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Spinoza: Monistic Pantheism and the Problem of an Impersonal Deity

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“Spinoza (1634-77) is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers,” remarked Bertrand Russell in The History of Western Philosophy. (Russell B., in Ch. X, p. 569) I tend to agree with this statement. Nevertheless, in what follows, I want to show that Spinoza’s central view propounded in the Ethics, the view that God and nature are one and the same (which I will henceforth refer to as pantheism or pantheistic monism) is false. I believe that Spinoza’s monistic system faces significant logical difficulties. I think that there are several well-established, sound philosophical arguments suggesting that pluralism, as opposed to monism, is true, showing the existence of a first cause of the universe. Further analysis of the conclusion to these arguments reveals that this first cause turns out to be a free-willed, atemporal, spaceless, and personal being that brings about the world in a free act of his will. The two main arguments that I rely upon are the so-called Kalam Cosmological Argument and the Ontological Argument presented in the modal version. My contention is that these arguments show that (a) a first cause exists, (b) that this first cause must be personal and consistent with a theistic God, and therefore inconsistent with an impersonal, pantheistic God like the one postulated by Spinoza, (c) that pantheistic monism must be regarded as untenable since God is a separate being from the rest of the universe, and (d) that determinism is false.

To begin with, the term ‘pantheism’ comes from the Greek words pan (all) and theos (God). Its concept is very ancient; perhaps one of its earliest incarnations is found in the doctrine of Pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides, who thought that the reality of the physical word is illusory, and that the world is one being, which is an unchanging, eternal, and indestructible whole. Also, Plotinus’s ontological system presents many aspects that are consistent with pantheism. Plotinus’s universe consists of a hierarchy of emanations from what he calls, the ‘One’; the One is a perfect unity beyond being, which brings about intellect, soul, and matter through its emanation. By and large, pantheism may be understood as the view that God is identical with nature or the view that there exists nothing that is outside of God.

Spinoza’s argument for pantheism starts from the concept of the necessary existence of what he calls ‘substance.’ Relying on the Aristotelian and the Cartesian definitions of substance, for Spinoza, substance is that which is the cause of itself, and which cannot fail to exist. Though he accepts Descartes’ definition of substance as “a thing which exists in such a way that it does not need any other thing in order to exist,” (Descartes R., Principles of Philosophy, I, no. 51), Spinoza rejects Descartes’ dualism of substance, which he thinks is inconsistent. For Spinoza, substance is necessarily regarded in a monistic and pantheistic sense: substance can only be one (wherein essence is identified with existence), and this one substance can apply only to God (which is another name for nature). Spinoza’s own definition of substance is the following: “By substance I understand that which is in itself and is conceived through itself; in other words, that, the conception of which does not need the conception of another thing from which it must be formed.” (Spinoza B. Ethics, Part I, d. 3) And his definition of God is “a being absolutely infinite, that is, a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal and infinite essence.” (Spinoza B. Ethics, Part I, d. 6)

Now for Spinoza, the one substance, or God, is itself the reason of its own existence: God is the cause of itself (causa sui). God, he says, cannot be conceived but as existing necessarily (God’s essence and existence necessarily are identical), and as substance is “that which is in itself and is conceived through itself,” that is, that which in order to exist and in order to be conceived in the mind, has no need of any other previous thing. Moreover, as he demonstrates in Proposition 5, there cannot be more than one substance, and in Proposition 6 he shows that substance cannot be produced by another substance. The way Spinoza claims to prove the existence of this substance, God, is found in Proposition 11 of Part I of the Ethics where he claims that “God or substance consisting of an infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence, necessarily exist.” (p. 7) Spinoza’s demonstration is similarly to Descartes’—namely, he employs a version of the ontological argument. His conclusion is that what exists is, as I said above, necessarily only one substance that he refers to as God, which is not intended in a theistic sense as deity but as nature, hence Spinoza’s pantheistic monism.

