What Can Be Learned From The Relationship Between Einstein’s Science and His Religion
Bryan Mazor - History of Science Final Paper Project
There can be seen in history many instances in which religion and science have been at opposite sides of human methodologies. Common subjects that pertain to this relationship have been Copernicus and Galileo’s heliocentrism and Darwin’s theory of Evolution. These theories were both held to be in contempt with religious thought, so organized religion has done their best to combat these theories. Extremists on both sides of the arguments have given people a bitter taste regarding the relationship between religion and science. As both scientific theories began to gain ground and acceptance against the traditional religious thoughts the strife only became more and more pronounced. From Pope Urban VIII placing Galileo under house arrest (Hoffman 21) to arguments about whether to teach Evolution or Intelligent Design in schools, this argument about either religion or science has endured with vigor. But is this the way it will always be? Is it possible for a coexistence of these subjects within the common man? A powerful symbol of hope regarding a possible coexistence can be seen in the thoughts of the German scientist Albert Einstein. Einstein is regarded as one of the greatest minds this world has ever known, and will be forever remembered for his multiple and groundbreaking contributions to science. As his theories regarding relativity and the structure of the universe redefined how we must look at the world, he held within a strong sense of religion. For Einstein, there is a distinct relationship between religion and science, a relationship that is not one of opposites. Coexistence within the mind of one of the greatest scientists of all time certainly offers hope of a coexistence that can exist with us all. Religion and science had a distinct give and take for Einstein, a relationship that can be summarized with the quote: "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."
Einstein was a religious man, but in an uncommon regard. Raised by a Jewish family and customs and received catholic instruction from schools in compliance with Bavarian law. Although he went through a stage at a young age of being quite religious, at the age of twelve, apparently upon the discovery of science, his religious vigor came to a sudden stop and “He did not become bar mitzvah” (Pais 38). From there he began to stray from organized religion and only weakly associated himself with Judaism. He did, however, remain religious, an idea shown in Count Kessler’s diary regarding a dinner party conversation between Alfred Kerr and Einstein:
Professor! I hear that you are supposed to be deeply religious?” Calmly and with great dignity, Einstein replied, “Yes, you can call it that. Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in point of fact, religious (Kessler 322).
Einstein’s religion is not a mystery. Einstein published many essays on his thoughts on religion and its relationship with science. Einstein referred to his theological beliefs as the “cosmic religion,” describing multiple reasons for religion such as fear and moral ideals, but the cosmic religious feeling as the most noble:
Only exceptionally gifted individuals or especially noble communities rise essentially above this level (moral religion); in these there is found a third level of religious experience, even if it is seldom found in pure form. I will call it the cosmic religious sense. This is hard to make clear to those who do not experience it, since it does not involve an anthropomorphic idea of God; the individual feels the vanity of human desires and aims, and the nobility and marvelous order which are revealed in nature and in the world of thoughts. He feels the individual destiny as an imprisonment and seeks to experience the totality of existence as a unity of full significance (Einstein 48).
This is the theology that Einstein followed, one not of organized religion or one in which one believes in God out of fear of misfortune or because it provides comfort about death. Einstein’s religious feelings came from the sense of wonder he felt when looking at the world. From these religious sentiments it is not hard to draw the connection from this theology and to Einstein’s science. In fact, Einstein regarded this cosmic feeling as the most powerful scientific motivator: “I assert that the cosmic religious experience is the strongest and noblest driving force behind scientific research” (Einstein 52). It is no wonder Einstein pursued his magnificent theories with such vigor; he truly was searching to understand the universe at even its deepest levels. This method or research and the cosmic mentality can be seen in every step of his theories on relativity; from the motivating force behind his inquiry to the beautiful conclusions. With every interaction that Einstein studied he tried to not only derive mathematical equations to describe the interaction, but also to capture the inner meaning and deeper motivation behind it all: “When I am judging a theory I ask myself whether, if I were God, if I would have arranged the world in such a way” (Isaacson 335). Einstein’s theories were not a front against religion, but a study to understand the deeper meaning behind the way God operates.
