Baruch Spinoza: Genius, Jew, Heretic

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October 30, 2022

14 min read

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The Jewish struggle with the ideas of a philosopher who left the fold.

For a practicing Jew, the work of Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza, can be a bit of a tangle. On the one hand, he was obviously brilliant and was a rare success story - a homegrown boy who “made it” in the gentile-dominated world of philosophy. On the other hand, his departure from his people, both physically and philosophically, feels rather tragic for those of us who continue to fly the flag of classical Judaism.

In an effort to understand, and perhaps come to terms with, some of Spinoza’s thinking I was privileged to correspond with Dr. Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes - a professional philosopher at the University of Exeter - and an expert on Spinoza (see below). As you can see, his answers are thorough, articulate and the product of a broad understanding of this topic.

That said, I now sit and ruminate over a large pile of new questions to his answers. These include what is the “mental universe”? On what basis did he claim to know anything about God’s nature or attributes (how would he know)? What does it mean that “God is the cause of itself?” Isn’t he just replacing the idea of one transcendent realm (the spiritual world) for another one (a transcendent aspect of our physical world)?

Such is philosophy. It’s an eternal Q&A plunge deeper and deeper into the soul of truth. I very much appreciate the opportunity to clarify my own understanding of Judaism through this lens.

For a deeper Judaic response to Spinoza and his work please read Spinoza: A Superb Intellect Sacrificed on the Altar of Human Arrogance by Avraham Edelstein.

1. Spinoza said, "God is Nature." What then, is "Nature?"

A number of commentators judged Spinoza (1632 – 1677) to be an atheist for this equalization of God with Nature. The suspicion was that if God is reduced and redefined as Nature, then, in fact, there is no God. Yet the suspicion is without merit: Rather than reduce God to Nature, Spinoza raised Nature to Godhood. For Spinoza, Nature is not mere spatiotemporal physicality, this is merely one aspect of God/Nature – as God is by definition perfect, God must also possess the attribute of physicality. In its concrete totality, God/Nature is all of the physical universe, but also all of the mental universe – all minds therein too. Moreover, there are an infinity of other types of subsistence – other than mind and physicality – that God/Nature also is, though we humans cannot fathom them. Furthermore, Nature has an “infinite intellect”, a universal consciousness, which supervenes all. For such reasons his metaphysical position is better regarded as “pantheism” (Nature is God), rather than atheism.

2. He was said to be "God drunk." Why? According to Richard Dawkins "the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."

Spinoza’s God or Nature – though certainly not equivalent to the dead, desolate universe that many physicalists such as Dawkins put their faith in – is not a god similar to the gods of the traditional religions. Neither atheist nor theist, Spinoza was nonetheless called God-drunk by Novalis because for him everything is ultimately divine. But this divinity has no concern for humanity, no concern for anything. Spinoza explicitly writes that “God loves no one, and hates no one.” (Ethics, VP17c) We cannot anthropomorphize God by attributing to God in-itself human emotions such as “concern” – but neither “indifference”. In likewise fashion, God/Nature is neither a moral judge nor lawgiver. There is fundamentally no good, no evil – these are “simply ways of thinking,” (Ethics, 4Pref.) not realities outside of our human way of thinking, and certainly not moral ideals that exist outside Nature: there is nothing outside of everything. Philosopher T. L. S. Sprigge framed this somewhat cold deity thus: “What people tend to feel is missing in Spinoza’s God is love for men and goodness. ... [But Spinoza finds] something to reverence in the terrifying side of nature…” (1984). God is terrifying.

3. Your book states "Our immortality is experienced as a 'mind collapsing into eternity'. Even if this infinity is fleeting." Is this not a contradiction in terms? Can immortality and eternality be "fleeting?"

Spinoza has vexed many readers by first arguing stringently for a mind-matter identity: that mind and matter are the same thing, merely perceived in different ways. This implies that if the body dies, so does the mind, as they are one and the same. If Venus is destroyed so is the Morning Star by the same principle. Thus is there no soul that survives the death of the body – that would be the view of the dualism that Spinoza replaces with his mind-matter identity theory. However, towards the end of his masterpiece, the Ethics (1677), he nonetheless states that: “The human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body, but something of it remains which is eternal.” (Ethics, VP23) “Eternal” here does not mean infinite in duration but rather outside of duration, outside of time. Though it is rather mystically put, and therefore variously interpreted, the general idea is that God/Nature in itself, that is, beyond the normal human way of perceiving it, is not in time – God is eternal. At death, our minds fuse with mind of God (the “infinite intellect”) which is timeless – the finite mind diffuses into the infinite mind. Furthermore, such an eternal type of existence can, Spinoza argues, be experienced before death: in a very rare state he calls “the Intellectual Love of God”. Here one likewise steps outside of time – yet one returns: this is how eternity can be fleeting. Some may argue against such a claim by asserting that the very condition of existence and experience is temporality (i.e. everything must exist in time to exist at all), but this is in fact a not-so-obvious deep philosophic, mathematical, and scientific issue without current resolution.

