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"The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses"
May 14, 2008 10:55 AM   Subscribe

Childish superstition: Einstein's letter makes view of religion relatively clear.
posted by homunculus (95 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Amen to that!
posted by monocot at 11:01 AM on May 14, 2008


Wait, then who's not playing dice with the universe?
posted by availablelight at 11:04 AM on May 14, 2008 [11 favorites]


if only metafilter were so eloquent and gracious....

Metafilter: Now that I have quite openly stated our differences in intellectual convictions it is still clear to me that we are quite close to each other in essential things.

naaaah. never happen.
posted by rooftop secrets at 11:07 AM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


I will always wonder what could have happened if Einstein had accepted the Presidency of Israel. Maybe it wouldn't be run by an ultra-conservative religious minority. One can only imagine.
posted by GuyZero at 11:07 AM on May 14, 2008


"As far as my experience goes, [Jewish people] are no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything 'chosen' about them."

No wonder Einstein turned down the Israeli Presidency. It seems he felt that political power and perhaps even statehood were "cancers" -- a sentiment which seems oddly prescient.
posted by Avenger at 11:07 AM on May 14, 2008


Here's a gedanken experiment: How will the thread end?
posted by DU at 11:09 AM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm glad to see this, because it's a well known fact that every person only has one view on important matters that defines them for all time. We should figure out what it is, and hold that person to it forever.
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:11 AM on May 14, 2008 [9 favorites]


"Despite his categorical rejection of conventional religion, Brooke said that Einstein became angry when his views were appropriated by evangelists for atheism. He was offended by their lack of humility and once wrote. 'The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.' "
posted by oddman at 11:11 AM on May 14, 2008 [4 favorites]


I don't know for certain, DU, but the cat in the box is decidedly unwell in any event.
posted by Dave Faris at 11:12 AM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


Actually, all metafilter threads exist in flux between "SOLID GOLD" and "DELETED" quantum states -- it only changes when one of the admins arrive and collapse it's wavefunction.
posted by Avenger at 11:16 AM on May 14, 2008 [7 favorites]


He was just angry at God about his hell-wrought hair.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 11:17 AM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


Brooke said that Einstein became angry when his views were appropriated by evangelists for atheism. He was offended by their lack of humility and once wrote. 'The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.' "

He should have been angry because citing Einstein is the fallcious argument from authority. As for the eternal mystery: Heard of evolution? The world (at our sizes and speeds) is comprehensible because if it wasn't, we'd be dead.
posted by DU at 11:28 AM on May 14, 2008


That's not what Einstein said on Touched by an Angel!
posted by fleetmouse at 11:32 AM on May 14, 2008 [2 favorites]


Oh, Einstein was just bitter because god forgot to give little Albert a corpus callosum.

We all have our bad days, y'know?
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 11:33 AM on May 14, 2008


I take a scientist's view of religion very seriously.

I also value the opinions of mathematicians on charcuterie, lawyers on animal husbandry, computer programmers on the vagaries of fame, Starbucks baristas on the melting point of steel and controlled demolitions, and Sunday school teachers on evolution.
posted by turaho at 11:33 AM on May 14, 2008


As for the eternal mystery: Heard of evolution? The world (at our sizes and speeds) is comprehensible because if it wasn't, we'd be dead.

I think he was referring to levels of comprehensibility that are present that aren't required for survival. There are all kinds of things we know that we could very well do without, relative to survival. And to be honest, that is pretty damn awesome.
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:34 AM on May 14, 2008 [3 favorites]


So,DU, snails, trees, fish, liche, etc. these things are dead? Or do they too comprehend the universe?

Or do you mean to assert the stronger claim that life can't exist in an incomprehensible world? If so, how would you support said claim?
posted by oddman at 11:34 AM on May 14, 2008


I will always wonder what could have happened if Einstein had accepted the Presidency of Israel. Maybe it wouldn't be run by an ultra-conservative religious minority. One can only imagine.

The title of president in Israel is largely ceremonial.
posted by mkb at 11:40 AM on May 14, 2008


Heard of evolution? The world (at our sizes and speeds) is comprehensible because if it wasn't, we'd be dead.

That's not evolutionary theory, that's the Anthropic Principle. They are different. You could probably be a Creationist and accept the latter; you could believe in strict Darwinian evolution and not accept it.
posted by freebird at 11:40 AM on May 14, 2008


Good on Einstein.
posted by gurple at 11:41 AM on May 14, 2008


Maybe it wouldn't be run by an ultra-conservative religious minority.

