Spinoza, Godel, and Theories of Everything

On the latest episode of Rationally Speaking, Massimo and I have an entertaining discussion with Rebecca Goldstein, philosopher, author, and recipient of the prestigious MacArthur “genius” grant. There’s a pleasing symmetry to her published oeuvre. Her nonfiction books, about people like philospher Baruch Spinoza and mathematician Kurt Godel, have the aesthetic sensibilities of novels, while her novels (most recently, “36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction”) have the kind of weighty philosophical discussions one typically finds in non-fiction.

It’s a wide-ranging and fun conversation. My main complaint is just over her treatment of Spinoza. Basically, people say he “believed God was nature.” That always made me roll my eyes, because it’s not making a claim about the world, it’s merely redefining the word “God” to mean “nature,” for no good reason. I voice this complaint to Rebecca during the show and she defends Spinoza; you can see what you think of her response, but I felt it to be weak; it sounded like she was just pointing out some dubious similarities between nature and the typical conception of God.

Nevertheless! It’s certainly worth a listen:


7 Responses to Spinoza, Godel, and Theories of Everything

  1. I also thought she dodged the question with a lot of gushy, hand-wavy nonsense. Moreover, I hate these kinds of topics where a person is discussed more than their ideas, and especially when those ideas are discussed in isolation of modernity. After she got to Godel’s incompleteness theorem, the quality picked up considerably.

    “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

    • Max says:

      Sounds like Eleanor Roosevelt was an introvert.

      • PCGuyIV says:

        Off topic for post, but not comment: Could be that she was an introvert, but it seems to hold true. Not saying that those of higher intelligence will never discuss people or events, but it seems they don’t tend to leave the conversation there. Conversations that stay focused around people specifically tend to linger in the realm of gossip. Conversations that focus on events specifically equate to small-talk, or at best, a history and news review. Conversations about ideas may start and/or end with people and events, but they go much further than simple gossip and small-talk. It’s in this realm of concept and abstraction that the mind truly gets to work and play. I’ve heard an updated version of this quote. I don’t remember who said it or where even I heard it, but here it is: To talk about people merely requires the ability to process language. To talk about events requires the ability to store and recall facts. To talk about ideas requires the ability to think.

  2. PCGuyIV says:

    I concur with theabstractconcrete on practically every point. I think where I have a disconnect with this is in the idea of “God is nature” not equating to a claim about the world, but merely redefining the word “God” to mean “nature”; though I do agree that it makes me want to roll my eyes.

    Regarding the eye-rolling: Coming from a Judeo-Christian perspective, to say that God is nature isn’t accurate. Nature may sufficiently contain elements of God to allow one to see God in nature, but nature itself, is not God.

    Regarding the claim about the world: From a more detached (agnostic/skeptic) view, and even to some extent from a religious view, to say that God is nature implies that nature itself is the divine force that rules the universe. This does not necessarily, though, mean that nature should be worshiped. The concept presented is that the laws of nature on which we base our science are the ultimate truths rather than being penultimate to a higher being. To me, at any rate, that statement definitely says something about the world. Based on my perception, saying that “God is nature” seems to imply that our enlightenment lies in understanding and comprehending nature and the universe rather than in the dogma of an organized religion.

    I will gladly admit that while I do have a basic understanding of who Spinoza and Göedl are, and what they proposed, I am not well versed in the finer points and nuances of their writings and theories, so perhaps I have missed the point.

  3. The way I recently posed a similar point to Spinoza’s:
    To the extent that the phrases “God,” “Nature,” “evolution,” and
    “the Invisible Hand” have any referents, they are equivalent.

    I think it is an important point. The claim about reality being made is that some structures created by theologists, assumed to rest on the supernatural, can actually be imported to reality by this equivalence—essentially, it’s not necessarily the case that everything theologists believe is false just because their axioms are wrong.

  4. kitchenmudge says:

    I don’t expect you to care, but I recently got handed the Liebster Award, and am required to pass it on to five others. Tag, you’re it. See my home page.

  5. Daniel says:

    This will be similar to what PCGuyIV wrote.

    I am not as well versed in Spinoza as I should be, but I believe statements about God always must be preceded with an attempt to define “God” for the sake of clarity between the participants/audience in the discussion. People, it seems, often make the mistake of discussing God or their theories about the who, what, and how of God, without coming to a consensus on what is referred to by “God.” (A conversation cannot start at “does God exist?” It must start at “what does ‘God’ mean?”). Arriving at the consensus itself is a feat, since it must be free of anything one could rationally object to and be weighty enough to satisfactorily account for the commonly-supposed premise that God is the source/creator of the universe and whatever that might thus entail or implicate.

    If with the statement “God is Nature,” Spinoza was attempting to precisely define what we mean by “God,” then I think he missed something essential. Nature and Circumstances – both are intertwined, though “circumstances” resonates with us more as people and implies something we’re partly in control of – those are the two forces operating in the universe, and all theories about God are based upon (and are processed through, by way of our minds) operations of the universe. “God” implies that there is a force larger than (superior to?) the individual operations, the mathematics and chemistry, of the most elementary particles, and the “largeness” of the force is reflected in the overall scheme of nature (and circumstances) themselves (in a chain that could be followed up to the formation of the universe). If any assumption (based on logical foundations) of intent can be gleaned from that scheme (perhaps in the presumption that humanity’s existence was on purpose), then, based on that assumption, one can say that there is a consciousness of nature and a consciousness of circumstances, and those two things define “God.” Again – any theory about or description of God is based on our observations within the universe.

    It’s more likely that Spinoza was attempting to define what “God” really is (according to his reasoning), rather than what people mean (in the broadest and most concise way possible) when they refer to God.

    In the “broadest and most concise way possible,” I believe God is defined as “the Consciousness of Nature and the Consciousness of Circumstances,” though whether such Consciousness exists is obviously at the core of the never-ending debate, in which answers can never be proved, only deduced or challenged. In either case, God is understood to be a force that supersedes nature, even though it is only nature we are able to observe, and through nature itself that we are able to observe it.

    I would love if someone could explain to me a little more about Spinoza’s statement. I’m curious to know whether he means that “God is Nature” in terms of totality (that there is a grand design and some level of consciousness to it) or in terms of the collective unconscious work of unconscious forces that operate on the micro level.

    By the way, this is a great blog.


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