Saturday, April 07, 2007

Einstein on Religion, the Afterlife, Free Will, and Atheists

This is interesting:

Do you believe in God? "I'm not an atheist. I don't think I can call myself a pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws."

Is this a Jewish concept of God? "I am a determinist. I do not believe in free will. Jews believe in free will. They believe that man shapes his own life. I reject that doctrine. In that respect I am not a Jew."

Is this Spinoza's God? "I am fascinated by Spinoza's pantheism, but I admire even more his contribution to modern thought because he is the first philosopher to deal with the soul and body as one, and not two separate things."

Do you believe in immortality? "No. And one life is enough for me."

Einstein tried to express these feelings clearly, both for himself and all of those who wanted a simple answer from him about his faith. So in the summer of 1930, amid his sailing and ruminations in Caputh, he composed a credo, "What I Believe," that he recorded for a human-rights group and later published. It concluded with an explanation of what he meant when he called himself religious: "The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man."

...


But throughout his life, Einstein was consistent in rejecting the charge that he was an atheist. "There are people who say there is no God," he told a friend. "But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views." And unlike Sigmund Freud or Bertrand Russell or George Bernard Shaw, Einstein never felt the urge to denigrate those who believed in God; instead, he tended to denigrate atheists. "What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos," he explained.

In fact, Einstein tended to be more critical of debunkers, who seemed to lack humility or a sense of awe, than of the faithful. "The fanatical atheists," he wrote in a letter, "are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who--in their grudge against traditional religion as the 'opium of the masses'-- cannot hear the music of the spheres."

Einstein later explained his view of the relationship between science and religion at a conference at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. The realm of science, he said, was to ascertain what was the case, but not evaluate human thoughts and actions about what should be the case. Religion had the reverse mandate. Yet the endeavors worked together at times. "Science can be created only by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding," he said. "This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion." The talk got front-page news coverage, and his pithy conclusion became famous. "The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."

But there was one religious concept, Einstein went on to say, that science could not accept: a deity who could meddle at whim in the events of his creation. "The main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science lies in this concept of a personal God," he argued. Scientists aim to uncover the immutable laws that govern reality, and in doing so they must reject the notion that divine will, or for that matter human will, plays a role that would violate this cosmic causality.

His belief in causal determinism was incompatible with the concept of human free will. Jewish as well as Christian theologians have generally believed that people are responsible for their actions. They are even free to choose, as happens in the Bible, to disobey God's commandments, despite the fact that this seems to conflict with a belief that God is all knowing and all powerful.

Einstein, on the other hand, believed--as did Spinoza--that a person's actions were just as determined as that of a billiard ball, planet or star. "Human beings in their thinking, feeling and acting are not free but are as causally bound as the stars in their motions," Einstein declared in a statement to a Spinoza Society in 1932. It was a concept he drew also from his reading of Schopenhauer. "Everybody acts not only under external compulsion but also in accordance with inner necessity," he wrote in his famous credo. "Schopenhauer's saying, 'A man can do as he wills, but not will as he wills,' has been a real inspiration to me since my youth; it has been a continual consolation in the face of life's hardships, my own and others', and an unfailing wellspring of tolerance."

Interesting stuff. I didn't know about his disdain for atheists or his disbelief in free will.

I don't think there's a lot of difference between his deism and my atheism, though. When I say I don't believe in God, I'm talking about the Jewish God, the Christian God, the personal God that Einstein emphatically disbelieved in as well.

Can Einstein's God even be considered "God?" How can an entity who cannot "meddle at whim" with our universe, who created us without free will, be called "God?"

25 comments:

intuitor said...

Wittgenstein has a famous relativistic quotation: "You can't shit higher than your own ass". This means that you can't use your fallible intelligence and senses and claim to know that something is absolute.

David said...

>>How can an entity who cannot "meddle at whim" with our universe, who created us without free will, be called "God?"

Because "[w]e see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws" and we "suspect[] a mysterious order in the arrangement."

Interestingly, most of the prominent arguments for God don't even touch on the personal aspect. Take the Argument From Design, for example. From the passage, it seems like Einstein would accept it.

Orthoprax said...

