Sunday, May 9, 2010

Einstein and Darwin

Everyone’s heard of Albert Einstein. He is generally considered to be the smartest person of the 20th century. Though he was a scientist, many people believe that since he was so smart his views on other subjects as well. Those other subjects include religion.

Creationists in particular like to refer to this quote from Einstein:

"The scientist's religious feeling takes the form of rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection."

- The World As I See It, p.29

Creationists argue that is a clear indication that Einstein believed in Intelligent Design!

But, that’s not the case.

Einstein was raised by a Jewish mother and father, but neither of them kept kosher nor attended a synagogue. Einstein called his parents “entirely irreligious”. He actually attended a Roman Catholic school when he was young. Though he was the only Jew in the entire school he took the required courses in Catholicism and excelled in them[1].

When Einstein was nine-years-old he developed a brief but “very passionate zeal for Zionism”[2].

Einstein eventually developed a belief in something called “Pantheism”. He kept this belief throughout his years after college and he was quite clear about this belief throughout his remaining life.

Wikipedia defines Pantheism as[3]:

Pantheism is the view that everything is part of an all-encompassing immanent God. In pantheism the Universe, or nature, and God are equivalent. More detailed definitions tend to emphasize the idea that God is better understood as an abstract principle representing natural law, existence, and the Universe (the sum total of all that is, was, and shall be) than an anthropomorphic entity.

Putting it more simply, in Pantheism, “God” is simply a shorthand way of referring to the universe. They are one and the same thing.

The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza was the most well-known advocate of Pantheism and Einstein referred to Spinoza often. Here’s a sample[4]:

"I believe in a Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of human beings."

In this context, it is clear that Einstein’s discussion of “intelligence” in nature bears no relationship to anything that ID advocates are endorsing.

The best statement on his philosophical and religious views can be found in his credo[5].

“At the end of August 1932 Einstein wrote ‘My Credo’. The original text was written in German. At the beginning of September he read it for a recording by order and to the benefit of the German League of Human Rights.”

My Credo

"It is a special blessing to belong among those who can and may devote their best energies to the contemplation and exploration of objective and timeless things. How happy and grateful I am for having been granted this blessing, which bestows upon one a large measure of independence from one's personal fate and from the attitude of one's contemporaries. Yet this independence must not inure us to the awareness of the duties that constantly bind us to the past, present and future of humankind at large.

Our situation on this earth seems strange. Every one of us appears here, involuntarily and uninvited, for a short stay, without knowing the why and the wherefore. In our daily lives we feel only that man is here for the sake of others, for those whom we love and for many other beings whose fate is connected with our own. I am often troubled by the thought that my life is based to such a large extent on the work of my fellow human beings, and I am aware of my great indebtedness to them.

I do not believe in free will. Schopenhauer's words: 'Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills,' accompany me in all situations throughout my life and reconcile me with the actions of others, even if they are rather painful to me. This awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my temper.

I have never coveted affluence and luxury and even despise them a good deal. My passion for social justice has often brought me into conflict with people, as has my aversion to any obligation and dependence I did not regard as absolutely necessary. I have a high regard for the individual and an insuperable distaste for violence and fanaticism. All these motives have made me a passionate pacifist and antimilitarist. I am against any chauvinism, even in the guise of mere patriotism.

Privileges based on position and property have always seemed to me unjust and pernicious, as does any exaggerated personality cult. I am an adherent of the ideal of democracy, although I know well the weaknesses of the democratic form of government. Social equality and economic protection of the individual have always seemed to me the important communal aims of the state.

Although I am a typical loner in daily life, my consciousness of belonging to the invisible community of those who strive for truth, beauty, and justice keeps me from feeling isolated.

The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as of all serious endeavour in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all there is."

He never disavowed these words. The fact that he didn’t even believe in free will says quite a bit about how different his views are from those of creationists. (There are some rumors that very late in his life Einstein began to accept the idea of a personal God. I’ve never seen any confirmation of that.)

There are also strong implications that Einstein was a believer in evolution. I’m not aware of any time that he specifically talks about the thing called “evolution”, but more than once he spoke of Charles Darwin in very positive terms.

Probably the most significant quote from Einstein about Darwin is this one:

"A conflict arises when a religious community insists on the absolute truthfulness of all statements recorded in the Bible. This means an intervention on the part of religion into the sphere of science; this is where the struggle of the Church against the doctrines of Galileo and Darwin belongs."
- Albert Einstein, Science and Religion (1941)

Anyone who groups Galileo and Darwin together so closely is surely not diminishing Darwin.

A second quote is this one:

"I do not believe that a great era of atomic science is to be assured by organising science, in the way large corporations are organised. One can organize to apply a discovery already made, but not to make one. Only a free individual can make a discovery. There can be a kind of organising by which scientists are assured their freedom and proper conditions of work. Professors of science in American universities, for instance, should be relieved of some of their teaching so as to have time for more research. Can you imagine an organisation of scientists making the discoveries of Charles Darwin?"
- Albert Einstein, 1945

Here Einstein is arguing that research is important and if scientists are to match the discoveries of Charles Darwin they need more freedom. He would hardly use Darwin in this context to denigrate him.

Einstein was first and foremost a scientist so his views on religion are not necessarily more important than the views of anyone else in our society.

But, his religious views offer no support for anything that creationists believe.

[1] Walter Isaacson, “Einstein: His Life and Universe”, 2007, pp 15-16

[2] Ibid.

[3], referenced on April 3, 2009

[4] Telegram to a Jewish newspaper, 1929;

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