Einstein’s God

By stancutler,

  Filed under: General
  Comments: None

Dear Richard,

Awhile back, I mentioned that I was reading Walter Isaacson’s wonderful biography of Einstein. You asked whether it was true that Einstein believed in God. I responded that I’d have to finish the reading the book because Isaacson had not yet addressed the question. I’ve finished the book, and the answer – sort of – is “yes”. According to Isaacson, whose book is well worth your time, Einstein had an abiding belief that everything in the universe makes sense according to mathematical laws, that there is an awesome unity to all real things in the universe.

He famously said, “God does not play dice,” by which he meant that a fundamental principle of quantum physics was impossible. In the 1920s, experimental physicists had proven that a sub-atomic particle could be measured as mass (having weight) or as a wave (having energy) – but not as both. There were some astonishing findings that still have not been disproven. Until an observer measures one or the other – not both – the quantum has an undeterminable identity as either a wave or a particle, and that it is only the act of observing that determines which it is. Einstein would not believe this, and spent most of his life arguing against the idea.

Einstein characterized his way of thinking as being nothing more than intense curiosity. In his struggle to disprove the indeterminancy of quantum physics, he presumed that everything in nature behaved as it did for a knowable reason. He adamantly believed that there is an awesome ordering of things in the universe that may not be superficially apparent, but is absolutely there. He believed that his drive to make sense, his curiosity, was akin to religious fervor. He was awed by the universe, driven to know how it actually worked, always presuming that there was an underlying simplicity that could explain all of it. He characterized this as a “unified field theory,” meaning that gravity (mass, particles) and electromagnetism (energy waves) were not separate phenomena, but somehow obeyed the same rules, an ordering that could be understood if he worked hard enough at the math. He failed. But, until his dying day, he was convinced that the secret would eventually be discovered. He had faith.

His notion of God was Creation itself. He was awed by reality. He loved nature walks and solo sailing in a little boat. He loved music, parties, and sex. He never ceased to be amazed by gravity, electromagnetism, space and time. The rules of Newtonian physics are real. His contributions to physics added another layer to our understanding of reality: the simple relationships between energy and mass (E-Mc2) and the inseparability of space and time.

And he was intensely moral. I was interested to learn how much of his vitality was expended on a unified theory of international politics, how very much he cared about his fellow man. He had been composing an address to be delivered at the 7th anniversary of Israel’s founding in 1956 when he died. It began, “I speak to you today not as an American citizen and not as a Jew, but as a human being.”

He considered fascism to be a normal, evil political tendency, a common species of nationalism, that could only be suppressed by intelligent people who held freedom of thought and speech as an overriding moral imperative. At fourteen, he had rebelled against Prussian discipline by insisting that his parents take him out of the prestigious German school and place him in a Swiss academy that welcomed individual initiative.

He was outraged by the silence of the German intelligentsia during the Nazi era. He was outspoken and outraged by McCarthyism, by how it reduced thoughtful people to timid bystanders fearful of expressing their beliefs. During his entire adult life, he advocated the creation of a supranational world government. After atomic weaponry was invented, he argued even more passionately for a mechanism that would obviate the power of nationalism to wreak horror, even to destroy mankind. “Nationalism is a disease,” he said.

But he was also a realist. Fully aware that Israel was a nationalist endeavor, he supported it as a practical necessity in a world of anti-Semitism. In the 1920s, he’d been a pacifist. After the full horror of the Hitler regime became apparent, he supported American rearmament and, during the fight for Israel’s independence, the necessity of the IDF. But, he warned, the true moral test of Jewish identity would be peaceful co-existence with the Arabs. Even in the 1950s, he was alarmed by the attitudes of many Israelis toward non-Jews, particularly the Arabs.

Anyhow, it was a really worthwhile read and I commend it to your library. (Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson, 2007, Simon and Schuster Paperbacks)

Be the first to write a comment.

Your feedback