Spinoza, Self Help and Agency

The bookshelves of the world abound with tomes on self-help. Many of these profess to help people with various emotional woes, such as sadness, and make vague promises about happiness.  Interestingly enough, philosophers have long been in the business of offering advice on how to be happy. Or at least not too sad.

Each spring semester I teach Modern Philosophy and cover our good dead friend Spinoza. In addition to an exciting career as a lens grinder, he also manage to avoid being killed by an assassin. However, breathing in all that glass dust seems to have ultimately contributed to his untimely death. But enough about his life and death, it is time to get to the point of this essay.

As Spinoza saw it, people are slaves to their emotion and chained to what they love, such as fame, fortune and other people. This inevitably leads to sadness: the people we love betray us or die. That fancy Tesla can be smashed in a wreck. The beach house can be swept away by the rising tide. A job can be lost as a company seeks to boost its stock prices by downsizing the job fillers. And so on, through all the ways things can go badly.

While Spinoza was a pantheist and believed that everything is God and God is everything, his view of human beings is similar to that of the philosophical mechanist: humans are not magically exempt from the laws of nature. He was also a strict determinist: each event occurs from necessity and cannot be otherwise—there is no chance or choice. So, for example, the Seahawks could not have won the 2015 Super Bowl. As another example, I could not have written this essay in any other manner, so I had to make that remark about the Seahawks losing rather than mentioning their 2014 victory.

Buying into determinism, Spinoza took the view that human behavior and motivations can be examined as one might examine “lines, planes or bodies.” More precisely, he took the view that emotions follow the same necessity as all other things, thus making the effects of the emotions predictable—provided that one has enough knowledge.  Spinoza then used this idea as the basis for his “self-help” advice.

According to Spinoza all emotions are responses to the past, present or future. For example, a person might feel regret because she believes she could have made her last relationship work if she had only put more effort into it. As another example, a person might worry because he thinks that he might lose his job in the next round of downsizing at his company. These negative feelings rest, as Spinoza sees it, on the false belief that the past could have been otherwise and that the future is undetermined. Once a person realizes nothing could have been any different and the future cannot be anything other than what it will be, then that person will suffer less from the emotions. Thus, for Spinoza, freedom from the enslaving chains is the recognition and acceptance that what was could not have been otherwise and what will be cannot be otherwise.

This view does have a certain appeal and it does make sense that it can have some value. In regards to the past, people do often beat themselves up emotionally over what they regard as past mistakes. This can lead a person to be chained by regrets and thus be partially trapped in the past as she spends countless hours wondering “what if?” This is not to say that feeling regret or guilt is wrong—far from it. But, it is to say that lamenting about the past to the detriment of now is a problem.  It is also a problem to believe that things could have been different when they, in fact, could not have been different.

This is also not to say that a person should not reflect on the past—after all, a person who does not learn from her mistakes is doomed to repeat them. People can, of course, also be trapped by the past because of what they see as good things about the past—they are chained to what they (think) they once had or once were (such as being the big woman on campus back in college).

In regards to the future, it is very easy to be trapped by anxiety, fear and even hope. It can be reassuring to embrace the view that what will be will be and to not worry and be happy. This is not to say that one should be foolish about the future, of course.

There is, unfortunately, one crushing and obvious problem with Spinoza’s advice. If everything is necessary and determined, his advice makes no sense: what is, must be and cannot be otherwise. To use an analogy, it would be like shouting advice at someone watching a cut scene in a video game. This is pointless, since the person cannot do anything to change what is occurring. What occurs must occur and cannot be otherwise. For Spinoza, while we might think life is a like a game, it is like that cut scene: we are spectators of the show and not players controlling the game.

The obvious counter is to say “but I feel free! I feel like I am making choices!” Spinoza was well aware of this objection. In response, he claims that if a stone were conscious and hurled through the air, it would think it was free to choose to move and land where it does. People think they are free because they are “conscious of their own actions, and ignorant of the causes by which those actions are determined.” In other words, we think we are free because we do not know better. Going back to the video game analogy, we think we are in control as we push the buttons, but this is because we do not know how the game actually works—that is, we are just along for the ride and not in control.

Since everything is determined, whether or not a person heeds Spinoza’s advice is also determined—if you do, then you do and you could not do otherwise. If you do not, you could not do otherwise. As such, his advice would seem to be beyond useless. This is a stock paradox faced by determinists who give advice: their theory says that people cannot chose to follow this advice—they will just do what they are determined to do. That said, it is possible to salvage some useful advice from Spinoza.

The first step is for me to reject his view that I lack free will.  I have a stock argument for this that goes as follows. Obviously, I have free will or I do not. It is equally obvious that there is no way to tell whether I do or not. From an empirical standpoint, a universe with free will looks and feels just like a universe without free will: you just observe people doing stuff and apparently making decisions while thinking and feeling that you are doing the same.

Suppose someone rejects free will and they are wrong. In this case they are not only mistaken but also consciously rejecting real freedom.

Suppose someone rejects free will and they are correct. In that case, they are right—but not in the sense that they made the correct choice. They would have been determined to have that view and it would just so happen that it matches reality.

