OK. We gotta start somewhere, and I suppose this is it.
So in the early 1600s, this guy called Descartes comes along and thinks about things and figures that basically everything can be boiled down to two substances.
A substance is what something basically can be boiled down to.
So, take a block of ice, a puff of mist, and a puddle.
At first glance, you might suppose that these are three totally different things. But when you inquire further, you find that these are actually the same thing, just modified to take different forms. Fundamentally, they are all just water.
OK. But there are other things that aren’t water. Like rocks and pebbles and lightning and large rocks and stuff.
And Descartes says that all these things can be boiled, broken, reduced down to one thing — a substance — called Matter.
OK. But there are other things that aren’t matter. Like thoughts and emotions and stuff.
So now we have two substances. Matter and Mind.
But then there’s a problem.
We get how water and rocks can interact — because they’re fundamentally the same kind of thing.
But how can mind and matter interact, if they’re fundamentally different?
Also, where do they come from?
Descartes had the extremely bright and original idea of saying that these substances were created by this thing called God, which is exactly the same God that the Christian Church had been talking about.
This God created these two substances, out of Nothing.
And God is constantly going around making sure that these two things can communicate with each other and meet up to go for coffee and then maybe a movie later.
This is the Cartesian view of the world, and it basically makes no sense.
Along comes a guy called Spinoza. And he says this.
There are not two substances. There is only one substance. Everything can be boiled down to one thing.
So the fundamental mystery of mind-matter dualism vanishes in a puff of green smoke.
But the distinction turns out to be useful, so we’ll come back to it at the beginning of the next part.
So what is this one thing which everything can be reduced to?
Spinoza calls it God.
The thing is, he also calls it Nature.
The official phrase is “God, or Nature”. In Latin: Deus, sive Natura.
So the whole division between Religion and Irreligion/Atheism/Secularism also disappears in a puff of green smoke.
So, Aristotle divided Theoretical Philosophy into Mathematics, Physics, and Theology.
For Spinoza, when a physicist (also known as a natural philosopher) talks about Nature, and when a Theologian talks about God, they’re talking about exactly the same thing.
(Famously, he also refuses to see the distinction between these two and mathematics, but we’ll leave that one be.)
To keep things short and simple, he generally just uses the term God. So I will too. Another reason I will do so is because the concept is actually a bit closer to what you think of when you think of God than it is to what you think of when you think of Nature. But they’re interchangeable, and I’ll freely switch between them.
Thing is, you can actually call it all kinds of things.
The Universe. The Multiverse. This Be the Verse.
The Big Computer In the Sky That Runs the Whole Re-re-reverse-verse-verse.
These are all just different words to refer to precisely the same thing, so I’ll throw them in occasionally. Especially “Reality”. I think that’s probably the one which will get the fewest knickers stuck in twists.
So, what’s this God thing like?
First off, it exists.
You might have already started thinking the wrong thing.
You might have gone down the “does God exist? If yes, you’re a Theist or Deist. If not, then you’re an Atheist” rabbit hole which particularly short-sighted molerats seem to like burrowing into.
When Spinoza says “God exists”, it’s like saying “A river flows.” “A swimmer swims.” “Water waters.” “Jello jiggles.” “Mr. Biggles.”
God, or Nature, exists. That is all it does. It’s not like “God is this thing which creates the world and judges its inhabitants… and also, he exists.”
God is existence. It is being. It be. It isn’t anything else but that. All It ever does is exist. Constantly. All the time. All the place. A lot. Forever. Very intensely. Mucho. So much. Aahh, ouch, ouch — OK, please not that much right here right now, OK? I gotta keep typing this. Settle down please, Sir.
Anyway. If at this point, you’re like “Yes but why does it exist? How come there’s something rather than nothing? What is it about the swimmer moving through water that makes such an action ‘swimming’?”, then I’m sorry, I don’t know what I can do for you. Presumably, “…because it does. because it is.” isn’t gonna work for you. And you’ll already have heard “…because if Something [a.k.a. God, a.k.a. Nature] didn’t exist, then we wouldn’t be here having this conversation.” And that clearly wasn’t enough to satisfy you. So I dunno what I can say. From that point, it’s just mysticism, folks. I’m sorry.
Secondly, it’s infinite.
That’s really a big part of the whole thing.
And it is infinite in infinitely many ways.
So, whatever you’re thinking about this God/Nature thing — yes, it does that, and it does it way more than you’re thinking.
And whatever you’re not thinking about it, it does that too.
