Spinoza, Einstein, Darwin, the Universe, and Life

Baruch Spinoza, 1632-1677, was a Dutch, Jewish philosopher of Portuguese ancestry. Spain expelled its Jews in 1492 as did Portugal in 1497. Many of these expelled Jews migrated to Holland. Similarly, after the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacres in France in 1570, many Huguenots, French Protestants, also came to Holland. These migrants included one of my direct ancestors, Seigneur de Mabille. The religious tolerance of Holland made it a vibrant, free-thinking community. But the free-thinking it engendered also caused determined opposition among traditional religionists, whether Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish.

Spinoza was recognized as a brilliant and threatening philosopher very early in his short life. He was excommunicated from the Jewish Community at age 23 and his books were put on the Roman Catholic Index of Forbidden Books. His sins were to deny the historicity of the Bible and formulate a god who was not supernatural but who was represented by and embodied in all the natural laws of the universe. He might be considered one of the founders of Deism, the theological philosophy of some of the Founding Fathers of the United States, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

Albert Einstein, 1879-1955, was of German, Jewish origin. Unwelcome in Nazi Germany, he migrated to the United States where he was a professor at Princeton until his death. From 1905-1915, while still in Europe, he formulated his theories of special relativity and general relativity. He is perhaps best known for the equation: E = mc2, which relates mass and energy. All of Einstein’s work convinced him that the universe and its laws were knowable and no supernatural influence was necessary to understand them. He and Spinoza would have loved to have known each other.

Charles Darwin, 1809-1882, was born into a wealthy English family and married the daughter of another wealthy family, Emma Wedgwood, his first cousin. His family’s wealth gave him time to travel, think, and write. He is best known for his theory of evolution and the idea that speciation is driven by natural selection of all the varieties that arise by chance. He did not know what genes and mutation were. Again, no supernatural force was necessary to create all the varieties of life that we see on Earth. And, by extension, all of life could have arisen from a common ancestor.

These three men, and many other thinkers, both religious and scientific, lead us to consider three concepts for living our daily lives.

1. Regard the universe with wonder, awe, and joy. None can deny that the universe is wondrous and awesome in its variety and extent. And it does appear understandable as Spinoza and Einstein asserted. From the Big Bang (whose origin we do not yet understand) to galaxy formation, star and planet formation, even the molecular origin of life (which needs more work) to speciation through evolution, the universe we live in appears to be governed by discoverable, natural laws. The scientific method has greatly expanded our understanding of how we arose, far beyond the creation stories in the Bible or any other religious text. This understanding is increasing daily, leaving fewer and fewer requirements for supernatural intervention. And, such understanding actually increases, not diminishes, the sense of wonder and awe with which those who study our origins view the universe. Early stories are just too simple. The universe is a far more wondrous place than what the Lord God (Yahweh Elohim) explained to Moses.

But why joy? We should view the universe with joy because it gave us life. In our galaxy, in our solar system, it took about 13.8 billion years for Homo sapiens to evolve and begin to study where we came from. That’s a very long time but here we are. And, we can experience joy. I don’t think that all species can. There is no joy in antville or sharkville but we humans and many other mammals can be joyous. This in itself is cause for celebration. Who is not moved by Josef Schiller’s “Ode an der Freude,” (Ode to Joy) set to music by Ludwig van Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony?

2. Most of our religions and philosophers counsel us to look on our fellow humans with caring, compassion, and empathy. We are all in this together, stuck with all our strengths and weaknesses, at our particular stage of evolution, on this spaceship we call Earth. Those of us who are privileged to live upper middle class lives in the United States should recognize how lucky we are to have been born when we were, where we were, and with the parents we had. All these factors, none of which were our doing, enabled us to make the most of ourselves. Does our privilege create any moral obligation to help those less fortunate?

3. This leads to the third concept, for which Charles Darwin is largely responsible. Thanks to all the modern research done based on Darwin’s (and Alfred Wallace’s) ideas of variation, speciation, and natural selection, we now understand that, to some degree, we are cousins with every living thing on Earth. This means that all Homo sapiens, all the other great apes, all the primates, all the other mammals, all the invertebrates, all the plants, and all the single-celled organisms are descended from common ancestors. This is a far greater concept than the idea that we are all children of Adam and Eve but separate from all the other creatures. Darwin’s phrase was, “a loftier thought.” Evolution and natural selection turned biology from stamp collecting and cataloguing to a unified science.

The unity of life suggests an answer to the question of moral obligation to give back. Of all the creatures on Earth to date, only Homo sapiens understands that we are all one family. We are the only ones who understand that the Earth is a spaceship with limited resources. We are the only ones that appear to have a concept of or the capability of stewardship. We know that land management, water management, air pollution management, human population management, and preservation of the complexity of various ecologies are necessary for the health of our planet and, ultimately our survival as a species. We understand the value of the balance of Nature and know that we can destroy it. Wise stewardship becomes mandatory.

A last corollary of the three concepts above is: seek understanding. One can use one’s intelligence to try to win arguments or to try to understand the point of view of those who disagree with us. This does not mean that all ideas are equally correct. But, if one wins an argument with another, he/she has accomplished just that: convinced one other person of something. If one comes to truly understand another, he/she will understand thousands, perhaps even millions of others. I would suggest that this is a more valuable result.

Wonder, awe, joy, compassion, caring, empathy, understanding, a concept of family, and an obligation to stewardship. Let us accept the responsibility that our knowledge gives us and strive to be wise stewards.