Up@dawn 2.0

Friday, November 28, 2014

Baruch Spinoza Final Report: Josiah Estabrooks, Section 14 Group 1

I have a hard time deciphering what my beliefs are. Some people are dead-set in theirs, and other people float depending on the circumstances and scenarios in which the ideals are being evaluated. But when I started reading up on Baruch Spinoza, a lot of things started to click for me.

I was raised in a religious household, but I’ve always struggled with the idea of a true God. Spinoza believes that God isn’t a being, per-say; more like a force. He believes God is in everything, and everything is God. God is Nature, and God is the Universe. There is an intangible power in the universe, something that cannot be explained by science or logic, which maintains order and dictates our nature as humans, and therefore, dictates the way that we will conduct ourselves.

But before diving into his philosophies, some background information is needed on Baruch Spinoza. Born in Amsterdam in 1632, and excommunicated by the Jewish synagogue in 1656[i], Spinoza broke away from his Jewish heritage and began going by Benedict, rather than Baruch, which is his Hebrew name. He enjoyed solitude (as do I) and his alone time was when his best thoughts arose. Spinoza was big into geometry, and is known for writing his theorems in the style of geometrical proofs. He was controversial, but not for his theories; it was more that people just weren’t ready to hear what he had to say.

I’m not an emotional person, at least not on the outside. You won’t often see me laughing or crying or looking “down in the dumps.” I’m stagnant, and I recognize that. As humans, we have a set of laws within us that our mind and body will succumb to. Not by choice, but because it is what we are. But Spinoza says that by following these impulses known as emotions, we become passive. These emotions are those that can’t be rationalized; they are within us and we almost always give in to them. But there are also active emotions; those that can be explained and ones that we are able to step back from and analyze without an effect on us. This seems backwards; but by reacting to anger or sadness or love, we aren’t truly acting; we are simply following. He calls it bondage; being a slave to our emotions rather than evaluating the causes of them.

Think about the last time someone made you angry. Not annoyed or nuisanced, but genuinely mad. In the height of your emotion, were you thinking clearly? Would you have trusted yourself to make the wisest decision possible in that situation?

Nope and nope.

This illustrates Spinoza’s idea of passive emotions perfectly. You are unable to act on your own in that moment. Someone makes you angry, and you are acting directly on behalf of that anger. For most people, this is impossible to prevent. To deny our emotions is to deny being human, whether it’s a passive thing to do or not. If we feel something, is it wrong not to act upon it?

Some might say yes. But I agree with Spinoza fully in the belief that reacting to emotions makes you a slave to them. My friends don’t try to surprise me with things on my birthday anymore because I never gave them the visual reaction of shock and joy that they needed in order to make the whole ordeal worth it for them. A few years ago, my sister showed up on our doorstep for a surprise visit, and I disappointed her with my lack of excitement and tears. There are people that feel as though I’m afraid to show too much emotion, because I like to present myself as mysterious and brooding, like some kind of modern-day Spock or Morpheus, except with less pointy ears and better hair, respectively. That is partially true. But the fact of the matter is that I find outwardly and overly emotional people to not only be obnoxious, but to generally be people that cannot handle more difficult circumstances such as death, failure, or change in the mature, collected way that is required when dealing with such conditions.

Another staple of Spinoza’s philosophy revolves around the idea of free will. He believes that free will is, in fact, not free, but an illusion that we carry with us at all times in order to have a sense of purpose and fulfillment. But in reality, everything must happen precisely the way that it does, which is another one of my few opinions. There are no wrong choices; everything happens the way that it does, and no matter how bad something may seem, it needs to happen in order to cause another event to occur, and so on.

Free will is a hot topic, and something that people seem to never agree about. The general consensus, at least from my experience, is that people believe that they have complete control over their choices[ii] and, ultimately, their fate (which most supporters of free will do not accept). If one were to ask these people why they believe this, there would be a multitude of answers anywhere from “I don’t believe in God” to “I can’t handle the thought of not being in control of my actions”. Both of these are understandable responses, and it’s hard to blame someone for that reasoning. And from this reasoning, one can deduce that, since there are no predetermined decisions, that there are such things as “right” and “wrong” choices. For example, one could drink and drive, crash into a tree, and total the car. Most people would view this as a “bad decision.” I would be a fool to say it wasn’t; that person could have prevented the accident by staying sober or catching a cab instead.

But think about the bigger picture. Ten years later, that person is drunk at a bar again, and they need to get home. Despite their indisposed state of mind, that person is able to think back to the time when they crashed their car into a tree. That person then has the clarity to determine that this is not something that they would like to occur on a second occasion, and they instead call a friend or catch a cab.

