Spinoza and the Borderland of Science

By Bernhard Mollenhauer

In the story of philosophy there is no more original and thoroughly emancipated character than the famous Jewish thinker Benedict de Spinoza. That seventeenth-century Holland should have produced such a mind is not surprising, for even in that age of strife and religious fanaticism there was a liberal tradition in that tiny but great-souled country. Judged by modern ideals, what was called freedom in the seventeenth century left much to be desired. Nevertheless, Jewish refugees and oppressed liberals found in Holland a measure of freedom denied them in their respective homelands.

Spinoza was born in Amsterdam on the 24th November, 1632, and educated in the synagogue school where his teachers came to look upon him with much pride. The little Jewish community, however, was very conservative and did not trouble itself about the new science that was awakening the mind of Europe so, while still a boy, Spinoza sought elsewhere for his training in Latin, then the language of science. A free-thinking Dutchman, F. A. van den Ende, initiated him into the new world of science, mathematics, and political thought.

Soon the elders of the synagogue began to suspect that Spinoza was learning a good deal besides Latin and grammar at van den Ende's house. Spinoza's school days were hardly over when he was diplomatically asked to recant his unorthodox views on religion. His father was a man of standing in the congregation, and no one wanted a scandal.

The elders found the young rebel mild enough but deaf to their entreaties and threats. At length things came to a head. In 1656, not long after his father's death, he was officially cast out by the Jewish authorities for "abominable heresies which he practices and teaches." Even his stepsister denounced him and tried to disinherit him. He changed his name from Baruch to Benedict which means blessed.

The age of Spinoza had outgrown the sanctions of medieval thought. Thinking minds had broken with old traditions and were captivated by the new science of Galileo, even though alchemists still groped for the philosopher's stone. The ruling ideas of the seventeenth century were that nature is a mechanism, that human reason, not magic, is most competent to understand and explain natural laws, and that nature's truth is essentially mathematical.

Spinoza, though a mystic, a profoundly religious soul, was a typical thinker of this scientific age. The modern mind began with its declaration of intellectual independence, its faith in reason. After a time a reaction set in and then came years of doubt and inner conflict, the effects of which are felt to this day. It was believed that reason could not vindicate our higher faiths. It was claimed that once you admit nature is a mechanism, it is only a step to the materialism that claims man is a machine whose mental life is but a passing glow in the darkness of blindly driven forces. Indeed, Hobbes had already reached a consistent materialism in the seventeenth century. Spinoza was keenly aware of the conflict between science and religion, faith and reason, and had read Maimonides' learned attempt to unite scripture and Aristotle's conceptions. He must have had his inner battles too but, while still a young man, he realized that to abandon faith in reason and natural law was to muddle back into the Middle Ages. He went forward with the conviction that God's world was an eminently reasonable world that expressed divine thought through immutable laws. He believed that scientific thought, if rightly understood and followed far enough, would point to a comprehensive world view, to a level of philosophical thought from where man could understand life.

To see nature scientifically is to rise above the illusions of sense and understand things in terms of order, law, cause and effect. Then nature no longer seems capricious and alien. Modern writers sometimes represent man's quest for knowledge and rational living as all idealistic battle against a hostile or indifferent universe, against a universal order that is not friendly to man's higher beliefs. But for Spinoza the nature of the universe and the nature of man go together. He believed in the dignity and worth of man as a moral being. He says:

As regards the human mind, I believe that it is also a part of nature; for I maintain that there exists in nature an infinite power of thinking, which insofar as it is infinite, contains subjectively the whole of nature, and its thoughts proceed in the same manner as nature — that is, in the sphere of ideas. Further, I take the human mind to be identical with this said power, not insofar as it is infinite and perceives the whole of nature, but insofar as it is finite, and perceives only the human body. In this manner, I maintain that the human mind is part of an infinite understanding. — From Spinoza's letter to Henry Oldenburg (1665), #32, van Vlotan edition.

Spinoza's central thought of world unity and human intelligence as a spark of cosmic mind is comparatively easy to grasp. It is not the airy abstraction of some highbrow pedant whose meditations are steeped in Medieval Scholasticism. On the contrary, the harmonized life of reason and spirit is the polestar of Spinoza's philosophy. Human welfare is seldom out of his thought.

