Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Spinoza and Einstein: in search of god

To: Edoardo S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Spinoza and Einstein: in search of god
Date: 17 May 2006 11:12

Dear Edoardo,

Thank you for your email of 7 May, with your essay for the Associate program, 'Spinoza and Einstein: a life in search of God'.

I very much enjoyed reading this piece. Despite your doubts about your use of the English language, I found this very readable with only the occasional sign that this was not written by a native English speaker.

One way of formulating the question of 'God', or what it is to be 'religious', is to ask, What kind of God would be an appropriate subject for worship?

This question is itself ambiguous, because 'worship' can take many different forms. To take one example (as it happens, another Jewish philosopher) Samuel Alexander in his great work 'Space, Time and Deity' defines 'God' as the final stage of the evolution of the universe (from space and time, to matter, to consciousness and finally to God). It follows that 'worship' or religious feeling is directed towards an entity (the universe in its final 'God' stage) which does not yet exist!

One of the key questions in theology is the alleged 'personality' of God. On my bookshelf I have Peter Bertocci 'The Person God Is' Allen and Unwin 1970, which is a typical example of a theological approach which insists on the personality of God. To take a very different example, the Hare Krishna defines their theological stance as a rejection of the impersonality of 'Brahman'. What is left, if we take away the anthropomorphic image of a 'person' whom we relate to? Is there anything left which deserves our 'love', or 'awe' or even 'respect'?

Spinoza and Einstein evidently thought that there is. There are some important differences. Spinoza's God is something we come to understand through philosophical reasoning concerning the logical nature of 'substance'. That we cannot fully comprehend God is a logical consequence of our finitude, whereas substance must be infinite. Whereas for Einstein, there is a deeper and more nebulous sense of unarticulated 'mystery'. Spinoza in his 'Ethics' describes the world as it must be. Einstein in his physics describes a world as it in fact is, evidenced by the observations which scientists have made.

As a working assumption, Einstein believed that the laws of nature were the simplest possible, the most 'symmetrical'. A major part of his awe and respect for his God was the delighted discovery that this is in fact the way the world turns out to be. The Michelson-Morley experiment might have turned out differently. Newtonian physics might have been vindicated. But that would show a lesser 'God', a less perfect, less symmetrical universe.

The beauty of a metaphysical theory, or a physical or mathematical theory can arouse powerful emotions. So can the beauty of a work of art. Indeed, there is a strong link between our capacity to be moved by the 'beauty' of a theory and the beauty of an object in nature or an object created by an artist. Many philosophers and scientists have felt these emotions without being tempted to associate them with an object that they called 'God'. So what makes Spinoza and Einstein any different? What extra ingredient can we identify which justifies regarding them as theists rather than atheists?

Once more, we are back to the same question, What is left of the religious attitude when the anthropomorphic image of God is rejected?

Your essay provides a wealth of evidence from which to form a judgement about this crucial question. We can see and understand why Spinoza and Einstein felt, and expressed themselves in the way that they did. What I am still looking for is an answer to the question I have posed.

There is no 'superhuman' authority behind ethics (Einstein), we are free (and necessarily ethical) when our actions are determined by reason (Spinoza). Could it be that the rejection of a 'transcendent authority' behind ethics leaves a huge gap which must be filled, in one way or another? Religious feeling, if it is worthy of the name, must express itself in an attitude towards the ethical. Both Spinoza and Einstein had powerful ethical convictions. Where do these convictions come from? Why should human beings strive for the Good, just because the universe in itself is beautiful, or rational?

I have the sense that both thinkers would have said that human beings who seek to be rational have no choice but to be ethical. On this view, the 'religious' component, the aspect of 'worship' is the conviction in the existence, not of God, but of the Good.

- These are just a few reflections sparked by reading your very interesting and thought provoking essay.

As far as the Associate award is concerned, I would not like to second guess the judgement of the ISFP Board. You have produced work of a high standard. However, you might consider how you would respond to the questions I have raised and see if there is not a way to deal a little more explicitly - not at too great a length - with the question of what it is that makes an attitude 'religious'.

All the best,

Geoffrey