundheads in the slave-owning American South. One cannot underestimate how much at least virtually Hume owes to Spinoza in disposing of this argument.

In disputing teleological explanation as the goal of scientific research Spinoza really sketches the basis of modern scientific method. He also anticipates by several centuries some modern theories that the human mind is so constructed that it cannot but see order in nature. In an admirably succinct statement of what distinguishes modern science or "natural philosophy" Spinoza characterizes ostensibly Aristotelian science as occupied only with the final causes of things, viz. the reasons why things are, a pursuit that due to its fruitlessness leads inevitably to obscurantism. The mathematical treatment of nature, on the other hand, "deals not in final causes, but in the essences and properties of figures," thus offering "to men another standard of truth." We can gloss this observation by remembering that Galileo simply stopped asking why iron balls fell to the ground. Rather he measured the speed and acceleration of their descent. By recording and accumulating results of this sort scientists found unsuspected regularities that allowed the summation of their observations in a remarkably economical set of generalizations signaling a predictability about natural occurrences and the creation of miracles (or at least what appeared to be miracles to the common mind) whose validity and benefit far exceeded the fantasies of the Bible.

Spinoza's attack on the concept of a final cause in his Appendix appears incompatible with his use of the concept of cause in proving the existence of substance in the text proper of the First Part. Further consideration, however, proves to be enlightening in that in throws light on the real intention behind that very confusing and confused text. To say there are no final causes but that substance (or nature or God) causes itself ("self-created" is the phrase he uses in the Appendix) appears to be straight up a contradiction. The contradiction disappears, however, if we understand that by self-caused or self-created Spinoza means that nature and the things of nature are just there, that there is no reason for their existence, and that we should just measure their behavior and forego looking for mysterious and hidden reasons. Spinoza's criticisms do not extend to efficient causes and motives and indeed throughout the Appendix Spinoza searches for the causes of men's beliefs of this and that. Occurrences do have histories and it is part of scientific research to discover and record those histories. Indeed the gloss on "cause of itself" to mean that substance is the efficient cause of itself  (I Prop. XVI Corollaries I-III), if it is to mean anything at all, must mean that substance (nature, the universe, the things of nature) is just there.

Spinoza assures us that his attack on teleological explanation is fully supported from a logical standpoint by I props. 16 and 32 from the main text. In fact the opposite is true. What Spinoza says in the Appendix helps us finally understand what he means in those otherwise thoroughly baffling passages. When he says that God, i.e. the universe, acts by necessity he means that to attribute will or voluntary behavior to the universe is a kind of category mistake. The universe has no will. Necessity means that things just happen and nobody decided to make them happen. Necessity does not mean that things could not have been otherwise. Spinoza speaks in terms of God acting by free will or necessity because he wanted to convert identical statements by Anselm into a metaphysics comprehensible to and compatible with natural science. All he does, however, is make "necessity" mean something completely different in his version from whatever it may have meant to Scholastic theologians. They have their own problems with obscurity which arise from the shotgun marriage of Platonic philosophy with New Testament superstition.

Note 1:  Were it not for the Appendix there would be little reason to believe that the Ethics, or at least Part I was anything more than a restatement of Cartesian proofs from the Meditations in deductive form (Just as Spinoza had done earlier with the Principia philosophiae). Even the much pondered identification of God and nature appears to echo passages in Descartes such as: “…par la nature, considérée en general, je n’entends maintenant autre chose que Dieu même, ou bien l’ordre et la disposition que Dieu a établie dans les chose créées.” (Meditations, Pléiade, p. 326.) (It is somewhat improbable that this statement is meant to have the status of a logical identity for Descartes between God and nature. Perhaps it is nothing more than a rhetorical flourish.) One may also note that Spinoza’s argument for one substance is remarkably similar to Anselm’s argument that there is only one God, and since Spinoza does identify God and substance, terminologically at least they are almost identical (The critical difference being that for Anselm and Descartes there are many substances one of which is God while for Spinoza there is only one substance and that substance is God).

Note 2: It is a pleasure to highlight a few passages in this Appendix which, like the famous paragraph on thrones and clouds in the Tractatus, show us where Spinoza’s heart really lies: “…each individual has devised, in accordance with his own nature, different ways of worshipping God, that God may love him above the rest and direct the whole of nature for the gratification of his blind cupidity and insatiable avarice.” And, men try to show that “nature does nothing in vain,” but, “they appear to have shown nothing else than that nature, the Gods and men are all mad.” And, “the will of God,” is “the asylum of ignorance.”

Note 3: At the end of the Appendix Spinoza adds a remarkably prescient passage where he provides a genetic treatment of value concepts like good and bad, order and confusion and beautiful and ugly (as well as hot and cold). Short and to the point, Spinoza finds that, like the concept of God,  these concepts also derive from individual self interest. The subject recurs in the Fourth Part at greater length, but we should not forget that the association of the concept of good with that of utility reposes on the factual and arbitrary origins of these concepts traced in this Appendix. Burke and Nietzsche were to take Spinoza's style of genetic analysis much further.

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