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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?

 This isn't a site about religion, although it touches on it occasionally.  This is more an exploration of the relation between brain and mind and all the things that emerge out of that relation.  In my view, that includes everything.