Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Spinoza: Are Finite Things Contingent After All?

I’ve never studied Spinoza in any depth, so have been ignorant of the many subtleties/ambiguities in his work and the competing interpretations put forward by scholars on many points. I enjoyed reading two articles by Samuel Newlands: first, his SEP article “Spinoza’s Modal Metaphysics”, and the recent preprint, “Another Kind of Spinozistic Monism.” The latter paper argues that the various forms of metaphysical dependence employed by Spinoza (causation, inherence in, following from, etc.) are each connected to a broad notion of conceptual dependence, which is the key to understanding their role. This paper, interesting in its own right, helped me understand Newlands’ work in the modal metaphysics article, which is directly about the aspect of Spinoza I’m most interested in at the moment.

Spinoza is widely seen as a necessitarian (everything which exists does so necessarily), and for good reason: he has passages which explicitly affirm this. But evidently if you dig deeper there is a subtlety with regard to the status of “finite modes”, the ontological category which would include everyday concrete things. (Please note the use of “modes” here is unrelated to the “modal” dimensions of necessity and contingency). The one substance (God) and its infinite modes are absolutely necessary, but finite modes don’t follow from God in the same way as infinite modes. On the one hand, Spinoza affirms that God created everything, but elsewhere he specifies that finite modes follow only from other finite modes. What does this mean for the modal status of finite things (and how can he affirm both of these statements?)

Newlands analyzes these questions in depth, and I’m giving a very superficial gloss here. But his main point relies on the idea that causation and “following from” are for Spinoza varieties of conceptual connections (e.g. something follows from God if it is properly part of the concept of God). Now, if something is necessary, its concept involves its existence: this is the case for God (and for God’s “infinite” modes). But if something is contingent, it means its concept does not involve or is not connected to its existence. Looking at Spinoza’s various passages discussing finite modes, he makes a distinction depending on whether they are considered in themselves, or rather in their full connection with all other modes (“the entire order of nature”). Viewed in this latter way, the concept of finite modes includes their necessity. But if we only conceive of them in isolation, then this is not the case, and their status could then be seen as contingent.

Put another way, from our (limited) point of view, the objects of our world are conceived as contingent. If we could expand our conceiving to encompass God’s point of view, then we would see all as existing necessarily. God’s global view of things (and remember there exists an infinite number of things and they are metaphysically exhaustive of all possible things) conceives their necessity; our local view (which encompasses only the adjacent neighborhood) conceives things as contingent.

This seems like a sensible model. It comports with a modal realist picture where the manifold of all metaphysical possibilities (all possible worlds) exists necessarily, while the things in our actual world are contingent – and actual here is an indexical term designating the world (or better, the region of reality) in which we find ourselves.

(Going beyond anything in Newlands article, I also was wondering if, for Spinoza, this interpretation could lead to the view of this system as a form of panentheism, as opposed to the usual label of pantheism, since God’s domain of the infinite contains but outruns our finite world.)


kvond said...

GtR: " I also was wondering if, for Spinoza, this interpretation could lead to the view of this system as a form of panentheism, as opposed to the usual label of pantheism, since God’s domain of the infinite contains but outruns our finite world."

Kvond: In this it is worth noting that there was a rather famed "Pantheism Controversy" in the mid to late 17th century of German Philosophy, the most of it resulting in either people fleeing Spinoza due to his perceived fatalism and possible Atheism, or embracing him, but trying to redeem his theism at another level. Among these Idealist "corrections" of Spinozism arose a panentheist interpretation, stressing that the "Unity" found in the "one and all" must stand over and above the collection itself. In this sense the "one" (hen) is above the "all" (pan). This isn't Spinoza proper, who does not favor a concept of reflection, but an Idealist reconfiguration, leading to positions such as Schelling's or Hegel's.

So there is an affinity between Panentheism and Spinoza, but it is proably better to consider him as a Pantheist.

Steve said...

Interesting; thank you for that.

kvond said...

oops. Sorry the late 18th century for the Pantheism Controversy, always getting my nomenclatures for centuries mixed. The Controversy ostensibly begins when Lessing dies in 1781, and is accused of being a closet Spinozist by Jacobi.

Doru said...

Hi Steve,
This is not on Spinoza, is a question for you:
Do you think that it is possible to find a certain philosophical understanding and view of the world that would give you an advantage when investing? Or is just like they say: no matter how smart and visionary you are, you cannot beat the market with more than a statistical deviance.

Steve said...

Hi Doru. Good question. I can speak only for myself: I haven’t found a special philosophical approach or system which leads to outperformance. My own investment style is a version of value investing which is describable without reference to philosophy.

I think I can say, however, that a philosophical manner of approaching investing (reflective; looking for deeper explanations of phenomena) can be very helpful in avoiding investment mistakes such as making emotion-driven decisions or basing decisions on more superficial considerations.

Thoughts said...

There is an interesting analogy between the God who is greater than anything and the cosmic observer who can observe all the separate, but individually entangled "environments" of modern quantum theory.

However, both of these ideas of how far things extend is predicated by Alexandrian cosmology. If we move on to modern cosmology the universe can be finite as a result of non-euclidean or pseudo-euclidean geometry and the number of possibilities becomes limited.

It is also intriguing that in an n-dimensional manifold we can talk of contingency along a 3D form, for instance the atoms at the end of your computer screen are contingent on the existence of the atoms supporting them. In n dimensions contingency is the continuation of a form along a line. If you have loops in the manifold (manifolds with signatures of uneven sign tend to have loops) then things can be contingent on themselves!

It is sobering that even the simplest kinks in hyperdimensional geometry are almost out of reach of contemplation.

Thoughts said...

Doru, the trouble with the markets is that each instant is a new beginning. Long term trends are easier and seem obvious in retrospect (!).