Sunday, October 30, 2011

Mommy...Where Does Knowledge Come From? Locke's Empiricism

     For the research paper for my 17th century philosophy class I've chosen for my topic Locke's notion of simple ideas and their role in his epistemology.  So, what's all this mumbo jumbo about?  And who is John Locke? As most of you may know, John Locke was trapped on a strange island with a bunch of other people when their plane crashed.  But what many of you might not know, is that prior to crashing on the island in Lost, John Locke was a prominent 17 century philosopher.
     Locke is the grand daddy of empiricism--the philosophy that the foundation of our knowledge is sensory experience.  His philosophy is in obvious contrast with the rationalists Descartes and Spinoza who believed pretty much the opposite--that the foundation of all knowledge is accessible through rational refection.
   A super skeleton sketch of Locke's empiricism looks like this  (reduced  from about 500 pages to 6 lines):  
1.  There are no innate ideas...have you ever met a baby that knew how to do maph?  He gives quite a few different arguments against innate ideas but you get the gist of it.
2.  So, all knowledge must originate as ideas caused by sensory experiences.  (Perceiving something produces an idea of that thing in my mind).
3.  The mind then acts on these simple ideas to compare, connect, and abstract from them to form more complex ideas.

     In my essay I want to explore a couple of interrelated issues.  (1).  What is a simple idea?  and is this an intelligible concept? (2).  if we can come up with an intelligible notion of a simple idea, can it do the work Locke needs it to do to support empiricism, or do we need to allow some degree of innate knowledge?  Anyhow, you're going to follow along as I do my research...

Lets get in stahted in hah....

Ideas in General and their Origin
     For Locke, if someone reflects upon the origin of many universal truths "they would have found them to result in minds of Men, from the being of things themselves, when duly considered; and that they were discovered by the application of those Faculties, that were fitted by Nature to receive and judge of them, when duly employ'd about them."  If we translate this from Locke's beautiful prose it reads that knowledge of general truths is derived from the ideas that those objects cause in our minds through sensory experience. Enough with the generalities, lets get down to the nitty gritty of how this works.
     The contents of the Mind are ideas.  Er'body has a variety of ideas in their mind, such as Whiteness, Hardness, Sweetness, Thinking, Motion, Man, Elephant, Army, Drunkenness, Sippy-cup, Chains, Things that are Off the Chain, etc...How do all these ideas get into our mind?  Locke demonstrated that they can't be innate, so whence did they come?  
     Here he famously axes us so suppose the mind to be "white paper, void of all characters, without any Ideas"...all the ideas that fill our mind came from one source: experience.  All knowledge is founded on it and derived from it.  "Our observation employ'd either about external, sensible Objects; or about the internal Operations of our Minds, perceived and reflected on by ourselves, is that which supplies our Understandings with all the materials of thinking".
     So basically our knowledge has two subsources: sensation which gives us ideas through the perception of external things; these ideas include things like yellow, white, heat, cold, soft, hard, bitter, sweet...and anything else we call sensible qualities.  Sensible ideas are the result of the ideas that are produced in our mind through a causal relation to an external object.  For example, the chair causes in my mind the ideas of brown, wood, chair, etc..
     Reflection is the other source "from which Experience furnisheth the understanding with ideas is the perception of the operations of our own Minds within us" as it acts on the raw ideas is has received from perception to produce new ideas.  Basically, we can get new ideas when our mind manipulates, mixes, abstracts, and compares whatever ideas we already have (from perception). Acts of the mind include: perception, thinking, doubting, believing, reasoning, knowing, willing which give rise in us new ideas (about other ideas). 
     There are no other sources of ideas beyond sensation and reflection.  Ideas arising from sensation arise from without and concern external objects whereas reflection involves ideas about our mind's own operation.  Locke challenges us to "search our Minds" for ideas that didn't come from one of these two sources.
     Pay attention! The more numerous and varied the objects you come in sensory contact with the more simple ideas you will have; there is a parallel for ideas arising out of reflection--the is a direct relation to the amount of reflection one does and quantity of ideas one has about the operation of his own mind.  Also, there is a direct relation to the degree of clarity your ideas have with the the degree of attention you put into observing external objects and your mental operations.  If you don't pay attention your ideas will be unclear and your knowledge will rest on a shaky foundation--so pay attention!
     On our first ideas: At what point in our life do we have our first ideas? "When he first has any Sensation" then it is to these first sensorily derived ideas that we employ the mental operations of perception, remembering, consideration, reasoning, etc...In time the mind (can) reflects on its own mental ideas.  This means something like the having thoughts like "I am looking at the elephant", "I like elephants", "I am thinking about myself looking at the elephant", "I like thinking about myself looking at elephants" and so on...Through this process the mind gets more ideas--ideas from reflection.
The important point is that we need the initial sensory ideas first before the mind can go to work on them, after that, through continual reflection and more sensory ideas the sky is the limit.  Our minds are idea factories!
       Hint at a criterion for simple idea (finally, Yay!):  In receiving these basic ideas from sensory perception our minds are passive.  So long as our perceptual apparati are in good working order there is little we can do to avoid the intrusion of these first sensory ideas into our mind; and no one can be wholly ignorant of what he does when he thinks.  These are the simple ideas--the one's that the mind can do nothing to avoid or blot out, no more than "a mirror can refuse, alter, or obliterate [...] the objects set before it."  Ok, Locke, I'm going to hold you to that!

Time to take a break and work on the proposal for my Kant paper...due tomorrow : )

Do You Trust People Who Watch Jersey Shore? Kant and the Principle of Autonomy

The Principle of Autonomy

     One of my favorite aspects of Kant's moral philosophy is the principle of autonomy; however, as with any prima facia appealing idea there are usually problems lurking below the shiny surface.  I think I wrote about the principle of autonomy (PA) in an earlier post but for my own good I'm going to do a quick overview before I look at what I think might be problems.
     The principle of autonomy is the idea we are both the subject and legislator of the moral law.  To hold this lofty position anytime we act in a moral context, to determine how we should act we must do two things: (1) ax ourselves, "would I want the principle upon which I am acting to be a universal law of action?", that is to say, would it be a good thing if er'body did what I am about to do; and (2) we must treat er'body as an autonomous entity with its own ends (goals) which have equal value to our own.  Of course there are some constraints on what ends people can pursue (they are controlled by (1)) but the point is I can't treat people as means to my own ends, unless I give them full information about my ends and they consent to the terms and conditions of helping me achieve my end.
     So what does this all have to do with autonomy?  Well, according to Kant if people consider their actions in accordance with (1) and (2) they will be acting out of reason and it is only when you act out of reason that you are free.  A major assumption that Kant makes is that if we all ax ourselves (1) and (2) before we act er'body will always get the same answer.  Because we all get the same answer it means that we have discovered a moral maxim to which er'body will agree to submit and so you too must submit to it.  We are all both legislators and subjects of the laws that arise out of the application of reason to (1) and (2). 
     Example:  Suppose I want to borrow money but I know I won't be able to pay it back.  To determine if I should do this I first apply (1).  Hmm...would it be a happy world if er'body did what I was going to do?  Well, no.  First of all the guy you borrowed the $ from won't be jiggy with it and will prolly not lend any cheese to the next guy.  After enough people stop paying back loans, people will stop lending $...sound familiar?  So, (1) tells us we shouldn't do it because the financial system will collapse if do and nobody elx will be able to borrow money after us...including us.  So, not that it's really necessary at this point, but we also run our action though (2).  This time we discover that we can't do it because we are treating the lender as a means to an end that he doesn't share if he had full information.  I am tricking him into achieving my ends by lying about my intent to repay and I am frustrating his own ends of trying to make a living by lending $.  So, running our action through both (1) and (2) give us the same answer but for different reasons.  
     So what about the part where we are both subject and legislator?  Well, I'm the legislator in that I wrote the law that I ought not to trick the lender into lending me $.  It came from me! me! me! and I'm the subject because I have to follow whatever verdict gets spit out of the (1) and (2) formulations. 

