Dueling with Dualism Part 3: The Leibniz Challenge and The Nature of God

Due to overwhelming reader demand here is part 3 of “Dueling with Dualism”…

Quick Review
     I know most of you have memorized most of Spinoza’s philosophy but for the few of you who haven’t and would like to be brought up to speed, here’s what we’ve covered so far:  The grand argument that Spinoza is making is for Monism–the idea that there exists only one substance.  The argument proceeds in 4 intermediary steps…
1.  No two substances can share an attribute.
2.  It pertains to the nature of substance to exist, i.e., substance necessarily exists.
3.  God–defined as a substance that contains all attributes–exists.
/C.  Since (1) no two substances can share an attribute, God is the only substance that exists.

    In the previous post we looked at arguments for (1).  To prove (1) Spinoza demonstrated that if we supposed the opposite of his position, that is we supposed that two distinct substances ‘A’ and ‘B’ did somehow share an attribute ‘X’ we would have nothing through which we could appeal to pick the one out from the other.  The attempt would sound like this, “which one is ‘A’?” Answer: “the one with attribute ‘X’.  Since the attribute ‘X’ is common to both substances this information is of no help in confirming identity.

     The next attempt was to try to distinguish substances that share an attribute through modes.  For this we supposed two extended substances ‘A’ with mode ‘m’ and substance  ‘B’ with mode ‘n’.  The problem with this method of differentiation is that modes depend causally and conceptually on attributes for their existence; so mode ‘m’ only exists because it inheres in the attribute of extension and the same goes for mode ‘n’.  Identifying a distinction between two things via the modes only tells us that the modes are different, it can’t tell us that they are different substances.  So we know that the mode of substance A and the mode of substance B both inhere in the attribute of extension.  And since substances are known through their attributes, given the same attributes, the substances A and B must be the same.  By appealing to modes we end up back in the attribute problem.

Leibniz’s Challenge
     Leibniz says ok, so we can’t distinguish two substances that share a single attribute via appeal to the attribute or to the modes; but suppose instead there are 2 substances ‘A’ and ‘B’ that share one attribute in common but possess more than one attribute each.  Substance A possesses attributes ‘x’ and ‘y’ and substance B possesses attributes ‘y’ and ‘z’.  Even though they both share attribute ‘y’ why couldn’t we appeal to attributes ‘x’ and ‘z’ to distinguish them from each other? 
     To see how Spinoza can answer this challenge we need to review his definition of the relationship between a substance and its attribute(s); for Spinoza it is a matter of definition that a substance can be picked out and its essence (its nature) known simply by reference to its attribute.  For example, in Cartesian model, in the case of the substance ‘Body’ I can identify it as such solely by appealing to the fact that it is extended.  I don’t need to appeal to any other concepts except the attribute which it possesses.  Similarly if something is the substance ‘Mind’ then if I am aware of its attribute of thought I can identify the substance as being ‘Mind’. 
     It’s very important that I don’t need to appeal to anything outside of a substances attribute to identify what kind of substance it is.  Another way to view this principle is that identity of substances is possible through appeal to self-contained concepts.  E.g., The concept of “extension” is part of the concept of Body.  I don’t need to appeal to any concepts beyond those included in ‘Body’ to identify it as such. 
     OK, so now that we are armed with relevant information, lets return to Leibniz’s challenge of two substances 1 cup…Oops, I mean two substances, multiple attributes–with one of them shared.  So, how are we going to distinguish between substance A (with attributes ‘y’ and ‘z’) and substance B (with attributes ‘x’ and ‘z’)?  Obviously we can’t appeal to substance ‘z’ because that’s the one they hold in common and it wouldn’t help us pick out either A or B.  This leaves appeal to ‘y’ and ‘x’ but there’s a problem; according to our definition of attribute, every substance can be known through each of its attributes.  According to our definition I should have been able to know the nature of substance A and B through any of their attributes; but this clearly doesn’t apply if I appeal to attribute ‘z’ because both share ‘z’ and knowing that A has ‘z’ and B has ‘z’ doesn’t help me distinguish them as distinct substances.       
    So, to summarize the response to Leibniz’s challenge that two substances could share an attribute if  each substance had multiple attributes, Spinoza can reply that the scenario that Leibniz presents violates the definition of attribute; namely that every attribute a substance possesses must in itself must conceptually imply the nature/essence of that substance.  Another way to put it would be that I should be able to appeal to any of a substance’s attributes and, without appeal to anything else, know what type of substance it is; just as we can with extension and body, and thought and mind.

Multiple Attributes…Say Wuuut?
    That’s right ninjas, contrary to the Cartesian idea that each substance has only one attribute Spinoza contends that a substance can have multiple attributes; and if that doesn’t boggle the mind, he says a substance can have infinitely many!  I’d explain it to you right now but according to the book whose format I’m following we have to first further discuss Spinoza’s substance monism.

