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The Biggest Myth So Far in Cosmos 3.0 — Baruch Spinoza as Science Hero

The third season of Cosmos has released four episodes so far, with more to come this Monday, on Fox and the National Geographic channel. Evolution News has commented already, here, here, here, and here. After watching these episodes, I have concluded that the most consequential historical error to correct as yet concerns the treatment of Spinoza in episode one. The series designates Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) as the next greatest persecuted hero of science after Giordano Bruno (as depicted in Cosmos 2.0; see my video discussion, “Unbelievable Mythbusting: Giordano Bruno Was a Martyr, Yes, but Not for Science”). Although Bruno was burned to death in 1600 for his religious (not scientific) views, the attempted murder of Spinoza, if it occurred, was likely due to a disputed business transaction (not science or religion). For Cosmos to suggest that Spinoza’s life was threatened because of science is just the beginning of an enormous misrepresentation.

Like the heretical Catholic philosopher Bruno, Spinoza traded belief in the biblical God for a necessitarian philosophical creed. Both believed “God” had no choice in creation, and an infinite cosmos resulted. Consequently both had philosophical reasons for believing in an infinite number of inhabited worlds. There was, and still is, no scientific support for the idea of an infinite cosmos. Science is not well equipped even to address this kind of question.

In Cosmos, Neil deGrasse Tyson equates traditional religion with ignorance, especially the biblical religions of Judaism and Christianity. Spinoza was a wayward Jew whom Albert Einstein, a secular Jew, later celebrated as likeminded. Cosmos depicts this connection with film footage of Einstein visiting the Spinoza museum. Indeed, Einstein publicly confessed his faith in “Spinoza’s God.”

Spinoza’s God

Spinoza’s God was nature, or some aspect of it. (Scholars debate how to interpret his ambiguous views.) “From the necessity of the divine nature there must follow infinitely many things in infinitely many modes,” Spinoza wrote. Nature could not have been other that what it is. 

This necessitarian vision, which traces back to the ancient Greeks, is precisely the view that the Judeo-Christian tradition overcame. This transformation was one of the key ingredients for a cultural context conducive to modern science (as I explain in another video, “Three Big Ways Christianity Supported the Rise of Modern Science”).  Consequently Cosmos 3.0 celebrates as a science hero a philosopher who opposed the very Judeo-Christian cultural context that helped make modern science possible. Oops!

Spinoza’s God vs. Science

The Christian belief in divine freedom undercut the view, established by Plato and Aristotle, that the structure of the cosmos is a necessary one. Christians insisted that God could have created a universe quite different from ours, and so testing multiple hypotheses by experiment was an effective way to determine which set of natural laws God actually created to govern our cosmos. So in his departure from theism, Spinoza undercut some of this science-fostering culture.

Let’s go deeper as to why Spinoza was no science hero. Scholarship on Spinoza in the last decade has increasingly recognized that he opposed the observational (empirical) and mathematical analyses of nature advanced by the likes of Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei. “Skepticism about the very possibility of empirical knowledge of nature runs through Spinoza’s books,” notes Eric Schliesser in The Oxford Handbook of Spinoza. More specifically, “Spinoza was very critical of applying mathematics and measurement in understanding nature.” That’s even more damaging! Similarly, Alison Peterman, in “Spinoza on Physical Science,” Philosophy Compass (2014), writes: “Spinoza took a dim view of the extent to which the application of mathematics to physics and the empirical investigation of the physical can give us knowledge of nature.”

Here is one memorable expression of Spinoza’s criticism of the application of mathematics to science: “There are men lunatic enough to believe, that even God himself takes pleasure in harmony; indeed there are philosophers who have persuaded themselves that the motions of the heavens produce a harmony.” Spinoza attacked the view of Johannes Kepler and Christiaan Huygens (the leading Dutch scientist and a Spinoza acquaintance, also highlighted in Cosmos 3.0) that God infused mathematical harmonies into the fabric of the cosmos. This is a projection of mathematical harmony and beauty in nature where none exists, Spinoza insisted. Fortunately astronomy textbook authors over the past four centuries ignored Spinoza’s attack on Kepler and instead affirmed Kepler’s third mathematical law of planetary motion, also called the “harmonic law.”

