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Spinoza’s Observation of Liberty in a Deterministic World

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To Do, or Not To Do: How Human Freedom Plays Out in Spinoza’s Deterministic Universe

Within the realm of philosophy, there has been an ongoing discussion on a matter that has, for some quite some, garnered en masse the opinions and personal beliefs of the world’s most famed thinkers. Human freedom is such a matter that has been a trending topic in not only the community of philosophers, but in ordinary, everyday discussions by people of all backgrounds and from all walks of life. Generally considered to fall in line with similar abstracts such as free will, indeterminism, and self-determination, human freedom differs in that it is a far more comprehensive account of freedom in terms of freedom to act on one’s own will, and freedom from objective externalities that may otherwise influence the will of any and all individual subjects. Baruch Spinoza, a well-respected, philosopher and a firebrand of his time, put forward his own ideas on the nature of human freedom and how it plays out in our world.

Spinoza was a 17th-century, Enlightenment-era Dutch philosopher who, following the publication of his magnum opus, Ethics, explicates in depth on human freedom in this multilayered philosophical treatise. Spinoza’s account on the problem of human freedom is threefold: we live in a deterministic universe in which there are internal and external constraints that prevent us from exercising comparatively greater freedom; that we, and by extension our actions and state of mind, are subject to the influences of our environment and unique sets of circumstances; and lastly, that there could be varying degrees of influence on an individual by such externalities, or ‘the environment’, as well as varying degrees on ones’ liberation from the pressures of ‘the environment’. Thus, human freedom should be deemed a broad spectrum instead of as a uniform rule that pertains to everyone across the board. In this paper, I will argue that Spinoza’s theory on what human freedom entails and how it fits into the larger context of a deterministic universe, strays far from pre-established views on how we perceive and experience human freedom.

First and foremost, Spinoza asserts that we do in fact occupy a deterministic universe, one that runs according to well-established natural laws, all of which are founded on the basic law of cause-and-effect which directly impacts the chain-of-events that transpires in the material world, and in the lives of everyone in it. Determinism is “the doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will.” (Dictionary.com) Succinctly, we as rational agents are still governed by natural laws that supersede our ability to act in ‘real freedom’ from these natural laws. If an event x were to happen, then effect y would respond accordingly. While we may subscribe to this principle, we often forget that our actions, big or small, do indeed have their consequences. Spinoza then claims in his philosophy of monism that only a single, infinite substance, or matter, whether its God or Nature, is truly free from the constraints of our deterministic universe: “That thing is called free, which exists solely by the necessity of its own nature and of which the action is determined by itself alone.” (Ethics) By way of being consubstantial, or of the same substance, Spinoza’s God is interchangeable with that of nature or the universe. On the other hand, because we as individuals are of a different substance and exist within the universe, we are susceptible to its constraints, such as time, space, circumstances etc. These external constraints are imposed upon us, not by personal choice, but by the very nature of our existence which constitutes a tacit agreement to be subjected to these fixed natural laws and heeding them for so long as we exist. Spinoza goes even further and contends that we as humans comply with our own internal constraints, which he dubs as ‘unconscious appetites’, which can be good indicators for how an individual will behave in their environment. In other words, strong passions, or desires, are difficult for the individual person to overcome, and while they may try to act or think ‘differently’, the stronger of the musings will win over.

Moreover, he argues that constraints, external and internal, are the guiding hand for human behavior and sway every event, or series of events, in our lives. For example, individual x has little to no control over their birthplace, their family’s socioeconomic standing, or their physical features; yet, these externalities shape the upbringing, morality, and experiences of individual x in the world around them. Therefore, any human action or state of mind follows from whatever conditions they are accustomed, which then molds the behavior of the individual and their anticipated actions: “Secondly, that men do all things for an end, namely, for that which is useful to them, and which they seek.” (Ethics) Since the conditions for an individual’s birth and upbringing is not up to them and is outside their normal decision-making process, they are unable to exercise free will and in due course run out of options. Spinoza’s school of necessitarianism holds this to be true, stating that God/Nature is necessary as the infinite substance, equating one with the other and propounding that because of their infinitude in substance they are not subject to any constraints whatsoever. Because of this, Spinoza proposes that since God/Nature is self-caused they lie outside the sequence of events that we experience in the material world. In a nutshell, humans are finite substances whom exist within the universe, whom are subjected to its predetermined natural laws, along with their actions insomuch as their behavior is influenced by situations over which they have no power over.

Notwithstanding Spinoza’s critique of human freedom as a misrepresentation of our place in the universe, ignorant of natural law and its constraints, there is a silver lining to his argument. He also professes that ordinary people have the capacity to elevate themselves, mentally and physically, by liberating themselves from their circumstances and/or the pressures of their environment. His naturalism, the belief that the natural world and its laws are all that is ‘real’ to us, takes precedence as he stipulates that God/Nature, or whatever else we should like to label the infinite substance that is in or subsumes the universe, formulates the constraints that we all yield to. We can master our own internal constraints in an attempt to exercise greater personal freedom over our lives and exert our will in the world. Albeit, Spinoza also states that only a select few have the potential to carry out this ambition while the rest will proceed to live their lives under the burden of these constraints, prisoners of their own environment. Unfortunately, no matter the grade of freedom allotted, natural law reigns supreme as even the strongest-willed of us all will inevitably fall prey to the constraints of the physical universe and will perish in the end: “Nothing can be destroyed, except by a cause external to itself.” (Ethics) Because we are immersed in the material world of cause-and-effects, we can be destroyed by another cause. Conclusively, Spinoza’s ideology furnishes humanity with the opportunity to attain a greater measure of autonomy, not from the laws of nature which govern the universe, but from our own self-defeating behavior.

Baruch Spinoza aims to reinterpret and further the understanding of human freedom as it pertains to the realm of practical philosophy. Spinoza thoroughly tackles this in his Ethics and redefines human freedom as a middle-ground notion, compatible between human freedom originally thought of in absolute terms, and the strict determinism that still runs deep in some circles today. Traditionally, human freedom was understood solely in absolute terms as humankind able to act on their own free will and able to choose between alternative courses of action. Spinoza shuns this model of human freedom and instead postulates a more cohesive design of human freedom with subtle religious undertones and which hinges on the compatibility of a deterministic higher order and individual self-rule.

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