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Einstein's Abstract God

Posted by Josh Rothman  December 16, 2010 11:57 PM

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Did Einstein believe in God? It'd be nice to know - he was a smart guy. Writing at Big Questions, Michael Shermer reads Einstein's correspondence to find out. The answer appears to be: it depends what you mean by "God."

Einstein was certainly comfortable using the word "God": about quantum mechanics, and its elements of randomness, he famously said that "God does not play dice." And he was very comfortable talking and writing about God, too; he was open with the ordinary, curious people who had the gumption to ask him about his beliefs.

Shermer brings together a number of Einstein's written opinions on the subject of God's existence - they include a telegram sent to a rabbi who asked Einstein to share his opinion in 50 words or less, and a reply to a letter Einstein received from an ensign aboard the U.S.S. Bouganville, an aircraft carrier in the Pacific during World War Two. In all these cases, Einstein didn't let his fame get in the way; he shared his thoughts about God with openness and good humor.

Einstein certainly doesn't seem to have believed in a "personal" God. In the telegram to the rabbi, he wrote:

I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and doings of mankind.

(32 words, if you're counting.) To Guy Raner, the Navy ensign, Einstein wrote that it was "misleading to use anthropomorphical concepts in dealing with things outside the human sphere." He called these "childish analogies."

So Einstein distanced himself from the idea of a personal, Christian-style God. Still, he was always careful to preserve his own freedom to wonder at and respond to the universe in a full-bodied way. Atheism was too constraining ("I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist," he wrote), and agnosticism too neutral and aloof. Einstein preferred to resonate, investigate, understand, and admire. To Raner, he wrote that "[w]e have to admire in humility the beautiful harmony of the structure of this world - as far as we can grasp it. And that is all."

All this might seem a little abstract - but that's the point, since that's the kind of God Einstein believed in. (Einstein, of course, was a master of abstract thinking.) The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, for instance, believed that God existed, but in an abstract way, not as some person-like entity who did things in the world. He identified God with nature, and wrote, in his Ethics, that "God is the indwelling and not the transient cause of all things." God doesn't do things - things are God. This seems a natural way for a scientist to think about God - as the sum total of interrelated, lawful facts in the universe.

Nowadays it often seems as though scientists (like Richard Dawkins) and religious people have nothing in common - but it doesn't have to be that way. There are certain ideas - curiosity, humility, wonder, and an abstract sense of order - that they can have in common.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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