Lately I’ve become acutely aware of this feeling of gloom that’s been following me around nipping at my heals like some starved mongrel.  That’s not to say this dark void that passes through me has remained entirely opaque, for I have been aware of some form of psychic mass weighing on me for the past year or so.  It’s not tied to any overt trauma like the diagnosis of terminal cancer or the death of a dearest Aunt May; no this is the sort of dread born deep within the id and thrust upward toward the airy heights of the conscious mind, and if the title of this post is any indication then the cause of my occasional dark thoughts is that one simple yet so important question plaguing humans since our organic computers first became self-aware: Why must I die?

I suppose the best place to start this bit of self-reflection is with…some self-reflection.  It was sometime during last winter when I would find myself overcome with these feelings of dread over my position in life and where I was headed.  I was driving around the Southern Tier delivering medical supplies to various offices, clinics, etc. which required me to put in long hours in adverse conditions.  Day in and day out I drove hundreds of miles in treacherous blizzards ensuring the safe delivery of IVs, pillow cases, rubbing alcohol, band-aids, etc. to disgruntled nurses when this feeling of “is this all I will accomplish with my life” started popping its pessimistic face out of the subconscious bush.  This feeling of failure is important to me, for I read it as an urgent message sent to myself through the bio-highways of the brain saying “Hey dummy, get off your ass and be something more than a truck driver!”  A strong message indeed, but how does this get to the question of dying?

That’s an easy question to answer: I’m afraid of dying without leaving my mark.  It’s not the process of dying that scares me; it’s not truly having lived and shedding the mortal coil full of regrets which frightens me so.  Fast-forward a year later and things have improved somewhat.  I’m not slaving fifty hours a week for meager wages anymore (Thanks chronic shoulder affliction) which does leave me much more time to pursue my passions of writing and studying every aspect of humanity I can get my eyes and ears on.  Of course what I strive to achieve and the roads which need to be traversed are much different than before; there is a security and comfort found in having an employer with their benefits, 401K, guaranteed raises, and Christmas parties. However, with that security comes the mundane and imaging myself thirty years from now with only faded memories and some shitty parting gift as souvenirs for my toil is the most fearful conception of a life spent.  Better to eat lead now and save the slow pathetic decline.  So I travel down new roads and seek new opportunities.  I want to create my own way through this fascinatingly crazy thing we call life and when my story comes to its final page I want the last paragraph to be full of smiles.

This was my study guide for an examination I took on Spinoza’s substance monism.

Note: [1P*] refer to premises, [1A*] refer to axioms, and [1D*] refer to definitions.

Preliminary Remarks

The root idea behind the notion of substance in Spinoza [S] is what has properties or is a subject of predication. But it cannot be just anything serving this role; otherwise a great many things in the world would qualify which S doesn’t want to say. The notion as S uses it (and was defined by Descartes) includes items which are causally self-sufficient or indestructible. S tells us in [1D3] that substance is what is in itself, conceived through itself, and doesn’t require any other concept for its formation. In other words, substance is self-caused, self-sufficient, and has complete independence from all other things in its formation. A further point which follows from this def. comes from [1D1] where S defines self-cause as a thing whose essence requires existence or whose nature cannot be conceived except as existing. Why must existence be part of the essence of substance? Because substance is gonna be the substratum from which the universe exists and such can’t itself contingently exist.

Essence also appears in [1D4] where S tells us that an attribute is what the intellect perceives of a substance, as constituting its essence. There are ambiguities and different interpretive strategies by scholars concerning this def. but I think the best way to explain it is by saying that attributes are the basic ways in which the human intellect can, in their limited fashion, comprehend the nature or essence of substance; and humans have access to two attributes which are extension and thought. That said, let me throw out one more def. before moving on to S’s main argument.

[1D5] defines a mode as the affections (or predicates) of a substance…conceived through another. In other words, modes are all the particulars, finite things found in the universe, which are predicated on substance and understood through the attributes of extension and thought.

Main Argument for Spinoza’s Substance Monism

There are five main steps, as I see it, involved in Spinoza’s argument for substance monism, the first being the ‘no shared attribute’ thesis found in [1P5]. The premise, which says that “in nature there cannot be two or more substances of the same nature or attribute,” rests on two earlier premises: [1P4] which says that two or more distinct things are distinguished either by a difference in their attributes or a difference in their modes. This is Spinoza’s version of the identity of indiscernibles, which says that for A ≠ B means that A has or lacks some attribute or mode which B either has or doesn’t have, and [1P1] which states that substances are prior to their modes. The argument goes like this:

If A and B are distinct, they are distinct either in their attributes or their modes (1p4). Thus if A and B are distinct but share their attributes, they must have different modes. If A and B can be conceived as distinct through their modes, A and B can be conceived through their modes. But a substance cannot be conceived through its modes (1p1). So if A and B are distinct but share their attributes, they cannot be

conceived of as distinct. Thus their distinctness cannot be conceived. So if A and B are distinct they must differ in their attributes. Hence no two substances can share an attribute (1p5).