Concerns with The PA
     Ironically, my main concern with the PA is the same thing that I like about it; that morality is something that can be grasped through internal rational reflection rather than something that is imposed on us as a set of alien rules.  So, what's not to like about empowering every person to reflect on their moral decisions?
     There are several huge assumptions that Kant is making in his system: (A) that everybody has an equal capacity to reason; (B) that reason is universal--that is, it functions the same in everyone's pointy head; (C) that (1) and (2) are the correct principles upon which to apply our reason and by extension found morality; (D) that (1) and (2) will never lead to mutually exclusive results; (E) that (1) and (2) can always give us a clear answer.  There are probably more problems, but I'll stop there and, because I'm feeling so gracious (and I don't feel like writing a 20 page entry) I'm going to grant Kant (C), (D), and (E).
     Let's get out our lasers, let set our tasers and point them at Kant's idea that the faculty of reason is universal.  You know what, I'm feeling even more generous than I thought.  I'm even going to grant him that er'body has the potential to reason equally and that it functions the same for er'body.  I think there still is a problem.  
     Even if I grant Kant all these assumptions, I'm still not convinced we'll all derive the same moral maxims because the ability to reason requires development.  As it is with any other capacity, even as basic as walking and drinking out of a cup,--or perhaps a better analogy--language, just because we have a capacity for something does not mean that er'body develops it or that they develop it equally or at equal rates.  I see no reason why this shouldn't also apply to the capacity to reason: anybody who has taught math or logic can attest to this.
    Here's the prolum: call me an elitist, but I just don't trust a lot of people's reason to be up to the task of determining right and wrong for themselves, much less as the "head of the Kingdom of Ends".  Now of course I could do it; but the Jersey Shore-watching masses...heck no! (I kid! I kid!...mmm....maybe not...)  And this illuminates another related problem; er'body thinks they're an expert on moral matters.       
     Think about it.  How often do you meet someone who says, "Oh! I have no idea what's wrong or right, I just ask my friends who study philosophy what to do because they know way more about this sort of stuff than I do".  No.  You never hear that.  Er'body thinks they're a world expert and contrary to what Kant would expect, there are differences of opinions, and most people are more than happy to let you know what those opinions are (ahem, I'm allowed to do it but they aren't).  Kant could reply, well they're getting different answers because they aren't applying (1) and (2), and I suppose he'd be right.  But I'm still not convinced that er'body would come up with the same answers if they did apply (1) and (2) because just as people learn and exercise reason at different rates and abilities in learning maph, I suspect the same is true in learning moral reasoning.
     I guess Kant could also give a complex reply that (1) and (2) commit us to a society in which people are provided with the means to develop their moral reasoning.  In a way he actually can be interpreted as built into (1).  How does that work?  Well, (1) commits us to actions that we want to universalize and it seems rational that we would want to universalize the principle that "people should be provided with the means to develop their rational capacities" (i.e., free/subsidized public education). 
     I guess the moral of the story is garbage in garbage out.  If you start out with a group of people with under-developed reasoning abilities you get crappy legislation but if you start out with philosophers you get nothin' but gold!
     Anyhow, that's enough writing for one night.  I actually did this 'cuz I'm trying to develop a term paper topic and wanted to see if this would be fruitful.  I'm not sure it was sufficiently so.  I have a few more ideas which I'll try tomorrow.
G'nite y'all!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Jesus and Burritos

     A couple of weeks ago I was coming home from work on a Saturday night (I don't work often lately because of school but they called me in) and decided it'd be easier to pick something up than to cook a meal at 3am.  For late-night food I like this place called "Taco Cabana".  They have a brisket burrito and it is...divine.
     Anyhow, the drive-thru was closed so I went in to order.  While I was waiting for my order I noticed one of the employees that was wiping down the tables.  He looked like he was in his late twenties and was not happy about wiping up tables after drunk people at 3am.  In fact he looked really depressed.  I guess I wasn't the only guy who was observing him because I noticed another guy watching him too.
     This other guy was wearing a shirt that said "preacher" on it and was all Jesused out with necklaces. (Seriously, what's with all the huge crosses people?  I thought Jesus already bore it for you...isn't that how the story goes?).  Anyhow...actually, no.  I have one more side rant. 
     What's with all these Christians getting tattoos of the cross and scripture?  As with most Christians they obviously either  have never even read the bible or don't follow it (yet will profess its truth).  God's pretty clear on these issues.  Leviticus 19:28 "Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord."   Notice he adds "I am the Lord".  That's so you don't get it confused with all the other voices in your headAnd as for all the icons of Mary, and manditory Jesus gear of crosses as earrings or pendants, "Thou shalt not make thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters beneath the earth" Deuteronomy 5:8.  For Heaven's sake people, it's the fucking 2nd commandment.  How am I supposed to take you seriously if you can't even keep/don't even know your second commandment?
     Ok, so listen my Christian friends.  You go ahead and believe whatever you like that's fine; but don't try and tell me the bible's true or Christianity is the one true religion when you don't even know what is written in the bible.  It just makes you look like an idiot.  Would you say of  any other book you hadn't read or ideology you hadn't studied that you KNOW it's true?  No, you wouldn't.  And if anyone ever told you they believed in something they'd never read or knew nothing about, you'd think they were ridiculous at best.  So why don't you take at least a tenth of the time most atheists have devoted to studying religion and at least learn what you believe; and if you really want to impress me, go learn some history of early Christianity.  At least then you won't be such easy targets;  and more likely, you'll find that you actually don't agree with a lot of what's written--and that no sane modern person could without doing Olympic-level mental gymnastics.  
    Enough with the ranting.  This was actually supposed to be a post that is somewhat sympathetic to Christianity.  Where were we?  Oh yeah, the preacher guy... Anyhow, the preacher guy gets up, walks over to depressed Taco Cabana guy, puts his hand on his shoulder, looks into his eyes and says something like,  "whatever you are going through right now just know that there is someone who loves you with all his heart.  He has infinite love for you and will always be there for you."  There was so much sincerity in his voice.  He really really believed it.
     You could see immediately Taco Cabana guy's body language change.  His eyes smiled.  He had spring in his step.  Where previously he had avoided eye contact with the customers, as he cleaned tables he asked me how I was doing, and how my night was.  This is some pretty cool stuff.
     Watching that transformation was a major epiphany for me.  Up until that point in my life trying to understand why anyone could possibly believe in any religion was beyond my imagination.  I just could never understand.  But here was my mistake.   I always looked at religion from a more intellectual point of view.  Even as a youth, I could not wrap my mind around the idea of a personal God.  Too many things just did not make sense.  But in that one fateful moment at Taco Cabana I understood why Christianity has such appeal.  In my analysis I was missing the human element of religion.  Who doesn't want to have some super power friend that loves them (sort of) unconditionally, looks out for them (even when he's "testing their strength"), and even (somehow) died for the mistakes they hadn't even made yet?  And Love and Hope.  What human being doesn't want those two things? 
     So anyway, I'm sure for most people this is the most obvious thing in the world, but for me this was a major revelation (but nothing to do with rapture).  At least now I understand why people believe.  Obviously it doesn't sway my own position one bit but I feel like I have gained a valuable insight into some of my fellow humans' belief systems.
    I'll leave it at that.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