Negative. The current Israeli political landscape has been shaped by the Labor party's inability to achieve a lasting peace with its neighbors. Looking back to 1973 when Meir's cabinet disregarded definitive intelligence on the eve of Egypt's crossing of the Suez Canal, the liberal government collapased and has since been unable to "guarantee security" for the Israeli people. All the while the right has made a game of arsonist/fireman, playing tot he emotions of the everyday voter along with sucking up to the religious parties. Sort of like what has been happening in the US, where one is not judged by the content of their character but by the presence of a lapel pin and the presumed craziness of the pastor whose church they attend.
posted by jsavimbi at 11:42 AM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


I take a scientist's view of religion very seriously.

Just as seriously as I take ad hominem arguments.
posted by blucevalo at 11:43 AM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


He should have been angry because citing Einstein is the fallcious argument from authority. As for the eternal mystery: Heard of evolution? The world (at our sizes and speeds) is comprehensible because if it wasn't, we'd be dead.

I'm pretty sure that he was referring to the remarkably consistent relationship between mathematics and physics, the comprehension of which is not necessary for survival, and which holds with striking precision at speeds and scales quite different from our own.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:46 AM on May 14, 2008


From the first link: "Einstein is best known for his theories of relativity and for the famous E=mc2 equation".

Right , the famous "energy equals mass times the speed of light multiplied by 2" equation.
It's hard to tell if this is actual scientific ignorance or just typographic idiocy.
posted by signal at 11:48 AM on May 14, 2008


Heard of evolution? The world (at our sizes and speeds) is comprehensible because if it wasn't, we'd be dead.

I wondered if I'd been too terse.

What I mean is, given a brain structure that reflects the world accurately vs one that doesn't, the one that does is more likely to survive. The reason we, to pick an apropos example, intuitively believe that velocities add linearly is because they DO at low speeds. And being able to estimate velocities is of interest to many organisms.

This is not the anthropic principle. Nor does it rule out snails and trees. Snails and trees also comprehend the world. They comprehend less (or a different subset) than humans, but they do comprehend in the sense of "make sense out of" or "exploit 'intelligently'".
posted by DU at 11:48 AM on May 14, 2008


Wait, then who's not playing dice with the universe?

The expression and product of human w-- look, it was in the title, for the expression and product of human weaknesses' sake!
posted by cog_nate at 11:49 AM on May 14, 2008 [2 favorites]


How is what Einstein has to say about religion any more relevant than what the Dalai Lama has to say about general relativity?

Also, it's easy to deride individual beliefs or even entire belief systems as "childish superstitions", but that is missing a much larger point: On a fundamental level, religion is not so much about whether God exists or how many hours you have to wait to drink milk after eating shrimps. Religion is about aligning oneself with a certain group of people. People don't go to church because of a deep desire to achieve eternal salvation -- they (or at least most of them) go there because they want to socialize, because they like the get-togethers after the service, because they are lonely on Sunday mornings or because they find the reverend attractive, exceptions proving the rule notwithstanding.

Whether the tenets that you need to believe in (or at least pretend to believe) in order to be a part of that social group are scientifically sound -- who cares. Churchgoers are not seeking scientific truths, they are primarily seeking companionship and chickensoup for the soul. Not surprisingly, many scientists seem to have difficulties understanding that.

Like it or not, religions are here to stay. Deriding them as "childish superstitions" betrays a lack of understanding of the world that, in turn, can also be called childish.
posted by sour cream at 11:49 AM on May 14, 2008


Here's a gedanken experiment: How will the thread end?

Probably with a Godwin.
posted by Caduceus at 11:50 AM on May 14, 2008


Just as seriously as I take ad hominem arguments.

Damn, you mean the next time the guy who makes my coffee tells me how the government did 9/11, I gotta hear him out?
posted by turaho at 11:51 AM on May 14, 2008


Turaho: point taken, but Einstein was a physicist. His job was to figure out and try to make sense of how the universe works (same with biologists, etc). I don't think it's a stretch to say that doing that as part of his profession would lead him to reflect intensely on his beliefs about how it all comes together.

