Thursday, March 29, 2007

Religion and Science - by Albert Einstein

The following article by Albert Einstein appeared in the New York Times Magazine on November 9, 1930 pp 1-4. It has been reprinted in Ideas and Opinions, Crown Publishers, Inc. 1954, pp 36 - 40. It also appears in Einstein's book The World as I See It, Philosophical Library, New York, 1949, pp. 24 - 28.

Everything that the human race has done and thought is concerned with the satisfaction of deeply felt needs and the assuagement of pain. One has to keep this constantly in mind if one wishes to understand spiritual movements and their development. Feeling and longing are the motive force behind all human endeavor and human creation, in however exalted a guise the latter may present themselves to us. Now what are the feelings and needs that have led men to religious thought and belief in the widest sense of the words? A little consideration will suffice to show us that the most varying emotions preside over the birth of religious thought and experience. With primitive man it is above all fear that evokes religious notions - fear of hunger, wild beasts, sickness, death. Since at this stage of existence understanding of causal connections is usually poorly developed, the human mind creates illusory beings more or less analogous to itself on whose wills and actions these fearful happenings depend. Thus one tries to secure the favor of these beings by carrying out actions and offering sacrifices which, according to the tradition handed down from generation to generation, propitiate them or make them well disposed toward a mortal. In this sense I am speaking of a religion of fear. This, though not created, is in an important degree stabilized by the formation of a special priestly caste which sets itself up as a mediator between the people and the beings they fear, and erects a hegemony on this basis. In many cases a leader or ruler or a privileged class whose position rests on other factors combines priestly functions with its secular authority in order to make the latter more secure; or the political rulers and the priestly caste make common cause in their own interests.

The social impulses are another source of the crystallization of religion. Fathers and mothers and the leaders of larger human communities are mortal and fallible. The desire for guidance, love, and support prompts men to form the social or moral conception of God. This is the God of Providence, who protects, disposes, rewards, and punishes; the God who, according to the limits of the believer's outlook, loves and cherishes the life of the tribe or of the human race, or even or life itself; the comforter in sorrow and unsatisfied longing; he who preserves the souls of the dead. This is the social or moral conception of God.

The Jewish scriptures admirably illustrate the development from the religion of fear to moral religion, a development continued in the New Testament. The religions of all civilized peoples, especially the peoples of the Orient, are primarily moral religions. The development from a religion of fear to moral religion is a great step in peoples' lives. And yet, that primitive religions are based entirely on fear and the religions of civilized peoples purely on morality is a prejudice against which we must be on our guard. The truth is that all religions are a varying blend of both types, with this differentiation: that on the higher levels of social life the religion of morality predominates.

Common to all these types is the anthropomorphic character of their conception of God. In general, only individuals of exceptional endowments, and exceptionally high-minded communities, rise to any considerable extent above this level. But there is a third stage of religious experience which belongs to all of them, even though it is rarely found in a pure form: I shall call it cosmic religious feeling. It is very difficult to elucidate this feeling to anyone who is entirely without it, especially as there is no anthropomorphic conception of God corresponding to it.

The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole. The beginnings of cosmic religious feeling already appear at an early stage of development, e.g., in many of the Psalms of David and in some of the Prophets. Buddhism, as we have learned especially from the wonderful writings of Schopenhauer, contains a much stronger element of this.

The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man's image; so that there can be no church whose central teachings are based on it. Hence it is precisely among the heretics of every age that we find men who were filled with this highest kind of religious feeling and were in many cases regarded by their contemporaries as atheists, sometimes also as saints. Looked at in this light, men like Democritus, Francis of Assisi, and Spinoza are closely akin to one another.

How can cosmic religious feeling be communicated from one person to another, if it can give rise to no definite notion of a God and no theology? In my view, it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it.