Suppose someone accepts free will and they are right. In this case, they have the correct view. They have also made the right choice—since choice would be real, making right and wrong choices is possible. More importantly, if they act consistently with this view, then they will be doing things right—not in the moral sense, but in the sense that they are acting in accord with how the universe works.


Suppose someone accepts free will and they are wrong. In this case they are in error, but have not made an incorrect choice (for obvious reasons).  They believe they are freely making choices, but obviously are not.

If I can choose, then I should obviously choose free will. If I cannot choose, then I will think I chose whatever it is I am determined to believe. If I can choose and choose to think I cannot, I am in error. Since I cannot know which option is correct, it seems best to accept free will. If I am actually free, I am right. If I am not free, then I am mistaken but had no choice.

Given the above argument, I accept that I have agency. This makes it possible for me to meaningfully give and accept (or reject) advice. Turning back to Spinoza, I obviously cannot accept his advice that I am enslaved by determinism. However, I can accept some of his claims, namely that I am acted upon by my attachments and emotions. As he sees it, the emotions are things that act upon us—on my view, they would thus be things that impinge upon our agency. As I love to do, I will use an analogy to running.

As I ran this morning, I was thinking about this essay and focused on the fact that feelings of pain (I have various old and new injuries) and tiredness were impinging on me in a manner similar to the way the cold or rain might impinge on me. In the case of pain and tiredness, the attack is from inside. In the case of the cold or rain, the attack is from the outside. Whether the attack is from inside or out, the attack is trying to make the choice for me—to rob me of my agency as a runner. If the pain, cold or rain makes me stop, then I am not acting. I am being acted upon. If I chose to stop, then I am acting. If I chose to go on, I am also acting. And acting rightly.  As a runner I know the difference between choosing to stop and being forced to stop.

Being aware of this is very useful for running—thanks to decades of experience I understand, in a way Spinoza might approve, the workings of pain, fatigue and so on. To use a specific example, I know that I am being acted upon by the pain and I understand quite well how it works. As such, the pain is not in control—I am. If I wish, I can run myself to ruin (and I have done just this). Or I can be wiser and avoid damaging myself.

Turning back to emotions, feelings impinge upon me in ways analogous to pain and fatigue. I do not have full control over how I feel—the emotions simply occur, perhaps in response to events or perhaps simply as the result of an electrochemical imbalance. To use a specific example, like most folks I will feel depressed and know that I have no reason to feel that way. It is like the cold or fatigue—it is just impinging on me. As Spinoza argued, my knowledge of how this works is critical to dealing with it. While I cannot fully control the feeling, I understand why I feel that way. It is like the cold I felt running in the Maine winters—it is a natural phenomenon that is, from my perspective, trying to destroy me. In the case of the cold, I can wear warmer clothing and stay moving—knowing how it works enables me to choose how to combat it. Likewise, knowing how the negative feelings work enables me to choose how to combat them. If I am depressed for no reason, I know it is just my brain trying to kill me. It is not pleasant, but it does not get to make the decisions for me. Fortunately, our good dead friend Aristotle has some excellent advice for training oneself to handle the emotions.

That said, the analogy to cold is particularly apt. The ice of the winter can kill even those who understand it and know how to resist it—sometimes the cold is just too much for the body. Likewise, the emotions can be like the howling icy wind—they can be too much for the mind. We are, after all, only human and have our limits. Knowing these is a part of wisdom. Sometimes you just need to come in from the cold or it will kill you. Have some hot chocolate. With marshmallows.


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  1. An impressive picture above.

    What intellectual and moral courage it must have taken for a man from a closed Jewish community to face such mob rejection and stupidity, long before heretics could become media super-stars as at times they do today!

  2. With Spinoza I’ve always had a hard time getting past the hard determinism. It makes me nihilistic and then I stop reading.

  3. S.Wallerstein,

    He certainly faced challenges that would have defeated a lesser person. My students are always impressed that he survived an assassination attempt-but, they probably are picturing something from Assassin’s Creed.

  4. Oh, you were just determined to be nihilistic and stop. 🙂

  5. More than the courage to face assassination attempts, I admire the courage that enabled Spinoza, in the name of a naturalistic account of reality, to live completely cut off, due to the excommunication decree, from the world of his childhood, from the Jewish community he had grown up in, from his childhood friends, from other family members.

    He must have been extraordinarily lonely, all of that before there were Facebook groups for heretics and “Kiss me, I’m a Heretic” teeshirts and coffee mugs as there are today.

  6. Gene –

    Spinoza’s thesis of determinism is absolute, but it is not a counsel of despair. It allows for self-help and agency despite denying free will insofar as this concept is generally understood and treasured.