Without any limit.
So, because it is totally infinite, there can’t be anything else. Cus if there were “something else”, that would be “something”. And “something” is already included in “everything”. And God, or Nature, is Everything. That’s its definition. And there can’t be something that isn’t included in Everything.
With this, another stubborn dichotomy is erased: that of the distinction between “God” — the Creator — and “the World” — this thing that God created.
God is infinite. That means God is everything. That means that there is no room for anything else — specifically, a “world” which exists separately from God.
So, no more transcendent-immanent dichotomy.
……….……..that said, the distinction between Everything-as-Everything and particular things like you and me and water and rocks is a very useful one.
…kind of indispensable, it turns out.
And so, immediately after eliminating the dichotomy, Spinoza recreates it by distinguishing between “Natura naturans” and “Natura naturata.”
Natura naturans is “Nature, naturing”.
God, insofar as It generates things.
Natura naturata is “Nature, natured”.
God, insofar as it is generated.
(Basically, N-naturans is God the Creator, and N-naturata is the World.
But shush, shuuush, let’s pretend I didn’t say that.
It’ll be our little secret, OK?)
So when we look at Reality, we can distinguish between Reality As Such — Reality as a Whole — and particular bits of Reality.
Reality as a Whole exists totally — always and everywhere.
(“Its essence involves existence”).
Particular bits of reality don’t exist totally — always and everywhere.
So, wherever you are, whatever’s happening… Reality is there.
It’s right here as I’m typing this, for example.
Socrates (for example) is a particular bit of reality.
And Socrates isn’t currently sitting on my lap, trying to stick his pinkie up my nose.
Reality-as-such, however, is currently sitting on my lap, very successfully sticking its pinkie up my nose. So to speak. And every other part of me, as it happens.
It’s a simple point.
There’s God/Nature, insofar as It Is Everything. And that’s constant.
And there’s God/Nature, insofar as It is particular things. And that’s not constant — that’s always different, depending on which bit it is.
So we have these two aspects of Reality (Natura naturans and Natura naturata).
But the point is that there are *NOT* two realities.
There is just Reality.
That is very important. If that weren’t the case, then we’d basically be screwed — God would be infinitely far away, and we’d all be cast adrift here, not really able to exist at all… and, what’s worse, stuck with only each other for company. Which would technically make this Hell. Which is bad.
But that isn’t what’s happening. God is here with us. God is everywhere. There is only God.
But for the sake of understanding, we distinguish between All of Reality and individual things which take place in Reality.
But anyway — the main point is that the whole point of this Spinozist project is understanding that we are actually One with the Whole of Reality.
Even though we are a particular thing which isn’t, in fact, the whole of Reality, we are actually, in some sense, the whole of Reality.
Let me put it this way.
- There are things other than you.
- Therefore, you are not, in fact, Everything.
- This, essentially, sucks. Because FOMO, basically.
- But… if you think about it… you are actually, in fact, also Everything.
Because how the hell are you supposed to exist without the Whole of Reality backing you up in that? Just snap your fingers and create yourself from nothing? That would make you God Almighty.
But you’re not God Almighty. I mean, just look at you! You can barely get out of bed in the morning!
But you do exist.
So you must, in some sense, actually be God Almighty.
Cus only God has the ability to bring things into existence.
So how could you exist if you weren’t, in fact, God?
………..but we’ll get to all this at the end of Part 5. It will make as much sense as anything does by then, don’t worry.
For now: Reality is just one thing, but we can think of it as having two layers:
- every single thing
- the Thing that generates and sustains them
So God exists. And It’s infinite.
That means that It is very, very, very powerful.
Because it is able to exist infinitely. It is able to be Everything, and generate every thing.
It needs a lot of energy for that.
Thankfully, it has a lot of energy!
Because that’s what it is!
So that’s good.
Point is: it’s very powerful.
Remember that — it will be important later. Cus we’re gonna be tapping into that shit to power our ego trips in a sustainable way.
OK. So, to reiterate: God is infinite. Unbounded. Without any limit.
…that being said, Spinoza then goes on to put a limit on It. To bound the Unbounded.
That limit is logic.
For Spinoza, God has to make sense.
(I’ve already told you my guess as to why in the Introduction: cus if Reality doesn’t make sense, then there’s no way he’s going to be able to convince us to all get along.)
It’s this that makes him such an important philosopher.
Basically, there are “left-side of the brain people” and “right-side of the brain people”.
