On Philosophy

May 4, 2007

Power And Omnipotence, Spinoza And The Scholastics

Filed under: Essays — Peter @ 12:00 am

Spinoza thinks that much of the traditional conception of God is flawed, especially when it is informed by Scholastic philosophy. Thus Spinoza divides his time in part one of the Ethics between developing his own distinct conception of God and attacking the traditional conception. We might wonder why Spinoza doesn’t spend all his time developing his own philosophy. After all, if he is right about God then surely the other conceptions are wrong, so why does he need to spend time arguing against misconceptions of God? The reason is Spinoza’s distinctive method. He can show that from his initial definitions and axioms certain consequences about the nature of God can be deduced. However, he can offer no compelling reason to accept those definitions and axioms, especially since few of them seem intuitively obvious. Instead he must motivate us to reject our existing thoughts about God, on their own grounds, and thus drive us to accept some alternate theory, presumably Spinoza’s. One of the ways in which Spinoza tries to overturn the traditional conception of God is by revealing a hidden contradiction within our conception of God’s omnipotence. But, at least in this instance, Spinoza is unsuccessful, or so I claim.

To understand what Spinoza dislikes about the Scholastic conception of the omnipotence of God we must first understand what that conception is. Obviously there is no one Scholastic conception, different writers understood the matter differently. Instead of trying to uncover a genuine Scholastic position on this issue it is probably best to try and reconstruct the position that Spinoza sees himself as responding to. Thus, as Spinoza portrays them, it would seem that the Scholastics define the power of God in terms of God’s potential for action, since Spinoza sees them as denying God the ability to do everything because “if he were to create everything he understands, he would (according to them) exhaust his omnipotence” (92). But why identify power with only potentiality, why not identify power with both the potential and the actual effects brought about by something? Well, consider how we analyze the power of an ordinary person. Certainly it seems natural to say that anything I might choose to do in the future is within my power. And this is why the Scholastics say that my potential for action, and God’s potential for action, is our power. The choices that have already been actualized are those that are in the past. And clearly I don’t, now, have any power over them; by being actualized they are thus fixed and out of my control. Which makes sense of the idea that the power of a being is to be identified with its potentiality and not its actuality, because, by being out of its control, it seems natural to say that it lacks power over what is actual. Of course this might still leave us wondering how to treat actions that are currently occurring, as they seem to be in a state of transition between the potential and the actual, but that we needn’t worry about that here.

This description of power seems relatively unproblematic when it comes to beings like, us, who live in time, but some complications arise when applying this doctrine to God. Consider the fact that we have many opportunities to perform the same action. At the moment I have the power to keep writing or to stop and go to the kitchen. Now, let’s say that I make the choice to keep writing. Even so, I still have the power to keep writing or to stop writing, because now I am presented with those same choices again. So for us it doesn’t seem like there is a direct connection between our power and the choices we make actual; often it seems that we can take some action actual without diminishing our power. But careful consideration reveals that this is an illusion. We need to realize that, even though it may seem like we have the option to perform the same action at different times, it really isn’t the case. We can think of our actions as being relativized to the time. Thus the action of continuing to write at time t1 is not the same as the action of continuing to write at time t2. They are similar, but not exactly identical. When we look at the matter in this way it becomes clear that turning a potentiality into an actuality, making a choice, does diminish our power. Continuing to write at t1 negates my power of going to the kitchen at t1. The reason this doesn’t seem obvious is because, since we exist in time, choices are continuously forced on us. Each moment, no matter what we do, we make some potentiality actual and a host of other possibilities are removed from our power, by a process that is completely outside of our control.

But for God things are different, since God is outside of time. Let’s say that God “decides” to have some effect on the created world at the moment we think of as t1. This doesn’t prevent him from “later” choosing to have and additional effect on the world, also at the moment we think of as t1. Of course talk of “deciding” and what God decides to do “later” is metaphorical, since God, being outside of time, is portrayed as changeless and eternal. So, let us assume that God’s power is unbounded, meaning that every possible effect on the created world is a potentiality for him. We then need to explain why some of these potentialities are actualities, and why only some and not all are. To explain this the Scholastics attribute to God an intellect or will that governs which parts of his power are actualized and which remain potential for all eternity. As Spinoza says, “they have preferred to set up a God … who creates only that which he has decided to create by an absolute will” (91). And of course this too is only analogous to our intellect and will, since God’s intellect and will have existed along with him in a changeless way from all eternity, which means that which parts of God’s power are actualized and which are potential remain that way for all eternity as well.

With this rough understanding of the Scholastic’s framework in mind we can set up Spinoza’s critique of God’s omnipotence. Spinoza argues that, under their framework, God is prevented from making all of his power actual, because if he was to make all of his power actual then he would have no power, since power is identified with potentiality by the Scholastics. But this, he claims, is to contradict God’s omnipotence, because we have thus argued that God can’t, in fact, do everything. And to Spinoza there is nothing “more absurd, or more inconsistent with the omnipotence of God” (92).

