Paul Budde's History Archives

How cool is Spinoza

By the year 2000 scientists reasoned that we are now in a new epoch and they named it Anthropocene, where humans, through all the tools they have developed over the millennia, are having a significant impact on the biosphere. The start of this event goes back to the early stages of the industrial revolution.

The Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was among the first to see nature as a holistic dynamic system He came to that conclusion based on rational reasoning, we are entering the period of the Enlightenment. He saw ‘Nature’ (cosmos) as one infinite interconnected system and humans, he argued, are just a part of this cause and effect system.  When following his train of thoughts, the Anthropocene is just a natural cause and effect development within Nature and as such not a creation of humanity. His views on an infinite cosmos also brings us to the current discussion where scientists are moving on from the Big Bang theory (that leads to there being a start and an end to the cosmos) to now discussing if this perhaps is a part of an infinite cosmos. It is amazing to see how relevant Spinoza still is today.

Nature he mentioned consists of thought and matter. This dynamic Nature is constantly in flux. Nature always follows the laws of physics and as such anything that happens and develops within Nature must obey the laws of physics. Spinoza teaches a form of soft determinism and ecology and he sees this as the basis for morality. How modern is that.

Within that concept he calls his definition of Nature, ‘God’, but in an abstract and impersonal sense.  He did not view this in a religious sense – that he called superstition and for this he was declared an atheist and a heretic by both the Jewish and Christian religions. His ‘God’ is the infinite substance of the universe. There is potentially an interesting link to the theory of quantum physics. Could this be a physical explanation for an infinite cosmos? Was the Big Bang just an event in this quantum soup?

Spinoza always maintained that he was not an atheist. However, he clearly does not see his God as an outside being organising lives or having any influence over these processes or over human beings. He sees ‘Nature’ as the absolute truth, it is not something outside ‘Nature’.

Philosopher and Catholic priest, Thomas Aquinas comes to a similar conclusion, be it in a religious way. In his Summa Theologica he writes that the very essence of God is infinite, and because of it, human knowledge of God will always be limited. But as with all interesting medieval philosophers, none of them take the next step in the way Spinoza has done. If you take that next step you potentially could built a bridge with religion, but that requires a departure from the dogmas.

I also had to think of Plato’s ‘Forms’. The Greek philosopher asserts that the physical realm is only a shadow, or image, of the true reality. For him Forms are abstract, perfect, unchanging concepts or ideals that transcend time and space; they exist in the Realm of Forms. I can see a similarity between the Realm of Forms and Nature. However, Plato’ Forms exist outside the realm of the universe an as such rather different from Spinoza’s views. In general there are not many intersections between these two great philosophers.

An interesting consideration is the notion of ‘free will’. Within Spinoza’s philosophy there is no free will. It is shaped by cause and effect in the context of his overall Nature concept. He does believe that there is the power of the mind. That is also where his master work The Ethics comes in. The power of mind allows people to take control of their affects and distinguishes the wise -who can do this – from the ignorant – who cannot or do not.  We need to look for what he calls ethical knowledge. That can be achieved by combining reason and emotions. Once we recognise our emotions, we can use them to generate ideas, innovations, thoughts, express passion, etc. If we than combine this with reason we have the power to shape our lives in a positive way. Spinoza warns against negative emotions as these are destructive. The trick is to get the cause and effect system right. For this it is important to understand the underlying reasons for human emotions and passions. and use them to progress. His aim is to find the ultimate truth (what is Nature) but he is not sure if humans will ever reach that stage of knowledge.

It is fascinating to follow the thoughts of philosophers all the way back to the Ancients and marvel about who relevant they often still are. Obviously they lived in different ages, but even with our modern scientific knowledge we can match many of their thoughts with our modern ones. If we look at quantum mechanism we are able to dig deeper into for example the cause and effect systems. While we would use different words to describe these process, the underlying thoughts remain relevant. I have explore some of this in “Consciousness and quantum processing”. 

I also like it that he included ‘thought’ in his concept of Nature. Now 350 years later we are talking about information as energy and possibly add this as a fifth element to the other four fundamental forces of nature. We are only now just beginning to explore this. Humans create information that turns into energy and as such becomes part of infinity. Is this the new way to look at ‘afterlife’? These are interesting thoughts. This development would also neatly follow Spinoza’s ideas. He mentioned that what makes humans different is that they have developed higher levels of consciousness and are therefore continuously striving for more knowledge to understand, interpret and manipulate Nature. He sees this as a never-ending process and this brings us also to issues such as AI, robots, and transhumanism.

He did not see humans as beings with a separate mind and a separate body. This was the predominant (religious) dualist view of the Middle Ages. Also, the well-known René Descartes – a contemporary of Spinoza – was a dualist.

Spinoza was a monist (singleness). Death is therefore the end. He also wrote that because there is death this gives meaning to life; therefore, we must live in the now (however with a plan). This was very radical thinking and both the religious and political powers of the day saw these thoughts as very dangerous. Spinoza was in many aspects far more radical than Newton – also a contemporary of Spinoza -, who despite being a scientific genius believed in ghosts, magic, and alchemy.

As humans are an integral part of Nature, whatever happens within nature is part of Nature. Taking this further the Anthropocene cannot be a separate development but is an integral part of Nature. Our actions are simply part of the whole, both in a negative and positive sense. Nature does not judge what is bad or what is good, however Nature will obey the laws of physics and as such certain actions and reactions do happen. Spinoza is a consequentialist.

So, it is not very useful to be fearful of what happens within Nature itself. That is not to say that we should not be vigilant, but our actions and reactions are also part of Nature. Humans have gained a lot by being a part of Nature and its endless opportunities.

