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Spinoza In Plain English pt 6: The Universe Is Implied (Propositions 16–18)

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This is the latest post in my quixotic attempt to write an accessible commentary on all of Spinoza’s Ethics. See here for An Introduction To Spinoza or start the series at the beginning with Spinoza In Plain English pt.1: Substance.

After establishing that there is only one Reality, God, and that all things are expressions of God, in the next few propositions, Spinoza tackles the question of how all the things that exist follow from God’s being. His fascinating answer paints a very different picture than that of traditional theism.

In Proposition 16, Spinoza writes:

From the necessity of the divine nature infinite things must follow in infinite ways (i.e. all things that can fall under an infinite intellect).

What Spinoza is saying here is that the universe follows from the divine intellect. On the surface, this might seem to be a standard theistic assertion, but it’s not.

Spinoza argues that all things follow from the divine intellect and the divine intellect alone and that nothing external can constrain or act on it. What makes this assertion interesting is that Spinoza clarifies that the divine intellect is not like the human intellect- in fact, it is so dissimilar that comparing the two is, he writes, like saying “the heavenly sign of the dog is the same as the barking animal the dog.” What makes the divine intellect so different from the human intellect that Spinoza hesitates to even use the word “intellect” is the following:

A human intellect understands what follows from the nature of a thing (which Spinoza calls its “essence” or logical structure) either simultaneously with the arising of the thing or afterward. For example, a human intellect may see fire and immediately understand heat, or might see smoke and then understand there must be fire. The divine intellect, however, understands what follows from a thing before it exists.

Say what?

Spinoza calls the divine intellect “the laws of God’s being” or God’s “infinite essence (nature, logical structure).” Remember that God is equivalent to Reality. The divine intellect, therefore, mean the laws of Reality, or Nature (as we shall see, Spinoza later writes that God is equivalent to Nature properly understood). The “divine intellect” is effectively a deeper take on what we normally call “the laws of nature.”

For Spinoza, everything that happens follows inexorably from these laws, and that is what Spinoza means when he says From the necessity of the divine nature infinite things must follow in infinite ways (i.e. all things that can fall under an infinite intellect).

One danger here is to misunderstand Spinoza as talking about God in the traditional sense: that God thinks about things and then creates them. On the other side, though, we may fall into the mistake of thinking that Spinoza is just talking about the lawful, materialistic universe and calling it God for sentimental or political reasons. Aside from the fact that Spinoza himself said anyone who believed him an atheist misunderstood and slandered him, the text itself paints a different picture (see Yitzhak’s Melamed’s amazing Spinoza’s Metaphysics for an in-depth discussion of this).

Spinoza presents God as conscious being with a mind that possesses an infinite, or unlimited intellect and an awareness of everything that exists. Infinite things naturally, or automatically, follow from this infinite intellect, and this infinite following is the universe we experience.

There will be much more on all of this to come, but for now, the key thing to understand is that the infinite intellect of God is the immanent cause of the unfolding of all things, and this intellect is what we normally call “the laws of nature.” We exist within the mind of God, watching what follows from the divine intellect come into being moment by moment. The universe is what is implied by the nature of the divine intellect.

Spinoza clarifies this by making the point in Proposition 16 that the divine intellect is different from the essence of a finite thing (mode) like a plant. The essence, or logical structure, of a plant, is the primary cause of its existence (but not the sole cause, since if it was, the plant would be eternal and indestructible).

God, however, or “the infinite essence” (unlimited nature) of God, is the cause of both the essence (logical structure) of a given plant and its actual existence (the fact that, within the total causal matrix of the universe, that plant actually exist).

Lastly, and in support of what we have said above, in Proposition 18 Spinoza asserts that God is the immanent, not the transitive, cause of all things. What this means is that God is not outside of or other than the things it causes but causes them from within.

God doesn’t “pass over things”, causing them and then leaving them behind, like the breath of the holy spirit. God creates things and remains, so to speak, “within them.” In fact not only does God cause things from within, God causes things in every way- God is the logical and material cause of all things, things which are themselves simply natural expressions of God arising within God.

For the next in this series, please click here.

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