That some (or a great many) religious people strongly believe in a simplistic conception of God doesn't mean that a more sophisticated notion of God doesn't deserve the name.

I might've otherwise called the personal, intercessory God a strawman, but the truth is that people do believe in exactly that kind of deity.

Orthoprax said...

In an analogy, one might refer to the understanding of what the Sun was in past times. That some people's understanding of the Sun was a circle of a few miles diameter, just a short distance from the Earth that rose and set through trapdoors beyond the horizon and led by the chariot of a deity was wholly incorrect really has little bearing on the fact that the Sun still, quite apparently, exists even though the conceptions have changed enormously over time.

It's still the same Sun.

Jewish Atheist said...

Orthoprax:

To stretch your analogy, though, Einstein's "sun" is not a star eight light-minutes away, but a mysterious entity that provides neither heat nor light to Earth.

I agree with your point that the simplistic, personal God most people believe in is like a straw man, but Einstein's "God" is so far removed from that that I can't see how it can even be considered a god. How is Einstein's God different from Dawkins's awesome (in the original sense of the word) science?

tikkunger said...

Hello there Atheist, very interesting article even though I'm not sure I agree completely with all of the authors assertions. However I certainly do agree with Einstein in terms of his skepticism towards atheists and atheism because I've more or less felt the same way. It is for this reason I've never been able to identify as an atheist despite the fact I didn't really believe in any notion of a G-D until my late 20s (34 going on 35 now).

Also with regard to your comment about not believing in the Jewish G-D I think that's misstated and somewhat assumptive on your part. I'm a Jew and I am guessing that you and I do not share the same idea of what a Jewish notion of G-D is and or can be. I'm certainly not suggesting that my notion is a correct one, simply that I think it's a mistake to paint everyone with the same brush on this subject.

As for your question regarding whether or not Einstein's G-D can even be considered G-D. Absolutely and I would add that I'm definitely not the only Jew who is comfortable claiming a belief in G-D without accepting the notion of some omnipotent meddling father like figure.

Anyhow as always an interesting post so thank you very much for sharing.

Oh and PS I've added you to my blogroll and was wondering if you would mind reciprocating?

Jewish Atheist said...

Also with regard to your comment about not believing in the Jewish G-D I think that's misstated and somewhat assumptive on your part. I'm a Jew and I am guessing that you and I do not share the same idea of what a Jewish notion of G-D is and or can be.

A "God" who did not speak to Abraham, or give the Torah to Moses, or even inspire anyone to write the Torah, or perform the Exodus, or watch over the Jews, is not a Jewish God, by my understanding. Even understood as 100% mythology, the Torah and Jewish tradition makes little sense if we have no free will.

Oh and PS I've added you to my blogroll and was wondering if you would mind reciprocating?

I generally reserve the blogroll for people I interact with (or have interacted with) quite a bit, but I'll definitely keep you in mind. Unfortunately, I was somehow missing your blog until today! I will say it's one of the best-designed blogs I've ever seen. I'll be reading.

tikkunger said...

Wow so you can speak for all of Judaism as to what is and what is not the Jewish G-D? Okay I'm just giving you a hard time but let me elaborate with a humorous little story.

There was this Jew who was stranded on a desert island for 20 years and when he was finally found one of his rescuers asked him why he had built three separate buildings on this little island?

The rescued Jew replied with the following explanation.

Well this first building is the synagogue I go to now and this second building is the synagogue I used to go to and that last building is the synagogue I refuse to ever step inside of.

I suppose what I'm trying to get at is that there's no one truly normative Jewish attitude certainly not sense the 1800s and arguably not for a long time before that. Reading the above it seems to me that you are forcing the concept of G-D into a "Orthodox" only framework and that's very limiting. It's not representative of all of Jewish thought about what G-D is and how one relates to G-D and how G-D relates to human beings and the Jewish people (if he/she/it does at all).

Again I'm not suggesting that you are wrong only that you are IMO unnecessarily excluding Jewish perspectives which are more compatible with science and modernity because they fall outside orthodoxy. Of course having said that your comments are valid within a certain reference point but the question becomes is that the only reference point available, to which I would say absolutely not.

