Saturday, August 02, 2008

God: Now 100% All-Natural

I'm not sure I understand my train of thought here anymore. I think this paper is an attempt, like many an undergrad's, to say both something interesting and concrete. The problem is that undergrads usually don't have a good bead on what is interesting yet, nor do they have enough understanding of the concrete to back up something interesting anyway. But you do have to start somewhere, so professors get papers like this--clumsily handled details and arguments sandwiched between intimations of something not yet fully seen.

Spinoza is a fascinating figure in the history of philosophy because he is constantly hailed as canonical by our doxagraphers (like a Copleston), but in many of the more interesting tales about the westering of the human spirit, he's almost entirely neglectable. Or at least, that's been my impression in reading. It's strange, really. My suspicion is that he does deserve to be canonical and, like Bloom's verdict about our inability to truly understand Shakespeare, we simply haven't gotten our heads around why we feel he's important and how to fit him centrally into our stories. But perhaps I need to read more about Spinoza.


In the Western tradition, God and Nature have perennially been described as separate entities. God has typically been described as the personal, creative agent that exists outside of and in addition to what He creates. Nature has then typically been considered everything else. Nature, in this sense, has been used interchangeably with Universe. One problem with this is that Universe implies “everything,” the totality of existence. The way it is used with God is that there is God and then the Universe. God exists outside the Universe and then everything else exists within the Universe. This seems to contradict the meaning of Universe, but this is the way the two words are commonly used.

The break that Spinoza took from this is proving deductively that God is the totality of existence. Everything exists within God. For Spinoza, God could be used interchangeably with Universe. In this sense, Spinoza can be seen to be “naturalizing” God. Instead of God existing outside of the Universe, outside from us, we in fact exist inside of Him. This makes God, in a sense, more accessible because no longer is there God and Universe. There is just God, for which we are all a part of. But is this “naturalization” important or even necessary?

Spinoza’s contemporary, Leibniz, who also formed a proof for the existence of God, didn’t think so. In his writing, Leibniz had already proved the existence of an external universe. With the existence of the Universe, Leibniz stumbled into an age-old problem: infinite regress. The problem of infinite regress consists in looking for the cause for everything. In finding one cause, you then must find the cause for the cause and then the cause for the cause for the cause, ad infinitum. One of the earliest replies to the problem was from Aristotle. He posited the existence of a self-causing Prime Mover. This Prime Mover was the cause of everything, like the finger that pushes down the first domino. Leibniz followed Aristotle’s footsteps and offered a proof for the existence of the Prime Mover, whom Leibniz called God.

Spinoza and Leibniz do agree on one thing: God is self-causing. In this way, both Spinoza and Leibniz address the problem of infinite regress. Leibniz, though, attempts to prove one more thing than Spinoza does: the existence of something in addition to the Universe, namely God. No philosopher has ever denied all existence. Even in Cartesian skepticism, possibly the most radical beginning of a metaphysical system, the Universe consists of you thinking. So both Leibniz and Spinoza start with the Universe. Spinoza goes on to prove that the Universe is, in fact, God, thereby making the Universe self-causing. Leibniz, on the other hand, starts with, in addition to the Universe, God.

At this point, somebody would certainly object to the way I was about to describe Leibniz’s proof of God. At this point I have Leibniz owning up to a Universe (proven as the existence of an external world) and God, but his proof of God mentions nothing of the Universe, only the material world. There is no sleight-of-hand being performed here to entrap Leibniz. The point of this comparison is to show that by the time he gets to Spinoza’s position, Leibniz has one proof for his Universe and another separate one for the material world and God. Spinoza has all that in a single extended proof, making his “natural” God much simpler in form.

The trouble in Leibniz’s proof of God arises in his proposition that the material world is contingent, not necessary:
…the existence of the world, which is the whole assemblage of contingent things….[1]
This can be seen as saying that the world is set, by default, to non-existence. But why could the world not be set by default to existence? Leibniz’s argument can be summarized in an analogy of a classroom. Say you walk into a classroom with chairs and desks organized in some fashion. You know that the chairs and desks didn’t get there by themselves, so somebody must have put them there. Thereby you know that there exists somebody else that puts chairs and desks in their place. But this argument is faulty. How do you know that the chairs and desks haven’t been that way for all of time? You are presupposing the existence of somebody to organize the chairs and desks, when the only thing you can really know when you enter the room is the simple existence of the chairs and desks. So Leibniz, in saying that the world must be contingent, is presupposing the existence of “somebody” to put the world together. Spinoza bypasses this entire hazard by proving that God is the Universe. What is unclear to me is why Spinoza even needed God. Why couldn’t you just have the Universe?

In naturalizing God, Spinoza made God and the Universe synonymous. But why continue with the title of God? Why not dispense with it and simply call the totality of existence the Universe? Spinoza, in effect, still has something extra: God, being the Universe, rather than just the Universe. The significant difference between what Spinoza is calling God/Universe and what I’m calling Universe is that God is a being and the Universe is not. Spinoza is indeed positing the existence of one thing: God. Whereas most other philosophers and theologians start with God and the Universe, Spinoza got rid of one and was left with God. This, of course, led Spinoza to pantheism so that there was still some form of existence for you and I.