While he may not have had a degree in religious studies or divinity, I would consider his opinion more informed than that of, for example, a fashion designer. Whatever his beliefs, he's had a decent look at the nuts and bolts of the universe, so maybe he has a clearer picture of the machine as a whole.
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 11:51 AM on May 14, 2008 [2 favorites]


I would consider his opinion more informed than that of, for example, a fashion designer

I'm a computer programmer. How informed do you think my opinion on God is? Where does it fall on your occupation-to-insight scale?
posted by turaho at 11:57 AM on May 14, 2008


Trees "comprehend [the world] in the sense of "make sense out of" or "exploit 'intelligently' "

Sorry, could you run that past me one more time. (I'm not bating you honestly.) In order to comprehend something one needs a mind, surely. You use scare quotes around intelligently, so perhaps you really mean to say that trees, for example, react to their environment in a way which promotes their own growth and which, to the naive observer, seems intelligent. This would surely count as a non-standard use of comprehends, right? You don't really think that trees comprehend anything do you?
posted by oddman at 11:59 AM on May 14, 2008


I take a scientist's view of religion very seriously.

I can see how you wouldn't accept a physicist's view as authoritative, but what about an anthropologist's?
posted by yath at 12:00 PM on May 14, 2008


While researching a Young Einstein (1988) joke, I found that Yahoo Serious is now an award winning opera composer. There really is no God.
posted by stavrogin at 12:01 PM on May 14, 2008 [5 favorites]


Einstein read Spinoza (and presumably a few other philosophers) if nothing else, that actually makes him fairly qualified to discuss the nature of God and the creation of the world.
posted by oddman at 12:02 PM on May 14, 2008


Yet Einstein still wrote about being "religious" in a larger sense:

Although I am a typical loner in daily life, my consciousness of belonging to the invisible community of those who strive for truth, beauty, and justice has preserved me from feeling isolated. The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavour in art and science. 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 something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that is there.
posted by ericbop at 12:04 PM on May 14, 2008 [3 favorites]


Wow, you people know next to nothing.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:04 PM on May 14, 2008 [2 favorites]


Snails and trees also comprehend the world. They comprehend less (or a different subset) than humans, but they do comprehend in the sense of "make sense out of" or "exploit 'intelligently'".
posted by DU at 1:48 PM on May 14 [+] [!]


I get the feeling that from now on, we're going to get some "this from the guy who thinks trees and snails comprehend the world!" counter-arguments around here. Don't get me wrong, I'm not going to do it—I'm perfectly happy to know you as "the guy who hates art".
posted by interrobang at 12:08 PM on May 14, 2008


"Wow, you people know next to nothing."

Well, to be fair, this is still quite an accomplishment. So, and I truly mean this: thanks! That's quite a nice compliment.
posted by oddman at 12:08 PM on May 14, 2008


oddman: Indeed, and I was including myself as a subset of "you people" also.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:08 PM on May 14, 2008


Einstein read Spinoza (and presumably a few other philosophers) if nothing else, that actually makes him fairly qualified to discuss the nature of God and the creation of the world.
It's entirely possible that Einstein had a Spinoza-like or Deist view of God in his earlier years and then turned to some kind of strong atheism after World War II when those letters were written. That could explain the difference in what is expressed in this letters and what he said in his "famous quotes" about God.
posted by deanc at 12:10 PM on May 14, 2008


Einstein knew as much about God as anyone else.
posted by adamdschneider at 12:16 PM on May 14, 2008 [8 favorites]


the remarkably consistent relationship between mathematics and physics

Excuse my ignorance but why is this either remarkable or mysterious? Isn't it, rather, what you would expect in a unitary universe with a Big Bang beginning? It would be far more remarkable if these relationships were inconsistent, no?
posted by binturong at 12:19 PM on May 14, 2008


It's entirely possible that Einstein had a Spinoza-like or Deist view of God in his earlier years and then turned to some kind of strong atheism after World War II when those letters were written.
Einstein specifically mentions Spinoza in the letter, writing, "a limited causality is no longer a causality at all, as our wonderful Spinoza recognized with all incision, probably as the first one." The God of Spinoza is in the order and connection of things and ideas, and it is to this that Einstein continues to adhere.
posted by No Robots at 12:22 PM on May 14, 2008


Yahoo Serious's website. Wow.
posted by nosila at 12:23 PM on May 14, 2008


Like it or not, religions are here to stay. Deriding them as "childish superstitions" betrays a lack of understanding of the world that, in turn, can also be called childish.

Was Einstein being childish because he didn't understand the social ramifications of being a Red Sox fan year in, year out? Maybe he displayed a lack of sympathy for the "world" in which most people live in, but was definitely not lacking in trying to understand the physical world around him.

