Nuovo on Spinoza: Freedom and determination

Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series of essays on Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza.
The last essay left us at the threshold of Spinoza’s morality and politics, but before we cross it, there are other matters to consider, background to be filled in, loose ends to be tidied up, and knots untied one of which demand our urgent attention. His system seems to be founded on an inconsistency. Freedom and determinism, which on the face of it are incompatible, are joined together in it.
Begin with Spinoza’s determinism: “In Nature there is nothing contingent, but all things have been determined from the necessity of the divine nature to exist and produce an effect in a certain way.”
When is a thing contingent? We regard future events as contingent, but only because, for the most part, we don’t know or can’t be sure how things will turn out. All of us know that someday we will die, but we don’t know where, or when, or how; the possibilities seem too numerous to count and rank in order of probability, and in any case it would be morbid to try; the point is this: future events, even those that we are certain will happen, appear contingent to us, because, for all we know, they may happen, if they happen at all, in many different ways. Likewise, although we cannot change the past, we think of past events as contingent. If, on June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip had not murdered Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, World War One might never have happened, or, political tensions being what they were, it might have had a different beginning and run a different course. If in December 2000, the United States Supreme Court had decided differently on Bush vs. Gore 531 U.S. 98 (2000), Albert Gore Jr. would have been the 43rd president of the United States.
But Spinoza denies that there are any contingent events. There are no past events that might not have been, and nothing in the future is contingent. This is not so because everything is determined from the beginning by divine providence or decided by divine decree. Spinoza repudiated such notions. When he wrote that all things happen by the necessity of the divine nature, what he meant was this: God is Nature, and since the divine nature is identical to the laws of nature — the sorts of laws that are relied on by physicists, chemists, and biologists to explain things — then everything happens according to natural necessity. “From the necessity of the divine nature there must follow infinitely many things in infinitely many modes.”
Where is there freedom? Here is Spinoza’s answer: “That thing is called free which exists from the necessity of its nature alone, and acts by itself alone.” But the nature of every individual thing proceeds from and is determined by the necessity of the divine nature, by nature’s laws.
It is ordinarily supposed that an action is free when it is voluntary and self determined. The acts of God or Nature are self-determined, and so are free; yet they are not voluntary actions, rather they follow with the inevitability that we associate with natural processes, like water flowing over a dam. And yet, as Spinoza saw it, the fact that all things happen with this inevitability is the reason for stating that God is free. He joined freedom and necessity. He supposed that an act is free when it is internally caused or self determined; and not free when caused to exist or compelled to act by an external or alien force. But nature is not subject to any such force.
It should be noted that Spinoza was not alone in joining freedom and necessity. In the next essay, I will write about two thinkers, who had great influence on him, Calvin and Hobbes, and who likewise joined freedom and necessity.
But a great, if not insurmountable difficulty remains, and it applies to us. We suppose that we are free agents, at least when we are at our best, able to deliberate and to make choices and to act responsibly, to stay the course or to change the direction of our lives as we see fit. Human striving is acting for a purpose. Tenacity and nobility would seem no more than meaningless gestures, if they proceed automaton-like from necessity, determined by inviolable laws of nature.
I believe that Spinoza saw this difficulty and had a solution to it. To explain it, it must be recalled that he considered Nature to be an infinite fecundity. “From the necessity of the divine nature there must follow infinitely many things in infinitely many modes.” Spinoza’s universe is as vast as can be, an infinity of worlds, a multiverse, beyond which there can be nothing, for it contains the sum of all possibilities. No one has imagined a vaster universe than he, not even Lucretius, although he came close to it. From our small speck of matter, the planet Earth, this may seem too vast to comprehend; but the philosophical imagination comes to our aid.
Some philosophers enjoy spending their time speculating about possible worlds, which may have the same cast of characters, counterparts of each other, yet they diverge at some crucial moment. Imagine a world just like ours, but with this crucial difference, that on June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip did not murder Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, but presented him with a bouquet of flowers, as a token of affection and of Austro-Serbian solidarity; and still another world, in which Albert Gore Jr. became the 43rd president of the United States and that he chose not to lead the nation into war in Iraq in 2003. Spinoza seems committed to admitting that these possibilities are all realized somewhere in the vast universe of nature, with the same spontaneity and inevitability to be found in our part of the universe or multiverse.
So what about human choice and human freedom? If we stick to Spinoza, in all of these possible worlds things run their natural course with spontaneity, as is the case with all natural events; even though as we look at things from our limited standpoint, we often view the past with regret for what might have been and the future as full of contingencies; it goes with our nature as creatures of desire to imagine past and future in this way. He supposed that this is as much freedom as we need to live and act responsibly. Of course, Spinoza supposed another sort of freedom that is the result of seeing things not from our limited place in life, but from the standpoint of eternity. This will be the subject of a future essay.

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