… the mind acts according to fixed laws, and is as it were an immaterial automaton.
We flatter ourselves with the notion of free will – that in a given situation we are free to make choices. The next time someone tells you what a handsome creature you are, just reflect on whether the feeling of pleasure that follows is an act of free will. For Spinoza, our minds are necessarily programmed automata, and Spinoza purists may balk at the lack of context I am going to display here, but to provide full background would be a mammoth work.
So, let’s start with understanding. One of Spinoza’s first works was titled “On the Improvement of the Understanding”. We can think of the understanding as a programmed database, filled with all the ideas we have acquired during our lifetime. Many of these ideas are just wrong (moderately overweight people are inherently less healthy than skinny people) or deformed (if I have a particular type of crystal in my room it will bring me good luck). Most ideas are just pushed down our throats when we are children (if you work hard you will be successful) and are ingested without any judgment. One way to view the understanding is that it is a partially completed jigsaw, with some of the pieces not in place. Each piece of the jigsaw represents an idea we have ingested – fish live in water, always be polite, beggars are lazy, and any number of other ideas that may be true, false or merely fictitious (the unicorn). When we come to deal with the world, we affirm or negate new ideas based on our existing programming, or understanding. So if you have been told that homeless people are lazy, and a homeless person asks you for money, you may negate this request because it does not fit in with your existing programming. The critical thing to recognize here is that we say yes or no to an idea based on our current programming, and not by some act of free will.
It was apparently crucial to Spinoza that we get our understanding sorted out, just because it determines how we will act in the world. If the programming is at odds with reality, it will cause suffering for both the person with the poor understanding and possibly others. This is where reason comes into the picture. The sole function of reason is to help us improve our understanding, and Spinoza is entirely unambiguous about this (The Ethics Part 4 Proposition 26):
Whatever we endeavor according to reason is nothing else but to understand.
To align our understanding more with reality Spinoza aims at some of our most dearly held beliefs – that life has an inbuilt moral code, that there are absolute definitions for good and bad, that the universe is ordered, that we have free will – and so on. If our minds are wrongly programmed, we will struggle with life, and so Spinoza’s project is one of great compassion – an attempt to rid us of many “sad” emotions created by our poor understanding of the realities of our existence.
Having been programmed by our parents, teachers, peers, and society at large, by the time we are twenty years old our minds will resemble a garbage bin. If the programming is strong enough, our understanding may be incapable of being changed, and so as Gurdjieff stated, most people are dead to any new possibilities of understanding by the time they are 30 years old.
So here is the task that Spinoza laid our before us:
- Recognize that all our programming is up for sanity checking.
- Use reason to emend the understanding and challenge our belief systems.
- To very specifically use reason and understanding to moderate the emotions. When the passions are understood they lose much of their power.
- To see, and really see the mind as automaton – as it is programmed, so it will affirm or negate new ideas.
- If the mind is an automaton, there is no self.
Spinoza does not explicitly state the last of these assertions, but it is heavily implied in part two of his Ethics.
And finally, for those who might complain that because we can modify our understanding through reason we have free will, nothing of the sort can be deduced. That a particular person is capable of changing their understanding is entirely dependent on their previous programming – which is why so many people are incapable of modifying their understanding.