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Spinoza's God

Jul 25, 2012

When Einstein said "I believe in Spinoza's God," what did he mean?

He was speaking of the17th century Dutch Philosopher, who once said:
"The operations of nature follow from the essence of God".
"Our knowledge of God, and of God's will increases in proportion to our knowledge and clear understanding of nature"
Did Spinoza equate God with nature?  Did he think that God was overseeing the laws of nature?

What's clear is that, when speaking of God, Spinoza wasn't envisioning a bearded man in a robe. He had something else in mind. Something that doesn't quite come through in the Biblical notion of an all-'seeing', all-'hearing', God who 'wants' us to do X and not Y. He wrote in a letter to a friend in 1674:
When you say that if I deny, that the operations of seeing, hearing, attending, wishing, &c., can be ascribed to God, or that they exist in Him in any eminent fashion, you do not know what sort of God mine is; I suspect that you believe there is no greater perfection than such as can be explained by the aforesaid attributes. I am not astonished; for I believe that, if a triangle could speak, it would say, in like manner, that God is eminently triangular, while a circle would say that the divine nature is eminently circular. Thus each would ascribe to God its own attributes, would assume itself to be like God, and look on everything else as ill-shaped.
From Spinoza's view, man mistakenly attributes human-like qualities to God.

In one of his most striking disagreements with traditional religious belief, Spinoza takes issue with the idea that God performs miracles, and of a faith grounded in the belief that God can disrupt the laws of nature to part the seas, resurrect the dead, turn water into wine.  As Spinoza put it, many people suppose "that God is inactive so long as nature works in her accustomed order" and that "the power of nature and natural causes are idle so long as God is acting".

Spinoza thought that this was exactly backwards.  God is evident in the laws of nature, they're perfect exactly as they are.  Why would we want to see evidence that the laws of God's natural world can be violated?
"Miracles were called works of God, as being especially marvelous; though in reality, of course, all natural events are the works of God, and take place solely by His power."
"God's nature and existence, and consequently His providence cannot be known from miracles, but that they can all be much better perceived from the fixed and immutable order of nature."
"If anyone asserted that God acts in contravention to the laws of nature, he, ipso facto, would be compelled to assert that God acted against His own nature."
"Nature, therefore, always observes laws and rules which involve eternal necessity, and truth, although they may not all be known to us, and therefore she keeps a fixed and mutable order." 
Spinoza believed that although the Bible contains wisdom and truth, it was written by men.  And like any writing, the truths must be identified and brought to light by reading the work - not assumed before reading it.  He believed that the miracles described in the Bible reflected the writers' lack of knowledge. 
"Miracles are only intelligible as in relation to human opinions, and merely mean events of which the natural cause cannot be explained by a reference to any ordinary occurrence, either by us, or at any rate, by the writer and narrator of the miracle."
Spinoza described how, caught between our hopes and our fears, we're prone to become superstitious -  especially in times of adversity.  When we're afraid, we look for signs, for good omens, and will accept nearly whatever presents itself.
"Superstition, then, is engendered, preserved, and fostered by fear."
"Superstition's chief victims are those persons who greedily covet temporal advantages".
With this last quote, it's hard not to think of the baseball player crossing himself before approaching the plate to bat - perhaps hoping for the 'temporal advantage' of a line drive to right field.

When Spinoza speaks of God, he seems to have something in mind.  But what exactly, beyond the laws of nature?
"The universal laws of nature, according to which all things exist and are determined, are only another name for the eternal decrees of God, which always involve eternal truth and necessity.  So that to say that everything happens according to natural laws, and to say that everything is ordained by the decree and ordinance of God, is the same thing."
Is he explaining God, or explaining 'away' God?   Just as you're about to conclude that God is simply Spinoza's name for nature, he says:
"As the love of God is man's highest happiness and blessedness, and the ultimate end and aim of all human actions, it follows that he alone lives by the Divine law who loves God not from fear of punishment, or from love of any other object, such as sensual pleasure, fame, or the like; but solely because he has knowledge of God, or is convinced that the knowledge and love of God is the highest good."
If Spinoza is speaking of nature itself, why does he speak of "love of God"? Why not speak of love of the natural world?  It's difficult to know exactly what Spinoza has in mind when he speaks of God.

Was Spinoza a pantheist who saw the natural world as being infused with God's presence - like a sponge infused with water?  This doesn't seem to be Spinoza's idea.  It's not that God's presence is found within nature; God appears to be indistinct from nature.

Some believe that Spinoza was essentially an atheist in his rejection of a personal God.  But, if so, why all this talk of God?  Was his aim to free people from superstition without asking them to entirely renounce their belief in God?  Is he meeting his audience half way -- speaking their language -- obscuring the radical gulf between his views and theirs? Or did he really envision the natural world as divine?


  1. What an excellent post!

    I am struck with how compatible Spinoza's views of god are with many a mystic's views of god.

    For instance: The notion that god is indistinct from nature seems to me compatible with one mystic's description of god as "a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere".

    Again, it is all but commonplace for mystics to use "love" to characterize our relationship to god. Some say god is love, others say the proper relationship to god is one of altruistic love for god, or say god loves us altruistically.

    I'm not sure Spinoza could be called a mystic since he never spoke of having an extraordinary experience from which he derived his ideas about god, etc. Most, but not all, mystics do talk about having such defining experiences. But his ideas seem to be the sort of thing that one or another mystic might profess.

  2. “The endeavor to understand is the first and only basis of virtue.” Baruch Spinoza

    "My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God. " Albert Einstein.