Spinoza’s first proof for the existence of God is as follows:
Prop. XI. God, or substance, consisting of infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality, necessarily exists.
Proof.—If this be denied, conceive, if possible, that God does not exist: then his essence does not involve existence. But this (by Prop. vii.) is absurd. Therefore God necessarily exists.[2]

This is where Spinoza commits his sleight-of-hand. He slips God right in there in place of substance. Substance has, heretofore, been the totality of existence i.e. the Universe. But Spinoza slips God in saying that the proof for the Universe is the proof for God. But why does it have to be the proof for God? Why can’t it simply be the proof for the Universe? The fact is Spinoza linked God and substance from the very beginning in his definitions. His definition of God was as a substance. It wasn’t until later that he proved God to be the only substance. But Spinoza realizes that this single proof will not suffice. There is still a question as to why you couldn’t have substance be the only substance with substance being called the Universe. Spinoza answers with two more proofs.

Spinoza’s second proof is reminiscent of Leibniz. The key phrase in it is:
If, then, no cause or reason can be given, which prevents the existence of God, or which destroys his existence, we must certainly conclude that he necessarily does exist.[3]
It seems that the default switch is set to “existence” in Spinoza. From earlier argumentation this would seem to follow, but notice that Spinoza is setting God’s default switch, while I was speaking of the material world’s default switch. Saying that God, by default, exists is like saying that Unicorns, by default, exist. There is no cause or reason why Unicorns do or do not exist, but we do not automatically then assume the existence of them. It is unclear as to Spinoza’s stance on Unicorns and other mythical beasts; maybe he did assume the existence of any number of fictional creatures. But even if Spinoza assumes the existence of every make-believe being, that still does not give him the validity to do so. Spinoza does answer later that “I am not here speaking of things, which come to pass through causes external to themselves, but only of substances….”[4] But here Spinoza simply floats back to his sleight-of-hand switch of substance and God without any apparent reason to do so. Perhaps Spinoza’s third proof will open up some undiscovered avenue.

Spinoza’s third and final proof is:
The potentiality of non-existence is a negation of power, and contrariwise the potentiality of existence is a power, as is obvious. If, then, that which necessarily exists is nothing but finite beings, such finite beings are more powerful than a being absolutely infinite, which is obviously absurd; therefore, either nothing exists, or else a being absolutely infinite necessarily exists also.[5]
The negation of power means that power is absent. Spinoza’s first step can then be rephrased as “the potentiality of non-existence is the absence of power and the potentiality of existence is the presence of power.” It does not follow then that beings with existence are more powerful then those without. The comparison of power happens when two beings have power. We can then say that one is weak (less power) and one is strong (more power). If we take the opposite comparison, comparing the power of two beings that do not have power, we see that there is no basis for comparison. Take the example of a turtle. We can say that the painted turtle is weaker than the snapping turtle because the snapping turtle’s ability to survive (read: exist) is greater than that of the painted turtle. But say we come along a dead snapping turtle. We don’t say, “Boy, that turtle is weak.” There is no basis for the observation. When the turtle is dead it isn’t weak in the existence department; it just doesn’t exist.

Spinoza might defend himself by saying that I misinterpreted him because he said that existence is a power, so that all of God’s power is negated by his non-existence, but otherwise He would have us beat. Because of the negation, God is made weaker than us. But this merely points out a discrepancy in Spinoza’s argumentation. His use of the word “contrariwise” is misleading. The contrary of “the potentiality of non-existence is a negation of power” is “the potentiality of existence is a negation of power.”[6] This is not what Spinoza said. Therefore, it must be taken that his use of contrariwise means something other than contrary. What exactly he meant is unclear. If Spinoza meant a contradiction to his original phrase it would have appeared as “the potentiality of non-existence is not negation of power.” If we take contrariwise to mean simply opposite, as I have, then the discrepancy of “no basis for comparison” still exists. The opposite of “the potentiality of non-existence is a negation of power” would be “the potentiality of existence is a non-negation of power,” non-negation meaning the affirmation of power. Thereby the negation of power comes to mean the absence of power and the affirmation of power becomes the presence of power. So whatever Spinoza meant, he didn’t follow through correctly.

What we are left with in Spinoza’s terms is substance. This substance is the totality of existence, as natural as you can get it. Things that are natural are said to exist within nature. Therefore, Spinoza did attempt to naturalize God. But the mere existence of God within nature (or as nature) still would seem to be superfluous. The naturalization is an important step in philosophy as Spinoza was branded an atheist, when really he was a pantheist. Spinoza believed in God, just not in the way that was considered acceptable. The important step was making the Universe self-causing. Many philosophers have used the problem of infinite regress as a stepping stone to posit the existence of God. Spinoza, in combining the Universe and God, gives great credence to the Universe existing by itself.

[1] Popkin, Richard H., ed. The Philosophy of the 16th and 17th Centuries. (New York: The Free Press, 1966), 335.

[2] Ibid., 252

[3] Ibid., 253

[4] Ibid., 254

[5] Ibid., 253

[6] Flew, Antony. A Dictionary of Philosophy. Rev. 2nd ed. (New York: Gramercy Books, 1979), 75.


  1. I would highly suggest for you, and any one else interested to read the book ""The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions." by self-professed secular Jew and mathematics/philosophies teacher David Berlinski.
    This tells the story of a Jew who was forced to dig his own grave prior to being shot by a German soldier. Prior to being shot, the old Jewish man advised the German that “God is watching what you are doing.” The Jewish gentleman pointed what i think is the real problem with atheism. "If you have the time please check the book out

  2. Is this what you do Jaxon, is go from blog to blog pitching this book???


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