But I find Spinoza’s use of the Ontological Argument problematic in that I think it actually works against him. What I mean is that Spinoza relies upon a version of the Ontological Argument that is invalid, as I will show in a moment. In the alternative, the Ontological Argument can be presented in the modal form, which is sound. However, given the success of the modal version of the argument, you end up proving the existence of a personal God, and not something impersonal like nature. Let me illustrate why. The Ontological Argument claims to prove the existence of God by the notion that one cannot conceive of God without existence, which inherently rules out the possibility of God’s non-existence. Simply put in the traditional form, the argument can be stated as follows:

1. God is a being than which none greater can be conceived.
2. A being that necessarily exists in reality is greater than a being that does not necessarily exist.
3. If God exists as an idea in the mind but not necessarily in reality, then we can conceive something that is greater than God.
4. But to say that we can conceive something greater than God amounts to saying that it is possible to conceive a being greater than the greatest conceivable being, which is a contradiction.
5. Thus, if God exists in the mind as an idea, then God necessarily exists in reality.
6. God does exist in the mind as an idea.
7. Therefore, God necessarily exists in reality.

But what are we to make of the ontological argument? The Ontological Argument is known to be a controversial argument. Its controversy stems from its sheer simplicity. Ontology deals with existence, and the argument in question claims that the existence of God is implied by the concept of God. To put it in a modern term using Kant’s terminology, the existence of God is an analytic proposition, just like “All bachelors are unmarried man” or “All triangles have three sides.” That is to say, an analytic proposition is one whose predicate concept is covertly contained within its subject. In this case, according to the ontological argument, the predicate “exist” is contained within the subject “God”, just like the predicate “three-sided” is contained within the subject “triangle.” Namely, just as it is impossible to conceive of a triangle that has more or fewer than three sides, it would be equally impossible to conceive of God not existing because his concept necessarily entails his existence. If God did not exist, he would be, accordingly, less perfect. But since God is defined as the most perfect being or that being than which nothing greater can be conceived, it follows that he exists. Kant, for one, criticized the argument by pointing out that existence is not a real predicate, a real quality. A predicate is that part of a statement that states the properties about the subject. The predicate “exists” is not conferring real existence on the subject term. Kant thinks the real existence of a thing, whether it be God or anything else, is presupposed in that thing’s having any properties at all, since anything having properties must exist in order to have them. Thus, to say that God exists is to assert a thing with properties—God—that also possess a further property—existence. But since having any properties at all is only possible if the thing having those properties exists, it follows that existence is not an additional property of the thing, but merely presupposed, which makes the argument beg the question. Hence, existence is not a predicate. And therefore the argument is invalid.

Although the traditional version of the Ontological Argument is invalid, the modal version is sound because the modal version does not claim that existence is a property. Rather, it maintains that the existence of God is neither impossible nor contingent. Thus God’s existence must be possible. And if it is possible, it follows that God exists necessary. Let me illustrate how this works: the idea of God is not an incoherent one. For example, the concept of a square circle is simply incoherent. Such a shape cannot even be conceived in the mind. It is inconceivable. There isn’t any possible world in which such a shape could ever exist. So, if it could be demonstrated that God is like the square circle, then the idea of God would be incoherent and therefore God could not exist. But, I think that virtually everyone agrees that, in the end, it is possible that such a being as God exists. The idea of God existing is not barred by the same logical contradiction inherent in the idea of a square circle. At least, if the idea of God were absurd or self-evidently false, God’s existence would be, immediately and self-evidently false. But this is not the case. In fact, I think it is impossible to show that the existence of such a person as God is absolutely impossible—precisely because his existence is possible. Furthermore, for obvious reasons, if God exists, his existence could not be merely contingent because the existence of contingent beings depends on external causes; accordingly, God is an uncaused being. What follows, then, is that God’s existence is necessary, and thus he exists. Here is the argument presented in the modal form:

1. A being has maximal excellence in a given possible world W if and only if it is omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good in W; and
2. A being has maximal greatness if it has maximal excellence in every possible world.
3. It is possible that there is a being that has maximal greatness.
4. Therefore, possibly, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good being exists.
5. Therefore, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists.
6. Therefore, an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists.

