Locke, Science Morality and Knowledge

Readings for this part of your journey

  1. Appendix to Book I of The Ethics in your course packet


The Ethics

In this section of the course we are going to explore a brief section from Benedict de Spinoza's (1632-1677) Ethics. In this substantial work (it runs to a bit over 200 pages) Spinoza sets forth his system of philosophy in geometrical form. In order to really read the Ethics effectively requires some preparatory reading. Unfortunately, we do not have the time for such an effort. Instead, we are going to read the Appendix to Book I of the Ethics along with a guide to key point provided by Captain Bill. Before turning to this material, however, we should consider a bit about Spinoza and the world in which he grew up.



Baruch de Spinoza was born on November 24, 1632. His father was a prominent member of the Jewish community in Amsterdam. This community was largely made up of descendants of refugees from the Spanish expulsion of the Jews in 1492. The Jews were welcomed because they were fellow suffers under Spanish tyranny.

The Netherlands had revolted against Spain in 1579, when the seven north provinces had combined in the Union of Utrecht and sought the protection of William I of Orange. Among the causes of the revolt were the advances made by the Reformation, and the desire to establish sufficient freedom to allow the reformed churches to exist. The Union of Utrecht had proposed to establish a purely secular government which would allow religious toleration. Still, the Southern provinces had stayed loyal to Spain, and retained the Roman Catholic religion. The Spanish threat from the Southern provinces was popularly conceived in religious terms. Catholics were persecuted in the Dutch Republic much as the Marranos were in Spain. The war with Spain continued off and on until the peace of Munster in 1648.

The nation which came into being in the course of this struggle came to be known as the Dutch Republic was a loose confederation of medieval cities, represented by the Estates General. Nominally above them, but also appointed by them, was the Stadtholder. Partly out of gratitude to William, and partly for convenience and continuity, the office of Stadtholder was conferred on the House of Orange.

The Calvinist Church gained ascendancy, maneuvering itself in to supreme political and religious authority in the Dutch Republic. The doctrine of predestination rapidly became a matter of religious orthodoxy which had to be defended from unbelievers. The followers of Arminius, a professor of theology at Leyden, refused to accept these propositions of the Calvinist doctrine, which seemed to fly in the face of reason, and issued a 'Remonstrance' in 1610, setting forth their dissident opinions, and calling on the Estates General to uphold their freedom of worship and opinion which had been guaranteed at Utrecht. The Statholder, Prince Maurice of Orange, declared against the Remonstrants, and those who spoke out in favor of religious freedom, began to feel the hand of established power. Hugo Grotius, the greatest Dutch jurist of the time, who played an important role in the establishment of international law, was sentenced to life imprisonment, from which he escaped into exile. The Synod of Dort in 1619 defined the Dutch Church as a 'community of the elect' thus making Calvinism the official religion of the Dutch Republic and authorizing the purging of universities and other places of influence. Nevertheless as Roger Scruton puts it:

...the new church was unable to suppress the thoughts which disturbed it. Partly on account of the loose structure of the Republic--in which the undefined powers of Estates General and Stadtholder could not be combined into a single minded tyranny-- and partly on account of the legacy of Utrecht, with its declared ideal of a purely secular government, the spirit of toleration continued to breathe, and those Remonstrants who were content to establish themselves apart were allowed to live in relative tranquillity. At the same time, there flourished around them an equally remarkable, and for us more interesting, defiance of the Calvinist spirit; the art and culture of the Netherlands, in which man's relation to the world of objects, and to his own physical life, became the subject of a profound spiritual interrogation. (Scruton, Spinoza, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1986 Pg. 4)

It was into this community that the Jews driven out from Spain and Portugal were welcomed as fellow sufferers from Spanish tyranny. They seemed less threatening than the dissenting sects which called themselves Christian without accepting Calvinist doctrines. The new Jewish community flourished, but had in it conflicts and tensions of its own.

