Spinoza, quantum mechanics and free will

Baruch Spinoza had a philosophy that was very complicated and in some ways odd. He rejected the dualism of people like Renee Decartes, in favor of a philosophical monism. That meant that for Spinoza all is made from the same stuff, there is no separation between body and mind or the material and the ideal. All is connected and all is determined. This determinism means that nothing is truly under our own control, there is no free will, and the secret of life is not to let external circumstances — things that go wrong, actions by other people, anger over some injustice — cause us pain or emotional distress.

With quantum mechanics and the principle of probability, Spinoza’s approach could lead to a radically different conclusion. Instead of one pre-determined reality, every possibility is determined — all that can exist does at some level — but our own experience is but just one possible actualization of the myriad of probabilities. This opens the door to free will; we can’t chart a path not already determined possible, but we can choose from within the realm of possibilities, at least to some extent. So how much free will do we have? Do we have any control, or are we just riding the storm out?

Spinoza noted how much stress and anxiety people can create for themselves by worrying over something they can’t control, or obsessing over some event, detail, or action. Life is a balance. Psychologists might talk about chemicals and neural processes, a poet might talk about the balance between thought and faith. But as creatures evolved for life in a jungle or steppe, people strive to maintain that balance in a strange world of urban pressures, expectations, and questions of self-worth. It seems to me that the key to maintaining that balance is to, following a mix of Spinoza and quantum mechanics, decide that we can control only two things. And, if we keep these things relatively under control, then we can have faith that somehow the rest of life will take care of itself.

The first thing we control is how we react to and interpret a situation. This control is, however, hard to obtain. Usually we react without thinking, and interpret reality based on scripts from past situations and conditions. One can go through life that way, never really taking control over the process of how we confront reality. Of course, a psychologist would say that real control is an illusion – cognitive and affective biases haunt us all, and our cognitive maps cannot go beyond what we’ve experienced. Fair enough. But within that set of constraints we can be reflective and calm when something happens, we can learn not to have a knee jerk reaction, not to assume the worst or let our mind go wandering into the morass of what might happen (or worse, what should have been done differently by ourselves or others).

Letting go of guilt from the past is necessary to obtain that control. And the key to being able to do that is forgiveness. If you can’t forgive others, you can’t forgive yourself. So it’s necessary to be a truly forgiving person, to let go of guilt, and then to learn calm and reflection when confronting situations – even for something that requires immediate action calmness is better then panic, it keeps one clear headed. Then we have to think about the situation, question various possibilities and interpretations, and be willing to see the situation from other perspectives, understand other peoples’ points of view, and reflect on it in an almost detached manner. A lot of work, but with practice it can be done, and then while one can’t shed ones experiences and unnoticed biases completely, we can have much more control over how we interpret and react to situations.

The second thing we control are the choices we make. Again, this control is usually sacrificed – often we make choices by rote response. One key thing to do is to take ethical responsibility for our choices, and not the unintended consequences. The consequences, if bad, are to learn from for the next time we make a choice, but the choice itself is what we made. If we take responsibility for the consequences, then we’re adding into the mix choices of others, things outside our control, how others reacted, etc. That causes us to carry a burden far heavier than it should be. We learn from the consquences.  Similarly, if a choice by someone else hurts us in a way not intended by the other, we shouldn’t hold it against the other person (this raises an other issue, that of intentionality, but I’ll leave that aside for now!)

Once we make a choice, we need to own it. Even if we are convinced it was a bad choice, it was the choice at the time. My choice, my responsibility, I can’t undo it, I won’t regret it (and definitely not feel guilt), but I will learn from it. If one does encounter guilt (say, you lied to your spouse and feel horrible about it), that’s a present condition that one encounters, and must be dealt with in the present with another choice (i.e., to tell the truth or not) and by taking responsibility for past choices made.

I’ve never really liked the determinism in Spinoza’s philosophical monism, but he was writing in an era which would also give us Newton and the clockwork universe. And there is something compelling to his almost Buddha like approach to life (the Buddha said that life was suffering, and suffering was caused by attachments). I think, though, such determinism can be questioned not just philosophically, but scientifically through quantum mechanics. Science and philosophy need not be seen as distinctly separate endeavors.

  1. #1 by deadondres on February 9, 2009 - 15:32

    Don’t know when you posted this. Thanks it was very informative for what I was looking for.

  2. #2 by McGarr on April 1, 2009 - 21:00

    Interesting article. I wrote a similar one on my website the other day. I often wonder what Spinoza would have made of acausality.

  3. #3 by Guilherme on April 11, 2009 - 12:30


    Very interesting this article! I was looking for someting about this issue. I’m from Brazil and here I don’t find out nothing about this.

  4. #4 by John Doe on March 28, 2010 - 20:29

    Einstein didn’t understand quantum mechanics and you blogger teach politics, a pseudoscience (along psychology and economics), aka bullshits, what makes you think that you have the brains to grasp such a complex concept as quantum mechanics? A person with a solid intellect doesn’t end up teaching bullshits, pseudoscience attracts mediocre minds. You can bullshit some kids or the dull majority but there is a reason why Princeton staff didn’t want a school of social science. “The second thing we control are the choices we make.” PRICELESS.

    • #5 by Scott Erb on March 28, 2010 - 21:24

      Gee, an anonymous poster hurling insults. I mean, that’s the kind of thing a person “with a solid intellect” does, eh? Methinks thou doth project too much.

  5. #6 by Susan on March 29, 2011 - 19:09

    I like Spinoza…the little I know of him. I would like to understand his notion of determinism. I just can’t fathom that he thought that we have NO free will.

    “The second thing we control are the choices we make.” <==that sentence makes sense to me. I think we should try harder to MAKE choices…rather than just go thru the day by rote. I think using quantum mechanics hit "anonymous" the wrong way. I think he could have given a more reasoned objection though.

  6. #7 by brucetheeconomist on March 30, 2011 - 04:26

    Perhaps, John Doe’s mother was frightened by an economist with a bunch of BS.

  7. #8 by brucetheeconomist on March 30, 2011 - 04:33

    I think I’d also say we need to not kid ourselves about having more control than we do.

    I think some people are unsympathetic at times often because they want to believe they control things they don’t.

    For example, often the reaction to say drug addition is “that could never happen to me”: why should we pay for treatment? In fact though this may be at least partially an inherited tendency.

    I think people are judgmental when they want to think “it couldn’t happen to me”, even if maybe it could, because It’s a comfortable delusion.

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