This way of expressing the argument is important for at least two reasons. The first is that this formulation avoids the need to suppose that existence is a perfection or a great-making property, which avoids Kant’s criticism. Since there is no self-evident contradiction in the existence of God, (i.e., God is not like the square circle), since his existence is possible, then it follows that it is necessary, and therefore the argument is deductively valid and sound. However, the second reason spells trouble for Spinoza. That is to say, on the one hand, if Spinoza endorses the fallacious version of the Ontological Argument, the consequence is that he cannot prove the existence of God or of substance, which is the linchpin of his entire philosophical system. On the other hand, if he endorses the sound version of the argument, then Spinoza ends up proving the existence of God as a maximally great being. And the problem is that a maximally great being entails that God is omnipotent and omnipresent; but moreover, he must be omnibenevolent and omniscient. And this is contrary to Spinoza’s pantheistic monism because the Ontological Argument suggests that God is a personal being that is all-loving, all knowing, and all-powerful—and, most importantly, he is the efficient cause of the world, which is a separate entity from him, and therefore monism is false.

Although I think that the Ontological Argument, in the modal version, alone suffices to undercut Spinoza’ ontological system, there are a few more important points to be made. For example, another implication of Spinoza’s pantheistic monism is Spinoza’s denial of free will in humans. For him, people are what he calls “modes;” this is taken to mean that human beings are not individual beings, but rather aspects of the same total whole of reality, God. In other words, for Spinoza, God is identical with Nature (Deus sive natura), and humanity is nothing more than a certain aspect of nature, but not separate from nature. Also accordingly, free-will is illusory. He says that men think that they are free because they are ignorant of the causes that determine their actions. Also according to Spinoza, God does not have free will (Curley E. A Spinoza Reader 1p32c1), he does not have purposes or intentions (1appendix), and Spinoza insists that “neither intellect nor will pertain to the nature of God” (1p17s1). In fact, while humans may love God, they need to remember that God is really not the kind of being who could ever love us back. “He who loves God cannot strive that God should love him in return,” says Spinoza (5p19). Though free will is an illusion, one can be “free,” he says, in the detached acknowledgement that everything in the end is determined or necessary. Spinoza’s point is that the only freedom we can aspire to is our understanding and acceptance that we are part of a greater whole and seeing that, as such, nothing that happens to any one of us could have fallen otherwise.

The foregoing is consistent with pantheistic monism: there is only one substance and free will does not exist. But these are very puzzling notions. In the first place, if free will is denied, it is hard to see how Spinoza’s work, the Ethics, is not just a random arrangement of words. After all, if everything proceeds in a mechanistic fashion, one should not expect to find meaning in a book, all the less should one expect to find such things as books in a monistic system. What I mean is this: if pantheistic monism is true, there is no sense in which sentences have any meaning. But, the sentences in Spinoza’s book have meaning—we understand them! Therefore, pantheistic monism cannot be true. Also, consider the argument that may be called argument from personal existence. If God and nature are one and the same, and if humans are not separate entities from nature, it is very hard to grasp exactly in what sense it is possible that at the same time there aren’t any subjects apart from God and there are certain subjects who need to acknowledge that they are modes of God and determined—while having the illusion of being free. Once again, if the Ethics exists and has a message and meaning, it is difficult to see in what sense it exists and has a message or meaning given that the only existing thing is God or nature; and if humans are merely modes, in what sense would modes of a substance understand the message within the Ethics? (Unless, the term “modes” is completely ad hoc) Furthermore, if it were the case that the whole, nature or God, is an entirely deterministic system, if only one substance were to exist, it would be hard to explain phenomena such as conscious experience and intentionality. For example, consider intentional states of consciousness in the world. Intentionality is the mind’s property of being about something or of something. For example, I can think about Spinoza’s Ethics or I can think of his meaning. But no determined object has this kind of intentionality. Only mental states or conscious states can be about other things. Thus, intentional states are consistent with the existence of finite minds, endowed with free will, and independent of God and, therefore, determinism is false.

