Philosophy for medical students – Part II: Spinoza, the Nature-God and Freedom

Written by Shan Leung, Photograph by Aixin Liu

Philosophy for medical students – Part II

This entry is the second in a four part series that will explore the value of philosophy to medical students, using the works of specific philosophers as examples. It will aim to be equal parts thought-provoking, accessible and concise.

Spinoza, the Nature-God and Freedom:

“Most writers on the emotions and on human conduct seem to be treating rather of matters outside nature than of natural phenomena following nature’s general laws. They appear to conceive man to be situated in nature as a kingdom within a kingdom: for they believe that he disturbs rather than follows nature’s order, that he has absolute control over his actions, and that he is determined solely by himself. ”- Spinoza, Ethics

Baruch Spinoza was a 17th century Dutch philosopher whose heretical beliefs on the subjects of God, nature and free will earned him an excommunication and a murder attempt by the age of 23. Few of us today can claim to be so controversial. Spinoza only published two philosophical works in his lifetime, but his commitment to rational inquiry, democratic governance and religious freedom helped set the foundation for the Enlightenment.

Spinoza’s radical philosophy can be distilled into three main tenets. The first tenet is that God and nature are synonymous. There is no separation between the divine perfection of God and the corrupt material of the universe, as per the traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Rather, the totality of the universe is God, and God is the universe.

The second tenet of Spinoza’s philosophy is that God is the single substance of existence. In other words, there is nothing that exists outside God. When God is understood to be synonymous with nature, this second tenet can be taken to mean that there is nothing supernatural or above nature: no other deities, no spirits and no souls.

The third tenet of Spinoza’s philosophy is that everything within God acts as required by divine law, or by equivalence, that everything within nature acts as required by natural law. In Spinoza’s time, natural law meant the principles of physical science, mathematics and logic. Today, we might also include the life or social sciences.

At first look, this may not seem like a philosophy very conducive to free will. Without reference to a supernatural deity, spirit or soul, humans can no longer claim special exception to the laws of the universe. We can no longer claim to be uniquely free, spiritual agents, merely suspended in an unfree, material world.

Nonetheless, Spinoza was uniquely concerned with human freedom. While he did not believe humans could achieve a complete or supernatural freedom from God, he did believe we could achieve at least a partial freedom from our more wild and destructive feelings.

To explain, according to Spinoza, destructive feelings arise from the false belief that our lives could, in this moment, be different. We think ourselves self-made and so we become prideful. We think others self-harmed and so we become pitiless. We think we might have lived better and so we become envious. We think we might have lived longer and so we despair.

Yet, according to Spinoza, every moment is necessitated by the laws of the universe. Our situation could not be different any more than two and two produce six, or a triangle have four sides. By realising the natural inevitability of all things, we escape the errors that follow.

But one does not have to accept Spinoza’s beliefs to appreciate his recommendations. At his most basic, Spinoza argues that we should be mindful of our emotions, because when we fail to understand our emotions, we remain captive to them. It is only when we understand our feelings clearly and distinctly that we create real opportunities for self-guidance.

To illustrate, consider a car accident. The first person involved, John, allows the accident to dictate his emotional state. He immediately becomes angry and shouts at the other driver. He swears and gestures rudely. John is being moved by what Spinoza would call passion or passive feeling. Reduced to a vehicle for nature to express itself, he is barely there at all.

The second person involved, Jane, does not allow the accident to dictate her emotional state without personal thought or involvement. Upon reflection, she finds that the accident has left her stressed and aggravated. She takes a deep breath to settle herself down. Then, after a moment, she calmly exits her vehicle. In this situation, Jane is being moved by what Spinoza would call action or active feeling. By working to guide her feelings and behaviours, she is truly present and participating in the world.

This brings us to our conclusion. As medical students and physicians, circumstances may inflame our passions. We may become prideful of our work, envious of our colleagues or angry with our patients. We may despair at situations beyond our control. But, like Spinoza, we can take comfort in the fact that these sentiments are not due to some great personal failing or supernatural evil but natural, intelligible forces. And in understanding these forces, we can start the movement from passion to action.

We can start to be made free.

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