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The Vindication of Spinoza, the Most Lovable of Philosophers

November 14, 2013, 2:57 PM

When I was coming up through graduate school and was a young assistant professor, Spinoza was really out of fashion.  He is a metaphysician.  He tries to deduce the nature of the world through pure reason. 

This is very out of fashion and for good reason actually.  We need science.  We need empirical evidence.  We can’t just use mathematical reasoning to deduce the nature of the world. 

However, the man’s intuitions were astonishing in so many different fields - in cosmology, in neuroscience and certainly in philosophy.  Forget the crazy arguments he gives for everything, his intuitions are being vindicated time and time again. 

Einstein is probably the most famous Spinozist.  He loved the man.  He wrote a terrible poem in German that begins, “How much do I love this holy man?” “Words cannot tell.”  There is something about Spinoza that inspires in many and certainly in me a tremendous love.  Actually Bertram Russell calls him in The History of Western Philosophy the most lovable of philosophers. 

What is it about him?  He was not loved in his own time.  He was excommunicated by his own Jewish community.  It consisted of Amsterdam.  It consisted of refugees from the Iberian Inquisition, the Spanish-Portuguese inquisition that had made it a crime punishable by death to practice Judaism and so his people and his community had been those who had practiced Judaism in secret. 

He was banished by them and then it fell to greater Christian Europe to denounce him in the most vituperative terms possible.  He was emissary of Satan.  Why was this guy who talks about God all the time - one poet said he was God intoxicated. Why was he so denounced?  Is he an atheist?  In some sense I think yes he is.  If you mean by God something outside of the universe, outside of nature who created the universe, whose purpose is threaded throughout human history, who has a purpose for us, who lays down the moral law, if you mean by God all of those things, then Spinoza denied the existence of God. 

His proof for his sort of God is in fact a disproof of all of those gods who reign in what he calls the superstitious religions including his own, Christianity, Judaism and Islam.  So is he an atheist?  Well he redefines God so that it means something like the final theory of everything, the final theory that we won’t be able to get to.  There is a kind of incompleteness theorem in Spinoza that we won’t be able to get to, but know that explanations go all the way down. 

If we understood what the world was we would see why these laws of nature have to prevail and why the world had to exist the way it does and why it had to exist and that’s his notion of God.  That’s why a few string theorists have told me after they read my book, “Oh yeah, I’m a Spinozist too.”  You know that story about how it’s turtles all the way down?  Well it’s explanation all the way down even though we won’t get to it because the explanations are infinite and we’re finite and that’s Spinoza’s guide.  

I think the reason he was so denounced was that his magnum opus is called The Ethics - this vision of the world that removes the grounds for believing in a transcendent God. But this moral argument that I was just giving before saying you know that "Okay, we may not need God to tell us where the world came from, but we need God to be able to live moral lives and for there to be morality in the first place."  Spinoza tries to ground morality.  He tries to drive it out of human nature itself and that is I think very, very relevant. 

We have right now psychologists, in particular evolutionary psychologists, catching up to that intuition and also trying to ground morality on the nature of human nature itself, so here is yet another place in which this seventeenth century thinker’s intuitions are only being vindicated now.  

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

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