As an academic exercise I would suggest reading Mordecai Kaplan if you haven't already because although I doubt you would agree with everything I think much of it would resonate much better with your worldview than anything orthodox does.

Of course one certainly doesn't have to be Jewish or embrace a notion of G-D in order to be a good person, one simply has to "be" a good person. So if that's the case and you don't have an interest in G-D and there's not much point to reading Mordecai Kaplan or struggling with the question of G-D at all.

However that doesn't mean that asking such questions is null and void for anyone besides you, which is why there are postmodern expressions of Judaism trying to wrestle with these very questions without rejecting G-D. I'm not suggesting that an atheist is wrong for rejecting G-D because I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing in and of its self. However I do think it's a mistake to assume atheistic rejections of G-D are the only proper conclusion. Such thinking just seems rather dogmatic and "Orthodox" to me and I thought that's what atheists were trying to avoid.

Anyhow thanks for the reply to my comment and for the kind words regarding my blog I'm glad that you like the design.

Oh and as for free will, Judaism and Einstein I personally am not seeing a contradiction. Historically from a Jewish point of view everything is written into the book of Life for the year at Yom Kippur, how much money will be made, who lives and will die. As I understand it our free will doesn't control how these things come about simply how each can potentially react to such things. To be honest I'm not sure I really buy all of that but I'm pointing it out to suggest that Judaism's notion of free will and what Einstein is talking about with regard to determinism aren't necessarily so far part.

BEAJ said...

The way I read Einstein is that he is using God of the Gaps to prevent him from being an Atheist. Again, there are many great arguments as to why this should not be considered a reason to consider a God.
If he wants to rename God, nature, then it aint really God.
Lets assume that God is a supernatural force, if it isn't supernatural, it isn't God by my definitions. And there is absolutely no evidence that anything supernatural has ever happened, so other than faith (to give hope that there is some magical purpose to the universe and our lives) there is no reason to consider a God. And needing faith is equivalent to needing mind altering drugs; just a way to escape reality.

Oh and one more thing regarding Einstein, I believe the Big Bang theory came after he died. If he had that information, he might have admitted to being an Atheist.

Anonymous said...

>And there is absolutely no evidence that anything supernatural has ever happened

Is that true? What's the nature of evidence? What's the difference between a history book and the bible? It seems to me that the only difference is that I can easily agree to the claims made by the history book (they're more plausible), so I have an easier time taking their word for it. But if you consider supernatural claims to make a lot of sense, then why not believe the bible? Even though it's very old, and has probably changed, if I had a very old history book reporting a war I would tend to believe it.

Stephen said...

Can Einstein's God even be considered "God?" How can an entity who cannot "meddle at whim" with our universe, who created us without free will, be called "God?"

Presumably Einstein is saying that the laws of the cosmos are fixed and absolutely reliable. I'm not sure how far one should push the word "cannot".

Did Einstein mean that God is literally incapable of meddling in the laws of nature? Or did he mean that God wouldn't do so; or that God couldn't without destroying the cosmos as we know it? Or perhaps Einstein meant that God has the power but, being impersonal, lacks the will to do so.

This is a fascinating and difficult question. What do we mean by "God"? If we keep changing the definition, at what point is the construct no longer worthy of the title, "God"?

Anyway, I wasn't familiar with Einstein's essay. Thanks for posting an excerpt.

Orthoprax said...

JA,

"To stretch your analogy, though, Einstein's "sun" is not a star eight light-minutes away, but a mysterious entity that provides neither heat nor light to Earth."

I would say that's a stretch indeed. The God of Einstein may be described as the great ancient 'Orderer' of the cosmos. That is not unlike a great number of other conceptions of God.

"How is Einstein's God different from Dawkins's awesome (in the original sense of the word) science?"

I'm not sure in what sense Dawkins' may have used the term, but science is a process, a method, not an object in itself. Einstein's God was abstract but it wasn't a front.

"A "God" who did not speak to Abraham, or give the Torah to Moses, or even inspire anyone to write the Torah, or perform the Exodus, or watch over the Jews, is not a Jewish God, by my understanding."

It's interesting to me, sometimes, how nonbelievers tend to describe systems of belief in their most fundamentalist way. They sometimes have more to gain, it seems, by clearing out heretics than do the true fundamentalists. JA, what would you think when you find yourself more a Jewish purist than some Haredi guy in Meah Shearim?