As if the issues presented thus far were not enough, Spinoza’s impersonal God confronts us with even more problems. What I have in mind is an old and well-known argument that would seem to challenge Spinoza’s monistic system. This argument is known as the Kalam Cosmological. The argument claims that whatever begins to exist must have a cause (I porously emphasized the word “begin” because not everything begins to exist. Numbers do not begin to exist. And in this case, God does not begin to exist.). And since an infinity of past events of the universe is not possible, the universe must have a cause in time. We may state this argument as follows:

1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause (of its existence).
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause (of its existence).

Let me illustrate how the Kalam Cosmological Argument works. Before I do so, I want to make an important remark. The Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA) is an old argument and has, no doubt, received a fair amount of criticism over the centuries. Nevertheless, I believe that no criticism has ever represented a serious challenge to the argument. At any rate, as I hope to show, the KCA is a deductive and valid argument; and if its premises are true, as I will show in a moment, then the KCA is a sound argument. And if it is sound, we should seriously think about its implications. Also, it is important to understand that the Kalam is not a theistic argument; on the contrary, it leads us to a religiously neutral conclusion, i.e., that the universe began to exist from nothing. This conclusion, then, could be uses as a premise in a theistic argument to prove the existence of a timeless, spaceless, all-powerful, and personal being, creator of the universe.The first step, as it were, of the KCA is the result of asking these questions: Where did the universe come from? Why everything exists instead of just nothing?

The first premise of the KCA, whatever begins to exist has a cause (of its existence), simply claims that things like planets, trees, people, and so on, were caused to exist, they were brought into existence by something. They cannot cause their own existence. And, obviously, their existence is not necessary like the existence of numbers. Hence, everything that comes into existence has a cause. Thus, our first task is to show the truth of this premise, though it is so intuitively true that very few people would deny its truth. It would seem to me rather clear that this premise is true because no being that begins to exist or that comes into existence does so out of nothing. As I said, contingent objects must have efficient causes that bring them into existence. This principle is so obvious that, as Aristotle once said, we should not try to prove the obvious by the less obvious. That is to say, any argument that I can give to prove further this first premise will be less obvious than the very principle that out of nothing, nothing comes. After all, could it be the case that something begins to exist out of nothing? It seems not. If nothing exists, what could possibly bring something into existence? “Nothing” is not the name of a mysterious entity, but rather the negation of existence; it means not anything. Nothing has no properties, no power—nothing! Consequently, it is impossible that something could be caused by nothing or that nothing could ever bring about something. Another way to put it is that “nothing” lacks the four causes, material, formal, final, and efficient. Otherwise, if something could come into existence without a cause, why doesn’t just anything come into existence before our eyes? Why haven’t we ever observed something coming into existence uncaused? This first premise, thus, seems to me so uncontroversial that I think Spinoza himself would readily agree with it.

Once we accept the first premise, we move to the second premise, which constitutes the heart of the argument. So, what about the second premise, i.e., the universe began to exist? The second premise, I would argue, boasts remarkable philosophical proof, which goes like this. An infinite number of things cannot exist. If the universe were beginningless that would entail that an infinite number of things can exist. Therefore, the universe has a beginning. In order to understand this argument, it is necessary to distinguish the difference between a potential infinite and an actual infinite. A potential infinite is a collection of things that increases (potentially) toward infinity. For example, the number of sentences that one can create is potentially infinite. And what this means is that such a collection is really indefinite, not infinite. In other words, one could keep creating new sentences, but he will never arrive at an “infinitieth” sentence. Conversely, an actual infinite is a collection of things whose number is not growing toward infinity; it is actually infinite or complete. For example in set theory, mathematicians or logicians speak of sets, which contain an infinite number of items, such as the set of natural numbers. With regard to sets, however, the notion of infinity is not taken to represent reality. The point is that infinity exists only as an abstract concept, but not in reality.

