The Substance of the World

Baruch Spinoza was a Dutch philosopher of Portuguese-Jewish extraction who lived from 1632-1677. He is one my favorite philosophers, and the reason I quote him from time to time is because much of what he says I would agree with, at least in principle. It gives me some comfort to know I might not be entirely out to lunch when developing a particular line of thought that seems consistent with what he had in mind when he wrote about the same subject matter almost five centuries ago.

This has to do with the concept of God, and the notion of a supreme, all powerful being purported to be  the creator of the world; the biblical God of the Old Testament. I struggled with this concept a lot as it never made sense to me from the earliest days that I started thinking about these sort of things. And believe me, that was from a very early age, having been brought up in a strict Calvinistic household that would always go to church  on a Sunday, and sometimes twice, once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

When Spinoza talks about God, it is not in the anthropomorphic sense of a God as usually portrayed by the Christian-Judaeo or Muslim varieties of religion, i.e., very much like a person – a kind of father figure – with human-like emotions who seems to take a personal interest in what the creatures he created here on earth are up to, and in the process suggesting  a personality featuring some of the worst “petty” human traits I can think of, such as being  narrow minded, vain, jealous, as well as vengeful! If you are familiar with the Old Testament, you will know exactly what I am talking about.

In particular, this is how the God of the Christian-Judaeo Old Testament comes across: high maintenance (!)  And as such we could well fault him for being an overbearing, possessive megalomaniac who refuses to own up to the fact that he should take full responsibility for the murder and mayhem that has taken place down here as a result of his desperately fallible human creation.  But I digress…

Spinoza strongly rejected the notion of a providential God – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in complete control of all things; he claims that the Law was neither literally given by God nor any longer binding on Jews. (Not surprisingly, this conception of God got him thrown out of the Amsterdam orthodox Jewish community for good when they excommunicated him in 1656.)

Instead, Spinoza holds that God is the one and only unique and indivisible substance that the universe is made of. There are no other substances. The view is a bit more complex than that, and involves perceiving this substance through a variety of distinct attributes – such as Thought and Extension – but not its basic premise.

This view suits me fine, to the point that, if God is everything, and everything is God, why even use the name “God”, as this renders the concept of a distinct metaphysical entity – the great creator –  logically empty (i.e., meaningless) since it doesn’t signify anything over and above the totality of the cosmos, and ends up being just another label for it.

Accepting this also restores our raison d’être to an intrinsic property of the cosmos, together with the seemingly limitless energy and creativity that brought us about.   As well,  there is the implication that we originated  from the inside out, from whatever place within our cosmic ancestry that life came from and is the source of our evolutionary history that brought our species about.