    I admire and condone the belief’s of most of those considered “genius” thinkers of the past but I still wish Albert had used the term, “itself,” instead of “himself” and I doubt the endeavor to understand is the "only" basis of virtue.

    As Spinoza also said, "No matter how small you slice it, there are always two sides." Anna ♥

  3. What an excellent post. I'm hoping your next post will be an attempt to answer all of the excellent questions you proposed in that last paragraph. I'm hooked no. :)

  4. Jon, I agree that Spinoza may have well been trying to convey that if we had a "clear understanding of ourselves and others" it would lead to a clear understanding of nature...and perhaps he meant God.

    When you get through analyzing the great scientific and philosophical minds of history you might want to try the master artist's, such as Da Vinci and Michelangelo. There has been a lot of hype going on as to whether Michelangelo painted a semblance of the human brain on the admittedly distorted neck of "God" touching fingers with Adam on the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel.

    And Da Vinci...unique beyond belief! He in fact boldly stated he didn't have to study the ancients to know the answers. :)

    Both these genius minds certainly had a different view of God than the Church that ruled them with an iron fist dictated, and it's been widely rumored for centuries they hid their true feelings in various ways in their masterpieces.

  5. Anna, it's interesting. I looked up a link to the Michelangelo issue you mentioned - in case anyone's reading along here:

    You know, really the big story here is how easy it is for us to speculate openly about questions of religion without the kind of concerns that we would have had for our life and liberty just three (certainly four) centuries ago. Last year I read a book on the Inquisition, and the coercion used to stifle free thought was chilling.

  6. "You know, really the big story here is how easy it is for us to speculate openly about questions of religion...".

    It's sad, but the struggle against that sort of oppression never really ends. There are always elements in society that would return us to the way things used to be. We only win the battles, and never the war.

  7. It's true Paul. And I know there is social stigma assigned to religious views that differ from the community at large in many parts of the country, it's still very different than fearing jail or death. I'd say that, at least in the Western World, we've made a lot of progress.

  8. Yes Jon…the Inquisitions and Crusades were a horrific example of religion gone crazy.

    Indeed Jon and Paul, being able to discuss views of religion in such an open and free forum is a “blessing.” I still can’t help but use that term in certain instances and I still don’t know what to call myself, a former, mostly Polish Catholic, doesn’t seem to fit the facts. Knowing most of my ancestors left Eastern Europe because of religious persecution didn’t make it easy to change my view of God because I know how much they suffered getting here and remained so faithful to what they were taught.

    Spinoza was ostracized by Jews for his views his whole life, Einstein not so much. Albert was thrilled to find many Jews in his profession when he came to America. They both retained great pride in their race, if not in the Old Testaments. I would be curious to know what tenets of their born into religion they would have not been able to give up. Do you know the answer to that Jon?

    I found it impossible to give up all the tenets of Christianity, namely a belief in “miracles” and prayer. Just as I was taught as a child, I still pray faithfully every morning and every evening, though I can’t put a face on what or who I pray to for peace. As for miracles that defy all explanation and reason, I guess you would have to have witnessed some to know there are things that happen that are against all acceptable views of nature.

    That site on Michelangelo’s painting was interesting; I had read about it on the newsfeed to my homepage a while back. I remember sitting on a bench for quite a while in the Sistine Chapel looking up in awe of his masterful ability. I have no doubt he painted a lot of his “secret” feelings into that ceiling knowing his forced labor was originally intended only for a Pope’s private chapel. Small wonder he painted a semblance of the Pope on the Hell side of The Last Judgment. I did find the spot on the wall the Pope had another artist blot him out. It’s likely impossible to duplicate a genius who can create masterpieces.

  9. Anna, as you mentioned, Spinoza was an outcast among his Jewish community (and was apparently 'excommunicated' from his synagogue). He doesn't seem to have had any problem forgoing what he was brought up with - I can't see much that he felt he couldn't give up.

    Einstein also didn't seem to have any problem letting go of what didn't make sense to him. He certainly identified himself as a Jew (and apparently laughed vigorously at Jewish humor). In a letter to a philosopher, he wrote:

    "For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.
    And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people.
    As far as my experience goes, they are no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything 'chosen' about them."

  10. haha Einstein said that? what a boss :)

  11. "although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power"

    That thought is genius! It has long been my belief that the "Church's" worst error was amassing all that wealth, especially in the Vatican, when Jesus was apparently a very frugal man.

    Martin Luther protested because the Pope was willing to sell "penance" to get the money to build St. Peter's. You could commit any "sin" you wanted to and could pay the Pope to forgive you for it. Monk Martin thought that was ludicrous, so do I. Fortunately, his friends saved him from getting his head chopped off.

  12. The post and the comments covered the gamut....something to read slowly and peruse and ponder. Thanks.

  13. A comprehensive post, Jon. I do think some people all too freely use the word God before they bother defining it. To Spinoza, is God a male figure? Is he merely pointing out the pitfalls of others' belief in God? What about evidence? Does he think that evidence of his God trumps the evidence that the natural world runs itself?

  14. Thank you for posting this informative and interesting article.

  15. Anonymous2/20/2018

    Many of Spinoza’s philosophical allies and friends were tortured, imprisoned, murdered for their beliefs. Spinoza was excommunicated from Judaism, Protestants barely tolerated him, the Catholic Inquisition wanted to “talk” with him; no wonder he never left the Netherlands. It’s clear to me (as clear as any Spinozism is possible to be clear) that Spinoza’s constant use of the word “God” was a bit of an insurance policy against the charge of atheism, which in the 17th Century was a virtual death sentence. Ultimately, it afforded him little protection.

    Long Live Spinozism!