The second move comes at [1P7]: It pertains to the nature of a substance to exist. The argument for this premise comes from [1D1] and from [1P6C] which says that substance cannot be produced by anything else. [1P6C] comes as a result of [1P6] which states that one substance can’t produce another substance. What drives [1P6] is the [1P5] along with [1P2] which says that substances with different attributes have nothing in common with each other. If substances have different attributes and those attributes have nothing in common with each other, then they can’t play any sort of causal role with each other by [1P3]. And if substances can’t causally affect each other, then [1P6C] follows for substances and affections are all there are in nature. Thus, substance is self-caused and exists by its own nature.

The third move comes at [1P11]: God, or a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence, necessarily exists. The first thing to point out is minus the “necessarily exists” part, this is S’s def. of God found in [1D6]. Next, the “infinite attributes” clause is not merely definitional, there is an argument for substance being necessarily infinite found at [1P8]. The argument for that premise rests on [1P5], [1P7], and the def. of finite at [1D2]: a thing is finite if it can be limited by another of its own nature. Now, S runs to arguments for [1P11], a version of the ontological argument (which I shall pass over), and a more interesting causal argument which goes like this:

Everything must have a cause for both its existence and non-existence. This cause must either come from within it or from outside of it. Substance (God) exists according to its own nature and must do so. If something were to cause God to not exist, therefore, it would have to come from outside of God. But a substance that is separate from God would have nothing in common with God [1P2, 1P5] and could not cause God to not exist. Therefore, if God cannot cause his own non-existence, and nothing outside God can cause his non-existence, then God must necessarily exist.

The fourth step comes at [1P14]: Except God, no substance can be or be conceived. This is the decisive move for showing the monistic quality of S’s metaphysics. The argument for this premise rests on [1D6, 1P11, and 1P5] and runs like this:

God is an absolutely infinite being containing infinite attributes and who necessarily exists. If there were another substance which also existed, it would have to be explained through one of God’s attributes since God contains the infinite quantity of them. But two substances cannot be explained through the same attribute. Also, since it’s part of a substance’s nature to exist, for it to be or be conceived of would involve it being conceived through at least one attribute. Therefore no other substance but God can be or be conceived of.

The final step to this argument is at [1P15]: Whatever is, is in God, and nothing can be or be conceived without God. This argument stems from [1P14, 1D3, 1D5, and 1A1] and runs like this:

Except for God, there neither is, nor can be conceived, any substance that is in itself and conceived through itself. Modes, on the other hand, can neither be nor be conceived without substance. Only substances and modes exist. Therefore, everything is in God, and nothing can be conceived without God.

Here’s the five steps sans explanation:

  1. [1P5] In nature there cannot be two or more substances of the same nature or attribute.
  2. [1P7] It pertains to the nature of a substance to exist.
  3. [1P11] God, or a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence, necessarily exists.
  4. [1P14] Except God, no substance can be or be conceived.
  5. [1P15] Whatever is, is in God, and nothing can be or be conceived without God.

And unfortunately one where you are Bucky

The idea of an infinite set of something is, to my mind, one of those odd paradoxes which can be both easily understood and mind crushingly difficult simultaneously.  Generally speaking, anyone who has had some level of high school math has, at least, been introduced to the idea of infinity.  After all, if I start counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6… I can do this forever without end.  But there is so much more complexity to infinity and infinite sets that can lead even the most stellar of mathematicians to scratching their heads while quietly muttering “what the fuck!?!”  Allow me to elaborate…

Let us suppose for a moment that the notion of the multiverse is true.  According to this theory, there is not only the single universe in which we occupy a seemingly infinitesimal space, but also an infinite amount of other universes, each of which containing their own sets of variables.  So far so good right?  Well it gets a bit more complex than infinite universes, for if there are an infinite number of universes, then certainly in some of those universes there will contain life forms of some sort, and over an infinite stretch of numbers the likelihood will become certain that there will be a universe containing an exact replica of you (and me, and everything else).  But there won’t just be another you in some random universe 5,000,000X90,000 universes away, but there will literally be an infinite set of you that can be found within the infinite set of universes.  Sound strange?  Well it gets stranger, for not only will there be an infinite set of you within the infinite set of universes, but there will also be an infinite set of variations of you which will themselves have infinite sets.  Maybe in one universe you are bald, well then in an infinite number of universes there will be an infinite number of hairless you walking around.  And keep in mind that we are only talking about you here; think about how many different sorts of things exist on Earth and imagine all of those things existing infinitely, with an infinite set of variations which also exist infinitely, AND having an infinite amount of ways they can coexist alongside each other, which will also each one have an infinite set.  And that’s only to speak about what’s going on with an infinitesimal blue orb when dealing with the universe on a cosmic scale.  Try wrapping your head around how many infinite sets would exist throughout the whole universe, which would also exist infinitely, alongside their infinite variations.  It’s all enough to give me an infinite headache requiring infinite beers guzzled down infinite throats to infinitely sooth.