4. Spinoza thought that mind and matter are one and the same (and that there a very many expressions or "attributes" of it). That is very Kabbalistic and would seem to follow from any true monotheism. How did he come to this conclusion?

The only book Spinoza dared to publish non-anonymously was one on Descartes’ philosophy. Descartes was famously a “substance dualist”: he argued that mind and matter were two distinct substances that interacted. There were, Spinoza realised, a myriad of problems with such a view. An initial issue was that the essence of “substance” – the independent fundamental reality that sub-stands all perceived change – had to be of one type: the independent perfection that Spinoza called God or Nature. By definition therefore there could only be one substance (“monism”), not the two, the dualism, Descartes proposed. This monism of Spinoza’s therefore did away with many of the problems facing Descartes’s dualism, such as: how mind and matter interact (they don’t – just as Venus and the Morning Star do not interact); how mind emerges from matter (it doesn’t); how mind has an effect on the body in the sense of free will (there is no free will); etc. Many later thinkers, such as Einstein, appreciated Spinoza’s mind-matter monism because it offers a very parsimonious, ultimately simple way of understanding the relation between mind and matter: two expressions of the same substance, rather than two substances. Even today we can understand the so-called “neural correlates of consciousness” in this Spinozan manner: both correlates indicate the relation of identity: they are the same thing seen from two perspectives.

5. In Pantheism, is God aware of Itself? Of humanity? Why did/does It create?

The British astronomer Joseph Raphson coined “pantheism” referring to Spinoza’s metaphysics, though retrospectively one might count Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) and philosopher Henry Moore (1614–1687) as pantheists. Before that one sees a pantheistic strand running through Kabbalah, and in Eastern thought. In Spinoza’s form of pantheism, God/Nature, through its “infinite intellect” is aware of itself through its infinity of minds that constitute Nature/Itself in one aspect. Spinoza writes that the “human mind is a part of the infinite intellect of God” (Ethics, IIP11c), therefore God sees Itself through our eyes, but also through the perspectives of perception of all other things: plants, fungi, etc. (The notion that all entities have minds is known as “panpsychism”.)

As God/Nature is fundamentally timeless, there is also a single infinite cognition of Itself beyond all its infinite self-perspectives. This is the pure form of the infinite intellect, which loves Itself in its own ultimate way – a way very distinct from human love. God is the cause of Itself, which understanding causes Its self-love, which is a form of self-awareness. It follows that God cannot create anything outside of Itself because It is everything: past, present, future, and eternal. Further, there is no overriding purpose to everything for Spinoza. The universe exists without any general transcendent aim. However, each entity within God/Nature is distinguished by its own subjective purpose: the endeavour (“conatus”) to persist and develop in its own being. It is this endeavour that leads to values: they are thus ultimately subjective rather than objective. (It is partly this moral relativity that initially attracted Nietzsche to Spinoza.)

6. If the Universe is not infinite does Pantheism fail?

There are various types of infinity and there are various types of pantheism, so there is no absolute answer to this question. But if the meaning is that the universe began (and will end) in time, then Spinoza’s form of pantheism is, at the least, not sufficiently accurate. Yet there can exist other forms of pantheism which allow for a finite universe. Though many may believe that we now know that the universe did begin some fourteen billion years ago, this is actually a very contentious claim that many physicists now dispute. Moreover there are logical problems with the idea of absolute nothingness – the antithesis of infinite existence – that preclude the possibility of a finite Universe. If absolute nothingness is an oxymoron – as, for instance, philosopher Henri Bergson argues – then Spinoza’s form of pantheism is shielded from contemporary mainstream beliefs in such matters.

7. Is an infinite regress of causes an impossibility? If so, can the Universe be infinite?

Only if one begs the question: if one assumes that the universe is finite.

8. Is Spinozan Divine thought an immaterial thing? If so, isn't that transcendent rather than immanent? How is that unlike panentheism?