The infinite variety we experience in this bustling world of change is the expression of divine law, which rules human life as the higher truth rules the lower, as the storm rules the raindrop. Everything in nature is grounded in and comprehended by divine Thought. God has written his all-pervading character in the changeless laws of matter as well as in the laws of mind. Nothing is the creature of chance or blind caprice. All things are rationally linked together and related to the ultimate Cause. Our world is a world of law which makes no exceptions and grants no favors, an orderly cosmos in which nothing lives by chance.

Everything is to be understood either as the result of its own nature or some higher nature. Now if this be so, Spinoza claims, there must be, beyond the relativity of every finite point of view, one supreme existence that explains and comprehends all the rest. The God idea of Spinoza is more easy for us to grasp because three centuries of science have trained us to see the togetherness of things, the relativity and interdependence of all forms of life and activity. He denied the permanent distinction between mind and matter without denying the reality of consciousness. Both are parallel attributes of God or Substance, the latter term has the advantage of being free from misleading theological associations. The limitation of our understanding confines our knowledge of Substance to the two attributes of Thought and Extension or spatiality. But God is more than these. His nature is like an infinite sacred scripture that is endlessly translated into many languages, or a cosmic symphony that is endlessly transcribed for different instruments and players. There are possibly countless orders of life beyond our remotest fancy, though we cannot guess what they might be. Spinoza honored reason but did not consider the limits of our wits as the limits of truth. Questions of immortality and the foundations of faith belong to the borderland, the remoter frontiers of science. They lead us into the realm of philosophy and religion.

Spinoza was too well versed in scientific thought to ignore its limitations. He was also aware of the weakness of the appeal to gaps in scientific knowledge often made by religious leaders who sought to save their position by pointing out facts science could not immediately explain. Early in life Spinoza was convinced that the conflict between science and religion was at bottom due to some fault of untrained or unenlightened human consciousness which in its ignorance sets artificial walls within the mansion of wisdom.

The mysteries which confront us on the borderland of science are closely allied to the problem of human understanding. They demand a critical examination of every motive that ties behind our point of view, behind the processes of reason itself. Kant had no monopoly of criticism of the knowing process. Long before him Spinoza had ventured a critique of reason. Spinoza pointed out that learning is an active process that should merge ultimately in a peaceful reverence for the divine manifestation of the truth in natural law and infinite power.

The idea of infinite power or activity is given a materialistic cast in the cosmologies of thinkers like Spencer and Huxley. But in recent years materialism has become old-fashioned and mathematical physicists now look with favor on the idea of God as the supreme mathematician. A noted astronomer, Sir James Jeans, said the universe is more like a thought than a machine. Each year the mysterious universe yields more of its secrets to the solvent of mathematical thought. No doubt, Spinoza, a lover of mathematics, would have approved the thought of mathematical laws as the external expression of infinite mind that reaches beyond the remotest solitudes of limitless space. However, it is not likely that he would have accepted the idea of God as the supreme mathematician without reservations. Not because he did not believe in a super-personal God, but because the nature of God is not fully expressed in spatial existence that mathematics comprehends, which represents only a merest fraction of God's manifestation. What we see out there in space consists of modes of only one attribute of God, that of extension. Thought is another attribute of Deity, whose modes constitute the inner realms of mind and spirit.

In the light of astronomy and geology the span of human history passes before us as a flash in the eye of eternity. We no longer fancy that we are the only creatures placed on this earth to give meaning to life, that without us the universe would be mindless and purposeless! Science has prepared us a broader, more philosophical view. A scientist, when asked whether God troubled himself at all about human beings, replied that it depended on how big a God one believed in. Spinoza's God is so absolutely infinite that without him nothing can be conceived. "Hence we clearly understand," says Spinoza, "that our salvation, or blessedness, or liberty consists in a constant and eternal love towards God, or in the love of God toward men." (Ethics, Part 5, Note to Proposition 36, White's trans.).

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1984. Copyright © 1984 by Theosophical University Press. Reproduced by permission of the author from Prabuddha Bharata [Awakened India], July 1984, Calcutta.)


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