Science in Christian Perspective



Einstein, Cosmotheist
Raymond J. Seeger
National Science Foundation (ret.) Washington, D.C.

From: JASA 34 March 1982): 42-44

On one of the portals of the Riverside Memorial Baptist Church in New York City is an effigy of Albert Einstein. The curious passerby ponders "Was he truly religious? If so, in what sense?" An answer to these questions requires a definition of religion-not an easy task either theoretically or practically. I shall use Paul Tillich's criterion of "ultimate concern"-not unlike Martin Luther's suggestion that God is He whom we love with all our heart and mind and strength and soul. From this viewpoint we shall consider Einstein's own attitude to the universe. First, however, let us glance at a synopsis of his life.

Einstein was 64 when I first met him at home in his role as a consultant to the U.S. Navy Bureau of Ordnance. (I was in charge of its Group on Fundamental Explosives Research.) His childlike qualities impressed me: his simplicity, sincerity, and honesty-not to mention his amazing physical insights. Upon one occasion, when several of us arrived for a conference, he met us anxiously. It so happened that the Dean of the neighboring theological seminary was going to bring a visitor to meet Einstein-right in the middle of our conference. "Will it take long?" I inquired. "No! The man just wishes to meet me," he replied. "Why not do so?" I suggested. His face lighted up as he assented. During our discussion his secretary Helen Dukas quietly came upstairs and whispered something to him. He wrung his hands anxiously. "What is the trouble?" I inquired. "The man is here!" he admitted. "Why not go down and meet him?" I remarked. "Will that be all right?" he asked apologetically. In a few minutes he returned with a satisfied smile. The ordeal was over. (I could imagine the visiting clergyman telling his congregation with pride about his meeting Einstein.)

Einstein was born at Ulm, Swabia, boasting of the highest cathedral tower in Europe-Luther country. His Jewish parents, Hermann a merchant and Pauline Koch a pianist, were irreligious. When he was one year old, the family moved to Munich, the capital of Catholic Bavaria. The child was certainly not a prodigy; he was exceptionally slow in learning to speak. His first wonder-full experience occurred when he was between 4 and 5. His father showed him a pocket compass. To the child there seemed to be something deeply hidden behind it. (cf. Alfred North Whitehead's surmise that philosophy begins with wonder).

At six Einstein attended an elementary Roman Catholic school (he was the only Jewish child). About the same time he learned to play the violin (later he took piano lessons, too)-a lifelong recreation. At 10 he entered the Luitpold Gymnasium. Two years later he experienced his second memorable wonder-geometry. He was fascinated at the unexpected meeting of the altitudes of a triangle in a point-a fact that could be rigorously "proved." About the same time he received the school's customary religious instruction. What appealed to him most was the ethical teaching of the Old Testament. This paradise, however, soon became lost in his fascination for some popular science books, which were generally irreligious. A little later he became entranced with Mozart's sonatas; Bach became a second favorite.

When Einstein became 15, his parents moved to Milan for business reasons. He was left with his engineer uncle Jakob to complete his schooling-a disaster. His teachers complained that his lack of respect for them had a bad influence upon the students. The Latin teacher predicted that he would never amount to anything. Throughout his life Einstein despised regimentation. He was wont to say that his elementary school teachers were like army sergeants, his gymnasium ones like lieutenants. Discouraged, Einstein pleaded for a 6-month medical leave of absence under the care of his parents. He never returned; he was a drop-out.

In his autobiographical notes at 67, he concluded, "It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern method of instruction has not strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry." Despite the abundance of classrooms today there are comparatively few good teachers and even fewer good students.

While at Milan, he took entrance examinations for the Polytechnic Institute of Zurich (PIZ). He failed in biology and modern languages, but did well in mathematics and physics. By attending the Argau school in Aarau Canton he acquired a diploma which admitted him to PIZ at 17. He followed a program for teaching physics and mathematics. He was particularly fascinated by the laboratory work, which brought him into direct contact with nature. His "practical" teacher, however, complained, "Why don't you study medicine, law or philology instead?" Nevertheless, three years later he did receive his PIZ diploma (the average grade on his final exams was B+.