I Like Money, Wanna Hang Out? Kantian Ethics: Acting From Reason vs For Reasons

Preamble I loves me my preambles...
     First a few autobiographical notes: today I wrote my first midterm in 11 years.  I don't recall being so stressed about exams in undergrad but for some reason I was really worried about this one; maybe it's just a novelty effect and after a few more exams my reaction will settle down--I hope it will anyway.  I think part of my nervousness came from the fact that the way the exam was set up was a little unfair--that's my opinion anyway.
     Friday afternoon we were given the ELEVEN possible essay questions of which we were told the professor would pick 3.  It was explicit that it wasn't going to be a situation where he give 6 options and you chose 3 from the six--nope--there would just be three on the exam and those are the ones you are expected to answer.  I know undergrad was over a decade ago for me but I don't remember any professor doing anything like that especially with just the weekend to study. 
     Basically we had 3 days to learn enough content to write 11 essays from memory.  I think that's a bit excessive.  Anyhow, I stayed up Monday studying until 4:30am, took a nap 'til 8 am, got up, drank lots o' coffee and returned to studying.  When I got to class at 11:30am everyone looked like they were prisoners on the way to their execution.  A couple of people were saying that they expected to fail and would probably end up dropping the course. 
    The professor walks in and says, "I've decided to make things a little easier for you".  I've given you all eleven questions and I want you to pick either 2 about Descartes and 1 about Spinoza or vice versa".  Huge collective sigh of relief.  Anyhow, after my heart stopped pounding so hard from all the caffeine and adrenaline I took a few deep breaths and threw up Descartes and Spinoza all over the page.  In the end I did alright (I think).  Despite all the panic some good has come out of this...if anyone ever asks me about Scholastic, Cartesian or Spinozian metaphysics they'll get more information than they could ever want (and probably more than they did want).

Why Do We Study Kant?
      Ok, enough with the jibber-jabber lets ask an important question: Why bother studying Kant? Or any moral and ethical philosophy for that matter?  Doesn't it seem a little strange that people would commit so much time to studying something when all the true answers are right there in the bible?  The obvious question is, if philosophers are so curious about what is right and wrong and how to act, why they don't they just consult the bible where God has spelled everything out in black and white for everyone to read?  
     The answer is simple.  We do it just for fun.  We like to look at what some of the of the greatest human minds have dedicated their lifetimes to thinking about and point out the ways in which it does not measure up to the clear, unambiguous, logically consistent, intuitively correct divine teachings of sweet sweet baby Jesus and his fah-jah.  So, without further ado, lets entertain ourselves with Kants wacky ideas of morality arising out of our capacity to reason and freewill....

Still Trying to Figure out What We Can Know About Morality From the Concept of Freedom
     We left off with Kant's hilarious notion that morality is somehow connected to our ability to chose our own course of action (rather than following the perfect 600 or so rules in the bible).  Remember that Kant wants to show that it is a priori true that morality arises out of the concept of a good will; that is to say, that the one concept is contained in the other just as the concept of "unmarried man" is contained in the concept of "bachelor".   In his last attempt he had to go outside of the concept of the will and appeal to the additional concept of positive freedom in order to derive the concept of morality; but Kant doesn't want to have to appeal to anything beyond the conceptual boundaries of the will for his proof.  As a further note, recall that for Kant morality is the (hilarious) idea that the motive upon which you act can be willed as a universal law.

