Albert Einstein’s Beliefs Toward God

Albert Einstein is one of the most misrepresented individuals to ever live.  Take this video for instance.

There’s a lot I could say about this video, and the message that it’s trying to get across, but I’ll hold myself back and simply say that this never happened.  Einstein was an agnostic.  His conception of God was similar to Spinoza’s.

“I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.”

– Albert Einstein

If you’ve never studied Benedict Spinoza’s philosophy, or his conception of God, you’ll have to read Part I of his Ethics.  Wikipedia summarizes it as follows,

In Spinozism, the concept of a personal relationship with God comes from the position that one is a part of an infinite interdependent “organism”. Spinoza taught that everything is but a wave in an endless ocean, and that what happens to one wave will affect other waves. Thus Spinozism teaches a form of determinism and ecology and supports this as a basis for morality.

Additionally, a core doctrine of Spinozism is that the universe is essentially deterministic. All that happens or will happen could not have unfolded in any other way. Spinozism is closely related to the Hindu doctrines of Samkhya and Yoga.  Spinoza claimed that the third kind of knowledge, intuition, is the highest kind attainable.

Spinoza’s metaphysics consists of one thing, substance, and its modifications (modes). Early in The Ethics Spinoza argues that there is only one substance, which is absolutely infinite, self-caused, and eternal. He calls this substance “God“, or “Nature“. In fact, he takes these two terms to be synonymous (in the Latin the phrase he uses is “Deus sive Natura”). For Spinoza the whole of the natural universe is made of one substance, God, or, what’s the same, Nature, and its modifications (modes).

Source:  Wikipedia

Einstein wasn’t an atheist either.  He made this perfectly clear.

“In view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for the support of such views.”

– Albert Einstein

In the quotation below, Einstein elaborates on his conception of God.

“I’m not an atheist and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangements of the books, but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God.”

– Albert Einstein

I hate seeing people misrepresented.  If you’re religious and believe in God and your holy book, that’s fine with me.  You can believe whatever you want to believe.  But don’t make up lies about great thinkers, and then claim they held a worldview similar to your own.   Christians can claim Einstein believed in God, but the real Einstein thought this about the Bible,

“The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.”

-Albert Einstein

4 thoughts on “Albert Einstein’s Beliefs Toward God”

  1. Jason, I’m glad you posted this entry, although my guess and hope is that most people who read your blog already knew that Einstein didn’t embrace the Christian conception of God.

    I’ve never been entirely clear on how either Spinoza or Einstein understood “God,” but I suspect, or would like to think, that it was similar to my own understanding.

    Once upon a time, I took a philosophy course where the instructor asked us if we could think of a quote that concisely expressed the essence of any great philosopher’s philosophy. I suggested Spinoza’s, “The better we understand particular things, the better we understand God,” and proceeded to write a paper extrapolating his entire philosophical system from this quote.

    So far as his metaphysics was concerned, it seems to me that the quote implies that the more closely we examine any so-called “part” of the universe, the more we must come to understand the whole system in which that thing exists and functions. When we go far enough with this process, we’ve encompassed and understood the entire universe and come to see it as a unified system or field and not as a collection of separate parts.

    In his great autobiography “In My Own Way,” the late, great “philosophical entertainer” Alan Watts wrote probably the best description of my understanding of “God” I’ve ever encountered:

    “Throughout my seminary and ministerial career I was always suspected of pantheism, but with a gift for semantic dexterity I could not be pinned down by people with one-track minds whose thinking was restricted to the linear order of the Book, with its one-way strings of words. For example, my own “pantheistic” view cannot be stated as a proposition but must be felt as an experience. If one asserts that the universe is God, and by “the universe means an ordered collection of separate things, then I am certainly no pantheist because I do not hold this conception of the universe. As I see it, every distinct or separate thing is a merely conceptual entity, isolated from the total field of the universe strictly for purposes of using a certain kind of language or method of charting the field. You cannot be a formal or propositional pantheist if you understand that a separate thing is real only in a system of abstraction. It is not physically or naturally real, for just as there cannot be necks without heads and trunks, there cannot be flowers without environmental fields. The field flows into the flower, and what we call the “thing”–flower–is a wiggle in the flow, while the flow itself, the energy of the universe, admits of no definition. The word “God” is more of an exclamation than a proper name. It expresses astonishment, reverence, and even love for our reality. If you want to put a human face on it, that will do–if you do not take it literally–since we know nothing higher or more mysterious than people, and an energy-field which peoples can hardly be less intelligent than people. Certainly events happen in the field which seem absolutely horrible, but faith is the gamble that there is some way of understanding or at least accepting them. I do not see what other attitude a sane person can take.” (In My Own Way, pgs. 183-184)

    I’m guessing that this is much more commensurate with Spinoza’s and Einstein’s view of God as well than is the traditionally Christian view with which Einstein is often credited or, depending on your point of view, discredited.

    1. Hey Steve,

      From what I can tell (though I’m no expert on Alan Watts), Spinoza’s conception of God is very similar to Alan Watts’. Due to Spinoza’s use of definitions and proofs, his Ethics is a difficult book to read. I don’t claim to fully understand it all either, so I’ll quote from someone who likely understood Spinoza much better than I do. In his book The History Of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell wrote this about Spinoza,

      “The metaphysical system of Spinoza is of the type inaugurated by Parmenides. There is only one substance, “God or Nature”; nothing finite is self-subsistent. Descartes admitted three substances, God and mind and matter; it is true that, even for him, God was, in a sense, more substantial than mind and matter, since He had created them, and could, if He chose, annihilate them. But except in relation to God’s omnipotence, mind and matter were two independent substances, defined, respectively, by the attributes of thought and extension. Spinoza would have none of this. For him, thought and extension were both attributes of God. God has also an infinite number of other attributes, since He must be in every respect infinite; but these others are unknown to us. Individual souls and separate pieces of matter are, for Spinoza, adjectival; they are not things, but merely aspects of the divine Being. There can be no such personal immortality as Christians believe in, but only that impersonal sort that consists in becoming more and more one with God. Finite things are defined by their boundaries, physical or logical, that is to say, by what they are not: “all determination is negation.” There can be only one Being who is wholly positive, and He must be absolutely infinite. Hence Spinoza is led to a complete and undiluted pantheism.”

      Einstein’s conception of God must not be exactly that of Spinoza’s because, as I pointed out, Einstein was not a pantheist. However, he apparently identified with certain aspects of Spinoza’s philosophy.

      As for myself, I most agree with Spinoza when he says, “The mind’s highest good is the knowledge of God, and the mind’s highest virtue is to know God.” “He who clearly and distinctly understands himself and his emotions, loves God, and so much the more as he more understands himself and his emotions.” After quoting Spinoza, “In so far as the mind conceives a thing under the dictate of reason, it is affected equally, whether the idea be of a thing present, past, or future.”, Bertrand Russell comments on these passages as follows, “This is a hard saying, but it is the essence of Spinoza’s system, and we shall do well to dwell upon it for a moment. In popular estimation, “all’s well that ends well”; if the universe is gradually improving, we think better of it than if it is gradually deteriorating, even if the sum of good and evil be the same in the two cases. We are more concerned about a disaster in our own time than in the time of Genghis Khan. According to Spinoza, this is irrational. Whatever happens is part of the eternal timeless world as God sees it; to Him, the date is irrelevant. The wise man, so far as human finitude allows, endeavours to see the World as God sees it, sub specie eternitatis, under the aspect of eternity. But, you may retort, we are surely right in being more concerned about future misfortunes, which may possibly be averted, than about past calamities about which we can do nothing. To this argument Spinoza’s determinism supplies the answer. Only ignorance makes us think that we can alter the future; what will be will be, and the future is as unalterably fixed as the past. That is why hope and fear are condemned: both depend upon viewing the future as uncertain, and therefore spring from a lack of wisdom. When we acquire, in so far as we can, a vision of the world which is analogous to God’s, we see everything as part of the whole, and as necessary to the goodness of the whole. Therefore ‘the knowledge of evil is an inadequate knowledge.’ God has no knowledge of evil, because there is no evil to be known; the appearance of evil only arises through regarding parts of the universe as if they were self-subsistent……The intellectual love of God is a union of thought and emotion: it consists, I think one may say, in true thought combined with joy in the apprehension of truth. All joy in true thought is part of the intellectual love of God, for it contains nothing negative, and is therefore truly part of the whole, not only apparently, as are fragmentary things so separated in thought as appear bad…. Thus the statement that ‘”love of God must hold the chief place in the mind” is not primarily a moral exhortation, but an account of what must inevitably happen as we acquire understanding….. Although personal survival after death is an illusion, there is nevertheless something in the human mind that is eternal. The mind can only imagine or remember while the body endures, but there is in God an idea which expresses the essence of this or that human body under the form of eternity, and this idea is the eternal part of the mind. The intellectual love of God, when experienced by an individual, is contained in this eternal part of the mind.”

