for Pierre Whalon
God, or rather, nature. This Spinozan formula suggests that the sharp distinction between a personlike God and an impersonal Nature governed by “chance” is but an illusion. Just as Darwin demonstrated the capacity of living creatures to evolve toward greater efficiency and to adapt to their surroundings, given that what lasts has given proof of its durability, so the same processes are bound to exist in nature as a whole. Hence over time, all phenomena and the beings that manifest them will tend to evolve toward greater stability and greater reproducibility, be they atoms or stars. In this context, reproduction in the manner of living beings is but a specialized version of a universal process that allows improvements to accelerate and accumulate. The human gift of deferral and intentionality permits a still higher level of these processes.
This negentropic evolution will presumably eventually exhaust the energy of the system, since overall entropy always increases. But one could simply say that if that law were absolute, there would never have been anything in the first place. Where it all “came from,” we are clearly ever more distant from understanding, or rather, we understand ever more clearly that there can be no “rational” explanation of how the universe in the broadest sense came into existence. The “big bang,” as I think by now everyone agrees, cannot be described as the definitively first appearance of what minimally defines a/the “universe,” whether space or time or matter or energy.
However science depends on facts and measurements, the questions it examines reflect the needs and limitations of the beings that ask them. It cannot be irrelevant to point out that the “Standard Theory” of which physicists are so proud applies only to 5% of the matter/energy detected in the universe, a humbling discovery indeed—and one that strongly suggests that future discoveries that may improve the theory will lead us at the same time to a still greater awareness of our relative ignorance.
I can understand the excitement of today’s physicists impatiently awaiting the construction of ever more powerful colliders and telescopes, and whose least worry is having to weep like Alexander for a lack of worlds to conquer. But from the layman’s perspective, one cannot fail to experience a sense of disillusionment. After decades of reading general science periodicals, from Scientific American to the British New Scientist (which has a better sense of humor), it is hard to avoid the cliché: the more I learn the less I know. By now what physicists call a particle is so far from a useful metaphor that, ironically, it is no clearer in the imagination than the wave with which it alternates.
This is far from a reason to stop funding fundamental science. But the idea that the evolution of this science is going to make our understanding of the world clearer in the simplest sense of the term—rendering more efficient the principle of Ockham’s razor—seems by now to be no more worthy of “rational faith” than the beliefs of the earliest religions.
Which is only to say that for the past few decades, the nonspecialized mind has had no reason to seek to reach the point at which it can understand the equations of modern physics as we understand the multiplication table. Despite the increasing frequency of news of faked results, scientists’ affirmations can still generally be trusted. But, at least for the foreseeable future, the idea of an “understandable” universe is no longer entertainable.
Spinoza’s reduction of God to Nature was conceived as a simplification: rather than imagine a divine mind whose actions we would understand in quasi-human terms, as in the Bible or Coran or Upanishads, we need merely to take the orderliness of nature, which in the 17th century was becoming far better understood than in antiquity, as a preferable substitute for a humanlike will. And thinking of God as essentially providential, we should understand Nature as urging us to imitate its regularities, as setting us an example that human disorder and violence would contradict.
This parallel made sense in the apparent simplicity of the Newtonian universe. But the revolutionary ideas of Einsteinian relativity and the quantum theory would seem to have demonstrated that the clarity of the principles of human morality, which we learn as children and whose applications to real-world situations are in all but rare cases intuitively evident, bears no similarity to that of the “laws of nature.” For even were we to freeze physical theory at its present stage and declare the Standard Theory sufficiently accurate to put in the place of the Newtonian universe, no 21st century poet would dream of composing a parallel piece to Alexander Pope’s epitaph for Isaac Newton:
Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night :
God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.
Newton’s laws of motion can be understood by the average high-school student, and they are presented as sufficient unto themselves, while the Standard Theory, with its dozens of particles and no apparent raison d’être, by its own admission leaves out 95% of the matter-energy of the universe.
But more important even than this is the fact that the theory’s very complexity seems to guarantee that any improvement to it would make it not simpler but still more complex. And as a physicist colleague with whom I have discussed the matter agrees, there is little reason to think that any level of complexity will lead to a reversal of the process of complexification. Indeed, the progress of AI suggests that the “laws of nature” are incompatible with human comprehension in the normal sense, and that only AI can begin to approximate their ultimate complexity, which we may well assume is not only infinite but uncountably infinite.
We cannot bring Spinoza back to ask him what he would make of this situation, but he would certainly have to agree that equating God with Nature under these circumstances is hardly compatible with Pope’s metaphorical sunburst.
Which is to say that to the extent that God might be understood by analogy to Nature, the latter would be not Newtonian but Pascalian, infinite beyond any possibility of comprehension.
And this is very much the message of God’s words to Moses at the burning bush: Ehyeh asher ehyeh, I am what/that I am. This phrase demonstrates both that God is unknowable in himself, and that he nevertheless communicates with humans in their own language, thus providing us with the sense of the sacred, the name I have given to the quality that we attribute to what we otherwise call “the voice of conscience,” or what Freud called the Superego, the first instance of which, according to the originary hypothesis, calls for the deferral of the gesture of appropriation made toward the central food source in the originary event. That this sense was at that moment “providential” can be demonstrated from its result: the peaceful sharing of the food rather than the disorder that had come to attend the previous system of serial distribution.
The above is not a “proof of the existence of God”: it does not demonstrate the existence of a Being that created the world and humanity and instilled in us the “sense of the sacred.” But it makes clear that the survival of a human community depends on its ability to share a unanimous sense of sacred interdiction of mimetic conflict, a sense that is analogous to obedience to a will that is external to every member of the community yet not in potential conflict with any of them.
And this makes understandable that, whether God be conceived as a being or a heuristic, it is our responsibility as heirs of this originary community to do our best to follow the will of this providential sacred to insure that our community will be preserved. And since attributing this will to “Nature” based on our intuitive grasp of the Newtonian laws of motion is no longer in accordance with today’s more sophisticated understanding of the laws of the universe—as Pascal’s reflections on infinity show that he had in his own way already intuited—we can hardly do better than to learn from the religious texts that have accompanied our history the wisdom—the logos—concerning not the source of the sacred will, but its imperative content.