Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Einstein on religion

Einstein spoke more about God and religion than most other scientists. "God does not play dice with the universe", "God is subtle but not malicious", and so on. (An annoyed Niels Bohr supposedly responded: "Albert, stop telling God what to do.") But the most widely quoted Einstein line on the subject is this: "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."

So what do we make of this letter, written in 1954 and soon to be auctioned? It contains quotes such as

"The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this."

Many people "get religion" in their old age; did Einstein go the other way? Or were his real views more subtle than either this letter, or his better-known quotes, would suggest?


Rahul Basu said...

Richard Dawkins spends considerable time, space and energy demolishing the myth of Einstein being religious in his book The God delusion. I cannot possibly reproduce his long and complex arguments but essentially he tries show that the idea of 'God' to Einstein was really a metaphor for Nature and its physical laws.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Rahul - I'm yet to read Dawkins' book but, if that's what Einstein meant by God, why not say so in this letter? It's hardly a new idea -- Spinoza's conception of God was quite similar, and no doubt there are even older examples. What Einstein says here -- "The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses" -- seems much stronger, almost confrontational.

Anonymous said...

This was a private letter, but completely consistent with his earlier statements.

He never believed in a literal 'god', but tossed the term around as a metaphor for the universe.

He was a fan of Spinoza, who did the same.

Stephen Hawkings is the current Einsteinian physicist, and he peppers his books with the term 'god' to the point of annoying me. But Hawking is an atheist so I let it slide.

Scientists have been doing this since before the Inquisition. It keeps the Jews from stoning them, the Christians from burning them and the Muslims from decapitating them so they can continue their work.

Anonymous said...

It is quite possible that Einstein's intuitions about God corresponded closely with some oriental conceptions of the word (i.e., a state of consciousness out of which arises the primary dualism of self-versus-not self). But this intuition he had little hope of translating into words. Perhaps he was ultimately too much of an empiricist to really accept this intuition and integrate it into his thinking. Other physicists and mathematicians have done a better job than him. In a sense they went deeper.

In "The Physicist's Conception of Nature", Heisenberg's conclusion is clear :

From the very start we are involved in the argument between nature and man in which science plays only a part, so that the common division into subject and object, inner world and outer world, body and soul, is no longer adequate and leads us into difficulties.

But Schrodinger in "What is Life? and Mind and Matter" puts it more bluntly :

Subject and object are only one. The barrier between them cannot be said to have broken down as a result of recent experience in the physical sciences, for this barrier does not exist.

Boiphysicist L. L. Whyte :

Thus the immature mind, unable to escape its own prejudice in favor of permanence even in approaching the neglected process aspect of experience, fails to recognize the actual form of the process of development and is condemned to struggle in the strait jacket of its dualisms : subject/object, time/space, spirit/matter, freedom/necessity, free will/law. The truth, which must be single, is ridden with contradiction. Man cannot think where he is, for he has created two worlds from one.

Eddington :

We have two kinds of knowledge which I call symblic knowledge and intimate knowledge ... [The] more customary forms of reasoning have been developed from symbolic knowledge only. The intimate knowledge will not submit to codification and analysis; or, rather, when to attempt to analyze it the intimacy is lost and it is replaced by symbolism.

and again :

In the world of physics we watch a shadowgraph performance of familiar life. The shadow of my elbow rests on the shadow table as the shadow ink flows over the shadow paper .... The frank realization that physical science is concerned with a world of shadows is one of the most significant of recent advances.

These are but a few examples. In a sense, Einstein is low-hanging fruit for Dawkins.

These are but a few examples. Einstein is "low-hanging fruit" for someone like Richard Dawkins.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Anonymous and Anonymous: I allow anonymous comments for various reasons, not least because I don't want to forestall interesting comments like yours. But I admit, when I read such comments, that I get curious about who you are...

km said...

"stronger", "confrontational"....hey, you are making him sound like Nietzsche!

Rahul Siddharthan said...

km: "God is dead, and we have killed him with a roll of the dice"?

km said...

Rahul: Since I am from Gangsterland, it's gotta be a big fuzzy dice. Bada bing.

Tabula Rasa said...

since bada means big, i'm assuming bing = fuzzy dice.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

This Nietzsche jokes are low humour.

km said...

TR: Careful now. You will be hanging out in our neck of the woods and without a bodyguard.

Rahul: Low humor indeed. Unless its Woody Allen riffing on him.

km said...

its = it's.

Now I've officially joined the Internet English Writers' Club.