Sunday, March 1, 2009

Spinoza the mystic

Recently in class (and hopefully again this week), we talked about whether Spinoza should be considered a strange theist (e.g., a pantheist or panenthiest) or an atheist. Either is consistent with his monistic metaphysics.

Hard to say...

He’s got this great way of referring to his view of reality: “God, or in other words, Nature.”

Recall that Descartes was a substance-type dualist and a substance-token pluralist. Spinoza is a substance-type monist and a substance-token monist! There is only one kind of thing, and there is, in fact, only one thing.

This one thing is “God, or in other words, Nature.”

So... what is this God like? The Appendix to Ethics part I is a wonderful tirade against traditional notions of a personal God.

He gives an argument against taking God to be a personal agent. If God is perfect, then it follows that he lacks nothing. If something intervenes owing to intentional purposes, the reason that such intervention occurs is due to a lack in the something that intervenes. The idea is that one could only hold a view of an interventionist God if one gives up the view that such a God is perfect. So, Spinoza preserves perfection at the price of God having one of the marks of personhood — viz., intentional, purposive action. The real target obviously is any traditional notion of God that is drawn from religions.

What doesn’t appear very defined at the end of this argument is the notion of perfection that he attributes to God. And here is where it begins to become clearer why he says of reality that it is “God, or in other words, Nature.”

If God were to exist as religions proclaim, it would make impossible any type of explanatory rationalism, whereby all events that occur in the spacetime world could be explained by reference to a (hopefully) small class of deterministic laws. I think that the real awe-inspiring prospect of a completed explanatory rationalism is what Spinoza has in mind when he attributes perfection to God (or Nature). For us today, I imagine it’s the same sensation of awe and hints of viewing perfection when we think about the prospects of a completed physics.

It’s not really a coherent merging of the concepts of God and Nature, since the conceptual hangover of traditional religious notions of God (e.g., the inspiration of awe) begin to obscure the impersonal but also awe-inspiring, even terrifying, aspects of the Natural world. Something that seems correct gets transposed, but can you really transpose the thing you want without also dragging along some residue of the other thing you don’t want?

Still, there’s a tense resonance that Spinoza was onto, and I probably would be where Spinoza is if I did not hold onto some of my more traditional religiously-inspired beliefs about God being personal.

I asked the students why Spinoza’s treatise is called Ethics. Here again is another tense and incoherent resonance between two views that seem right in their own ways. If something happens according to the will of (a traditional religious) God, then it follows that, in some respect, the thing that happens is “good” (though maybe not “good” for the collection of things implicated in that one event). In the same way, if something occurs by the will of Nature (that is, according to laws of determinism... Spinoza would go further and argue fatalism), and if one conjoins this alleged fact with the view of Nature as being perfect, then it follows, in some sense, that this occurrence is “good” or “fitting” or “perfect.”

The lesson drawn for agents is the same in both cases: contentment is the correct response.

In the first case, it’s pious contentment as a way of surrendering to the will of God. In the second case, it’s rational contentment as a way of surrendering to the perfect, law-like, and inevitable workings of Nature. Thus it makes sense why Spinoza’s musings, though totally saturated with metaphysics, are actually for him an investigation into ethics. It amounts to Stoicism for the seventeenth-century.

In the end, his use of “God” and “nature” may be an incoherent juxtaposition of vocabularies that are too different in their semantic histories. It is nevertheless a gem of linguistic play that makes progress in the way a pinball makes progress through a series of bumpers. It’s almost never a straight line and it’s not clear that the ball is going anywhere but you’ll play every time.
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