We thus arrive at a conception of the relation of science to religion very different from the usual one. When one views the matter historically, one is inclined to look upon science and religion as irreconcilable antagonists, and for a very obvious reason. The man who is thoroughly convinced of the universal operation of the law of causation cannot for a moment entertain the idea of a being who interferes in the course of events - provided, of course, that he takes the hypothesis of causality really seriously. He has no use for the religion of fear and equally little for social or moral religion. A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable to him for the simple reason that a man's actions are determined by necessity, external and internal, so that in God's eyes he cannot be responsible, any more than an inanimate object is responsible for the motions it undergoes. Science has therefore been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust. A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death.

It is therefore easy to see why the churches have always fought science and persecuted its devotees.On the other hand, I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research. Only those who realize the immense efforts and, above all, the devotion without which pioneer work in theoretical science cannot be achieved are able to grasp the strength of the emotion out of which alone such work, remote as it is from the immediate realities of life, can issue. What a deep conviction of the rationality of the universe and what a yearning to understand, were it but a feeble reflection of the mind revealed in this world, Kepler and Newton must have had to enable them to spend years of solitary labor in disentangling the principles of celestial mechanics! Those whose acquaintance with scientific research is derived chiefly from its practical results easily develop a completely false notion of the mentality of the men who, surrounded by a skeptical world, have shown the way to kindred spirits scattered wide through the world and through the centuries. Only one who has devoted his life to similar ends can have a vivid realization of what has inspired these men and given them the strength to remain true to their purpose in spite of countless failures. It is cosmic religious feeling that gives a man such strength. A contemporary has said, not unjustly, that in this materialistic age of ours the serious scientific workers are the only profoundly religious people.

No Essential Difference - by Paul Tallant

Paul Tallant wrote me (Lois) after reading my piece that he had some thoughts about science and religion. I encouraged him to put them in writing and submit them as a comment. The result was so comprehensive and moving to me and also so parallel to what I had written in certain ways --- I decided that it fit best right afterwards. Paul's views are not exactly the same as mine, but they come close in many areas.

No Essential Difference by Paul Tallant

Acknowledgment: I am grateful to Lois Isenman for her encouragement to write this note and for her gentle and thought-provoking comments and queries as I wrote it.

I was waiting in the doctor’s office and spied a copy of the 17 July 2006 Canadian issue of Time. The cover with a cowboy hat sporting a Presidential Seal and boots protruding beneath caught my attention initially, but my eyes rapidly shifted to one of the cover’s sub-captions; “Exclusive Einstein Letters.” I started reading Walter Isaacsons’s feature “The Intimate Life of A. Einstein,” however my name was called before I finished (a seemingly infrequent event in the patient-waiting rooms of Canadian medicine). After my appointment, the receptionist told me I could borrow the issue. I returned home with it and placed it on my night-time reading table. At bedtime, after reading Isaacson, I discovered David Van Biema’s article “Reconciling God and Science” in the “Religion” section of same issue of Time. Naturally I began reading Van Biema. I did not turn out the light until I had read his entire account of Francis Collins’s personal encounters with God and how Collins reconciles his work in science with his beliefs in the Divine---taken from Collin’s new book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

Serendipitously, Lois Isenman’s post, a doctor’s appointment, and a five-months old copy of Time provided me an opportunity to comment on a subject that, in various incarnations, has held my attention for years. I thank Lois for the opportunity to describe briefly the latest edition of my thoughts regarding God and science.

I believe in God. I believe in evolution. And I believe that those two beliefs are intrinsically harmonious. But this harmony is infrequently heard amid the crescendo of a commonly perceived dissonance between God and science. It is the perceived dissonance that likely led Van Biema to title his piece “Reconciling ---” and similarly for Lois to title her’s “--- Bridging –“

I grew up with beliefs far more conservative than those of Collins. Early-on I believed in a “young” Earth, and essentially accepted the Genesis story as an account of Divine science. But Collins does not take that tack and is quite clear in his view about the Genesis account. He says “I don’t think God intended Genesis to teach science.” I now agree with Collins.

