May 16 2008

Einstein’s Religion

I am currently reading Einstein, His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson. It’s a great read – especially interesting are Einstein’s early years. it is difficult to look past Einstein’s iconic greatness, the transformative impact he had on physics, and his obvious genius to see the humble man he was at the dawn of his career. This section of the book is filled with the constant irony of those people around Einstein who did not recognize what he would become.

What Albert Einstein would become is an icon of scientific genius. With this he has also become the ultimate authority figure – the prime target for anyone wishing to commit the argument from authority logical fallacy, and the obsession of all cranks. Recognizing this in his later years, Einstein wrote:

In the past it never occurred to me that every casual remark of mine would be snatched up and recorded. Otherwise I would have crept further into my shell.

The following quote is also attributed to Einstein:

Astrology is a science in itself and contains an illuminating body of knowledge. It taught me many things, and I am greatly indebted to it. Geophysical evidence reveals the power of the stars and the planets in relation to the terrestrial. In turn, astrology reinforces this power to some extent. This is why astrology is like a life-giving elixir to mankind.

Einstein the astrologer? Not quite. While some were content to look through actual quotes from Einstein in order to cherry pick those they could take out of context to support their beliefs, others simply made up quotes. The above quote is not from Einstein, it’s a hoax. (It’s a rather clumsy hoax, given how effusive and poetic it is in support of astrology.)

Likewise, over the years many people have speculated as to what Einstein’s specific religious beliefs were, usually in an attempt to claim his great name in support of their faith (or lack thereof). From a purely logical point of view, it should not matter. Because Einstein was a brilliant theoretical physicist this does not mean his opinions on all intellectual matters must be looked upon with reverence. Such reverence for the ideas of Aristotle contributed greatly to the 1500 years of European dark ages.

But it is legitimately interesting to hear what great thinkers think – even outside the field of their greatness.

Einstein certainly referred to “God” often in his musings about the universe. He most famously said, “God does not play dice with the universe,” referring to his queasiness over the field of quantum mechanics he helped found. Einstein scholars, however, pointed out that to Einstein “God” was the impersonal natural order that lies behind the universe, not the personal God of Judeo-Christianity.

Recently a letter has surfaced that serves to clarify Einstein’s opinions about religion – at least his opinions in his later years. In a letter to the philosopher Eric Gutkind, dated January 3 1954, Einstein wrote:

The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.

This is consistent with what was previously known about Einstein’s attitude. As is painstakingly documented in Isaacson’s excellent book, which draws from the numerous surviving letters written by Einstien, he did not profess any religion. Although he considered himself ethnically a Jew, he did not subscribe to the Jewish faith. On applications he often recorded his religion as “none.” He made an exception when applying for a job (before his fame kicked in) at the state-run University of Praque at a time when all government employees had to profess some faith. On that application he recorded his religion as “Mosaic.”

I do not think this recent revelation regarding Einstein’s attitudes toward religion change anything. Scholars already had a pretty solid grasp on Einstein’s attitudes from his other writings, although it is nice to have such an unequivocal statement to put to bed any debate. Even though everyone would love to have support for their beliefs from the man whose name has become synonymous with genius, I don’t think this new information will change anyone’s opinions or inform the current debates on the matter.

However, even if just from the point of view of history, it is nice to have closure on this one question. But it remains to be seen if this will end all speculation about Einstein’s religious beliefs. There are too many people who do not let a simple thing like the facts get in the way of a good argument.

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15 responses so far

15 Responses to “Einstein’s Religion”

  1. Paul Ganssleon 16 May 2008 at 11:41 am

    Uh, exactly which 1500 years was it that were “European dark ages”, exactly? Not to detract from the point, but I’m pretty sure the idea of “European dark ages” is a ridiculous myth. Additionally, I am damn sure that no one spent 1500 years ignoring good evidence because it wasn’t what Aristotle said. Aristotle’s immediate successors questioned him on fundamental issues like the possibility of vacuum and his physical system. I don’t know where you get your history of science information, but I’d take another look if I were you.

  2. Niobeon 16 May 2008 at 12:05 pm

    One has to appreciate the poetic irony of quoting Einstein on him being frustrated about being quoted.

  3. Steven Novellaon 16 May 2008 at 12:42 pm

    Paul – obviously my aside was an oversimplification – but your response is as well.

    Aristotle used reason and observation rather than experimentation to figure out nature. That tradition largely extinguished experimentation in Greek philosophy which persisted throughout the middles ages. Science was at a crawl during this time.

    However – there were steady technological advancements during this time, as well as descriptive work. That must be distinguished from scientific inquiry, however. (See Connections by James Burke for a reference.)