Step 2: The Necessary Existence of Substance
     “It pertains to the nature of a substance to exist”.  Here we are entering the realm of ontological arguments (more or less “arguments for why something exists”).  I’m not a big fan of ontological arguments because they always seem to be defining things into existence; on the other hand how else can you explain the existence of fundamental things.  You could say that the same thing happens in theoretical physics in regards to fundamental forces and particles; take energy for example, that it cannot be created or destroyed is one of its defined properties.  In a cosmological context we might also say that energy has always existed (it’s a difficult statement to disprove empirically); it is in the nature of energy to exist; and the same goes for the fundamental particles of matter.  So, I think I we view Spinoza’s ontological arguments in this context they don’t seem so anachronistic and irrelevant. 
      Getting back to Spinoza’s view of the nature of substance vis a vis existence, it is a matter of logical necessity that existence is part of the intrinsic nature of substance.   To understand why he makes this claim lets consider nature of finite things first.  In regards to finite things, such as your computer, you, the chair you’re sitting on, your fridge, the tree outside, the other tree beside it, the grass in your lawn, the blade of grass on the property line between your property and your neighbour’s property, the blade of grass beside that…I could go on…there is nothing about the nature of finite things that makes their existence logically necessary.  If you didn’t exist, or if your computer didn’t exist, or if the tree didn’t exist..and so on, there’d be no logical contradiction.  We’d still live in an intelligible world.
     Beyond logical necessity there is also the fact that finite things are the products of their causes–and that could be unknowably many causes.  Take a table for example, for it to exist a carpenter had to make it (a cause), and he had to get the wood from a tree (a cause) and something had to make the tree grow (causes) and the parents of the carpenter had to copulate for him to exist (causes) and so on.  
     This idea of chains of causation don’t apply to substances.  Substances are self-caused.  So long as the concept of a substance is coherent it is in its nature to exist; and if its nature is to exist, then it does exist.  Alright, before you have a wack attack like I did when I first heard this let me ‘splain what my professor said about this.  At first this idea of something existing simply because it is coherent and its essence seems like the kind of stuff that give philosophy a bad name.  But if we approach Spinoza’s idea within the framework of his naturalism a different picture emerges.  In this context he is simply searching for fundamental entities and principles upon which our universe is built.  He’s doing theoretical physics.  He’s asking what sorts of entities must necessarily exist in order for our known world to be intelligible and what physical laws need to exist.  View in this context we can see Spinoza as a proto-Naturalist theoretical physicist.  This is usually how he is interpreted.  The talk of “substance” and “god” are all just artifacts of the time in which he wrote.
     So, to summarize his position on substance: (a) it is self-caused; (b) it is conceptually and causally independent from other substances; (c)  if it is conceivable and it is coherent–i.e., doesn’t lead to logical contradictions–it exists.  For the most part (a) is self-explanatory and it logically follows from it that no substance can be caused by anything else.  Regarding (b) for Spinoza causal and conceptual relations are equivalent; for example a finite thing such as yourself is both causally and conceptually dependent on the same things for your existence, thus we can equate the two concepts.  Applied to substances, no substance can be causally or conceptually related to any other substance (because they are by definition causally and conceptually independent).   So, given that a substance cannot be causally or conceptually related to any other substances and all things inhere in substances, it must follow that substances are self-caused and self-conceived (which in the end is the same thing).  Besides this argument that naturally follows from his premises Spinoza also applies, in tandem, the principle of sufficient reason (PSR): because a substance cannot be produced by anything else, it must be produced by itself, i.e., it is self-caused.
     A possible objection to self-causation is that since causes must exist prior to their effects then for a thing to cause itself it must exist prior to itself, which doesn’t make any sense.  Spinoza gets out of this because of his “wide” notion of causation.  Essentially he holds there is an equivalence between causation and explanation; to give an explanation of something is to talk about its causes and vice versa.  On this wider notion of causation, saying something is self-caused is the same as saying it is self-explanatory.  Like I said before, if we give Spinoza in a modern naturalist interpretation, this idea doesn’t seem so outrageous; as I mentioned before, we see the same ideas being applied in modern theoretical physics.  And now that we have proven premise (2), that substances necessarily exist, we can move to (3).

Step (3) and (4): God Is The Substance That Contains All The Attributes And God Is The Only Substance In The Woooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooorld!!!!!!
     As with most Spinozan arguments we begin with a definition: 
By God I understand a being absolutely infinite, that is, a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal and infinite essence.

So what’s it all mean?  Well, we know that God is a substance.  We know he has infinitely many attributes.  From premise/fact (2)–that all substances necessarily exist it–follows that God necessarily exists.  And from the premise/fact (1)–no two substances can share attributes–and (3) God’s got all of ’em, (4) there can be no other substances but God, hence substance Monism.  Q.E.D.
     There is one important caveat that arises out of Spinoza’s rationalism, which is that the notion of God has to be logically coherent and all of its features must be intelligible.  These demands were a significant break from tradition, not so much it what they required but the degree to which Spinoza insisted that the PSR be applied to God.  Spinoza’s God can’t do or be logically unintelligible; he can’t escape the fundamental laws of nature because God just is the fundamental laws and substance of nature.  There is no separate being that shows favoritism or has some master plan for humanity.  There is just the lawful order of the cosmos…the God/Nature.  Obviously this doctrine would not have been viewed favourably in a time (sadly, even now) when orthodoxy was that the notion of God wasn’t subject to intelligibility.
     So, apart from a fairly standard ontological argument for God Spinoza did make one unique contribution via the PSR.  He said that given his definition of God there is no good reason by which we could explain the fact that God doesn’t exist.  Again, if we interpret Spinoza as a modern naturalist this is in a way equivalent to trying to explain why the cosmos is the way it is and and trying to come up with reasons for why it could have been otherwise.  I think, formulated this way, these are legitimate ways to say, “well the world just wouldn’t make any sense if we didn’t postulate (a Spinozan) God”.  
     At first I wasn’t too keen on this application of the PSR to invoke the existence of God; it just seemed too much like a really bad layman’s argument from ignorance for the existence of God.  But like I said, given the naturalist interpretation of Spinoza’s God and substance, I can live with it.  But if Spinoza tries to attach supernatural powers to his “God”(but he di’in’t), I’m outta here!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s