Spinoza spoke Dutch fluently, and Portuguese at home. He knew Spanish as this was the language of the refugees; and since his education was dominated by the traditional studies of the Torah and the Talmud, he learned Hebrew at school. Spinoza, unlike most other European philosophers, grew up with the medieval Jewish philosophical tradition. Later he would learn Latin and study the Scholastic and Cartesian traditions. His Gentile mentor in these philosophies was Francis Van den Enden who was well versed in both. Cartesianism opened Spinoza's eyes to a whole new world alien to his rabbinical teachers. Spinoza became increasing dissatisfied with what he regarded as the rigid dogmatism of the Jewish community. After a legal conflict with his sister over a legacy from their father, (which Spinoza won -- and then renounced!) Spinoza changed his named to Benedict (a Christianized version of his Hebrew name) and went to teach in Frances Van den Enden's school. The intellectual gap between Spinoza and the Jewsish community continued to grow, and in 1656 at the age of 24, Spinoza was accused of heresy, cursed and expelled from the synagogue. He was also briefly expelled from Amsterdam, but returned and until 1660 made a living by teaching Cartesian philosophy. During this period Spinoza wrote the Short Treatise on God, Man and his well being.

In the years after his expulsion, Spinoza learned the skill of lens grinding, and most of his income came from this source. His interest in philosophy increased, and when he moved to Rijnsburg in the countryside near Leiden, he had developed a number of close friends with whom he corresponded and discussed his ethical, metaphysical and scientific ideas. His fame as a learned man had spread and he began to receive visits from people eager to discuss scientific and philosophical questions. One of these was Henry Oldenburg (1615?-1677) who was to become the first secretary of the British Royal Society. Spinoza began writing the Principles of Cartesian Philosophy and began work on the Ethics. He finished the Principles in Amsterdam (on the way to his new home in Voorburg) where his friends had urged him to complete and publish it. This was, in fact, the only work which Spinoza published under his own name in his lifetime. It was a geometrical exposition of the Cartesian system, with an appendix expressing Spinoza's own metaphysical views, and a preface by Lodewikj Meyer which explained that Spinoza did not agree with all of the Cartesian arguments. Indeed his geometrical exposition laid bare its defects.

In Voorburg, Spinoza continued working on the Ethics and continued his conversations and correspondence with scientists and philosophers. He met Christian Huygens, an extraordinarily accomplished scientist and mathematician, and Jan de Witt who held the post of Grand Pensionary of the Dutch Republic. Jan de Witt was an energetic defender of the principles of religious tolerance and free speech. Political controversies surrounding the first Anglo-Dutch War of 1652-4 led to debates about the nature of the state, and the desirability of free speech and free worship. Spinoza's friendship with de Witt led him to write the Theologico-Politico Treatise which he published anonymously. This work is a strong defense of secular government, religious tolerance, and constitutional government. The work was condemned by the Synod of Dort in 1673, and formally banned in 1674.

In 1671 Charles II of England joined forces with Louis XIV of France against the Dutch Republic. War was declared in 1672 and 120,000 French troops marched into the Netherlands. The people, in a state of panic, blamed this disaster on Jan de Witt and looked to the House of Orange for salvation. The Orangists did nothing to quell the rumors of de Witt's treachery, and on the 20th of August, 1672, Jan de Witt and his brother were seized at the Hague and beaten to death by an angry crowd. Hearing of this outrage, Spinoza was going to sally forth to the scene carrying a sign denouncing the assassinations, but was prevented by his landlord and friend.

In 1673 Spinoza turned down an offer of a pension from the King of France (Spinoza was visiting the French forces on a fruitless mission of peace) in return for dedicating a book to the king. Spinoza also turned down an offer of a professorship at the University of Heidelberg, fearing it would compromise his independence and tranquillity. Spinoza moved to the Hague.

