Among the central themes of The Last Superstition is that final causality – teleology, purpose, or goal-directedness – is as objective a feature of the natural world as mass or electric charge, and that the arguments to the contrary given by various early modern philosophers are worthless. One thinker I did not discuss in TLS is Spinoza, who puts forward a critique of final causes in the Appendix to Book I of the Ethics. Spinoza’s metaphysics is notoriously idiosyncratic and has had few defenders, which is why I did not devote space to him in the book. His critique of final causality is closely tied to that metaphysics, and inherits its weaknesses. Still, Spinoza is one of the chief architects of modernity: the militantly secularist liberalism which has now displaced the milder and theologically-based Lockean brand of liberalism in the thinking of the contemporary Western intelligentsia has its roots in Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise. And his critique of final causality evinces some of the same fallacies and errors to be found in other early modern writers. So it’s worthwhile giving his critique a brief look.
Spinoza’s discussion has three parts: first, an account of the origins of belief in final causes; second, a set of arguments purporting to show that final causes do not exist; and third, a discussion of the implications of abandoning final causes for our judgments concerning good and evil, order and disorder, beauty and ugliness. Let’s consider them in order.
I. The genealogy of belief in final causes
Spinoza claims that belief in final causes springs from a projection onto the world of our own self-seeking desires. We are obsessively concerned with our own well-being – for example, with feeding, clothing, and sheltering ourselves. And this narcissism leads us to imagine that there are in nature something like the purposes we have, that water, animals, plants, and other natural objects exist for our sake, to provide us with the raw materials requisite to fulfilling our needs. Wondering how things could have come to be arranged so beneficially, we infer in turn that there must be supernatural powers lying behind the purposes we think we see in nature, whose interest is in making things go well for us.
Note how Spinoza foreshadows here what would become standard shtick among later secularist writers: debunking some hated idea by providing a “genealogical” account of it (Nietzsche, Marx, Freud), and dismissing metaphysical claims by attributing them to the “projection” of human interests (Feuerbach) or to anthropocentric bias (Darwinism).
Now even if such “just so” stories were plausible, any suggestion that they suffice to refute the targeted beliefs would commit the genetic fallacy. But Spinoza’s own “just so” story is not plausible in any case. Contrary to the standard caricature, the Aristotelian-cum-Scholastic attribution of final causes to natural objects and processes did not essentially involve identifying some respect in which they served human interests. Aquinas’s central argument for final causes is that without them we can make no sense of how efficient causes are possible. The basic idea is that if A regularly brings about B – rather than C, or D, or no effect at all – that can only be because there is something in the nature of A by virtue of which it is “directed at” or “points” to the generation of B specifically. This is an entirely general point about causation; it has nothing necessarily to do with human beings at all.
Another problem is that Aristotle – rather famously – believed in final causes without regarding them as deriving from any supernatural mind at all. He thought they were just there in nature, mostly completely divorced from any consciousness, and that was that. (He did, of course, believe in a divine Unmoved Mover, but his arguments here were based on efficient causality rather than final causality.) To be sure, the Scholastics would later disagree with Aristotle about this, and hold (as Aquinas did in the Fifth Way) that final causality must itself ultimately be explained in terms of the divine intellect. But the point is that there was from the beginning of philosophical reflection on final causes conceptual space left open for views very different from the one Spinoza seems to think is their inevitable concomitant.
Of course, Spinoza might reply that none of this constitutes anything more than an idiosyncratic departure from the “core” anthropocentric and theological sources of belief in final causes. But there are two problems with such a response. First, it seems to add to the genetic fallacy the fallacy of cherry-picking the evidence, arbitrarily putting aside possible sources of belief in final causes other than the ones Spinoza wants to recognize. Second, and related to this, it fails to address the actual arguments of writers like Aquinas and Aristotle, which, if they are sound, show that final causes exist whether or not Spinoza’s genealogical speculations are correct.
II. Arguments against final causes
Still, as I have said, Spinoza does offer arguments of his own against the existence of final causes. There are five of them. But we have already seen what is wrong with the first of them:
A. Spinoza’s account of the origin of belief in final causes shows they do not exist.
Spinoza’s first argument is that his genealogical account itself constitutes a disproof of the reality of final causes, but as we have seen, the account is dubious and any such argument would commit the genetic fallacy in any event. So let’s move on to his second argument:
B. The truth of Spinoza’s metaphysical system entails that there are no final causes.
The argument here is that Spinoza’s pantheistic metaphysics entails that everything that happens follows with necessity from Deus sive Natura via (a bastardized conception of) efficient causation, so that there is no work left for final causes to do.
One obvious problem with this argument is that it will have no force for anyone who rejects Spinoza’s metaphysics – which is pretty much everyone. Another problem, as Michael Della Rocca points out in his recent book on Spinoza, is that it is hard to see why God’s acting from necessity would exclude final causes or directedness towards an end: Why can’t we say that Spinoza’s God seeks to realize such-and-such an end, even if he does so of necessity?
C. The doctrine of final causes reverses the order of causation, making what is in reality an effect into a cause and vice versa.
The argument here is that a cause must precede its effect, whereas purported final causes come after their effects. For example, the oak is supposed to be the final cause of the acorn, even though the oak exists only after the acorn does.
One problem with this argument is that it simply begs the question. The defender of final causes will say that while causes must precede their effects in the order of efficient causation, the very idea of a final cause is that of a cause which, in a sense, follows its effect. Spinoza’s “argument” is really nothing more than a dogmatic insistence that all genuine causes are efficient causes.
