To Spae, as Spinoza?

The idea of God and a higher form/energy has probably intrigued every single person at some point of his/her life. It may have arisen due to existential questions and to rationalize seemingly absurd trappings of life, or it may have arisen, as in the case of a number of theoretical physicists, by trying to understand the order and symmetry of our Cosmos. Einstein was one of the key figures from the twentieth century scientific community who discussed his ideas on God at length. The interesting part in this arises from the essential grounding of his ideas in Spinozism.


So what is Spinozism?

Spinozism is a philosophical system of ideas put forth by Baruch Spinoza, a 17th century Dutch philosopher, who defined “God” as a singular self-reliant entity, with matter and thought being attributes of this form.



According to Spinoza, our universe is a mode associated with the two attributes of Thought and Extension. While the former term is self-explanatory, one may mention a little about what the latter refers to. Metaphysics says that extension can be thought of in terms of the property of “taking up space“. Descartes defines extension as the property of existing in more than one dimension. For Descartes, the primary characteristic of matter is extension, just as the primary characteristic of mind is consciousness. Going back to Spinoza’s views, he believed that God has infinitely many other attributes which are not present in our physical world.

Spinoza’s words “Deus sive Natura” (God or Nature) highlight this aspect beautifully. For him, God is a dynamic nature in action, evolving and changing. There are two key points to be mentioned here: firstly, even God under the attributes of thought and extension cannot be identified strictly with our world since these attributes form just a subset of God’s (note the conspicuous dissociation of God from a ‘Him’ or ‘Her’) infinitely many attributes. Secondly, Spinoza insists that one cannot conceive any attribute of a substance that, in itself, leads to the division of that substance, and that “a substance which is absolutely infinite is indivisible” (Ethics, Part I). So, Spinoza showed, by his arguments, that the world is a subset of God. So the world is essentially in and made of the all-pervading entity known as God, and just as the Pantheists posit, one does not seemingly have a distinct anthropomorphic (the property of attributing human form or other characteristics to a thing other than a human being) God. Much like the idea of Krishna consciousness, put forth in Hinduism, or the principles of Taoism, I would say.  This idea was a bone of contention for quite some time, with the Spinozists being labelled as Heretics, evidently because it went against certain ideas and concepts of divinity as laid down in certain religions. For Spinoza, all that exists share a common unity, all that happens has a certain regularity and one has the distinct ideas of the spirit and nature, which can be described in terms of the attributes of God. 

So where does Einstein come into all this?

Well, for starters, Einstein did say the famous words: 

“I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind…”

Einstein’s admiration for Spinoza is clearly visible in his letter to Dr. Dagobert Runes, philosopher and founder of the Philosophical Library, where he posits his ideas on the ethical significance of Spinoza’s philosophy. Here I’ll quote a small section of that letter

“I do not have the professional knowledge to write a scholarly article about Spinoza. But what I think about this man I can express in a few words. Spinoza was the first to apply with strict consistency the idea of an all-pervasive determinism to human thought, feeling, and action. In my opinion, his point of view has not gained general acceptance by all those striving for clarity and logical rigor only because it requires not only consistency of thought, but also unusual integrity, magnamity, and — modesty.”

In fact, Einstein even wrote a poem for Spinoza, a portion of which is

How much do I love that noble man
More than I could tell with words
I fear though he’ll remain alone
With a holy halo of his own.

Einstein, much like the followers of Spinoza, saw God in the order and ‘lawfulness’ of all that exists. Sigmund Freud famously contested the very idea of ‘God’ and believed that ‘God’ was just an illusion, borne out of the need for a father figure and the central pole of religions, which according to him, were created to help mankind restrain the violent impulses of man during the development of civilization. Einstein, however, draws clear from following this line. He felt that such a belief seemingly put forth the lack of any transcendental outlook of life.

Einstein mentions, in one of his letters to a Talmudic scholar, that the idea of a ‘personal God’ was primarily an anthropomorphic concept, which could not be taken seriously. He found too constraining a view and conception of God; one which was centered around the proverbial human sphere. For Einstein, “admiration for the beauty of and belief in the logical simplicity of the order and harmony which we can grasp humbly and only imperfectly” was the key to understanding what God could be.

Einstein, like Spinoza, never sought a traditional ‘God’ or felt the need for moral instruction from religious orders, even though Spinoza was from a line of ‘Conversos’ (those who had been converted forcefully due to the Portugese Inquisition) who were extremely proud of their Jewish identity and order (they re-converted enmasse after the Decree of Toleration, 1579 was passed by the Union of Utrecht). According to Einstein, “[T]here is nothing divine about morality. It is a purely human affair.” Even though neither followed any religious order per se, neither man could imagine a universe completely devoid of a higher power. As per Einstein, the puniness of man which he realizes upon observing the subtle nuances and elegance of the laws of nature, of evolution, gives us a rationale for appreciating a higher order and symmetry in God.

Einstein also believed that onceour scientific understanding has reached the most fundamental level, the laws will explain themselves. One would not need external constraints or extra variables to explain any portion of the theory. Conspicuous signs of a singular, self-subsisting God-liness. This belief was instrumental in Einstein’s drive, right up to the end of his life, for finding a unified theory—a “Theory of Everything” that could unambiguously reveal God’s hand in the world around us. He viewed the quest for science as a form of devotion, and since this is a belief that I strongly align with, I rest my case with the following words by Spinoza, from Ethics Part I Proposition XIV, but with the open invitation to not accept what others have put forth to describe God but to keep trudging along the path of self-realization to truly attest or negate what Einstein and Spinoza so strongly believed in.

Except God, no substance can be or be conceived.


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