Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Spinoza's Ontological Argument

Spinoza is an interesting philosopher. I disagree with many of his conclusions, but there are others that I find ingenious. I'm not necessarily in support of his version of the ontological argument, but it's definitely something to think about.

1. Inability to exist is impotence. (Premise)

2. Ability to exist is power. (Premise)

3. If only finite entities exist, then finite entities are more powerful than an infinite entity. (From 1 and 2)

4. Finite entities are not more powerful than an infinite entity. (Premise)

5. Either an infinite entity exists or nothing at all exists. (From 3 and 4)

6. Something exists. (Premise)

7. Therefore, an infinite entity exists. (From 5 and 6) [1]

Premise (6) is, in fact, a posteriori. This leads many philosophers to conclude that Spinoza is here defending not an ontological argument, but a cosmological argument. I'm inclined to agree.

I can see (1) and (2) being somewhat controversial, but I also think most people would agree with both premises because of an intuition concerning the relationship between power and existence. Could something that has no power at all even exist? Moreover, isn't it a sign of power to exist necessarily than to possibly fail to exist at some time? This would also lend support to premises (3) and (4). Premise (5) is true (assuming that 1 - 4 are true) because if there were only finite entities in existence, it would be because they are more powerful than an infinite entity, which (4) states is false. As a result, it anything at all exists, it implies that an infinite entity exists. Given that something exists, per premise (6), it follows that an infinite entity (God) exists.

Where I obviously disagree with Spinoza is on his pantheism. He associates God (the infinite entity) with everything because he assumes that to be distinct from the infinite is to not exist at all, but to have any attribute in common with the infinite implies that the two entities are one and the same. The fallacy here is fairly easy to detect. Two entities can be distinct even though they share one or more attributes, since they may differ in other attributes. This is confirmed by our additional observations that some things (finite entities) come to be and pass away. They wouldn't fail to exist if they were identical with the infinite.

But, who knows? Maybe I'm oversimplifying Spinoza's view. In any case, it's something to think about.

[1] For a similar rendering, see: William Lane Craig, The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001, p. 244.


  1. "I can see (1) and (2) being somewhat controversial, but I also think most people would agree with both premises because of an intuition concerning the relationship between power and existence. Could something that has no power at all even exist?"

    I think you're looking at it backward. The appropriate question isn't "Could something that has no power at all even exist?" but rather "Could something that does not even exist have any power at all?"

  2. hi doug, i tried to post earlier. I'm unsure if it made its way through. Here's something to consider: I take it as obvious that 3 does not follow deductively from 1 and 2. While Spinoza didn't have the benefit of modern logic, we should put his words as close to a valid argument as we can make it.

    3 is interesting. it's consequent is negated by 4; and hence the negation of its antecedent holds. The negation of its antecedent is as follows:

    5' it is not the case the only finite entites exist.

    How should we formalize this? if it were not a negation, we might formalize it like this:

    (x)[((Ǝx)x=x and Ex) →Fx]

    If x exists and x is an entity, then x is finite. Once 4 negates this, we have:

    ~(x)[((Ǝx)x=x & Ex) →Fx]

    which is logically equivalent to:

    (Ǝx)~[((Ǝx)x=x & Ex) →Fx]

    But since material conditions can only be false if their consequent is false and the antecedent is true, we have:

    (Ǝx)[((Ǝx)x=x & Ex) &~Fx]

    But here we ust have something which reads that there exists something which exists, is an entity and not finite. Yet, isn't that your conclusion?

  3. Technically it wouldn't be my conclusion, but Spinoza's. ;)

    The logic of your formalization is valid as far as I can tell. I do think the premises entail the conclusion, so one might object that Spinoza's argument is question-begging. However, if this argument is question-begging for that reason, then it's unlikely that there is such a thing as any sound deductive argument. All deductive arguments have premises that entail the conclusion, after all (logically, at any rate).

    For me, the entire argument hinges on (3). Would this accurately represent your own view? It seems to me that (3) does follow from (1) and (2), given that a finite entity that exists will be more powerful than any entity that does not exist. Since an omnipotent (or infinite) entity falls under the category of "any entity," (3) appears to be the result of a logical deduction. Maybe I'm missing something, though.

  4. hi doug,

    i didnt mean to suggest it was question begging. it just seems to get your conclusion without the additional steps, 5 & 6.

    as for the inference of 3 from 1&2, if it deductively follows, you should be able to tell me what line of inference or equivalence rule we're using. i cant see one.

  5. Ah, I see. We probably can do without the additional steps. One possible reservation that Spinoza may have had about getting rid of those is that the non-existence of anything at all seems to be consistent with (1) - (4). In other words, if an omnipotent being does not exist, then maybe there are also no finite entities in existence. I'm not sure if that works, though.

    As for (3), the reason I think it might not appear to be deduced from (1) and (2) is that (3) is more of an implication. As Craig comments, "something that exists has more potentia than something that does not. If only finite beings exist, then finite beings are more powerful than absolutely infinite being. This follows logically: an existent man has more potentia than a non-existent God."

    Maybe it would be better if I listed (3) as its own premise, instead of a direct inference from (1) and (2)?

  6. What translation do you use, or have you looked at the Latin?

    As far as I can tell, Spinoza did NOT believe *any* of these arguments. Almost all the translations I've seen make a translation error. Here's my source:

    "PROPOSITIO XI. Deus, sive substantia constans infinitis attributis, quorum unumquodque aeternam et infinitam essentiam exprimit, necessario existit.

    DEMONSTRATIO. Si negas, concipe, si fieri potest, Deum non existere. Ergo (per axiom. 7.) eius essentia non involvit existentiam. Atqui hoc (per prop. 7.) est absurdum. Ergo Deus necessario existit. Q. E. D. "

    Proposition 9: God, or (equivalently) substance consisting of infinite attributes, of which each one expresses eternal and infinite essence, necessarily exists.

    Proof: If you deny, conceive, if the power can be made, God to not exist. Therefore, his essence does not involve existence. But that is absurd. Therefore, God exists necessarily.

    So, Spinoza clearly maintained that God's essence and existence are one in the same. But, what does Spinoza think about anything which has its essence and existence one and the same? You need to go back to the very first definition of Spinoza's Ethics for this, and so far as I can tell, all the translations mislead you. For

    "I. Per causam sui intelligo id, cuius essentia involvit existentiam, sive id, cuius natura non potest concipi nisi existens."

    they have something like "By cause of itself..." That's NOT correct. "Per causam" in Latin does NOT mean "by cause" it means "Under the pretext." So, Spinoza's first definition goes something more like:

    "Under the prextext (of God) I understand that, whose essence involves existence, or that, whose nature cannot get conceived unless existing."

    Since Spinoza did agree that in God existence and essence do come as one and the same, and that something consists of a pretext, it follows he doesn't really think any of those arguments true. He's just having a little fun with reason.