Collins’s approach to spirituality was different than mine. Collins was hiking in the Pacific Cascades and encountered a frozen waterfall with the shape of three distinct streams. From those frozen forms Collins recognized the Trinity and surrendered to Jesus Christ. My hike was figurative. It seemed that on a thickly-clouded night I was deep in the Barrens of the Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland Canada, seeking to return to the only road that led back home to Witless Bay, a small ex-fishing community near St. John’s. I was lost. But out of the darkness appeared a woman who was studying to be a rabbi. She handed me a copy of Minyan, Ten Principles for Living a Life of Integrity by Rabbi M. Shapiro and said “read it.” I did.

Rabbi Shapiro’s account of the foundation of spirituality is strongly credible to me because he is a Jewish Rabbi who has moved spiritually beyond both his Orthodox upbringing and the Reform rabbinical training he received. In “Minyan –“ Shapiro gives a moving account of his experience as a rabbinic student. Shapiro says:

“I delivered a sermon on the necessary unity of God, woman, man and nature. Immediately after the service I was called into the office of the chairman of the philosophy department for a scholarly reprimand.”

“Referring to my position that God and creation are one, the chairman said; ‘You sir are a megalomaniac.’”

“”With all due respect, Rabbi,’ I said, you are wrong. If I understand the term correctly, a megalomaniac thinks he is God. I, on the other hand, know I am God.’”

“What I meant to convey and doubt very much that I did, was my deep conviction that God is not something or someone living somewhere in or out of time and space. To me God is the One who manifests as all things in time an space. God is not something you pray to, but rather the greater reality to which you awake.” (Italics mine.)

Rabbi Shapiro’s approach to spirituality is in a sense similar to Collins avowing a belief in God and concurrently possessing acknowledged stature in molecular genetics. Shapiro moved beyond the traditions of his cloth and Collins embraced a spiritual belief not common among his scientific peers. I take the essence of Shapiro’s thesis to be that God dwells within each of us, is indescribable, is Love, and is accessible through the exercise of our own free will.

The lady with the book provided the way for me to figuratively return to the road and civilization. I believe in God and further believe that God dwells within me, and within every human being. I spent years wondering about the nature of God, feeling almost a compulsion to discover the nature of God. Lois comments about the deeper meaning of the Jewish concept of God being indescribable and un-nameable. That now is my view of God, perhaps not in the strict Jewish sense, but I recognize that neither I nor any other human can possibly define God, other than to deny God’s existence – and that is a thread-bare definition. I am now content to believe that as part of God being God, the Divine dwells within each of us. And I leave the huge remainder to God alone.

Francis Collins, when viewing the frozen waterfall, surrendered to Jesus Christ. After absorbing more of Minyan -- and the works of other thoughtful writers (for example see Williamson , Welwood , Walsch) I surrendered to God Within, to Love Within. In the broad theme of the Divine, I believe there is no essential difference between Collins’s experience and mine (and that of zillions of other spiritually inclined people)--- what difference there is lies in human viewpoints. I believe further that there exists a perspective that presents these seemingly different views of God as a single Wholeness.

The notion of “no essential difference” applies also to my belief about a “gap” between science and religion, or the need to “reconcile” God and science. Within the broad theme of the Divine, I believe that there is no difference, no gap, and no need for reconciliation. I believe that nature is an explicit revelation of God and that science is the tool available to us humans to learn of the “testable” part of the Divine.

Lois quotes Richard Dawkins as saying, "I accept that there may be things far grander and more incomprehensible than we can possibly imagine…” She also quotes Annie Dillard as saying, “I don't know beans about God.” Van Biema describes an exchange between Collins and a Ph.D. candidate at a meeting of Harvey Fellows in Alexandria Virginia. The student asked Collins if he felt that evolution applied to everything else but humans. Collins responded that such a position would get you into real trouble. Collins also said “the human genome contains nonfunctional elements in the precise spot where they can be found on chromosomes of lower animals.” Then Collins asked a question and provided his own answer. “If God was creating humans afresh, why would He insert a pseudo-gene that has lost its ability to do anything in the same place that it appears in a chimp? “ Collins continued “Barring evolution, you are forced to the conclusion that God was trying to mislead us and test our faith and I have trouble with that kind of conjecture.”