At the advent of Einstein’s research in the very early 1900’s there was not unquestionably consistent theory on relativity. Galilean or Newtonian relativity was widely accepted for many years, and is so intuitive that it is hard to refute. Essentially Galilean relativity states that in inertial states of motion (motion that is not accelerated), it is impossible to discern the difference between absolute stillness. This can be seen any time one flies in an airplane and observes people walking around, as you and the airplane are all moving with no acceleration the system as a whole acts as if it is not moving. This theory was a necessity for Galileo to assert that the Earth was orbiting around the sun. However Maxwell’s equations asserting light as an alternating wave between electric and magnetic fields caused problems to Galileo’s relativity. Under Galileo’s relativity there were no special reference frames, no reference frames had preference; velocity can only be measured relative to other objects. Waves in order to propagate, however, require a medium. Maxwell proposed an all-pervading aether as the medium in which light can propagate, an aether that existed within state and matter. This aether was also without motion, like a liquid filling space yet did not hinder the motion of anything like planets. This directly conflicted with Galilean relativity, for an unmoving aether would provide for an absolute reference frame in which the velocity of everything can be measured. These theories were in direct conflict, and motivated Albert Michelson and Edward Morley to devise an experiment to measure the absolute motion of the earth relative to the aether. This famous Michelson-Morley experiment led to a null result, that the earth is not moving relative to the aether: “Thus according to the theory of aberration there should be an aether wind, but according to the Michelson-Morley experiment there was none” (Hoffman 80). And here enters Einstein. For Einstein witnessing modern thoughts about the universe must have been disgusting; there was not way his God would have created the universe in such an inconsistent way. The aether was very ugly with its unmoving velocity and properties that allow matter to just flow right through it. The Michelson-Morley result seemed to indicate that there was no absolute reference frame. And so Einstein’s intuition, motivated by his thoughts of a beautiful universe, led for him to denote two principles. One is that if we are in an unaccelerated body, the motion has not affect on the properties inside it. This is similar to Newtonian and Galileo’s ideas, except Einstein extended this idea to all physical phenomena, not just mechanics but also electromagnetic interactions. The second principle was that light propagated at the same speed, c, no matter the speed of the source of the light (Hoffman 91). These principles would have been obviously appealing to Einstein for their simplicity and beauty. These were principles that God would not dare to break, for they would lead to chaos; the laws of physics cannot change. Maintaining the integrity of these two principles, however, would have adverse affects on the some of the most established perceptions like time and length. In order to maintain that the speed of light is always constant, a body moving at a high velocity will feel time slowing down and size’s contract. This is because if this body were emitting light, the speed of light cannot be c plus the speed of the body, as the speed of light is always constant. Instead, because velocity is simply the distance traveled divided by the time it takes the travel this velocity, if the length is contracted and time is slowed, the light emitted by the body will still propagate at c. If time can be changed according to the relative velocity between two objects, however, it becomes difficult to ascertain which event necessarily came before the other. Events that could be perceived as occurring at the same time could be viewed as occurring at different times if observed from a different reference frame with a different velocity. Although the relativity of time and length must have been difficult for Einstein to swallow as a consequence of this theories, they would prove to be correct and would prove to unite all existing theories of relativity under one roof. The un-intuitive nature must have just added to the appeal for Einstein. Always the rebel, being able to challenge all of our perceptions while maintaining its logical and mathematically integrity would have been of great appeal: “Banesh Hoffmann, who in the thirties had worked on his theory with Einstein for some time and who called Einstein a ‘creator and rebel’” (Jammer 29). There is something intrinsically beautiful that can be taken from special relativities odd time and space interactions; that space and time are unified in one related “fabric” of the universe. One doesn’t just move from place to place in three-dimensions, but also move from event to event in the fourth-dimension, time. The rate in which a person moves through time can change according to velocity, but events don’t happen, they are. The majesty of this view would have appealed to Einstein, there is an intrinsic set order to the universe, past present and future are just human concepts. Also upon taking derivations about relativistic (the term to describe bodies experiencing interactions predicted at high velocities according to special relativity) force being applied to a body and approximating the expression for a body with zero velocity will yield Einstein’s most famous equation, E=mc2. This equation epitomizes Einstein’s science; simply, beautiful, and profound. In one relationship Einstein related mass and energy, things that to all human perceptions are very unrelated. But God would make the universe this way, completely out of energy. Einstein’s theory of relativity would prove to be true and has been tested many times and held up, but his greatest work was yet to come, what is now known as general relativity.