Freedom Must Be Presupposed as a Property of the Will of All Rational Beings
      In the previous entry I made we learned that in order to get the concept of morality out of the concept of a good will we need to presuppose the concept of freedom.  We know that if we have freedom, then we can say we have morality; so in order to make the step from a good will to morality we will need to show that the concept of a good will entails the concept of freedom, which in turn entails morality.  In technical terms it looks like Kant is trying to construct what is called a hypothetical syllogism--i.e.,  if A then B, if B then C, so if A then C. 
     The other silly idea that Kant has is that morality is universal.  Why is morality universal?  First, it's because of Kant's assumption that the faculty of reason works the same universally (dubious...).  Second is that because morality only applies to beings that are rational--it wouldn't make much sense to apply morality to irrational beings like spiders and mice--and since morality is derived from freedom, we need to prove that freedom is a property of rational beings.  Also if morality isn't universal it is less meaningful.  
     In terms of proving that morality is universal we cannot prove it is such by appealing to particular examples; for example I can't prove the universality of morality by saying, "I'm a rational being, I know I have freewill, so morality applies to me, therefore morality applies to all rational beings".  In a particular instance, the fact that you are rational might be a wacky quality particular to you.  You can't prove a general law deductively (a priori) by generalizing from empirical facts; doing so would be inductive reasoning and its conclusions don't have the same logical force as do deductive arguments.  So again, to show that moral law is universal we need to show that freewill is a necessary  property of being a rational being.
     The first step in Kant's proof that rational creatures have the property of freedom starts with a naked assertion that so long a rational creature has the idea that he is free in his actions then (somehow) this means that he is actually free.  Lets take a step outside of philosophy for a second and go back to the real world.  For the average Joe, even the above average Joe, the fact that Kant should even have to prove that humans have freewill is just kind of loco; of course we're free! look I'm going to decide to type an '8'...and now a '+'....look at me exercising my freewill!  Woohoo!  I don't feel like there's anyone in a control tower making me type '8' and '+'...but there are many philosopher (and indeed some modern neuroscience) that argue our freedom is an illusion; we think we are free but actually there is measurable neurological activity in the body for a movement before we have "consciously" decided to make the movement.  All that aside, my point is that in the normal world, what Kant is asserting isn't very loco, but in the philosophy world it's odd that he just asserts it without backing it up with an argument.
     The next step is to say that every rational being (who by definition also has a will) can only act according to the idea that he can choose his course of action (amongst alternatives).  Again, this doesn't sound too loco but it is important.  What Kant is getting at is that when we (as rational agents) choose a course of action from amongst alternatives, the selection of the course of action comes from within us, not from some external cause.  If our action is directed by some external cause then our decision to act one way rather than another cannot be attributed to reason.  Ahh!  This is a critical move, because Kant wants to make two crucial distinctions here: action from reason (as a faculty) and action for reasons--i.e., actions from inclination--where inclination is not free action but action from reason is.
     When you act because of inclination--for instance, an action out of instinct, character predisposition, etc..--then you are no longer acting as a free agent.  Your actions arise out of something other than your will (which arises out of reason); that is, they aren't rational.  You are being caused to act by factors outside of your reason when you act out of fear, or anger, or addiction, or even selfish desires.  As a rational being in order to be free we have to act out of our own (rational) principles, and since all external reasons for action (i.e., I want ice cream, so I go get the ice cream) are, well...external to us, if we act on them we are not acting from reason rather for reasons.
    To summarize this idea, if I am to consider myself as having freedom when I act, the principles according to which I act must come from within me, that is from my will.  If I act on external reason or act out of inclination, that is, I direct my action toward some external goal, then the cause of my action does not come from within, i.e., from the will, so I am not in these cases acting freely.
     This distinction is a little bit tough to grasp so lets look at some examples.  But before I give my examples I'll just explain how I think about the distinction.  In the case of acting from external causes (for reasons) in these types of actions if you asked yourself "why did you do that?" the answer would be "I did x because I wanted x or wanted to achieve x".  In actions that arise from reason, if you ask yourself "why did you do that?" the answer would be something like "I did x because that's what one ought to do". 
      Simple examples: Case 1.  You see a 100.00 on the ground and no one around so you pick it up.  This was not a free action because if you ask "why did you pick it up?" the answer will be something like, "I picked up the money because I like money...wanna hang out?" So you acted because of something external to you.
     Simple Case 2: You see someone drop 100.00 on the ground and you pick it up and give it to them.  This was a free action (*as I will present it) because if you ask "why did you return the 100.00?" the answer will be "I returned the 100.00 because that's what one ought to do".  Notice there is no external end to which your action is directed; it is a restatement of a principle of action.
    Edit:  Ok, after sleeping on it I want to revise my first example.  I don't think Kant would think you are aren't free in that case because it's not a situation to which we apply moral principles.  I think the following set of examples better illustrate what Kant's trying to say (what I think he means, anyway)
     Case 3: You're in a hurry to get to work and see an old lady that's struggling to cross the street.  She reminds you of your own wonderful grandmother; because of this you feel both compassion and nostalgia.  You stop and help her cross the street.  If you ask yourself why you helped her, your answer is, "because she reminded me of my grandmother and I felt compassion for her".  Basically you acted out of a feeling of compassion.  For Kant this is an external reason so you are not acting from your (internal) will, and this not acting in a moral way; you are acting for a reason (because you feel compassion, have memories of your grandmother), not from reason.  To further illustrate why this is, lets look at case 4.
    Case 4:  Same situation...old lady....reminds you of your grandmother...late for work...etc...This time when you ask yourself why you helped her across the street the answer is "because you ought to assist the elderly".  In this case your action arose out of a principle that is in no way related to how you feel about the situation.  Here you acted from your internal will because you acted on a rational principle (which are internally generated), that is, you acted from reason, not for a reason.
     So it seems that Kant is saying that since humans are not purely rational (we also have emotional inclinations and irrational preferences) we can sometimes act from our will (internal) and sometime act for external reasons (both external to our to our rational will and external goals).  When we act from the will we are acting from reason, so we are acting as free agents;  when we act for reasons we are not acting as rational agents so we are not free agents.  For now, to conclude lets just say that Kant has shown that so long as we are acting from reason we can say we are free.  I'm not sure I agree with his conclusion but I'll get into that later.

I'll proof read this later my eyes are closing and my mind is pulp...

Friday, October 14, 2011

Sub-atomic Stir-Fry and the Indivisibility of Spinoza's God

Warning: This is some wacky stuff.

Spinoza's Spin on Modes

     The chair I'm sitting on is a mode of God, the one and only substance.  Yup it is.  So I guess in a way I'm sitting on God.  "King of the castle! King of the castle!".  But wait, I'm also a mode of God, so I guess in a way God is sitting on himself.  That sounds strange.  Before we gaily launch ourselves into Spinoza's theory of modes lets do a quick review of terminology...
Substance:  The most fundamental level of existence/being.  All things are made from substance.  For Descartes everything was made of 1 or 2 distinct substances (Mind and Body) while Spinoza argued that everything is made of just one substance (God/Nature).
Attribute:  The fundamental property of a substance.  For Descartes thoughts are the principle attributes of Mind and extension is the principle attribute of Body.  For Spinoza thought and extension are both conceptually distinct attributes of one substance (God/Nature).  For both Spinoza and Descartes a substance can be known through its principle attribute(s); that is by reflecting on an attribute we can know to which substance it pertains.
Mode (Descartes):  For Descartes modes are properties that depend for their existence on primary attributes.  For example, a chair's weight, shape, and texture all depend on the chair being extended; and imagining a chair depends on the attribute of thought.  Another way to phrase it is that "a mode presupposes a particular attribute".
     Just like files are in a computer, modes are in a substance; this means that modes don't exist apart from substance, rather they are states of a substance.  Don't make the mistake Hansel makes in the early 2000's comedy classic "Zoolander" and think that by opening up the computer he can find the files in the computer; that is by pulling apart a substance you will find its, just as the files are states of electromagnetic configurations of the computer's insides; modes are just different ways a substance can be arranged/presented to us.  This is called the inherence relation; modes inhere in substances.  Inherence relations are dependence relations; modes depend for their existence on the substance being in a certain state.
     Modes also have a conceptual relation to substance.  The idea is that it is impossible to conceive of a mode without also conceiving of the substance in which it inheres.  For example, you can't conceive of a rectangular black (modes) computer without also conceiving of a body (substance); you just can't.  If you manage to do this, let me know and I will write a letter about it, and bring it to Descartes.  To summarize conceptual relations we can say that modes (eg. shape, texture, weight) are incomprehensible without presupposing the concept of a substance (body).

Spinoza's Account of Modes
     Every particular thing that exists is either a mode or a substance thus all finite things (minds and bodies) are modes of the one and only substance...God/Nature.  Since you are not God, you are a mode of the substance that is God (I'm going to go out on limb and assume that if there is a god he doesn't read my blog).  Though out the entry do not confuse Spinoza's notion of mode (any particular body or mind as a state of God/Nature) with Descartes' (properties of attributes).  How does it feel to be a mode?  Does it feel any different from being a finite substance as Descartes argues?  All feelings aside, lets see who has the more compelling argument...

