Spinoza In Plain English pt 10b: God Acts Without Purpose (Book 1 Appendix)
This is the latest post in my quixotic attempt to write an accessible commentary on all of Spinoza’s Ethics. See here for An Introduction To Spinoza or start the series at the beginning with Spinoza In Plain English pt.1: Substance.
In the appendix to Book 1 Spinoza sets out to demolish what he says is the primary obstacle to understanding what he has written so far: the “prejudice” that God acts with a purpose.
Spinoza says this belief originates because “human beings commonly suppose that, like themselves, all natural things act for a purpose.” This results from the fact that human beings are born ignorant of the causes of things but conscious of their own appetite and volitions. In other words, we we experience things from the standpoint of our own desires and choices, but do not generally experience our desires and choices with reference to what causes them.
Humans need only be aware of the final, or immediate preceding cause of a thing in order to act, i.e. in order to have a workable understanding of our own actions all we need to be aware of is the immediate motivation and volition behind an action.
We have no need to understand the more complex chain of causation behind these things in order to function on a day to day level. As a result we believe that our own will is a sufficient explanation for our activities, and when we look at other things project this outwards. When judging other people this tendency is in fact even more pronounced, which is why we tend to view other people as having chosen their behaviour despite the fact that we might have more understanding of how circumstances drove our own choices.
Spinoza argues that we once believed objects themselves were also directed by conscious, deliberate will, which is what gives rise to animism. Gradually we reduced the number of things animated by “gods” until we have one God behind everything.
Seeing that we are surrounded by many things useful to us, we believe them to be designed by this one God, and for our use. Following on this we conceive strategies to win the affections of this God so as to have Him bend all the things to our purposes.
In striving to believe that everything in nature has reference to ourselves and acts for our sake we then need to explain the many events in nature which are disastrous for human beings as the result of divine anger, despite the fact that, as Spinoza says, “the daily evidence of experience to the contrary, which proves by any number of examples that advantages and disadvantages indiscriminately befall the pious and the impious alike.”
Note here that Spinoza does not say “the wise and unwise alike” or “the good and bad alike.” Spinoza does think that wisdom and good deeds have good consequences and are rationally worthy of pursuit; here what he is pointing out is that religious piety itself has no inherent connection to prosperity- something indeed abundantly evident.
Aspects of religious life- an ethical code, a supportive community, transcendent experiences- are all clearly beneficial and Spinoza in fact argues in favor of the benefit of these things in his Theological-Political Tractate. What he is arguing here is that belonging to a certain religion does not bend the arc of the cosmos towards your own protection and prosperity.
Spinoza says that mathematics (with which we should include physics) has now led humans on a path away from teleology (the belief that all things happen for a purpose) towards a more objective and empirical understanding. What he’s saying is that enlightenment science- which was then its very infancy, though Spinoza was among “early adopters”- is showing that it is the impersonal forces of mathematics, or what we might call physics, that runs the show, not purposeful forces or the hand of a personal deity or deities.
Spinoza then says that he feels he has adequately shown that nature acts for no purpose and that all “final causes” (singular causes or purposes) are “mere human fancies.” Things arise from a complex wen of causality, not from any one thing (like a human choice) or for for any one purpose (like a future utopia or universal enlightenment). All things follow from logical necessity from the nature of Reality itself (i.e. from the totality).
Spinoza also argues that believing that God has purposes would, ironically, diminish the perfection of God so cherished by theologians. That would mean that God lacked something (since purpose and motivation result from lack). This builds on a point he made earlier when he said that if God were to act with a purpose he would be making decisions based on something outside himself, like a person setting up a target and aiming at it. For Spinoza this is absurd; there is nothing outside of God and nothing that God could lack. Therefore the concept of “purpose” with regards to God is simply meaningless.
In fact these problems have not escaped the notice of contemporary theologians, some of whom have proposed an evolving or imperfect God, and even a God who needs. For Spinoza, though, such a god would not be what he means by God at all but at best a kind of demi-urge or very powerful being within God whose nature and existence leaves the ultimate questions about God and Being still untouched.