Left-side people are analytic and methodical.
Right-side people are creative and artistic.
The pinnacle of right-side thinking is Non-dualist Mysticism.
Spinoza gets right-side thinking as well as anyone ever has, and then puts it in the most extreme left-side language possible.
Which is what makes him so unique in the Western philosophical tradition, and also why so few people seem to be able to understand him.
Because the unity of opposites is hard to achieve. Necessarily. They’re opposites, after all. And yet opposites must necessarily be united, because… OK, crap, I’m doing it again. Nevermind.
Point is: for Spinoza, God has to make sense.
This imposes certain limits on It.
Let’s start with Contradiction.
God is everything and does everything and contains everything… that does not involve contradiction.
In other words, everything that can exist, does exist.
Things that can’t exist don’t exist.
…which does make sense.
(That said, as you can probably tell, I am beginning to doubt that Reality makes sense. Maybe things that involve contradiction do exist. Because, for one thing, Mao says that everything that exists involves contradiction. Which is to say, Ai Siqi and a few other Chinese guys, including Mao himself, said that everything that exists involves contradiction, and then Mao said it like only he had said it. Which is to say, Zhuangzi existed and said stuff. But I’m getting ahead of myself — that’s my next non-fiction book.)
(…heh. Hehe. “Non-fiction”. ………..hehehehehe.)
OKOK. Let’s get back on track.
God makes sense.
The most important part of that is Necessity. This will probably crop up a lot.
I’m not really sure how to explain necessity.
Basically, it goes back to that “A river flows”, “A swimmer swims”, “Water waters”, “Existence exists”, “1 = 1”, “God is God is God is Nature is God is God is God” thing.
It’s just, like… you come to a point where you’re just, like… “it just fucking is, dude. Because…. Because it just fucking is, OK?!! If anything is, then THIS is!………….NECESSARILY! IT HAS TO BE! By… by what? ….by… BY NECESSITY! ….it’s… it’s… it’s necessary!… by…… by definition! Which… is necessarily what the thing is! It’s essential! It has to be! I mean….. Come onnnn!!!!”
That’s the fundamental thing Spinoza comes down to, and if you take this plank away, well… That’s it. It’s all over. We’re done here. Goodbye.
So let’s just leave it at that for now.
The fundamental way that God is bounded is by necessity.
Like everything else, Everything (a.k.a God, a.k.a. Nature) has to do what it has to do.
It has to exist, and it has to exist infinitely… necessarily.
In exactly the way it does, and no other.
This, my friends… is Spinozist determinism.
Fundamentally, this is the intuition he’s playing with.
It’s not that “we — our consciousness — is determined by electrical impulses in the brain”, or whatever the current empirical fashion is.
It’s that things have to be the way they are.
Because otherwise they would be different.
But they’re not different.
They are, in fact, how they are.
So they have to be that way.
Because otherwise, they would be something other than what they are.
Which they’re not.
They are what they are.
And the how of things being the way they are is what we’re talking about here. That’s what God is all about.
Natura naturans (Everything) necessarily has to be the way It is.
And Natura naturata (every thing) necessarily follows from That.
……but anyway. This doesn’t actually matter. It matters to Spinoza, but it doesn’t really matter to me. And we are, in fact, different people. …I think. And I’m the one who’s writing this. So there you go.
If you don’t like this point, just ignore it.
The basic picture you’ll come out with is honestly the same regardless.
But I do kind of have to mention it. Because this is a book about Spinoza. Because that’s what it is. Because if it were something else, it wouldn’t be what it is. Which is a book about Spinoza. Which is, necessarily, what it is. Even if it’s currently a blog post.
God is eternal.
This is very important. But it is also kind of obvious, so the explanation will be short.
Time and space themselves are not subject to space and time. Things in time and space are subject to space and time. But time and space are eternal — outside of time.
It’s like… runners move around on a race track. But the race track itself doesn’t move. It is the frame for movement. The stage for movement. Actors move across the stage. The stage itself is constant.
[I know, I know — General Relativity. The race track moves too. It’s just an example, guys.]
And God isn’t just time and space. Time and space is just one of infinitely many things which God does.
The individual parts of Natura naturata which exist in time and space are, of course, not eternal.
But… you see… if they understand that they are actually a part of this eternal Everything… then actually, they can be. But we’ll get there, we’ll get there.
OK. So God exists. It is existence. It is infinite. It is eternal. Which means It’s powerful. But It doesn’t contradict itself. Because that wouldn’t make sense. And Spinoza wants things to make sense. And this is all necessarily so. By its very essence.