    For Spinoza “the mind is the idea of the body”, and since mind and body are two aspects of a single substance, any state of mind is to be identified with a state of the body. For Spinoza mind is not caused by the body: mind is a natural, non-physical property and power, and any mental state is a mode of that property but also an idea of a corresponding body state. We might liken these aspects to the east and west aspects of a house, although for Spinoza no ‘house’ or third thing having aspects underlies the aspects. Much more on this in my Ph.D. Thesis ‘A Perspective on the Mind-Body Problem, with Particular Reference to the Philosophy of Spinoza’ http://sas-space.sas.ac.uk/1143/

    So what are the body functions with integrated mental states which preclude free will, but allow self-help and agency? Put simplistically, they are nature and nurture; genetics and environmental forces. There are limits to the body states an individual can embody or experience. Thus there are limits to the course of action an individual can effect.

    The genetic function is easy to grasp. I am hopeless at ball games; I just don’t have the necessary physical co-ordination. The environmental function is helpfully likened by John Searle in Minds, Brains and Science to the effects of hypnotism. We think we are free but are “in the grip of post-hypnotic suggestion.” Others can often observe this in us: we think we are deciding and acting freely, but they can tell we are on auto-pilot due to environmental conditioning and accepting of opinion and partially understood experience. Examples of this may be religious conviction or always having a cup of tea before bed.

    In Spinozistic terms the agency and self-help we have is bound up in reason and knowledge of our own individual nature. This is a counsel of untold helpfulness. Only by submitting our behaviour to analysis; weighing up the forces operating on us and judging which will serve best in any situation, can help us to be aware of environmental forces working in us, and override the unsuitable responses we know are implanted in us.

    s.wallerstein –

    The depiction of Spinoza heading Mike’s blog relates well to Spinoza’s own struggle with agency and self-help. The remarkable analytic faculty which made him unable to deny the errors and inconsistencies in Jewish dogma heritage and in physical science could not always override the conditioning of spirituality and passion of his Jewish-Iberian conditioning. In his final illness-plagued years the battle between the mysticism of Ethics Part 5, the passionate denunciation of current theological and political issues and the continued wish to live solely through reason were all pre-determined. But choices between acting on these powerful internal forces remained.

  7. s. wallerstein,

    “What intellectual and moral courage it must have taken for a man from a closed Jewish community to face such mob rejection and stupidity, long before heretics could become media super-stars as at times they do today!”

    Yes, to a certain extent. But Spinoza is in 17th century Holland. In terms of being liberal and tolerant, the Dutch were literally centuries ahead of the rest of Europe. In other countries, Spinoza would have been stopped before he got started. Leaving his community would not have been an option. Media was heavily suppressed throughout nearly all of Europe, which provided the Dutch will a wonderful business opportunity. They printed the books that were banned, which tends to make the public even more hungry for the texts. Unfortunately, they would neglect to pay the authors. But if they did, the authors would have become very wealthy, if their books became popular while they were alive.

    Often when we think of the past, we think of a progression from illiberal censoriousness to a freer and more tolerant world. But how would Spinoza faire in contemporary Israel. If he stuck to apolitical theological musings, he’d likely be fine. But radicals have irresistible urge to ask the questions that should not be asked, and speak truths that are not to be spoken. It might not be long before he found himself getting a visit from the goon squad of the military censor. He may then have a few options available to him; completely shut up and concentrate on his lens grinding…….accept a little editing here and there, which they do directly at the printers anyhow…………or, flee…. to liberal Holland.

  8. A lot goes on below the level of our awareness. What the DNA does,how it makes possible such complex and varied processes as growth, reproduction, immune response, and brain function would take years of schooling for us to understand, or to master. It is just as well that we are not burdened with free will for our physical lives; we would not know where to begin. Evolutionary psychologists tend to perceive our psychic selves as similarly taken care of by nature. Pinker has written about the better angels of our nature, of which another author has said: “the statistics would add up if the two world wars were left out.”

    Early Christian writers perceived emotions as a form of thought, some of which were classified demonic.
    Although no one is considered to be responsible for these emotions/thoughts arising, if identified with they could lead to dire consequences. The same was perceived as true for what was considered fiendish activity, an inordinate amount of worldly activity beyond what is balanced or normal.

    Most, if not all, religions, from East to West, place humanity psychically in the middle of this dilemma. Choose the better angels of our nature, or be chosen to act either demonically or fiendishly. Evolutionary psychologists would disagree, perceiving psychic life as automatic as is physical life. All we have to do is go along for the ride.

    Spinoza is likeable for many reasons, however his choosing determinism, seeing humanity as an automaton is puzzling. It is likely that his pantheism, without transcendence, made choosing determinism inevitable, unlike Emerson who choose both pantheism and transcendence, and consequently did not have to reject either idealism or free will. If non-locality, which according to physicists indicates that the fundamentals of nature are elsewhere, turns out to be valid, then science would concur with Emerson.

  9. Kevin Henderson

    Freedom and agency are locked together. If we could all live as long as we wanted or run as fast as light, then our desires, all of them, would begin to turn to rain, by analogy, not feelings.

    Consider an arbitrary goal to happiness: if I move one millimeter to the right my life will feel complete, I will have felt I have accomplished all that I needed. It takes me no effort to move my whole body 1 mm to the right. I am free to do this and it is trivially easy. However, because I know this and I am also linked to a biology that creates immensely more interesting, complex, and energy intensive desires, moving 1 mm to the right will not give me immense happiness (in general), nor will running a mile in five and a half minutes, when I used to be able to run much faster.

