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Spinoza and Substance: God and the World, Minds and Bodies

Spinoza was enormously influenced by Descartes. He is like Descartes, a mechanical philosopher, whose aim is to provide an intelligible alternative to the Scholastic "substantial forms" and occult qualities in terms of matter in motion. Spinoza holds that the essential difference between minds and bodies is that minds think and bodies are extended.

In one, truly spectacular way, however, he modified the Cartesian philosophy so drastically as to make it a different philosophy. What Spinoza did was to take the Cartesian definition of substance seriously. We may as well talk about substance ourselves for a moment. The term has come up before. When Descartes says in the Meditations, I am a thinking thing, this is a non-technical way of saying "I am a substance whose essence is to think." If a substance is a thing, its essence is that set of properties which it must continue to have to preserve its identity as that very thing. So you are a thing and part of your essence is to be alive. When you die, thus losing that property, you cease to be this particular individual. This is one reas on why people take death so seriously. We saw Descartes using this idea of essence and accident when he investigated the wax, and decided that the essential properties of the wax were extension, flexibility and changeability. We can trace this machinery of substance, essence and accident all the way back to Aristotle. Perhaps the most important feature of substance is independent existence. This bear can survive the death of that tree. This piano may survive the destruction of that saxophone. Thus the exi stence of the bear is independent of the tree. The existence of the piano, independent of that of the saxophone. Substance is a thing and it has properties. Properties cannot exist independently. they need substances to inhere in. The whiteness and flexibility of the paper cannot exist without the paper. In linguistic terms, substance is the subject, properties are adjectives predicated of that subject. Modes are determinate modifications of substances. Some modes are simple, others complicated collections of properties.

Now what Spinoza does is to take the definition of Cartesian substance as that which exists independently and take this seriously. Descartes had said that there were three classes of substances, God, minds and bodies. Now Cottingham argues that for Des cartes, bodies are really modifications or modes of one material substance, matter. There are, however, many minds, and then there is God. The only trouble with this picture is that minds and bodies are completely dependent on God for their existence. The y may not depend on one another, but they surely depend on God, who, from instant to instant preserves the universe and everything it in it in existence. Spinoza considered this and announced that there really was only one substance, namely God.

God and the World

This doctrine that there is only one substance has astonishing and revolutionary consequences. The first of these is that the created world is not a separate substance from God. Rather it is an aspect of God. Thus Spinoza denies that God is a creator. He is here rejecting not only Descartes' view of the relation between God and the world, but the whole medieval Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition! Since the idea of a creator God is central to Jewish and Christian (and Islamic) belief, though Spinoza clearly believes in God, he was labeled an atheist by many of his contemporaries. Later in the century, John Toland would coin the English word Pantheist to describe something very much like Spinoza's view.

Minds and Bodies

Spinoza's doctrine that there is only one substance also has implications for the status of bodies and minds. Since there is only one substance, minds and bodies must be modifications of that one substance. Or, more precisely, God has infinite attribut es, two of which are being a thinking thing and being an extended thing, and minds are modifications of God's attribute as a thinking thing, and bodies are a modification of God as an extended thing. How are bodies and minds related? Well, in one sense, they are two aspects of the same thing. How are these two aspects related? Well, this is a bit more vague and tricky. The mind is an idea, and every idea has a correlated object or ideatum. The body is that corresponding object. There is no causal interact ion in Spinoza's view between the mind and the body or the body and the mind, but as Cottingham's discussion suggests, it is not entirely clear how Spinoza manages to explain even the appearance of two way causal interaction.

It is quite fascinating to see the terrible reaction which these doctrines received from Spinoza's contemporaries. They attacked him as atheistic and materialistic, basically lumping him together with Hobbes, who was the other great philosophical villain of the age.

Two views of God

There are two poles in views about God. One pole is the view that God is a person like us. If you take the view that some children have of a bearded man seated on a throne, you even get the idea that God has a body and is male rather than female. As vi ews of God become more sophisticated, the idea that God has a human like body disappears. Still, if God has properties like being intelligent, merciful, answering prayers, being in a personal relationship with Mary K. in Oklahoma City and so on, he is sti ll like us, and we are like him. On this view, we can make deals with God. "If I win this battle," said Henry V at Agincourt, "I will build a Church here." God obligingly allowed the English to slaughter the French army. Henry built the church. The deal w as consummated. One typical version of the 'like us' view is that God is a king. You might think of Handle's famous Hallelujah chorus in the Messiah: God is "Lord of lords, King of Kings "-- "And he shall reign for ever and ever!" God is a monarch whose commands must be obeyed, and who intervenes in human affairs to punish and reward. Descartes has a very sophisticated version of the 'like us' view. Our soul is God's image and the stamp of his workmanship is on it. John Locke, too, as we shall see, shares this view. By using reason, we can see what end or purpose God intended in creating us.

This 'like us' or near pole of the views about God gives rise to a particular kind of argument for God's existence -- the argument for design or teleological argument ("telos" means 'end' in Greek). The idea is that just as every machine we know of has a machine maker, the world itself being a great machine, it too must have a maker. As David Hume pointed out in the middle of the eighteenth century in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, this argument depends for its force on the principle that like effects are produced by like causes. So God must be like a machine maker. From His similarity to a machine maker we can deduce that He has foresight and intelligence, wisdom and benevolence. We can deduce this from the fact that machine makers demonstrate intelligence and foresight, wisdom and benevolence in designing machines which serve some end or purpose of those who are going to use the machines they create. Since God is a maker of a vastly more complicated machine, He must have these sa me properties to a correspondingly greater degree. Over the last three centuries, this has been perhaps the most popular argument for the existence of God.

The other pole of the views about God is the remote, that God is not like us at all. This view is sometimes called the God of the philosophers. Aristotle's God cares not a fig for this world. His God is not even aware of this world. It is a perfect bei ng, emersed in contemplation of Itself. The rest of the world longs for this perfection. Spinoza's God is like this in being utterly remote. Spinoza rejects with scorn the notion that God is anything like us. But why would anyone adopt this view -- the remote pole?


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