You know them as two celebrated philosophers: Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677 CE) of Amsterdam and David Birnbaum currently of New York. Strong-willed intellectual revolutionaries who experienced personal attacks because of their works. Both of these daring thinkers came from a Jewish tradition, both pledged their allegiance to universalism, and both crafted ground breaking philosophical treatises. A look at these two masters demonstrates just how far the study of philosophy has come over the last three hundred and fifty years.
More about Spinoza
Spinoza, the father of determinism, is credited by many for laying the groundwork for philosophical proposals by modern day thinkers. He wrote his masterpiece Ethics in a powerful voice that provoked new ways of thinking. Spinoza believed that God was an unknowable, impersonal being, who created everything as perfection, even evil. The 17th Century thinker posited that evil was not deviance from perfection, but a part of it.
Spinoza’s brazen voice quickly caught the attention of a particularly unforgiving local rabbinic council, which swiftly excommunicated him when he was 23. He was even threatened with a knife outside a synagogue. It is just as well then, that Spinoza ended his formal education at age 17, providing himself some physical distance from the establishments he quarreled with. Despite his self-alienation from formal schooling, Spinoza remains a towering figure in philosophy.
A couple hundred years after Spinoza, Birnbaum launched onto the world stage his original construct – potentialism, diverging radically from Spinoza’s determinism. Birnbaum published a 2-volume treatise Summa Metaphysica, which has come to be used in courses at over a dozen universities. This breathtaking journey into potentialism has intrigued and captivated certain groups, but has threatened others, particularly those who buy-into the Theory of Randomness/Decay.
Professor Gennady Shkliarevsky, Professor of History at Bard College notes, “To those in the academic world who draw pessimistic conclusions (from the Second Law of Thermodynamics that decay is the operative cosmic dynamic), David Birnbaum’s optimistic philosophical conclusions about the infinite potential of the universe appear to be very dangerous since they contradict their entire view of reality.”
More about Birnbaum
Birnbaum champions self-guided potential over randomness. Academics have attacked Birnbaum for his denial of ‘reductive materialism’ (the technical name for the Theory of Randomness/Decay). They have anonymously published personal jabs intended to delegitimize a man whose (Harvard) degree is not even in philosophy, but business, yet is quite highly-regarded and a formidable figure in global academic circles. Unlike Spinoza, Birnbaum was at least fortunate to have been able to publish his works during his lifetime. He has also been spared any bodily attack.
The extraordinary respective works of these two important figures in the “history of ideas” – Spinoza and Birnbaum – diverge on several crucial points despite their similar roots. Both learned Hebrew in childhood, published an original philosophical paradigm in early adulthood, and even refused teaching positions in philosophy. However, Spinoza spoke of the universe and everything in it as deterministic, while Birnbaum posits that humans are in control of their destinies. Spinoza believed that nothing was inherently evil, but that humans will label something evil when it harms them. Birnbaum breaks from those thoughts completely when he writes that the possibility of both good and evil were necessary for the universe to exist. Birnbaum posits that the cosmic order gifts humans complete freedom. The universe is an imperfect place where duality, good and evil, by definition must always spar in dynamic tension.
Birnbaum’s ideas stem from his signature theme of potentialism. Birnbaum points out the name God gives himself in Exodus 3:13. God says that his name is Eheyeh asher Eheyeh, “I will be that which I will be.” Birnbaum asserts that is a Biblical allusion for potential, as it can readily be read as ”I Am The God of Potential”. According to Birnbaum, humans, in parallel to the Divine, are divine potential in corporeal form. In turn, humans are autonomous, and their cosmic mandate is to individually quest for their respective individual optimal potentials.
Spinoza’s determinism is something quite different, following the logic that people are led by their own emotions and that those emotions were put in place by God. Spinoza states that active, strong emotions cannot be overcome by reason, only by stronger emotions. In that way we are products of the universe, directly inexorably guided by our God-given desires.
The Collision Occurs
Both the Spinozan and Birnbaum philosophies tie into the teachings of contemporary MIT Professor of Quantum Mechanics Seth Lloyd. Lloyd believes that the universe is like a super computer. His own groundbreaking work is a powerful academic buttress for Birnbaum’s ‘Q4P’ or ‘Quest for Potential’ paradigm. Birnbaum states that in a Lloyd-like universe in which everything is constantly evolving and iterating the theory of potential works. (Birnbaum’s theory is more organic and dynamic than Lloyd’s, but the theories parallel each other elegantly enough .)
Birnbaum elaborates that “…while the cosmos may have been mechanistic in its early stages… its ongoing work-in-progress goal is not simply mechanistic. It seeks optimization of the multiplicity of venues and dimensions, including aesthetic and emotional… The mechanistic aspect of our universe is… necessary but not sufficient. The mechanics are but a platform or base from which Quest for Potential (Q4P) advances forth, pressing the iterative limits of extraordinariation.”
Notwithstanding the university-level use of his philosophy works, Birnbaum is a relative outsider to academia. He is thus fortunate to have common ground with Lloyd, an internationally respected quantum mechanics professor at MIT, the world’s #1 ranked university.
In December 2012, a biology professor, Andrei Alyokhin, wrote in an essay that Birnbaum’s theory also fits perfectly with the contemporary scientific wisdom in ecology. Alyokhin writes: ”Therefore it is reasonable to propose the Quest for Potential Theory as a working hypothesis for explaining the impetus behind the cosmic dynamic”.
Why People Love Birnbaum
Birnbaum is applauded for gathering the accumulated knowledge of his field, gleaning from it, and turning other bits of it on its head. His modern view is a product of humankind’s development and of his own novel approaches. Birnbaum pivots off of Judaism, but is not constrained by it. In parallel to Spinoza, Birnbaum does not grasp for support from Judaism, but rather meticulously and respectfully uses it as a spiritual reference point.
Birnbaum’s work is just one example of philosophy’s developments. Built from a history of thinking, communicating, excommunicating, and revision, the working hypothesis ‘Quest for Potential’ will serve as a building block for future levels of understanding. While many philosophical theories fall out of favor, popular opinion asserts that ‘Quest for Potential’ will stick around and provide key impetus for later philosophers.
Also important is Birnbaum’s attention to secular academia. He is objective and rational as ever while remaining close to his overall spiritual approach to life. He follows this rule not because he seeks to please anyone or pander to his religious upbringing, but because it fits into his inner philosophy anyway.
Food for Thought
Spinoza and Birnbaum are both great examples of the spiritual professionals who help shape the study of philosophy. Their works can be found across the country in UCLA, Hebrew University and Union Theological Seminary, and elsewhere. The fabric of the universe is shaped by something, whether it is potential or otherwise. Philosophers offer hypotheses on which school they prescribe to.
Others come up with their own school. Familiarizing yourself with the works of Spinoza and Birnbaum is one of the first steps in pursuing the mesmerizing field of philosophy – and its apparent current re-emergence as a critical field.