Religions are just a by product of early humanity's lack of knowledge beyond when to sow seeds, the dearth of educated debate and the inability to recognize mental instability in those who believed that they had a direct line to this god thing.
posted by jsavimbi at 12:25 PM on May 14, 2008 [2 favorites]


I also value the opinions of mathematicians on charcuterie, lawyers on animal husbandry, computer programmers on the vagaries of fame, Starbucks baristas on the melting point of steel and controlled demolitions, and Sunday school teachers on evolution.
posted by turaho at 1:33 PM on May 14


Great. Welcome to MetaFilter! (You silly sub-4k'er).

How is what Einstein has to say about religion any more relevant than what the Dalai Lama has to say about general relativity?

I'm interested in the opinion of the superior minded on any number of topics. To not exploit their mental capacity would be a great failing. Being a genius does not make them an authority on every topic, but it does almost assure a unique point of view, and often creates the opportunity for a fresh approach to the subject matter.

He was without question brilliant and broad minded. Why would you not want brilliant, broad minded people thinking about your topics?

I would love to have Einstein's thoughts on digital rights management, current technologies regarding alternative fuels, climate change, drug resistant infections, hell, even the infield fly rule, and probably another dozen issues if I took the time to think about it.
posted by Ynoxas at 12:29 PM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think the cult of personality that has grown up around Einstein is rather bizarre. Obviously, the man was very intelligent but he somehow became the personification of intelligence, and now his very name will sell thousands of educational videos to apprehensive parents.

I don't think a lot of people realize how muddled his career really was, intellectually speaking. His unified theory - which occupied a major portion of his life - never worked out and most of his philosophy was just rehashed logical positivism, which is neither particularly interesting and (in my opinion at least) not very likely to be correct. At the end of the day, he was fallible and I can think of a handful of other scientists in that same time period whose impact was as big, whose faults were as large, but who haven't become titans just because their messy hair wasn't as good for caricature.

The man had a great impact. He did some very impressive work. But he has been turned into a cartoon so that his image can hawk wannabe Mensa products and that's ridiculous.
posted by Kiablokirk at 12:32 PM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


When it's all said and done Einstein was just another dumbass with a silly haircut anyway.


Like, ya know, cortex!
posted by quonsar at 12:35 PM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


Deanc--Einstein also read Kant, Hume, Reichenbach, Hempel, Carnap, and wrote about his interest in epistemology in his volume in the "library of the living philosophers" series (where he responded to each philosopher's take on his work).

The tendency to reduce "religion" to the metaphysical question of God often seems misleading to me, as it leaves out the reality that for most practicioners of a given religion in history the practice is and was only partly about belief as such: the historical reality is that religion developed not just as a kind of protoscientific, teleological doctrine of cosmological explanation, that should or should not be now sloughed off in the post-Enlightenment age, but also as ethical, societal, cutural glue. Most people are not in it for the theology, scholasticism, or mysterium, and religion, considered broadly as the onto-ethical sacralization of cultural custom and practice, has a way of metastasizing far beyond its original bounds.

Ethics is in origin the art of recommending to others the sacrifices required for cooperation with oneself. --Bertrand Russell

Human beings may or may not be ready for or capable of a post-religious age. The evidence is overwhelming both in a negative sense of empty dogmatism, and in a positive sense of encouraging ethical empathy, that religion has its psychological uses. I'm not sure all these uses can be considered equally. This is a complicated subject.
posted by ornate insect at 12:35 PM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


the remarkably consistent relationship between mathematics and physics

Excuse my ignorance but why is this either remarkable or mysterious?


If you hold to a realist view of properties and numbers, the view suggests that when we do math outside of real world application, we are playing around with things that really exist (i.e., numbers and such). The fact that we can 1) discover things like this independently of real world applications and then 2) they happen to actually match up accurately with real world applications, is pretty stunning, even if you grant the unity of everything. Perhaps it's our ability to match these things up that is more remarkable.

However, if you don't grant a realist view of numbers, it might not be as interesting.
posted by SpacemanStix at 12:38 PM on May 14, 2008


the remarkably consistent relationship between mathematics and physics
.... why is this either remarkable or mysterious?
A good starting point might be Wigner's essay The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences. Broadly, it is remarkable that mathematical manipulations of known laws results in new and empirically testable physical predictions, because that suggests that the physical world is isomorphic to a [human-created] mathematical structure; there is no reason for the universe to be so ordered. More at the wikipedia page.
posted by Westringia F. at 12:41 PM on May 14, 2008


Religions are just a by product of early humanity's lack of knowledge beyond when to sow seeds, the dearth of educated debate and the inability to recognize mental instability in those who believed that they had a direct line to this god thing.

