Spinoza vs Descartes on God
Abstract and Referential Ontology: Descartes Versus Spinoza on the Existence of God. The concept of God is central to the development of Cartesian and Spinozan philosophy. Although both philosophers employ an ontological argument for the existence and necessity of God the specific nature of God differs greatly with each account.
While Descartes suggests a Judeo-Christian concept of God, Spinoza argues a more monistic deity similar to that of the Hindu tradition. The most significant difference however, lies within the basis and structure of each argument itself.
Considered from an analytical standpoint through the lens of Gotlobb Frege, Descartes’ proof of God possesses both sense and reference and is therefore capable of expressing the truth. Spinoza’s argument however, employs sense alone, thus rendering it neither true nor false but quite literally meaningless. A detailed analysis of Descartes’ Meditations of First Philosophy in conjunction with Spinoza’s Ethics will help elucidate these claims. Before an analysis of Cartesian and Spinozan theology can occur, an understanding of each theory must first take place.
The Cartesian proof of God is outlined in Meditation Three of the Meditations. Within this work Descartes suggests a causal argument for the existence of a supreme being. This argument can be broken down as follows: 1. Everything has a cause 2. We have an idea of the infinite 3. An idea of an infinite could not be caused by a finite thing 4. God is infinite 5. Only an infinite God is adequate to cause this idea 6. God exists An argument such as this implies a specific understanding of Causation. According to Descartes, everything from object to idea must have a determinate cause.
That is, finite existence is not self-generating but rather the product of something else. The cause in question depends upon the degree of formal and objective reality it possesses. Formal reality refers to existence within this world. For example, a tree has formal reality as an empirical object just as an idea has formal reality as a mode of thought. Objective reality refers to existence as represented via ideas. That is, an idea of a tree possesses both formal reality as a mode of thought and objective reality as a representation of a specific tree.
According to Descartes, a cause must possess “at least as much formal reality as [its effect] contains objective reality. ” (Descartes 16) For example, the idea of a tree must be caused by something of more formal existence within this world than objective existence via its representation. Therefore, the idea of tree must be caused by a specific tree rather than the idea of a specific shrub. Descartes applies this reasoning to the idea of God in the argument above. Regardless of whether or not we think God actually exists we cannot deny that an idea of God is indeed within our mind.
If we have an idea of God then this idea must not only have a cause but a cause with more formal reality than objective reality of the idea itself. That is, that which the idea of God is referencing must be more substantial than the finite idea of the mind. The only cause more formally real than finite existence is infinite existence. Since the only conceivable infinite existence is that of God, Descartes’ concludes that “… In creating me, [God] placed this idea within me to be like the mark of the workman imprinted on his work. (Descartes 19) Therefore, God must necessarily exist as the infinite cause of our finite idea of Him. Once Descartes has argued the existence of God via causation he proceeds to prove God’s existence via essence: 1. The concept of God is one that is infinite and perfect 2. To not exist would be an imperfection 3. Therefore God exists The general form of this argument is a testament to Descartes’ understanding of an attribute. Of attributes there are only two, an Attribute and an Omni-Generic Attribute.
An attribute refers to that which is necessary to the essence of a specific substance, as perfection is necessary to the essence of God. That is, in order for God to exist it is essential that perfection and infinitude are attributed to this existence. An omni-generic attribute, refers to that which holds of any substance but does not contribute to its essence, such as existence, duration, or number. According to Descartes, to not possess this kind of attribute is a kind of privation or lack of the attribute itself. For example, if a ball is not red it lacks the color red.
Therefore, if it is essential that God is both perfect and infinite then non-existence would imply that a perfect being suffers some kind of privation. Clearly this is preposterous, for if a perfect being were to lack anything it would essentially cease to be perfect. Ergo, God exists by virtue of His perfection. Given the above arguments one can begin to understand the nature of the God Descartes is endeavoring to prove. For Descartes, God is infinite and perfect existence. God is “eternal, immutable, independent, supremely intelligent, supremely powerful, and [the creator of] everything else”. Descartes 20) Not only does God possess this nature but it is necessary that He does so. If God is not infinite or perfect God could not exist as these attributes are essential to God’s existence. Furthermore, if God is not the ultimate creator the innate idea of God we experience would cease to be innate but adventitious (externally caused) or imaginative (caused by the mind) which is again impossible given its content. Given these qualities one can draw a connection to the omniscient, eternal, creator God of Judeo-Christian interpretation.