Of course, someone might still complain that this feature of final causes makes them mysterious. But as Della Rocca points out, the efficacy of final causes can be made perfectly intelligible if we think of them as the intentions of an agent, in particular, of God. The oak can cause the acorn to be what it is precisely because it exists as an idea in the divine mind. This was indeed more or less Aquinas’s argument in the Fifth Way: that the vast system of final causes underlying the equally vast network of efficient causes constituting the natural world must ultimately be traced to the conserving action of the divine intellect, apart from whose constant ordering of things to their ends the entire causal structure of the world would instantly collapse.
This naturally brings us to Spinoza’s next argument:
D. The idea of final causes entails that God has ends, and thus detracts from his perfection.
There are several problems with this argument. First, as we have seen, not all defenders of final causality conceive of them as deriving from God: Aquinas does, but Aristotle does not. (Aristotle thinks of God as the final cause of the world, who moves it by virtue of being “desired” by it, but he does not think of God himself as having ends or putting them into nature. They’re just there.)
Second, even if final causes do depend on God, this objection would show, not that there are no final causes, but rather that a certain conception of God is mistaken.
Third, Spinoza is just wrong in any event to claim that explaining final causes in terms of God (as Aquinas would do even if Aristotle would not) necessarily detracts from God’s perfection. It would do so only if the point of realizing the ends in question were to remedy some deficiency in the divine nature. But the ends in question do not benefit God, who is already perfect, but rather his creatures, who are not. (It is true of course that the point of the creation as a whole is nevertheless to manifest the glory of God, but this is not because God needs to manifest his glory in this way, which he does not. Obviously this raises further theological questions, but the discussion then concerns which view of God to take, not whether final causes exist.)
Spinoza’s final argument against final causes is:
E. Purported explanations couched in terms of final causes inevitably reduce to appeals to ignorance, which explain nothing.
“For example,” says Spinoza in expanding on this objection, “if a stone falls from a roof on to some one's head and kills him, [defenders of final causality] will demonstrate by their new method, that the stone fell in order to kill the man; for, if it had not by God's will fallen with that object, how could so many circumstances (and there are often many concurrent circumstances) have all happened together by chance?” If it is suggested instead that the wind blew the stone off of the roof while the man happened to be walking by, the defender of final causes will ask why the stone fell at exactly that time. And so on. The only explanation the defender of final causes will accept is one that appeals to the inscrutable will of God. And yet this, Spinoza says, is no explanation at all.
Here again there are several problems. First, Spinoza’s scenario is a complete travesty of the Scholastic understanding of final causes. The view of writers like Aquinas, anyway, was not that nothing ever happens due to chance. Stones sometimes do indeed fall off of roofs and kill hapless passersby, entirely by accident. It is true that the Scholastic view was that even chance events presuppose final causality, but not in the sense Spinoza imagines. To take a stock example, when a farmer plows a field and discovers buried treasure, this event is correctly described as a chance occurrence, unintended by anyone. Still, this chance event was made possible by the farmer’s decision to plow and some other person’s decision to bury treasure at exactly that spot, neither of which was due to chance. In general, the Scholastics would say, chance events always presuppose, at some level, the operation of causal regularities manifesting (as all efficient causes do) finality or end-directedness.
Second, it is simply false to say that Scholastic explanations in terms of final causality necessarily reduced to empty appeals to an inscrutable divine will. For Thomists, anyway, to discover the end toward which something is directed is to discover something about its nature or essence, something which could not have been otherwise. If things did not have the causal powers they do in fact have, they simply would not be the things they are. We are not in the position of saying (for example) that eyeballs are for seeing only because God arbitrarily decided to make them for seeing, as if he could have made them instead for digesting food or for flying. Such pseudo-explanatory appeals to sheer divine fiat might be the logical outcome of the nominalist rejection of universals and essences, but they were no part of the Thomistic view of divine creation.
Finally, as Della Rocca points out, to complain that we do not know what God’s purposes are would not (even if it were generally true) be to show that he does not have any purposes, and thus it does nothing to show that there are no final causes.
All told, then, Spinoza’s arguments against final causes are about as good as those of the other early modern philosophers – that is to say, not good at all.
III. Implications of abandoning final causes
Where Spinoza does have something plausible to say about final causes is in his discussion of what would follow from abandoning them. Lurking in the background of his discussion here is the objection his critics would raise against his pantheism to the effect that Deus sive Natura would seem less than perfect if the evil and ugliness we see in the world around us were thought to follow necessarily from his nature. Spinoza answers that our ordinary conceptions of good and evil, order and disorder, beauty and ugliness derive from belief in final causes, so that if the latter is abandoned so too must the former be abandoned. And when that is done, we will see that we have no basis for describing anything that follows necessarily from Deus sive Natura as evil, ugly, etc. Such judgments reflect only our parochial concern with ourselves, rather than an informed understanding of our (relatively trivial) place in the larger scheme of things.
Here at last, I would say, Spinoza is right: Our ordinary conceptions of good and evil, order and disorder, beauty and ugliness – and indeed, any conception of these things – cannot survive the abandonment of final causes. And absolutely nothing that human beings might either suffer or perpetrate can consistently be judged evil, ugly, or disordered in their absence. That is precisely why the world has grown progressively uglier, more disordered, and more evil and irrational the more thoroughly it has assimilated the anti-teleological worldview of Spinoza and the other moderns.