The Substance of the World

Baruch Spinoza was a Dutch philosopher of Portuguese-Jewish extraction who lived from 1632-1677.  I like to refer to  him on occasion in support of a point I’m trying to make, when I think 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 that is 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.

When Spinoza writes 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.  Someone 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 more regrettable 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.

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.)

Does this mean that Spinoza was an atheist?  Not really, since he 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.

It is interesting to note that Albert Einstein – also once accused of being an atheist – followed Spinoza in rejecting the  anthropological concept of God,  saying,  instead,  that he believed in “… Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of the world”.

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

Accepting the God of Spinoza and Einstein  instead of the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob does no more that restore and recognize the integrity and  wholeness of the cosmos, as  a magnificent, mysterious phenomenon in all its demonstrated grandeur.  As well,  it ties our reason for being here  more closely to  the raison d’être of the cosmos,  given that the history of our evolutionary track seems to lead back to the very heart of the  cosmos, and the energy and matter that constitutes it.


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