Physicists have long recognized the extreme sensitivity of the nature of our Universe to the value of fundamental physical constants. From the Big Bang on, very slight changes in one or more of these constants would have resulted in a dramatically different Universe than what we observe today. And as Lois describes, argument and controversy in the context of God swirls about the origin of the value of these constants.

In graduate school one of the most important things I learned about representing physical phenomena is to use a coordinate system that is intrinsically appropriate to the process itself. For example, if a process inherently has spherical geometry, don’t describe it or cast it in Cartesian coordinates; you’ll only create a symbolic mess for yourself. On a more abstract level, a coordinate system is simply a formality through which details of phenomena can be visualized. It is a perspective through which to view the behavior of a process or system.

Personally, I take the approach of choosing the appropriate “coordinate system”, the appropriate perspective to solving the issue of God and science. If you do not believe in God, then you have the “trivial” solution; there is only science and no need to look further. But if with me you admit the existence of God, then I believe we require a figurative “coordinate system,” a yet undiscovered and undefined perspective, a point-of-view, that will allow the “problem” of God and science to be resolved with efficacy and integrity.
This perspective must deal with both the spiritual and the physical. The spiritual requires faith, the physical intrinsically does not; it is “testable.” With Annie Dillard, I don’t know “beans about God.” But I believe that God exists and I believe with Rabbi Shapiro that the Divine dwells within me and within each of us humans. I further believe with Collins that DNA is a “language of God,” that evolution exists and that it has been and continues to be active in our world. I also believe with Richard Dawkins that “—there may be things far grander and more incomprehensible than we can possibly imagine –.” I further believe that a perspective exists that contains an elegant and non-trivial solution to the issue of God and science. And finally, when viewed via this perspective, I believe we will discover that the solution contains no essential difference between God and science.

Principles of Research - by Albert Einstein

The following piece was a speech written by Albert Einstein for Max Planck's 60th birthday.

In the temple of science are many mansions, and various indeed are they that dwell therein and the motives that have led them thither. Many take to science out of a joyful sense of superior intellectual power; science is their own special sport to which they look for vivid experience and the satisfaction of ambition; many others are to be found in the temple who have offered the products of their brains on this altar for purely utilitarian purposes. Were an angel of the Lord to come and drive all the people belonging to these two categories out of the temple, the assemblage would be seriously depleted, but there would still be some men, of both present and past times, left inside. Our Planck is one of them, and that is why we love him.

I am quite aware that we have just now light-heartedly expelled in imagination many excellent men who are largely, perhaps chiefly, responsible for the building of the temple of science; and in many cases our angel would find it a pretty ticklish job to decide. But of one thing I feel sure: if the types we have just expelled were the only types there were, the temple would never have come to be, any more than a forest can grow which consists of nothing but creepers. For these people any sphere of human activity will do, if it comes to a point; whether they become engineers, officers, tradesmen, or scientists depends on circumstances. Now let us have another look at those who have found favor with the angel. Most of them are somewhat odd, uncommunicative, solitary fellows, really less like each other, in spite of these common characteristics, than the hosts of the rejected. What has brought them to the temple? That is a difficult question and no single answer will cover it. To begin with, I believe with Schopenhauer that one of the strong¬est motives that leads men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one's own ever shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from personal life into the world of objective perception and thought; this desire may be compared with the townsman's irresistible longing to escape from his noisy, cramped surroundings into the silence of high mountains, where the eye ranges freely through the still, pure air and fondly traces out the restful contours apparently built for eternity.

With this negative motive there goes a positive one. Man tries to make for himself in the fashion that suits him best a simplified and intelligible picture of the world; he then tries to some extent to substitute this cosmos of his for the world of experience, and thus to overcome it. This is what the painter, the poet, the speculative philosopher, and the natural scientist do, each in his own fashion. Each makes this cosmos and its construction the pivot of his emotional life, in order to find in this way the peace and security which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience.