But this critique is flawed because it turns on an equivocation between two understandings of “the power to do everything”. More specifically, it turns on the seeming contradiction between granting that God can do every particular thing while denying that God can do everything. But this only seems like a contradiction. The power to do every particular thing is not negated by an inability to do all of those things at once. For example, if I had the power to buy any one of four expensive books it is consistent with my power to buy each of those particular books that I lack the power to buy all of those books, because I may have enough money only to buy one, and not all, of them. Now obviously God’s power isn’t limited by a lack of resources. However God’s power is, according to the Scholastics, limited by contradiction. Specifically the Scholastic’s admit that God can’t do anything contradictory; he can’t make a triangle with four sides. But, they say, this is a lack of power only in name; because impossibilities aren’t potential by their nature, and thus to deny them to God is not to limit his power to only some of the potentialities. If it is in the nature of God to be omnipotent, meaning that God’s omnipotence is a necessary truth, which the Scholastics grant, then God’s making every potentiality an actuality would be a contradiction, an impossibility. And thus denying that power to God is limit his power only in name, not in reality.

Now Spinoza might respond to this by arguing that combinations of powers are themselves distinct powers, meaning that the power to do A and B is a third power in addition to the power to do A and the power to do B. And thus he might be able to claim that the Scholastics are denying the power that is the combination of the power to do every particular thing. But there is no reason for the Scholastics to concede that every combinations of powers is itself a power. And even if they did, they could claim that the power that is the combination of all particular powers is an impossible power, because to have that power would be to have the ability to be powerless, which contradicts God’s omnipotence, which contradicts having that very power; and thus that denying that God has it does not contradict his omnipotence. Or Spinoza might claim that even to hold the idea that God’s power could be exhausted in some way is to deny that his power is infinite. But there is nothing contradictory about the possibility of an infinite set being exhausted. For example, the set containing zero and closed under the successor function exhausts the natural numbers, but this does not contradict the idea that the natural numbers are infinite in number. Again, the Scholastics’ conception of God can be defended through careful analysis in which certain false assumptions (that every combination of powers is itself a possible power) or mistakes (that something infinite cannot be exhausted) are corrected.

But let us assume, for a moment, that Spinoza’s criticism was successful. Even so it wouldn’t necessarily push the Scholastics in the way he wanted. Spinoza was trying to show that the way the Scholastics understood God’s freedom, and God’s power, contradicted their conception of God’s omnipotence. But nothing stops the Scholastics from instead giving up their conception of God’s omnipotence, and replacing it with Spinoza’s; to understand claiming that God is omnipotent as claiming that he is the cause of all things. If they made that adjustment instead then they could keep their conception of God’s power, and what it means for God to be free. Spinoza certainly can’t object to their radical redefinition of omnipotence, since he himself redefines omnipotence in exactly that way. Nor can he object to them rejecting God’s omnipotence instead of his freedom, because in many ways that is how Spinoza himself proceeds, following the argument wherever it leads, no matter how counterintuitive that may be.

The point I am making is this: Spinoza’s method may make him immune to most criticism. As long as he hasn’t made a mistake and inadvertently included a contradiction then there is nothing we can say against his philosophy on its own terms. However, because of his method, Spinoza has limited resources with which to argue against opposing views. He can’t complain that they diverge too far from common sense, because he does not bind himself to common sense. And even if he uncovers a contradiction, which may or may not be possible, his opponents can always replace one of their premises or definitions, and there is no way to force them to replace it with something more in line with Spinoza’s own thinking. If the Scholastics were still around this is how I think they might criticize Spinoza, by arguing that while his philosophy can’t be refuted on its own grounds neither can he move other people to accept it.



  1. I completely disagree with this attack on Spinoza. For starters I oppose the notion that Spinoza attacked the traditional conceptions of God as a means of defence against criticism. In fact I would not call it an attack at all, Spinoza knew that his contemporise held these traditional views, and his biggest challenge in the Ethics would be to persuade them in favour of his concept of god – despite their strong grounding in traditional religion. So Spinoza was not attacking traditional religion, but he needed to devote large parts of the book to it in order to make the core teachings accessible to those who were coming from a traditional religious background.

    Also you say with regards to Spinoza’s axioms, definitions, and propositions: “few of them seem intuitively obvious”. For the casual reader perhaps you are right, but I think that it is on the contrary for someone who understands the true meaning of intuition. His whole argument is constructed on logical grounds, making all axioms, definitions, and propositions inherently intuitive.

    You seem to be implying that Spinoza was some sort of trouble-maker who agitated the religious and disregarded their beliefs as nonsense. Again, I think this is simply not the case. Spinoza took a lot of care to do quite the opposite, and is often complemented for his allowance for other religions – much of the Jewish community are in fact of the view that Spinoza’s doctrine goes hand in hand with their own beliefs.

