Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvelous structure of reality. There is in this neither a will nor a goal, nor a must, but only sheer being.
|Gravitational lensing in galaxy cluster Abell 2218, HST image, W. Couch. NASA. The thin arcs are distorted multiple images of more distant galaxies – visible proof of general relativity’s claim that light bends in the presence of matter.|
Albert Einstein was born 1879 in Ulm. After graduation in 1900 he worked as a patent clerk in Bern, conducting research in physics in his spare time. In 1905 he published five papers that transformed the course of physics and established his reputation as one of the foremost scientists of his age.
From the first world war on Einstein was a committed pacifist and anti- nationalist. Soon after Hitler became chancellor, he left Germany and joined the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. So convinced was he that Hitler was planning war that he went against his pacifist leanings. He advised free Europe to re-arm, and wrote to Roosevelt urging the US to undertake research into the atomic-bomb.
Einstein died in 1955. He is best known for the theory of relativity, which states that time, mass and length all change according to velocity. Space and time are a unified continuum, which curves in the presence of mass.
The last three decades of his life were devoted to the search for a field theory which would unify gravitation and electro-magnetism.
Einstein always said that he was a deeply religious man, and his religion informed his science. He rejected the conventional image of God as a personal being, concerned about our individual lives, judging us when we die, intervening in the laws he himself had created to cause miracles, answer prayers and so on. Einstein did not believe in a soul separate from the body, nor in an afterlife of any kind.
But he was certainly a pantheist. He did regard the ordered cosmos with the same kind of feeling that believers have for their God. To some extent this was a simple awe at the impenetrable mystery of sheer being. Einstein also had an urge to lose individuality and to experience the universe as a whole.
But he was also struck by the radiant beauty, the harmony, the structure of the universe as it was accessible to reason and science. In describing these factors he sometimes uses the word God, and sometimes refers to a divine reason, spirit or intelligence. He never suggests that this reason or spirit transcends the world – so in that sense he is a clear pantheist and not a panentheist. However, this reason is to some extent anthropomorphic, and to some extent involves Einstein in a contradiction.
His religious thinking was not systematic, so he never ironed out this discrepancy. But it seems likely that he believed in a God who was identical to the universe – similar to the God of Spinoza. A God whose rational nature was expressed in the universe, or a God who was identified with the universe and its laws taken together. His own scientific search for the laws of this universe was a deeply religious quest.
Einstein’s attachment to what he once called `the grandeur of reason incarnate’ led him into the longest battle and the greatest failure of his life. He was implacably opposed to Niels Bohr’s interpretation of quantum physics. Bohr believed that matter was fundamentally indeterminate, and our knowledge of it limited to probabilities.
Einstein’s comment, “God does not play dice,” became notorious. The phrase uses the present tense, not the past. This suggests that Einstein was probably not referring to the fact that a creator God would not in the beginning have created a universe in which chance reigned supreme. Rather he may have meant that as God or reason incarnate, the universe could not be governed by chance alone.
Einstein believed till the last that quantum physics was incomplete: he was sure that one day an explanation would be found which would explain the causes of the apparent indeterminacy and once again make it plain that the universe was governed by laws. So far this has not happened.
Perhaps if Einstein had sought more consistency in his own religious thought, and had been less concerned with a God who embodied human ideas of reason, he might have learned to be excited by indeterminacy. Then he might have come to see indeterminacy as another manifestation of the mystery, creativity and playfulness of Being.
Einstein’s rejection of conventional theism
There is no personal God.
The idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I am unable to take seriously. [Letter of 1946, Hoffman and Dukas]
What I cannot understand is how there could possibly be a God who would reward or punish his subjects or who could induce us to develop our will in our daily life. I cannot then believe in this concept of an anthropomorphic God who has the powers of interfering with these natural laws. [The Private Albert Einstein]
The man who is thoroughly convinced of the universal operation of the law of causation cannot for a moment entertain the idea of a being who interferes in the course of events – provided, of course, that he takes the hypothesis of causality really seriously. [New York Times Magazine November 9, 1930]
The more a man is imbued with the ordered regularity of all events the firmer becomes his conviction that there is no room left by the side of this ordered regularity for causes of a different nature. For him neither the rule of human nor the rule of divine will exists as an independent cause of natural events.
[Science, Philosophy, and Religion, A Symposium]
There is no freedom of will or separate soul.