BEAJ,

"Lets assume that God is a supernatural force, if it isn't supernatural, it isn't God by my definitions."

That's a nice assumption, but we can go with it for a bit.

"And there is absolutely no evidence that anything supernatural has ever happened..."

No? How did nature get here in the first place? Through a natural process? ;-) Hmmm...


Anon,

"Even though it's very old, and has probably changed, if I had a very old history book reporting a war I would tend to believe it."

Have you ever read the Iliad? Do the supernatural claims there make sense to you?

Jewish Atheist said...

It's interesting to me, sometimes, how nonbelievers tend to describe systems of belief in their most fundamentalist way. They sometimes have more to gain, it seems, by clearing out heretics than do the true fundamentalists. JA, what would you think when you find yourself more a Jewish purist than some Haredi guy in Meah Shearim?


Show me a Haredi from Meah Shearim who believes that God had nothing to do with the Torah or exodus or the State of Israel. I understand that Orthodox Judaism is not all Judaism, but it seems to me that at the very minimum, Judaism requires a God who has (or had) some sort of interaction with people.

A Creator who set things in motion, provided no free will, and then did nothing has nothing to do with any Jewish God I've ever heard of.

Orthoprax said...

JA,

"Show me a Haredi from Meah Shearim who believes that God had nothing to do with the Torah or exodus or the State of Israel."

Well, I won't speak for most of that, but few Haredim are Zionists. Many, at best, tolerate the State of Israel since they do not like its secular nature and they do not think it right to found a State before the coming of Moshiach.

But that's really neither here nor there. I was only referring to Haredim as an extreme case. Clearly you don't require that level of doctrinal purity, but you do seem to require more than many (most?) Jews.

I just think it ironic how your desire for doctrinal clarity puts you on the side of strict Orthodoxy rather than the more liberal Jewish streams.

"I understand that Orthodox Judaism is not all Judaism, but it seems to me that at the very minimum, Judaism requires a God who has (or had) some sort of interaction with people."

Well, you must also understand what it would mean to 'interact.' Many Jews would take exception to the rather anthropomorphic manner by which you describe God. Is God a person who _reacts_ to events? Does God literally talk to people?

Some, of course, will say yes to those questions. And some will also say that the Sun is fixed in a firmament above our heads.

"A Creator who set things in motion, provided no free will, and then did nothing has nothing to do with any Jewish God I've ever heard of."

Well, for the first 'setting in motion' issue - there is a solid stream in classic Jewish thought that found it offensive that God would need to react to events in the world, miraculously intervene as if things weren't going according to plan. How could things possibly not be going according to God's plan in the first place?

So they said that all the miracles that happened later on were built into creation during the first days of creation and later expressed themselves naturally when the time and place was right. See Pikei Avot 5:9.

Now, regarding free will, that is an interesting issue. It has been for a long time a deep paradox in Jewish thought. As R' Akiva said, "All is foreseen, but freedom of choice is given." But R. Hanina said, "Everything is in the hand of heaven except the fear of heaven." Meaning that all is determined from on high except our moral character.

So while Einstein may have diverged from popular traditional Jewish belief, he still believed in deep personal moral responsibility, which is really all that truly matters in a religious sense.

In further interest, it was Einstein's fervent belief in determinism that set him so unwilling to accept the non-deterministic reality of quantum physics. Perhaps today he would hold different views.

And on that note, I bid you a good yontif and a chag sameach.

Orthoprax said...

Actually, on a final comment for the day, I'd like to note that Einstein didn't necessarily believe that God 'did nothing' since 'creation.' Taking into account his more pantheistic notions, God was constantly doing things, and perhaps, in fact was all reality in itself.

And that too is not unlike many other streams in Jewish thought.

JDHURF said...

Einstein, when invoking the term “god,” I believe, was simply using metaphorical and poetic language; he was, after all, a member of the American Humanist Association.

David said...

Richard Dawkins tells us most scientists are atheists. Well then, these atheistic scientists have provided every rotten government in the world...that has the means...with all the nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons they could want!

