First Part of Spinoza’s Ethica: Concerning God

[ Page 1] [ Page 2 ] [ Page 3 ] [ Page 5 ]

Reconstructing Spinoza’s Arguments

To recap: Spinoza did not prove that substance as he defines "substance" is a cause of itself as he defines "cause of itself." So he did not prove that substance exists by definition. Likewise Spinoza did not prove that there is only one substance that exists by definition. He did successfully establish a sort of identity between God and substance for no other reason than that he defines God as substance.

Is this the end of the story? Not really, for the underlying motive behind the sequence of propositions in the First Part of the Ethics is to provide a conclusive geometrical or logical proof that there is no transcendent God. The Appendix is a forceful genetic argument that there is no transcendent God.  The logical proof fails because it accepts the standard that the propositions must follow with logical necessity from the definitions and premises. And we have seen above that they do not.  However, the failure is due in another sense not so much from the rigorous standard of proof as from the conclusion Spinoza tries to reach in order to disallow the transcendence of God. He argues for a strong conclusion, namely:

IV.  Substance exists necessarily; it is the only thing that exists necessarily; God is substance.

By way of an aside Spinoza’s meaning can be a little more vividly understood if one replaces the intentionally and justifiably bland term “substance” with the more concrete term “nature,” as Spinoza himself often did, or even the term “the universe.” If we do that, then we have a version of the strong conclusion that reads:

(IVa) The universe exists necessarily; it is the only thing that exists necessarily; God is the universe.

(IVa) is much more easily graspable but only because it is potentially much more misleading.

Now in order to arrive at the non–transcendence of God Spinoza only needs to prove a weaker conclusion. The weaker conclusion appears to be:

V. It cannot be proved that there is anything except substance.

The vivid counterpart of (V) is, of course:

 Va. It cannot be proved that there is anything except the universe

(V) appears to reduce the burden of proof on Spinoza’s part while retaining its character as a strictly logical argument. However, by stating that no such proof is possible, (V) re-imposes an equally high standard on the success of Spinoza’s argument. Simply because we don’t have a proof now that there is something besides substance, we cannot conclude that some clever philosopher at a future date might not devise a proof that there is something besides substance. That eventuality may seem unlikely but our standard is logical conclusiveness. “Unlikely” is not enough. We would need “impossible.”

However, Spinoza does successfully argue for something else that may be less categorical than (IV) or (V) but is still very compelling and in fact very revolutionary. It also has the virtue of moving him closer to his real goal:

VI.   The current logical proof of the existence of God is no more than a proof of the existence of substance.

Again in order to make (VI) more vivid we can re-state it as:

VIa. The current logical proof of the existence of God is no more than a proof of the existence of the universe.

The “current” logical proof of the existence of God is, of course, the celebrated ontological proof that originated with Anselm of Canterbury. The First Part of Spinoza’s Ethics through Proposition XV (Arguments I-III in our discussion) is a wonderfully sournois restatement of Anselm's version of ontological proof for the existence of God to show that it proves no more than the existence of substance and that substance is not God or at least not the Christian God. Spinoza's proof does not relate as directly to Descartes' proof in the Third  Meditation because Descartes frames his version in terms of mental activity, namely there must be an external cause for my idea of an infinite substance. At the stage of the Ethics where Spinoza proposes his ontological proof he has not even introduced a concept of mind.

Before going on to construct what I believe is a defensible argument in favor of our version of Spinoza's basic assertions in the First Part of the Ethics let's clear the decks and formulate a final version his three assertions without using vague terms like "substance." Let us recall his three assertions are: (I) Substance exists necessarily; (II) Only one substance exists; (III) God is Substance. Substance is God.