The Book of Nature

Christianity has a long and remarkable track record of contributing to the foundations of science. Saint Augustine (354–430) expressed confidence in our ability to discover and read the “book of nature” because it is the “production of the Creator.” He insisted that we should proceed “by most certain reasoning or experience” to discern the most likely way that God established “the nature of things” — a popular medieval book title for works that emulated Augustine’s investigative approach to the natural world.

Galileo and many other early modern scientists used this traditional Christian metaphor of the “book of nature.” They sought to convey the idea that God wrote two books that are consistent with one another: nature and the Bible. Nature is largely written in the language of mathematics, many of these scientists argued, and so it can be read only by those who know this language. Galileo argued as much in his book The Assayer (1623). He wrote: “Philosophy [natural science] is written in this all-encompassing book that is constantly open before our eyes, that is the universe; but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to understand the language and knows the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language.” (The Assayer, as translated in Finocchiaro, The Essential Galileo, p. 183)

Consider also these three remarkable utterances of Kepler similarly affirming the theological foundations of science. Kepler wrote in a letter to Michael Maestlin, on October 3, 1595:

I am eager to publish (my observations) soon, not in my interest, dear teacher…. I strive to publish them in God’s honor who wishes to be recognized from the book of nature…. I had the intention of becoming a theologian. For a long time I was restless: but now see how God is, by my endeavors, also glorified in astronomy. 

In a letter to Herwart von Hohenburg, April 9-10, 1599:

God wanted us to recognize them [i.e., mathematical natural laws] by creating us after his own image so that we could share in his own thoughts. 

In a letter to Galileo, in 1610:

Geometry is unique and eternal, and it shines in the mind of God. The share of it which has been granted to man is one of the reasons why he is in the image of God. 

Here is how I explain the significance of these Keplerian sayings in my book Unbelievable: 7 Myths About the History and Future of Science and Religion, which tells the true story of science and God that Tyson tries to suppress with atheistic mythology:

Kepler was a devout Christian who believed that the Bible and the “book of nature” were fully compatible and mutually supportive. He recognized them both as God’s revelation. He studied both intensely. In fact, he almost finished a doctoral degree in theology before he turned to a career in mathematics and astronomy. Kepler believed that mathematical ideas exist eternally in the divine mind and that God freely selected some of these principles to govern his creation. Because God created humans in his image, we have the intelligence needed to discover those natural laws, and in so doing, Kepler announced, we “share in his own thoughts.” The human mind emulates God’s thoughts in ways that reveal the deep structure of the cosmos. Thus God is “glorified in astronomy,” Kepler concluded. 

The Bible and Aliens

Kepler also considered the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life to be consistent with the Bible, even though Scripture does not specifically address this issue. This leads me to identify a related historical error about science and religion in Cosmos 3.0. Tyson suggests that there was a “contradiction” between biblical faith and science given that the Bible does not mention extraterrestrial life (which Tyson thinks is established by science). There are countless aspects of the universe that the Bible does not address, but that does not make scientific theories about such topics in “contradiction” to the Bible. It was simply not within the communicative intent of the Bible to address whether there are other inhabited worlds. Leading scientists such as Galileo, Kepler, Huygens, Descartes, and Newton understood this about the Bible and science. 

For example, after affirming that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross had redeemed many humans, René Descartes (whom Spinoza carefully studied) remarked:

I do not see at all that the mystery of the Incarnation, and all the other advantages that God has brought forth for man obstruct him from having brought forth an infinity of other great advantages for an infinity of other creatures. And although I do not at all infer from this that there would be intelligent creatures in the stars or elsewhere, I do not see that there would be any reason by which to prove that there were not; but I always leave undecided questions of this kind rather than denying or affirming anything. 

(Michael J. Crowe, The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, Antiquity to 1915: A Source Book (2008), p. 67)

Tyson’s alleged “contradiction” between Christianity and extraterrestrial life ignores centuries of often-friendly dialogue among theologians and scientists about this topic (which is a major theme of my book too). So it is not true, as Tyson asserts, that there was “only one man,” Spinoza, who “dared to address” such questions in the 17th century. Such hero worship is laughable to professional historians of science. 

Furthermore, Tyson attributes to Spinoza a view of nature that he makes sound daringly novel: “His sacred text,” he says of Spinoza, was “the book of nature.” But for most early modern scientists there were two sacred texts: the Bible and nature. By turning his back on the former, Spinoza undermined some of the theological foundations for the scientific study of the latter. That’s tragic, not heroic.

Image: Baruch Spinoza, about 1665, by an unknown artist / Public domain via Wikimedia.