Big point incoming.
You might want to make sure you’re sitting down for this one. And maybe hold on to your socks or something.
Here we go.
God is free.
………………………………that… was a very, very very important point.
To explain what Spinoza means by that, I have to talk about causation.
What I’m gonna say now is that cause and effect arise from the desire to explain something.
If something happens, and you’re happy to just have it happen… then great. No problem. Look at that. It happened. It was itself, I guess. Sweet. Or maybe bitter — I don’t know anymore.
But if you want to ask why or how it happened… then that means you are going to start looking for reasons.
Which is to say, you’re going to look for something other than what happened in an attempt to explain what happened.
In other words… you are going to make what happened into something called an “effect”, and you will look for something else, which is called a “cause”.
Cause and effect seem, to me, to be the necessary consequence of the attempt to explain something.
And what Spinoza is trying to do is explain literally Everything.
And so… by virtue of that being what he’s trying to do……………. everything has a cause.
You will never find anything in Spinoza’s worldview that does not have some cause.
Because he’s trying to explain things.
And that’s what explanation entails.
…now. There are two different kinds of causes: proximate and ultimate.
Proximate causes are the causes that are closest to the thing that happened.
So, Domino A fell over because it was pushed by Domino B.
Domino B is the proximate (closest) cause to Domino A falling.
However… Domino B, in turn, was pushed over by Domino C… which was pushed over by Domino D… and so on and so on… towards… you guessed it… infinity.
For Aristotle, God is the Prime Mover. It is the thing that pushed over the First Domino, and was itself pushed over by nothing (or just fell over… or… something).
In Spinoza’s view of the world, there is no First Cause, in that sense.
There is just an infinitely long chain of causes, extending infinitely in every direction.
That infinite chain of causes-and-effects is Natura naturata. Nature, insofar as it is generated. The World, basically. Just bigger than you had imagined it.
It’s this infinite web of particular things, each of which is impinging on the other.
But then there’s ultimate causes. The most fundamental reason why something happened.
So, yeah, Domino A fell over because it was pushed by Domino B……. but at the end of the day, the reason it fell over is because someone decided to play with dominos.
Ultimately, if no one had decided to play with dominos, and lined them all up in a row where they could neatly fall into each other… then there’s no way Domino B could have pushed over Domino A in the first place.
So every thing in Nature has a proximate cause, which itself has a proximate cause, etc…..
But they also have an Ultimate Cause.
And that Ultimate Cause is always the same cause.
And that same cause is Natura Naturans.
At the end of the day, things are what they are because that’s what they are. Things are what they are because that’s their essence. Because that’s necessarily what they have to be in order to be what they are. Which, you’ll find, is what they are.
And Natura naturans (God, insofar as it generates things) is what determines what it is about a thing that makes it what it is.
…OK. Let’s take a more fundamental example.
But first: to “posit” something means… ummmm… ugh. OK basically, it means “to put something forward”. To present something. To be like “…here you go! See this thing? …here it is!”
So let us posit two concepts:
You see 63, and you’re like… “Why?”
Well. On one level, the reason why “63” is because that’s what comes after 62 and before 64. If you’re there like “59… 60… 61… 62……” then you thereby generate 63.
That’s like proximate causation.
But, on another level, the reason why “63” is because “Numbers”.
If you say “Numbers”… then you necessarily generate the concept “63”, without having to count all the way from the beginning until you eventually make your way to 63.
When you say “Numbers”, you thereby imply every single number.
And 63 is a number.
So when you say “Numbers”… bam. You necessarily, directly get 63.
…….as well as every other number. Which, they tell me, is a lot.
So the proximate cause of 63 is 62.
But the ultimate cause of 63 is “Numbers”.
Spinoza says that that’s how reality works.
Why do things happen?
On one level, because something happened to make it happen, which was itself caused by a previous thing, which was itself, etc. etc. ad infinitum.
But on another level… BECAUSE GOD.
The moment you posit the concept of God…… BAM. You get everything.
Just like you get every number when you posit the notion of “Numbers”.
And the whole point of the Spinozist project is to untangle yourself a bit from the web of proximate causes so that you can be caused, as much as possible, just by your ultimate cause.
Because that means you’re connected directly to the highest form of God.
Which is the highest thing you can achieve.
…alright! So. That’s causation.
Every single thing has a proximate cause, which is some other thing in God — Natura naturata.
