I’m pretty sick right now so hopefully my thoughts will be semi-coherent. Laying my cards on the table, I think that both Spinoza and Lucretius are the two thinkers– in broad outlines and without endorsing all of their claims –that got things right. The difficulty, however, is that I can’t see how Spinoza can work without some doctrine of being. Here’s how I understand the doctrine of creation in Spinoza: In order for God (substance, nature) to create something, three requirements must be fulfilled:
- The created being must be logically possible.
- The created being must be physically possible.
- The created being must result from preceding causes.
God/nature creates all that can be created and restrains itself in no ways (it is absolutely affirmative), but it is for this reason that there are no miracles in Spinoza’s universe. A miracle is an event that does not arise from preceding causes (3) and that violates what is physically possible (2) and is therefore something that cannot exist. Likewise, God cannot simply resolve to create flying horses on our planet because an entire lineage of evolution would be necessary for such an entity to come into existence and because the physical circumstances of our particular planet prevent such a being from existing (elsewhere in the universe such beings might be possible). It would thus appear that Spinoza is a strong determinist.
Problems begin to arise when we think about Spinoza’s ethical project. Reading the Ethics is supposed to persuade us to change in some way. We are supposed to do things differently than we did before (in particular, we’re supposed to occupy ourselves with organizing joyous encounters and with escape ideas born of the imaginary). However, it’s hard to see how this is possible if Spinoza’s determinism is true. A student in one of my classes today put it well. “Suppose”, he said, “I get an F on an exam. It’s not that I chose to do things that led to that F (not reading the material, studying, etc), but rather that I was caused to get the F by events preceding me taking the exam. I could not have chosen to do otherwise because everything in Spinoza’s universe is the result of preceding causes.” The case would seem to be the same with respect to Spinoza’s ethics. Some people will achieve beatitude not because they chose to do things that led to beatitude, but because there were a series of causes that produced that outcome in much the same way that water boils when heated, not because it chooses to boil. Likewise, there will be all sorts of people that even though they understand Spinoza nonetheless remain mired in sad passions because they’re caused to remain mired in sad passions. Things couldn’t have been otherwise. If that’s the case, it’s unclear what we gain from reading Spinoza’s Ethics at all because we can’t do other than what we do.
Clearly Spinoza couldn’t have really believed this because he indeed seems to think that we can do all sorts of things in the pursuit of joyous affects. However, how are we to reconcile this with his determinism? I feel I must be missing something in his thought as his prescriptions belie his descriptions, but I cannot for the life of me see how his metaphysics allows for these prescriptions. A doctrine of freedom seems necessary to render his thought coherent.