In human freedom in the philosophical sense I am definitely a disbeliever. Everybody acts not only under external compulsion but also in accordance with inner necessity. [The World as I See It]
But the scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. The future, to him, is every whit as necessary and determined as the past. There is nothing divine about morality, it is a purely human affair. [The World As I See It]
Since our inner experiences consist of reproductions and combinations of sensory impressions, the concept of a soul without a body seems to me to be empty and devoid of meaning. [Letter of 5 February 1921]
There is no afterlife or punishment for sins after death.
An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls. [The World as I See It]
If this being is omnipotent, then every occurrence, including every human action, every human thought, and every human feeling and aspiration is also His work; how is it possible to think of holding men responsible for their deeds and thoughts before such an almighty Being? In giving out punishment and rewards He would to a certain extent be passing judgment on Himself. How can this be combined with the goodness and righteousness ascribed to Him?
[Out of My Later Years]
Prayer is useless.
Scientific research is based on the idea that everything that takes place is determined by laws of nature, and therefore this holds for the actions of people. For this reason, a research scientist will hardly be inclined to believe that events could be influenced by a prayer, i.e. by a
wish addressed to a supernatural Being. [Einstein – The Human Side]
Einstein’s belief in God.
I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings. [Telegram of 1929, in Hoffman and Dukas]
The cosmic mystery.
The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. It was the experience of mystery–even if mixed with fear–that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms–it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. [The World as I See It]
The most beautiful and most profound religious emotion that we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. And this mysticality is the power of all true science. If there is any such concept as a God, it is a subtle spirit, not an image of a man that so many have fixed in their minds. In essence, my religion consists of a humble admiration for this illimitable superior spirit that reveals itself in the slight details that we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. [Interview with Peter Bucky]
It is very difficult to elucidate this [cosmic religious] feeling to anyone who is entirely without it, especially as there is no anthropomorphic conception of God corresponding to it. The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole.
The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man’s image; so that there can be no church whose central teachings are based on it.
[New York Times Magazine, November 9, 1930].
Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvelous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavour to comprehend a portion, be it never so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature. [The World as I See It.]
The religious feeling engendered by experiencing the logical comprehensibility of profound interrelations is of a somewhat different sort from the feeling that one usually calls religious. It is more a feeling of awe at the scheme that is manifested in the material universe. It does not lead us to take the step of fashioning a god-like being in our own image-a personage who makes demands of us and who takes an interest in us as individuals. There is in this neither a will nor a goal, nor a must, but only sheer being. [Dukas and Hoffman]
A spirit or superior intelligence.
But, on the other hand, every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe – a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive. [c. Dukas and Hoffman]
His [the scientist’s] religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection. [The World As I See It]
The grandeur of reason incarnate in existence.
[Science, Philosophy and Religion, A Symposium]
Religion inspires science.
While it is true that scientific results are entirely independent from religious or moral considerations, those individuals to whom we owe the great creative achievements of science were all of them imbued with the truly religious conviction that this universe of ours is something perfect and susceptible to the rational striving for knowledge. If this conviction had not been a strongly emotional one and if those searching for knowledge had not been inspired by Spinoza’s Amor Dei Intellectualis, they would hardly have been capable of that untiring devotion which alone enables man to attain his greatest achievements. [Ideas and Opinions]
The cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research. Only those who realize the immense efforts and, above all, the devotion without which pioneer work in theoretical science cannot be achieved are able to grasp the strength of the emotion out of which alone such work, remote as it is from the immediate realities of life, can issue. What a deep conviction of the rationality of the universe and what a yearning to understand… It is cosmic religious feeling that gives a man such
strength. [The World as I See It]
[I am indebted to the Secular Web for assembling the documents from which these materials are extracted.]
1. Banesh Hoffman and Helen Dukas, Albert Einstein, New York and London, 1973.
2. Peter A. Bucky and Allen G. Weakland, The Private Albert Einstein by Andrews and McMeel, Kansas City, 1992.
3. Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, Crown Publishers, New York, 1954.
4. Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman, Albert Einstein – The Human
Side, Princeton University Press, 1979.
5. Science, Philosophy and Religion, A Symposium, published by the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life, New York, 1941.
6. Albert Einstein, The World as I See It, Philosophical Library, New York, 1949.
7. Albert Einstein, Out of My Later Years, New York, Philosophical Library, 1950.
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© Paul Harrison 2004