    Comment by Peter Hogg — May 4, 2007 @ 8:41 am

  2. Have you read the Ethics? The Scholiums are filled with arguments that certain conceptions of God, the ones traditionally defended, are inconsistant and thus must be discarded; omnipotence is only one of these. This is an “attack”, in terms of an argument against, traditional conceptions of God. And if you think definitions like “by eternity I understand existence itself, in so far as it is conceived to follow necessarily soley from the defintion of an eternal thing” are self evident than more power to you, but I doubt many would agree.

    Comment by Peter — May 4, 2007 @ 8:46 am

  3. “by eternity I understand existence itself, in so far as it is conceived to follow necessarily soley from the defintion of an eternal thing” – Well I agree, as a statement it is not immediatly obvious what is meant. But you said “few of them seem intuitively obvious” regarding the definitions themselves. The definition is seperate from the statement made to describe the definition. I think that what that definition is saying is “intuitively obvious” to most people, the statement describing the definition of eternity is not intuitivly obvious. But these sorts of definitions are extremly hard to put across words, the definition itself makes perfect sense.

    Comment by Peter Hogg — May 4, 2007 @ 9:19 am

  4. That statement is one of Spinoza’s definitions, Part 1 defintion 8. And I don’t see how in any way it can make perfect sense, because eternity is not a thing, but Spinoza defines it as if it was. I should also mention that Spinoza was cast out by his Jewish community for what he had to say about God (more evidence that his writings are antagonistic to traditional conceptions of God).

    Comment by Peter — May 4, 2007 @ 10:24 am

  5. “That statement is one of Spinoza’s definitions, Part 1 defintion 8” – I know!

    I know he was cast out by his Jewish community, eventually leading to his excomunication. That was a very different society, though; the feelings of a few important individuals could influence the whole community. Today, however, many jews accept what Spinoza had to say, and praise him for it (when I say many I mean – of those who have heard of Spinoza).

    Comment by Peter Hogg — May 4, 2007 @ 11:03 am

  6. Which is why I said that Spinoza attacked traditional understandings of God. Although many modern Jews, especially the orthodox Jews, fans of Maimonides, ect should still reject Spinoza, given that they aren’t panthiests.

    Comment by Peter — May 4, 2007 @ 11:06 am

  7. By “traditional god” I’m assuming you don’t mean “god as it was understood exclusively in the time of Spinoza”, because if you did then I am wrong, and it was a very misleading use of the word.

    So what I think you mean is the religious god, or the god as understood by “superstitious religions” as Spinoza put it. To my understanding Jews today still believe in a traditional god.

    My original argument was that Spinoza was not the “trouble-maker who agitated the religious and disregarded their beliefs as nonsense” as you make him out to be in this post. And surely, whether you think they should reject Spinoza or not, many do not, so that is evidence enough that Spinoza took care to treat religions with traditional gods with respect. He did not attack them as a defensive mechanism.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4VG4Dd8n8MI (in particular 2mins 40secs)

    Comment by Peter Hogg — May 4, 2007 @ 11:24 am

  8. I put people not being bothered by Spinoza down to people not understanding Spinoza. For example: Spinoza’s God does not care about you personally. Nor does he reward the good and punish the evil. Nor does he communicate to individuals or enter into covenants with them, ect.

    Comment by Peter — May 4, 2007 @ 11:29 am

  9. Why would any of those things cause someone to dislike Spinoza or his teachings?

    Comment by Peter Hogg — May 4, 2007 @ 11:34 am

  10. Because most religions are based on some kind of relevation / sacred scripture. And Spinoza is implying that all such religions are bunk; are right only by accident. A Jew who really understood Spinoza would have to accept that the Torah has no special claim to validity, even on philosophical/spiritual matters. And that would make them not much of a Jew.

    And what is the point of worshipping an indifferent God?

    Comment by Peter — May 4, 2007 @ 11:40 am

  11. I doubt that the Jews who welcome Spinoza’s thought failed to understand at least the basic theory behind Spinoza’s god. I suppose they are prepared to accept that we should not strive to worship god but to understand him (not trying to personify god!).

    I agree that a Jew following strict religious scriptures could not possibly believe in Spinoza’s god, but surely it is possible for a Jew to follow these scriptures more loosely in favour of a more Spinozist(?) outlook.

    Comment by Peter Hogg — May 4, 2007 @ 12:09 pm

  12. Maybe they might have Spinozist leanings, or agree with some of the things he says. But we could say that about any philosopher, even Nietzsche and the protestants have some things in common. But that is a long cry from their doctrines being compatible. And I think the same can be said about Spinoza and any traditional religion. Also note that if you are a pantheist the best way to understand God is by being a scientist, not through religion or philosophy.

    Comment by Peter — May 4, 2007 @ 1:35 pm

  13. “Also note that if you are a pantheist the best way to understand God is by being a scientist, not through religion or philosophy.”

    Well yes, I certainly agree with that. Probably why I’m so drawn to Spinozism.

    Comment by Peter Hogg — May 4, 2007 @ 2:01 pm

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