Nature has no end which is pre-established

9.9.2018 kl. 20:30 - Sveinbjörn Þórðarson

The Ethica of Baruch Spinoza, written in the 1660s, is, to my mind, undoubtedly one of the most significant and iconoclastic works of philosophy in European history. As I discussed in my (now long-abandoned) doctoral thesis, Spinoza was the first modern European thinker to attempt a fundamental, systematic naturalisation of the natural world. While the Ethics are admittedly a difficult work, the Appendix to the first book puts it quite bluntly: There are no ends (or "final causes") in nature. The following is an absolutely astounding and brilliant analysis:

Men commonly suppose that all natural things act on account of an end, as they themselves do. Indeed they think it certain that God himself directs all things towards a certain end, for they say that God has made everything on account of man, and man in order that he might worship God... It will be sufficient if I take as a basis here something, which everyone must admit: namely, that all human beings are born ignorant of the causes of things, and that all have an appetite for seeking what is useful to them, and that they are conscious of this. It follows ... that human beings do everything on account of an end; namely on account of something that is useful, which they seek. From this it comes about that they always seek to know only the final causes of things that have been done, and when they have heard these they are satisfied, because they have no cause for future doubt. But if they cannot learn these final causes from another, nothing remains for them but to turn to themselves and to reflect on the ends by which they themselves are usually determined to similar things, and so they necessarily judge the mind of another from their own mind. Further, since they find, both inside and outside themselves, many means which contribute greatly to the procurement of what is useful to them – for example, eyes for seeing, teeth for chewing, vegetables and animals for food, the sun for light, the sea for breeding fish – it has come about that they consider all natural things as if they were means to what is useful to them. And since they know that these means were discovered and not made by them, they had reason to believe that there is someone else who made these means for their use. For after they had considered things as means, they could not believe that they themselves had made these things, but they had to infer, from the means that they themselves commonly made for themselves, that there exists some governor or governors of Nature... who have taken care of everything for them, and have made everything for their use. And since they had never heard anything about the mind of these beings, they had to judge it from their own, and so they asserted that the gods arrange everything for the use of men, in order that they might bind men to them and be held by them in the highest honour. From this it came about that each person, in accordance with his own way of thinking, thought out different ways of worshipping God, so that God might love them above the rest, and direct the whole of Nature to the advantage of their blind desire and insatiable avarice. So this prejudice turned into a superstition, and put down deep roots in the mind, which was the cause of the fact that each person endeavoured mightily to understand and to explain the final causes of all things. But whilst they tried to show that Nature does nothing in vain ... they seem to have shown simply that Nature and the gods are as mad as men. For just look at the way in which things have finally turned out! Among so many things in Nature which are advantageous they were bound to find many which are not, such as storms, earthquakes, disease, etc., and they judged that these occurred because the gods were angry on account of the injuries that men had done to them, or, on account of faults that they had committed in worshipping them. And although experience cried out daily, and showed with an infinity of examples that advantages and disadvantages happen indiscriminately to the pious and the impious alike, they did not on this account cease from their inveterate prejudice. For it was easier for them to place this among other unknown things of whose use they were ignorant, and so to retain their present and inborn state of ignorance, rather than destroy that whole fabric and devise a new one. So they thought it certain that the judgements of the gods vastly surpass human comprehension; which would of itself have been sufficient to cause truth to be hidden from the human race for eternity, had not mathematics, which is concerned not with ends but solely with the essences and properties of figures, shown to human beings another standard of truth... Nature has no end which is pre-established for it, and ... all final causes are nothing but human inventions.

(Parkinson translation)

This is heady and deeply radical stuff by 17th century standards. Gotta love Spinoza.