Intuitive Unease With Monadic Monism (Say that 5 times fast...)
     It seems a little odd to say that particular things aren't independent entities but different states of one thing.  So, the table my computer is on isn't an independent substance with independent existence,  rather it is a state of God/Nature.  Things get even more loco when we interpret 'modes' in the Cartesian sense, that is, as properties.  Within the tradition (say in a BBC voice) properties can be regarded as universals or particulars.  The properties-as-universals view says the roundness of a wheel is an instance of a universal roundness.  All round objects partake in this one magical universal roundness.  Anyone who took a Phil 101 course will recognize this view from Plato's theory of perfect forms.  The properties-as-particulars view says, no, the roundness of the wheel is particular to only that wheel, all you other wheels out there, get your own damn roundness!
      It seems that no matter how we interpret Spinoza's view on modes, be it as universals or particulars, it arouses (heh heh...he said arouse) in us a sense of intuitive unease.  Suppose we interpret Spinoza as subscribing to the universal meaning of modes; then regarding a giraffe, for example, we are in a position of saying that God/Nature contains within it the universal property of "giraffeness" and our particular giraffe is simply an instance of God/Nature's "giraffeness".  On the other view, properties as particulars, we say this giraffe is a particular state of God/Nature; a giraffe is God/Nature is a particular state that we will call a "giraffe state"--but this giraffe state is not something inherent in God/Nature; it is the property we ascribe to God/Nature when it is in a giraffe configuration.  So, in the universal view, the property inheres in God/Nature and in the particular view things are properties that are brought about through different configurations God substance.  
     Because interpreting Spinoza's modes as Cartesian modes (properties) just seems wack, other less wack interpretations are sometimes used.  But despite wackiness it is still possible to make sense of the idea that particular things (minds and bodies) are properties/features of God.  The argument goes something like dis:
1.  Spinoza sees individual bodies (extended modes) as states of a substance.
2.  He also sees individual thoughts (modes of thought) as states of a substance.
3.  Spinoza's naturalism requires we interpret modes as states.

Individual Bodies as States of Substance
         You own a subatomic Chinese restaurant and need to make a stir-fry for some quarks.  You start chopping up a carrot into 1000 pieces, then chopped each piece into a 1000 more pieces, and for good measure, you repeat the process one more time.  You take one of the those pieces, and being the Zen master you are, ask yourself, if the carrot still exists. 
     In traditional theology God wasn't conceived as being extended for the reason that if he were, he could be divided infinitely out of existence, and then sweet baby Jesus would have no one to take care of him in heaven.  But Spinoza was no traditional theologian; he made the bold move of ascribing extension to God but did so in a way that defended God from being able to be chopped and divided into oblivion.  The way he did this way to say that individual bodies are not God being individuated, rather these are just God is affected--i.e., comes to exist in certain states.
     He uses the following example to explain his position:
Matter is everywhere the same are distinguished in it only so far as we conceive matter to be affected in different ways, so that its parts are only distinguished modally, but not really.  For example, we conceive that water is divided and its parts separated from one another--in so far as it is water, but not in so far as it is corporeal substance.  For insofar as it is substance, it is neither separated nor divided.  Again, water, insofar as it is water, is generated and corrupted, but in so far as it is substance, it is neither generated nor corrupted.
So what does he mean?  Essentially he is drawing a distinction between water as "water" (the liquid, with chemical properties x, y, z) and water as a corporeal substance.  We can divide the water into its constituent molecules and send each one into a different corner (fact: the universe has corners) of the universe and we can say the water is divided but we cannot say that the water ceases to be corporeal; or in modern parlance--matter. 
    So, how does this support the interpretation that individual modes inhere in God, rather than the interpretation that modes are simply caused by God (by waving his magic wand)?  Actually, before we look at that, consider what's at issue.  If we say that God causes bodies to exist then we have something closer to a traditional notion of God, that God creates everything and God is separate from his creation(s).  Recall Spinoza's conception of God is that God simply is everything that exists; there is no separation between "God" and "Nature", they are one and the same.
     With that in mind, lets see what happens if we interpret this water example in the "God causes existence" view.  First of all we notice that the example Spinoza uses is of a finite mode--a certain quantity of water--to demonstrate divisibility.  Keep in mind the purpose of this example is to show that attributing extension to God doesn't leave him vulnerable to the divisibility problem.  If, as this first interpretation suggests, God causes/creates modes/individual bodies (as opposed to modes being states of God) then the divisibility of water shouldn't be a threat to God anyway, because God isn't the water, he just created the water.  The fact that Spinoza uses a finite body (water) to show that divisibility isn't a problem for a God who is extended is evidence that Spinoza thinks individual bodies are modes of God, and individual bodies aren't simply created by God.  Again, Spinoza wants to show that an extended God isn't susceptible to the divisibility problem; to show this he argues that even though a finite body can be infinitely, it never ceases to be a corporeal substance--that is, its existence is unaffected even as part of a sub-atomic stir-fry.

Individual Thoughts as Modes of Substance
     Here's an interesting thought:  your mind is nothing more than your idea of your body.  It is a complex idea that contains various other ideas about particular states of your body and parts of your body.  I'm not sure I really understand what he means, but that's what he says...Also my mind is a collection of ideas in God's mind.  I think this means that, since God has infinite thought and my mind is finite, my mind is some of God's ideas; my mind can't have all of them (Spinoza's wrong!) because I am not perfect or finite.  Some of the ideas I partake in are God's ideas of my body.  Lets see if I can make that clearer.  God's got all the ideas in his mind.  Humans get (to share/have access to) some of them, and that is what a mind is--the sliver of God's ideas/thoughts that comprise your mind.  Some? All? of those ideas are ideas about states of your body and parts of your body.  Something like that...
     So, again, how do we relate this all back to the idea that we are all modes of God?  I think it goes a li'l something like this: Because God has all the ideas (ever!) in his mind, individual ideas must be states of his mind, so, our minds, in turn, (i.e., the collection of ideas that comprise them) are simply states of God's mind.  Yay! I'm Jesus!  All the ideas we have exist in God--they are features of God--so when they are expressed (in a particular mind) they must be expressed as modes of God--not separate independent entities that God has created. 

