Spinoza and the Problem of Evil

This Tuesday the class on Spinoza was resumed again. It was cancelled last week because I had to prepare for an international workshop (so we have to move the final exam one week further to allow for a make up). Today we talked about one of the most serious problems in philosophy, that is the problem of evil. We tried to see how Spinoza and his concept of God could deal with this problem. And it is a very controversial one.

For a review, the problem of evil is how one can explain the apparent contradiction that happens when there is a God who is by nature benevolent and omnipotent on the one hand, and the fact that there are terrible things in the world such as earthquakes, tsunamis, genocides, ethnic cleansings on the other. How could it be that a benevolent and all powerful God could allow such montrosities to happen? Either God is not benevolent, since he allows these terrible things to befall us, or he is not all powerful, since he could not have prevented these things from happening.

The standard answer in theology is that we humans have free will. God created a world with evils in it because this would test the love of human beings toward God himself. Love would not be real if it is not tested; that is, if, despite of obstacles and hardships, humans still love God out of their free will. However, this has a problem of having God creating evils in the first place. What kind of God is he who puts obstacles to his creatures to prove that they really love him?

Well, I am not a Christian theologian, so I won’t talk any more about how the theistic God fares in the problem of evil. Let us look instead at what Spinoza has to say. According to one of the propositions in the Ethics, there is an astounding pronouncement: Everything there is, is in God, and God’s being reflects an infinite of attributes or properties.

This means that everything is in God from the beginning; furthermore, everything is an expression of God himself and partakes of his nature – since God himself is indivisible. This means that the evils are godlike too. There is no place for an evil to be except in God, and as God. This is indeed astounding, especially if one is familiar with the theistic conception of God.

So it appears that all the evils are parts of the one, indivisible God or Substance. But according to the standard problem of evil, this cannot be because that would mean that God is not benevolent and because the evils would be contrary to God’s nature. However, for Spinoza his God is totally impersonal. The typical problem of evil occurs when we are kind of let down by God. For someone whose family has just been struck down by a huge tsunami, he might question his belief in God, saying “Why did you do this to me?”. That is, he puts the blame on God for allowing this disaster to happen. But one can no more put a blame on Spinoza’s God than on the water itself when it struck. The tsunami flood is coming to your house forcefully, but do you say to the water, “Hey, water, why are you doing this to me? Why are you flooding me, taking away my possessions and loved ones?” You might continue cursing the water. But everybody knows that this is an absurd action. The water can’t take the blame because it just functions as a result from some prior events, such as a rupture in the tectonic plates undersea. And the rupture is caused by some other events, which can be fully explained by seismologists, and so on.

So who is to blame? Do you blame the moving tectonic plates? Or the underground force that moves them? Or any cause of that force? Or the earth itself for having been constituted in this way? All these are absurd of course. But this is Spinoza’s God. You can’t blame him, just like you can’t blame the continental plates for causing the earthquake. These events just happen because they are caused to do so. That’s it.

So what can we say, out of all this, for Spinoza’s God and the problem of evil. For natural evils like tsunamis, we say that they are natural events, which are themselves caused by further natural events. And the fact that tens of thousands of people died in Japan a few months ago because of the huge tsunami was just because they happened to live along the coastline hit by the wave. We do feel very sad for them, and if we are the Japanese directly hit by the wave, then we feel much more intensely. This is totally natural. But there’s no one to blame. Everything happens because the causes and conditions are such and such. When we understand this, we feel that there is less need to find someone to blame, which is not useful to anybody. Instead we focus our energies to helping each other in the time of need without worrying ourselves why the disaster happens to us and not to others or why a benevolent supreme being could do something like this.

And this is Spinoza’s way toward blessedness. We lead our lives totally in accordance with reason.

But what about the problem of evil? Spinoza would say there is no such problem. The “evils” are so because of our own limited perspective. This does not mean that the evils deliberately perpetrated can be condoned, such as the man-made evils such as the Holocaust, Pol Pot’s killing fields, and so on. We should do what we can, in fact we have to, in order to stop those evils, but there is no denial that they are parts of the natural order too. This make them real and palpable, all the more reasons for us to fight and defeat them.

3 thoughts on “Spinoza and the Problem of Evil

  1. robert August 29, 2011 / 2:32 am

    please excusle, but i after reading the comment of spinoza and evil, wondering about the buddhist viewpoint. being a follower of a gnostic non dualistic path, i have no problem with God -evil paradox, since we do not believe in the world as creation of God, but as effect of delusion or illusion, having no “truth in itself”.

  2. Gabriel Molieri September 6, 2011 / 2:04 am

    Self-reference and the development of the sense of Ego (a mere survival-related “entity”) can then be said to be the actual source of a sense of evil.
    If God is all loving and a sumum bonum, then the nexus of a sense of separateness from that sumum that perhaps develops so as to develop a point of reference wherefrom “God” studies itself is, by definition, going against the implied all-loving nature of the implied totality. Although never really separate, according to Spinoza, the illusion of a separate self creates is own self-referential vector that reinforces its “going away” from the “God” and towards the non-God.” Once the point of self-reference develops, Ego-centric love as related to survival of the (apparent?) organism, has to naturally superceed the love the totality might feel fro itself.
    Is the practice toward God then related to the re-focusing on universal Love and Harmony? All philosophies and religions appear to tell us so…

  3. soraj September 6, 2011 / 6:47 am

    Thanks for your comments, Gabriel. See you again soon.

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