“I want to know God’s thoughts,” Albert Einstein once said. “The rest are mere details.” True quote. But what did Einstein mean by “God”?
He was raised a Jew, and likely believed in the God of Abraham . . . at least for a while. So religious folk like to claim him as one of their “own.” But then, so do atheists.
In truth, Einstein was likely at neither extreme, according to this new article at Big Think. The article cites a 1936 letter a sixth-grade girl wrote to Einstein, asking, “Do scientists pray, and what do they pray for?”
In his reply, Einstein wrote, “Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.”
Scholars generally agree that the theoretical physicist was an actual pantheist, believing that God is “in everything,” or that all is “at one with God.” In particular, as Einstein once told a rabbi, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”
Big Think concludes that Einstein “was a pantheist who maintained certain Jewish traditions,” and that he “preferred to be called an agnostic and disliked militant atheists. . . .
“Einstein’s views of God, life, and the universe are more complicated than people who want him on their side make them out to be. His devotion to science and reason drove him to the rationalistic worldview of Spinoza, and to a detachment from organized religion. His ideas are worth studying, as are the worldviews of most geniuses.”
Seeing what Einstein couldn’t
Whatever his views on God and the supernatural, Einstein clearly believed in unseen things—like gravitational waves, ripples in space and time he’d foreseen a century ago.
Now we can see them (sort of), as shown by three U.S. scientists—Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne—who were awarded the Nobel Prize for physics this week.
As reported by Reuters, “Measuring gravitational waves offers a new way to observe the cosmos, helping scientists explore the nature of mysterious objects including black holes and neutron stars. It may also provide insight into the universe’s very earliest moments.”
“We now witness the dawn of a new field: gravitational wave astronomy,” said Nils Martensson of the Nobel Committee for Physics. “This will teach us about the most violent processes in the universe and it will lead to new insights into the nature of extreme gravity.”
The winning scientists’ work is grounded in Einstein’s ideas, theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser writes for NPR. He quotes Einstein:
“The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and science. He who does not know it and can no longer wonder, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.”
And then Gleiser concludes, “I am sure the three physicists who deservedly received the Nobel Prize would definitely agree. Engaging with the mysterious is not always easy, and the pay-off may take a long time. But how sweet it is to push ideas to the limit and beyond to open a new window into reality.”