That is, Yahweh or God is responsible for the creation of all existence, Ex nihilo, or out of nothing. The world is created as an existence separate from that of the Divine and as such exists finitely, or limited by, God’s infinite existence. (Van Voorst 212) Given this parallel, one can easily understand the sense in which Descartes understands God as eternal, immutable, independent existence outside of space and time. Now that the Cartesian argument for the existence of God is understood an outline of that of Spinoza must also take place.
Spinoza presents his proof for the existence of God within the The Ethics via one precise proposition. Proposition 11 states: God, or the substance consisting of infinite attributes, of which each one expresses eternal and infinite essence, necessarily exists. (Spinoza 91) This proposition is best explained through the use of three arguments. Each argument, while unique in itself, illustrates an aspect of Spinozan philosophy contrary to that of Descartes. The first argument supposes that God exists as it is necessary given the essence of God itself.
Before one can understand this argument one must first understand what is meant by essence. For Spinoza essence is that which is necessary for something to exist. That is, it is that without which a substance ceases to be. Spinoza employs this idea of essence in a negative proof for the existence of God: 1. Consider the idea that God does not exist 2. This consideration would mean that God’s essence does not possess existence 3. This is absurd since Substance (God/Nature) necessarily exists 4. Therefore, God necessarily exists
With this argument, Spinoza is suggesting that existence is an attribute of God’s essence. By attribute, Spinoza is referring to “what the intellect perceives of a substance, as constituting its essence”. (Spinoza 85) This differs slightly from Cartesian philosophy in that for Descartes existence is an omni-generic attribute and therefore does not contribute to the essence of a substance. Regardless, what Spinoza is actually saying is that we perceive existence to be essential to God. If existence is essential to God, then it is in God’s nature, as substance, to exist. Therefore, God necessarily exists.
Thus, this proof not only argues the existence of God but the nature of the Spinozan substance as well, in that a substance is that of which existence is its essence. That is, “it pertains to the nature of a substance to exist”. (Spinoza 88) Spinoza’s proof of the existence of God can be further represented via an argument of causation: 1. There is a cause for existence and non-existence 2. The cause of existence or non-existence is internal or external of the thing 3. If nothing can hinder the existence of a thing internally or externally then it exists necessarily 4.
There is no cause internally or externally hindering God’s existence 5. Therefore, God exists Like Descartes Spinoza believes anything that exists must have a cause, however Spinoza takes it one step further to suggest that anything that does not exist so too must have a cause. The cause for this existence, or lack thereof, must originate from within or without a substance. If there is nothing within or without the substance that limits its existence then it must necessarily exist. Here, Spinoza is discussing finite and infinite existence. If something is finite then it is limited in existence by something less finite.
That is, there is something that limits the finite to its finite existence. Thus all finite things are hindered by the existence of something else, eg, the infinite. The infinite exists in essence as something that admits of no limit. There cannot be more or less of an infinite substance as it is limitless, complete, and whole and thus internally and externally unhindered. Therefore in the above proof, Spinoza is not only saying that God exists because there is nothing within or without of God to hinder its existence, but moreover that God and substance are infinite.
If this is the case, then finite existence cannot be possible as this would imply its hindrance in some fashion, deeming it non-existent. If there is no finite existence, then “every substance is necessarily infinite”. (Spinoza 88) Thus, there can be but one substance: the infinite, unhindered, God. Spinoza’s proof of the existence of God as well as the nature of the God he is describing can be further explained through the representation of this final argument: 1. Ability to exist contains power 2. Inability to exist demonstrates a lack of power 3.
If an infinite being does not exist a finite being would have more power than an infinite being 4. This is impossible 5. An infinite being exists Similar to Descartes, Spinozan theology can be described via the idea of privation and used to establish a specific understanding of God. For Spinoza, the ability to exist contains some kind of power. This power refers to the ability of a substance to exist independently of anything else as a self-generating substance. A substance possesses the power to essentially spring into being unaided by anything else. Hence, existence implies power.
Therefore, to not exist would imply a lack of this power. If we are to go back to the previous proof we can deduce that God is an infinite substance, meaning that it is unhindered or unlimited by anything else. Given the present argument, if God were to not exist then it would be somehow limited by that which does exist. That is, God the infinite substance would be limited in power by finite substance. According to Spinoza, this concept is absurd as it is impossible by the very essence of an infinite substance to be hindered by anything of the finite, including power.
