Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Was Albert Einstein a Believer?

The recently reported Einstein criticisms of the Bible revive an ongoing, decades old debate on whether the great man was a believer or not. Given his perceived high intellect, nearly every believer wants this to be true – but is it? Apart from his reported criticism of Bible obsession other aspects also emerge when one examines his writings, opinions.

The famous quote, “God does not play dice with the universe”, was really a metaphorical expression embodying Einstein’s contempt for the modern quantum theory. As a strict determinist, he couldn’t bring himself to accept that an electron’s position was impossible to fix and had to be described by “probability waves”.

The point here is that shouldn’t take his invocation of “God” too literally. Indeed, one of his biographers, Jeremy Bernstein (‘Einstein’, Fontana-Collins Books, UK, 1973) has noted (page 20) that Einstein often loosely referenced “God” as a convenient substitute for “the rational connections, the laws, governing the behavior of the universe”.

Einstein also (ibid) used the pet term “Old Man” interchangeably with the above.

Einstein’s most cogent rejection of the Christian version of a personal God probably appeared in his ‘Ideas and Opinions’ wherein he writes:

“The man who is thoroughly convinced of universal 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 laws of causation really seriously.

He has no use for the religion of fear, and equally little for social or moral religion. A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable to him for the simple reason that a man’s actions are determined by necessity – internal and external – so that he cannot be responsible…any more than an inanimate object is responsible for the motion it undergoes”.

This is diametrically opposed to any normative, conventional notion of “God” as typically understood. Hence, one may say that – to a first approximation – Einstein believed in NO God.

Later, as if to reinforce this, Einstein wrote:

“Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death. Let those feeble souls, whether from fear or absurd egotism, cherish such thoughts.”

So Einstein believes in no afterlife, and hence no “heaven and hell”. Thus, likely no resurrection, no “judgment” or no “second coming”

To all intents, it seems clear to me that at the very least Einstein was an atheist agnostic (readers can refer to this definition in George Smith’s excellent book, ‘The Case Against God’, page 9)

This is backed up by these words of Einstein (p. 120, ‘Einstein in his own Words’):

The human mind is unable to conceive of four dimensions, so how can it conceive of a God, before whom a thousand years and a thousand dimensions are as one?”

Clearly, the inherent message here is that the very concept of deity is unknowable to the human mind.

In the same text, four pages later, Einstein seems to resign himself that most humans will need a crutch to get by. He avers that (p. 124):

”Such a belief (in a personal God) seems preferable to the lack of any transcendental outlook on life. I wonder whether anyone can ever successfully render to mankind a more sublime means to metaphysical needs”.

This is not advocating any specific religion per se, but we know the Monotheistic religions are all predicated on a personal deity. It would seem that the foremost job for Atheists is to find some form of “spiritual methadone” which we might offer the majority of our fellows to wean them off the god teat, at least the personal one. In so doing, we might very well help ourselves to become a less despised minority in this country.

Or at least one can hope!

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