The revised versions of these assertions are:

VII. Something exists.

VIII. Nothing else exists in addition to what exists.

IX. Call what exists "God" if you want to.

These revised versions probably don't sound as grand as Spinoza's originals, but they do have the advantage of being defensible. It may help in understanding the importance of these assertions if one follows the consequences of proving them. These consequences amount to what has not been proved by philosophers preceding Spinoza. Specifically philosophers have not proved the existence of anything in particular, even a shadowy something like substance. The only thing that can be proved to exist using their arguments is what exists. Secondly they have not proved the uniqueness of what they had thought they proved to exist. All they have proved is nothing exists besides what exists. Thirdly, no connection can be made between what has been proved to exist and the Mosaic or Christian God.

Let’s now try to rebuild the propositional Tao of the First Part of the Ethics.

Spinoza’s first conclusion was that the ontological proof for the existence of God proved no more than that something exists. What this something may be is not further specified by the proof itself. He does say that this something or substance is God but from the standpoint of the logic of his argument alone that is simply a terminological equivalence (He may have had other rhetorical, political or ironical reasons for stating this equivalence.) We may with equally justification say this substance is Jenna and that we have proved by reason alone that Jenna exists. We have seen above, however, that not only does Spinoza’s attempt to recast the ontological proof as showing an equivalence between conceptual dependence and causality fail, the ontological proof itself fails. So none of Spinoza’s arguments even succeed in proving that something exists. Nevertheless, a largely valid proof that something exists can be found in the Cartesian cogito. Spinoza comes within landfall of abandoning the ontological proof in favor of the Cartesian cogito in I Prop. XI Another Proof 2 where he says for other reasons, “either nothing exists or a being absolutely infinite necessarily exists. But we ourselves exist…” The Cartesian cogito does not prove that I exist or define except in an extremely restricted way what it means to exist or that I am still not dreaming etc. But we will appropriate the cogito as the most valid basis for concluding that something exists in order to move to the second conclusion.

Spinoza’s second conclusion is that only one substance has been proved to exist (where “substance” is defined only as whatever has been proved to exist by Spinoza’s proof) and that everything else is just a mode or an attribute of this one thing. We have seen above that Spinoza does not successfully prove that only one substance exists if specific attributes such as extension and thought are defined as attributes, infinite or finite, of this substance. Still, once we reconstruct the conclusion that there is only one substance into the more modest position that only what exists and nothing else exists, then we end up with a proof of the uniqueness of what exists by definition. At the very least a separate proof would be required to the effect that in addition to what exists there also exists some sort of God. And Spinoza’s proof of the uniqueness of substance is close enough to the scholastic Anselmian proof that there is only one God to permit us to presume that he is building on his mockery of Christian theology with this conclusion.

For if nature is substance and only one substance exists, then either:

a)   God is nature.

b) God is an attribute of nature.

c)   God is a mode of nature.

d) There is no God.

Even if the first conclusion is a failure, Spinoza still achieves his goal because the first conclusion fails if and only if the ontological proof also fails. Even if the second conclusion is a failure, Spinoza still achieves his goal because the second conclusion fails if and only if the theological proof that there is only one God also fails.

Note that (a) is the celebrated pantheism whose source is apparently Spinoza. Yet Spinoza’s text is a strictly logical formulation that traditional theological proofs about God fail to show anything other than the existence of nature. He draws no extended system of beliefs or behavior based on identification of God with nature. Specifically, he does not recommend ambling through the Alps or listening to Simon and Garfunkel.