Therefore, God must exist. With the above explanation one can not only deduce that God must necessarily exist but that God must necessarily exist as one, complete, infinite, substance. It can be said then that Spinoza employs a kind of monism to his understanding of God similar to that of Eastern theology. That is, the existence of only one infinite substance, or God, draws a strong parallel to the Brahman or “divine breath” of Hinduism through which existence was created Ex deo or out of the substance that is God.
Therefore, there is no actual separation between God and human existence rather a perceived separation caused by human ignorance of the divine nature. (Van Voorst, 23) Therefore, although Spinoza will agree with Descartes that God is infinite and all-powerful, both philosophers differ radically in their interpretation of this infinite, all-powerful substance. Significant to both Cartesian and Spinozan philosophy is the fact that God must necessarily exist in order to support the philosophy in question. That is, if God did not place the idea of God within the mind then any analysis of this idea is useless.
Similarly, without the existence of an infinite substance, the Spinozan theory of substance is irrelevant. Therefore, God must exist if either theory is to succeed. Despite this fact as well as the above differences, the most significant contrast within Spinozan and Cartesian theology lies within the basis and structure of each argument. From an analytical perspective, specifically from that of Frege, Descartes argument differs radically from that of Spinoza in that the former possesses the most truth value. Truth value, is determined via the criteria of sense and reference.
With regards to a particular proposition, such as “Aristotle exists” the sense is that which the subject “expresses”. (Frege 210) That is, sense is the way in which the subject is considered or described. For example, the subject “Aristotle” could express many senses ranging from “Citizen of Athens” to “Philosopher”. The reference is that which is “designated” by its subject or that which the subject “stands for”. “Aristotle” stands for or designates Aristotle himself. (Frege 210) Thus, the reference is that knowable and concrete object from which the subject draws its credit.
For Frege, a proposition must contain both sense and reference in order to possess any truth value. That is, in order to say anything whether true or false about the world we must first know to what within the world the subject is referring and how exactly it is referring to it. Otherwise we would have no true way of knowing what the proposition means. Given the above description, Descartes’ understanding of God describes the Judeo-Christian sense of the term in that it is infinite, immutable, eternal, and responsible for the creation of all existence.
According to Spinoza, God is best described in a monist sense as one infinite substance similar to the Brahman of Hindu thought. However, in order to determine the reference of each subject a precise pedigree of Cartesian and Spinozan thought is necessary. The reference of the Cartesian God can be traced back to Descartes’ theory of existence in the Cogito. According to Descartes, all that we believe to be true is ultimately subject to doubt as it is provided via the senses which are commonly deceived. This is easily illustrated given the perceptions of a single piece of wax.
If our senses illustrate a ball of wax as both in a solid and liquid state how is it that we can know anything concrete about the wax? In order to determine what it is that we actually do know we must purge ourselves of all former beliefs and methodically build our collection of knowledge based on that which is beyond a shadow of a doubt. Once purged of these beliefs Descartes determines that regardless of the valid existence of anything else, he cannot deny that he is indeed doubting. If he is doubting he is clearly and distinctly thinking.
Therefore, Descartes concludes that there must be some thing that exists as a thinking thing. Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am. By the same token, body and mind must exist in that regardless of the validity of the empirical world one cannot doubt that something exists to sense it. Thus, with regard to reference, existence refers to the experience of thinking just as the concept of the body refers to the experience of sensation. Next Descartes categorizes the thoughts within his mind as ideas, volitions, and judgments.
Of his ideas Descartes distinguishes between those that are innate, imaginative, or adventive. Given that an adventive idea is caused by a bodily sensation and an imaginative idea is caused by the mind itself, Descartes determines that an innate idea, such as God, must be caused by God itself by virtue of the theory of causation. If one is to carefully trace each discovery back to its point of reference one would conclude that the existence of God draws its reference from the existence of innate ideas which in turn draw their reference from the experience of the phenomenon of thought.
