10 Problems with Spinoza’s God

Among pantheists, the most celebrated philosopher of their ranks is, undoubtedly, Baruch Spinoza. Living in the 17th century Netherlands, Spinoza composed an elaborate argument for the notion of monism—more specifically, pantheistic monism. Yet, to any metaphysician worth his salt, it is readily apparent how deeply flawed (and, indeed, wholly ridiculous) the argument which he puts forth is. Let us, then, take note and elaborate on the various flaws of the argument; for it is erroneous is ten ways.

Definition VI

First and foremost, Spinoza assumes the conclusion of the argument in the sixth definition he puts forth as its basis. As per the definition given, God is that which is of every nature and attribute, or, in other words, of an infinite number of natures and attributes. Of course, this is actually the conclusion of his argument—that God is of every nature and attribute (in other words, that He is everything). Hence his argument is, even prior to actual composure, circular and thus fallacious.

Axiom IV

Secondly, the forth axiom of his argument is patently false. Spinoza claims that “The knowledge of an effect depends on and involves the knowledge of a cause.” Yet, it is plainly apparent that we had knowledge of the Earth’s existence, as well as its various attributes, long before we had any true notion of how it, our galaxy, or even our universe was formed. To cite a specific example, we knew the earth was composed of stone long before we knew how the stone got there (by gradual accumulation). Hence, our knowledge of it was and is not dependent upon the knowledge of its cause—and, thus, Spinoza’s fourth axiom is erroneous.

Axiom VII

Thirdly, Spinoza’s seventh axiom inadvertently disproves his conclusion. He claims that “If a thing can be conceived as non-existing, its essence does not involve existence.” Meaning, then, that which does not have the essence of being is that which has the potential to not exist. Yet, as shown by the third way of the Quinque Viae, God is of the essence of being—in other words, being itself—and thus by definition is unable to not subsist. Meanwhile, any given particular rock has the potential to not exist, and therefore, unless the substance of the rock is ultimately the same as all other things (a notion which would assume the conclusion and again render the argument fallacious and circular), the rock is not of the essence of being, and hence is not one in the same with God, making pantheistic monism, then, false.

Proposition II

Fourthly, the second proposition Spinoza presents is, again, patently and apparently false. He states, “Two substances, whose attributes are different, have nothing in common.” As a justification for this notion, Spinoza recalls his third definition, which reads: By substance, I mean that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself: in other words, that of which a conception can be formed independently of any other conception. Yet, this plainly does nothing to support his proposition, in that multiple particulars of any given class may be conceived of independently, in total ignorance of their class (given that class is merely the noting of commonality between multiple particulars). To illustrate, each camera, when perceived without the knowledge of other cameras, has differentiae from other cameras, while simultaneously possessing commonalities with them—all the while, this camera is still perceived independently from its class (in other words, independently from any other conceptions save for itself). Thus, as things can plainly have both differentiae and commonality while being individual particular substances, the notion that “two substances, whose attributes are different, have nothing in common” is undeniably false.

Proposition III

Fifthly, Spinoza’s third proposition is constructed upon prior errors, and hence too is deeply erroneous. It reads as follows: things which have nothing in common cannot be one the cause of the other. Now, Spinoza intends this to imply that due to his fifth axiom, which states that two wholly unalike things can not be used to comprehend each other, that therefore axiom four (which was shown erroneous prior), which states that knowledge of effect requires knowledge of cause, means that two wholly unalike things cannot be the cause of one another (and, as would be implied by the second proposition—which has been shown false—this would mean that all substances must have everything in common, otherwise they would not be caused). Yet, as knowledge of effect does not require knowledge of cause, and as particulars can possess both differentiae and commonalities, two thirds of the components of this proposition are false, and so too is the proposition itself.

Proposition V

Sixth, again Spinoza compounds his errors to compose his fifth proposition, which states that “there cannot exist in the universe two or more substances having the same nature or attribute.” He formulates this proposition in consideration of his intended implications for proposition three (which has just been shown to be false, along with its components of the second proposition and the fourth axiom) when taken in light of proposition four. In other words, he notes that, if all things are caused to exist by wholly alike or identical things, then all things which exist are wholly alike or identical. But, of course, it has been shown that things are not caused by wholly alike or identical things in the negation of the third proposition, and, hence, the fifth proposition must then be false.

Proposition VI

Seventh, we have further erroneous compounding in Spinoza’s sixth proposition. Here Spinoza claims that “one substance cannot be produced by another substance.” This is essentially an alternative argument for proposition four. Of course, this notion is derived from propositions two and three. He considers that, as things which have nothing in common cannot cause one another (a notion shown false), all things have everything in common (an implication of proposition two in light of three, both of which, again, have been shown erroneous), and as substances are deemed different by their attributes, all substances must then cause only substances of identical attributes and thus can only cause the same substances—themselves. Yet, as two of the three notions on which this proposition rests have been refuted, so too has this proposition—it is false.

Proposition VII

Eighth, Spinoza notes that the sixth proposition implies that that which can only be caused by itself (in his view, all substance) must be of the essence of being in order to avoid the absurdity of preceding itself. Therefore he states that “existence belongs to the nature of substances.” Now, aside from this being observably false (recall to mind the example of rocks perishing, and how assuming otherwise assumes the conclusion), this proposition is an implication of a prior false proposition, and hence is a false implication.

Proposition VIII

Ninth, we have the implication of the seventh proposition, that, as Spinoza defines the infinite as that which is not constrained by the greater, and that there can be nothing greater if there is but one thing (one substance), then all things (which, as he ties to prove, are one thing) are necessarily infinite. But, as it has been shown prior that his notion that there is but one substance is patently false in a myriad of ways, this implication too is in error.

Proposition XII

Tenth, Spinoza’s twelfth proposition, that “no attribute of substance can be conceived from which it would follow that substance can be divided,” is reliant upon propositions five and six, that two or more substances can not have the same attribute, nor can one substance produce another—both of which have been shown erroneous; ergo: proposition twelve is erroneous.

Proposition XIV

Finally, we have the concluding proposition, which reads: besides God no substance can be granted or conceived. This conclusion, being the complete compounding of all the prior mentioned errors, is—obviously—itself false. Hence, pantheistic monism is false.


Spinoza’s Argument Summarized by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Spinoza’s Text

Aquinas’ Quinque Viae

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3 thoughts on “10 Problems with Spinoza’s God

  1. I always liked spinoza for opening up the discussion on certain points that I think weren’t as well formulated as when he got on the scene.

    However I still say I am a fan of the reformed theologians of late (karl barth) and the church fathers.

    They get at something mysterious and amazing in their writings but I have to say I’ve also spent a lot more time appreciating them than I have spinoza haha maybe I should give him a fair shake.

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  2. His is such a slippery argument – unless you go looking for problems, you’re liable to reach the end and be in shock of what seems to have been proven. Definition III also seems problematic to me. It departs from the simpler Aristotelian definition (“that which is not said of another”) and does not allow for one to think of substance except in terms of human perception (which fits right into the idealist paradigm). There could be many senses in which a thing is said to be “in itself,” but not so many which a thing could “not be said of another.” Perhaps this kills the root, and excludes from the outset any kind of participatory metaphysics which could have brought the critical distinctions and qualifications that would have saved the day. Thoughts?

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    1. I agree that definition III does seem a bit nonsensical and inexact, at least in its first half. This is why when considering his argument I was more forgiving in how I considered it, and focused more on his second part of definition III (“that of which a conception can be formed independently of any other conception.”), because, while it still causes the problem of not allowing for one to think of substance excepting in terms of human perception, it’s at least in this way understandable.

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