What place does the theoretical physicist's picture of the world occupy among all these possible pictures It demands the highest possible standard of rigorous precision in the description of relations, such as only the use of mathematical language can give. In regard to his subject matter, on the other hand, the physicist has to limit himself very severely: he must content himself with describing the most simple events which can be brought within the domain of our experience; all events of a more complex order are beyond the power of the human intellect to reconstruct with the subtle accuracy and logical perfection which the theoretical physicist demands. Supreme purity, clarity, and certainty at the cost of completeness. But what can be the attraction of getting to know such a tiny section of nature thoroughly, while one leaves everything subtler and more complex shyly and timidly alone? Does the product of such a modest effort deserve to be called by the proud name of a theory of the universe?

In my belief the name is justified; for the general laws on which the structure of theoretical physics is based claim to be valid for any natural phenomenon whatsoever. With them, it ought to be possible to arrive at the description, that is to say, the theory, of every natural process, including life, by means of pure deduction, if that process of deduction were not far beyond the capacity of the human intellect. The physicist's renunciation of completeness for his cosmos is therefore not a matter of fundamental principle.

The supreme task of the physicist is to arrive at those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deduction. There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them. In this methodological uncertainty, one might suppose that there were any number of possible systems of theoretical physics all equally well justified; and this opinion is no doubt correct, theoretically. But the development of physics has shown that at any given moment, out of all conceivable constructions, a single one has always proved itself decidedly superior to all the rest. Nobody who has really gone deeply into the matter will deny that in practice the world of phenomena uniquely determines the theoretical system, in spite of the fact that there is no logical bridge between phenomena and their theoretical principles; this is what Leibnitz described so happily as a "pre-established harmony." Physicists often accuse epistemologists of not paying sufficient attention to this fact. Here, it seems to me, lie the roots of the controversy carried on some years ago between Mach and Planck.

The longing to behold this pre-established harmony is the source of the inexhaustible patience and perseverance with which Planck has devoted himself, as we see, to the most general problems of our science, refusing to let himself be diverted to more grateful and more easily attained ends. I have often heard colleagues try to attribute this attitude of his to extra-ordinary will-power and discipline -wrongly, in my opinion. The state of mind which enables a man to do work of this kind is akin to that of the religious worshiper or the lover; the daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart. There he sits, our beloved Planck, and smiles inside himself at my childish playing-about with the lantern of Diogenes. Our affection for him needs no thread¬bare explanation. May the love of science continue to illumine his path in the future and lead him to the solution of the most important problem in present-day physics, which he has himself posed and done so much to solve. May he succeed in uniting quantum theory with electrodynamics and mechanics in a single logical system.

Religion vs Science: Bridging the Gap - by Lois Isenman

The gym is not a place I associate with insight into the important spiritual or intellectual issues of our day. Nor for that matter is Time Magazine. I had just finished my workout on the elliptical machine and was on my way to the weight room when I glanced at the magazine table in the hall and in the corner of my eye caught the cover of Time. The cover article “God vs. Science” got my attention. Yet it was as much the spaciousness of the cover design that held my interest. In contrast to Time’s usual dark and busy cover, it was a large white field mostly empty except for an uncurled DNA double helix sauntering down its length to one side. The DNA bases turned into rosary beads and the "molecule" ended up holding a cross--- but I didn't see that until later. I grabbed the magazine and brought it with me to the weight room.

The body of the article turned out to be a debate between an evolutionary biologist and a Christian geneticist. Richard Dawkins , a well-known evolutionary biologist is virulently anti-religion: his recent book is called The God Delusion. The geneticist, Francis Collins, led the effort to decode the genome: his recent book is called The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. A while back I heard Dawkins debate a leading intelligent design proponent on NPR. I am very attached to the idea of evolution---to its power and elegance: my sympathies were certainly not with the fundamentalist. However I felt there was something lacking in the case that Dawkins made. Evolution and a sense of a deeper purpose or meaning to existence than that of the material world are not necessarily opposed to each other. I have trouble with the concept of God, but I do believe in the reality of something beyond the material world.

