From Impolitical & Irreligious

The Tao of Einstein

Einstein’s ghostwriters

Albert Einstein on learningA brilliant quote attributed to Albert Einstein goes, “Only two things are infinite: the universe and stupidity. But I’m not sure about the universe.” I love this and can’t help reflect that it seems to explain, at least in part, the Donald Drumpf phenomenon.

The only problem with the quote is that as far as we know Einstein never said it.

If only that were a rare instance of a questionable (or downright false) quote attributed to Einstein. Far from it. There are his admirers who feel compelled to attribute every Einstein-like pearl to their hero. This is mostly harmless and Einstein isn’t the only victim. But then there are those who feel their most cherished beliefs to be threatened by rational scientific inquiry and seem unable to resist twisting the words of great men of science–Darwin and Einstein in particular–to support their own views. Not so harmless, in my view.

Most in this second group who see and pass on these apocryphal quotes have no idea whether or not they are true. They are comforted by them, and that is enough. Best not to look too closely into the matter: just click that “Like” button. I can’t help but believe most of these people have read little or nothing of Einstein’s work, let alone understood it.

In many cases, of course, some religious zealot consciously chose to promulgate an outright lie in support of his or her conception of God.[1]

Facebook meme.Monday was the 137th anniversary of Einstein’s birth (an auspicious occasion). Maybe that accounts for my seeing the meme at right posted three times this week on my Facebook feed. If you are one of my friends who posted it, know that I do not write this to pick on you. None of you took the time to put this together. None of you chose to invent it or, to be charitable, mistranslate or misquote something he actually said. He invoked the concept of God often, but said nothing so facile as this (and he didn’t “study science”–he used science as a tool to study the nature of our universe). Einstein was not an atheist, but he often and adamantly expressed his disbelief in anything that might be described as a “personal God.” He seemed to contemplate a “pantheistic deity” and expressed admiration for the philosophy of Spinoza. One of the clearest expressions of his belief (as quoted in Einstein : Science and Religion by Arnold V. Lesikar):

Ich glaube an Spinozas Gott, der sich in der gesetzlichen Harmonie des Seienden offenbart, nicht an einen Gott, der sich mit Schicksalen und Handlungen der Menschen abgibt. [ I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind. ]

So he was no Richard Dawkins; no strident atheist. But it would be a good idea for those committed to a fundamentalist, unscientific creationist view of reality to look elsewhere for support.

I have created the graphic below as a possible alternative to the one posted above. I have no expectation that it will go viral, but it does have the virtue of being true to Einstein’s life and work.

My meme.

Einstein in his own words

If it is an important to know what Einstein’s personal beliefs about God were, it isn’t necessary to guess or to rely on the random appearances of memes on your Facebook wall. He did not shy away from the subject and–to coin a phrase–the truth is out there.

Walter Isaacson’s fascinating Einstein: His Life and Universe is a great place to get a sense of the man. It is a nearly 700-page biography, so it is a commitment. But if you happen to be one who desires to find in him a validation of your faith, shouldn’t you make that kind of commitment?

No? Then you should be willing at least to read Wikipedia’s Religious views of Albert Einstein page. It would be a great place to start. Did he really say “God doesn’t play dice” and if so, what did he mean by it?

When evaluating a supposed Einstein quote, Wikiquote’s Albert Einstein page is a rich resource. Actual quotes are provided references and (at least some) context there. Apocryphal or unsubstantiated quotes are examined there too.[2]

Saint Albert?

Saint Albert Einstein?Is it really important to know what Einstein believed about God? Surely not. He was a supremely gifted physicist but he was not a theologian. (If he were a theologian would it be any more important? And who, in any case, is the Einstein of theology? Where are their universal proofs?)

All of us except those who want to believe the earth is 6000 years old and that the Bible is a science textbook– infallible, literal and inerrant (even when it contradicts itself)–can find inspiration in Einstein’s words. I and many others do find him wise. But he is not a god, after all, and his god is not necessarily yours. Those who would appropriate his words (or put words into his mouth) should attempt to understand him before making him their prophet or canonizing him as Saint Albert.

The three quotes I chose for my soon-to-be-viral meme (click above to read them) and the three below are pretty representative of his view of God and religion and they accord pretty well with my own.[3]

  • I see only with deep regret that God punishes so many of His children for their numerous stupidities, for which only He himself can be held responsible; in my opinion, only His nonexistence could excuse him.” (Letter to Edgar Meyer, January 2, 1915)
  • The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day. Never lose a holy curiosity. (Statement to William Miller, as quoted in LIFE magazine, 2 to May 2, 1955)
  • The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and 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. (As quoted in Introduction to Philosophy by George Thomas White Patrick and Frank Miller Chapman, 1935)

Notes

  1. So what is this to me, anyway? Why should I care what people post on Facebook or other social media? Is it is free country and we all should be free to say whatever we want to say.
     
    I absolutely support anyone’s freedom to believe whatever they want. As long as they do not try to force me to believe as they do and to live by their convictions, we will have no conflict. I may choose to engage in a civil debate, I will not hesitate to share my opinion, and I will on occasion (okay, often) make opinionated, sarcastic, sacrilegious and/or unpopular posts.
     
    What I will NOT do is knowingly post lies to support my opinions. I will NOT click “Like” on someone else’s post or meme without being reasonably sure it is factual when it makes verifiable or falsifiable claims. Being “reasonably sure” means making an effort to verify it if there is any question in my mind about its truthfulness. This is something I strive to do even if I really, really want it to be true and if it supports my views.
     
    I am not so insecure about my own beliefs that I find it necessary to lie in support of them. Neither should you be. This goes double when the lie insults individuals or groups, whether I agree with them or not. If I am going to insult someone, I REALLY want to be on solid ground with what I am saying or endorsing. [^]
  2. Several variations of the often-abused “God does not play dice” quotes are put into context there. Not that context will help those whose want to misinterpret it. Even (avowed atheist) Stephen Hawking’s many invocations of “God” are similarly abused. [^]
  3. Which is to say, in short: I am not an atheist (agnostic is a better description even if I am what Richard Dawkins dismissively refers to as a PAP–permanently agnostic person); I don’t take the Israelite god Yahweh seriously; and I hold love, beauty, wonder, truth and open-mindedness supreme. And yes, the greatest of these is love. [^]