Thus the proposition that God exists possesses the knowable experience of thinking as its reference. Since Descartes’ proposed existence of God contains both sense and reference it is indeed capable of saying something meaningful about the world because it both refers to something knowable and expresses something about it. If one were to analyze Spinoza’s proposition of God’s existence the origin of reference is not so clear. Proposition 11 states that God, or the substance consisting of infinite attributes, of which each one expresses eternal and infinite essence, necessarily exists. Spinoza 91) This proposition is the conclusion of the ten propositions before it which are in turn based on seven axioms and eight definitions. Of each of these concepts, proposition 11 refers most ardently to Spinoza’s definition of Substance. That is, substance is “what is in itself and conceived through itself… ”. (Spinoza 85) It is self-generating and its existence depends upon nothing else. The definition of essence, as that which is necessary for the existence of a substance, then refers to the above substance.
Similarly, the definition of an attribute, as that which the intellect perceives as the essence of a substance, directly refers to the definition of essence which is itself based on the definition of substance. Once these three definitions are proposed Spinoza uses the theory of causation and privation outlined above to help reach the conclusion of God’s existence in proposition 11. While logically this lineage is sound, upon closer inspection one must notice that the original idea of substance which forms the foundation for the entire Spinozan theology has no reference!
That is, the concept of substance as independent and self-generating does not refer to anything within the world that contains these qualities. While Descartes’ theory rests on the experience of thought as its original reference, Spinoza has no concrete, knowable reference to hinge his theory upon. One does not experience self-generating, independent substance in a way in which the construction of knowledge is possible because a self-generating, independent substance is unknowable. The only substance the human mind can make reference to is that which is finite and graspable as this is what we are in contact with.
Therefore, Spinoza’s definition of substance may express substance in the sense that it is self-generating and independent but this substance does not refer to anything concrete and knowable. To make this proposition is much like claiming “The present King of France is bald”. Although, the statement expresses the present King of France in the sense that he is bald, there is no King of France to be bald. Therefore, the present King of France. like the Spinozan substance, is but a concept with no real reference with which to draw its meaning.
Since the definition of substance holds no reference, the subsequent definitions of essence and attribute refer only to a concept. If this is the case, the culmination of these definitions in proposition 11 is also based on a concept. Therefore, the entire Spinozan proof of God is but an idea abstracted from a series of underlying empty concepts. Thus, although the Spinozan proposition for the existence of God is logically sound it is incapable of saying anything, true or false, about the world. Therefore, the entire proposition is meaningless.
Despite its’ empty nature, Frege does not mean to say that propositions lacking reference should be dismissed. Rather, propositions such as these comprise the world of art. Take for example a poem. To say that “Odysseus landed on the shores of Ithaca” is not to say anything true or false regarding the world because although the subject “Odysseus” describes “the fictional character of myth” this subject holds no real reference as this character has never existed. This is not to say that the proposition is any less euphonic or pleasing to the intellect. A proposition doesn’t have to say anything of value to be beautiful and artistic.
Therefore, Spinoza’s proposition for the existence of God, albeit meaningless, is still an outstanding artistic accomplishment. In conclusion, both Descartes and Spinoza argue for the necessary existence of God. Although each argument is similar in execution, the Cartesian idea of God is more aligned with the Creator of the Judeo-Christian tradition whereas the Spinozan concept of God is similar to the monistic Brahman of Hinduism. Although this difference is indeed important the most significant difference lies within the logical structure and foundation of each argument.
Given Frege’s criteria of sense and reference, the Cartesian proposition for God’s existence possesses both sense and reference and is therefore capable of saying something meaningful about the world. On the contrary, Spinoza’s proposition for the existence of God possesses sense but no reference and is therefore built upon an empty concept. Despite its inability to say anything meaningful, true or false, about the world the Spinozan proposition for the existence of God is nonetheless an extraordinary artistic achievement. Works Cited Descartes, Rene. Meditations of First Philosophy. Blackmask Online, 2002. Blackmask. Web. 1 Oct. 2012. lt;http://www. blackmask. com>. Frege, Gotlobb. “Sense and Reference. “The Philosophical Review 57. 3 (1948): 209-230. JSTOR. Web. 1 Oct. 2012. <http://www. jstor. org/>. Spinoza, Benedict D. “The Ethics. ” A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works. Ed. Edwin Curley. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994. 85-265. Print. Van Voorst, Robert E. “Hinduism” Anthology of World Scriptures. 7 ed. Boston, Massachusetts: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2011. 21-27. Print. Van Voorst, Robert E. “Judaism” Anthology of World Scriptures. 7 ed. Boston, Massachusetts: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2011. 209-217. Print.