  10. Socratically Speaking - pingback on March 4, 2015 at 8:07 am
  11. If we throw Spinoza into the swimming pool, will he choose to swim, or will he wait to see what will inevitably happen next?

    Inevitability is a reasonable conclusion from a deterministic world. But when most people hear the word “inevitable” it is in a context where it implies “beyond our control”.

    Determinism, however, must acknowledge all causes. It cannot ignore what went through Spinoza’s mind as he thrashed about to get to the side of the pool to save himself.

    We are our genetics, our beliefs and values, our reasons and feelings, and all of the other things that cause us to choose swimming rather than sinking. All of these causes are impotent until they become our will and our action. We are not their slaves, they are us.

    And we can change ourselves by seeking new reasons and adopting new feelings about what we should do or not do.

    Besides, if determinism is correct, then free will must have been inevitable, because here we are, thinking and choosing.

  12. Marvin –

    “…if determinism is correct, then free will must have been inevitable, because here we are, thinking and choosing.”

    I am not convinced by your argument here. Spinoza’s alarming experience in the water is – unless he is panic-stricken and fatalistally aware that he can’t swim – comparable to Mike’s situation when running in the cold, wind and rain. In this case, if Spinoza’s “determinism is correct, then [what we call free will] must have been inevitable, because here we are, [believing we are] thinking and choosing.”

    In fact, Spinoza will say, we are pre-determined to react in the way we call our natural character, that is, in the way we normally react. In this case we will manifest as a natural-born struggler,a passive yielder or a pathological seeker of our nearest comfort zone. Mike seems to be programmed by being driven to “stay moving — knowing how it works enables me to choose how to combat [the cold]”.

    Do you really think Mike was exercising free will? Doesn’t the way we react quite fast to testing situations show that we are creatures pre-programmed by body-awareness and experience?

  13. Hi Margaret,

    In a deterministic, physical universe, we are not merely “believing” we are thinking and choosing. These mental processes are actually happening in the real world. For example, we observe ourselves standing and walking, and we attribute these functions to a neuromuscular system present in our physical bodies. Do we say we merely “believe” that we are standing and walking?

    The same applies to our mental processes. They too are rooted in the neurological structures of our brain, again within our physical bodies. So I put it to you that thinking and choosing are just as real as standing and walking.

    And since free will is nothing more than us choosing for ourselves what we will do next, free from the coercion of someone else to do something against our will, we can say that free will is also a real function within a real biological organism within a real physical and deterministic world.

    To say that our will must somehow be free from causality is to claim it must be free from what we know as reality. Therefore, that is a “silly” claim, and cannot be a realistic definition of “free will”.

    Simple free will and simple determinism get along just fine together. And they are all we really need. We can eliminate the irrational “anti-causal libertarian free will” and the equally irrational “anti-choice determinism”. And once they are gone, you no longer even need the “compatibilists”, because there was never any question of compatibility to begin with.

  14. Margaret,

    Thank you for posting your thesis. It took me a few days, but it was an enjoyable read.

    Clearly you have read more Spinoza than I and with much greater depth and I see your point about nihilism being the wrong reaction. My original comment was a little snarky. As I read your thesis, I kept thinking of one of my old professor’s favorite analogies. Imagine a dog tied to a cart. It can either trot along with the cart or get dragged. It seems that Spinoza’s idea of free will is similar. We can’t change the direction we are going, but we can change our attitude towards it. It is still feels a little epiphenomenal for my tastes, though.

  15. Gene,

    Determinism implies that the current events and current state reliably bring about the next state and it’s events. This causal chain extends one eternity into the past and one

    In any case, here we have an eternal chain of causation. Right?

    That leaves just one question, “So what?”

    Nothing has changed.

    You are still choosing for yourself what you will do next. And what you do will determine what happens next.

    As long as someone else is not forcing you to do something against your will, you are acting of your own free will. And that means you are the final responsible cause of what results from your action.

    If you commit a crime, it is useless to claim that “determinism made me do it”, because the judge, announcing your penalty, can also claim a rich history of causes and effects that resulted in society creating laws and penalties that repair the harm, correct the offender, and protect the rest of us. If there were “extenuating circumstances”, unusual influences (like mental incapacity) or contributing factors that were actually outside your knowledge and control, then they may be taken into account. But causality is always an assumed constant on both sides of the equation, so it is never a “get out of jail free card”.

    So, if everything is inevitable, can you just sit back and wait for it to happen? Try doing that when you’ve been tossed into a swimming pool (and life is sometimes like being tossed into a swimming pool). The choice is sink or swim. And inevitability requires your active participation.

    So there you have it. Determinism is a fact of life. It is a deducible characteristic of the real world we inhabit. Free will is also a fact of life. It is an objectively observable phenomena that occurs in the real world. Therefore there can be no conflict.

    To find conflict, you have to enter an irrational world, like the one proposed by the “anti-causal libertarian free will” school, or the equally irrational world of the “anti-choice determinist”. Both of those worlds are trapped in the paradox. Don’t let the paradox trap you.