Now, I am not arguing that a potential infinite is impossible. When we consider a potential infinite number of things, we concede the possibility that the future is open and that we can add one more item to a series of things. Rather, I am arguing that an actual infinite number of things cannot exist. And that is to say that the number of things, in this case events, in the past history of the universe cannot be infinite; the number of events must be logically finite so that one cannot argue that there was an infinitely distant starting point in the past history of the universe. I want to emphasize that what I mean here is not that the number of natural numbers or the number of all contingent facts or anything of that nature cannot be infinite. I mean that actual things or events, such as days, years, etc., cannot be infinite. For example, the universe is the total number of present and past events. The number of said events, therefore, must be finite because an actual infinite of past events is logically impossible. To say that the number of events in the history of the universe is infinite entails a host of paradoxes. One example of what I mean is exemplified in the following: imagine that the universe has existed for an infinite amount of time. In that case it would be impossible that the present time exists at all because it would literally take an infinite amount of time to traverse any stretch of time from an infinite past to any point in time like the present. But since the present does exist, it follows that the universe had an actual beginning a finite time ago. Kant noted this difficulty by formulating his antinomies. But Kant himself overlooked that said antinomy could be explained away by postulating an absolute beginning of time and space brought about by a free-willed, atemporal, and personal agent.

Thus, from the first premise, whatever begins to exist has a cause, and the second premise, the universe began to exist, we now consider the conclusion that the universe has a cause follows necessarily. And since the premises are also true, the KCA is a sound argument. But we have to ask who or what brought about the universe. There must have been a cause that brought the universe, space and time and all matter, into being. And from the very nature of the case, this cause must be an uncaused cause; it must be a changeless, timeless, and immaterial being that created the universe. It must be uncaused because, as I showed earlier, there cannot be an infinite regress of causes. It must be timeless and therefore changeless––at least without the universe––because it created time. It must also transcend space and therefore be immaterial, not physical, because it created space.

Moreover, I argue, this cause must also be personal. Spinoza’s pantheistic God cannot be the cause of the universe because it is not personal. For, how could a timeless cause like the God of Spinoza give rise to a temporal spatial effect like the universe? When we think about it, it appears clear that if the cause were an impersonal set of sufficient conditions or deterministic laws, then the cause could never exist without the effect. If the sufficient conditions were timelessly present, then the effect would also necessarily be timelessly present. But since the effect (the world and its contents) are in fact not eternal, then the God of Spinoza cannot be the case. The only way for the cause to be timeless but for the effect to begin in time is if the cause is a personal agent who freely chooses to create an effect in time without any prior determining conditions. And thus this argument leads us not merely to a transcendent cause of the universe, but rather to a personal creator endowed with libertarian freedom who can decide to create the universe. Thus, to put it another way, the reasons to think the first cause must be a personal agent capable of deciding to cause the universe are (1) That the cause cannot be mechanistic and (2) It must have a mind. The cause cannot be some kind of mechanistic, impersonal entity that necessarily causes effects because the cause would never exist without the effect (the universe). An example will be useful: the cause of water’s freezing is the temperature’s being below 0˚ Centigrade. If the temperature were below 0˚ from eternity past, then any water that was around would be frozen from eternity. And therefore it would be impossible for the water to begin to freeze (or even unfreeze) just a finite time ago. So if the cause is permanently present, then the effect should be also permanently present. The only way for the cause to be timeless and the effect to begin to exist a finite time ago is for the cause to be a personal agent who freely chooses to create an effect in time without any prior determining conditions.

The only kind of immaterial thing that has causal powers is a mind. A mind is capable of thought, decision, and the will to action. The cause had to have the power to decide and initiate a change; this entails that only an agent who is endowed with free choice of the will can initiate this change. The cause had the complete freedom to create the universe or not create it. We can therefore say that the universe is the product of an un-embodied mind. When we recognize that volition is part of the explanation of the universe, then we realize that Spinoza’s pantheistic monism must be false. If god is an eternal, changeless, impersonal thing like nature, then it cannot initiate any changes in time. But if he is a person endowed with libertarian free will, he can decide to change his mind and produce a change in time.

