Albert Einstein revolutionized our concepts of time, matter, and space. Many volumes detail his life and work. Biographers call him a genius, the world’s most famous scientist, and the greatest physicist of all time. A recent biography notes that Einstein holds pop-icon status on par with Elvis Presley. Einstein’s heirs have a dozen law firms worldwide protecting his image; posters, calendars, and t-shirts attest to his enduring appeal.
Born in Ulm, Germany in 1879, Einstein had parents of Jewish heritage who disavowed orthodox beliefs. But they sent Albert to a Catholic grammar school because it was close to home and affordable. Young Einstein studied the bible avidly and even composed songs to God. However, around the age of 12, in his own words, "through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much of the stories in the bible could not be true....Suspicion against every kind of authority grew out of this experience." After extensive schooling, Einstein worked as a patent clerk and later expounded physics formulations that shook the world. Einstein eventually joined the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. He died in Princeton Hospital of an abdominal aortic aneurysm in 1955.
Beyond his scientific legacy, Einstein wrote and lectured widely on many subjects including education, anti-semitism, and world peace. Despite a solitary nature and problems in his personal life, he had a good sense of humor and a wide circle of friends. Despite monumental intellectual achievement and fame, he possessed great modesty and an aversion to publicity. Einstein relished simplicity. He believed that " a simple and unassuming life is good for everybody, physically and mentally." He didn’t drive a car, wore old clothes (often without socks), and seldom bothered with haircuts, hence his distinctive tousled mane. He loved to play a violin and listen to classical music. Einstein especially enjoyed sailing a small craft all day long, feeling himself at one with the elements. He immersed himself in natural settings on land as well as on water. "I can picture him still," recalls a close friend, " walking in the woods for hours, contentedly observing every weed, insect, and flower." A sense of wonder and curiosity filled his days.
To Einstein, human feelings and longings motivated all human endeavor, including the development of religion. He recounted three stages of religious belief:
In the first stage, fear evoked religion, fear of hunger, sickness, wild animals, and death. Early humans created rituals to secure the favor of illusory beings who controlled human affairs.
In the second stage, increasing social organization led to a moral conception of God. This familiar God of Providence provided loving guidance, meted out deserved punishment, and offered the faithful everlasting life. Einstein notes that both of these stages of belief have human-like concepts of deity. He rejected both anthropomorphism and personal immortality: "I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind we experience in ourselves. Neither can I or would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death...one life is enough for me." Much of humanity rises no higher than to the second stage of religious belief.
Einstein described a third stage of spirituality which he called cosmic religious feeling. "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...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."
Cosmic religious feeling entailed "rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law," accompanied by profound awe and wonder in contemplating the grandeur of the universe. Such feelings led Einstein to sense "... a spirit manifest in the laws of the universe.... My religiosity consists in a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we, with our weak and transitory understanding, can comprehend of reality."
His view of an immanent spiritual force led Einstein to identify God with Nature.
" My religion," said Einstein, " is really the universe--in other words, nature, which is our reflection of the universe." When asked if he believed in God, Einstein answered "I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists." Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677), the renowned philosopher of pantheism, held that God and Nature are one in the same. "I am fascinated by Spinoza’s pantheism, but I admire even more his contribution to modern thought because he... (dealt) with the soul and body as one, not two separate things." Spinoza’s oneness of spirit and matter reinforced Einstein’s search for a single unifying force in Nature known as the "unified field theory".
A deep sense of mystery pervades Einstein’s outlook. "The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion.... He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness....one cannot help but be in awe when (one) contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries to comprehend a little of this mystery each day. Never lose a holy curiosity."
Cosmic religious feeling spurred curiosity and served as a powerful motive in scientific research. Einstein sought answers to basic questions: What is light? What is time? What is energy? What is gravity? In seeking answers to these questions, he found religion . "I am of the opinion that all the finer speculations in the realm of science spring from a deep religious feeling...in this materialistic age of ours the serious scientific workers are the only profoundly religious people." Einstein thus viewed science a source of spirituality. He turned the proverbial conflict between religion and science on its head-- religion enriched science and visa versa: "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind....True religion has been ennobled and made more profound by scientific knowledge."
Science unveils some of Nature’s secrets, but Einstein recognized that science "could never lay its hands, could never touch, even with the tip of its finger, that dream..." of discovering the creative force at the heart of the Universe. "All our knowledge is but the knowledge of school children...we shall know a little more than we do now. But the real nature of things, that we shall never know, never." When "...measured objectively, what a man can wrest from Truth by passionate striving is utterly infinitesimal. But the striving frees us from the bonds of the self and makes us comrades of those who are the best and the greatest."
Einstein worked on his unified field theory to the end of his life. Other researchers contended that his theory was unrealizable because the indeterminacy of quantum physics prevented such predicable theorizing. But recent findings have sparked renewed interest in the unified field theory. Noted physicist Steven Hawkings believes that Einstein was not chasing a phantom, and today, many physicists attempt to discover the elusive unifying principle.
Pantheists can admire Einstein’s farsighted brilliance and identify with many of his beliefs: He loved communing with Nature. He valued voluntary simplicity and lived a simple, frugal, elegant life. He viewed science as a conduit for knowledge and reverence. He exalted the wonder, mystery, and grandeur of creation. And he perceived the overarching oneness of reality.
Brian, Denis. Einstein, A Life. John Wiley & Sons, 1996.
Clark, Ronald W. Einstein : The Life and Times. World Publishing, 1971.
Calaparice, Alice. The Quotable Einstein. Princeton University Press, 1996.
Dukas, Helen, and Banesh Hoffman. Albert Einstein, the Human Side. Princeton University Press, 1979.
Einstein, Albert. Ideas and Opinions, Crown Publishers, 1954.
Folsing, Albrecht. Albert Einstein: A Biography. Viking, 1997.
Copyright © 1998 - 2004 Gary Suttle