A truck loaded with despair

Every Monday morning for two hours I experience life in its rawest and most awakening terms.  Let me explain.

I deliver things and stuff to medical centers of varying sorts for a living and every monday I load up my truck and drive two hours with the rising sun at my back to an overly Christian “city” in the southern tier of western NY.  Somewhere around thirty minutes in I start to have the oddest most terrifyingly surreal experience.  It starts with this feeling deep within me that I’m somehow driving downward as if I’m forcing my way through the very layers of reality which weave themselves so neatly into life’s beautiful tapestry.  Further and further I go as I start to feel more and more as if I’m the only real thing out there, as if I’ve broken through to some reality in which everything is constructed of life-like automatons whose sole purpose is to mimic our way of life.  With everything devoid of humanity’s grasp I start to feel very alone and very cold.  A desperate despair creeps over me, swirling around me, enveloping me, and devouring me to my very core.  I recklessly mull over the worst possible thoughts I can manage continuously as I push further and further down towards an unseeable void of utter chaos and ruin.  Then I reach my first stop and sitting there peering out at the new days dawn slowly creeping upward towards the heavens I breath a sigh of relief.  I beat back the darkness once again and a new week full of new hopes and renewed vigor can once again commence.

Some may think that this is a terribly unhealthy preoccupation that I really shouldn’t be engaging in (especially with a loaded truck on the highway).  But these people simply don’t have a clear grasp on what it is to really live.  Anybody can live while they are happy or content or numb or ignorant.  But to push oneself to their lowest most dreadful place and to keep pushing forward through that blighted muck towards new horizons…well that’s really what it is to live.

Lately I’ve been reading through Roy Sorensen’s A Brief History of the Paradox and it got me thinking about how important of a role paradoxes have played historically in the progression of thought.  What’s so great about them is that they tend to infuriate the reason to the point of seeking out another way to attack a problem that can be completely revolutionary.  A great example of this can be seen in the antimonies Kant purposes in the Critique of Pure Reason.  The ingenious strategy employed consists of utilizing a series of reductio ad absurdum arguments to show the validity of competing metaphysical theses.  Take for example the thesis that the world has a beginning in time.  Kant argues that if you assume the opposite of that thesis (that the world does not have a beginning in time), then it follows that for every elapsed portion of time we experience there has been an infinitely long expanse of time that has preceded it. But an infinite time series can never actually be represented mentally and so becomes an empty concept we use as a mere placeholder.  But now lets assume that the world does have a beginning in time.  Then there must be some preceding void in which time and the world spring out of (Kant calls this “empty time”).  But without time, how can we even talk about worlds springing to life or causal lines of creation?  Faced with this dilemma, it would seem safe then to conclude that the world has existed for an infinitely long time.  What we end up with is a paradox:  The world has existed infinitely AND has a beginning in time.  And it was this sort of problem that prompted Kant to search out a new path and pen out a revolutionary method of thought.

The great advantage of paradoxes is that they illuminate the paths of thought that aren’t really worth pursuing in our great quest to try and grasp some sort of understanding of this crazy world we live in.  We see a particular path of inquiry, see that it leads to contradicting answers, and realize that we need to find a new and different path that will hopefully not lead to the same entanglements.

I have currently found myself more and more consumed with a certain question within the philosophical discourse on “the problem of free will” that I think does not gets asked.  See, whenever I picks up a book or papers by authors like Robert Kane, William James, or even Aristotle, I come across all sorts of arguments trying to validate the “feeling” of free will we all seem to possess when we make decisions.  Of course, the feeling I am speaking of is not, prima facie, supposed to be anything controversial in itself.  If anything, it has served as the starting point of the controversy that has spanned back at least 2,500 years.

But it is exactly that feeling that I wish to call into question.  I have seen plenty of arguments from those listed above, and many others, promoting views that invoke quantum randomness, emergent properties, unmoved movers, noumenal selves, and a host of other queer metaphysical concepts that get us no closer to a common-sense theory of that ever-elusive freedom “to choose to do to otherwise.”  And all of the innovative counter-arguments notwithstanding, what if it is that base assumption that really needs to be called into question?  Put differently, what if that feeling of freedom that we can articulate so clearly and distinctly when we pull it to the limits of abstraction becomes much more murky and muddled once we try to apply it to the everyday decisions we all face in life?  What if “Jones can choose either X or Y at Time T” doesn’t stay so neat and clean when put in terms of “Jones can choose either to feed his child or let her starve” or “Mr. Anderson can either accept that humanity is plugged into the matrix or not to.”  It is my contention that it is the very notion of “choose to do otherwise” that needs to be called into question and analyzed, and to conduct this analysis properly an existential lens is what is needed.

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”

Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”
― Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
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