Francis Collins, the geneticist argued--- as do many scientists of faith--- that the fact that the six universal or cosmological constants work out to be just what they have to be to support life indicate that the universe was the handiwork of God. Most scientists agree that if even one constant had been a little off in one direction after the Big Bang--- for example if the gravitational constant had been off by one part in 100 million million --- the expansion of the universe would not have occurred in a way that would have eventually supported life. This is called the anthropic principle.

Dawkins countered in part that this assumes that the cosmological constants are fluid rather than fixed.

"People who believe in God conclude there must have been a divine knob twiddler who twiddled the knobs of these half-dozen constants to get them exactly right. The problem is that this says, because something is vastly improbable, we need a God to explain it. But that God himself would be even more improbable. Physicists have come up with other explanations. One is to say that these six constants are not free to vary. Some unified theory will eventually show that they are as locked in as the circumference and the diameter of a circle. That reduces the odds of them all independently just happening to fit the bill."

Certainly it is difficult to imagine the divine knob twiddling. Yet much more interesting to me is the other tact he and others use to argue against the difficult to account for coincidence implied by the universal constants working out just right to support life. If there were not just one, but a very large number of universes with different cosmological constants, then finding one where everything worked out right would not be so wondrous and would not necessitate an underlying intelligence.

"The other way is the multiverse way. That says that maybe the universe we are in is one of a very large number of universes. The vast majority will not contain life because they have the wrong gravitational constant or the wrong this constant or that constant. But as the number of universes climbs, the odds mount that a tiny minority of universes will have the right fine-tuning."

In response Collins invokes Occam’s razor, saying that he finds the idea of a designer a simpler hypothesis than postulating a large number of alternative universes.

"This is an interesting choice. Barring a theoretical resolution, which I think is unlikely, you either have to say there are zillions of parallel universes out there that we can't observe at present or you have to say there was a plan. I actually find the argument of the existence of a God who did the planning more compelling than the bubbling of all these multiverses. So Occam's razor--Occam says you should choose the explanation that is most simple and straightforward--leads me more to believe in God than in the multiverse, which seems quite a stretch of the imagination."

This helps illustrate what is so often true. One person’s Occam's razor, or simpler explanation, is another person's Mount Everest--- or nearly impossible impasse. I have to say that I am with Collins on this one (though I would posit an intelligent force rather than a designer-- which is too” knob twiddling” for me). An intelligent force seems to be simpler to me than an almost infinite number of universes. Yet I'm not sure which I would think the simpler hypothesis if I didn't have sporadic experiences that support the existence of a deeper and more sophisticated force working in us and through us. My personal concept of spirituality is pretty much grounded in those brief moments in which I get hints of this larger consciousness in the cosmos.


Notice I said nearly impossible impasse above when remarking that one person's Occam's razor is another person's Mount Everest. Alas Dawkins, a scientist with a large theoretical reach---in spite of his strong antireligious bias --- does seem able to make an assent. He says,

"I accept that there may be things far grander and more incomprehensible than we can possibly imagine…My mind is open to the most wonderful range of future possibilities, which I cannot even dream about, nor can you, nor can anybody else. What I am skeptical about is the idea that whatever wonderful revelation does come in the science of the future, it will turn out to be one of the particular historical religions that people happen to have dreamed up…. If there is a God, it's going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed."

Thus Dawkins is not necessarily arguing against mystery, but just for greater mystery that can be contained in God as a historical concept. A wise not so old man I met recently, when I told him about this debate, gave me a new sense of why Jews are not supposed to say the word God. Perhaps Annie Dillard , whose books have a strong spiritual thread (see Oct 26), captures this best---for our unholy and minimalist age--- when she writes, “I don't know beans about God.”

This piece first appeared in Intuition in Depth