In the Ethics, Spinoza does refute any definition of Will as being free, as Will for men is an illusion which proceeds from inadequate ideas and Will for God is that of the necessity of his Being.

However, in part IV and V of the book he explains that humans, as being subject to their passions, can only find tranquility and happiness if they abide by Reason.

I take his point as one where extension of our knowledge of Nature will disillusion us, hence presenting us with the full extent of what drives us as beings to conceive and act, as we approach more adequate ideas and advance beyond inadequate ones; still, if Will is not free, how may a man grow out of his passionate state to a reasonable one unless the necessity of Being (as being within God) comes to it ?

My issue is that Spinoza seems to erases the notion of free will and then sneaks it back when he has to build his ethics (that is explicitly denying free will in parts I, II and III then implicitly assuming free will in parts IV and V).

  • Like all compatibilists, he does not think we need free will to strive towards what he is recommending. We are either destined to do it or not. If we are, what he writes may be destined to play a part in fulfilling that destiny. And if not, then not. – Conifold Sep 4 '19 at 21:42
  • Right, that was more or less my understanding, I thought I might have missed something. Hence, would you say it's fair to state that Spinoza's Ethics is written for the select few, those endowed with Reason (in a way, just as a mean of recognizing their role in life and not falling for the negative sentiments) ? – Gloserio Sep 5 '19 at 12:08
  • Or, perhaps, those who would become so as a result of reading it. Those who are already enlightened do not need it anymore, presumably. – Conifold Sep 5 '19 at 17:57

Reason and Will have nothing to do with one another. Free will does not exist in Spinoza's philosophy. Because we do not experience first-hand the series of causes which comprise the background of our natures which are formed from birth onward and accumulate as the results of choices made during the span of our life's experiences, we tend towards believing that we make conscious decisions to act one way or another. We do not see that it is 'the necessity of our natures' (not Determinism), which shapes the activity and choices in our daily lives. Although it is difficult to discern this process as we undergo it, it is possible to recognize that we are not really 'in the driver's seat' in our own lives. We have no idea where our thoughts come from or what we will think next. Our moods shift from moment to moment and we have no idea why, at least, that is, if we are honest with ourselves. As for reason, reason is a function within the compass of the human mind. It is not unlike that 'little' voice we hear which tells us to do the right thing. It is not managed consciously but rather 'tapped' into.It forms the micro-version of the macro-intellect of god (The universal intellect)

None of this comes easy to understand. It all begins with coming to grips with the three kinds of knowledge described in the TIE. If we truly understand those things that we know through the first kind (Imagination), then we can begin to realize that the notion of 'free' will is a chimera.We need to sort through our ideas and discover which ones can be counted on with certainty. These are based in intuitional scientific understanding. For example, When you sit down to 'take' a physics exam and feel well prepared, you do not have any 'doubts' about what you know of the subject matter, this is a degree of 'certainty'.

Human freedom consists in recognizing that acting according to the 'dictates of reason' affords us the freedom to act in accordance with the most satisfactory aspects of our nature. This frees us from self-delusion and the slavery of having our emotional states controlled by external forces,(passions).

For more on these very challenging and unique to Spinoza ideas, see; charlessaunders5.academia.edu The essays titled, 'Why Spinoza, why Now' are abstracts from my four books which are also available there. Each abstract and book covers one part of the "Ethics". The first abstract and book covers the TIE.The second, third and fourth cover "Ethics" Parts 1-2-3. Semper, Sapere, Aude, Charles M. Saunders

  • Thanks for the elaborated answer. My confusion remains however, as I can't se how we can speak of any human freedom (even as defined by acting in accordance with our nature) if our nature is a subset of Nature (which is absolutely constrained). For all practical purposes, I think Spinoza's advice is precious, as one should strive toward Reason, however, philosophically speaking, I can't see how Reason is a choice in his system. – Gloserio Sep 6 '19 at 9:13
  • @gloserio- Could you elaborate on what you mean by nature being 'constrained'? That does not seem Spinozistic to me, thanks CMS – user37981 Sep 6 '19 at 13:22
  • maybe the term is not in the vocabulary of Spinoza, but doesn't Spinoza consider that all happenings are consequent to the necessity of God ? In other words, he's deterministic, since all derives from the necessity of Nature; hence the dilemma (for me): as we are part of Nature, we're conduced to act in a specific order and fashion, so much so that the ethical question becomes devoided of meaning since we have no choice of our deeds. – Gloserio Sep 6 '19 at 13:56

@gloserio- To respond I will need to move in two directions; First, there is a confused translation and transliteration error which completely obfuscates Spinoza's usage of 'demonstrata'. A demonstration in geometry is not a 'proof', it is simply a graphic representation of the specifics in the hypothesis. That is the purpose of the 'figure which accompanies each 'problem'. By confusing Spinoza's use of demonstration and insisting he meant 'proof' the first error occurs. This is further compounded by the confusion of 'necessity' for 'determination'. The necessity of god's nature contains within its compass all the universal laws of 'extension', like 'motion' and 'rest' (What we call the laws of physics and astrophysics), gravity, etc. These laws act with the force of necessity, this means that they act as the drivers of all of the creation and recreation of all of the constellations, planes, stars, people and things. They cannot be abrogated, but their activity is not pre-determined. There is no pre-determined aspect to that activity. It is best thought of as 'the 'eternal' and 'infinite' evolution of all possibility', of which life on earth is one of these possibilities. It might be said that our lives are part of a grand experiment which is both boundless and purposeless, from the teleological point of view. That does not mean that individual lives are not meaningful. It just means that if a monstrous asteroid smashed the planet earth out of existence, evolution and lifeforms would continue. So, nature is not 'determined' in any sense of that word's definition. As for people, suffice it to say that the titles of Spinoza's works; On the 'Improvement' of the Understanding, "Ethics" Part Five- On Human 'Freedom' and his descriptions throughout his writing of the 'potential' for humans to 'free' themselves from the bondage of the negative emotions (passions) through increasing the plenitude of adequate ideas in their minds; all of these things, that Spinoza said, not me, speak of change and growth and 'becoming' blessed through attaining to 'amor dei intellectus' or the 'intellectual love of god',all these things bespeak 'change' and 'choice'.These things also reveal that there is a large quantity of commentary in the extant that is simply incorrect. We don't always have to believe those who term themselves 'scholars' One of our human predilections is to believe the first thing we here about a subject and to take that first hearing as 'gospel' truth. The 'proof' of the assertions is how we will stubbornly cling to that initial belief no matter what evidence to the contrary is presented. There is only one way to understand Spinoza's System and that is to study it, for as long as it takes to 'see' all of the components, and only then to judge the merits or demerits of his system by yourself. Cheers, CMS

