Einstein: Agnostic Spinozan advocating science as religion?

One of the most annoying moments in discussing theism vs atheism with a believer, is when the believer pulls out the ‘some smart guy believes in god’ card. Usually this ‘smart guy’ is a scientist (because it has to be shown that religion and science ‘don’t conflict’), and usually, he’s dead.

Of course not all ‘smart guy’ scientists who believe are dead; according to the National Academy of the Sciences, a whole 7% of scientists of note believe in some god or other (http://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/sci_relig.htm). And even atheists like to treat people like Kenneth Miller, evolutionary biologist and devout Catholic, with special respect, for their willingness to stay out of the way of the march of history while adhering to an archaic religion. But it certainly helps the theist case if the ‘smart guy’ can no longer explain his views; even better when he can no longer learn from the science or philosophy of our day how much further down the road we’ve come.

Famous ‘smart guys’ from the past have included Newton (something of an egomaniac nut case who practiced alchemy in his spare case); Darwin, because he accepted Huxley’s agnosticism – and believers always think that agnosticism is one step away from profound conversion; and Albert Einstein.

Newton is easily dismissed; he was a crank who happened to be a genius, so what? As for the hope that agnosticism leads to conversion, this doesn’t really have a viable definition of agnosticism on which to hang its hat. (For a strong definition, see Kai Nielsen’s discussion of agnosticism in The Dictionary of the History of Ideas, V. I, Scribner’s, 1968/ 1973, and also available in Nielsen’s Atheism & Philosophy, Chapter 4.)

Here, we’ll only deal with one example, Albert Einstein; believers have special hope for Einstein, because he liked to toss the word ‘god’ around quite a bit – e.g., “God doesn’t play dice with the universe” – to the point that an exasperated Niels Bohr finally exclaimed, “stop telling god what to do!”

However, when one actually reads Einstein on the problem of god and religion, we find a very different person than the ‘smart guy’ believers would have him seen as.

“But science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith.” Albert Einstein, “Religion and Science;” from: Science, Philosophy and Religion, A Symposium, published by the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life, Inc., New York, 1941.(http://www.sacred-texts.com/aor/einstein/einsci.htm#SCIENCE)

What is Einstein saying here? Clearly he’s not asking scientists to believe in god. What he is arguing is that scientists should approach their discoveries with what amounts to a religious attitude. This amounts to suggesting – as Einstein does indeed openly suggest elsewhere – that science can, effectively, help to establish a new religion.

For more of what Einstein says about religion and god, and their relationship to science, see:
And, indeed, it would help spending some time reading the material at these sites before continuing.

Einstein was fundamentally agnostic as to the metaphysical claims of the Judeo-Christian tradition (JCT). He rejected any notion of a personal god, and anthropomorphic god, or an intercessional god (a god that acts in the world). He also rejected strident atheism, because he thought that the JCT had contributed important ethical values to our culture.

Somewhere toward the middle of his life, Einstein was persuaded to the thought of Baruch Spinoza, and his use of the word “god” is frequently conditioned by this persuasion (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/spinoza/#GodNat). Critical readers disagree to what extent Spinoza identifies ‘god’ with ‘nature,’ but that there is such an identification is clear. Hence for instance, it would not be Spinozan to say that some divinity willed evolution; it would be closer to say that for Spinoza, the dynamic logic embedded in the evolutionary process is part of what we mean by ‘god.’

Einstein was a strict determinist; he believed that the causal laws of the universe effectively pre-conditioned human behavior. However, he was also a compatibilist, who believed that humans could choose to refine their behavior.

The basis of this compatibilism, and of his understanding of the JCT as providing the ground for a future humanistic religion, was his sense that science could not adequately explain either ethical behavior nor the emotions such behavior needed to energize and satisfy. However, that is not to say that devotion to science could not itself provide some of such energy and satisfaction. Hence science and its discoveries could be used to help ground a humanistic religion of the future. “The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.” (“Religion and Science;” from: Science, Philosophy and Religion, A Symposium linked above.)

A number of issues need be appended to this discussion. First, it’s always important to read thinkers of the past in their historic context. Newton probably couldn’t help being a crank in the religious atmosphere in which he lived. Proclaiming agnosticism, rather than atheism, was probably the safest move Darwin and Huxley could make. (I think Britain still had blasphemy laws on the books at the time.) And Einstein is writing in the context of a whirlpool of ideological debate across Europe and America, that included the beginnings of what we now call secular humanism; and at the time, secular humanism really was considered a religion, even by its participants.