      I find peace in the idea that everything continues to exist in “the mind of God”, even after it is destroyed and long gone in this world. I don’t like to use the word “God” when I talk about it though, because people get so confused and think you’re speaking of an anthropomorphic like deity, just like us, with a brain and mind like ours, who continues to remember that we once lived. I think of it more as a physical possibility, and that matter is composed of compressed energy, which can be recompressed again into what things once were. Nothing is ever destroyed for good, there’s only been matter changing forms, which as far as we can tell, is its natural flow.

      I find discussions about the whole and the parts which compose it particularly fascinating. Today, for example, I’ve been studying vision science, and in particular, how our mind organizes objects into scenes. It’s really quite amazing to learn more about how that works. It’s quite intriguing to read about experiments where objects of different sizes, colors, orientations, and movements are displayed before people in the lab, and they’re asked how they group objects together. Evolution seems to have given us a set of hard-wired systems which look at the images coming onto the back of our retinas, and in conjunction with whatever we’re focusing our attention on, assemble various parsed primitives into objects.

      For example, you take dots and equally space them in a straight line. People will see a line. Take the dots and arrange them a bit differently, say in little clumps of dots, further and irregularly spaced apart, and they no longer see a line, but now see clumps of dots. Now take those dots and start moving two chunks of them with the same downward velocity. All of the sudden, dots on the right, and dots on the far left, which weren’t linked together in the mind before, now are treated as one. Take those same dot clumps and take half of them and put an oval around them, and surround the other half of them with another oval. What was once considered one clump of dots now consists of two entirely separate objects.

      That sort of research completely intrigues me. Eventually the author of this book was getting into camouflage, such as stick insects. Such insects are treated as just another branch on a tree, until they start moving. That’s because the colored “dots” which make up the image of the stick insect are now all moving together with the same velocity. Before a person “noticed” it as a stick insect, it may have considered its legs as one stick going downward, and its upper body as another branch pointing upward.

      It seems to me that what we categorize as objects was given to us by evolution in order to help us find food and survive. I don’t think how our mind categorizes various impressions into objects is absolute, however. It’s just useful and helps us stay alive. It seems some of it is learned through experience, and some of it is hard-wired into our brains from birth. If this is what Alan Watts means when he says that objects are only separate in our system of abstraction, then I agree with him.

