I'm a long ways – a very long ways – from sharing Albert Einstein's understanding of the universe. But when it comes to Einstein's religious bent, we're almost soul brothers. Just as, I suspect, many other churchless people are.
As described in a TIME article, "Einstein and Faith," in 1930 Einstein wrote a credo called "What I Believe." It ended with this oft-quoted passage about what he meant when he called himself religious.
The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.
However, many people still wanted a simple answer to the question of whether he believed in God. Rabbi Goldstein, an Orthodox Jewish leader, sent a telegram to Einstein: "Do you believe in God? Stop. Answer paid. 50 words." Einstein used about half of his allotment.
I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.
So what is Spinoza's God? Basically, nature. Spinoza, a seventeenth century heretical Jewish philosopher, didn't want anything to do with a transcendent God who sits up in the heavens and guides the goings-on down here on Earth. His God is immanent in everything that exists.
I'm reading Matthew Stewart's "The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World." Stewart says:
In Spinoza's view, to put it simply, God and Nature are not and never will be in conflict for the simple reason that God is Nature…The "Nature" in question here is not of the blooming and buzzing kind (though it would include that, too). It is closer to the "nature" in "the nature of light" or "the nature of man" —that is, the "nature" that is the subject of rational inquiry.
However, it's easier to point to what Spinoza's God isn't, than to what it is, because the philosopher leaves us guessing about some of God's subtler qualities. However, Stewart says, this much is clear:
Spinoza's God is not the God of Sunday school and Bible readings. It is not the kind of supernatural being who wakes up one morning, decides to create a world, and then stands back at the end of the week to admire his achievement. In fact, God has no "personality" at all: it isn't male or female; it has no hair, likes or dislikes, is not right- or left- handed; it does not sleep, dream, love, hate, decide, or judge; it has no "will" or "intellect" in the way we understand those terms.
Well, if God is Nature, where's the need to add something abstract called "God" to the concrete reality of the natural world? I find myself asking this question quite often, generally to myself. For I'm fond of using "God" to mean the totality of everything in existence.
When I type out or speak that word, "God," increasingly it seems unnecessary to me. Why don't I simply say "reality," "existence," or "cosmos"? It's as if I've broken up with someone once dear to me and I can't bring myself to take her photo off of the bedside table.
If we no longer have a relationship, why am I still relating?
Once in a while I also find myself talking to the guru who I used to believe was part and parcel of my innermost being. Now I don't. Yet out of habit I sometimes have a (one-sided) conversation with him.
Of course, now and then I do that with my mother, who also is dead, and I have almost zero confidence that she's capable of hearing me.
So I'm having to face some contradictions in myself. Which is a good thing. More and more I catch myself when I start to fall back into old anthropomorphic religious habits, such as looking upon really real reality as being something transcendent and apart, rather than right here and now.
According to Spinoza, God or Nature causes the things of the world in the same way that the nature of a coffee, for example, causes it to be black. But we do not usually say that the nature of coffee is divine, so why should we say that Nature is God?
In the Ethics [Spinoza's main writing], as a matter of fact, one can substitute the word "Nature" (or "Substance," or even simply an X) for God throughout, and the logic of the argument changes little, if at all. So why use the term "God" at all?
Looking over Einstein's thoughts about God, religion, and theology, I strongly suspect that he too mostly used the word out of habit and respect for social convention. "God" is a flimsy abstract conception that pales in comparison to the power and glory of nature. Which, naturally, includes us and indeed is us.
I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.
… A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
First, Einstein was a very smart man and cute as a button, but he was not a philosopher by training or proclivity. He was a mathematician. Not everything that came out of his brain was math. So although Einstein's every utterance has been enshrined for us in the Church of Relativity, I am not inclined to trust him on spiritual matters.
Dodging to "Spinoza's God" was a non-answer. Look past the connotations to the denotations and it is clear that Spinoza was an atheist in the most reasonable sense of that word. That is the best position Einstein could take, given his reluctance to cede any more ground to randomness than was strictly necessary. Nature can logically be inter-changeable with God when one assumes both are forces of intelligence.
The "nature" of a thing, be it coffee, cogitation or vacuity, is only the supposition that there is always a mystery behind: That sense that there is a beauty imperfectly beheld is, according to Einstein, that very nature. Houston, we have a tautology.
This tautology does not discount the entire program as set up by Spinoza, et fils. In fact, these self-defining terms provide the mechanism to "widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." You must, however, assume that we are priorly separate.
So let us see if God, as Nature, has no likes and dislikes: has there ever been a measurement of emotion? Can anyone show me emotion? Is the "most beautiful emotion" of which Einstein writes so eloquently a hobgoblin of the mind?
I talk to disembodied presences all the time. People may assume I am loony. I may as well say I am happy about that -- I can not prove to you that I am happy or sad. My blood pressure, galvanic response, rate of respiration, all change for all sorts of reasons, none of it proof that my emotions exist.
Now, here's the kicker to my absurd little tale. We all know damn well that we experience emotions, and we also know that each of us has the identical "nature" in our so called emotional lives, including the understanding that we may react emotionally in a wide variety of ways to similar stimulus. It is ridiculous for me to say that emotions do not exist based upon provability. If God is experienced through our emotional participation with the world "als solcher," God is as real as fear, or, you know, wonder. You may gainsay disinterest as well as gainsay holy possession.
Posted by: Edward | June 18, 2007 at 04:48 PM
I don't care much for the term 'god' very much because to most it connotes some being, a ruling/omniscient power, a phenomenal object that can be perceived as such by another phenomenal object. So, if that is what god means, I am an atheist.
It can, however, be SEEN that 'we' are Reality itself illusorily conceived like flies futily attempting to cross a window pane all day when the other side is already open!
When the open pane is crossed it is SEEN that all are already realized, but many are not conscious of it, actors in a play that believe they are their role. They are like bubbles in stream who when asked what they are say, "I am a bubble". Others with some understanding will say, "I am the stream." Others would simply say, "Stream".
Posted by: Tucson Bob | June 18, 2007 at 07:08 PM
Well done, Brian. Nice blog post.
To add my two cents to your comment...When I type out or speak that word, "God," increasingly it seems unnecessary to me. Why don't I simply say "reality," "existence," or "cosmos"?
I would say this - God is your tango partner when you are dancing cheek to cheek with the nature of everything. It is the awareness of self-awareness. When we recognize that we are part of the whole but also an individual, that is the sense of "God". Saying "cosmos" or "existence" doesn't truly convey that consciousness self-awareness.
To me, God is the mirror that reflects the universal oneness and debunks the selfish ego.
Posted by: Marcel Cairo | June 19, 2007 at 09:47 AM
I think that Marcel hits upon Spinoza's "God" nicely, and I'm not sure that Edward's equating Spinoza's writings on the matter purely with Atheism is completely fair. If Spinoza wants to term his unity of all substances as "God", who are we to say that it is only nature and not divine?
In fact, I can think of no more poetic (and personally satisfying) way to think of God than to posit that God is the sum total of all nature and existence, which happens to equal one.
Finally, I wouldn't be so quick to sell Einstein's spiritual or philosophical ruminations so short. The line between mathematics and philosophy is largely an illusion. Many of the pre-Socratic philosophers were mathematicians, as were Descartes, Frege, Issac Newton, Leibniz, C.S. Peirce, Bertrand Russel, and yes Spinoza. One could argue that science, writ large, and mathematics, are just sub-classifications of philosophy.
Posted by: nader | June 19, 2007 at 11:01 AM