Also we must remember that in Einstein’s day, far more so than our own, atheism was highly suspect as a ground of immorality, promiscuity, greed, murder, drunkenness, and occasional baby-eating. Only the most courageous thinkers would put themselves on the line in public to explain that these charges were untrue.

Secondly, Einstein was a philosophically informed scientist, but he was not a profound philosopher. He was a politically concerned and ethically minded public speaker, but he did not spend large quantities of time ruminating on ‘ultimate questions’ or the logic by which they could be addressed; he was a scientist, that was the job to which he devoted most of his intellectual energies.

Finally (for our purposes), it must be noted that the thought of Spinoza, on which Einstein relies, does not have much lasting impact on contemporary philosophy or science, for a very good reason: there’s not much one could with it beyond accepting it (or denying it) and moving on. There’s something beautiful about identifying the divine with nature, but once you do so, you’re stuck with nature itself just as it is. Spinoza’s thesis can be used as an argument against the JCT anthropomorphized and interventionist deity, but it is not itself generative of many further metaphysical claims. Although Spinoza wants it to ground his ethics, it can only do so in a sufficient but not necessary way; i.e., one can imagine a world guided by Spinozan ethics without any recourse to talk of identifying god and nature.

So, what we are left with here is, as Stephen Hawking once remarked about the Big Bang, a universe with a god who has nothing to do.

Hardly inspirational for any believer.

BTW, Hawking himself was long proclaimed as a possible Spinozan or Deist ‘smart guy,’ because, like Einstein, he liked tossing the word ‘god’ around, e.g., hoping to “know the mind of god.” However that this was pure metaphor has at last been revealed by Hawking himself, in his admittance of being a rank atheist http://www.nbcnews.com/science/space/im-atheist-stephen-hawking-god-space-travel-n210076. (Scientists: please do yourselves a favor, and stop tossing the word ‘god’ around. Its significance is vague, but it is not a good metaphor, it has too much history.)

So much for the ‘smart guy’ defense of religious belief as to its actual claims. Now we have to ask the really important question here: Why do they even bother? why do religious believers think that just because some ‘smart guy’ believes in god, that this somehow counts as an argument for belief?

There are times when resort to some communal sense does raise issues that need to be addressed in such a discussion. Why do 93% of scientists with known innovative work profess either atheism or agnosticism? Is there something about the nature of contemporary science that leads to profound doubts about the religious explanations for the universe?

Also, there are always problems concerning reaching collective agreement; for instance, how can we form a consensus on what type of science we educate our children with?

However, as to whether there is actually any reason to believe, or disbelieve, in any proposed divinity, taking a vote doesn’t do. It doesn’t matter how many ‘smart guys’ believe in god. Smart Guys can believe in a whole host of nonsense. Michael Shermer devotes a whole chapter of Why People Believe Weird Things to this problem: smart people have a greater capacity for rationalizing the absurd and in-congruent, of effectively maneuvering psychologically around cognitive dissonance in order to maintain ideological homeostasis. But none of that has anything to do with the rationality, or irrationality, of any belief or non-belief in god. Belief has to be judged on its own terms, not on the supposition that ‘smart guys’ like it.

As a non-believer I can admire a religious thinker (e.g., Aquinas), I do so despite his religious beliefs; and that might be true of certain non-religious thinkers as well. I admire Heidegger, despite his mysterianism, and regardless of his religious beliefs; and I dislike Sartre despite the fact that I largely think he’s proximally and for the most part correct, because he’s far too smug for my taste. But there are thinkers I do admire because of their non-theism and the rigor with which they present it, e.g., Kai Nielsen; and there are thinkers that are challenging because they work at the issue like using a needle to pick  a scab, like Kant.

But I’m not going like or dislike a scientist’s opinion about god just because he is a scientist.  I need to see and judge the argument itself   Scientists only get credence on philosophical issues when they have spent the time and effort to familiarize themselves with these issues and think them through.

As it happens, more and more scientists are achieving such a position, because more and more, scientists are discovering the ontological, metaphysical, epistemological and even ethical issues their knowledge is uncovering.

And for now, little or none of their work as scientists has uncovered any possible defense of the hypothesis that ‘god’ can somehow be used to explain it all – indeed, used to explain any of it.  And increasing numbers of thinkers in varied fields are deriving the inevitable conclusion – that theism and religion are simply no longer needed to explain the world in which we live – or who we are that live in it.

But without such explanatory power, neither god nor religion have anything to offer us,  beyond (perhaps) making us feel a little better. (Or, even, a little worse.)

(Note: The final 4 paragraphs have been revised to clarify the point I was trying to make. 10/9/14)


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