Daily Archives: February 9, 2008

The Advantages of Determinism

Baruch Spinoza was a radical thinker in his time. He posited that God has no freewill, and neither does man. Everything follows from the “eternal decree of [Nature] by the same necessity, as it follows from the essence of a triangle, that the three angles are equal to two right angles.” Under this conceptualization, the human body and mind were considered two different expressions of the same thing: the person. Because Spinoza was a determinist, he thought that everything, including the human mind and its various emotional passions, could be explained entirely by causal forces.”The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things”. For Spinoza, this didn’t rob humanity of freedom, but rather, he thought that only by understanding such a doctrine was man capable of being truly free.

In the note to Proposition XLIX of his Ethics, Spinoza lists the following advantages of holding to the doctrine of determinism:

-Teaches us to act solely according to the decree of [Nature], and to be partakers in the Divine nature, and so much the more, as we perform more perfect actions and more and more understand [Nature]. Such a doctrine not only completely tranquillizes our spirit, but also shows us where our highest happiness or blessedness is, namely, solely in the knowledge of [Nature].
-Teaches us how we ought to conduct ourselves with respect to the gifts of fortune, or matters which are not in our own power, and do not follow from our nature.
-This doctrine raises social life, inasmuch as it teaches us to hate no man, neither to despise, to deride, to envy, or to be angry with any. Further, as it tells us that each should be content with his own,and helpful to his neighbor, not from any womanish pity, favour, or superstition, but solely by the guidance of reason, according as the time and occasion demand.
-This doctrine confers no small advantage on the commonwealth; for it teaches how citizens should be governed and led, not so as to become slaves, but so that they may freely do whatsoever things are best.

I think it is interesting that Spinoza thinks that by holding to the doctrine that there is no free will, one will be able to “freely do whatsoever things are best”. This makes sense to me, but it is hard to articulate how such a conception of freedom works. It almost seems Buddhist to me. By acknowledging that there is no self(no Will), one realizes that there is no essential difference between you and a rock tumbling down a hill. You and the rock are both susceptible to the same laws of Nature, the only difference is that to an extent you are self-causing, meaning some of the causal power acting on your body comes from within. In modern terms, the brain/mind is a locus of self-control but nevertheless follows the laws of physics. No wonder Spinoza was excommunicated.

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