Baruch Spinoza was born in liberal Amsterdam in 1632, ten years before the birth of Isaac Newton in England, near the dawn of modern scientific culture. He was descended from grandparents who had emigrated from Portugal to escape the Catholic Church-led Inquisition. At the age of twenty-four, he was placed on religious trial himself, and expelled from the Jewish community of Amsterdam for what the leadership deemed flagrant atheism. He flatly rejected the charges, insisting that he saw God in everything.
Utterly confident and uncompromising in his philosophical views, Spinoza was kind and humble in interpersonal relationships, earning a modest living at work in his small apartment, grinding glass for microscopes and telescopes. He also made little money from his philosophical work – most of it banned from public sale, but widely distributed hand-to-hand. His ideas attracted the attention of European intellectuals like Gottfried Leibniz, co-inventor of calculus (and hypocritical butt of Voltaire’s Candide). He died at the age of forty-five, probably from respiratory infirmities stemming from his profession.
When asked if he believed in God, Albert Einstein famously answered, “I believe in Spinoza’s God.” Einstein explained his admiration for Spinoza by crediting him as “the first philosopher to deal with the soul and the body as one, not two separate things (and) the first to apply with strict consistency the idea of an all-pervasive determinism to human thought, feeling, and action.”
Spinoza, in fact, defined God and Nature (the entire physical and conscious world) as one and the same: God WAS Nature, and Nature was God. Since, logically, God could ONLY act perfectly, neither God, nor we humans were ultimately free. Like all physical events, every human thought and every action, Spinoza argued, is predetermined, but seems to us an act of choice, due to our incomplete understanding. “Man considers himself free,” he writes, “because he is conscious of his wishes and appetites, whilst at the same time he is ignorant of the causes by which he is led to wish and desire.”[i]
The work of science, Spinoza believed, was to discover and explain God’s law. But Spinoza’s God, after giving rise to perfect, natural laws, had no reason – or ability – to intervene in the course of Earthly events following that law. For Spinoza, attributing events on Earth to divine intervention, rather than seeking a rational (evidence-based, scientific) explanation, was “the last refuge of ignorance.”
It is easy to see why religious leaders of his day were outraged. They believed that God ruled the world like one of the arbitrary monarchs of their day – deciding each morning who would live, and who would die, who would prosper and who would starve, and so on. But for Spinoza – and for scientists in our day – everything that happens in our universe is presumed to be pre-ordained and inevitable, following the unchanging (once fully understood) laws of Nature.
Remarkably, and in no less defiance of the political norms of his day than his religious views, Spinoza advocated complete free thought, political freedom, and democracy with the same vigor as he denied the ultimate existence of free will in a deterministic universe.
Speaking with a passion fed by his personal persecution, he insisted that “freedom is absolutely necessary for progress in science and the liberal arts… “[T]he more rulers strive to curtail freedom of speech, the more obstinately are they resisted… [T]he object of government is not to change men from rational beings into beasts or puppets, but to enable them to develop their minds and bodies in security, and to employ their reason unshackled… In fact, the true aim of government is liberty”
In politics as in science and religion, he blazed the liberal path that many scientists follow to this day.
From my point of view, however, while Spinoza both defined the deterministic path that natural science follows, he also articulated its central contradiction: if free choice is ultimately an illusion, what can words like “truth” and “freedom” mean? If there is not real choice somewhere, are we not just wind-up “puppets,” as in the Woodman (New Yorker) cartoon on this page?
But that is a contradiction we all live with today.
Spinoza’s re-unification of body and spirit may prove his most lasting contribution. He helped move Western thought away from the Christian (Platonist) view of his day, which held that the ideal and unseen universe of Heaven was vastly more important than anything “down here” in our world of dirt and sin.
[i] Spinoza, Ethics, Part 1