More Perfection

November 21, 2021

Continuing the Ethics (1678) where we left off yesterday, Spinoza makes his opposition to teleology even more explicit. For Spinoza, God is Nature and vice versa — his famous formulation Deus sive Natura. Nature does not act towards goals, and since God is Nature, it is equivalent to say that God does not act towards goals:

We see, therefore, that men are accustomed to call natural things perfect or imperfect more from prejudice than from true knowledge of those things. For we have shown in the Appendix of Part I, that Nature does nothing on account of an end. That eternal and infinite being we call God, or Nature, acts from the same necessity from which he exists. For we have shown (IP16) that the necessity of nature from which he acts is the same as that from which he exists. The reason, therefore, or cause, why God, or Nature, acts, and the reason why he exists, are one and the same. As he exists for the sake of no end, he also acts for the sake of no end. Rather, as he has no principle or end of existing, so he also has none of acting. What is called a final cause is nothing but a human appetite insofar as it is considered as a principle, or primary cause, of some thing.

  1. Perfection or imperfection does not apply to nature, and our notions of perfection and imperfection come more from prejudice than from knowledge.
  2. “Nature does nothing on account of an end.”
  3. The operations of God/nature are as necessary as His existence (I won’t get into this claim).

There is no “final cause” or “prime mover.” These are illusions, based on projecting human desires onto Nature. When traced far enough, they always lead back to human values or desires. We also tend to mistake intermediate causes for first causes:

For example, when we say that habitation was the final cause of this or that house, surely we understand nothing but that a man, because he imagined the conveniences of domestic life, had an appetite to build a house. So habitation, insofar as it is considered as a final cause, is nothing more than this singular appetite. It is really an efficient cause, which is considered as a first cause, because men are commonly ignorant of the causes of their appetites. For as I have often said before, they are conscious of their actions and appetites, but not aware of the causes by which they are determined to want something.

This reminds me of a phrase of Schopenhauer’s, apparently from On the Freedom of the Will (1839), which Einstein was fond of quoting: “We can do what we wish, but we can only wish what we must.”1

This is the culmination of the argument, and also quite prescient:

As for what they commonly say—that Nature sometimes fails or sins, and produces imperfect things—I number this among the fictions I treated in the Appendix of Part I.

Perfection and imperfection, therefore, are only modes of thinking, i.e., notions we are accustomed to feign because we compare individuals of the same species or genus to one another. This is why I said above (IID6) that by reality and perfection I understand the same thing. For we are accustomed to refer all individuals in Nature to one genus, which is called the most general, i.e., to the notion of being, which pertains absolutely to all individuals in Nature. So insofar as we refer all individuals in Nature to this genus, compare them to one another, and find that some have more being, or reality, than others, we say that some are more perfect than others. And insofar as we attribute something to them that involves negation, like a limit, an end, lack of power, etc., we call them imperfect, because they do not affect our Mind as much as those we call perfect, and not because something is lacking in them which is theirs, or because Nature has sinned. For nothing belongs to the nature of anything except what follows from the necessity of the nature of the efficient cause. And whatever follows from the necessity of the nature of the efficient cause happens necessarily.

Before Darwin, the notion of perfection was thought to be important in understanding how organisms evolved. This thinking led to orthogenesis, a term which includes a variety of ideas that there is “progress” in evolution, at times even inferring an inner perfecting principle.

Darwin, of course, removes this teleology; there is no “end goal,” just continuous adaptation to an ever-changing environment. Kuhn gives a beautiful account of how disturbing this is, and Darwin himself uses the word “perfection” sometimes; I will return to both points later.

Perfection and imperfection are modes of thinking, and reality and perfection are the same thing, which relates to yesterday’s argument. This was once literally true (“perfection” just meant “completed”). But Spinoza thinks it remains true in the sense that what exists is more perfect than what does not exist.

In the next section he predicts Nietzsche quite strongly:

As far as good and evil are concerned, they also indicate nothing positive in things, considered in themselves, nor are they anything other than modes of thinking, or notions we form because we compare things to one another. For one and the same thing can, at the same time, be good, and bad, and also indifferent. For example, Music is good for one who is Melancholy, bad for one who is mourning, and neither good nor bad to one who is deaf.

But though this is so, still we must retain these words. For because we desire to form an idea of man, as a model of human nature which we may look to, it will be useful to us to retain these same words with the meaning I have indicated. In what follows, therefore, I shall understand by good what we know certainly is a means by which we may approach nearer and nearer to the model of human nature that we set before ourselves. By evil, what we certainly know prevents us from becoming like that model. Next, we shall say that men are more perfect or imperfect, insofar as they approach more or less near to this model.

Spinoza has something like a health-based understanding of morality.2 Opiates are not bad in themselves. In some frequencies and dosages, they’re good for people. In other frequencies and dosages, they’re bad for people. Similarly, what we call “good” and “evil” are not so according to some higher standard, but just from experience, what seems to be good or bad for people.

  1. I’ve so far been unable to find anything beyond this, which translates it as “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills,” from Schopenhauer’s “Der Mensch kann tun was er will; er kann aber nicht wollen was er will.”
  2. This health model of morality is discussed in the Spinoza episode of the “What’s Left of Philosophy” podcast that I mentioned a few days ago.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.