Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Was Einstein a supporter of Creationism?

Surprisingly – at least I was surprised the first time that I saw it – some creationists claim Albert Einstein as one of their supporters. 

They might quote Einstein as saying this:

"Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind."

They will also offer this quote:

"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."

Einstein said those things.  But Einstein also said this[1]:

"The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. …"

So should Albert Einstein be considered to be a supporter of creationism, or not?

The answer, quite obviously, is complicated.

First of all, we should state the obvious.  Einstein was not a philosopher.  Furthermore, while he was a scientist, he was not a biologist who studied evolution.  So, strictly speaking, based solely on his background and experience and other credentials, his opinion should be basically irrelevant.

It would be like asking an auto mechanic what’s wrong with your computer and expecting a relevant answer.

But Einstein was much more than that.  He was a very smart person who gave quite a bit of thought to a lot of different things.  Many people, quite justifiably, consider him to be the smartest person of the 20th century.  He actually devised the Theory of Relativity, not from observations in a laboratory, but by asking himself philosophical questions such as what would happen if he could somehow jump onto a beam of light.

So despite any apparent missing credentials in his background, surely his opinion on such matters needs to be respected.

The first question we need to discuss, though it doesn’t address the specific quotes given above, was:

Did Einstein believe in evolution?

Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, no one has found a quote of Einstein’s stating whether he did – or didn’t – accept biological evolution.

Of course Einstein, being the very intelligent person that we have acknowledged he is, surely knew about evolution.  So do we have any hints regarding his view on that subject?

Indeed we do.

Einstein said some very complimentary things about Charles Darwin. 

Here’s the first quote:

"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)

Note that in this quote Einstein equates Darwin with Galileo.   Anyone who groups Galileo and Darwin together as closely as this 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 organise 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 include Darwin in this context to denigrate him.

Clearly Einstein admired Charles Darwin.  By implication he must have believed in evolution.  It would be difficult to imagine him speaking of Darwin in this way otherwise.

So, with that somewhat settled, what were Einstein’s religious views and how did they relate to the evolution / creationism controversy?

Einstein was not raised in a religious family.  They didn’t attend synagogue or practice the kosher rules.  His father was a severe critic of Judaism, calling the Jewish rules “silly superstitions”[2].  Einstein even attended a Catholic school as a child.  According to Einstein’s sister, for a while, when Albert was about 12 years old, he embraced his Jewish heritage.  He was the only one in his family to practice kosher and attend synagogue.  But he started to read science books and realized that the Bible couldn’t be true.  He said later[3]:

“Through the reading of popular science books, I soon reached the conviction that much in the Bible could not be true. “

He didn’t engage in any religious rituals during the rest of his life.  In fact when he left Germany to come to the US and renounced his German citizenship, he classified himself as having “no religious denomination”[4].

Einstein, as an adult, was not religious in any normal sense of the word.  However, despite many attempts, no one was ever able to get him to say whether or not he was an “atheist”.  A Jewish Rabbi in New York sent a telegram asking for a specific ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer.  Instead the rabbi received these words:

I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals Himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.

Einstein often used Spinoza’s name when asked about religion.  So what does it mean to believe in Spinoza’s God?

First of all, we need to understand who Spinoza was.  Baruch Spinoza was a 17th century Dutch Jewish Philosopher.  He was actually excommunicated from the Jewish community for his religious views.  Being excommunicated from the Jewish church is a very rare occurrence, much rarer than excommunication from Roman Catholicism.   .  (Spinoza was also condemned by the RCC even though he wasn’t a Catholic.) So you have to believe in some really unconventional things for that to happen.

Fundamentally, Spinoza got in so much trouble because he didn’t trust the Bible[5].  He also argued that if there was a personal God you should be able to see a demonstration of such a God in miracles and other phenomena.  Since we don’t see such things, except anecdotally, there is no reason to believe in such a God.

Spinoza also didn’t believe in free will.  Einstein strongly agreed with Spinoza on that issue.  Einstein said in a private letter that he admired Spinoza because the philosopher “was the first…to deal with the body and soul as one, not two separate things.”

So what was this “god” that Spinoza believed in?

Spinoza defined “God” as an “absolutely infinite substance[6]” or essence.  Certainly not any sort of being.

In summary, it appears to me, that Einstein and Spinoza used “God” as a sort of shorthand view of the natural world.  But it is also a bit more than that.  Einstein in particular felt a sense of “awe” when he viewed the universe.  So to Einstein, “God” was a combination of the natural world itself as well as a sense of reverence for it.

So when Einstein said that, “Science without religion is lame”, he’s saying that all scientists should feel some sense of reverential respect for the universe that they study.  That’s something that even an ardent atheist might agree with.

But that’s it.  He surely doesn’t believe that scientists should believe in any sort of personal God since he was so clear that he didn’t believe in such a being.

 In summary, we can safely conclude:
1.       Einstein did not trust the Bible as a source of valid information.
2.       Einstein did not believe in any sort of personal God.
3.       Einstein deeply admired Darwin.  That strongly indicates that he believed in evolution.
Conclusion:  Albert Einstein was not a supporter of creationism and almost certainly would have been offended at being called a supporter of such a belief system.

[1] Private correspondence from Einstein to philosopher Erik Gutkind, January, 1954.  See http://www.lettersofnote.com/2009/10/word-god-is-product-of-human-weakness.html
[2] Walter Isaacson, “Einstein”, Simon and Shuster, 2007, pp. 14-15.
[3] Ibid, p. 20
[4] Ibid, p. 29
[6] Ibid.