By Yuka Kamamoto
In the Ethics, Spinoza demonstrates the existence of God, but his conception of God is radically different from the anthropomorphic idea of God. For Spinoza, God is not distinct from nature, but inseparable from it because he is an absolutely infinite substance. In other words, he exists independently as everything possible and there is nothing distinct from him. In this paper, I will argue that Spinoza is not entirely successful in his account for the existence of God (as an absolutely infinite substance). First, I will explain Spinoza’s claim in proposition 11 that God necessarily exists and show how it fits into his plan of the Ethics. Next, I will explicate the three arguments that Spinoza provides for God’s existence. Lastly, I will argue against his second argument by pointing out a weakness in proposition 5 and his assumption that the idea of God is internally consistent.
Spinoza’s Conception of God
In proposition 11, Spinoza claims that God necessarily exists. However, what he means by God is really “a substance consisting of infinite attributes each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence” (D6). Here, he is really claiming that God is an absolutely infinite substance: God has an infinite number of attributes and each attribute is infinite in its own kind. In another sense, Spinoza is also disproving the Judeo-Christian conception of God. This is the view where God is anthropomorphized and defined as a being that created a universe distinct from himself, by his own free will. Spinoza believes that holding onto such a view of God limits human freedom and enslaves us to a life of passions and superstitions, because we would hope for God’s rewards and fear for his punishments. Therefore, his aim in the Ethics was to establish a different conception of God that could free us from passions and motivate us to act from reason rather than from superstition.
For Spinoza, God is not separate from nature. God is the only substance that exists, and no other substance exists apart from it (P14/15). Proposition 11, in particular, plays a crucial role in demonstrating that only one substance (God) exists. If there were another substance apart from God, then it would share at least one attribute with God, who possesses all attributes. But proposition 5 claims that two substances cannot share the same attribute, because if two substances share the same attribute, then they would be indistinguishable from one another. That means that the second substance would be part of God, not distinct from it. As such, God exists necessarily as an absolutely infinite substance.
Spinoza provides three main arguments for proposition 11. The first argument hinges on proposition 7, which claims that the nature of a substance necessarily involves existence. Since substances are completely dissimilar to one another (by P2 and P5), they cannot interact with one another. This means that they cannot cause one another too and thus substances must be self-caused. Now, if we suppose that an absolutely infinite substance (i.e. God) does not exist, then (by A7) we are also claiming that its essence does not include existence. But that would be absurd because it contradicts with proposition 7 that the essence of a substance necessarily involves existence. Thus an absolutely infinite substance necessarily exists.
In the second argument, Spinoza states that if something exists, there must be a justification for its existence. Likewise if something does not exist, there must be a justification for why it does not exist. This justification comes either from the nature of the thing, or outside the nature of the thing. For example, a substance exists because its nature necessarily involves existence (P7), whereas a square-circle does not exist because its nature involves a contradiction. In contrast, the existence or non-existence of a coin does not depend on its nature, but on the order of the physical universe. Thus, a thing necessarily exists if nothing from its own nature or outside its nature stops it from existing. If there is nothing that stops God (i.e. an absolutely infinite substance) from existing, then it must exist. Now suppose if there was such a thing that could stop God’s existence. It would either come from God’s own nature or outside it. If it were outside of God’s nature, then it would be a separate substance that is completely dissimilar from God. This substance would have nothing in common with God (P2) and would not be able to interact with God or stop God from existing. If it came from God’s nature then it would mean that God’s nature involved a contradiction like the square-circle. But, according to Spinoza, it would be absurd for the nature of an absolutely infinite being to involve something negative or contradictory. Thus God necessarily exists, since nothing can stop God from existing.
The last argument is an a posteriori one, which depends on the fact that human beings exist. According to Spinoza, existence is power: a thing has power if it is able to exist, whereas a thing lacks power if it is unable to exist. Now, if God does not exist while some finite things do exist necessarily, then finite things are more powerful than an absolutely infinite thing. This is absurd because that would be claiming that human beings are more powerful than God because we are able to exist but God cannot. So if something exists, it follows that an absolutely infinite thing necessarily exists. Clearly we exist, so God necessarily exists.
A Problem for Spinoza: Substances and Attributes
I will now argue that Spinoza is not entirely successful in his account for God’s existence. First, I will point out a weakness that is present in proposition 5, which claims that two substances cannot share the same attribute. While it is not possible for two substances to share all of their attributes (for they would be indistinguishable), it is possible for two substances to differ in at least one attribute while sharing all of their other attributes. For example, one substance may have attributes X and Y while another substance might have attributes X and Z. Even though they share the same attribute X, we can still distinguish between the two, as each substance possesses an attribute that another lacks. This could be problematic for Spinoza’s second argument because even if another substance shares one attribute with God, we could still distinguish it from God by the fact that it lacks all of God’s other attributes. So it could be considered a separate substance from God, yet it is not entirely dissimilar from God because it has one common attribute with God. Although Spinoza says in proposition 2 that two substances of different attributes have nothing in common, we are not sure whether or not Spinoza would say that God and the second substance have nothing in common. If he wants to say that they have nothing in common, then he would have to redefine proposition 2 into something like “two substances having different sets of attributes have nothing in common with one another”, so that proposition 11 can overcome this weakness because the second substance cannot interact and stop God’s existence. On the other hand, even if Spinoza accepts that both substances have something in common, it is not clear if the second substance can interact and limit God’s existence based on the common attribute. Spinoza could still argue that it is better to view the second substance as part of a greater whole, rather than as separate.
On the Infinite Being and Existence
My second argument is to question the assumption that “a thing that is infinite and perfect is one whose nature involves nothing negative, so nothing of the contradictory form”. In other words, Spinoza is assuming here that the idea of God is internally consistent and he does not really provide any justification for it. However, there seems to be something contradictory about the infinity of being or the idea that everything possible would exist. It does seem that if the essence of a thing is internally inconsistent, like the square-circle, then it could not exist. But it does not follow that the thing contains nothing that contradicts its nature, for it could be possible for the thing to have certain accidental properties that could destroy the thing. It seems quite problematic then because if the idea of God need not be internally consistent, then it is possible that he does not exist.
In conclusion, I have argued that Spinoza is not entirely successful in his account for God’s existence in proposition 11. One of the weaknesses in his account is in proposition 5, which claims that two substances cannot share the same attribute, because then they cannot be distinguished from one another. However, as I have argued, it is possible for two substances to be distinguished even if they share one common attribute, as long as all the other attributes are different. This is problematic because it challenges the idea that a substance that shares an attribute with God would be part of God rather than distinct from it, and would not be able to limit God’s existence. Another weakness in his argument is that he does not justify the assumption that the idea of God is internally consistent. Although Spinoza’s arguments are largely successful, there are problems that weaken his account for God’s existence.
References: Spinoza, Benedict. Ethics Demonstrated in Geometrical Order. Translated by Jonathan Bennett, Early Modern Texts, 2004, Part I, pp. 1-18. Web. http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/spinoza1665.pdf. Accessed 10 Sep 2016.
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