Blyenbergh and Bayle lived much closer in time to Spinoza than Goethe and his pantheistic epigones so one may presume that the estimation of Spinoza as an atheist on the part of the former is largely accurate assuming that they did not have political or rhetorical reasons for defaming Spinoza (which may have motivated Bayle but probably not Blyenbergh). Even supposedly sober modern philosophers who tend to view Spinoza as a kind of philosophical forbear of deism are simply wrong and one wonders what motivates them aside from fear of being labeled Godless communists by the local deacon. Over and above the problems of pantheism and deism as coherent religious positions, the view that Spinoza’s philosophy in any way approaches either position is simply wrong. If anything else was needed to make it abundantly clear that the First part of the Ethics is meant to disprove logically the existence of God the Appendix should seal the deal. The Tao of the First Part is typical Spinoza. First he attempts to prove his point by “geometrical reasoning” for the benefit of the educated. This is the primary text of the First Part. Then he draws an argument for the same conclusion “from experience” for the benefit of “the common herd of believers,” the “masses, whose intellect is not capable of perceiving things clearly and distinctly” (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus). This is the Appendix to the First Part. In fact, as one may conclude from the Tractatus, this very two-part procedure is a parody of the relation between Christian theology and Scripture.

Note 1: Spinoza differs from Anselm in his concept of attribute and the notion of thought and extension as attributes. Anselm does think that the supreme substance or essence is infinite, without end etc., but he does not use the term attributum. Spinoza seems to have taken this term from Descartes but he defines it differently. For Descartes an attribute is an aspect which alone cannot be detached from a thing (“…un attribut qui m’appartient: elle seule ne peut être détachée de moi.” Méditation seconde (Pleiade p. 277) For Spinoza attribute is what the intellect conceives as constituting the essence of substance. There is ground for belief that, given the differences between Descartes’ and Spinoza’s conceptions of substance, their senses of “attribute” may come down to the same thing. But showing that would be an exhausting and not evidently fruitful voyage.

Note 2: A lot of ink has been spilled beginning with Leibniz about whether there is only one or many substances. These ruminations are about as decidable and fruitful as mediaeval hand wringing about whether God is three-in-one or one-in-three. Spinoza’s sole purpose in his one substance argument is to use scholastic theology to prove that there is no God outside of nature. Whether a metaphysical system can be built on one or many substances is, in the context of the Ethics where genuine ontological issues such as nominalism and realism are not brought up, is both trivial and silly.

It is hard to say what the one substance argument really means or what picture it actually paints of the universe if it is understood as an ontological claim. Hume erroneously regarded it that way and ended up calling it a kind of substrate. Spinoza's substance is definitely not some universal life force. Certainly the resulting ontology would be an admirable example of simplicity and economy that would make Ockham proud. For if we regard the one substance argument as an ontological theory then, according to that theory, only one thing exists.

Note 3: Spinoza’s one substance proof in the first part of the Ethics, it should be clear, is not directed at Descartes’ distinction between mind and body as two separate substances (It is solely intended to be a mockery of theological proofs that there is only one God) . The attack on that particular doctrine of Descartes comes in Part II.

Note 4: Spinoza tried to accomplish what very few philosophers have even attempted, namely an actual disproof of the existence of God using logic alone or the Scholastic logic that was available to him. He may have anticipated that he would be accused of engaging in both cloudy speculation and atheism. That would have been a bit like being fired at from both sides at the Battle of Blenheim. These accusations are valid except that, as long as Spinoza’s arguments are accepted as logical, they are far from cloudy. The need for a logical disproof can be seen if we think of the inadequacies of the alternative approach which involves two highly speculative metaphysical theories, namely materialism and the faculty theory of the human mind. Spinoza’s successors in the 18th century would retreat to the safe haven of Humean skepticism and Kantian criticism. However, these successors relied heavily on the faculty theory of mind and, in Hume’s case, on the concept of raw sensory data, just as the Irish relied heavily on potatoes. Now that we have had to undergo the Great Sense Data and Faculty Theory Famine, Spinoza’s approach - or elements of that approach - does not look so bad.

Note 5: You can call what exists "God" if you want particularly if you prefer not to have a gang of Dutch burghers drag you into the street. I prefer to call what exists "Tanya Danielle." She's cuter.

Note 6: Heidegger speaks longingly of the destruction of Western metaphysics in Being and Time. You want destruction? Well, this is destruction. [ Next ]

[ Page 1] [ Page 2 ] [ Page 3 ] [ Page 5 ]