  16. Gene –

    Thank you for your comment, and for reading my thesis.

    I understand your point about epiphenomenalism. Mental states do at first seem to hitch a ride on physical states in Spinoza’s doctrine. But this does not make Spinoza’s theory of mind epiphenomenalism. Throughout Ethics and his other works he consistently claims that the physical and mental are one substance with two separate attributes but one correlated causal system: “The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things.”

    There is more on this in my response to Marvin.

    Marvin –

    You say –
    “thinking and choosing are just as real as standing and walking.” “…. will is also a real function within a real biological organism within a real physical and deterministic world.”

    In Spinoza’s one and only entirely natural substance such states of mind as thinking, choosing and deciding are real states which only exist in relation to physical states, but are not causally dependent on them. When our body and brain are dead so, correlatively, are all mental states.

    You and Spinoza agree that there is no transcendent property of mind, that nothing outside nature confers free will, and that will is in essence real. Spinoza talks extensively about the power or force of the mind, this being for him “intelligence itself”, which is equated with will. “The will and the intellect are one and the same”.

    You differ from Spinoza in that his doctrine of causality precludes physicalism. And indeed Spinoza’s double-aspect causal account of determinism is a stumbling block for many people, although it is close to Donald Davidson’s non-metaphysical thesis in Essays on Actions and Events (1980).

    However, if the metaphysic is set aside, the question of whether there can be entirely ‘free’ will can still be addressed. For Spinoza the will is not ‘free’ because it is subject to genetic and experiential limitations. You state that there is a discrete organic function of free will. But it would seem that a discrete organic function is, in any individual, similarly limited. So Spinoza is not isolated in his doctrine of determinism.

    It would moreover be unfair to Spinoza to leave him apparently positing humans as automatons. He does have a positive thesis showing how man can have “the power of bringing about certain things, which can be understood through the laws of his nature alone”. In his final years his mind was dominated by the question of the power and right of the “free man”, and the need to demonstrate the nature of “freedom of mind, or blessedness”. Ethics Part 4 is not easy reading, but its main claim is that “I call him free, who is guided by reason.” Submitting our ideas of, and plans for, agency to causal analysis – including the limitations of our own nature – opens up realistic pathways in life. On the other hand, believing that we can do anything we want is a sure route to disappointment, fear and anger.

  17. Margaret,

    So, does freedom (In Spinoza’s view, of course) come about by bringing your beliefs in line with God/Nature? Reading your last comment, I got a flash of the idea of dharma in the Bhagivad Gita and some of the ways that Christians have reconciled omniscience with freedom.

    I haven’t dealt seriously with Spinoza since a class probably like the one Mike is teaching now. So, it’s hard to tell what memories are accurate and what aren’t.

  18. Hey Margaret,

    I do try hard not to believe in ghosts, so I’m also a believer that mind is firmly rooted in the physical nervous system and brain, such that the person is gone when the brain turns off.

    Sometimes the metaphysical is pure concept. The idea of Love for example is considered powerful and perhaps omnipresent, even though it is invisible and immaterial. It is known by its examples.

    Semantically speaking, if something is as free as it can possibly be, then it is rightly called “free”. All of the reasonable limitations on freedom are implied in the simple use of the word. Freedom exists within causality, therefore the suggestion that to be “truly” free we must somehow escape causality is an unreasonable, if not irrational, requirement.

    I’m sorry if Spinoza was unable to work that out for himself. I’m sure that going around telling free people that they were not free caused a lot of needless turmoil.

    I think I may be a pragmatist. I’m sure I must have read at least one of the pragmatist’s views on free will at some time. Maybe it was Bertrand Russell, but I don’t recall if he specifically addressed free will in something I read way back when.

  19. Marvin –
    What’s with the ghosts, Marvin? I clearly stated that, for Spinoza, when the body and brain are dead, so are all mental states.

    You say -“Semantically speaking, if something is as free as it can possibly be, then it is rightly called “free”. All of the reasonable limitations on freedom are implied in the simple use of the word.”

    No they are not. If you are a pragmatist (rather than a philosopher) then you will grant on the existential level that if a will-to-whatever is not backed up by genetic propensity or prevously absorbed experience then it will fail. So there is no definitional wiggle room in the claim of free will. As a pragmatist you may observe that new retirees often will-to- achieve in a new skill. If the physical and sensory conditions above are not present in the organism, the skill won’t develop. Actual agency and slef help depends on respecting staying one’s own nature, as Spinoza demonstrates time and again.

    As I said, metaphysics are not for everyone, and Spinoza’s has wobbly parts. But logical analysis reveals that there is no wobbling or intrinsic “pure concept” in his thesis of determinism. There is, however, “pure concept” in wishful thinking on free will. This treasured ecclesiastical tool related to the concept of the soul is precisely what Spinoza was countering through argument from first principles.

  20. Gene,

    You ask –
    “So, does freedom (In Spinoza’s view, of course) come about by bringing your beliefs in line with God/Nature? Reading your last comment, I got a flash of the idea of dharma in the Bhagivad Gita and some of the ways that Christians have reconciled omniscience with freedom.”