Modes and Spinoza's Naturalism
     Ok, if you've made it this far either you are a rabid Spinoza fan or you enjoy seeing me stumble through explanations of things I have difficulty understanding myself.  Let briefly return to something we talked about in the very beginning: relations of inherence dependence and relations of conceptual dependence.  Recall an inherence relation is the notion that something's existence depends on it inhering in something more fundamental.  For Spinoza particular bodies and individual minds are the products of inherence relations to God as substance; they are particular expressions of properties that inhere in God.  That God is infinitely extended allows him to express that extension in particular bodies; that God has infinite (non-contradicting) thoughts allows finite collections of those thoughts to be expressed as minds.  The finite expressions of the infinite qualities that inhere in God are modes, be they bodies or minds.  So, we can say that there is an inherence relation between God and modes because all qualities inhere in God.
     Also there is a way in which God causes modes to come about through the natural laws.  Modes (individual minds and bodies) are caused to come into existence as the result of never-ending causal chains that follow the laws of nature.  There is no "act of creation" outside of the products of causal chains that follow laws of nature.  In this sense there is a causal relation between God and modes.
     Both causal and inherence relations are types of conceptual relations. Consider causal relations: if something is the effect of something else, we can know something about it by knowing its cause.  This applies to modes and God because in order for use to know the qualities of a particular mode (the effect of God) we need to know something about its cause (God); we can say the concept of a mode can be known through its cause, for this reason we say causal relations are a species of conceptual relation.  
     A similar parallel can be observed between inherence relations and conceptual relations.  If we want to know the properties of some particular thing we would want to know the properties of the more general thing in which it inheres.  For example if we want to know the properties of a wooden table we would do well to know the properties of wood.  The same applies in Spinoza's model: if we want to know the properties of a particular mode we need to know about the substance in which the particular thing inheres, i.e., God.  Notice that if we want to better understand the concept of an particular mode (a table/a mind) we can better understand it if we refer to the concept of the thing in which its properties inhere.  For this reason inherence, like causation, is also a species of conceptual relation.
     Now for Spinoza, any time we want to make a distinction between two things we have to apply the principle of sufficient reason (PSR); that is, we have to provide a sufficient reason for which we should consider the 2 things distinct.  Spinoza doesn't see any sufficient reason for which we should distinguish between causal and inherence relations; after all they are both conceptual dependence relations--one thing (a mode) depends on the concept of something (causally/ontologically) prior  to it.  Basically, if there is no real difference in explaining something through causal relations rather than inherence relations then the 2 notions should be collapsed into on: a conceptual relation.  Restated, unless we can come up with an situation where an inherence relation explains something that a causal relation doesn't or vice verse we should consider them one and the same.
     So, why should we care about collapsing these two terms?  Because Spinoza's naturalism doesn't allow for different rules to apply to different things.  That is what naturalism is: there is one fundamental set of laws for everything including God, including humans.  Hand-waving appeals to special connections or properties is illegal.  To repeat: there is only one set of fundamental rules and they apply to everything.  So, if we adopt the typical theological views we see that there are different rules to explain how God exists and functions than there are for how finite individuals exist and function.  God can break physical laws that humans, for example can't.  
     More specifically Spinoza was concerned with the inconsistencies of the Cartesian view which required 2 kinds of dependence relations.  Recall for Descartes' 2 substance system of Mind and Body, these 2 substances do not inhere in God but still depend on him for their existence--that's one type of dependence relation--one without inherence but still of causation.  Then there are the attributes and modes of Mind and Body (substances) that do inherence relations.  Recall that, for example, the properties of an  body--e.g., a chair--inhere in its attributes; that is, the properties of hardness and weight depend on hardness and weight inhering in extension, which in turn inheres the substance of body.  So in the Cartesian system we have 2 types of conceptual dependence relations--one that includes inherence and one that doesn't.  With naturalism, you have to have the same rules for everything, so Spinoza rejects Cartesian dualism, mostly because it smacks of Dualism... depend for their existence on
     How do we apply this to the argument that Spinoza's modes should be seen a inhering in God?  Well, if God just caused modes (particular mind or bodies) to exist without their properties inhering in him then we'd have two different kinds of conceptual relations; that is, an inconsistent set of rules.  Why? Because if modes don't inhere in God then we have a non-inherence conceptual relation between God and modes but and inherence conceptual relation between modes and their properties.  Lets use the table as an example, I can  know of its properties by knowing it is extended.  The properties of hardness, shape, and weight all inhere in extension; I can conceive of them through the concept of extension because of the inherence relation; that is, I can know about the properties of the table because I know it is extended.  So as we can see we have one type of conceptual relation--between God/subtance and modes--that doesn't involve inherence and we have another type of conceptual relation--between modes and their properties--that does involve inherence.  Having 2 sets of rules without sufficient reason is barred by Spinoza's naturalism, thus, in interpreting Spinoza's notion of modes we must interpret him as saying that modes inhere in God, not that God creates modes.

If you read this whole thing, you are Jesus.  That took me over 3 hours.  I'm gonna proof read this tomorrow, sorry if it's full of mistakes...


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What Can We Know About Morality from the Concept of Freedom?

Is Morality Self-Evident?

     Up until now we have just taken it on faith that Kant is right in that the supreme principle of morality is the Categorical Imperative (CI) in its various incarnations (i.e., formulation of universalization, of natural law, and of humanity as an end).  Now Kant begins his argument for why the CI is the only fundamental moral law.  For Kant it is not enough to give evidence for the CI, he wants to give a logical proof.  In philo-speak, Kant wants an a priori proof of the CI rather than a synthetic proof; that is to say he wants to prove the CI without any appeal to the experiential world; he wants to show that we can come to know the CI simply through rational/logical reflection of concepts.
     An obvious question is, why is Kant so hung up on avoiding appeal to experience?  The general answer is that if we appeal to external reasons to support moral thinking then if those reasons change, so will our moral laws.  For example, suppose after cooking you dinner your friend asks you how the meal was.  In fact, it was terrible but you know telling him this would break his precious heart, so you lie; that is, you lie for the reason that you don't want to hurt your friend's feelings.  
     A few weeks later the same friend announces they will be a contestant on a cooking show and would like your feedback on a dish they will enter in the competition.  He serves you the same dish they served you the previous week; this time you tell your friend that the dish isn't so good for the reason that you want to help them win the competition.  This also seems like a perfectly normal thing to do but the problem is we are left no clear guide to determining the "correct" moral action in situations where people ask for your opinion.  
     Every time our reasons to act change, so do our actions; and reasons are contingent upon our (often) ephemeral desires.  How can morality be so fickle and still have any worth and meaning?  And besides in both situations there are multiple, sometimes contradictory reasons according to which we could have acted.  Maybe in the first dinner I could have told him the truth based on the reason that I think my friend wants to improve his cooking and can't do so without honest criticism.  Of course one could reply that the rule according to which we are acting is "do whatever is going to produce the most happiness for the most people"; and this might be true, but this maxim comes with a boat load of its own problems and discussing them will take us far afield from the task at hand, so I leave it for now.  The essential point is that, for Kant, if we appeal to circumstantial reasons for choosing our behaviour, then what is moral is at the mercy of our circumstances. 

