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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Currently reading (in between swimming, kayaking,etc) - Einstein and Religion by Max Jammer

I've been enjoying this book, which is very clearly written until we get deep into physics near the end (and even then it's more that the subject matter is inherently difficult for those of us who are not physicists ... or even scientists).

However, it wanders far from Einstein's actual views to explore the pros and cons of various theological implications of relativity theory. If you're more interested in getting straight what Einstein may have thought, you could do better to read his original writings, although the first half of this book makes a nice supplement. Two things that are absolutely clear are: (1) Einstein did not believe in (and forcefully denied the existence of) a personal God; and (2) Einstein did not believe in personal immortality. He was at some pains to explain the former (and copped much flak for it).

The only real isssue is whether Einstein believed in some kind of transcendent impersonal force that could be called "God" in some sense or whether he was always speaking purely metaphorically when he spoke (as he often did) of "God". Just when you think you that clear and settled in your mind, you can come across a passage that makes you wonder. But he certainly did not believe in a God or gods as we ordinarily think of them: as things with feelings and personality. He denied the existence of anything like that, and did so in straightforward and pretty strong terms.

6 comments:

Emily said...

I'm under the rather nebulous and probably ill-founded impression that the "transcendent force" Einstein seems to be referring to is simply the universe itself. Perhaps some of the tone of his writing in this regard is indicative of the sheer awe and wonderment he felt. I think his seemingly metaphysical statements are probably best interpreted as appreciation for the sublimity of the universe, and probably not supernaturalist at all.

Enrique said...

"The only real isssue is whether Einstein believed in some kind of transcendent impersonal force that could be called "God" in some sense or whether he was always speaking purely metaphorically when he spoke."
Well, I don't have my copy of the Quotable Einstein at hand, but what I remember clearly from it and Isaacson's biography (very advisable as well) is that Einstein actually believed in the existence of such an impersonal force (Spinoza's god) and was not talking metaphorically. What I remember still more strongly is that he consistently refused to be considered an atheist.
I don't see any problem in understanding Einstein's view, even without sharing it, but that does not seem to be the case for some atheists. Personally, I think the Christian (or Islamic or Jewish...) god is a logical absurdity, but there's nothing intrinsically illogic in the Spinozan god.

Russell Blackford said...

He didn't want to be labeled an "atheist", but if you go back to the writings where he aays that I think it's reasonably clear what he meant by the term "atheist": to Einstein, the term pretty clearly meant something like, "Person who advocates against religion." Einstein was not that. He said this pretty explicitly.

In modern terms, we'd call him an accommodationist.

There are a lot of interpretations of Spinoza, of course. Einstein himself made he point that he was no Spinoza scholar. The big thing he got out of Spinoza was not some kind of pantheism so much as a commitment to rigorous determinism.

Anonymous said...

The important thing is that it is not important what Einstein thought.

Enrique said...

Russell, with some delay, I'm a bit surprised by your comment. In the first place, happily for us, you don't have to be a scholar to be able to understand the main points of a philosopher's work. Should it have had to rely of specialists from the beginning, philosophy would have been still-born. By reading what Einstein said himself, for me it's quite clear that when he talked about God he referred mostly to the underlying rationality of the Universe (I have the quote here but I'm not going to become pedantic :-) ), including of course the determinism he derived from his scientific work. And both features can be found in the description of Nature by Spinoza. In this sense, he knew well what we was referring to.
But what surprised me most was your description of Einstein himself. For someone who didn't hesitate in turning upside down our whole conception of the universe, who campaigned against war when his country was in one, who was a political exile, who always raised his voice against mainstream opinions (social, political or scientific) whenever he thought them wrong even at his own personal risk, to be called an accomodationist sounds quite strained.
I don't see any reason why we should doubt his own words. He didn't believe in a personal god nor in an afterlife, and he expressed his views against organised religion as a valid source or relief or ethics more than once. But he didn't deny a sense of the religious that was far beyond what ordinary religious people believe.
We can agree or disagree with his views. However, half jokingly, trying to find a hidden atheist behind sounds somewhat like Dante locating in the purgatory, and not in hell, all those ancient philosophers who surely would have been Christian had they been born after J.C.

Russell Blackford said...

Enrique, I'm a bit confused by this. Are you saying that he wasn't an atheist or that he was? You say:

"By reading what Einstein said himself, for me it's quite clear that when he talked about God he referred mostly to the underlying rationality of the Universe (I have the quote here but I'm not going to become pedantic :-) ), including of course the determinism he derived from his scientific work."

That is saying that he was, by the sort of definition that I and many others would use, an atheist. He didn't believe in a personal God or even in some kind of supernatural force that could, perhaps, be regarded as an impersonal God. If by God he meant mostly the underlying rationality of the universe, then he is using the term "God" as a metaphor.

But in your last para and your original comment you appear to be denying that he was an atheist. You seem to be contradicting yourself. Perhaps Einstein did as well, but if so doesn't that just prove my point in the original post?