General relativity came to being in Einstein’s mind in a similar way as special relativity, he could not consider this view of the universe beautiful enough for God to have created it this way: “Einstein’s general theory of relativity had its origin in an aesthetic dissatisfaction” (Hoffman 129). For Einstein, the preference to inertial unaccelerated reference frames in special relativity bothered him. In his mind, all reference frames, including ones being accelerated, should be considered inertial:
Then there occurred to me the happiest thought of my life, in the following form. The gravitational field has only a relative existence in a way similar to the electric field generated by magneto electric induction. Because for an observer falling freely from the roof of a house there exists-at least in his immediate surroundings-no gravitational field. Indeed, if the observer drops some bodies then these remain relative to him in a state of rest or of uniform motion… The observer therefore has the right to interpret his state as ‘at rest’ (Einstein).
No doubt this happiness came from the cosmic religious feeling, to be able to unite all states of motion under a united theory of relativity. This led Einstein to begin to relate the properties between two states of uniform acceleration, under the principle that the laws of physics would be the same in both. One state was that of a laboratory in a gravitational field, the other was one in which an angel accelerated a laboratory at a rate of acceleration equal to that of the gravitational field. It can be seen that any sort of experiment held in one laboratory will yield the same results as the other laboratory, dropping a ball on earth will cause the ball to fall and letting go of a ball in the angel laboratory will also give the perception of the ball falling to the floor. Einstein did not stop at simple interactions like this, however, and he worked to extend this to all physics: “It would have been most inartistic to have so fundamental an equivalence to apply only to mechanics and not to all of physics. God would not have made the universe this way” (Hoffman 132). So Einstein began to explore the equivalence between all interactions in the earth laboratory and the angel laboratory. From this he began to see that light can bend in gravitational fields, and that time is also dilated in gravitational fields. Gradually he began to relate the force of gravity to something more geometric; a force associated with curves in space-time. The curvature in space-time can simply explain how light can be bent, because space it self is being bent. Also this bend in space-time accounts for gravitational acceleration as being an inertial state, space is bent as so that objects will just be naturally accelerating. Although Einstein used complicated mathematical concepts, the end result of his general theory of relativity is undeniably magnificent. It can be envisioned as balls resting on a trampoline, the trampoline representing space-time and the balls planets. Just as the balls depress the trampoline, very massive objects depress space-time and attract other objects towards it. Einstein was able to describe the universe as a fabric of space and time in which nothing can travel above the speed of light, time is relative, and bends in this fabric are known as gravitational fields. The theories predict extraordinary behavior, but in a way unparalleled in majesty as Einstein once declared: “Hardly anyone who has truly understood this theory will be able to resist being captivated by its magic” (Hoffman 158). The complicated interactions that occur added to the magic for Einstein. A theory that contains both wonderful interactions that only a God could take intuitively yet was captured in comprehensible theories, equations, and images. Einstein had not veered from his view of physics and God in the creation of these theories, but worked with both ideas in harmony to revolutionize physics:
I’m not an atheist, and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. (Viereck 186).
Einstein had accomplished the difficult task of being the child that could look at the stacks of books in the library and discerned alphabetical organization without knowing its true deeper purpose but by suspecting the existence of a deeper meaning. Einstein’s cosmic religious feelings provided not only his motivation to understand the universe but also the beauty behind all of his theories, a true symbiotic relationship between religion and science.
Einstein’s theories of relativity have profound implications in describing our universe, especially regarding time. Although modern religions have been hesitant to either accept or contest these implications, for Einstein this had profound implications regarding his theology: “The fundamental tenet of Einstein’s cosmic religion is that science furthers religion” (Jammer 155). Einstein scientifically proved that the universe should be looked at like an infinite series of “snap shots” of three-dimensional events, and one simply moves from “snap shot” to “snap shot,” as phrased by Hermann Weyl: “the objective world simply is, it does not happen. Only to the case of my consciousness, crawling upward along the lifeline of my body, does a section of this world come to life as a fleeing image in space which continuously changes in time” (Weyl 116). Einstein believed this consequence of hit theories of relativity whole-heartedly. For after his lifelong friend Michele Besso passed away, Einstein wrote to Besso’s family: “Now he had departed a little ahead of me from this quaint world. This means nothing. For us faithful physicists, the separation between past, present, and future has only the meaning of an illusion, though a persistent one” (Jammer 161). Einstein clearly received comfort from this fact, comfort from his theories regarding life and death, a comfort that usually comes from faith. For Einstein, the ancient religious view of time being unmoving and unrelenting was not more. The thought that time and the relativity of events is just a human affair has clear theological consequence, consequence’s Einstein fully accepted. Most notably is the concept of determinism. If the universe is to be viewed as all events in space