The Concept of Freedom as an Explanation for Autonomy of the Will
     Lets get a couple of definitions out of the way:  The first is 'will'; by will Kant means the ability to cause yourself to act (provided you are a rational being!); for example when you get up in the morning you are acting on your will to wake up.  Freedom is the property of the will that allows you to act independently of external causes.  If we were merely subject to external causes we'd be no different than a ball of tumble weed getting blown around.  Within philosophy the notion of free will is by no means a settled matter; but Kant assumes it nonetheless because it is required for morality.  For example, if we didn't have freewill (our actions were nothing but the total effects of external causes) how could be be culpable for our actions?  It is an entirely reasonable position that morality only makes sense if we have freewill; but the degree to which we have it, if at all, is still an open debate.  The essential point is that in our actions we are (to varying degrees) free from the influence of external causes--through our will and the fact that our will is freewill,.  The technical term for this type of freedom is negative freedom--that is, freedom from external causes.
     Kant is not satisfied with this feeble notion of freedom and argues for a more robust positive freedom as well.  Positive freedom is not just freedom from external causes but the ability to be the cause our own actions (i.e., act on our will).  But although our freedom (USA! USA! USA!) somehow grants us exemption status to external causes (i.e., natural laws which apply to objects) it does not mean our freedom is "lawless".  Along with causation (i.e., we can cause our own actions) comes the notion of laws according to which causation must conform.  For if our freedom of action were lawless our actions would be random, and that is to be no more free than to be subject to external causes; rather our freedom must be a force that conforms with "a special kind" of immutable laws.  
     I'm a little skeptical of this claim.  It seems pretty ad hoc; I mean, isn't it convenient that there are special kinds of immutable laws to which our will ought(?) to conform?  How does Kant know? Is he Jesus?  And doesn't it seem strange that, although we are (as far as we can tell) comprised of only matter, yet we are somehow exempt from the laws of nature (causal chains) when it comes to determining our own action?  These are some problems but are tangential to the issue so lets move on...
     So, given that the special causal power that rational beings have (freewill) conforms to some special kinds of laws Kant defines freedom of will as autonomy.  "What else can freedom of will be but autonomy--that is, the property which will has of being law to itself?" What he means here is that freedom is the ability to act on the laws that you make.  This idea can be a bit tricky to wrap your head around but it is a powerful one: every time you act, you act according to some principle; so every action is, in a sense, an instance of you writing a law.  
     For example, The other day I inadvertently dropped my phone.  A person who saw me drop it ran after me to give it to me.  In doing this action they wrote a law of the will which might be: "if someone inadvertently drops their phone, return it to them".  As I mentioned before, this is an idea I really like, and sometime I like to go through my day thinking (before I act) that what I do will become a law--try it! It's fun!
     Next Kant takes, as he will later admit, a logical jump; he goes from the plausibly defensible "what ever action I do becomes a law" to "I should only act in a way such that whatever I do will be a good universal law".   And the joy does not stop there; if we do make this step we can see that "a free will and a will under moral laws are one and the same."  I think what he means is that a will that is free will always act in such a way that its actions make universalizable law and a (rational) will will always follow the "special laws" governing the will (which magically turn out to line up exactly with the CI--i.e., the universalizable laws).  It all sounds a bit too good to be true...
     Remember, the whole passage started with the intent of trying to extract, a priori, purely from concepts the principle of morality.  Kant says if we analyze the concept of freedom of the will (aka. autonomy) we can, without reference to the empirical matters, deduce the principle of morality (CI); that is to say, the notion of the CI in contained in the notion of freewill.  But not so fast.  First of all, this whole thing only works if we suppose freedom of the will.  And second, even if we suppose freewill and from freewill deduce the notion of morality, this does nothing to guarantee we can discover the content of morality--i.e., "a good will is one whose maxim can always have as its content itself considered as a universal law"--there is no reason why the content of morality might not be different; what if if it is, "act only in such a way that will maximize happiness for the greatest number of people?"  Simply analyzing the concept of freewill doesn't give us any indication either way...
     Recap: We started by saying that rational beings have free will in a negative sense (I can cause myself to act), then we said we also have positive free will (I can do the things I freely chose to do and I am not subject to external causes on how I act) and since positive freewill causes things to happen, it must be subject to some "special" causal laws (i.e., other than the laws of objects).  Because I have the ability to chose what I want (negative freedom) there is such a thing a morality; morality arises out of the fact that I can chose between "good" and "bad" things/courses of actions; i.e., the concept of morality can be known from rational reflection of the concept of negative freedom.  Regarding what can be known from the concept of positive freedom, we can know that there are (moral) laws that govern the will (because anything with causal power must act according to laws); however, even Kant admits that we cannot know what these laws are purely by examining the concept of positive freedom; we can only know that they exist, thus we need to look elsewhere for an a priori grounding of the CI...

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Dueling with Dualism Part 3: The Leibniz Challenge and The Nature of God

Due to overwhelming reader demand here is part 3 of "Dueling with Dualism"...

Quick Review
     I know most of you have memorized most of Spinoza's philosophy but for the few of you who haven't and would like to be brought up to speed, here's what we've covered so far:  The grand argument that Spinoza is making is for Monism--the idea that there exists only one substance.  The argument proceeds in 4 intermediary steps...
1.  No two substances can share an attribute.
2.  It pertains to the nature of substance to exist, i.e., substance necessarily exists.
3.  God--defined as a substance that contains all attributes--exists.
/C.  Since (1) no two substances can share an attribute, God is the only substance that exists.

    In the previous post we looked at arguments for (1).  To prove (1) Spinoza demonstrated that if we supposed the opposite of his position, that is we supposed that two distinct substances 'A' and 'B' did somehow share an attribute 'X' we would have nothing through which we could appeal to pick the one out from the other.  The attempt would sound like this, "which one is 'A'?" Answer: "the one with attribute 'X'.  Since the attribute 'X' is common to both substances this information is of no help in confirming identity.
     The next attempt was to try to distinguish substances that share an attribute through modes.  For this we supposed two extended substances 'A' with mode 'm' and substance  'B' with mode 'n'.  The problem with this method of differentiation is that modes depend causally and conceptually on attributes for their existence; so mode 'm' only exists because it inheres in the attribute of extension and the same goes for mode 'n'.  Identifying a distinction between two things via the modes only tells us that the modes are different, it can't tell us that they are different substances.  So we know that the mode of substance A and the mode of substance B both inhere in the attribute of extension.  And since substances are known through their attributes, given the same attributes, the substances A and B must be the same.  By appealing to modes we end up back in the attribute problem.

Leibniz's Challenge
     Leibniz says ok, so we can't distinguish two substances that share a single attribute via appeal to the attribute or to the modes; but suppose instead there are 2 substances 'A' and 'B' that share one attribute in common but possess more than one attribute each.  Substance A possesses attributes 'x' and 'y' and substance B possesses attributes 'y' and 'z'.  Even though they both share attribute 'y' why couldn't we appeal to attributes 'x' and 'z' to distinguish them from each other? 
     To see how Spinoza can answer this challenge we need to review his definition of the relationship between a substance and its attribute(s); for Spinoza it is a matter of definition that a substance can be picked out and its essence (its nature) known simply by reference to its attribute.  For example, in Cartesian model, in the case of the substance 'Body' I can identify it as such solely by appealing to the fact that it is extended.  I don't need to appeal to any other concepts except the attribute which it possesses.  Similarly if something is the substance 'Mind' then if I am aware of its attribute of thought I can identify the substance as being 'Mind'. 
     It's very important that I don't need to appeal to anything outside of a substances attribute to identify what kind of substance it is.  Another way to view this principle is that identity of substances is possible through appeal to self-contained concepts.  E.g., The concept of "extension" is part of the concept of Body.  I don't need to appeal to any concepts beyond those included in 'Body' to identify it as such. 
     OK, so now that we are armed with relevant information, lets return to Leibniz's challenge of two substances 1 cup...Oops, I mean two substances, multiple attributes--with one of them shared.  So, how are we going to distinguish between substance A (with attributes 'y' and 'z') and substance B (with attributes 'x' and 'z')?  Obviously we can't appeal to substance 'z' because that's the one they hold in common and it wouldn't help us pick out either A or B.  This leaves appeal to 'y' and 'x' but there's a problem; according to our definition of attribute, every substance can be known through each of its attributes.  According to our definition I should have been able to know the nature of substance A and B through any of their attributes; but this clearly doesn't apply if I appeal to attribute 'z' because both share 'z' and knowing that A has 'z' and B has 'z' doesn't help me distinguish them as distinct substances.       
    So, to summarize the response to Leibniz's challenge that two substances could share an attribute if  each substance had multiple attributes, Spinoza can reply that the scenario that Leibniz presents violates the definition of attribute; namely that every attribute a substance possesses must in itself must conceptually imply the nature/essence of that substance.  Another way to put it would be that I should be able to appeal to any of a substance's attributes and, without appeal to anything else, know what type of substance it is; just as we can with extension and body, and thought and mind.