The next argument is that the existence and the apprehension of objective moral values in the world suggests that human beings are separate minds from God and are endowed with free will. The argument is this. If we are determined, then objective moral values do not exist. And if objective moral values do not exist, then human beings are not moral agents, that is, they have no moral responsibility. Thus, if objective moral values do not exist, there is no difference between, say, raping a child for fun and helping that child, no difference between good and bad or right and wrong. In other words, if humans were determined or, worse, if they were mere modes of a single divine substance, as Spinoza argues, objective moral values would not exist. But since human beings are moral agents, they do have moral responsibility, and since moral acts are either good or evil, then it follows that human beings are moral agents and also are free agents who apprehend a realm of objective moral values and have moral responsibilities.

On Spinoza’s view, there is no difference in moral value between hate and love. Moral values are illusory because whatever happens is absolutely determined. What follows from the doctrine of determinism is that there is no right and wrong that are imposed on our conscience. Moreover, if pantheistic monism is true, there isn’t any conscience in the first place; there is no freedom, no subjects that experience morality, and consequently no right and wrong. But again, as I have already indicated, these notions fly in the face of our reason and experience of freedom and morality. Objective moral values do exist, and deep down we all know it. There is no more reason to deny the objective reality of moral values than the objective reality of the physical world. Actions like rape, torture, and child abuse are not irrelevant—they are moral abominations. Many things are really, objectively wrong. But of course if pantheistic monism were true, if the only thing that exists is a unique substance and nothing else, then things like rape, torture, and child abuse would be but mere labels devoid of meaning. Similarly, love, equality, and self–sacrifice are really good. But if objective values do not exist because there is only one substance, then the question of morality would not occur to us at all. So, I think that because objective values do exist, it follows logically and inescapably that human beings are free and exist as separate entities from God.

There are other problems with pantheism, which are strictly related to the preceding discussion. For example, if the world were one unity, that is, one substance, it seems that there would not be any individual conscious states of minds. Nor would there be disparate objects that have different forms and substances. Rather, if God were the same as nature and if substance were the only thing that exists, then the world would be one single entity, undivided and indivisible. But the problem is that we experience the opposite. In fact, we have better philosophical reasons to doubt pantheistic monism than to accept it. Especially in light of the fact that Spinoza denies free will, if the world were one and indivisible, identical with God or nature, there would be no reason, other than ad hoc argumentation, that God would have an infinity of modes, and these modes were capable of experiencing a pluralistic world. If monism were true, then God would be a perfect unity that produced nothing like so disparate a world as the one we experience—to be sure, there wouldn’t be a “we” in the first place. Think of the various entities as conscious human minds and unconscious objects as stones, trees, and organic and inorganic entities. All these, according to pantheistic monism, are illusory—but whose illusions are they if there is no other entity than God?

Another objection to pantheism is that God cannot be infinite and finite at the same time (God as nature and nature as God) as Spinoza’s doctrine suggests. That is a contradiction. Or, I should say that what makes it a contradiction is the notion that Spinoza’s God is impersonal. In fact, only a personal God who possesses free will can bring about nature. That is, if God is beyond space and time, there must be a way he brings about space and time, as I explained earlier. Now if God is impersonal, as argued by Spinoza’s doctrine, God is either physical or metaphysical. If he is physical, he cannot bring himself into existence. That is, if he exists and he is physical he must have a cause of his existence, but that would be a contradiction because God is by definition an uncaused being; and it is also impossible, as I established earlier, that whatever exists in space and time exists uncaused. Thus, God is metaphysical. But then he cannot cause nature to exist or have any effect upon it unless he is a personal God, an un-embodied mind. But the main point is that God cannot be physical and metaphysical at the same time because it would entail that God has two natures that are incompatible with each other, which is a contradiction. The only thing that Spinoza could say is that space and time, and matter do not really exist or that they are metaphysical. Or, perhaps he could say that the whole of reality is metaphysical and the physical world is perceived by us as physical but in reality is metaphysical. This, however, would be an extravagant notion for obvious reason; and it would be rather misleading of Spinoza to declare that God is nature because nature, by definition, is physical and not metaphysical.