    Your flashes are spot on, as tackling Ethics Part 5 makes evident. Spinoza did aspire to the totally adequate ideas of God-or-Nature, not through reason but through intuition – “the third and highest kind of knowledge”. This last thesis is, for me, one of the really wobbly bits of Spinoza’s doctrine, and it has given birth to some very odd texts like ‘Spinoza the Buddhist’. He also showed enough analytic agreement with some of the precepts of Christianity (in his Theologico-Political Treatise) to encourage the Dutch to spare him from a heresy trial – and to bury him in The Hague’s parish church.

    I did point out in my first comment that Spinoza’s nature was partially determined by Iberian mysticism and a conviction that, for a very few people such as himself (no modesty there) reaching eternal truths was possible. But I don’t want to stray any further here from the free will and agency thesis which is the topic of Mike’s blog.

  21. MG: “What’s with the ghosts, Marvin?”

    Just explaining where I’m coming from. I was unclear when you used the term “metaphysical” and said that Spinoza’s “doctrine of causality precludes physicalism”.

    Free will is the ability to choose for yourself what you will do next, without someone else coercing you to do what is against your will.

    It is certainly not the ability to leave the real world riding a unicorn to Mars. To say “you are free to do what you will” confers no magical powers.

    To expect free will to provide an escape from causality is an unreasonable, if not irrational, condition. Therefore, these “silly” things cannot be forced into the definition.

    We are free, but we are also subject to limitations of the real world. If Spinoza suggests that the latter makes the former false, he has made a mental error.

  22. s. wallerstein

    Margaret Gullan-Whur,

    As far as I’m concerned, your comments on such a fascinating philosopher as Spinoza are very interesting and I hope that you will continue sharing your thoughts on Spinoza with us, whatever the specific theme of the OP.

    From my experience, Mike tends to be very open-minded about people who use his posts to speak about topics which stray a bit from his starting point.

    I read Spinoza’s Ethics about 15 years ago and found it wonderful, so it’s a great opportunity for me (not being a philosopher and not having studied philosophy in a formal setting) to hear what you have to say about it.

  23. Instinct takes over in a situation where physical preservation is at risk.

    If there is an innate power to act freely it would require self-awareness, self-control, and willpower to be viable. If these are absent, or weak, the brain defaults to what is easiest.

  24. Marvin –
    You say –
    “We are free, but we are also subject to limitations of the real world. If Spinoza suggests that the latter makes the former false, he has made a mental error.”

    Spinoza stipulates non-negotiably that limitations of the will are entirely of the real world, which is Nature. I don’t think you are understanding his thesis, and suggest you read Ethics Parts 1 and 2.

  25. Oh. We’re talking at cross-purposes then. I’m less interested in Spinoza than in providing the correct answer to the philosophical issue.

  26. s.wallerstein –

    Thank you for your comment. To be honest, it is so rare for me to have a chance to air Spinoza’s doctrines that I tend to fear the luxury will run away with me. Add to this the fact that I’ve had so many years of sharp reminders to stay on the point, and getting students to exercise the logical discipline of doing so too, I don’t really have the free will to do otherwise!

    Marvin –
    I suggest that by title and content Mike’s blog fixes Spinoza’s rigid thesis of determinism as a benchmark for testing the validity of all claims of determinism.

    My conviction that what appears to us as free will is not really ‘free’ is unmoved by your claim that “free will is a real function within a real biological organism”.

    Here John Searle provides another helpful analogy. We will always believe in, and refer to, the sun ‘setting’, he says, because that is how we experience it. But that is not at all what is actually happening. There is no physical function consisting in the sun setting.

    Thanks for the good discussion.

  27. Do you wish to make the claim that you have no free will? If so, does that absolve you of responsibility for your choices and actions?

    Are you being forced to act against your will? Or do you take this one step further and insist that your “will” is merely an illusion? Or perhaps the next logical step, that your “self” is an illusion?

    Eventually, when you realize that everything is an illusion in precisely the same sense as your free will, please keep in mind that “when everything is an illusion, then nothing is an illusion”. And that should bring us back around to reality again.

  28. Marvin –

    Your first question, on responsibility, is a standard philosophical one in the branch of ethics. It has exercised many philosophical minds (and legal ones). It is to be discussed in terms other than mere assertions of physicalism, as if that was a given.

    The second is not worth discussing. It is not a logical step from denial of free will to denial of one’s self (in your terms believing that one’s self is an illusion). Determinism defines the real self.

    Dealing with that proposition is the next logical step. But it does not not begin with any notion of illusion.

    Whether that absolves people from responsibility

  29. The last phrase escaped deletion when I – or the analytic scruples that are and always have been the real me – decided not to enter the responsibility minefield.

  30. Okay. Thanks for the conversation.

  31. Universal inevitability is certainly true, but it is a useless truth, because:

    1) There is nothing that can be done about universal inevitability itself.

    2) Knowing your choice will turn out to have been inevitable provides no help in making the choice. You cannot know for certain what you will choose until you deliberately choose it.