      I view the brain as a sort of information processing unit which takes in sensory information, parses it into useful “objects”, which it then stores, manipulates, and uses, directing our bodies around in the world, all while generating consciousness. Also, neuroscience is showing us the brain regions are responsible for this object formation process. For example, a psychologist experienced brain damage in these select areas and then reported his experiences as follows,

      “If I saw a complex object, such as a person, and there were several people in my field of view, I sometimes saw the different parts of the people as not, in a sense, belonging together, although …. if a given person moved so that all the parts of him went in one direction, that would … tend to make him into a single object. Otherwise there was this confusion of lots of things, all of which were there, but did not seem to belong together…. Several of these cases of things not belonging together gave quite absurd results. For instance, I do remember on case where there was what seemed to me to be one object which was partly motor car, partly tree and partly a man in a cricket shirt. They seemed somehow to belong together. More frequently, however, a lot of things which to any ordinary viewer would be parts of the same thing were parts of different things. (Quoted by Marcel, 1983a)”

      One processing unit which groups objects by their common movement patterns is still functioning in his brain, but other systems (“modules”) are failing him. The distinctions we make between one object to the next, it seems to me, do not always exist. The world is much more interconnected and whole than our brain makes it out to be.

      Take when a physics student starts studying mechanics. They apply Newton’s three laws of motion to “objects” as their basic starting point, not actually thinking about how their brain assumed that this “thing” should be considered separate from this other “thing”. Then they say that the force one object exerts on another is equal and opposite. Say we’re dealing with a weight dropped from a pulley system, and we’re calculating the acceleration of the system based on the object masses, friction of surfaces, etc. My brain treats the block as separate from the table it rests on because of how the color patterns change on my retinas, and move together. The block may white on a brown wood table, for instance. I’m thinking if we look further into the assumptions as to how our brain makes distinctions between objects, we can see reality at a deeper level.

  2. Jason, as a follow up to my previous comment, you might be interested in today’s blogpost by senior trial counsel for the Department of Justice, published novelist, Spinoza scholar, and blogger Daniel Spiro about Spinoza.

    Here is a telling quote from that post: “Increasingly, people are beginning to realize that he was ahead not only of his time but of ours. This is why Spinoza has been adopted by so many academics, in field after field. When attempting to bridge the gaps in conventional modern thinking, it often becomes clear that Spinoza was mining this same avant-garde ore centuries in the past…Speaking as such a traveler, I am fortunate to be able to lean on Spinoza when it comes to metaphysics, theology, ethics, psychology and politics. But what amazes me even more than how useful I personally find his writings is to witness his reception among those who are truly expert in their fields. More than three centuries after his death, Spinoza is seen not only as having anticipated modern trends, but in some cases as holding the keys that can unlock the doors of our present ignorance.”

  3. I haven’t read Russell’s masterpiece in decades. I should read it again. Thanks for sharing some of his exposition on Spinoza. I know he admired Spinoza. He writes: “Spinoza is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers. Intellectually, some others have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme.”

    I won’t presume to comment at length on how closely Spinoza’s metaphysics resembles Alan Watts’ or vice versa. I’ve never tried to labor my way through Spinoza’s “Ethics,” partly because I doubt that I have either the intellect or the patience to make a successful go of it, and partly because I’m exceedingly wary of the enduring value of any effort to use the “geometric method” to deduce the nature of reality.

    I will only say for now that Watts would undoubtedly agree with the Spinoza quote I cited previously about knowing “God” through particular things in that both apparently saw particular things as illusory abstractions from an ultimately unified whole. Indeed, Watts stated that what we call separate “things” should actually be called “thinks.” That is, our minds artificially divide the ultimately unified field of the universe into separate objects and events.

    But whereas I’ve interpreted Watts to explain that we perform this separation largely with our intellects, you make clear the fact that we seem to do this at a pre-rational perceptual level, and this would certainly help to explain why even those who become intellectually convinced of the unified or unbrokenly whole nature of reality continue to have a raw perception of it as an agglomeration of things.

    From what I’ve read of and about Spinoza, I’m still not sure I comprehend what he meant by “the intellectual love of God,” yet the expression resonates deeply with me. Ken Wilber thinks Spinoza’s philosophy was flawed because it relied too much on reason and not on more compelling mystical apprehension for its insights, but I suspect that, at least for some of us, the intellect, properly used, is the royal road to understanding ultimate reality or, at least, it’s an approach that compliments the intuitively or transrationally mystical one.

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