And it has an ultimate cause, which is God — Natura Naturans.
But then you have Natura naturans itself.
And that, friends… causes itself.
Big point there.
God posits itself the way we just posited “Numbers”.
And it’s not like “Well, one day God woke up in the morning and was like ‘hrmmm… let’s posit myself!”
That makes no sense.
God posits itself eternally. There was no sequence of before and after in God being all like “*ahem*…… GOD.”
So, it’s not like there was Darkness — Nothing — and then God came along from somewhere else and said “Let there be light!”, and there was light. One thing after another.
It’s that, without beginning, middle or end, God says: “GOD!”
And it says so REALLY LOUDLY.
And therefore… *EVERYTHING*.
And there was and always will be God. Eternally. Constantly.
- Before 63 there was 62… and before 62, there was 61.
- But before there was 61 and 62 and 63, there is “Numbers”.
This second sense of “before” is not temporal. It’s logical.
It’s not that “Numbers” happened in a previous time to 63. It’s that you have to have Numbers to have 63.
So, it’s not that Time happened, and then we got the year 2018, and then 2019, and then 2020…
It’s that Time has to be there for you to have the sequence of 2018, 2019, 2020…
And there had to be God for there to be Time.
But the point is that God is not uncaused.
Because, remember, we’re explaining things. So things have to have a cause. Or else they’re unexplained. Which they can’t be, insofar as we’re explaining them. Which, remember… is what we’re doing.
So It causes Itself.
And IN THAT SENSE… it is free.
Because IT is what causes itself.
There is nothing else causing it.
It is free from any external interference.
Being free from any external interference, it is free to be itself.
And that, for Spinoza, is the best thing anything can be.
Perfect in its being itself.
And Natura naturans — that aspect of God that generates every single thing — is completely, perfectly, totally free.
It is the only thing that is perfectly, eternally, constantly itself.
Because there is nothing else to impinge on it.
Because there can be nothing else to impinge on it.
Everything other than Natura naturans — every individual bit of Natura naturata — is, unfortunately, not constantly itself.
Every singular, particular thing disintegrates, morphs into something else. A star goes supernova, emits all these little pieces, which cluster into rocks, which dissolve into little bits which cluster as living organisms which live and breed and die and disperse into bits which then go on to be a tree and an elephant and a monkey and a machine, in this infinite chain of being…
But Being itself is constantly itself and nothing else and never can be touched by anything but itself.
…the metaphor has become a bit masturbatory, but you get the point.
Only God, insofar as it generates particular things, is totally free.
Only Natura naturans fully causes itself.
Only that which generated the dominos is self-generating.
The dominos all, to a greater or lesser extent, are pushed by other dominos.
That “to a greater or lesser extent” is what the rest of the Ethics is about.
……….but, you see, even Natura Naturans is determined by its nature. It is determined by its essence. It is determined by being what it is, and thus by not being anything else. It can’t just choose to be something it’s not. Natura naturans can’t just choose to not generate everything. It can’t choose to not be itself. Because that’s just what it is.
And, thus… it has no “free will”.
There is no such thing as “free will”.
Not for God.
And thus, certainly not for us.
Insofar as things are explained, they have causes.
Insofar as they have causes, they can’t have free will.
Now. Again. This is another place where people go way wrong.
People don’t like it when you deny their agency. When you take away their power of acting in any way. When you tell them they’re subservient to something else. (The reasons why are spelled out in Part II, and the implications are worked through in what follows.)
But that’s not what Spinoza is doing. Your agency is perfectly intact. What you were before you read those words is basically what you are after.
Your experience is your experience. Nothing about it has changed.
The only thing is that Spinoza doesn’t call what you do “free will”. In fact, he doesn’t really call it will at all. For him, your will is just your intellect, which in turn is just your desires. You are what you want. And you want what you are determined to want, by the nature of what you are. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Point is: what some people call free will, he calls “self-determination”.
Different word. Same damned thing. (But this one is, at least, consistent.)
So once again, and most definitely not for the last time… people really get hung up on surface-level differences. Spinoza calls it self-determination, and he gets really friggin’ far this way. Just give us the chance to explain.
And, in fact, I say that Spinoza lets you off very lightly.
To make their little rival system work, the Buddhists deny that you have a self in the first place!
Which would you rather: not have free will, or not exist at all?
So pick your poison, guys.
For my (barely existent) money, Spinoza is genuinely the gentlest of all the gurus.