    3) You cannot take inevitability into account without introducing an infinite loop: if this choice is inevitable then I will choose that instead, but now that is inevitable, so I will choose this …, etc.

    4) It cannot serve as a “get out of jail free card”, because it always operates equally on both sides of all equations. If you say, “But judge, it was inevitable that I did the crime”, the judge will say, “And it is inevitable that you are penalized”.

    So, it is best to simply acknowledge universal inevitability and then ignore it. At best it is a useless fact. At worst it’s misuse causes considerable confusion, especially among philosophers, scientists, and theologians.

  32. Marvin Edward’s point (4) reminds me of a philosophical anecdote recounted by Diogenes Laërtius that runs roughly like this:

    Zeno of Citium is beating his slave for stealing. The slave protests that it was fated he would steal. The stoic philosopher retorts: “And it was fated I would beat you”.

  33. Cool. I seem to recall another Zeno paradox. Before you can get from your chair to the door, you must first get halfway there. But before you can get halfway there, you must get halfway to the halfway. And before that … So that it becomes impossible to get to the door. My solution was that each time you half the distance, you double your relative speed, so that you are going infinitely fast relevant to the infinite subdivision, and that gets you easily out the door.

  34. s. wallerstein

    Universal inevitability isn’t a useless truth, because in realizing it, one understands a bit more who one is and why one does what one does. That is, if you value the examined life, then becoming aware that one’s actions are determined, will be of value to one, even if it’s determined that one will become aware that one is determined.

    It’s not a question of being aware having any special merit, but it’s a value in itself for many of us, even if, once again, we’re determined to value it.

  35. I disagree. Universal inevitability offers absolutely NO insight into “who one is or why one does what one does”.

    All useful information is derived by one’s real world experiences, self-knowledge, and what we learn through scientific study and observation.

    Ultimate inevitability is certainly a fact, but it cannot be put to any good purpose. And it clearly opens the door to a lot of unnecessary mental confusion by those who misunderstand and misuse the concept, including some of the most intelligent minds among us.

    For example, you suggest it is somehow beneficial to “become aware that one is determined”. One is NOT determined. That is NOT a correct inference from inevitability. It suggests we are objects separate from, and being manipulated by, causality — as if we and causality were two separate things, and causality were coercing us to do what it wants rather than what we want.

    We actually get to choose what we will make inevitable. That is the nature of our causal agency within universal inevitability. It does not determine us. We determine it.

    In our absence, all of the causal agencies that influence our will become impotent. It is actually us, choosing and acting, that determines what happens next.

  36. s. wallerstein

    Marvin Edwards,

    That a fact is not useful to you does not mean it’s not useful to me nor that I cannot put it to “some good purpose”.

    If our purposes are different, then what I can put to what is a good purpose to me may be of no good purpose to you.

    I don’t see much point in arguing about what is a “good purpose” since we may have differing of ideas of what “good” means.

  37. Hi Marvin,

    It’s the earlier philosopher Zeno of Elea who authored the famous paradoxes. According to Aristotle there were at least four that purported to show that motion is impossible. It sounds like it may be a reconstruction of the argument called the ‘The Dichotomy’ (sometimes ‘the Stadium’?) that you’re thinking of. I wouldn’t pretend to be able to say anything useful as far as possible (dis)solutions to it go though.

  38. Hi S.,

    I’d love to hear what good purpose you can come up with for the knowledge of universal inevitability. The best I can come up with is to acknowledge it and then ignore it.

  39. I only knew it as “Zeno’s Paradox”. It’s fascinating that there were many other Zeno.

  40. s. wallerstein


    Awareness of universal inevitability increases my peace of mind. Maybe it doesn’t increase that of everyone.

    However, Spinoza, from what I know of him, also found contentment or peace of mind from universal inevitability.

  41. S.,

    Well, since we don’t know what is inevitable, but only that whatever good or bad thing does happen it will have been inevitable, I don’t see how it can give you any true peace of mind.

    And if you are using it as a reason for apathy, as if you play no part in determining what becomes inevitable, that would certainly be a false contentment from a false understanding.

    Or perhaps it is like some who wish to escape guilt by claiming they could have done nothing else at the time. Well, the past is the past, after all, and there’s no need to appeal to universal inevitability to prove the past is beyond repair.

    Guilt is only a “bookmark” feeling, a reminder that we need to change our future behavior to avoid causing harm again. After guilt has served it’s purpose, it can be appropriately discarded. But if you employ the inevitability excuse once, you may employ it again, and continue the inappropriate behavior. It would be better to let guilt do it’s job and then let it go.

    But here I am having to guess what you mean by “Awareness of universal inevitability increases my peace of mind.” Is it something else?

  42. s. wallerstein


    I don’t quite understand what you’re getting at.

    When you say that you don’t understand how knowing what happens is inevitable can bring me “true peace of mind”, are you claiming that my peace of mind isn’t true, that it’s an illusion or delusion?

    I suppose that peace of mind is peace of mind. Except maybe in the case of some mental disease, how can it be an illusion or a delusion?

