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Spinoza’s philosophical determinism: a brief comparative glimpse

February 21 2021 (to use the historic present tense) is the 344th anniversary of the death of philosopher Baruch Spinoza (24 November 1632–21 February 1677). This article will comment on only a paragraph in one of Spinoza's letters.

Stretching a bit or perhaps a lot the postulates of Spinoza’s determinism, as this writer discerns it, it might have been pre-determined that (about 350 years after he wrote) I would comment on a few sentences in one of his letters in the late 17th century, namely his 'stone analogy'.

To try to explain from my recollection and understanding of the ‘stone postulate’ – supposed, wrote Spinoza, a stone that was thrown into the air (I suppose by a human hand) has (human or human-like) consciousness, it (the stone) would think that he (or) she or it is 'marching' out of it's own free will.

But, wrote Spinoza, the stone's trajectory has already been determined 'beforehand' at the time of the throw. (Query in the context of human beings – hundreds of billions of them – who was or is the thrower? God? Accident? (In the widest, amorphous sense of the words or is it the Biblical 'The Word'?) The 'Big Bang' about roughly (plus or minus a few hundred million years) 1380 million years ago? Or the formation of the Earth 4300 million years ago (plus or minus a few hundred million years)? (Due to no fault of his Spinoza was not privy to the information about 'Big Bang' cosmology nor about the formation of the Earth which 20th century science postulated, so to speak.)

Human beings are not (from my understanding of Spinoza's stone analogy) ‘dancing’, ‘living’ or ‘free willing’ to their own tunes.

Spinoza claimed that free will is an illusion through this stone analogy, which I first read around May 1970 in Burmese language in either the second volume or third volume of the late Burmese scholar U Aye Maung's book Buddha and Buddhism. Twenty-eight years later I read it in English translation, in an essay in the book The Night is Large, written by the late Martin Gardner.

In my view Spinoza's postulate, if not contrary to, then at least does not conform to either Christian or modern (perhaps) not entirely Christian-based philosophical concept of free will or for that matter lack of free will. It is also, in this writer's opinion, not in conformity with the canonical Buddhist doctrine of Karma (Sanskrit) or Kamma (Pali). It may be closer to, though perhaps not identical with, the Catholic philosopher Augustine's (13 November 354–30 August 430) claim that 'God' stood above time and has (perhaps had?) foreordained and therefore foreknowledge of the 'past, present and future'.

It is also arguably analogised with, though not fully equatable with, the Protestant theologian Calvin's doctrine that the (Christian) God had already pre-ordained who will believe (in?) Him or (or if God is a she?) in Her. (Australian scholar Margaret Davies wrote in her book Asking the Law Question that God may as well be a 'She' and Margaret continuously referred to 'God' as ‘She’.)

But Spinoza at least furtively if not almost openly rejects or eschews the (Christian) God idea in his Deus Siv Nature (God or Nature) posit. If Spinoza were to read (in Latin or Dutch translation) this comment he may at least equivocate about my juxtaposition of his views with that of Augustine and Calvin who are even more adamant or 'determined' even than the gentle Spinoza that their views are right. (Spinoza apparently once wrote, according to biographer Margaret Ghulla-Whur in Within Reason: A Life of Spinoza, that his is not the 'best philosophy' but the correct philosophy.)

Now, my brief attempts to juxtapose or posit Spinoza’s views with the Buddhist doctrine of Kamma. Canonical Theravada Buddhism arguably or ostensibly rejects the doctrine or idea that every human event (individual or collective, so to speak) is due or entirely due to the Will (will) of a Creator or Deity. It also rejects the postulate or belief that every human phenomena, vicissitudes are due to the actions of deeds and misdeeds done in past lives. Canonical Buddhism also rejects that human events, phenomena occur without any moral or metaphysical cause. Kamma or Karma in Canonical Buddhism, from this writer's readings, while not totally relegating the actions of an individual's past lives as irrelevant puts more emphasis on current volitional actions and their current efforts form or constitute one's own Karma.

I am not sure to what extent Spinoza's metaphysics based on the 'stone analogy' is furthest from or comparatively closer to any of the doctrines which I emphasise (in my reading and understanding) 'original' Buddhism seems to reject but my view is that Spinoza's determinism both at the metaphysical and arguably theological/moral levels also does not seem to fit in with Buddhist metaphysics and moral (?) framework of the Buddhist weltanschauung (world view) as well.

And Canonical (rather than popular) Buddhism is also quite a far cry from the 'predestination' concept of both the Augustinian and Calvinistic kinds, albeit the adherence to a form of or overemphasis on past lives' actions almost solely determining individuals 'fate' seems to be in its own cultural and religious milieu a form of 'predestination' shorn of the 'Creator's Will' of some Christian theologians.

Spinoza had access to Jewish and ancient Greek, especially Epicurean, writings (since a recent book about Spinoza is titled Spinoza, the Epicurean) though this writer is of the view that due to no fault of his own Spinoza, say unlike the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who flourished much more than a century after Spinoza, would not have access even in 'skeletal' Dutch or Latin translation even rudimentary aspects of Buddhism.

This 'brief' briefly fills in that to compliment or belatedly commemorate one excerpt from Spinoza's writings on the anniversary of his death.

“Further conceive, I beg, that a stone, while continuing in motion, should be capable of thinking and knowing, that it is endeavoring, as far as it can, to continue to move. Such a stone, being conscious merely of its own endeavor and not at all indifferent, would believe itself to be completely free, and would think that it continued in motion solely because of its own wish. This is that human freedom, which all boast that they possess, and which consists solely in the fact, that men are conscious of their own desire, but are ignorant of the causes whereby that desire has been determined.”
― Baruch Spinoza

Perhaps with an eye towards future centuries so that not only his writings but also his correspondence may be preserved Spinoza had smartly hand-copied perhaps most of his letters before he posted them. In his times in the late 17th century there were no scanners, photocopy machines or cyclostyle machines. 

Dr Myint Zan edited the book Legal Education and Legal Traditions, published by Springerlink publishing. He had also established the Myint Zan Fellowship in Philosophy at one of his alma maters, The Australian National University, for academic years 2018 to 2021 for early career researchers and also the Myint Zan Prize for the Philosophy of Science for undergraduate philosophy students in perpetuity at ANU.

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One comment

  1. I suspect that Spinoza’s choice of examples is an homage to, and disagreement with, the ancient Stoics. In a passage that Spinoza would surely have known from his early education, Cicero reports the views of the Stoics by means of an illustration involving a cylinder rolling downhill (On Fate, sections 39-43). Once it is in motion, the shape of the cylinder is what keeps it in motion. So too, the person of bad moral character may be “pushed” by — for instance — the person who cuts him off in traffic. But his subsequent road rage happens, as the Stoics say, “through him”. That is to say, his beliefs, desires and character play a causal explanatory role in what happens next. So although things could not have been otherwise given the history of the world up to that moment, still the road rager is morally responsible for what is fated to happen when it happens “through him”. It appears that Spinoza rejects this strategy for making responsibility compatible with universal causation.

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