In 1675 Spinoza finished the Ethics and prepares to have it published when a rumor began spreading that he was about to publish a book which sought to show there was no God. The reaction to this rumor forces Spinoza to put off publication. In October 1676 Leibniz, who had left Paris and was returning to Germany via England (where he was elected a member of the English Royal Society) came to Amsterdam, where he spent four weeks with Spinoza's friend and disciple Schuller. In 1675 Leibniz had met Count Tschirnhausen, who was one of Spinoza's most intelligent and critical correspondents. Tschinrnhausen had introduced Leibniz to Spinoza's work. In November 1676 Leibniz met Spinoza at the Hague and pointed out some fundamental mistakes in Cartesian mechanics. In return, he was allowed to see some parts of the Ethics in manuscript. Spinoza and Leibniz share many basic assumptions in common, but come to quite opposed views. Later Leibniz was to be very critical of Spinoza's philosophy.

On February 21, 1677 Spinoza died of a lung ailment complicated by the glass dust from his lens grinding. A few months later his friends published the Ethics,Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, Political Treatise, and a Hebrew Grammar.

Spinoza and Substance: God and the Word, 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 reason 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 existence 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 Descartes, 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. They 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 attributes, 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 interaction 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 views 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 still 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 was 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 same 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 being, 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?

The problem of evil

One answer to the question of why religious thinkers might be pushed towards the view that God is not like us, is the problem of evil. The problem of evil, simply stated goes like this. If God is omniscient (all knowing) then He knows if any evil is about to occur; if He is omnipotent (all powerful) then He has the power to prevent the occurrence of that evil; if He is completely benevolent (all good), then he will not be willing to allow the occurrence of evil. So, under these conditions, no evil should exist in the world. But evil does exist. So, either God is not omniscient, omnipotent or completely benevolent, or what is perhaps equivalent, does not exist at all.

How is this problem related to issues about whether God is like us? The answer is that if God is like us, then our standards of morality apply to God. But a little reflection shows that there are extreme difficulties to this view. It is sometimes said that God is a great teacher. Someone loses an arm, and that teaches them a lesson. A family loses a child to an accident in a river, that teaches them a lesson. But, if I were to cut off your arm in order to get you to try to learn philosophy more effectively, or kill your sister (or even just allow her to die) in order to teach you a lesson, you would quite rightly regard me as a monster. But these are just the sorts of things which God is supposed to do in order to teach people lessons! So, God must not be like us. The morality by which God operates must be quite different from that which you would use to condemn me for killing your sister in order to teach you a lesson. So, the problem of evil tends to force religious thinkers to say that God (and the ways of God) is mysterious and incomprehensible, and God is not even remotely like us. At this pole, words like 'benevolence,' 'intelligence,' 'love,' and so forth cannot be used of God in the sense in which we use them of each other. It is not at all clear what they mean when applied to God. These terms have, in effect, lost their meaning.

Spinoza and Two Views of Religion

Corresponding to these two views of God, there are two different kinds of religious views. Spinoza firmly rejects one view in favor of the other. He despises the religion based on the near or 'like us' view of God. This idea of God derives from motives of unenlightened self-interest, false values and superstition. This kind of view is exploited by priests and kings to control the credulous populace. It demeans the notion of God. Spinoza's philosophy is an expression of a different kind of religious view, a remote view. In Spinoza's philosophy there is a contrast between human freedom and human bondage. Those in bondage hold the kind of religious view which depends on the near view of God. The philosophy of Spinoza frees one from such a view -- leads one to a kind of freedom from bondage to the passions which goes along with that view, and provides a new and enlightened view of self-interest and a set of values whose pursuit leads one to the highest good. This is salvation through philosophy. This is a contrast between these two kinds of religious views runs through Spinoza's thinking from earliest period to latest.

In the Ethics Spinoza gives his most detailed and sophisticated treatment of this contrast. The Ethics are written in a geometrical form, definitions and axioms and postulates are stated, and then propositions are derived from these assumptions and then from the assumptions plus other propositions. This form of writing is not particularly easy to follow, at least without some preparation. I have tried to find a small portion of the Ethics from which you can get quite a bit of philosophical treasure, although it will require some effort on your part along with some help from me. The part I have chosen is the Appendix to Book I of the Ethics in which, Spinoza have spent Book I giving the arguments for his own position about the nature of God, now spends a few pages refuting the opposing position.