… but for now let us try to understand the broader implication of Spinoza’s concept of God. The implication is fully illustrated in an interaction between Albert Einstein and the theologian Paul Tillich at a conference on science, philosophy, and religion in 1940. Einstein criticized traditional religious views as being rooted in childish and superstitious anthropomorphism, and championed in its place a thoroughly rationalistic kind of reverence toward the unity found in nature:
It is in this striving after the rational unification of the manifold that [science] encounters its greatest successes, even though it is precisely this attempt which causes it to run the greatest risk of falling a prey to illusions. But whoever has undergone the intense experience of successful advances made in this domain, is moved by profound reverence for the rationality made manifest in existence. By way of the understanding he achieves a far-reaching emancipation from the shackles of personal hopes and desires, and thereby attains that humble attitude of mind toward the grandeur of reason incarnate in existence, and which, in its profoundest depths, is inaccessible to man. This attitude, however, appears to me to be religious, in the highest sense of the word. And so it seems to me that science not only purifies the religious impulse of the dross of its anthropomorphism but also contributes to a religious spiritualization of our understanding of life. (“Science and Religion”)
“The grandeur of reason incarnate in existence” – this is perhaps the most poetical characterization of Spinoza’s substance monism ever devised. Both Spinoza and Einstein saw the cosmos as infused with a profoundly impersonal reason, a unifying architecture that pulls every seemingly disparate entity into itself and makes it both knowable and absolutely indispensable. The passage from Einstein signals only one difference between the two: Einstein believed that the deepest aspects of unity are inaccessible to human beings, while Spinoza put nothing beyond our grasp.
In his response to Einstein, Paul Tillich argued that this “reason incarnate in existence,” so thoroughly impersonal, could not possibly complete the work we require of religion:
[S]uch a neutral sub-personal cannot grasp the center of our personality; it can satisfy our aesthetic feeling or our intellectual needs, but it cannot convert our will, it cannot overcome our loneliness, anxiety, and despair. For as the philosopher Schelling says: “Only a person can heal a person.” This is the reason that the symbol of the Personal God is indispensable for living religion. It is a symbol, not an object, and it never should be interpreted as an object. And it is one symbol besides others indicating that our personal center is grasped by the manifestation of the unaccessible ground and abyss of being. (“The Idea of a Personal God”)
Reason can satisfy our intellect, and please our longing for elegant harmonies, but that is not all a human being requires – “our loneliness, anxiety, and despair.” If we recall, as stated earlier, that the ancient religions project their creators’ deepest needs into a metaphysical backdrop, then we may see that there is a reason for having a god that is familiar to us: we need healing, and it takes a person to heal a person. Spinoza might well agree that many of us should not abandon these comforting projections. The rest of us (he might say) believe we are ready to face life without them and let reason, so far as it is able, lead us to a new and revolutionary kind of healing. But more about that later.
But Spinoza’s God requires no such faith, as the one substance is fully fathomable by reason. We enter into “a relationship” with it precisely through our employment of reason, the very same organ allowing us to perform geometrical constructions and produce deductive arguments, as well as recognize the truth of axioms. Rational insight and cogitation is, for Spinoza, the analogue of entering into a meditative state or a state of divine bliss: for it is in such endeavors that we join our minds with the very same metaphysical space that allows for – no, demands – the existence of the one substance.
Close, A Very Short Introduction to Nothing – a neat and fascinating summary of contemporary thought about vacua. Turns out we can’t find nothing anywhere – there’s always something going on.
Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas – an intelligent summary of the history general education in American universities, including thoughtful suggestions and some incisive criticisms of professorial complacency.
Hofstadter, I am a Strange Loop – or, “I am a Self-Involved Mathematician.”
Stephenson, Anathem – wow. An adventure in a parallel universe where philosopher/scientists live in monasteries, walled off from a world of consumerism and fanatic religions, and are visited by a huge spaceship piloted by denizens of four other possible worlds. Really interesting and creative … but 900 pages?!
Barbour, The End of Time – “After 35 years of thinking about it, I now believe that time and motion are illusions.”
From Errol Morris’s final installment about anosognosia:
When God created man (and woman), he gave them the ability to perceive the world, but withheld from them the ability to understand it. We could come up with one cockamamie theory after another, but real understanding would always elude us. It was mean-spirited on God’s part. And to make matters even worse, God gave us the desire but not the wherewithal to make sense of experience. One might easily foresee that this would lead to unending, unmitigated frustration and suffering. But here’s where self-deception, anosognosia and the Dunning-Kruger Effect step in. We wouldn’t be able to make sense of anything, but we would never be aware of that fact.
I. The patchy universe
It has been some weeks since I realized what a dramatic assertion it is to claim that every event in the universe is determined in some fixed way by laws of nature and antecedent conditions. True, in the normal course of our experiments, we do not see causal determinism violated (setting aside for now quantum indeterminacy). But this is an unimaginably scant sliver of events making up the world. For every event we observe, there are countless ones we do not observe, or ones we do not observe with enough precision to tell us anything about the nature of their determination. And that’s just in the neighborhood of the events we measure. Out beyond Earth’s orbit, and in distant galaxies, and in the hearts of stars, and beyond black holes, are events too numerous for any analogy. We cannot even begin to say with any sort of confidence what is happening out there. And then there are the events in our past, to which there is no longer any access, and presumably all the ones in the future. So, in short, we observe quite nearly the smallest sampling we can possibly manage, a scarp of things here and now; and upon that evidence we make the claim that absolutely every event is causally determined? Ridiculous!
Don’t misunderstand me; I am not getting ready to argue for the possibility of free will or miracles. I am only pointing out, along with Hume I guess, that our confidence in causality far outstrips any evidence we have for it.