    During this time there were no institutions of science. Further, the dominant mode of thought was that truth resided in authority. When European scholars rediscovered Aristotle’s works, they too were looked upon as a final authority. Here is a quote from one reference: (http://www.nlpg.com/store/images/lookinside/exploring-physics.pdf)

    “About 50 of Aristotle’s books were preserved. Errors in his books are minor considering the vast number of subjects
    he discussed. However, scholars in Europe during the Middle Ages believed his books contained no errors and all
    knowledge could be found in them. Medieval scholars made few important new discoveries in science. Aristotle would have been appalled that people used his books as the final word on
    scientific questions.”

    Further, it is clearly established that the Catholic church pronounced that Aristotle’s conception of the cosmos was correct and that anyone who challenged it was committing heresy – as Galileo discovered.

    The point is, that the “dark ages” were marked by adherence to authority, and they ended when that philosophy was replaced by more modern scientific notions of experimentation and willingness to challenge authority. There are many myths about the dark ages – but that is not one of them.

  4. Paul Ganssleon 16 May 2008 at 3:08 pm

    Steve –

    I strongly disagree. For one thing, please tell me to which 1500 years you are referring so that, if I am to disabuse you of your notion of ideological rigidity leading to the elimination of “institutions of science”, I can understand where your misapprehension lies. I think that there are misconceptions built upon misconceptions in your model of a 1500-year-long “European dark age”, the first of which being that I don’t believe that such an age existed, and the second of which being that I don’t think that people assigned Aristotle the sort of biblical inefficacy that you afford it. The prevailing thought at the time certainly did tend to put Aristotle as a source of authority, but if anything I think that that just caused people to reinterpret Aristotle until doing so was no longer tenable. However, I’d like to reiterate my request for the specific epoch to which you are referring – since I don’t think that any dark age existed I can hardly comment about the predominant views towards Aristotle during the age.

    -Paul

  5. Paul Ganssleon 16 May 2008 at 3:12 pm

    Oh, and do be clear, I didn’t really mean to gloss over the reference, I just thought it was irrelevant. It’s not a primary source nor does it cite any sources. It appears to me to be an excerpt from a textbook on physics aimed at homeschooled teenagers. If you want a lesson in vastly oversimplifying things, the best place to go is to a textbook aimed at homeschooled teenagers (though any science textbook at anything less than postgraduate level is likely to include a large number of simplifications, really).

  6. Steven Novellaon 16 May 2008 at 4:16 pm

    Paul,

    The 1500 years is roughly that between Aristotle and Roger Bacon.

    And don’t get caught up in terminology (dark ages is just a short hand) – keep in mind what I am specifically saying:

    During the time there was a lack of philosophical support for experimentation as a method of inquiry. Aristotle favored reason over experiment. Roger Bacon is largely credited with bringing back scientific experimentation (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/bacon2.html)

    Also during this time, actually for 1-2 hundred years prior, there was a reintroduction of scientific thinking from the muslim world into Europe.

    The “authority” of Aristotle is a more complex question. It does not overlap with this period exactly. While Aristotle’s writings were known to scholars throughout this time, it was late in the Medieval period that interest in his writings increased. They were initially resisted by the church, but later the church formally adopted many of Aristotle’s ideas (while still rejecting others) and made it heresy to reject those ideas they endorsed.

    I think your reaction is largely to the use of the term “dark ages” which is very complicated, because you actually have to separate out the different kinds of knowledge and scholarly activity. Renaissance scholars did grossly exaggerate the backwardness of medieval scholars – and this is the source of much of the mythology about the “dark ages.” There was continuity of knowledge from the “classical” world, and continued scholarship throughout this time. In fact, in the humanities medieval scholars were more rigorous than later renaissance scholars.

    But I was specifically referring to experiment and authority. Regarding experimentation I think the case is pretty clear that it was generally lacking during this time and was revived by Bacon and the infusion of muslim science at that time.

    Regarding “authority” in general – there was a general acceptance of revealed knowledge and authority in medieval scholarship. However, they kept philosophy and the other humanities separate from theology. While they could not argue that any Christian dogma was wrong, they could argue that “reason leads us to X, which we know must be wrong because X is not the Christian dogma.”

    Also – I never said there was no opposition to this. Of course there was – that’s how things ultimately changed. But the dominant philosophy of the time was reason and authority – not experimentation.

    Here is an overview: http://www.humanities.mq.edu.au/Ockham/x5201.html

    Cut me some slack on my sources, your essentially asking me to do more work than my original blog entry. Also – I do refer you to James Burke who wrote Connections and The Day the Universe Changed – which goes over much of this also.