He’s just a little prickly, remember? And that’s only at first brush. Trust me, he’s a little lamb once you get to know him.
So take that love tap on the tippity-tip of your chinny-chin-chin, and let’s move on.
Anyway. Enough about free will, and more about freedom.
This is one of several ways in which Spinoza seems to fit more in Eastern traditions of philosophy than he does in the Western. (Specifically, in this case, the Indian tradition, and those parts of Asia influenced by Indian thought through Buddhism………….. which means everything except Russia and the Middle East. Although actually, if you think about it… Islam does…. OKok, sorry, nevermind, nevermind.)
By this, I mean that the main point of his philosophy is personal liberation. Not just from the nefarious influence of the Deep State or whatever. Liberation, period. Full-stop.
See, in the West, things are usually sliced thus: salvation comes from religion, which is this specific institution, generally the Church. And philosophy is about analysing things and generating true beliefs.
But for Spinoza, the truth is not just some cold fact. The truth, as the saying goes, will set you free. Understanding the truth will give you everything that the Christians promise you Jesus will, and more. Understanding the truth will free you from suffering (precisely insofar as it is possible). Understanding the truth will make you immortal (precisely insofar as it is reasonable). Understanding the truth will, at the end of the day, fulfill your every desire (precisely insofar as it will lead you to generate only those desires which can be fulfilled… some of which are pretty out-there, though).
That’s what’s especially cool, especially important about him.
That’s what makes him the most important philosopher in the Western tradition since Socrates/Plato/Aristotle… not just intellectually and analytically… but existentially.
His project is to “save your soul” — even if he tries to abolish that particular phrasing and conceptual structure.
To give you the highest good it is possible to attain.
Whether or not you feel he does that is up to you. But, pretty uniquely in the West… that is what he’s setting out to do.
Which brings me to the last main point. I hesitate to even make it… but I think it’s too important to leave out.
God is good.
(…..in fact…… ahem….. God is actually the mostest goodest bestest.)
Hold your horses.
Think this one through with me.
Remember what God is, according to Spinoza.
It is every single thing, and it is that which generates every single thing.
In other words, it’s Everything.
Now. Think of something you like.
OK. Now. If you can, try to imagine what would happen to that thing you like if you somehow took away God.
It can’t exist.
The thing you like relies on God to exist like “63” relies on “Numbers”.
So thinking that God is not good is like being a massive fan of a Disney film but thinking Disney Animation Studios — the screenwriters and the drawers-with-pencils and the coloring-in people and the voice actors and the janitors and the nice lady what sits at the front and says good morning to everyone — is not good. And the screen you’re watching it on. And the light that’s going from the sccreen into your eyeballs. And the air that’s carrying the sound. And the words the characters are speaking. All that is bad. But the Disney film is good.
That makes no sense, dude.
And we can go further.
Remember that thing you like?
Will it last forever, or will it go away? And how will you feel if it goes away?
More importantly: is it possible to adjust that thing in such a way that you wouldn’t like it?
Would you still like the Disney film if someone spliced a bunch of clips of a slaughterhouse into it at random intervals?
Would you still like that person if they had a stroke and started following you around everywhere and trying to stab you?
But God will never go away. God will never be adjusted. God will always be exactly what It is.
And what God is is fucking awesome, and no mistake.
…and so on and so forth.
But if you disagree with this point… whatever. Fine. Just don’t tell me about it. I don’t care. Let’s agree to disagree. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.
A lot. In fact, the most.
That makes it powerful.
It makes sense (…for some reason).
And It’s….. pretty cool, I guess.
In what way — specifically — does It do all that?
Well: in every way possible.
Those ways are called Attributes and Modes. These are different, but let’s just lump them together.
There are infinitely many attributes.
Obviously. Because God is infinite.
However. We, basically, are finite.
And therefore, we can’t comprehend everything about Everything. Because we have puny, tiny, infinitesimally small monkey brains.
So we only know two specific attributes of God.
We know the general traits of God I went through above. I’ll get to Spinoza’s theory of knowledge in Part II — but basically, we know them because they are friggin’ obvious, maaaan, and even an amoeba should be able to work out that much.
But in terms of the specifics, we know two things.
That’s what we’ll start Part II with.
But before we even go there… just remember that those two things aren’t actually two fundamentally different things.
An attribute is “what the intellect perceives of a substance, as constituting its essence”.
In other words: it’s how the mind perceives Reality to be. Not what Reality IS.
Because Reality doesn’t have a split personality. Reality is just Reality. Reality is One.