Multiple Attributes...Say Wuuut?
    That's right ninjas, contrary to the Cartesian idea that each substance has only one attribute Spinoza contends that a substance can have multiple attributes; and if that doesn't boggle the mind, he says a substance can have infinitely many!  I'd explain it to you right now but according to the book whose format I'm following we have to first further discuss Spinoza's substance monism.

Step 2: The Necessary Existence of Substance
     "It pertains to the nature of a substance to exist".  Here we are entering the realm of ontological arguments (more or less "arguments for why something exists").  I'm not a big fan of ontological arguments because they always seem to be defining things into existence; on the other hand how else can you explain the existence of fundamental things.  You could say that the same thing happens in theoretical physics in regards to fundamental forces and particles; take energy for example, that it cannot be created or destroyed is one of its defined properties.  In a cosmological context we might also say that energy has always existed (it's a difficult statement to disprove empirically); it is in the nature of energy to exist; and the same goes for the fundamental particles of matter.  So, I think I we view Spinoza's ontological arguments in this context they don't seem so anachronistic and irrelevant. 
      Getting back to Spinoza's view of the nature of substance vis a vis existence, it is a matter of logical necessity that existence is part of the intrinsic nature of substance.   To understand why he makes this claim lets consider nature of finite things first.  In regards to finite things, such as your computer, you, the chair you're sitting on, your fridge, the tree outside, the other tree beside it, the grass in your lawn, the blade of grass on the property line between your property and your neighbour's property, the blade of grass beside that...I could go on...there is nothing about the nature of finite things that makes their existence logically necessary.  If you didn't exist, or if your computer didn't exist, or if the tree didn't exist..and so on, there'd be no logical contradiction.  We'd still live in an intelligible world.
     Beyond logical necessity there is also the fact that finite things are the products of their causes--and that could be unknowably many causes.  Take a table for example, for it to exist a carpenter had to make it (a cause), and he had to get the wood from a tree (a cause) and something had to make the tree grow (causes) and the parents of the carpenter had to copulate for him to exist (causes) and so on.  
     This idea of chains of causation don't apply to substances.  Substances are self-caused.  So long as the concept of a substance is coherent it is in its nature to exist; and if its nature is to exist, then it does exist.  Alright, before you have a wack attack like I did when I first heard this let me 'splain what my professor said about this.  At first this idea of something existing simply because it is coherent and its essence seems like the kind of stuff that give philosophy a bad name.  But if we approach Spinoza's idea within the framework of his naturalism a different picture emerges.  In this context he is simply searching for fundamental entities and principles upon which our universe is built.  He's doing theoretical physics.  He's asking what sorts of entities must necessarily exist in order for our known world to be intelligible and what physical laws need to exist.  View in this context we can see Spinoza as a proto-Naturalist theoretical physicist.  This is usually how he is interpreted.  The talk of "substance" and "god" are all just artifacts of the time in which he wrote.
     So, to summarize his position on substance: (a) it is self-caused; (b) it is conceptually and causally independent from other substances; (c)  if it is conceivable and it is coherent--i.e., doesn't lead to logical contradictions--it exists.  For the most part (a) is self-explanatory and it logically follows from it that no substance can be caused by anything else.  Regarding (b) for Spinoza causal and conceptual relations are equivalent; for example a finite thing such as yourself is both causally and conceptually dependent on the same things for your existence, thus we can equate the two concepts.  Applied to substances, no substance can be causally or conceptually related to any other substance (because they are by definition causally and conceptually independent).   So, given that a substance cannot be causally or conceptually related to any other substances and all things inhere in substances, it must follow that substances are self-caused and self-conceived (which in the end is the same thing).  Besides this argument that naturally follows from his premises Spinoza also applies, in tandem, the principle of sufficient reason (PSR): because a substance cannot be produced by anything else, it must be produced by itself, i.e., it is self-caused.
     A possible objection to self-causation is that since causes must exist prior to their effects then for a thing to cause itself it must exist prior to itself, which doesn't make any sense.  Spinoza gets out of this because of his "wide" notion of causation.  Essentially he holds there is an equivalence between causation and explanation; to give an explanation of something is to talk about its causes and vice versa.  On this wider notion of causation, saying something is self-caused is the same as saying it is self-explanatory.  Like I said before, if we give Spinoza in a modern naturalist interpretation, this idea doesn't seem so outrageous; as I mentioned before, we see the same ideas being applied in modern theoretical physics.  And now that we have proven premise (2), that substances necessarily exist, we can move to (3).

Step (3) and (4): God Is The Substance That Contains All The Attributes And God Is The Only Substance In The Woooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooorld!!!!!!
     As with most Spinozan arguments we begin with a definition: 

By God I understand a being absolutely infinite, that is, a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal and infinite essence.

So what's it all mean?  Well, we know that God is a substance.  We know he has infinitely many attributes.  From premise/fact (2)--that all substances necessarily exist it--follows that God necessarily exists.  And from the premise/fact (1)--no two substances can share attributes--and (3) God's got all of 'em, (4) there can be no other substances but God, hence substance Monism.  Q.E.D.
     There is one important caveat that arises out of Spinoza's rationalism, which is that the notion of God has to be logically coherent and all of its features must be intelligible.  These demands were a significant break from tradition, not so much it what they required but the degree to which Spinoza insisted that the PSR be applied to God.  Spinoza's God can't do or be logically unintelligible; he can't escape the fundamental laws of nature because God just is the fundamental laws and substance of nature.  There is no separate being that shows favoritism or has some master plan for humanity.  There is just the lawful order of the cosmos...the God/Nature.  Obviously this doctrine would not have been viewed favourably in a time (sadly, even now) when orthodoxy was that the notion of God wasn't subject to intelligibility.
     So, apart from a fairly standard ontological argument for God Spinoza did make one unique contribution via the PSR.  He said that given his definition of God there is no good reason by which we could explain the fact that God doesn't exist.  Again, if we interpret Spinoza as a modern naturalist this is in a way equivalent to trying to explain why the cosmos is the way it is and and trying to come up with reasons for why it could have been otherwise.  I think, formulated this way, these are legitimate ways to say, "well the world just wouldn't make any sense if we didn't postulate (a Spinozan) God".  
     At first I wasn't too keen on this application of the PSR to invoke the existence of God; it just seemed too much like a really bad layman's argument from ignorance for the existence of God.  But like I said, given the naturalist interpretation of Spinoza's God and substance, I can live with it.  But if Spinoza tries to attach supernatural powers to his "God"(but he di'in't), I'm outta here!