Yet another problem is what I call the problem of action. The issue is that the pantheistic God is supposed to be impersonal and yet active in time. But these properties lead to problems. To say that God is eternal is to say that he exists outside of time. This kind of “existence” can be explained by analogy with numbers. The number two is what the symbol “2” refers to. A numeral is a symbol that can be written down at a particular time and place. In contrast, a number is not a physical thing that can ever be written down. Moreover, consider that numbers exist necessarily and independently of minds, of space, and of time. A number cannot get bigger or smaller or change in any way. These points about numbers are not controversial, but they are important here in at least one respect: if numbers exist outside of time, then they are eternal in the same way as God. I think that this is a fair analogy to exemplify what follows from the doctrine that God is eternal.

Now, if numbers exists outside of time, it follows that they are incapable of causing any changes inside time. If you have, say, two jobs, that might make you very busy, but the number two itself cannot be what makes you busy. Why not? Because the number two is exactly the same when you are busy as when you are not. The number two was no different before, after, or while you are working at your job, so the number itself cannot explain why you became busy at the time when you are working. In other words, the cause of an event must bear the right relation in time to that event. Consider another example. If I want to kick a ball, if I kick too soon, I will miss. If I kick too late, I will miss. The only way to hit a ball is to kick it at just the right time—and in the right place. If the number two exists outside of time, it cannot hit a ball or cause any event within time. That is to say, if something is not in time, it is, therefore, inert. Consequently, the same restriction that numbers have applies, for the same reasons, to an impersonal God. Such a God cannot change or exert force at just the right time, so he cannot cause changes within time. This point, I believe, has been overlooked by Spinoza, and by other pantheists, though it follows from their doctrine. The problem is that the entity that Spinoza calls God is also supposed to be active in time. He is supposed to have created nature, that is, itself. None of this makes sense if God really is eternal and, hence, outside of time. If God is nature, he cannot be outside time and if he is eternal he must be outside time but cannot be nature and, moreover, he cannot bring about nature. Accordingly, there cannot be a God who is both eternal and also active in time, unless that God is a person. If God is timeless and impersonal, then he cannot be causally active in the temporal world.

These problems disappear, however, if God is a personal being. So, in being related to a temporal world, God, even if intrinsically changeless, nonetheless undergoes extrinsic change; that is to say, he changes in his relations with temporal things, and therefore cannot be timeless. Therefore, so long as a temporal world exists, God must exist in time. My point is that, God is timeless without creation (This seems obvious since prior to creation time does not exist.) and temporal with creation. In fact, consider this. The pantheistic God is a substance that exists equally, wholly, and indivisibly at all times. But nothing that exists equally, wholly, and indivisibly at all times like a substance can explain why an event occurs at one time as opposed to earlier or later. On a pantheistic and deterministic view, once all the causal factors sufficient for an effect exist, the effect must exist, too. So, if the cause of some event is equally, wholly, and indivisibly present at a time, then the effect cannot be delayed in its appearance until some later time; rather it must already exist. You will notice that this is the same reasoning I employed in defense of the personhood of the transcendent cause of the universe established by the Kalam Cosmological Argument.

The origin of the universe cannot be explained as the effect of a deterministic cause, for if the cause were eternally present, (in either a temporal or an atemporal sense) then the effect would be equally present as well. The only way to get an effect that begins in time from an eternal cause is by adopting a wholly different, indeterministic account of causation: agent causation. An agent endowed with libertarian free will can bring about new effects in time without deterministic, antecedent conditions. And what this amounts to is that God must be a personal being, and not the impersonal God of pantheism.