Sooooooo… that’s God.
Try wrapping your head around that one.
What you’ll find is that you can’t — but when you ‘snap back to reality’ (teehee) — you’ll find you have spent an interesting few seconds, minutes, or hours while successfully very much not hurting anyone. Which is extremely handy if what you want is for everyone to get along.
So, all that being said… perhaps it might be more useful to just lay out what God is not.
For Spinoza, God is not a man in the sky who has certain preferences about what you should be doing and has arranged things with you in mind and has arranged you in order to worship him so he can feel important.
What has happened there is that people have a certain idea of how they work, and then they have imposed that idea on God and reckoned that’s how God works too.
If you read one thing from Book I of the Ethics, read the Appendix at the end. There, he goes into why he doesn’t think God works like that.
But here, we come across a problem.
I honestly cannot read the Appendix to Book I without bursting out laughing.
And I can’t really type while also bursting out laughing.
Perhaps more importantly, I’m currently in a library.
It’s just… it’s just…… ah, whatever, I’ll just bite my lip really hard and show you some of it.
So in the Appendix, he talks about three things.
- Why people think the wrong thing about themselves, and accordingly, why they think the wrong thing about God when they project themselves onto It
- Why they’re wrong
- How thinking the wrong thing about God makes them believe all these extremely wrong things about the world
Alright, so, first point.
People think they have free will.
The reason they think they have free will is because they are ignorant of the causes of their actions.
…..that’s basically it.
……………it’s so true.
Many people never think to wonder why they act the way they do. And even when they do, most people are too stupid to actually figure it out.
And so you get all these people going around saying “I am going to go do this thing which will be really inconvenient for me and absolutely terrible for other people BECAUSE I FREELY CHOSE TO”. And you, because you’re standing outside them and can clearly see what’s happened, will see why they’re doing what they’re doing. And if you point it out, people will scream at you.
It’s a really simple observation… but if you actually take the time to stop and think about it, I think you’ll be surprised to see how much that explains.
People don’t know why they do things…………. and so, they conclude that they must have free will. Purely and directly out of ignorance.
“I don’t know the causes of my behaviour. So I must be Uncaused.”
In other words, they go: “I’m ignorant, and so I must be God.”
That’s radical, man.
That’s also hilarious.
And then they’re like “well, I work this way. So God must work this way. God must have free will, and is choosing to have that storm kill all those children.”
Weird. And… also kind of hilarious, I guess?
So that’s the first reason he gives as to why people misunderstand God — because they are ignorant of their own conditioning, and thus assume they have free will, and then project that mistaken view onto God.
The second reason is that people always act for a very specific purpose.
That purpose is “whatever they think will benefit them”.
“If I go and sit at that desk for 9 hours a day, I’ll get some money. And if I get some money, I can buy a fancy car. And that will benefit me somehow. So I’m going to go sit at that desk.”
And so they assume God also acts for a specific purpose. Because that’s what they do. So God must do it too.
And they also assume that God acts FOR THE SAME SPECIFIC PURPOSE THAT THEY DO. That the universe revolves around them and was arranged for their benefit.
(It’s not just “religious” people who have this bias, by the way. Most forms of Liberalism and Humanism fall into this exact same trap. It’s just that it’s very difficult to see this if that’s the ideology you’ve been raised in into — just the same as it was for the Theists of Spinoza’s time.)
So that’s why people think the wrong thing about God/the Universe.
Basically, because anthropomorphism. The narcissistic blindness which naively sees everything as we imagine ourselves to be.
Next, he explains why they’re wrong.
He says they’re wrong because he explained they were wrong earlier in Book I.
Also, they’re wrong because they’re getting all defensive about their idea of God… without realizing that, in trying to defend him, they’re really just making him look way worse.
Which is also hilarious.
And then you get some of these classic lines, where you’re not sure whether to read it as “Spinoza being a bit prissy”, or “Spinoza chortling to himself and being really wry”.
Things like: so you try to explain why a stone fell on someone’s head and killed him. And you say it happened because the wind blew the stone off a roof, and the guy was passing under it on his way to meet his friend. And they ask you why the wind blew, and why the guy was going to see his friend, like a 5 year old, going why-why-why-why.
And so they will not stop asking for the causes of causes until you take refuge in the will of God, that is, the sanctuary of ignorance.
(…I like safety. I like ignorance more and more by the day. So you’ll often see me take refuge there.)