Now take up the quantum indeterminacy we had set aside. We have plenty of evidence for the claim that, in some circumstances, there is indeterminacy in the universe, meaning no fact to the matter of where a particle is, or how many there are, or what any of them is doing or how any of them are traveling. Indeed, the indeterminacy is not just a shortcoming in our theory; it is built into it, so that we are able to make the predictions we make only because we rely upon there being indeterminacy in the universe, an indeterminacy described by the formulas of quantum mechanics.
Put the earlier skepticism together with the confidence in quantum mechanics and what we have as a result is a very screwy universe. It is not at all as orderly as Messrs. Newton and Einstein would have had it. Imagine a pencil sketch of a mechanism, and now imagine a great many patches being erased away and not replaced by anything firm or definite. The only exceptions are the patches being measured or observed, or ones interacting fairly directly with those patches, in more-or-less determinate ways, with our eyes perhaps only half open.
II. Other worlds
It’s only been a comparative short while since I’ve begun to believe in other possible worlds. I’ve always regarded the idea as kind of kooky, but now it seems to me all too likely. It took us a while to discover new continents and cultures; and then other planets, suns, solar systems, galaxies, galactic clusters, etc. Following this progression makes it natural to infer there are other universes as well. And the inference is made more confident by the fact that many theorists are making more and more reference to these other universes, and using their goings-on to explain what’s going on in this universe. (Plus, I asked my poker pal Eastman Hatch about other possible worlds, and Eastman is an elderly gentleman who learned his physics from Feynman and is about as sensibly-minded as anyone I have ever met, and he says there probably are other worlds. So there. That is good enough for me.)
III. Weaving the worlds together
Now every time causal determinism fails (“open patches”), there is a range of ways to fill in the blanks. It may be that a given particle goes through one gate; or a second particle is created, and each goes through either of two gates; or a third is also created, which is almost immediately reabsorbed into the first, while the other two proceed through the gates; and so on. Again, QM gives us definite ways of describing these possibilities, along with their probability. Let’s suppose that all of these different ways describe the actualities in different worlds, so everything that could happen does happen in some world or other.
But in the situations I am describing, the open patch is over a stretch of spacetime, with fixed events around the borders. What I mean is that some portion of the universe is in state X at time 46, and in state Z at time 49, and the patch between the two is open: the patch could be filled with Y1/Y2/Y3 at times 47, 48, and 49; or Y112/Y113/Y114 at those times; or Y222/Y223/Y224, and so on. We have let all of these possible fill-ins for the patch come into being in different worlds, but all of these different worlds agree with the endpoints of state X at time 46 and state Z at time 49. Where these worlds overlap there is not a plurality of worlds; there is just the one world, with the way it is. Where they do not overlap, there are different worlds, of course.
So what we have, in the end, is our world cruising along, in some vaguely determinate order. Every so often a blank indeterminacy opens up, and our world splits into several different worlds, in which lots of different things happen. Then the patch closes up again, and we’re back to a single world once again. Maybe this happens a lot, or a little, or more here than there, or whatever. If QM is right, it happens almost everywhere almost all of the time.
IV. Making it personal
I don’t see why the open patches couldn’t crop up in our own personal spaces, where (say) my brain splits into several possible worlds, and perhaps I even have several different mental experiences, before the world sews itself up again into a single whole. I would not remember this happening, or at least I wouldn’t remember it in any way that privileged one of the possible brain sequences above any other. Maybe I would remember a vague sense of drifting along in thought, or chasing a cloud of different ideas at once. (This happens all the time, of course.) This would mean that, as I travel along through time, I am something of an army, marching in a file, then dispersing along different paths, before resuming a single path once more. Or to complicate the picture a bit further (since I do not believe the self is a unitary thing), maybe a part of me disperses along one cluster of paths, while another part disperses along another cluster, and the first part groups together again, followed by the second part, while a third now goes into disarray, and so on. And similarly, of course, with every other alleged “object” in the universe.
Edith Piaf, “La Vie en Rose,” 1946.
Family and I had a great time. We were introducing the kids to the City, so we loaded up on old standards: Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Wall St., Empire State Building (went up late at night — very cool), the Met, the Guggenheim, Times Sq., etc. Also, of course, trips to big toy stores. Two especially gratifying highlights for me were operating the remote-controlled sailboats in Central Park and also seeing how adept the kids are at knowing what to do in a crowded city, and in getting through subway turnstyles. Somehow, we trained ‘em real good for a couple of Utah kids. I also had the chance for a cup of coffee with two friends at NYU, Don Garrett and John Richardson, and we talked about Spinoza and Nietzsche, of course.
… is my new 78 rpm phonograph record, a 1937 recording of The Hot Club of Paris (including Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelly) performing “Miss Annabelle Lee,” a foxtrot. Enjoy!
I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a baseball fan. I’ve always wanted to be, but it just isn’t in my blood to follow all the stats and players. But with my son playing Little League, my interest has spiked considerably. It is such a beautiful game — all the waiting, with sudden intricate action, the strategy, and of course the whole ethos that has grown up around it. So, with this growing interest, I’ve followed a bit of the flap over the umpire’s blown call in the recent game between the Tigers and Indians. The Tigers’ pitcher, Armando Galarraga, would have pitched a perfect game had it not been for the umpire’s call that a runner was safe at first. But as you watch the news videos, a few things become very clear (well, according to my own ignorant perspective): (1) the umpire, Jim Joyce, is man enough to say when he’s wrong, and fess up to the consequences of his mistake; (2) Armando Galarraga is an exemplar of grace; (3) the worst thing baseball could do would be to allow instant replays to figure into the game, as that would remove opportunity to display the virtues of Joyce and Galarraga.