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Einstein: A believer of cosmic spirituality seeking the Universal experience



By Gaurav Sharma

An assemblage of more than 25 lots of memorabilia and documents of renowned Physicist Albert Einstein are all set to be auctioned in the US, projected to fetch anywhere between $ 15000 and $ 40,000.

Apart from the personally handwritten autograph letters addressed to his family, the memorabilia includes a set of rare and intimate letters, including two that voice his views on religion and God.

Einstein’s views on the Atomic Bomb and the Relativity Theory are quite well known, but how exactly does the German-born Nobel laureate visualize the concept of religion and God?

The Beginning 

Born to secular Jewish parents, Einstein was a free-thinking man who, after reading various scientific books, came to realize that the state was intentionally deceiving the youth.

With this realisation, Einstein’s disposition towards every kind of social conviction became deeply skeptical.

“It is quite clear to me that the religious paradise of youth, which was thus lost, was a first attempt to free myself from the chains of the ‘merely personal,’ from an existence dominated by wishes, hopes, and primitive feelings”, says Einstein in his autobiographical notes.

At the same time, he found that an insight into the causal connections of the world presented an opportunity to, at least, partially access the great, eternal riddle of the universe.

A fierce ‘Personal God’ critic

Einstein, unequivocally, rubbished and derided the thought of a Supreme God. The concept of a personal God as propounded by the Church seemed “naive” and “childlike” to the father of the photoelectric effect.

“It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I cannot take seriously. I feel also not able to imagine some will or goal outside the human sphere”, he is known to have stated.

Einstein bluntly demolished the concepts of a Supreme Being, proposed by philosophers and theosophists, as mere myths.

After reading Eric Gutkind’s book, Choose Life: The Biblical Call To Revolt, Einstein lettered a reply which said that the word God for him was nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends.

Such sentiments are also expressed in his book The World As I See It. Questioning that very morality of a personal God, Einstein says, “I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves.”

He lambasted the believers of such a God as “fearful and absurdly egoistic” feeble souls.

An Agnostic Spiritualist

Even though Einstein, outrightly denounced the concept of God as a personal being, he did not consider him as an atheist either.

You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being”, the genius freethinker is known to have said.

Einstein’s views on the Universe were more on the lines of Pantheism, a doctrine which identifies God with nature.

While contemplating the universe Einstein compared himself to a child who notes a ‘mystical order’ in the arrangement of books, which it does not comprehend but dimly suspects.

A believer in cosmic religion

While recognising the “miraculous order which manifests itself in all of nature as well as in the world of ideas”, Einstein dubbed himself as “devoutly religious”.

After segregating himself from the religious beliefs of fear and social morality, Einstein formulated a brand new category of religion called “cosmic religion”, and cast himself within its bounds. He classified this specific religious category as one of deep awe and mystery.

However, Einstein’s conjecture, “the sublimity and marvelous order which reveals itself in nature, makes the individual want to experience the universe as a single significant whole”, suggests a close similarity with the concept of Brahman as expounded by the Vedanta philosophy.

Also, Spinoza’s philosophy of the unity between the soul and the body, which has significant parallels with the Vedanta philosophy, deeply fascinated Einstein.

Both philosophies start with concept of the indeterminable being and admit the relative reality of particular things. And both schools of thought rule out existence of an external creator at the very outset.

Moreover, both philosophies posit the idea of a self-dependant and unconditioned being, albeit in different forms. In case of Spinoza, that being is the Universe, whereas for the Vedantist, it is an underlying principle.

Further, the hypothesis of modification by Spinoza is analagous to the Vedantic theory of Maya or illusion

Hence, it can be reasonably argued that Einstein’s view on nature, reality and Universe were close on the heels of Advaita Vedanta, although he never could fathom the concept of a transcendental reality.

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Science writing: A neglected form of literature that needs focus

Science has more to teach us about ourselves, our past and future, than any preacher, politician or philosopher ever could

The scientists across various disciplines are dealing with the mysteries of life, the universe and everything else. Wikimedia Commons
The scientists across various disciplines are dealing with the mysteries of life, the universe and everything else. Wikimedia Commons

Along with philosophers, tax lawyers and computer programmers, scientists are perceived as speaking in a language which is supposedly the same as that of common people, but scarcely intelligible to them. And then they use strange symbols, complicated equations, and considerable jargon to talk of “things” unlikely to affect an average person’s life or to be even seen without specialised equipment.

