Free Will and the Unmoved Mover

Steven Nadler is an expert on the 17th century philosopher Baruch (or Benedict) Spinoza. He was interviewed for the Elucidations philosophy podcast in 2017. Here he talks about Spinoza and free will:

Spinoza had a very idiosyncratic conception of freedom: idiosyncratic because of the larger metaphysical picture in which he discusses the issue of freedom. Remember that for Spinoza, we are all modes, or in God or nature—and so human beings don’t have this kind of ontological autonomy that we ordinarily think that things have. We are no different from other parts of nature….We are governed by nature’s laws, and this is just as true for our states of mind. Our mental states, our emotions, our passions, our acts of volition, our imaginations—even our intellectual thoughts—are all bound together by the laws of nature, just as much as our bodies are.

Spinoza does not think that there is such a thing as freedom of the will, … in any sense in which all things being the same, one could have chosen otherwise than as one did. So if you are looking for the kind of freedom that gives you independence from the causal determinism that governs most of nature, you’re not going to find that in Spinoza. What freedom does consist in, for him, is a kind of spontaneity, or self-governing autonomy. Not ‘spontaneity’ in the sense of uncaused events—there are no such things (for Spinoza) in nature—but, in a way, very much like a Kantian autonomy, where the things you do, the choices you make, the decisions you make, the goals you pursue follow not so much from how you are affected by other things—that’s passivity—but from your own knowledge of what’s really good, and what is in your own best interest….

Maybe the most precise way to put it is: it’s the difference between being acted on and being active. We’re always active to some degree, because we are always striving. That’s sort of our core essence, for Spinoza….

Things strive to maintain themselves. Other things strive to maintain themselves. Sometimes they come into conflict and these strivings push against each other. We as a part of nature are always being impinged upon by other things, and we’re always being passively affected by the objects in the world around us. But because we’re also striving ourselves, we’re in a way pushing back. And so, our lives are a struggle between being acted upon, and being active, or acting. The more free we are, the more active we are. The more we are determined by things outside of us, the more passive we are, the more we are in bondage to the world around us.

So, according to Spinoza, we are only free in the sense that we can do what we want to do, especially if we have good reasons for doing so. This is what philosophers call “compatibilism”, the idea that everything that happens — including human behavior — is caused by something else, yet we are truly free if nobody has a gun to our head and we decide for ourselves what to do.

I think what Spinoza and others call “free will” feels like free will but really isn’t. In order for an action to be free in the purest sense, there has to be a gap between what’s happened before (even the prior state of your mind) and the choice you finally make. You choose to do something – possibly after a great deal of deliberation – but nothing causes you to make that choice, other than your own free will. The result is that you truly could have chosen otherwise.

This is what Aristotle called the “unmoved mover” or “prime mover”. He thought of it as the primary or first cause of all motion in the universe. The unmoved mover moves other things, but is not itself moved by any prior action. To have free will in this pure sense, each of us has to be an unmoved mover.

Are we? It’s hard to believe that we are.

Spinoza Made a Difference

Baruch (sometimes Benedict) Spinoza was a 17th century Jewish philosopher who famously referred to reality as either God or nature. Scholars have been arguing about what he meant ever since, but whatever he meant helped get him “excommunicated or expelled from the people of Israel” in 1656. In 2012, a rabbi declined to remove the ban, citing Spinoza’s “preposterous ideas, where he was tearing apart the very fundamentals of our religion”.

From Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English by Jonathan Rée (Spinoza wrote in Latin but couldn’t be left out of the book):

Christians had never taken much interest in atheism: the Bible dismissed it as the delirium of “fools”… After Spinoza, Christians would find themselves doing battle not only with heresy and heathenism, but also with sheer unbelief. Atheism was still a dangerous word, however, and it was sometimes replaced by a new coinage: deism, which implied rejecting revelation, ritual and tradition, while retaining a residual belief in an impersonal divine power, perhaps on the lines of Spinoza’s “God or nature”.

Ordinary Christians were alarmed: “at this day Atheism is slily [i.e. “slyly”] called Deism by those that are indeed Atheists”, as an English pamphleteer observed in 1695: “they would disguise it by a false Name, and thereby hid the Heinousness of it”. By that time, a clandestine network of atheistic and deistic pamphleteers was operating across northern Europe, building on Protestant contempt for Catholic superstition and extending it to religion as a whole. They used the arguments of various “new philosophers” — principally Descartes, Gassendi, Hobbes and Spinoza — to attack beliefs in miracles, apparitions and omens, and derided the doctrine of transubstantiation, which asserts the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in consecrated bread and wine.

As far as they were concerned, everything in the physical world was governed by universal laws of nature, and the Bible was no holier than any other book. “Such is human malice and stupidity” — to quote a notorious  pamphlet called the Traité des trois imposteurs — that men choose to pass their lives in duping each other and worshiping a book handed down from an ignorant nation”. Manuscript copies of the Traité circulated in Latin and French in the 1690s, promoting the idea that religion is a fraud perpetrated by “the three imposters — Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. The pamphlet grew larger and bolder as time went by, and when it was printed at the Hague in 1719, it was bound with other works under a title that was not much less provocative: La Vie et l’Esprit de Spinoza….

