Baruch Spinoza
Baruch Spinoza.

Welcome to a short discussion of Baruch Spinoza’s take on ontology, the study of what and how things exist. Let’s get started.

In his book Ethics Spinoza (pictured) writes:

'All situations have the same state.'

What does he mean by this? Well, Spinoza was a substance monist: he believed that only one substance exists—namely, God, who ‘is the immanent, not the transitive cause of all things’ and ‘absolutely infinite’.

No substance, wrote Spinoza, has proper substantial parts; else ‘the whole … could both be and be conceived without its parts, which is absurd.’ He saw consistency everywhere, things belonging to one substance: the cosmos, ‘Nature’, ‘Substance’—God!

Leaving belief in God aside, let’s challenge the claim that everything pertains to what we shall re-coin ‘the One’.

In the field of everyday experience we see similarities and differences between things. So how is it the case that all things belong to the One? According to Spinoza, every thing is a modification of the whole—finite and dependent bodies causing other finite and dependent bodies to be modified (e.g. in movement and colour) in an indefinite chain of causes. But where does this causal structure emerge from? How on Earth can infinity do causal work on finite things?

Spinoza would have responded like this: things extend from the One, whose modes distinguish things. The One is everywhere, ‘a substance consisting of infinite attributes’. However, this doesn’t quite work. Conceptually, we still have to traverse a void in reality between an infinite cause (the One) and its finite effects (modes)? Infinity can engender infinity, sure, but the infinite doesn’t simply touch down on the finite: finite things require finite attributes.

Spinoza wouldn’t permit finite things being separate from the One, extending them beyond God’s infinite reach. And, in his love of substances, Spinoza deplored voids! So these are out of the question. Then we are left stuck by Spinoza’s original supposition that being is infinite and causal.

But by creating a plurality of substances, or even a substance with proper parts (Schaffer 2009), an intelligible causal structure could emerge.

What do you think?