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Baruch Spinozas Argument In Ethics Philosophy Essay

In this paper I will discuss Baruch Spinoza’s argument in Ethics regarding that proposition 7 follows directly from proposition 6. Spinoza is claiming that God is the only substance that exists and uses his propositions to prove this. In Part A, I will explain why Spinoza believes that existence belongs to the nature of substance follows directly from the fact that substance cannot be produced by anything else. Afterwards, in Part B, I will critically dissect the argument and explain why I find his claim to be problematic. I will then explain why I believe there is a gap in between the propositions and try to give a way Spinoza would try to fill in this gap.

Part A:

Spinoza believes that God must exist. In order to defend this claim he goes on to assert that God is a substance and that existence is part of the idea of substance. In proposition 7, Spinoza argues that “existence belongs to the nature of substance.” This could mean that (Premise 1) nothing outside of a substance can cause a substance to exist. (Premise 2) Everything must have a cause. (Premise 3) Substance must cause itself to exist.

From this it follows that one substance cannot be produced by anything else whatever. In the universe there exists nothing but substances and their affections, as is obvious from Axiom 1, and Definitions 3 and 5. But a substance cannot be produced by another substance (by the above Proposition). Therefore it is impossible for a substance to be produced by anything else whatever.

Proposition 6: Spinoza uses the heading ‘alternatively’ for a different way of proving the same thing. Here he derives the same corollary from Axiom 4 and Definition 3. He uses the argument form of the reduction to the absurd (reductio ad absurdum): if there are only two possibilities, and one of them is demonstrably absurd, then the other must be true. So, a substance either can or cannot be produced by something else. Since it is absurd to say that it can be produced by something else, it follows that it cannot be produced by something else

If a substance cannot be caused by anything else, and has to be caused by something, then it must be caused by itself. Everything which exists does so either in itself or in something else, and that substances exist in themselves and modes exist in something else. Therefore, there exists only substances and modes in the world. Also, we know that there is only one substance, because there are only two ways to distinguish things, by their modes or by their attributes. If we distinguish according to their attributes, then we are saying that one lacks an attribute that the other has, which is to conceive one substance by means of another, which is contrary to substance’s definition as self-conceivable. If we distinguish them in terms of modes, we are not distinguishing substances as they truly are, because we do not define substances in terms of their modes. Thus there is only one substance, because there is no means to distinguish multiple substances.

So if there is only one substance, no substance can be produced by anything external to it. If substance was created by an external cause then the knowledge of it would depend on the knowledge of its cause. Furthermore, it would itself not be substance. Also, if one substance was produced by another, then one is the cause of the other. We understand effects by knowing their causes, so we would understand the caused substance by means of what causes it. But this contradicts the definition of substances as being self-conceivable.

In the universe, there cannot exist two substances with the same attribute (by the previous Proposition), or in other words (by Proposition 2), which have anything in common with each other. Consequently (by Proposition 3), one attribute cannot be the cause of the other attribute, and also cannot be produced by the other.

Part B:

It seems as if Spinoza believes that the second premise is easily understood. He barely mentions this premise and makes it seem as though it is so evident, when in fact it is not. The first premise is basically a result of the definition of substance. Substances must depend on nothing else for their existence therefore substances must be independent. If something else caused a substance to exist, then that would mean that substance was brought into existence by something external to it. Spinoza argues that substance causes itself to exist, which is irrational. People usually assume that everything in the world was created by an external force and that every cause follow its effects, but we usually do not assume that a thing follows its own existence.

Spinoza goes on to argue against this belief by identifying two things that we think of as different, specifically causation and logical necessity. It is causally necessary that if one billiard ball hits another, the second billiard ball begins to move (other things being equal). It is logically necessary that, given that ‘P’ and ‘if P, then Q’ are true, ‘Q’ must be true as well. We think of these as two very different kinds of necessity, but for Spinoza they come to the same thing. So for a thing to cause its own existence is for its existence to be logically necessary because of some fact about it rather than because of any facts about other things. If something about a substance makes it the case that it has to exist, then its essence must include existence.

Nothing outside a substance can explain its existence; everything must have an explanation; so a substance must explain its own existence. If to explain something requires making it logically necessary, then this seems to show that substance necessarily exists.

There is still something odd about the argument. If there is a substance, the argument seems to show that it must cause itself to exist, i.e. it must necessitate its own existence. The argument began with a purported fact, namely that a substance existed, and then consisted of looking for the reasons for this fact. But what if it weren’t a fact? Why couldn’t there simply be no substance, and so no fact which needs explaining? I suppose Spinoza could argue empirically that we know there is at least one substance; we perceive properties (modes), but modes cannot exist without a substance to exist in, so there is a substance. But the empirical flavor of this line of reasoning would not appeal to Spinoza. It is probably better to regard the proof as not requiring the factual premise that a substance exists. It is really just an investigation into the concept of substance. If a substance were to exist, it would have to necessitate itself; but this shows that the essence of substance would have to include existence, which is to say that substance would necessarily have to exist. So if it is possible for substance to exist, then it is necessary that substance exist. However, this still seems to leave open the possibility that it is not possible for substance to exist, that substance necessarily does not exist.

Substances must have all possible attributes. We know that God exists because he is a substance and substance necessarily exists. One answer is “by definition.” God is by definition “substance consisting of infinite attributes” (def. 6). But there is something very fishy about this step. Just because God is defined as “substance with all attributes” and there necessarily is a substance, it doesn’t follow that anything fits the definition of God. If it were that easy to prove the existence of things, we could prove the existence of a lake a thousand miles long by defining it as “substance consisting of fresh water and extending for a thousand miles.” There must be some other reason for thinking God has all attributes.

The second demonstration of proposition 11 helps to fill this gap. Spinoza there says that if something does not exist, there must be an explanation of why it does not exist. This explanation must come from the thing’s own nature or from something outside it. The reason for the nonexistence of the thousand-mile lake comes from outside it: it doesn’t exist because of causal laws and the course of geological history. But the reason for the nonexistence of a substance with all attributes cannot come from outside the substance, since two substances with different attributes have nothing in common with each other (proposition 2), and things with nothing in common cannot cause each other to exist or not exist (proposition 3).

There is something deeply messed up here, though. What is the reason that there is no substance with only the attribute of thinking? it is that there is a substance with all attributes, and there cannot be two substances with overlapping attributes. But then the reason why there is no substance with only the attribute of thinking comes from outside the nature of such a substance: it is essentially prevented from existing by the fact that there is a substance with all attributes. But then this looks like a case of a substance with one attribute being prevented from existing by something with a different set of attributes: so either things with nothing in common can cause each other (contrary to proposition 3) or else the substance with one attribute and the substance with all attributes do have something in common (namely the one attribute), in which case proposition 2 must be interpreted in such a way that it does not apply to substances with overlapping attributes, in which case it will not support the conclusion that nothing external to God could prevent his existence.

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