  • @gloserio- Because of your obviously sincere interest in Spinoza a reference needs to be added. For the serious student, there are 3 authors Deleuze, Negri and Hallett. Hallett wrote a trilogy. It begins with; "Spinoza- The Elements of His Philosophy". The second book is "Aeternitas" , he is the most capable of the three authors. Negri, "The Savage Anomaly" is wonderful, but very difficult reading. He uses a variety of languages; Latin, German, French and numerous challenging references. But his description of the 'power' in Spinoza's philosophy is stellar. Deleuze is also quite capable. CMS – user37981 Sep 7 '19 at 15:02
  • Good day ! Thanks for the answer, firstly: I have not read any scholar's commentary on Spinoza, my reading of him, however solid or misguided it may be, is but mine. Secondly: I appreciate his work, as it seems he was one of the rare examples of intellectual honesty and sincerity, his philosophy is also very complete, it has the rare ability to incoporate a metaphysical framework and scientific knowledge. But it is truly with his metaphysics that I am the most challenged. – Gloserio Sep 8 '19 at 9:05
  • I'll be looking into your material and all the recommanded books as soon as can be as I am afraid I have read Spinoza without the necessary tools to understand him. Thanks you again for your time ! – Gloserio Sep 8 '19 at 9:07
  • @Gloserio- One more observation, you did the absolutely correct thing by completing your own study of Spinoza's work prior to reading any commentary. That is the only way to establish a reliable 'baseline' for making a comparison of your take on Spinoza's 'intended' meaning and anyone else's. "Experts' tend to superimpose their own manufactured pre-suppositions about Spinoza onto their 'critique, often resulting in misinterpretations and slanted mis-applications of contemporary norms. One last thought, make certain to complete a very serious study of the TIE. It holds the key; ie Baruch's Idea – user37981 Sep 9 '19 at 16:21
  • The Ethics seems like the kind of books you can read for a lifetime without grasping its full depth. Considering the issue of my topic, I still keep the feeling that Spinoza's metaphysics implies a determinism, not to confuse with fatalism. Man not being a empire withing an empire, it is obvious that either Spinoza is but a "participant" in the Substance (each man being a mode of the Idea of Man), one gains a lot by adhering to the adequate Idea of a Man (one linked to external causes), hence, feelings become indicators of how our body is affected by the world, whereas ignorant (tbc) – Gloserio Sep 9 '19 at 18:01

Use computers as an analogy. Computers do what their program tells them to do. But computers can change their own program. (Until a few years ago, this was only a theoretical possibility; today this is already a practical reality, especially in machine learning systems.)

Well, think of humans as machines that do what their program tells them to do. They are deterministic machines living in a deterministic world. Also, think of them as machines that can change their own programing. So they can think more or less like this: “When I was in situation S1, I thought of doing D1 while expecting that D1 would produce situation S2. I did D1, but D1 didn’t produce situation S2, but situation S3, which I disliked. So, next time I am in a situation similar to S1, I will do D2 instead of D1. I hope D2 will produce situation S2.”

The person who thinks that way is changing their own program. This kind of thinking is perfectly compatible with a deterministic world, otherwise computers could not learn.

Spinoza was thinking more or less this way, and that’s why he put so much emphasis on certain theses: (1) that we have the right, just by being born, to do as we please; (2) that we should, for our own sake, act in accordance with reason; that is, we should avoid acting according to passions; (3) that the best action is the one that is not only rational but also based on “clear and distinct ideas”, that is (using modern parlance), based on the best current scientific knowledge.

Thus, for Spinoza, to be moral is to call oneself the authority over one’s own actions, to fill one’s head with knowledge of the highest quality, and to use one’s head before doing anything. But to be moral is also to understand that no matter what happens, be good or bad, it could not have happened otherwise.

  • Welcome to SEP and thanks for your answer ! I take your point, which I believe more or less succeeds in spotting the compromise between a deterministic view of the universe and an adjustable behavior of humans, the jest of it is :"we behave deterministically, but we are determined by changing rules". Machine learning does in fact have an ability to change its output by re-adjusting parameters upon re-training on new input data, but it remains deterministic, as the algorithm never changes, only the parameters do. – Gloserio Oct 16 '19 at 8:37
  • That being said, a better analogy could be maid with A.I in robotics, which includes agency. The pro-active aspect of an intelligent agent expresses best how humans behave, although the learning aspect might behave statistically, the motivation aspect should be accounted for, but that's only by way of representing the complexity of a human, the mecanical point of view seems reductive to me. – Gloserio Oct 16 '19 at 8:49

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