A typical objection is that causes must be in time and therefore, since time did not yet exist prior to the universe, God cannot be the cause of the universe. Also, it is often argued that a cause always precedes its effect. However, these do not constitute damaging objections. For, God’s act of creation of the universe could be simultaneous with the creation of space and time, that is, with the effect. As I said above, this means that God is timeless without the universe and in time subsequent to and at the creation of the universe. But the problem is that if God is conceived as an impersonal, divine substance or nature, like Spinoza argues, then that God cannot breach, so to speak, the gap between atemporal existence and the temporal world.

A few words to conclude my discussion are necessary. What I tried to accomplish here is to provide some criticisms of Spinoza’s pantheistic and deterministic monism. At least two objections may be advanced. The first one is that many or all the arguments I presented are by no means decisive. Some might regard the premises of these arguments as controversial. For example, the first premise of the Kalam Cosmological Argument—Whatever begins to exist has a cause—has generated innumerable criticisms. Typically, this premise has been criticized by saying that we just don’t know or can’t know that whatever begins to exist always has a cause. Perhaps, not everything that begins to exist has a cause. Perhaps some things just begin to exist without a cause and we just don’t or can’t know it. But those who take this line do nothing to undermine the argument. While it is true that we may never know the most obscure secrets of the universe, in our assessment of arguments, we must use the best tools that we have, reason and logic. And what we do in logic when we deal with controversial premises is that we try to determine whether the premises in question are more reasonable than not. So in the absence of defeaters for those premises, we must consider what is more likely to be true than not. In this particular case, it seems to me that reason itself dictates that things do not come into existence uncaused—that is, being cannot come from non-being. So, the first premise of the Kalam Cosmological Argument is true.

Also, it has been argued that in talking about causality within the world and in talking about cause as regards an event such as the beginning of the world, to borrow Wittgenstein’s terminology, we use two different language games. Specifically, the objection is that when we use the word “cause” we mean something that transform pre-existing matter from one state to another. But when we talk about “cause” in reference to the universe, we mean something that created the universe out of nothing. Since the two meanings of “cause” are not the same, the argument is accused of making the fallacy of equivocation. However, I do not have a preference as to the meaning of “cause” or of “beginning.” By cause I intend any and all senses of the term; and by beginning I mean that there is a time when a certain entity does not exist and at a later time that entity exists.

The second objection is that my criticism is not based upon detailed, point-by-point textual review of Spinoza’s Ethics. Moreover, it may be disputed that my criticisms are constructed on the basis of a misrepresented or misinterpreted account of the true meaning of the Ethics. In the first place, if my discussion did not provide exhaustive textual references is because I approached only what I consider the broader view of the Ethics, which is pantheistic monism (and determinism). As I tried to show, Spinoza’s pantheistic monism flies in the face of reason. Moreover, I hope to have shown that certain argument employed by Spinoza with the intent of proving such a substance as God or Nature, for example the Ontological Argument, quite the reverse prove the existence of a personal deity. With regard to misinterpreting or misrepresenting, obviously I tried to do my best to base my criticisms on an accurate account of the text. Accurate textual interpretation in philosophy is, after all, one of the hardest tasks. In fact, to avoid inaccuracies, I tried to present a straightforward and conservative interpretation of the implications of the Ethics—and that is, the notion that God or nature is the only one substance and that everything else is a mode of the same substance that proceeds in a deterministic way.

References

Curley, E., Spinoza, B., A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works, Edited and translated
by Edwin Curley, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Descartes. R., Principles of Philosophy (Principia Philosophiae), Translated by John Veitch,
Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2010.

Russell, B., The History of Western Philosophy, Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, 1967.

Spinoza, B., Ethics, translated by Edwin Curley, Penguin Classics, 2005.

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Author: Carlo Alvaro

philosopher

2 thoughts on “Spinoza: Monistic Pantheism and the Problem of an Impersonal Deity

  1. “Although the traditional version of the Ontological Argument is invalid, the modal version is sound because the modal version does not claim that existence is a property. Rather, it maintains that the existence of God is neither impossible nor contingent.”

    Such a God cannot be all-loving in the sense of loving us back – as that would render Him contingent on us.

  2. Pingback: Albert Einstein On God: “Nothing More Than the Expression and Product of Human Weakness” – chaaipani

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