Returning to his main attack on teleology and anthropocentrism — the belief that humans are most central and important to the universe’s designs — Spinoza now turns to value judgments. Because he turns from the more abstract form of argument to something more like an essay here, I will quote him more:
After human beings had convinced themselves that everything that happens, happens for their own sakes, they were bound to believe that the most important thing in everything was what was most useful to themselves and to put the very highest value on all those things that affected them most favorably. Hence in order to explain the natures of things, they found themselves obliged to form the notions of good, bad, order, confusion, hot, cold, beauty and ugliness. Also, because they believe themselves to be free, the following notions arose: praise and blame, sin and merit.
Those who do not understand the nature of things but only imagine them have nothing to say about things and take imagination for intellect; that is why they believe firmly that there is an order in things, though they know nothing about them or about their own nature.
What he means is that humans mistake the way things appear to them to be the way things actually are; the sun, for instance, appears warm, good and benevolent to us and we think that is actually the way the sun is. Yet to someone in a dessert the sun is a malevolent, threatening monster. The sun is not, in fact, good or bad, nor was it designed for our benefit.
For we say that things are well ordered or ordered when they are arranged in such a way that we can easily imagine them and therefore easily recall them when they are represented to us through our senses, but if they are not so arranged, we say that they are badly ordered or confused.
What Spinoza means here is that some things, say for instance a flower, appear to us to be well-ordered and beautiful, pleasing to the eye. By contrast, a garbage dump or rotting meat swarming with maggots appears to be chaos and ugliness. In fact, we are mistaking the effect of a thing on us for its objective nature; there is just as much order and perfection in the maggot-swarmed meat as there is in the rose.
For a more vivid proof of this, imagine how a fly would feel about the comparison. To the senses of a fly, should they have a more complex brain, the rotting mess would seem a marvel of perfect order, beauty and perfection tailor-made to their benefit. The flower would seem irrelevant at best, ugly chaos at worse. It might even seem repellent or horrifying- if, for example, the flower was poisonous or contained insect repellant chemicals.
Spinoza then goes on to point out that God does not possess this kind of biased imagination and therefore has no sense of beauty or ugliness. All is perfect in God’s intellect.
For the last few paragraphs, I’ll let Spinoza speak for himself:
Then, all other notions are nothing but modes of imagining by which the imagination is affected in different ways, and yet they are considered by ignorant people to be salient attributes of things because, as we have already said, they believe that all things were made for their own sakes, and they call a thing’s nature good or bad, healthy or diseased and corrupt, depending on how it affects them. For example, if a motion that the nerves receive from objects represented through the eyes is good for their health, the objects that cause the motion are said to be beautiful and those that cause the contrary motion are called ugly….
We see therefore that the notions by which ordinary people habitually explain nature are only modes of imagining and that they do not indicate the nature of any thing but only the state of a person’s imagination; and because they have names as if of beings that exist outside of the imagination, I have called them beings of the imagination and not of reason.
“Beauty” and “order” then, as well as many other concepts, are “beings of the imagination” not of reason.
Some may feel a sense of loss if they are convinced by this argument, which amounts to the de-reification of beauty. A mountain is not inherently beautiful; it is so only to human beings. As we shall see, however, Spinoza plans to give something back with his other hand: the experience that all things and events are perfect and can direct the mind to equanimity and the love of God (the enjoyment of one’s own mind and the ordered, infinite power of Reality itself).
Spinoza has one more point to make:
If all things follow from the necessity of God’s most perfect nature, what is the source of all the many imperfections in nature? They give as examples things so decayed as to be completely putrid, things so terribly deformed as to make one ill, confusion, evil, sin, etc. But as I said just now, they are easily refuted. For the perfection of things is to be judged solely from their own nature and power, and therefore things are not more or less perfect because they please or offend human senses or because they are favorable or inimical to human nature.
To those who ask why God did not create all people to be governed by the guidance of reason alone, I simply answer that God had no lack of material for creating all things from the highest degree of perfection to the lowest; or more properly speaking, because the laws of nature itself were so ample that they sufficed to produce everything that can be conceived by an infinite intellect…
In other words, why did God create deluded people? Because it was possible. That’s what God does: God creates everything that it is possible.
For the next in this series, please click here.