and time in one image, and human existence is imply moving along the line of time to the next existing “image,” then our fate seems to be already determined. Under this worldview, the events in which we will encounter in the future have already been determined; we have just yet to consciously experience the events: “James Hopwood Jeans, expressed the idea that the theory of relativity implies strict determinism, the concept of the world as a ‘block universe,’ and the denial of free will, because clearly the Parmenidean doctrine that there is no ‘becoming’ but only ‘being’ requires that free will is at best an illusion” (Jammer 181). Einstein was not opposed to these ideas, he believed that a true god would not concern itself with the wants and needs of humans: “A God who rewards and punishes is for him unthinkable, because man acts in accordance with an inner and outer necessity, and would, in the eyes of God, be as little responsible as an inanimate objects is for the movements which it makes” (Einstein 51). Likening the actions of a human to that of the moments of a planet rotating about the sun is a bold assertion, but one that is based in the reality presented by relativity. Just as the measured observation of when a sun-flare breaks the surface of the sun can be changed by moving at speeds close to the speed of light, the time of your birth can be observed to occur at different times if one is moving at a velocity close to that of the speed of light. For Einstein these became accepted truths. Just as most modern religions no longer strongly assert that the earth is the center of the universe, or that Adam and Eve came to being mere thousands of years ago, for Einstein the thought that events in the future have not already happened is plain fallacy. Einstein’s theories regarding the universe cam to be quickly accepted into Einstein’s theology as truths that must be accommodated for in his religious views, his science had relinquished the “blindness” about what his religion should be.
Not all believe that science and religion hold a symbiotic give and take relationship as Einstein did. Some proponents believe that science can be used as evidence that there is no creator and no divine power, and that religion only hinders scientific progress. One view that is held is that scientific discoveries provide proof and solace for atheism, and helps provide proof of atheism being the correct theology:
An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: 'I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that Cod isn't a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one.' I can't help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist (Dawkins 6).
Dawkins asserts that scientific discoveries, in particular Darwin’s theory on evolution, provide evidence that there is no God. This is contrasting with Einstein’s view that with every scientific discovery we are simply discovering the way in which God operates. There is no way to possible interpret which idea’s are correct; the reason this argument even exists in the first place is the wholly lack of evidence that can point to either God’s existence or non-existence. Dawkin’s prefers to use science to prove the point that there is no God; Einstein prefers to use science to show the actions of God. How this science is used spiritually is completely subjective. The motivations are similar, the results are similar, and spirituality is a private matter. Dawkins is just the opposite end of the battle between religion and science. Religious institutions battle science to try to maintain religious beliefs, Dawkins is battling religion to maintain scientific beliefs. Within Einstein, however, there exists the middle ground. Just as the world is a Gaussian distribution, with extremists on both sides, the majority of the world is moderate. Einstein’s beliefs can appeal to the moderate side within people. Einstein shows that even within one of the most impressive scientists the world has ever known, there can also exist spirituality. There is no reason to feel the need to choose between either being religious or scientific. God has a tendency to exist where science cannot yet explain, and as science is trying to explain these parts of our knowledge, friction will start to accumulate when science begins to prove where religion once answered. Where Dawkin’s is trying to shed light on all of the interactions in this world to try to disprove God, Einstein in the first place does not believe God should be used to describe the present unknown: “For a doctrine which is able to maintain itself not in clear light but only in the dark, will of necessity lose its effect on mankind, with incalculable harm to human progress” (Einstein). For Einstein religion is not about explaining what cannot yet be explained, that is for future science. Religion that tries to explain what can be logical is irrelevant. Religion is something deeper, yet more human. It can provide the “meaning” behind the universe. Where science can provide the “how” in which the universe acts, religion provides the “why.” For atheists they answer the “why” with randomness, with Einstein he did not try to answer the “why,” but merely accepted that it was impossible to discern this “why” and that left room for something supernatural. There are no absolutes in this world; there is uncertainty in everything, especially regarding what has no evidence. Where there is no evidence, this becomes the epitome of uncertainty, thus there is no correct, logical way to answer the question of which spirituality is correct. Einstein offers proof of accepting this fact. "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." Religion can offer the “meaning” behind scientific discoveries, but absolutely no particular meaning. Trying to explain this meaning will be a fruitless waste of time, time that can be better spent in scientific discoveries. Science can offer more and more ways in which we can see the world, and can offer more ways in which religion can provide meaning to the spiritually inclined. Religion should not try to answer physical phenomena, and Science should not try to provide deeper moral meaning. Science answer different questions, and can co-exist within all of us.