Last & Least
Einstein's spiritual struggle
Dr Binoy Barman
PEOPLE have always been curious to know whether Albert Einstein, the most intelligent scientist ever born on earth, believed in God. I have also my personal curiosity in this affair. I have delved into the belief system of Einstein and tried to find out what kind of spiritual vision he had. The benefit of the endeavour is obvious. An enlightened mind can lead the perplexed to better understanding of life and world.
There is tremendous debate whether Einstein was a believer or non-believer, a theist or atheist. Einstein himself admitted that he believed in God. But the problem is his God is not the one we find in religious scriptures. It is a different kind of God that he believed in. Einstein called it a pantheistic God, following the philosophy of Spinoza. What are the characteristics of a pantheistic God? How does it differ from the common God which is conventionally believed by religious people? Let's examine a bit.
There are spectacular differences between Einstein's God which is philosophical and the common God which is religious. All the believers know, with more or less consensus, what a religious God is. First of all, He is the creator of the universe. He is omnipotent and omniscient, that is He is all-powerful and He knows everything. He is the summation of all virtues and the symbol of justice. He is sitting at some remote corner of the universe and observes all the activities of the creatures including human beings, in a mysterious way. He will reward and punish them after their death commensurate with their actions.
On the other hand, the philosophical God, as believed by Einstein, is not any entity who is separate from the universe. He is not the creator of the universe. Rather He himself is the universe -- He is integrated with nature itself. In other words, we can say, God is nature and nature is God (pantheistic axiom). Unlike religious God, this God cannot reward or punish creatures. He is material and subject to natural laws. It has a spiritual side but that is intrinsically connected with the material phenomena.
Now the question is: shall we still call Einstein's God a God at all? Can Einstein still be called a believer and a religious person? It is up to you. But I know what Einstein thought of himself.
Einstein repeatedly said that he did not believe in any 'personal God'. He thought that the idea of God might have emerged during the days of human helplessness in prehistoric nature. The anthropoids imagined God as creator, controller and destroyer of everything, who must be feared and revered, at any rate. Now science can easily do away with Him. Einstein said, “It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I cannot take seriously.” To him, a God is but a reflection of human frailty. He went on to argue that during the youthful period of mankind's spiritual evolution human fantasy created gods in man's own image, who were supposed to determine or influence the phenomenal world. In course of time the mass of gods turned into a monotheistic God. But they remained the same inside. Einstein says, the anthropomorphic character of God is shown by the fact that men appeal to the Divine Being in prayers and plead for the fulfilment of their wishes.
Einstein did not believe that religion or God is the foundation of morality. People can remain moral even without following religious codes determined by God. The sense of good/bad is innate in human being -- it is a species trait, supported by the specialised development of human brain. Moral sense is also the result of socialisation. Moreover, social rules including community and state laws prevent people from being immoral. Therefore it is not necessary to resort to any supernatural power for explaining moral behaviour of humans. Einstein's position was clear in this regard.
He said, “I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment.” A man's ethical behaviour may be based efficiently on sympathy, education and social ties and needs, and no religious basis is necessary. A person may remain moral without believing God, which Einstein proved with his own life. He led an honest life thoroughly like Goutam Buddha, without invoking any God in life.
Einstein was an empiricist as a scientist and philosopher. He emphasised observation and experimentation in the pursuit of knowledge. He said, human inner experiences consist of reproductions and combinations of sensory impressions, as postulated by David Hume. Consciousness is just the outcome of brain functioning. He did not believe in divine soul, which may exist even without body. Einstein said, the concept of soul without a body is empty and devoid of meaning. He set the job of a scientist as follows: “Scientific research is based on the idea that everything that takes place is determined by laws of nature, and therefore this holds for the action of people. For this reason, a research scientist will hardly be inclined to believe that events could be influenced by a prayer, i.e. by a wish addressed to a supernatural Being.”
Einstein's thoughts were out and out scientific and he did not entertain any illogical convictions. He was stunned like others by the mysteries of the universe. But it did not push him to any supernatural belief. He said in his autobiographical notes, “Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking.” Einstein's philosophy was mechanistic and deterministic. He did not approve intervention of any supernatural power in the workings of the universe. He neither found any purpose nor design in it. He made it clear: “What I see in nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism.”
It is clear that Einstein realised common God in an uncommon way. His God is not religious or personal. His God cannot be found in the holy books, revealed to the holy minds. His God is philosophical, susceptible to scientific mechanism and explanation. He might be said to have believed in a different religion, as he said himself, “I am a deeply religious non-believer….This is a somewhat new kind of religion.” More and more advancement in science and technology will establish the new Einsteinian religion -- a cosmic religion, based on scientific principles.
Now this is apparently a stark contradiction. Einstein did not believe in God but he claimed himself to be religious. How come? He makes an apology for himself: “The finest emotion of which we are capable is the mystic emotion. Herein lies the germ of all art and all true science. Anyone to whom this feeling is alien, who is no longer capable of wonderment and lives in a state of fear is a dead man. To know that what is impenetrable for us really exists and manifests itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, whose gross forms alone are intelligible to our poor faculties -- this knowledge, this feeling … that is the core of the true religious sentiment. In this sense, and in this sense alone, I rank myself among profoundly religious men.”
(The writer is Assistant Professor and Head, Department of English, Daffodil International University.)