Hence it happens that one who seeks the true causes of miracles, and is eager, like an educated man, to understand natural things, not to wonder at them, like a fool, is generally considered an impious heretic and denounced as such by those whom the people honor as interpreters of Nature and the gods.
(…I really like wondering at natural things, precisely like a fool. And I’m still denounced as an impious heretic. Which basically shows that you just can’t win with these people.)
Anyway. Third point.
This one’s just too good.
When people come across something that’s convenient to them, and therefore, which they like, they declare “this is a good thing!”
And when they come across something that’s inconvenient to them, and therefore, which they dislike, they declare “this is a bad thing!”
And it’s, like…. “No, dude! There is just a whole spectrum of things, some of which are useful to you, and some of which aren’t! That doesn’t make the first things inherently good and the second things inherently evil!!!”
And then people come across something that warms them up, and they declare “this is a hot thing!”
And they come across something which cools them down, and they declare “this is a cold thing!”
And it’s, like…. “…..nooo, dude! There is just a whole spectrum of things, some of which are made up of things that are moving a lot, and some of which are made up of things that are relatively still. So there aren’t ‘hot things’ and ‘cold things’. It’s just that some things are vibrating at a frequency that’s higher than you are vibrating, and so coming into contact with them makes you vibrate more, which you perceive as heat! And some things are vibrating at a slower frequency than you, which you perceive as cold! So it’s not ‘a hot thing’ — it’s just moving faster than you! And it’s not a ‘cold thing’ — it’s just moving slower than you! What the frick do you think you are — the objective measure and arbiter of all things?!!! I don’t you think you properly understand the way in which you are God!!!!!!”
And this next one is just the best.
People come across things which just so happen to be easy for their little monkey brains to imagine. And so they go “Aha! The Good Lord has made this thing well ordered! Order prevails here! This is good!”
And then they come across things which they’re too stupid to understand. And they go “Oh no! This is so messy! It is CHAOS! The good Lord has somehow messed this one up!! He’s left this bit unfinished!”
And so they come to tell you that the universe is divided into two fundamental constitutive parts: Order and Chaos.
And at this point, you totally lose your marbles and start screaming….. “nnNOOoOO)O)o0O0O)O)o)o)O0o0o0o!!!!! NOOOOOOOOO! NO. NO. NOOOO!!!!!!!! FOR GOD’S SAKE!!!! IT’S NOT ‘’’’’’’CHAOS’’’’’’’! YOU JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND IT!! THAT DOESN’T MAKE IT HERE OR THERE!!! THAT DOESN’T TELL YOU ANYTHING ABOUT IT! THAT’S THE FRIGGIN DEFINITION OF THINGS YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND!!
AND YOU’RE NOT CONTENT TO SIMPLY ANNOUNCE TO THE WORLD THAT YOU’RE AN IDIOT. NOW YOU’RE TRYING TO TELL ME THAT *****GOD***** IS AN IDIOT TOO. THAT HE SPECIFICALLY CREATED THINGS HE DOES NOT UNDERSTAND!
…at this point, the thought inevitably comes:
“Why the hell did God create people who are so stupid? And so many of them?!”
And, just like clockwork, Spinoza swoops in to help you out with that one.
I answer only “because he did not lack material to create all things, from the highest degree of perfection to the lowest”; or, to speak more properly, “because the laws of his nature have been so ample that they sufficed for producing all things which can be conceived by an infinite intellect” (as I have demonstrated in Proposition 16).
These are the prejudices I undertook to note here. If any of this kind still remain, they can be corrected by anyone with only a little meditation. And so I find no reason to devote more time to these matters, and so on.
…….so you see.
I have trouble reading the Appendix of Book I.
It cracks me up like a sumo wrestler walking on thin ice.
…so this is what having banter with your mates is like! I had always wondered!
…too bad he died three hundred years before I was born…
Anyway. Thanks for sticking through that. I tried to make it as light and breezy as I could.
I suspect that few of you will be as into the high-falutin’ mysticism of infinity and eternity as I am. I accept that. I swear things will get more down to Earth as we go on.
Next time, watch me work myself into fits trying to explain Book II — Of the Mind.
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3 thoughts on “Spinoza’s Ethics — Part I: Of God”
This particular ME is looking at trees and leaves a few yards away grey silky cloud wrapping us together
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Who knew Spinoza could be so bitchy? Thanks, David!
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Also, so relatable — at least, in my case.
And so — precisely insofar as I am able to laugh about myself — *so funny*.