Last night, I brought a basket of laundry up the stairs when I went to bed. My cat, as he often does, tried to herd me toward the bedroom. Thanks to him, I stumbled and dropped the basket, which crashed into a stained-glass nightlight in the hallway, shattering it into a hundred pieces. Thanks, Alex.
As tragedies go, it was a small one. But it does a good job of demonstrating the phenomenon of cause and effect. Me with the laundry basket, Alex with his bossy self, gravity, the nightlight, the shards of glass. Multiply that by a couple hundred trillion and you’ve got a typical day on earth. And multiply that by another couple hundred sexdicillion (I had to look it up) and maybe you’ve got an average … passage of time … in the universe — they don’t have “days” out in space.
Cause-and-effect happen everywhere. The gravity of the sun pulls on a ball of dirty ice and sends it plummeting toward the center of the solar system. But along the way — bonk — it crashes into Jupiter in 21 pieces. You step outside and take a deep breath, inhaling a bit of ragweed pollen. Next thing you know your eyes are watering and you’re sneezing, and it’s all because your autoimmune system interprets this harmless bit of plant stuff as a serious attack. Cause. Effect.
No one questions it.
No one, it is, until our big brains get in the way and ego gets involved. All of a sudden, the idea of free will enters the picture and the primacy of cause and effect flies out the window. Or does it? Let’s take a look.
For thousands of years before him and for hundreds of years since, the universe is something that has been shrouded in mystery. But for Baruch Spinoza, the universe was not mysterious at all. It could be logically understood. And the more understanding you had about the universe, the more you actually understood G-d, because G-d and nature were one and the same thing. “Deus sive natura,” he wrote — literally, “G-d or nature.” Had he been reincarnated as Carl Sagan, he might have even called it “star stuff.”
So the universe, then, operates under laws of nature. Today, thanks to the likes Bill Nye the Science Guy and Neil deGrasse Tyson, that’s a “duh.” In the 1600s, it was revolutionary. What was more revolutionary? Saying that G-d is also beholden to the laws of nature. And that’s precisely what Spinoza said. And that, in fact, would get poor Bento into a good deal of trouble. More on that later.
Things start to get interesting when you unpack this idea and examine its components. At first blush, it’s no big deal: the entire universe and everything therein is governed by natural law, or the laws of physics. No excuses. No exceptions. So what? But hold on to your hat, things are about to get weird.
Let’s be reasonable
Spinoza was one of the early founders of the Age of Enlightenment which held logic to be supreme over emotion and superstition. It believed things worth knowing could be understood through reason. The Enlightenment gave rise to ideals such as freedom of expression and religion, the separation of church and state, the separation of powers in government — concepts codified into the legal systems of nearly all Western governments. It also put a high value on science and encouraged people to consider (if not adopt) the idea of equality.
Spinoza was all-in on the Enlightenment. He was known as an adherent of the “radical Enlightenment,” a branch of the movement so extreme it argued for unlimited freedom of expression, real democracy and an end to religious authority. The nerve!
Being such an extremist, he was a stickler for the underpinnings of the movement and a loyalist to logic. If ideas wouldn’t hold up logically, he wouldn’t support them. For that reason, he built his Ethics in the manner of a geometry textbook, replete with opening definitions, theorems, axioms, propositions, proofs and corollaries.
If you’re asking why this all matters, I’ll tell you.
Let’s get back to the universe, which is all the things that exist, including you, me, my cat Alex, the basket of laundry and the stained glass nightlight, among an infinite number of other things (yes, I said “infinite,” we’re delving into metaphysics, not physics here). All of these things have to behave according to the laws of G-d/nature. ALL of them. No one gets a free pass. And one of those laws, according to Spinoza’s beautiful, logical architecture, is the law of cause-and-effect.
There’s a whole chunk of Ethics dedicating to proving this, and it involves a lot of theorems and axioms and propositions, and I can point you out to some sites that will probably do a better job explaining it, but here comes my best go at it:
Nothing comes from nothing
To understand how Spinoza arrives at his dogged determinism, we have to understand his definition of things, starting with “substance.” His definition of “substance” isn’t your day-to-day usage of the word, so put that perfectly understandable definition aside. Spinoza defines substance as:
“that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself: in other words, that of which a conception can be formed independently of any other conception.”
A bit clunky? Yes. It was similarly, and more poetically, defined by Rene Descartes as:
“A thing which exists in such a way that it does not need anything else in order for it to exist.”
In other words, a substance is a thing which is not dependent on anything else. It wasn’t called into being by anything else and it doesn’t rely on anything else to keep going. And this substance — you heard me, there is just one of them — is what is called G-d or nature, Deus sive natura.
Ethics winds through other proofs and observations. For instance, things that do depend on another thing to exist (you and I have parents, for instance), cannot be a substance. We, and all our ancestors, are termed modes of a substance. That laundry basket? The nightlight? People in factories made them. Those things, and the factories, too, are modes.
Substances and modes differ from each other in several ways, including whether they are “free” or “necessary.” In Ethics, Spinoza defines them this way:
“That thing is called free, which exists solely by the necessity of its own nature, and of which the action is determined by itself alone. On the other hand, that thing is necessary, or rather constrained, which is determined by something external to itself to a fixed and definite method of existence or action.”
Recall above that only a substance (aka G-d or nature) can be its own cause. Everything else, which is not its own cause (you, me, my cat Alex, the laundry, the nightlight) is a mode, and is therefore determined by something else.
In other words, you and I don’t determine for ourselves what we do and don’t do. We don’t have free will.
Now wait just a gosh darned second
There are objections to this idea. Many. So many. I know. Some are rooted in reason and logic, some are based in morality and some … because it just doesn’t feel right to say we have no free will. You reading this right now might be bored out of your ever-loving mind and decide, for instance, to click away. Ah, but are you actually choosing to do this? Or are you only doing what you must do in accordance with your nature?
Here’s one objection that plagues me: Spinoza’s geometric architecture rests on a foundation that is only as sound as its definitions. Disagree with what a “substance” is? With what he defines “G-d” to be” (For the record, it’s this: “By God, I mean a being absolutely infinite — that is, a substance consisting in infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality.) Have a quibble with the assertion that “By eternity, I mean existence itself, in so far as it is conceived necessarily to follow solely from the definition of that which is eternal”? Then the whole thing falls apart.
That’s just the start. But instead of me playing the role of prosecutor, I’ll leave it to Marvin Edwards, who does a very fine job of it in very everyday English (that’s a compliment). While I’ve linked to just one post of his in particular, I’d encourage you, if you’re interested, to peruse his site to get a better grounding in the pro-free will side of the free will vs. determinism debate. Spoiler: Marvin is a wee bit of a free will advocate.
From here, I’ll go on to explore how Spinoza’s concept of Deus sive natura and this idea of determinism — should you choose to accept it— leads down some very curious passages.