[Sophia, Electress of Hanover, who almost became Queen of England] spent several years mingling with scholars in Heidelberg… Above all, she became an admirer of Spinoza: she described his Tractatus as “extraordinary and entirely reasonable” and supported a plan to offer him a professorship. She was appalled when he died shortly afterwards, suspecting that he had been murdered by partisans of “faith without reason”, and reflecting that “most of the human race … lives on lies”. 


If you’d like to know more about Spinoza’s philosophy, including his critique of religion and the Bible, as well as his liberalism and secularism, give his Theological-Political Treatise a try. When it was published, it was denounced as “godless,” “full of abominations,” “a book forged in hell . . . by the devil himself”. Stephen Nadler’s A Book Forged In Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age is another option. If anyone was ever born before his time, it was Baruch Spinoza.

Spinoza, the God-Intoxicated Man

He is known as Spinoza, although he might just as well have been known as Espinoza or Espinosa. The de Espinosa family of Sephardic Jews originated in Spain before emigrating to Portugal and then Amsterdam to escape religious persecution. Spinoza was born in Amsterdam as Benedito de Espinosa, referred to himself as Benedict de Spinoza in his Latin writings, and is now often called Baruch Spinoza. He lived in the 17th century and was a truly great philosopher.

What follows is from “Why Spinoza Still Matters”, written by Prof. Stephen Nadler for Aeon:

Spinoza’s views on God, religion and society have lost none of their relevance…. In his distress over the deteriorating political situation in the Dutch Republic, and despite the personal danger he faced, Spinoza did not hesitate to boldly defend the radical Enlightenment values that he, along with many of his compatriots, held dear. In Spinoza we can find inspiration for resistance to oppressive authority and a role model for intellectual opposition to those who, through the encouragement of irrational beliefs and the maintenance of ignorance, try to get citizens to act contrary to their own best interests.

Nadler then gives an excellent summary of Spinoza’s basic position: 

Spinoza’s philosophy is founded upon a rejection of the God that informs the Abrahamic religions. His God lacks all the psychological and moral characteristics of a transcendent, providential deity. The Deus of Spinoza’s philosophical masterpiece, the Ethics (1677), is not a kind of person. It has no beliefs, hopes, desires or emotions. Nor is Spinoza’s God a good, wise and just lawgiver who will reward those who obey its commands and punish those who go astray. For Spinoza, God is Nature, and all there is is Nature (his phrase is Deus sive Natura, ‘God or Nature’). Whatever is exists in Nature, and happens with a necessity imposed by the laws of Nature. There is nothing beyond Nature and there are no departures from Nature’s order – miracles and the supernatural are an impossibility.

There are no values in Nature. Nothing is intrinsically good or bad, nor does Nature or anything in Nature exist for the sake of some purpose. Whatever is, just is. Early in the Ethics, Spinoza says that ‘all the prejudices I here undertake to expose depend on this one: that men commonly suppose that all natural things act, as men do, on account of an end; indeed, they maintain as certain that God himself directs all things to some certain end; for they say that God has made all things for man, and man that he might worship God’.

Spinoza is often labelled a ‘pantheist’, but ‘atheist’ is a more appropriate term. Spinoza does not divinise Nature. Nature is not the object of worshipful awe or religious reverence. ‘The wise man,’ he says, ‘seeks to understand Nature, not gape at it like a fool’. The only appropriate attitude to take toward God or Nature is a desire to know it through the intellect.

The elimination of a providential God helps to cast doubt on what Spinoza regards as one of the most pernicious doctrines promoted by organised religions: the immortality of the soul and the divine judgment it will undergo in some world-to-come. If a person believes that God will reward the virtuous and punish the vicious, one’s life will be governed by the emotions of hope and fear: hope that one is among the elect, fear that one is destined for eternal damnation. A life dominated by such irrational passions is, in Spinoza’s terms, a life of ‘bondage’ rather than a life of rational freedom.

People who are led by passion rather than reason are easily manipulated by ecclesiastics. This is what so worried Spinoza in the late 1660s, as the more repressive and intolerant elements in the Reformed Church gained influence in Holland. It remains no less a threat to enlightened, secular democracy today, as religious sectarians exercise a dangerous influence on public life.

In order to undermine such religious meddling in civic affairs and personal morality, Spinoza attacked the belief in the afterlife of an immortal soul. For Spinoza, when you’re dead, you’re dead. There might be a part of the human mind that is ‘eternal’. The truths of metaphysics, mathematics, etc, that one acquires during this lifetime and that might now belong to one’s mind will certainly remain once one has passed away – they are, after all, eternal truths – but there is nothing personal about them….

The more one knows about Nature, and especially about oneself as a human being, the more one is able to avoid the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, to navigate the obstacles to happiness and well-being that a person living in Nature necessarily faces. The result of such wisdom is peace of mind: one is less subject to the emotional extremes that ordinarily accompany the gains and losses that life inevitably brings, and one no longer dwells anxiously on what is to come after death. As Spinoza eloquently puts it, ‘the free man thinks of death least of all things, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death’.

