Spinoza Against Teleology

In the Appendix to Bk. I of the Ethics, Spinoza argues against the basic prejudice that God acts for ends, and so ultimately that anything acts for ends. He cites Pl6, P32C1, and C2 as part of an argument against God and teleology. He also provides a kind of genealogical (or less charitably a “just so”) story about how human beings come to posit gods in the first place.

The “Just So” Story of God

Spinoza starts from the assumption that all human beings act on account of their ends, which is to say, on account of what they want or desire. These final causes are what are taken to be the most basic explanations of all things. Spinoza argues that primitive humans then assumed that nature, which had many elements that seemed ready made for human use, to itself be set up this way on purpose (i.e. to satisfy the desires of human beings), and that since all purposes or ends have an agent whose ends they are, there is a creator or creators of nature that set things up this way (e.g. see Aquinas’s Fifth Way). Assuming that such creators of nature were like human beings in their acting for purposes,

they maintained that the gods direct all things for the use of men in order to bind men to them and be held by men in the highest honor. So it has happened that each of them has thought up from his own temperament different ways of worshiping God, so that God might love him above all the rest, and direct the whole of Nature according to the needs of their blind desire and insatiable greed. Thus this prejudice was changed into superstition, and struck deep roots in their minds. (Appendix, 111).

Against Final Causation

  • Confuses effect and cause (reverses them)
  • Conflicts with the perfection of God

if the things which have been produced immediately by God had been made so that God would achieve his end, then the last things, for the sake of which the first would have been made, would be the most excellent of all. … [T]his doctrine takes away God’s perfection. For if God acts for the sake of an end, he necessarily wants something which he lacks. And though the theologians and metaphysicians distinguish between an end of need and an end of assimilation, they nevertheless confess that God did all things for his own sake, not for the sake of the things to be created. For before creation they can assign nothing except God for whose sake God would act. And so they are necessarily compelled to confess that God lacked those things for the sake of which he willed to prepare means, and that he desired them. This is clear through itself. (Appendix II/80, p. 112)

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