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Baruch Spinoza

“Of all the possible resolutions to the mystery of existence, perhaps the most exhilarating would be the discovery that, contrary to all appearances, the world is causa sui: the cause of itself. This possibility was first raised by Spinoza, who boldly (if a little obscurely) reasoned that all reality consists of a single infinite substance. Individual things, both physical and mental, are merely temporary modifications of this substance, like waves on the surface of the sea. Spinoza referred to this infinite substance as Deus sive Natura: ‘God or Nature.’ God could not possibly stand apart from nature, he reasoned, because then each would limit the other’s being. So the world itself is divine: eternal, infinite, and the cause of its own existence. Hence, it is worthy of our awe and reverence. Metaphysical understanding thus leads to ‘intellectual love’ of reality—the highest end for humans, according to Spinoza, and the closest we can come to immortality.

Spinoza’s picture of the world as causa sui captivated Albert Einstein. In 1921, a New York rabbi asked Einstein if he believed in God. ‘I believe in Spinoza’s God,’ he answered, ‘who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.’ The idea that the world somehow holds the key to its own existence—and hence that it exists necessarily, not as an accident—jibes with the thinking of some metaphysically inclined physicists, such as Sir Roger Penrose and the late John Archibald Wheeler (who coined the term black hole). It has even been conjectured that the human mind plays a critical role in the self-causing mechanism. Although we seem to be a negligible part of the cosmos, it is our consciousness that gives reality to it as a whole. On this picture, sometimes called the ‘participatory universe,’ reality is a self-sustaining causal loop: the world creates us, and we in turn create the world. It’s a bit like Proust’s great work, which records the progress and the sufferings of its hero through thousands of pages until, at the end, he resolves to write the very novel we have been reading.

Such a Promethean fantasy—we are the world’s author as well as its plaything!—may seem too good to be true. Yet pursuing the question Why is there something rather than nothing? is bound to leave our feelings about the world and our own place within it transformed. The astonishment we feel at its sheer existence may evolve into a new kind of awe as we begin to descry, if only in the faintest outlines, the reason behind that existence. Our mild anxiety about the precariousness of being may give way to confidence in a world that turns out to be coherent, luminous, and intellectually secure. Or it might yield to cosmic terror when we realize that the whole show is a mere ontological soap bubble that could pop into nothingness at any moment, without the slightest warning. And our present sense of the potential reach of human thought may give way to a newfound humility at its limits, or to a newfound wonder at its leaps and bounds—or a bit of both. We may feel like the mathematician Georg Cantor did when he made a profound new discovery about infinity. ‘I see it,’ Cantor exclaimed, ‘but I don’t believe it.'”

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From the book I’m most enjoying nowadays (in the 4 and a half minutes of free time that I have to read each night): Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story.

The picture is of one of the greatest Western philosophers who ever breathed, Baruch Spinoza, of whom Einstein wrote, in “Zu Spinoza Ethik”:

How much do I love that noble man
More than I could tell with words
I fear though he’ll remain alone
With a holy halo of his own.

And Borges memorialized in his poem “Baruch Spinoza”:

Time carries him as the river carries
A leaf in the downstream water.
No matter. The enchanted one insists
And shapes God with delicate geometry.
Since his illness, since his birth,
He goes on constructing God with the word.
The mightiest love was granted him
Love that does not expect to be loved.

The man of whom Hegel claimed, “You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all;” the figure Gilles Deleuze referred to as, “the Prince of Philosophers… the other greatest philosophers are hardly more than apostles who distance themselves from or draw near to this mystery.”

…not a bad list of recommendations for a résumé.