March 2008

              SPINOZA, GOD, AND EINSTEIN  

                               BY  Sy Schechtman

         Human historyhas generally had some overarching supervisoryheavenly assistance under the general term of  god or goddess, or in capital letters,with the advent ofmonotheism.   In our western concepts, indeed,God, or Lord signifies  a unity, orsingularity of this Deityto 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 Hebrewand Christian Bibles or the Moslem Koran.From ancient times,along the way on the long journey tillnow (modernity?),civilizationhas hadits 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 dimcold view of an unfeeling cosmos, unchanging and everlasting,while Zoroastrians (Persian)had an eternal clash between good and evil.   Gradually,in the early pre Christianera, the Jewish concept ofmonotheism became acceptable.   Nowwe 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 rewardand or punishment in the afterlife.   And was the basic ground for our morality, from the essential Ten Commandmentsas 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.    Whythe good should prosper and the wicked be punished.

       Now this material spiritual and material calculuswas in place for about two millenniawith not much opposition,at least grudging acceptance as the“way things were”---- the normative Judeo/Christian ethic.UntilBaruch Spinoza, thatis,on July 27, 1656----( the sixth ofAv, 5416 in the Jewish calendar)wasexpelledand excommunication declared ---the cherem---“because of the evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Spinoza, …..(which we) have endeavored by various means andpromises to turn him away from his evil ways.But having failed to make him mend his wicked ways…..we have decidedthat he should be excommunicated and expelled from the peopleof Israel…”    The exact heresies are not spelled out in this drastic ban,but soon after Spinozabegan 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 decreethe AmsterdamJewish community   ever issued.

       These works spell outsome of the most revolutionary pronouncementsin recordedhistory—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 indistinguishableand coequal.God did not create nature, and Spinoza seems to lean strongly toward a pantheistic generation of sortsas in Wordsworth’sfamous ode on “Intimations of Immortality, “we come trailing clouds of glory,  from God who is our father.”The powerful Biblical openingof 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 Spinozathis never happened ,  nature and God were always an eternal fused entity,theprime force ceaselessly active in the world.  And mostimportantly God was not as an anthropomorphicimageakin 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 GodI 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 ofhuman 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 moralityis profound.….Thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself. (And you are your brother’s keeper!) AlsoJews are not the ChosenPeople!` According to Spinozathey are neither intellectuallynor morally superior to other people.“Inasmuch as God is to all men equallygracious….the Jews possessedno 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,mademore enemies than friends—then and now!   But his reputationas dissident believer—(he never espousedatheism as such)  gradually spread throughout Europe, and in 1673he 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 philosophicallyamong his small circle of friends.   His religious critique gradually attracted supporters down throughthe ages, however, and became an important stimulus for modern biblical scholars, who, whiledesacralizing the text, were still studying its message rightly as fallible mortalsinan 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 concernshimself with the fate and doings of mankind”.  He was definitely not an atheist.“The fanaticalatheistsare 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 experienceis the mysterious.It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science.Heto whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonderand stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle.To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is somethingthat our minds cannot grasp,whose beauty and sublimityreaches us only  indirectly: this is religiousness.   In this sense,I am a devoutly religious man.”

       Einstein’s greatest achievementswere 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 professionallife was spent, however,in a vain attempttofind 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 perceivedphysical forces of the universe.  And making the “music ofthe spheres” manifestlyreal to all.  And the world waited expectantly.  It was headline newsfor manyyears, including the front pages of the New York Times, when successive versions of his updated unified theory----from 1922 thru l929-- were published.  Famous colleaguessuch 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 Natureand/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 inhabitseems to have beenin existence,from a very small circumscribed“big bang” of enormous energythat keeps spreading in apparently limitless space.Minusculeman, however, will try to continue to understandand so survive in this apparentlyendlessand infinite cosmic system and still seek the salvation of understanding his rightful place in this hopefully divine dramaas perhapsSpinoza, and certainly Einstein, did.