Searching for attributes in nature

Shahar Madjar, MD

My father told me that when he was a little child he used to imagine that the voices coming from his radio were of people living inside it.

Tiny news announcers, little singers, and miniature music band members would share the little space, taking turns to recite the news, sing and play classical music. “I turned the dial as fast as I could,” he told me, “and imagined a burst of activity taking place: the news announcer was told to quickly quiet down, and the band had to rush into their positions at the microphone, the drums, the trumpets, and start playing. So much chaos took place in my imagination as I turned the dial, that it made me laugh,” he said.

When I heard my father’s radio story–I was myself a kid at the time–my own imagination ignited: I saw little people crossing from the electrical socket and through the wires into the TV set that stood in our living room. These people–news anchors, actors, and musicians–sat quietly in a dark corner inside the TV box, wearing an expression of great anticipation. And when their turn would come, they would take the main stage, and their image would be projected on the screen for us to see. At night, when the TV was off, they would return through the wires to their homes.

The other day, I typed “Baruch Spinoza” into the Google search bar. I wanted to know more about the life of the 17th century Dutch philosopher and about his ideas. And in the tradition of imaginative people, I wanted to imagine an immense, dark library residing within my laptop with busy librarians swinging into action, searching for answers in heavy books that smell of wood. Instead, I realized that this was getting harder and harder for me to imagine–my laptop is too thin to hold even the smallest of miniature libraries. And it is wireless: even the skinniest of librarians couldn’t walk in through the electrical cord, and nobody could leave when I turn off the power.

And still, as I typed, as I tapped into the Google tree of knowledge, an ocean of information presented itself: Spinoza did not conduct even one experiment to test his ideas. He didn’t observe nature to understand nature. His was a pure thought-experiment. A theory. In an orderly, mathematical fashion, one proposal lead to another until he reached what he thought was an indisputable conclusion.

In Spinoza’s world, the words God and Nature are used interchangeably. God is Nature and Nature is God. And Nature is infinite and at the same time a single substance. You and everything you see and experience is a single substance of the universe. You and everything around you are just different “attributes” of the same thing: Nature. In Spinoza’s words: “By God, I mean a being absolutely infinite, that is to say, a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence.”

Here is how I understand Spinoza’s theory: In my father’s imagination, people were separate from each other and from the radio box within which they resided. They spoke to him and he listened. He turned the dial and they had to quickly adjust. All things were separate and acted upon each other. In my childhood imagination, people needed to squeeze themselves through wires in orders to reach the TV set. In my current world, though, there are no wires, and I enter a universe of wisdom by clicking on a keyboard.

Spinoza, I thought, just took this sequence of ideas a step further: In his world, there is no need for wires, nor for a wireless relationship among things. Instead, we are all made of one substance called Nature. There is no cause and effect. There is no way to modify current existence or change consequences. It is all predetermined and one–a universe in its purest form of infinite freedom.

Spinoza’s Theory of Everything is foreign to my daily experience. I just know that I am separate from other things; that I have come to this world and will exit it; that I occupy a physical space; that I eat and drink and love things that feel separate and different from me; that I have an effect on other things (and people), and that other things have an effect on me. And yet, there is a great temptation in thinking I am just a part of Nature, one with God, inseparable from the Universe. And a sense of relief: no more need for control, nor wish to influence the course of life.

Besides, If I could believe in Spinoza’s philosophy, I would free myself from the need to answer how the jumping spider finds its prey, the migrating butterfly its destination, and my heart its own rhythm. These need no outside signal anymore. And everything is just an attribute of Nature.

Editor’s note: Dr. Shahar Madjar is a urologist at Aspirus and the author of “Is Life Too Long? Essays about Life, Death and Other Trivial Matters.” Contact him at smadjar@yahoo.com.