Equally, the way that humans react to climate change and pandemics is also part of Nature. Over the last 100,000 years humanity has battled numerous ‘natural’ disasters, crises, and near-death experiences, but Nature has in the end delivered positive outcomes.  In his words: “Nature in its infinite totality is supremely perfect”. He means Nature in a rational (scientific) way, not in a romantic way.

Within the constraints of Nature, Spinoza argues that humans can use reason and knowledge to understand and manipulate Nature to their own benefit.  Coming back to Free Will, it is interesting here to bring in the other philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. He talks about the Will to Power, as the main driving force. While Nietzsche is far more radical in his beliefs, I can see a comparison with what Spinoza calls ‘conatus’ which in Latin means: effort; endeavour; impulse, inclination, tendency, undertaking, striving. The physical or mental drive of things to continue to exist and enhance itself.

Hobbs make a very interesting observation of ‘free will’. He argues the ‘will’ element is the very last element before an action is taken. He uses the word ‘appetites’. Hobbs formulates that as follows. The ‘will’ is the last one, all of the other ‘appetites’ to do and to quit, that come upon a man during his deliberation, are usually called intentions and inclinations, but not wills; there being but one will which also in this case may be called last will, though the intention change often. Obvious the choice made at that very last stage does matter a lot.

For example, while pandemics and climate change are natural developments, all live has a striving element (the desire) to survive. We as humans can use this innate human desire together with reason and knowledge to manipulate Nature, change our own behaviour and so on. We, however, as Spinoza also says, have the ethical responsibility to search for the truth in our strivings (desires). His truth comes from using reason and rationality, not from outside beliefs or ideologies. He clearly see a difference between beliefs and knowledge.

He reasoned that while the bible can be great for people to read stories that provide moral lessons. This is not knowledge as the religions claim. Already by his time there was sufficient evidence to argue that the Holy Books are not scientific documents. Unfortunately the majority of people were not educated and pomp and ceremony  the Church enforced faith rather than knowledge. At the same time that provided stability in, and predictability of the society. Faith leads to obedience and this provided the Church with the immense powers it had.  He also questioned the 613 detailed rules in the Torah that regulates Jewish life in minute details, this had nothing to do with the ‘message of God. He venomously opposed the dogma that the Jews were ‘God’s chosen people’. He claims that believing is easy but understanding is far more difficult and requires education. He was not against religion as he very much advocated tolerance. He clearly saw the good elements of religion as he was always looking for inclusiveness. ‘Love thy neighbour’, look after the poor the sick and destitute. However, he saw this as very different from faith. These human ‘rules’ (including the Ten Commandments) are not just religious requirements but are shared throughout the community, you don’t need religion for that. Nowadays we would call this humanism.

While Spinoza’s philosophy very much evolved around the individual this was done within the realm of society. Don’t do harm. Don’t do to others what you don’t want to be done to you. Shortly before Spinoza the Englishman Thomas Hobbes had written down very similar arguments in his work ‘The Leviathan’ but his rules of reason were more aimed at the society, they were political consideration (his famous ‘social contract’). Spinoza was clearly influenced by Hobbes, who also used reason in a positive way.

I find these intuitions from Spinoza fascinating. There is no empirical scientific to proof his thoughts, this is based on his intuition. But it feels like Spinoza is very much a man of our times. I am most definitely a Spinozist. Obviously at his time most of this – especially his argument that the bible was not a factual document – were heavily opposed by both religious and secular authorities.

It was indeed, centuries later, when more and more people became educated that the balance started to tip in favour of Spinoza. As the Church remained so powerful Carl Marx – tho hundred years later – went as far to claim that both religion and faith should be abolished all together. However, in the end that also didn’t work out as religion was simply replaced with a similar repressive Communist ideology. So, it was not until 250 years after his death that Spinoza started to become recognised as one of the greatest thinkers of all times.

The most important scientist of the 20th century Albert Einstein stated: “My views are near those of Spinoza. I am fascinated by Spinoza’s God. I admire even more his contributions to modern thought. Spinoza is the greatest of modern philosophers because he is the first philosopher who deals with the soul and the body as one, not as two separate things”. He also commented on Spinoza’s thoughts in this way:  “I believe that we have to content ourselves with our imperfect knowledge and understanding and treat values and moral obligations as a purely human problem—the most important of all human problems”.

British philosopher Bertrand Russell and one of the founders of analytic philosophy stated in 1945: “Spinoza is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers. Intellectually, some others have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme”.

Philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in 1817 said of all contemporary philosophers, “You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all.”

The discussion on free will, power of will and power of mind is an interesting one. I agree that our basic human behaviour has more to do with the forces of nature (law of cause and effect) rather than something outside that realm (eg free will). That being the case than it is also possible to study that scientifically in a more rational way. Using big data, data analytics and other empirical studies on social behaviour, human history, and cultural developments. In that way, it will be possible to start making scenario predictions towards the future.  Our social behaviour can be modelled and use ‘power of mind’ to modify. If we look at social economics, we already see this being done for some considerable time, the 40 to 60-year Kondratieff Cycle is such an example, but there are many more models that have been developed over the last 100 years. Neuroscience also comes into this equation, progress here is phenomenal. Cliodynamics studies quantitative historical analyses, however so far this has been far more difficult to model scientifically. There will surely be very interesting times ahead.

A warning here of course comes from Nietzsche’s Power of Will, who has the power or gets the power to change human behaviour. There are plenty of terrible examples.

And while I am a Spinozist there are also plenty of elements of other philosophers such Descartes, Hobbes, Nietzsche and Kant (and many others) who provide other insights that are very interesting, sometimes they look at similar elements from a different angle and at other times they complement each other. And yes of course as this is philosophy there are also plenty of arguments against ‘the other’s’ thoughts, conclusions, and explanations. But that is also the fun and dynamics of philosophy.

Christianity, democracy and human rights

Philosophy