Spinoza, Einstein, and God

Lately I have been thinking about Spinoza’s attitude toward God. Many contemporary scholars put Spinoza’s metaphysics in the center of his vision: he thinks there is one substance, and all particular things are expressions of its unchanging essence. That one thing can be called “God,” since it has many of the core features attributed to God: infinite, eternal, unchanging.

But I think that theology, not metaphysics, stood at the center. Spinoza, of course, was raised as a Jew and studied scripture intensively. As a young adult, he came to heretical conclusions, because he could see that the stories and visions of the scriptures just could not be squared either with the theology that has been laid over them or the way we know nature to be. Scriptures obviously exaggerate historical events and anthropomorphize God. So he embarked upon a project to uncover what God really is, and what the appropriate relationship to God is: his metaphysics became his theology.

This is a point commonly remarked upon, but with the recent sale of one of Einstein’s letters I was struck by the affinity between Spinoza’s theology and Einstein’s. Here is an excerpt from a NYT article about the letter (which sold for $404,000!):

Einstein, as he says in his autobiographical notes, lost his religion at the age of 12, concluding that it was all a lie, and he never looked back. But he never lost his religious feeling about the apparent order of the universe or his intuitive connection with its mystery, which he savored. “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is its comprehensibility,” he once said.

“If something is in me that can be called religious,” he wrote in another letter, in 1954, “then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as science can reveal it.”

Einstein consistently characterized the idea of a personal God who answers prayers as naive, and life after death as wishful thinking. But his continual references to God — as a metaphor for physical law; in his famous rebuke to quantum mechanics, “God doesn’t play dice”; and in lines like the endlessly repeated, “ Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind” — has led some wishful thinkers to try to put him in the camp of some kind of believer or even, not long ago, to paint him as an advocate of intelligent design.

Trying to distinguish between a personal God and a more cosmic force, Einstein described himself as an “agnostic” and “not an atheist,” which he associated with the same intolerance as religious fanatics. “They are creatures who — in their grudge against the traditional ‘opium for the people’ — cannot bear the music of the spheres.”

The same for Spinoza, all over the place. I think he did feel a similar reverence for his One Substance – his excitement over it in part 5 of the Ethics is obvious (as he writes, the mind’s intellectual love of God is an eternal love which cannot be taken away, the mind’s highest joy, and what the scriptures call “glory”). I think he also thought God’s essence needs to be factored into any adequate physics (see my paper, “Spinoza’s Theological Project,” on this page).

A question I’ll discuss later: is such a non-anthropomorphic theology tenable today?

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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3 Responses to Spinoza, Einstein, and God

  1. Kleiner says:

    Is there a difference between “metaphysics” and “theology”? Heidegger did not think so, he refers to the “fateful moment in western philosophy” when God and Being became synonyms. Hence his critique of “onto-theology” is a critique of metaphysics.
    Actually, off the top of my head I have a hard time thinking of a metaphysics that is not at the same time theology. Aristotle’s book that we call the “Metaphysics” is perhaps better titled “Theology”. Aristotle is probably the best example of a non-anthropomorphic metaphysics/theology that is necessary for [his] physics.
    So, Huenemann’s question might just be, “Is metaphysics still possible?”

    But I am probably pushing Huenemann in a different direction than he intended. I guess his question is something like “Is a non-Christian metaphysics/theology still possible?” That is, a metaphysics/theology that does not build in a personal and relational God.

    I think, after all, we already have a pretty damn good version of this in Aristotle (the Unmoved Mover is totally non-relational and impersonal). But Huenemann might be scared off from Aristotle since so many people like me want to co-opt his “god of the philosophers” and show that it is the same God as Abraham’s.

    All that said, am I wrong to see in Huenemann’s post an openness to making a move to the recognition that the comprehensibility of the world requires NOUS?

    For those interested in Aristotle, I cannot recommend Jonathan Lear’s book: ‘Aristotle The Desire to Understand” strongly enough. It is the best advanced introduction to Aristotle’s thought I’ve seen.


  2. Huenemann says:

    I’m construing “theology” narrowly as the study of God: what God is and does, and what we are and what we’re supposed to do in the light of that. And I’m construing “metaphysics” broadly, as the attempt to understand what exists and what causality is. Upon those construals, it is certainly possible to do metaphysics without doing theology. First, one could be an atheistic or agnostic metaphysician, and leave God out entirely. David Lewis was such a metaphysician — as are most professional philosophers doing metaphysics these days. Second, one could be a theist, but be interested in a “split-level” metaphysics, where one level covers “creation” and the other covers God, in such a way that someone could buy into level 1 without necessarily buying into level 2.

    The question I meant to raise isn’t as big as the ones you raise. I’m only asking if it is reasonable today to believe in a Spinozan/Einsteinian pantheism.


  3. Kleiner says:

    I thought I might have been pushing you in a different direction. Still, it sounds like you want to explore something like “nous” as the ultimate ground of the comprehensibility of the world. If that is so, maybe we can start reading Aristotle together!


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