So can scientific writing in any way be even comparable to literature? Yes, for scientists, across various disciplines, are also dealing with the mysteries of life, the universe and everything else, and can express themselves on their subject in ways the most lyrical poet, the most imaginative novelist or the most incisive historian could well envy.

Be it those trying to discern the cosmos’ origin, matter’s structure, the bewildering development and processes of life, including by evolution (despite what some Indian ministers may think), the abundant marvels of nature (including, but beyond humans too), and so on, scientists have written about their work and findings in absorbing ways.

Also Read: Scientists Use Pocket-size Device to Map Human Genetic Code

And in this, they have more to teach us about ourselves, our past and future, than any preacher, politician or philosopher ever could.

Let us take a selection from the last century, which was full of developments across all spheres of science.

And since our existence in terms of our position in the world and the universe is key, we can start with an English physicist, astronomer and mathematician placing things in perspective.

“… we attempt to discover the nature and purpose of the universe which surrounds our home in time and space. Our first impression is something akin to terror. We find the universe terrifying because of its vast meaningless distances, terrifying because of its inconceivably long vistas of time which dwarf human history to the twinkling of an eye, terrifying because of our extreme loneliness, and because of the material insignificance of our home in space — a millionth part of a grain of sand out of all the sea-sand in the world.

Coming to humans, we cannot ignore evolution -- and the contribution of Charles Darwin. Wikimedia Commons
Coming to humans, we cannot ignore evolution — and the contribution of Charles Darwin. Wikimedia Commons

But above all else, we find the universe terrifying because it appears to be indifferent to life like our own; emotion, ambition and achievement, art and religion seem equally foreign to its plan,” wrote Sir James Hopwood Jeans (1877-1946) in “The Mysterious Universe” (1930).

Also Read: Scientists Solve Mystery Of When Flowers Originated

Then, coming to humans, we cannot ignore evolution — and the contribution of Charles Darwin. Among the best to explain its significance is Helena Cronin (b. 1942), a philosopher of biology and co-director of the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science and the Darwin Centre at the London School of Economics.

“We are all walking archives of ancestral wisdom. Our bodies and minds are live monuments to our forebears’ rare successes. This Darwin has taught us. The human eye, our brain, our instincts, are legacies of natural selection’s victories, embodiments of the cumulative experience of the past,” she says in the beginning of her “The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today” (1991), on one of science’s “foremost achievements” — the Darwinian theory.

Then there are those unravellers of life’s basic building block — DNA structure discoverers James Watson and Francis Crick.

About the moment of discovery, Crick, in his autobiography “What Mad Pursuit” (1988), says his research partner remembers he went into the pub across the road where they launched daily and told everyone they had discovered the secret of life. “Of that, I have no recollection, but I do recall going home and telling (wife) Odile that we seemed to have made a big discovery. Years later she told me that she hadn’t believed a word of it. ‘You were always coming home and saying things like that,’, she said, ‘so naturally, I thought nothing of it’…”

Also Read: Planets Beyond Milky Way Galaxy Discovered For First Time

Watson, after his “The Double Helix” (1968), followed up with “Avoid Boring People” (2007), which has each chapter ending with lessons such as “Never Be The Brightest Person In A Room”, “Avoid Gatherings Of More Two Nobel Prize Winners”, but also “Work On Sundays”, and “Put Lots Of Spin On Balls”.

Switching to the physical world, we cannot ignore possibly the 20th century’s most well-recognised scientist — Albert Einstein. Let’s take his insightful essay, “Religion and Science”, in which he eloquently pleads the case for new, better form of religious experience which will give rise to a new relationship between these two.

After discussing the need-based and the social impulse-based variants which have in common “the anthropomorphic character of their conception of God” and which is only surmounted by “individuals of exceptional endowment”, he comes to a third — “cosmic religious feeling”, which, according to Einstein, “is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research”.

For “only those who realise 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 emotion out of which alone such work, remote as it is from the immediate realities of life, can issue…”.

Also Read: Is the moon’s surface evolving?

Can there any better exposition of science’s purpose? (IANS)

(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)