It was not until 23 that he found permanent employment, viz., in the Patent Office at Berne-hardly an encouraging environment for a young physicist. A year later he married a former classmate Mileva Maric, a Greek Orthodox Serbian-an event never approved by his family. (Upon one visit to Serbia she and their two sons joined the Roman Catholic Church.)

At 26 Einstein published three significant papers (on quantum theory, restricted relativity, and Brownian motions), any one of which would have qualified him for a Nobel Prize (actually he did not receive one until 16 years later when he had become famous for relativity-but then for quantum theory). When he was 28, he submitted his relativity paper in conjunction with his application for a teaching position at the University of Berne. It was rejected because of a hand-written requirement.

At 32 Einstein received appointment as Ordinary Professor of Theoretical Physics at the German University of Prague. He had to indicate his religious affiliation in accordance with an edict of Emperor Franz Joseph I; he used a customary notation, "Mosaic." Three years later he was elected to the Royal Prussian Academy of Science at Berlin with the title of Professor at the University of Berlin (he could lecture, or not, as he pleased). (One of his sponsors apologized that his paper on quantum theory might have missed the target.) His wife did not accompany him. After five years separation they became divorced. He married his Berlin second cousin Elsa, a widow with two daughters. When he was 54, he joined the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton-his second wife died three years later. Einstein retired at 66. (I was invited to a symposium in his honor when he was 70). He died at 76. Throughout his life he had an aversion to professional science. His raison d' etre was to be an amateur, free to pursue "truth" for its own sake. (He would have preferred to earn his living by other means than scientific research, if need be-say, as a cobbler or a teacher.)

When I looked for the first time (1945) at the bombed Frankfurt Museum, I pondered its inscription "towering o'er the wrecks of time": "Das Wahre, Das Gute, Das Sch6ne. " Had Einstein been inspired by this motto? He confessed, "My ideals which illumined me and filled me with the joy of life are beauty, goodness, and truth." When he became a public figure after the observational confirmation (1919) of the three predictions of his general relativity, he felt obligated to use his influence to further his social concerns. His basic belief was that "the foundation of all human values is morality." He mused, "I came to love charity and the love of one's fellow beings above everything else." His two major concerns were Zionism and pacifism.

Einstein supported the Zionist movement, particularly the new University of Jerusalem. He himself, however, was not a Zionist. He did not subscribe to their zeal for nationalism and for orthodoxy.

As for pacifism, he insisted, "Life is sacred, that is to say, it is the supreme value to which all values are subordinate." He was vehemently opposed to "every kind of cruelty and hatred." War, to him, was mechanized cruelty-he abhorred the military system. Nevertheless, he would not endorse the conscientious objectors, whom he regarded as helping the other side, which was equally bad. (Having registered as a C.O., I myself came to a similar conclusion in 1941, and changed midstream.) Hitler, however, seemed to present a more irrational specter so that he was willing to accept Lt. Stephen Bfunauer's invitation to become a Bureau of Ordnance consultant in 1943. Meanwhile, in July 1939 and March 1940, at the instigation of the Hungarian physicists Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner, he urged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to support the production of an atomic bomb, which he feared the Germans would develop (it so happened they rejected the idea).

Einstein's third letter (April 1945), pleading for not using the bomb, remained unopened on Roosevelt's desk on the day of his death. Just prior to Einstein's own death on April 18th, 1955, he signed the philosophical mathematician Bertrand Russell's manifesto urging nations to find peaceful means to settle matters of dispute between them.

Before discussing Einstein's religion we must look at his relevant philosophy of physics, beginning with the role of phenomena as he envisaged it.