    My experience, which may not be yours or that of many others, is that understanding that whatever occurs, be it good or bad, brings me peace of mind. Perfect, Buddha-like peace of mind of course not, but a small step along the way. I’m not a Buddhist, but I’m far from an anti-Buddhist.

    The Greeks distinguish between ataraxia and apatheia: I seek the former (ataraxia). Have I achieved it and am I 100% consistent in seeking it? Not at all.

  43. S.,

    What I’m getting at is that you have not given an explanation as to how the knowledge of universal inevitability can give anyone peace of mind.

    My point was that such knowledge is useless. You’ve said you’ve somehow used it to achieve peace of mind.

    I don’t get it. I’ve taken a few guesses. But you still withhold the mystery of your reasoning from one thing to the other. You simply state it is so.

    Peace of mind usually comes from a sense that everything is okay. But the inevitable is only inevitable. It is not inevitably okay or not okay.

    So I’ll add one more guess. You have a faith or optimism that everything will be okay. And that’s fine. But I don’t think that comes from knowledge that everything that will happen must happen. It rather comes from a sense of willingness to accept whatever comes without, as Hamlet was saying, “taking up arms against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”.

    The problem with that logic is that you might actually have the possibility of altering something in a good way, rather than resigning yourself to accept whatever comes.

    Resignation to “inevitability” is false. One is simply choosing to make something different inevitable by inaction.

    I’m I making any sense?

  44. s. wallerstein

    Good morning Marvin,

    There is no logical reasoning that leads me from the fact that everything is inevitable to peace of mind. It’s not a deductive process just as the fact that listening to Bach brings me peace of mind or the fact watching the ocean brings me peace of mind are not the product of logical reasoning.

    If someone were to ask me to explain why listening to Bach brings me peace of mind, I’d have no answer nor see why one is called for either.

    If listening to Bach does not bring you peace of mind, fine.
    I’m not proselytizing or suggesting that what happens to me is a universal remedy or the way that all rational people ought to face things.

    I never spoke of “resignation”. That’s your interpretation. Resignation implies defeat, to me at least and I don’t feel defeated nor a winner either.

    I never said that I have faith or optimism that everything will be ok. Rather I have or at times have peace of mind regarding what is.

    Is “what is” ok? That question has no meaning for me.

  45. Okay. I didn’t mean to be a pest. I was only trying to find whether there was some reason why we should not simply acknowledge and then ignore universal inevitability. My feeling is that nothing but harm has come from trying to draw useful implications from total inevitability. A lot of people think it makes free will an illusion, leading to endless debates and confusion. But that inference is incorrect.

  46. s. wallerstein


    You’re not a pest. I’m flattered that someone is so interested in my point of view. Have a good day.

  47. Marvin,

    I don’t understand the way you are using the words inevitable and determined. It looks like you are making a distinction because if something is determined it needs a determiner and if something is inevitable it does not, and that’s fine. But, if both the crime and punishment were inevitable, presumably so are the guilt and ensuing changes. In what sense is anything chosen or decided? How can we choose to acknowledge and ignore inevitability?

    And you say, “Universal inevitability is certainly true.” What is the basis of this? If we are positing brute facts about the world, why not the brute facts of everyday experience, that we are at least partly free and outcomes are not inevitable?

  48. Hi Gene,

    The reliability of cause and effect implies both determinism and inevitability. But neither affects free will, except to make free will an inevitable product of our deterministic universe.

    Evolution has created biological organisms with the ability to think, to imagine, to plan, and to choose. One such species is us. And we call each other “persons”. We come with an innate biological will to satisfy our basic needs for survival. We also come with a conscious mind that mediates our interaction with our environment.

    We experiment, initially by trial and error, to learn how things works. When we run into an obstacle, like a shallow stream, we imagine alternative ways to either change our own behavior (step carefully from rock to rock) or change the environment (build a bridge across the stream).

    In general, our choices are influenced by our past experience, our beliefs and values, our reasons and feelings, and all the other things that make us the unique person that we are.

    And that person weighs the options, choosing which influences seem most appropriate to the current issue, and through this mental process of deliberation finally makes a choice.

    That choice becomes the person’s will at that moment. And if allowed to choose for themselves and act upon it, without being forced by someone else to do something against their will, we call it an act of “free will”.

    And that choice and that act determine (cause) what happens next.

    Upon one’s own reflection of the process, one can see the reasons and feelings at play, and discover that the choice was inevitable. But, of course, you cannot know the inevitable choice until you have made it. So the fact that it was inevitable is useless.

    Someone observing the decider and the issue, if they had a sufficient knowledge of the person (an omniscient God or the guy’s wife), might reliably predict the decision, even before it was made.

    Determinism, the reliability of the effect of a given cause, makes prediction possible. And one implication of a strict reliability of cause and effect is that all events are the inevitable result of prior states and causes.

    Now, the problem with the concept of inevitability is that we normally use “inevitable” to describe something “beyond our control”. But deterministic inevitability must recognize ALL relevant causes, including the decisions made by people of their own free will and their actions.

    In other words, we get to choose for ourselves what we will do, and what we do determines what becomes inevitable.

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