SPINOZA, GOD, AND EINSTEIN
BY Sy Schechtman
Human history has generally had some overarching supervisory heavenly assistance under the general term of god or goddess, or in capital letters, with the advent of monotheism. In our western concepts, indeed, God, or Lord signifies a unity, or singularity of this Deity to whom we must listen to or obey. God for most of us was a mentor of morality and basic ethics, as elaborated in the various holy scriptures, the Hebrew and Christian Bibles or the Moslem Koran. From ancient times, along the way on the long journey till now (modernity?), civilization has had its minority share of secularists, agnostics, and downright atheists, but generally the large mass of people paid lip service to the Deity concept, even if only as a convenient convention. Some form of “God is in the heavens and all’s right with the world”.
There were several pagan concepts originally which displayed antithetical concerns for mankind. The Aristotelian (Greek) view had a dim cold view of an unfeeling cosmos, unchanging and everlasting, while Zoroastrians (Persian) had an eternal clash between good and evil. Gradually, in the early pre Christian era, the Jewish concept of monotheism became acceptable. Now we began to have a Deity who was active in history, who could intervene at seemingly crucial times miraculously, and was concerned and caring about the ultimate welfare of humanity. And perhaps divine reward and or punishment in the afterlife. And was the basic ground for our morality, from the essential Ten Commandments as elaborated in the Hebrew Bible to the many more specific “Thou shalt” and “thou shalt nots”. (Six hundred and thirteen to be exact!) A possibly strict balance sheet to evaluate one’s total rewards---both material and spiritual-- on earth and beyond. Why the good should prosper and the wicked be punished.
this material spiritual and material calculus
was in place for about two millennia
with not much opposition, at
least grudging acceptance as the “way
things were”---- the normative
Judeo/Christian ethic. Until Baruch Spinoza, that is, on
July 27, 1656----( the sixth of Av, 5416
in the Jewish calendar) was expelled
and excommunication declared ---the cherem---“because of the evil
opinions and acts of Baruch de Spinoza, …..(which we) have endeavored by
various means and promises to turn him
away from his evil ways. But having
failed to make him mend his wicked ways…..we have decided that he should be excommunicated and expelled
from the people of
These works spell out some of the most revolutionary pronouncements in recorded history—then and even now, for most of us. God exists only hypothetically, an important but still only merely a philosophic concept. Indeed for Spinoza nature and God are indistinguishable and coequal. God did not create nature, and Spinoza seems to lean strongly toward a pantheistic generation of sorts as in Wordsworth’s famous ode on “Intimations of Immortality, “we come trailing clouds of glory, from God who is our father.” The powerful Biblical opening of earth’s creation, sonorous and portentious, in Genesis one……. “in the beginning God Created heaven and earth….Let there be light….and ( on each of the seven days of creation) God saw that it was good…” According to Spinoza this never happened , nature and God were always an eternal fused entity, the prime force ceaselessly active in the world. And most importantly God was not as an anthropomorphic image akin to the pillar of fire at night or cloud in the day who lead the Jews in the forty year desert trek, or Who directly spoke to Moses or the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Spinoza states that “By God I understand a being absolutely infinite ---a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal and infinite essence.” Not a tangible or palpable father figure or ineffable image of human possibility.
Moses did not write the Pentateuch (the Five Books of Moses). They were compiled over centuries by various
authors, chiefly the prophet Ezra. God
is really best understood as a philosophic
and not active principle, and is not a
role model to holiness, but whose basic teaching of social and ethical
morality is profound. ….Thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself. (And you are your brother’s keeper!) Also Jews are not the
Spinoza’s opinions, and publications, which came out mostly posthumously, made
more enemies than friends—then and now!
But his reputation as dissident
believer—(he never espoused atheism as
such) gradually spread throughout
And in our modern age undoubtedly the most famous scientist in the world—Albert Einstein-- had this to say “ I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and doings of mankind”. He was definitely not an atheist. “The fanatical atheists are like slaves who still feel the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after a hard struggle. They are creatures who---in their grudge against traditional religion ‘as the opium of the masses’—cannot hear the music of the spheres.” In a way he was a humble mystic. “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, I am a devoutly religious man.”
Einstein’s greatest achievements were in is theories on relativity and the physics involved in the photoelectric effect. He was a relatively young man, in l922, when he won the Nobel prize for his brilliant work. Most of the rest of his professional life was spent, however, in a vain attempt to find a more complete explanation of the workings of the universe. A unified field theory that would tie together electricity and magnetism and gravity and quantum mechanics. Thus correlating and harmonizing the basic perceived physical forces of the universe. And making the “music of the spheres” manifestly real to all. And the world waited expectantly. It was headline news for many years, including the front pages of the New York Times, when successive versions of his updated unified theory----from 1922 thru l929-- were published. Famous colleagues such as Arthur Eddington, Max Planck, and Wolfgang Pauli contributed suggestions and emendations, but still the ultimate synthesis eluded Einstein. The most recent discovered force, quantum mechanics, never seemed to coalesce with the other equations of Einsteins’ general relativity equations. The ultimate unity of Nature and/or Spinoza’s God was still beyond reach, although the concept of his path breaking work in general relativity is fundamental to our current knowledge of the physical universe.
It is now 13.7 billion years, scientifically, since the universe we now inhabit seems to have been in existence, from a very small circumscribed “big bang” of enormous energy that keeps spreading in apparently limitless space. Minuscule man, however, will try to continue to understand and so survive in this apparently endless and infinite cosmic system and still seek the salvation of understanding his rightful place in this hopefully divine drama as perhaps Spinoza, and certainly Einstein, did.