The Old One and me

Einstein and Religion

September 3, 1999

John Polkinghorne on a great physicist and indifferent theologian.

Albert Einstein was arguably the greatest physical scientist of the 20th century, but one might still wonder why a book of more than 250 pages should be devoted to discussing his attitude to religion. After all, one would hardly expect there to be a comparable volume concerned with the opinions held by Karl Barth (arguably the greatest theologian of the 20th century) about the nature of physics. There seem to be two possible reasons for this degree of attention.

One is the general respect accorded to science in our society, and the consequent weight apparently attached to the opinions of its iconic figures on matters lying outside their professional concerns. While one must certainly admire the outstanding success of the scientific enterprise, and the rational care with which its aims have been pursued, that success has partly been purchased by the modesty of its ambitions. Only a limited range of questions are addressed, relying on a correspondingly limited technique of inquiry, dependent upon the possibility of the manipulation of impersonal reality and reliant on the marvellously powerful but specialised language of mathematics. Other, more personal realms of human experience require for their understanding the asking of different questions and the employment of wholly different techniques for answering them. Above all this is true of theology, the intellectual reflection upon the transcendent and transpersonal reality encountered in religious experience. There is no particular reason to expect that the scientific adept will necessarily have anything of unusual significance to offer in this very different realm.

Yet Einstein obviously thought he did - or was, at least, more than willing to respond to those who thought he ought to have something to say on religious matters. Therefore, the second reason for writing a book of this kind is that, in fact, Einstein liked to talk about God, whom he referred to in comradely terms as "the Old One".

He was also good at coining memorable one-liners. What author writing about science and religion has not at some time had recourse to quoting the celebrated remark (itself a conscious recasting of a comment made by Immanuel Kant) that "Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind"?

Einstein as a young boy grew up in a Jewish home and attended the local Roman Catholic school. In consequence, he was instructed in both Judaism and in Christianity and, for a while, he was fervently pious. Around the age of 12, however, all this changed. He became irreligious and refused to become bar mitzvah. His growing knowledge of science, and the influence of a medical student, Max Talmedy, whom his family had befriended, had convinced him that not all the Bible could be literally true. Thereafter, he had no affiliation with a recognised faith tradition. To a religious believer like this reviewer, it is curious how often the necessary putting away of childish things in religion seems to preclude any subsequent exploration of whether there might not be a more adult way of engaging with the same material. The Bible is a complex, many-faceted body of religious literature of many kinds, including both history and story, and it seems odd not to consider whether it could not be approached with integrity in a manner more sophisticated than simple belief in the literal interpretation of the whole.

The reason that a book about Einstein and religion is possible at all is that he retained and valued what he called a "cosmic religious feeling". Speaking of the wonderful rational order of the universe that his own researches had explored in so notable a fashion, Einstein said that "behind all the concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for the force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion." The religion without which science would have been lame was, for Einstein, a kind of non-doctrinal religiosity, arising from contemplating the rational beauty of the physical world. Hence his celebrated remark that "the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility".

The God of Einstein was a cipher for the order of the universe. As he himself often said, his divinity was the God of Spinoza - deus sive natura , the God who is nature. Einstein wrote a poem about this 17th-century Dutch philosopher, who also had alienated himself from the Judaism of his ancestors. Its opening lines are:

How much I love that noble man

More than I can tell with words.

I fear though he'll remain alone

With a holy halo of his own.

Another belief that the two held in common was the strictly deterministic character of the universe. In Einstein's case this led to his well-known opposition to the mainstream probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics and the repudiation of the notion of a God who "played dice". Although he had been the grandfather of quantum theory with his interpretation in 1905 of the photo-electric effect (for which he was given his Nobel prize, and not for relativity), Einstein detested his grandchild and tried repeatedly to try to show that quantum mechanics was in some way incomplete. Behind this opposition lay his passionate belief in the independent reality of the physical world, a reality that he mistakenly confused with objectivity and so demanded a clear and determinate account of its processes. Yet deeper still lay Einstein's flight from "the merely personal". It was in the clear, empirical realm of scientific research, and not in the more ambiguous and open realm of personal relations (in which he had a somewhat complicated and messy life), that Einstein found his deepest satisfactions.

It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that Einstein did not believe in a personal God, a statement that he made several times in private correspondence but which, when he affirmed it in a public lecture in 1940, led to something of a furore. He saw a personal God simply as being a God of rewards and punishments, and he believed that these could have no meaning in a deterministic universe in which events just happened.

This somewhat naive picture was in apparent conflict with Einstein's thinking about human ethical issues. As much for human beings as for God, in a deterministic universe things simply happen, so that it is not at all clear how ethical imperative and decision could ever find a footing therein. Here

is a problem that he shared with his philosophical hero, Spinoza, who affirmed determinism but also wrote a treatise on ethics. Einstein was seriously concerned with ethical issues, particularly those in the realm of public morality in connection with such matters as the use of the atomic bomb. He insisted that "morality has nothing to do with religion". While it is true that non-religious people can and do have high moral concerns and standards, the religious person sees morality as being grounded ultimately in the good and perfect will of the Creator and not as being a free-standing addition of value to the nature of reality, of mysterious origin. In that sense, the religious believer is unable to accept Einstein's judgement about the relation of morality and religion, though certainly the two are not simply to be equated with each other.

The first two chapters of this book are largely concerned with a biographical presentation of Einstein's views on religion and of the influences that led him to these views. Max Jammer's knowledge of the history of physics in general, and of the massive Einstein archive in particular, means that there is much material of considerable interest. The final chapter is devoted to discussion of the relationship between science and religion in rather general terms, but with Einstein's specific contributions to the conceptuality of physics particularly in view. Ideas of relevance include the inter-relationality of space, time and matter in the general theory of relativity, and the presence in quantum theory of non-local relationships between entangled but spatially separated entities (the so-called EPR effect, which Einstein considered "spooky"). Here Jammer's touch is much less sure, for he does not display much of a degree of knowledge or sensitivity in relation to theological matters.

In earlier chapters, he had already suggested parallels between Einstein's views and those of the distinguished German theologians Friedrich Schleiermacher (in the 19th century) and Paul Tillich (in the 20th). These comparisons depend upon rather superficial verbal similarities and, in fact, both of these Christian theologians had a much richer, complex and more adequate idea of God than Einstein was ever able to formulate.

This final chapter is a rather rambling miscellany. Too much attention is paid to obviously unsatisfactory appeals to the "fourth dimension", or to the "spiritual" character of energy, made by persons of no great theological standing or insight. Much of the large amount of creative writing that has taken place in the past 30 years on issues in science and theology is ignored. The part of this chapter with which I found myself in greatest accord was a sensible critique of the claimed assimilation of quantum ideas to those of eastern philosophy.

Many books have been written about Niels Bohr and his philosophy. Bohr was certainly a very great physicist but not, in my opinion, a great philosopher. Someone I knew wrote a book about Lord Rutherford on the golf course. Rutherford was certainly a very great experimental physicist, but apparently not much of a golfer. This claims to be the first book about Einstein and religion. Einstein was certainly a very great theoretical physicist but his views on religion, though of some interest, show that he was not a great thinker about matters theological.

Revd John Polkinghorne, FRS, was formerly president, Queens' College, Cambridge.

Einstein and Religion

Author - Max Jammer
ISBN - 0 691 00699 7
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £14.50
Pages - 265

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