So remeber folks, "fundies may talk about the end of the world, but atheistic scientists have made it POSSIBLE!"

Nate said...

As I started becoming more skeptical, friends suggested that I read Heschel, specifically, "Man is not Alone" and "God in Search of Man." Einstein's worship of the "mysterious" is very similar to Heschel's worship of the "ineffable." Others, such as Kaplan and the Jewish Renewalists (http://www.tikkun.org/rabbi_lerner/god) also believe in much less "personal" (i.e., interventionalist) Gods. However, like JA, I couldn't get over the reality that there is no place for a non-interventionalist God in Judaism. Even if you don't take the events in the Torah literally, a Judaism without a God who steps into nature to create the world and who steps into history to create the Jewish people is so far removed from any rational notion of what Judaism is as to be unrecognizable. You can have a religion which believes in a non-interventionalist God, but it isn't Judaism.

Orthoprax said...

Nate,

"You can have a religion which believes in a non-interventionalist God, but it isn't Judaism."

So Heschel wasn't practicing Judaism?

I'm confident that 3000 years ago Judaism believed firmly in an anthropomorphic and possibly corporeal God and that man was literally created in God's image. Should we then conclude that Maimonides, for example, wasn't practicing Judaism? Isn't modern Judaism so far removed from its origins that we could question the validity of the title?

Essentially, I don't understand why you allow others to define Judaism for you. It's not like it belongs to them. Judaism doesn't belong to the dead men of history either. It's bigger than that.

nate said...

Orthoprax,

I agree with everything you say. Some very secure, learned individuals, such as Heschel, can integrate a non-interventionalist God into their Judaism. For me, without the traditional God of the Torah, Judaism tumbles like a playing-card house in a tornado. Our mitzvot, prayers, holidays, etc. are all entirely based on worhip of a God as described in the Torah. Once he ceases to exist, it is much harder to rationalize (at least for me) being observant.
Also, the problem (once again, at least for me) with a God who is "ineffable" or non-interventionalist is that, by definition, He is so detached from the world as to be meaningless. We might as weel become secular humanists, stop wasting our time perfoming the mitzvot ben adam l'makom, and spend more time with the mitzvot ben adam l'chaveroh.

Ezzie said...

Ha! I read the article in Time, and wanted to send it to you... :)

Orthoprax said...

Nate,

The point then, if you are interested in Judaism or Jewish observance, is to figure out a way for it to work. Heschel wasn't superman and there's no reason why Judaism must be defined from a Medieval perspective.

That you may find the task difficult doesn't mean that it isn't worth undertaking.

Diganta said...

I feel Einstein is an atheist. The book from Richard Dawkins - 'The God Delusion", at least says so ... and it devoted the entire first chapter of the book to convey the difference between spirituality and organised religion.

Anonymous said...

It really doesn't matter what Dawkins says on the subject, Einstein rejected that label and I think he should be viewed as the empirical authority on that particular subject.

Dawkins and those who follow him are like religious people in that they believe what they want to believe and pick and choose things as "evidence" to support the conclusions they reached before even having the evidence.

I read Einstein has simply having the all important open mind that supposedly "logical" and "scientifically" minded atheists today sorely lack and use bluster and glibness to justify lacking it.

In my view, if you don't have the humility to recognize the vast limitations of our human perspective and our inability in some ways of being certain about any given thing, you are prime and ripe to embrace science as religion and become one of the Dawkins faithful. These are people who can not stomach the complexities of views of those like Einstein and instead, insist that people are either for them or against them. Which is why of course, Dawkins paints Einstein as an Atheist, despite the empirical evidence that Einstein himself would have disagreed with that.

Holyheretic said...

For Einstein the Word God was Devoid of the Divine.

Most mortals believe in a "personal God", in heaven and souls, in idols and all kinds of sacred follies - - - and they also believe that Einstein believed in God.

Not only Einstein's personal God had been dead all along. In fact God was never even alive according to Einstein.

According to Einstein, God is "a product of human weakness".

Einstein's quotes have been used by dealers of delusions to confuse the common man to fool him about Einstein's true religious beliefs. Einstein categorically rejected the supernatural.

For the facts see the blog, Einstein the Atheist, http://einsteintheatheist.blogspot.com/