Some writers have defined Spinozism as “panentheism” rather than “pantheism”. The former means that all is within God; the latter that all is God. I consider the original epithet “pantheism” better not only for the historical reason mentioned but also because panentheism mostly implies that there is a transcendent realm outside of Nature: God is Nature and more – something Spinoza rejects. Divine thought – the infinite intellect – is not outside of Nature but is rather an aspect of Nature, it is therefore immanent rather than transcendent, and thus pantheistic rather than panentheistic. In Spinozism, Thought is not completely immaterial because matter is always paralleled by Thought because Thought (Mind) and Extension (Matter) are both expressions of the same thing: Substance/Nature/God. A finite mind is paralleled to a finite body, such as our human body; the infinite mind is paralleled to the infinite body: the physical universe. One can transcend materialism, but one cannot transcend all that exists.

9. In Panpsychism, does, say, a styrofoam cup have sentience? How do we know?

Panpsychism is then the view that all entities in Nature have some form of mentality: from humans, to insects, to plants, to molecules, and beyond. But a Styrofoam cup does not have a unified sentience in panpsychism because it is an aggregate rather than a partly self-sufficiently unit. There is an important distinction to be made in panpsychism, made already by Bruno in the sixteenth century, between subjective units and aggregates, A Styrofoam cup is an aggregate that has little self-sufficiency or self-determination, whereas a plant, for instance, has: it can grow, maintain itself, react to the environment in multiple ways, seek sustenance, etc. However, the molecules, as partly self-sufficient, sustaining entities, that comprise the cup will have very basic forms of mentality. The exact delineation between aggregates and individual units is an ongoing issue for panpsychism, but we have certain theories such as Spinoza’s individuation by conatus, Leibniz’s “monads”, Whitehead’s “actual occasions”, integrated information theory, etc. This determination is metaphysical rather than empirical due to the Problem of Other Minds: we cannot directly perceive the mind of another, we can only infer it. Therefore beyond biology and physics, we must seek answers in metaphysics for such questions.

10. Spinoza wrote that "the right of each thing extends as far as its determinate power does." In other words, "might makes right." Isn't this essentially an abandonment of morality and an explicit licence to do any heinous act that one is able to get away with?

It is an abandonment of traditional forms of morality that seek guidance in a transcendent realm. As there is no transcendent realm, there can exist no transcendent rights. Rights are gained within Nature by power. They are always based on subjective endeavour rather than transcendent, objective forms. Metaphysics determines ethics. Spinoza’s value system is thus naturalistic and can be seen from one angle as amoral. Yet his main work is called the Ethics. What Spinoza provides is a type of “Virtue Ethics” rather than any set of moral commands. Virtue Ethics harks back to the ancient Greek view that one seeks to attain tranquillity of mind, a certain cool – an ethics based on self-improvement and thus the improvement of society. Such virtue is attained for Spinoza when one gains knowledge of the workings of Nature, including psychology, and thereby when one gains certain control over one’s behaviour and menatlity. Because God/Nature is perfect and ultimately timeless, It cannot exist in any way but the way it is. When one accepts this fatalism, one rejects blame, remorse, pity, anger, envy, and other harmful emotions. Such understanding moves one away from wanting to commit heinous acts, to embrace a more accepting approach to oneself, others, and the cosmos. In this sense, the rejection of traditional morality leads to a more moral comportment.

11. Since Spinoza does not believe in free will would he agree that it's not possible for any person to choose to embrace his ideas? If so, why did he write about them? (He had no choice?)

Spinoza does not believe in Free Will though he does believe in Freedom and Mental Causation. He rejects Free Will because the will is determined by prior causes of which one is mostly ignorant. Free will is also rejected because Nature is in itself timeless and so the future has as much reality as the past, and is thus set. One is not free to change it. However, the more one understands Nature and the causes therein that determine Nature, including oneself as part of Nature, the more control one gains over it, over oneself. This degree of power is one’s degree of Freedom: one thinks and reacts to life in a more thoughtful manner. Freedom is autonomy, and hence, as Spinoza puts it, “Virtue is human power itself.” (Ethics, IVP20d) It seems paradoxical to say that Freedom is gained by understanding that everything is determined, yet it makes sense that the autonomy of a person is determined just as one’s body, intelligence, creativity, and personality is determined. Of course, such things can be altered and determined during one’s life – causation does not stop at conception.

Yet nonetheless, they are all determined – all things have causes, even God is the cause of Itself. Thus one can be determined to embrace Spinoza’s ideas, but one cause that will determine this is the reading of his work. Spinoza’s action of writing was also determined. But one must realise that that which determines action is not merely physical causes because the physical, as we saw, is but one expression of a greater totality that is God/Nature. This is why fundamentally “God … is the cause of all things.” (Ethics, IP18). Mental causation, including conatus, is but another expression of the divine action that physical causation also expresses. God/Nature is akin to a play: the ending and the events exist and are determined before the curtains are raised. Yet during the play one action leads to another, one thought to another, one character is more autonomous, more free, than another. All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players.

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