Albert Einstein described himself at various times as an atheist or an agnostic, although he often talked in a way to suggest God might be real. On at least one occasion Einstein said he believed in “Spinoza’s God.” Denounced as a heretic and atheist by his 18th-century contemporaries, philosopher Baruch Spinoza was neither an atheist nor an agnostic but probably more of a panenthiest, maintaining that our world was contained within an infinite and indivisible “substance” he identified with God. Neither Einstein nor Spinoza believed in an anthropomorphic God as such. Spinoza’s God incorporated attributes we associate with the mind, as well as with the natural world, but his was a deity that operated without purpose or conscious awareness. Similarly, when Einstein said, “I want to know God’s thoughts,” he was referring to the discovery of natural laws rather than expressing a literal desire to read God’s mind.
How are natural laws like thoughts (whether or not anyone actually thinks them)? Both, of course, are immaterial, and it is not entirely clear how they act on matter, even though they can be measured with some precision. With my own thoughts, there is no question there is intention behind them, even if I don’t know how they translate into physical action. My thought that I am thirsty somehow triggers nerve impulses to pour myself a glass of water. Now, if I were to drop the glass – or worse, fall off a cliff, the law of gravity would take over, pulling me to earth at the rate of 32 feet per second per second until I hit the ground. It’s not as if gravity pushed me over the edge or otherwise intended me harm. For all the tugging and pulling that goes on in the natural world, intention doesn’t much enter into it.
The issue of intention never came up until recent centuries, because it was assumed that if anything moved, God or the gods must have caused it to move. The ancient Greeks, who understood causality, believed there had to be a Prime Mover, as did the Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas. Even Isaac Newton, who worked out the laws of motion, maintained that you needed to keep God around to do some fine-tuning, because Newton’s calculations couldn’t account for all the movements of the heavenly bodies. Remove the Almighty from the equation, and there was still the question of whether God had set the whole universe in motion, like some giant wind-up toy. “In nature there is nothing contingent, but all things have been determined from the necessity of the divine nature to exist and produce an effect in a certain way,” Spinoza wrote in his Ethics.
Whether or not God gave an actual thought to the enterprise, there is nothing haphazard about the way the universe operates. The ancients were well aware of recurrences and regularities in nature, and the Greeks used Euclidian geometry to plot the positions of the heavenly bodies in the sky. Beginning in the 17th century, Kepler, Boyle and Newton applied mathematical formulas to the workings of nature. Descartes may have been the first to identify these as laws of nature, which he believed had been ordained by God. In doing so, he borrowed a Judeo-Christian conception of God as a lawgiver in the moral realm and applied it to the physical world. Pythagoras, Galileo, Kepler, Newton and Einstein were all deeply impressed by the elegance and precision of the mathematical laws they had uncovered. Even the theoretifcal physicist Paul Dirac, an outspoken atheist, conceded that “God is a mathematician of a very high order.”
Mainstream science has long since dispensed with the notion that the mathematical laws governing the natural world require any kind of lawgiver, much less a mathematician of a very high order. Dirac himself was something of a Platonist who believed mathematics occupied a higher realm apart from the physical world. However, the scientific community has yet to determine whether mathematical laws operate upon the universe from outside or are somehow embedded in it. Nor has science satisfactorily explained why many of the natural laws that supposedly arose from random physical processes seem precisely calibrated to create a universe that is hospitable to life. According to the so-called anthropic principle, there are some three dozen physical constants that must be exactly as they are for life to have arisen at all. Many scientists counter that this apparent fine-tuning of the universe for our benefit is merely the result of a selection bias that creeps in because otherwise we wouldn’t be here to argue the point. Still, to the extent we can read God’s thoughts from the laws of nature, it is hard to believe he didn’t have some particular end in mind.