Right now I’m teaching part I of Spinoza’s Ethics in my intro to philosophy class and I find myself wracking my brain on his position on free will and determinism. Here’s the problem as I see it: For Spinoza everything is the result of efficient causes such that for any event X that occurs, event Y is the only possible event event that can follow and could not have been otherwise. Spinoza applies this principle across the board, such that it, presumably, would include all human thought, feelings, etc., etc. (am I wrong here?). If this is accurate, then humans would be a bit like zhu zhu pets:

In the video, the zhu zhu pet appears to be acting for the sake of goals, purposes, ends or final causes, but this is entirely an illusion. In reality the zhu zhu pet’s actions are just a product of efficient causes or the movement of its gears and so on. Presumably this would be the case for human beings as well. The zhu zhu pet cannot act otherwise than it acts because it’s actions are purely the result of the mechanisms or efficient causes that produce these actions. This too would be the case for humans.

So here’s where I find myself confused. Presumably Spinoza wishes to accomplish something in writing the Ethics. He hopes to provide us with the tools that would allow us to overcome the slavery of sad passions so that we might have joyous affects. The problem is that this project and Spinoza’s thesis about determinism seem to be mutually exclusive. If Spinoza’s determinism is true then it would seem to follow that every thought and feeling I have is already pre-determined by preceding thoughts and feelings. I would have no power or control over what I think or feel but would be like an unfolding code or algorithm. Those people who someday attain joyous passions would be predetermined to do so in much the same way that the movements of the zhu zhu pet is predetermined, while those people who are predetermined to remain mired in sad passions would be predetermined to do so. Yet the project of freeing myself from sad passions through knowledge of causes seems to entail that I must have some minimal freedom that allows me to purposively engage in these activities. In other words, it seems to require that I can choose to take up this project.

I feel like I must be missing something fundamental in Spinoza or that I must have misunderstood him in some very basic and fundamental way. I am asking these questions in earnest here and am not trying to spark and interpretive battle over Spinoza. If anyone has any insight here it would be deeply appreciated.

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