  7. Roy Nileson 16 May 2008 at 4:24 pm

    This comment refers to a previous one from Steven, which may have lost some relevance due to his more recent clarifications.

    But for whatever relevance may remain, here it goes regardless:

    blockquote>Aristotle used reason and observation rather than experimentation to figure out nature

    Not quite correct. It’s not an either/or proposition. Experimentation would not have been possible without reason and observation.

    blockquote>there were steady technological advancements during this time, as well as descriptive work. That must be distinguished from scientific inquiry, however.

    Not quite correct. Technological advancements are always the result of experimentation, and should be distinguished from scientific theory only in so far as the part should be distinguished from the whole. Whatever the insight offered by James Burke, the direct connections are clear.

    blockquote>The point is, that the “dark ages” were marked by adherence to authority, and they ended when that philosophy was replaced by more modern scientific notions of experimentation and willingness to challenge authority.

    Not quite correct. That philosophy has not been “replaced” as much as having been both supplemented and augmented. Use of authority to add credibility to a proposition is entirely proper, and the impropriety of such would as much involve the failure to do so as it would the citation of a bogus authority. Your post here about Einstein is precisely about the value of citing his name for whatever credibility it might add to a particular proposition. And note how often we use Darwinism as a substitute for evolutionary theory, as a clear reference to his being the authoritative version.
    And there have always been challenges to authority. Science has both made such challenges more effective, but that effectiveness has in part been augmented by its use in distinguishing the more valid authority from the bogus.

  8. Roy Nileson 16 May 2008 at 4:25 pm

    Clearly I have never mastered the use of html tags.

  9. Steven Novellaon 16 May 2008 at 4:41 pm

    Roy,

    You cannot have experimentation without some thought process, but you can have reason and observation without experimentation – and that is what Aristotle advocated. Experimentation was akin to manual labor – for workers, not scholars.

    I agree that there is greater depth and complexity to everything I am saying. The discussion has expanded to a huge area. But, generally speaking, there is a distinction to be made between scientific experimentation and the trial and error of technological development. I am not saying there is NO overlap, just that they are not one and the same.

    I don’t want to get into a semantic argument. Your statements about authority are correct, and I have written pretty much the same in the past. I am talking about “marked by adherence to authority” meaning that authority had a dominant role. I did not mean to imply that now we put no value on authority – but rather have it in its proper place – it should be taken into account, but is trumped by evidence. Authority plays a much smaller role in modern science than it did in medieval thought.

  10. Roy Nileson 16 May 2008 at 6:42 pm

    Ok, that works for me. I might add that my impression when first encountering the Greeks was that they believed they could get better results by using their advanced mathematical and logical systems to both conduct and then verify the results of experiments done mostly in their heads. Which they apparently assumed were superior to the methods thereto-for used by the less educated. The irony is that for a considerable period of time, they were proven right.

  11. topheron 17 May 2008 at 12:03 am

    “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”

    -Albert Einstein

    I thought this quote was fitting considering the previous post on mysticism.

  12. Steve Pageon 17 May 2008 at 6:51 pm

    Roy,

    It’s easy

    *If the above didn’t appear in a little box, feel free to mock me – it works on rdnet, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it’ll work here too. :)

  13. Steve Pageon 17 May 2008 at 6:54 pm

    Ah, no little box, just a big pair of inverted commas. I stand corrected. :)

    On this topic though, it’s quite true that we should be aware that all arguments from authority should be questioned. If ever I hear one, I find out what Dr Novella thinks about it before I trust it. ;)

  14. nlucason 20 May 2008 at 3:45 pm

    The term “dark ages” is generally discredited around medieval historians. There are a lot of modern history books that talk about the “dark ages myth”.

    Anyway, it’s wrong to call it a 1500 year period, unless you include all of the “Middle Age” period, which is not a scientific definition (although used by the public at large).

    A good set of definitions can be found here:
    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/dark%20ages

  15. Steven Novellaon 20 May 2008 at 4:09 pm

    Thanks – I did more reading and I have a greater appreciation for how problematic the term “dark ages” is.

    I used it to refer to the period in history after the Ionian tradition of experimentation essentially died out in favor of Aristotle’s philosophy of reason. Following this in Europe there was a roughly 1500 year period when scientific experimentation was not in vogue. This was not reversed until after Roger Bacon revived the tradition. Experimentation did survive in Persia, and for 1-2 hundred years prior to Bacon there was increasing Persian scientific influence in Europe, which is probably not a coincidence.

    In my opinion, this period was a scientific dark ages. But given how much baggage that term has, I will be more cautious about using it in the future. I don’t know if there is a more generally accepted term for this period.

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