At the time of the accident, drinking and driving might have seemed like a bad decision. They could’ve injured other people or committed some serious property damage. But what if that person hadn’t gotten into the accident ten years ago? Maybe this night, since they have no “mistakes” to learn from, they decide to drive home instead of finding a safer way. This time, they kill a 25-year-old kindergarten teacher on her way to work, or a 31-year-old new father coming home after working the late shift.

This is an extended (and slightly gruesome) analogy, but it’s necessary in order to understand the ideals of Spinoza. He believes that everything is absolutely and necessarily determined[iii]. By this logic, one cannot identify a choice or action as “right” or “wrong” for two reasons.

Firstly, if free will is an illusion, then people are not responsible for their own actions. This might seem extreme, especially when one looks at mass murderers or rapists, or when a mother watches her child continually make self-destructive decisions. But in the most literal and general interpretation of the concept, if there is no free will, no one has control over their actions, and things simply happen the way that they must.

This brings us to the second reason: everything must happen exactly the way that it does. This is a rule of the universe. If something were to happen in a way that it wasn’t meant to, the effect could be catastrophic. In fact, Spinoza says that it is impossible for this to ever occur. Since everything must happen the way that it has already been determined to happen, there is no way of labeling an action as “right” or “wrong;” actions are simply actions, free from the judgment of the human conscience.

But let’s play the devil’s advocate for a moment. Take Charles Manson for example. He is considered to be responsible for the killings of dozens of Hollywood residents in the late 1960’s[iv]. However, there is no concrete proof connecting him to the murders, since he used “henchmen,” if you will, to commit the acts. Free will aside, which party is truly responsible for the murders? Is it the men and women that physically committed them, or the man who was behind it all, scheming and laying the foundation for the crimes?

I like analogies. I basically just put God and Charles Manson on the same plane of power. But think about humans as pawns in a chess game, with God being the man making the moves. He gives the command, and they act accordingly. The pawns have no say in where they go or what they do. Maybe God uses those pawns poorly, putting them in threatening situations over and over again. Or maybe he uses them to his benefit, clearing the way for his rooks and knights to clear his opponent’s side of the board. But whatever happens, those pawns are still just a piece of wood, acting not of its own volition, but at the mercy of the Hand.

As harsh as that sounds, Spinoza’s beliefs about free will make us out to be the pawns in a universal chess game. However, he does believe that we have a certain amount of free will, even if we don’t.

What does that mean, you ask?

Even though we don’t have control over our own actions, it is impossible for us to truly know that we are not in the driver’s seat. Even if we believe it, we still can’t know for sure, and we still feel stress and indecision when faced with difficult choices or situations. Within the very nature of humans, we are not capable of completely accepting the idea of predetermination. If we did, we would be nothing more than zombies, becoming apathetic and indifferent towards things like health, family, careers, and laws.

But despite this, how is it that one can hold the belief of predestination? One answer is simply that some religions, specifically Christianity, teach that God is in control. Humans should let go of any stress or worries that they have about their lives because God has the best plan possible already worked out.

As I said at the beginning of this paper, I come from a religious family. My father has many health issues and he takes solace in the fact that things are in God’s hands, and that whatever happens, happens. Charles Dickens says in his novel Bleak House, “If the world goes wrong, it was, in some off-hand manner, never meant to go right.”[v]

By believing that the bad things in our lives happen for a reason, humans are able to live their lives in a confident, optimistic manner. They won’t be bogged down by tough days or negative outcomes. They won’t question their decisions or worry about the consequences. There is no right or wrong choice. There is only the choice that you make; nothing more. Baruch Spinoza’s commentary on the omnipotence of God as a force, active and passive emotions, free will, and the debate of right versus wrong are unique and original. Even though they won him much criticism, and even excommunication from his Jewish faith, he wasn’t afraid to say what he thought, and lead the way for the next wave of philosophers to build on the foundation of his ideas.



[i] Warburton, Nigel. A Little History of Philosophy. New Haven: Yale UP, 2011. Print.
[ii] "Free Will." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.
[iii] Nadler, Steven. "Baruch Spinoza." Stanford University. Stanford University, 29 June 2001. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.
[iv] "Charles Manson." Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.
[v] "Quotes About Predestination." GoodReads. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.

1 comment:

  1. "By believing that the bad things in our lives happen for a reason, humans are able to live their lives in a confident, optimistic manner. They won’t be bogged down by tough days or negative outcomes. They won’t question their decisions or worry about the consequences" - I know this attitude works for some people. Personally, I find it more dispiriting than uplifting. The thought that "negative outcomes" are foreordained and non-responsive to my will prompts more worry, for me, than solace. But this is something each of us must work out for ourselves. There's room in the world for Spinozistic fatalism, and for (belief in) free will.

    Good job.

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