Four Kinds of Causality in BK1 of Spinoza’s Ethics


“There are those who feign a God, like man, consisting of a body and a mind, and subject to passions. But how far they wander from the true knowledge of God…Them I dismiss.”

                                                                                            – Spinoza, E1P15Schol.

Coming to terms with Book I of Spinoza’s Ethics is nothing short of coming to terms with a rigorous account of a de-humanized and secular God. For someone like Hegel, Spinoza’s God was nothing short of an ‘abyss of annihilation,’ where the Absolute remained within itself and failed to effectively produce the world (substance does not become subject). However, there is something amiss regarding such criticism. In my estimation, Book I of the Ethics not only argues for the existence of substance; rather, it makes the more relevant claim that god as conceived in Medieval philosophy and its traces in Early Modern philosophy grounds itself on a fundamental misunderstanding. Perhaps in what would be a shocking moment for the reader, Spinoza writes in the Appendix of BKI that “[A]ll the prejudices I here undertake to expose depend on this one: that men commonly suppose that all natural things act, as men do, on account of an end; indeed, they maintain as certain that God himself directs all things to some certain end, for they say that God has made all things for man, and man that he might worship God.” (E1Appendix). However, this seemingly out of place remark is clarified in various propositions – E1P24, E1P25, E1P15Schol., and E1P18. What is common to these propositions of the Ethics is a sustained argument for God as both immanent and efficient cause rather than God as a combination of transitiveemanative, and final cause of all things.

The ideas of transitive, emanative, and final cause are the modes of justifying a conception of a voluntaristic, and anthropomorphized, being. Why? For the very reason that, according to Medieval thought, God creates the world according to his image and solely on his own will to do so. That is to say, the world is conceived as distinct from God, and moreover, the world corresponds to an idea of the world which exists in God’s intellect. Therefore, God not only produces things outside of himself (transitive cause), but God also relies upon something internal to himself to produce those external things (emanative cause). This set of claims lead to understandings of God not only as divine creator, but also as a being (if this being is truly perfect, just, good, etc.,) who would need to appeal to these very concepts which are outside of himself, to bring them into existence. This would violate the idea of God as an omnipotent since there would be things which exceed God’s existence (the ideas of a good world) which God would rely upon in order for the world to exist. Since God would necessarily rely upon these conceptions for the existence of things, this would mean that God’s own existence as divine creator would rely upon something other than itself for its own existence. However, this violates the very understanding of God as omnipotent and therefore as a being who need not rely on anything else for its own existence as God. If God would need to rely on something other than itself, this would constitute an imperfection in God’s existence. And here we can see the contradiction: God appears to be both perfect and yet reliant upon things outside of himself for his own existence as God, while at the same time supposedly being that which is omnipotent, omniscient, etc., and therefore as that which exists without the need of anything else for its existence.

If these problems inherent in the conception of God are not enough, Spinoza adds to these objections a third: God, understood as final cause, is an additional contradiction since if God acts according to some end, this would reinforce the very ideas of God’s transitive and emanative causality of all things, while attempting to provide a moral justification for the existence of all things. That is to say, God as final cause could take the form of the being who decides the “best of all possible worlds,” and despite the redemptive features of such a conception of God, it still commits us to having to decide between God as striving toward something outside of itself to satisfy its own existence. Here, again, we come against the same set of contradictions: God as being both reliant on things outside of himself for his own existence, while at the same time being the kind of being which is all powerful and needs no other beings for his existence. Here we should say, along with Deleuze, that “[M]oral chattering replaces true philosophy” (EPS, 255).

So what is Spinoza’s reply? For Spinoza, God is nothing but the immanent (E1P18) and efficient (E1P25) cause of all things.  It because God is substance; is that which exists necessarily, that God is the immanent cause of all things. Put in another way, if we truly commit ourselves to the idea of God as that which does not need anything other than itself for its existence, then we also commit ourselves to the idea that everything which exists and happens, exists and happens “in” God – there is nothing “outside’ of God to which we could appeal for the reason or cause for some things existence. It is for this reason, that substance never needs to go beyond itself since everything which exists involves substance necessarily. Therefore, God as the cause of all things is simply the idea of a form of causality that remains completely internal to substance itself.

Additionally, God is the efficient, and not final, cause of all things – or the principle of change and movement of all things. For Spinoza, God is an efficient cause because it is God which allows for the existence of an infinite number of attributes and an infinite number of modes. Interestingly enough, Spinoza writes that “God is the efficient cause of all things which can fall under an infinite intellect” (E1P16Cor1). The significance of this passage is seen in relationship to any attempt to understand God as final cause. If God were the final cause of all things, God would necessarily be acting according to some determined end, or finality, which would reside in the intellect of God. As was state earlier, this is the picture of God inherited from the Medievals and perpetuated by Early Modern thinkers. Contrary to this position, and due to the number of problems we encounter in this conception of God, Spinoza’s idea of God as efficient, and not final, cause of all things relies on the Principle of Sufficient Reason. The efficient cause of all things, this cause being that which is reason for why things exist and how they exist, is the proper form of causality if we understand God in a non-anthropomorphic way (as not acting according to a will, according to an idea or model of a good world, etc.). God is simply the reason, or cause for the existence of all things. It is this definition of God, as simple as it may be, that Spinoza continuously argues for throughout BK1 of the Ethics. Thus, when Spinoza writes in the Appendix of BK1 that his motivation arises from dispensing with the fundamental prejudice of God as being akin to human existence, acting according to an end, etc., it is not to provide us with a static picture of God as Hegel would have it. Rather, it is the simultaneous attempt to do away with ideas which try to humanize the divine, while at the same provide an image of God, or Nature, as the productive/causal principle which inheres in all things. As Deleuze was wont to say, it is because God exists that everything is possible.