Spinoza’s ideas concerning organized religion and the Bible were remarkable for the 17th century. Nadler continues:

Clergy seeking to control the lives of citizens have another weapon in their arsenal. They proclaim that there is one and only one book that will reveal the word of God and the path toward salvation and that they alone are its authorised interpreters. In fact, Spinoza claims, ‘they ascribe to the Holy Spirit whatever their wild fancies have invented’.

One of Spinoza’s more famous, influential and incendiary doctrines concerns the origin and status of Scripture. The Bible, Spinoza argues in the Theological-Political Treatise, was not literally authored by God. God or Nature is metaphysically incapable of proclaiming or dictating, much less writing, anything. Scripture is not ‘a message for mankind sent down by God from heaven’. Rather, it is a very mundane document. Texts from a number of authors of various … backgrounds, writing at different points over a long stretch of time and in differing historical and political circumstances, were passed down through generations in copies after copies after copies.

Finally, a selection of these writings was put together (with some arbitrariness, Spinoza insists) in the Second Temple period, most likely under the editorship of Ezra, who was only partially able to synthesise his sources and create a single work from them. This imperfectly composed collection was itself subject to the changes that creep into a text during a transmission process of many centuries. The Bible as we have it is simply a work of human literature, and a rather ‘faulty, mutilated, adulterated, and inconsistent’ one at that. It is a mixed-breed by its birth and corrupted by its descent and preservation, a jumble of texts by different hands, from different periods and for different audiences.

Spinoza supplements his theory of the human origins of Scripture with an equally deflationary account of its authors. The prophets were not especially learned individuals. They did not enjoy a high level of education or intellectual sophistication. They certainly were not philosophers or physicists or astronomers. There are no truths about nature or the cosmos to be found in their writings…. Neither are they a source of metaphysical or even theological truths. The prophets often had naïve, even philosophically false beliefs about God.

Spinoza held that “there are no values in Nature” and “nothing is intrinsically good or bad”, but, according to Nadler, that didn’t stop him from believing that the Bible conveyed a crucial message:

[The Bible’s authors] were … morally superior individuals with vivid imaginations, and so there is a truth to be gleaned from all of Scripture, one that comes through loud and clear and in a non-mutilated form. The ultimate teaching of Scripture, whether the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Gospels, is in fact a rather simple one: practice justice and loving-kindness to your fellow human beings.

That basic moral message is the upshot of all the commandments and the lesson of all the stories of Scripture, surviving whole and unadulterated through all the differences of language and all the copies, alterations, corruptions and scribal errors that have crept into the text over the centuries.

Such were the views that got Spinoza labeled as a “renegade Jew … from Hell” and, more recently, as a “God-intoxicated man”.

Spinoza and Spinozism by Stuart Hampshire

Baruch (aka Benedict, aka Benedictus) Spinoza was a truly great philosopher. Professor Hampshire’s introduction to Spinoza, first published in 1951, has been one of my favorite books since I first read it in the 1970s. So it was disappointing to read this collection of Hampshire’s writings on Spinoza and find it rather tedious, mainly due to the repetitive nature of the book’s three main sections.

Still, if you want to understand Spinoza, Hampshire’s Spinoza: An Introduction to His Philosophical Thought, the 1987 edition of which is included in this book, is an excellent place to start. 

Spinoza famously argued that there can only be one infinite substance. This is Deus sive Natura, God or Nature. There is nothing supernatural about God, since God and Nature are the same. This one substance has two attributes, so far as we know: thought and extension, or mind and matter. Everything that exists or occurs is represented in both of these attributes. When something happens in my body, it also happens in my mind, and vice versa (although sometimes unconsciously). The same rule applies to all other objects in the universe, e.g. both rocks and rabbits.

In addition, everything that happens is fully determined. If we had the mental capacity, we could infer everything about the universe from what happened before. Yet we human beings have moments of freedom, i.e. when we exercise our rationality, either in pursuits like mathematics or in understanding ourselves and the world around us.

Hampshire doesn’t accept everything Spinoza said, of course. But he does generally endorse Spinoza’s view of our “double aspect” and what it means to be free in a deterministic world. Unfortunately, it’s hard to understand what it means for a rock to have a mental aspect. Hampshire tries to explain this idea by suggesting that a rock’s thought-like aspect is its form: “they have a nature and form which can be described or represented. They are not a haphazard collection of atoms. They have their own distinctive unity.”

But I think Spinoza was closer to the truth regarding the “mental” aspect of people and other animals than he was about things like rocks or trees. We have both a form that can be represented and the ability to represent ourselves and other things. We have evolved and become aware (Hampshire doesn’t disagree, of course). Having a form and being able to represent something that has a form are quite different things, although perhaps that’s what Spinoza had in mind. A rock has something that can be represented by an idea. And we have ideas. So maybe we are just a bit higher on the evolutionary scale.