We begin with the philosopher Auguste Comte, who in 1830 argued that theory should be judged only by positive experience-subsequently termed positivism. The philosophical physicist Ernst Mach in 1886 insisted further that every physical statement should relate only observable quantities-called a positivistic requirement. He was especially critical of Newton's abstract concepts of absolute space and time. Einstein's own recognition that simultaneity of two events is different for observers in relative motion revolutionized the very concepts of space and time. He, however, did not subscribe to Mach's stipulation; he was content if the theoretical conclusions agreed with observable phenomena. Thinking per se, he believed, would not yield knowledge about the actual universe, as postulated by the mathematical philosopher Reni Descartes. As he remarked, "The universe of ideas is just as little independent of the nature of our experience as clothes are of the nature of the human body."

Let us turn now to the role of the human mind. We begin with the philosopher David Hume, who in 1748 emphasized that the principle of casuality is a non sequitur of observation. In 1781 the critical philosopher Immanuel Kant insisted that the rules of thinking are a prerequisite for understanding phenomena. For example, he insisted upon the necessity of Euclidean geometry-negated later by the development of equally valid non-Euclidean geometries. In 1912 the mathematical physicist Henri Poincari postulated that scientific concepts are free creations of the mind, their usefulness being determined by their agreement with observations. Logical consistency, to be sure, was requisite-hence the idea of logical positivism espoused by the Vienna Circle in the 1920's-later termed more aptly logical empiricism. Although Einstein was indebted to all the above, he was not strictly a logical empiricist inasmuch as he allowed for some metaphysical concepts not derivable from sensory raw data.

Einstein had a passion to understand nature, which he believed to be real and rational, but a riddle. He confessed that "the most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible." Over the fireplace in the Fine Hall Common Room at Princeton University is inscribed a saying of Einstein: "Raffiniert ist der Herr Gott, aber boshaft ist Er nicht" ("The Lord God is subtle, but He is not mischievous"). He believed that the road to understanding nature is illuminated by mathematical simplicity inherent in nature's unity. (The concept of simplicity is not itself simple.) The apparent beauty, however, was always to be subservient to the latent truth, i.e., mathematical elegance is secondary to physical content. The method is not fancy free like that of a novelist, but rather like that of a person seeking a unique word for a crossword puzzle. Einstein was dedicated to discovering the truth lurking in nature. About his work there was an aura of religion.

Einstein's speculation about religion had its roots in the pantheism of the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who regarded the universe as a mixture of mind and matter-but not a Cartesian dualism. He identified the order of the universe with the will of its inherent God (so-called). Einstein admitted, "My conception of God is an emotional conviction of a superior intelligence manifest in the material world." In the spirit of Psalm 139 he regarded God as immanent-but not transcendent. He did not "believe in a God who cares for the well-being and the moral doings of human beings. "

In his Herbert Spencer Lecture at Oxford (1933) Einstein spoke of "something ineffable about the real, something occasionally described as myterious and awe-inspiring." The fact that the method of investigation turns out to be true in the empirical sense he regarded as "a property of our world, an empirical fact, a hard fact." This mystical attitude toward the harmony of universal law is what I call cosmotheism. The mathematical physicist Philipp Frank, who succeeded Einstein at Prague in 1912, noted, "It is the scientist in the field of natual science, especially in the field of mathematical physics, who has this mystical feeling"-what can be regarded as the center of true religiousness. Einstein himself called it cosmic religion. He insisted, "In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the ranks of devoutly religious men." It is not surprising that the chemist Walther Nernst saw in him the model for the young Johannes Kepler in the Redemption of Tycho Brahe by Max Brod, the German author of Prague. Christians will identify him with the scribe whom Jesus described as not being far from the kingdom of God.

Alongside the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D * C., is the centennial memorial of Einstein's birth. Regardless of the artistic merit of the "mud-packing" style of the sculptor Robert Berks, his portayal of Einstein is wanting in spiritual appreciation. The lolling, gorilla-like, Gargantuan figure gazing down at a miniature star-studded sky is not the Einstein I knew. He would have been looking up humbly, in rapturous amazement at the harmony of law revealing everywhere a superior intelligence. He was a cosmotheist.