March 2008

                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.

        Now 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 Israel…”     The exact heresies are  not spelled out in this drastic ban,  but soon after Spinoza  began publishing his Ethics and then his Theological-Political Treatise it was very evident why Spinoza, still a young man,  was banned for life under the harshest cherem decree  the Amsterdam  Jewish community   ever issued.

         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.

        Also, 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 Chosen  People!` According to Spinoza  they are neither intellectually  nor morally superior to other people.  “Inasmuch as God is to all men equally  gracious….the Jews possessed  no gift of God above other men, and there is no difference between Jew and Gentile.”

        Obviously 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 Europe, and in 1673  he was offered a post at the University of Heidelberg.   He declined this, continued to make his living as a lens grinder,  and write and think and dispute philosophically  among his small circle of friends.   His religious critique gradually attracted supporters down through  the ages, however, and became an important stimulus for modern biblical scholars, who, while  desacralizing the text, were  still studying its message rightly as fallible mortals  in  an earnest search for the infinite Godhead.

        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.