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!1!
posted by resurrexit at 12:44 PM on May 14, 2008


How is what Einstein has to say about religion any more relevant than what the Dalai Lama has to say about general relativity?

What does the Dalai Lama say about general relativity? I'm only aware of his interest in neuroscience.
posted by homunculus at 12:47 PM on May 14, 2008


The flip side, I suppose, is that in Einstein's use of the word "God," he was acknowledging his own human weakness. However, I'm inclined to think that he simply had a mindset of, "there's an order to the universe or some kind of prime mover we can call God" which he held earlier in his life which migrated to "people resort to reference to a God who really isn't their out of their own human weakness" as he aged and his life became more remote from his upbringing in which the existence of God was regarded as a given.
posted by deanc at 12:47 PM on May 14, 2008


SpacemanStix--I definitely don't grant that numbers and other abstract entities "exist" in the same way that bricks and trees exist. I've read a bit in the philosophy of mathematics, and it's not just realism as you've defined it vs. everything else. There's constructivism, nominalism, Platonism, etc. And certain mathematical concepts, such as infinity, are not that much easier to justify, in my view, on realist grounds than the concept of God.

For what it's worth, the fact that Pythagoreanism and Platonism elevate the ontological status of mathematical entities, and by extension all transcendent ideals, is directly tied to the historical development of monotheism (and to the mereological problem of "the one and the many") anyhow.

deanc--not the "existence" or "inexistence" of God's onto-theo-logical status, but the ineffability and apaphatic approach (God can only definied by what it is not, see the existential theologian Jean Luc Marion) might precisely be an indication of mysticism (as distinct from "religion") that rears its head in thinkers like Spinoza, Wittgenstein, and possibly even Einsten. In this way "God" might even be seen simply either as the intelligibility of, or as the metalogical exception to, the world.
posted by ornate insect at 1:00 PM on May 14, 2008


Don't fluck with religion.
posted by acrobat at 1:05 PM on May 14, 2008


What the fuck is a fluck?
posted by loquacious at 1:08 PM on May 14, 2008


Why are women's butts shapely? So men find them attractive and mate with them, thus continuing the species. Why do men find shapely butts attractive? Something to do with symmetry and curves causing a release of endorphins and testosterone. Why does symmetry cause that release? And so on...
posted by Burhanistan at 1:14 PM on May 14, 2008


Meaning, there are really only more questions. All these flat pronouncements of "God is such and such" and "his guy said this and that" from comments above are completely useless.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:29 PM on May 14, 2008


> Whether the tenets that you need to believe in (or at least pretend to believe) in order to be a part of that social group are scientifically sound -- who cares. Churchgoers are not seeking scientific truths, they are primarily seeking companionship and chickensoup for the soul. Not surprisingly, many scientists seem to have difficulties understanding that.

I think this is pretty much the case, but unfortunately many churchgoers I've met would dispute it, and refuse to afford as much respect to others' choices in recreational social activities as they demand for their own.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:29 PM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


it's amusing to me that folks with degrees in divinity are supposed to be better able to expound on the nature of non-existent (as far as can be observed) entities than those who've dedicated their lives to studying what can be observed and have found none.

why should religious people need einstein's approval?

why should atheists?

he's just a man, for christ's sake.
posted by klanawa at 1:34 PM on May 14, 2008


he's just a man, for christ's sake Pun intended, I assume?
posted by ornate insect at 1:38 PM on May 14, 2008


re: Mathematical realism: in 'Contact', Carl Sagan describes some aliens looking for messages from god in Pi. This idea has always intrigued me, for reasons that Mr. Wiki states far more clearly than I could.
posted by signal at 1:48 PM on May 14, 2008


it's amusing to me that folks with degrees in divinity are supposed to be better able to expound on the nature of non-existent (as far as can be observed) entities than those who've dedicated their lives to studying what can be observed and have found none.

Because telescopes are able to look everywhere?
posted by SpacemanStix at 1:48 PM on May 14, 2008


How is what Einstein has to say about religion any more relevant than what the Dalai Lama has to say about general relativity?

As long as religious people insist that you can't prove or disprove there is a God, I don't see how any training could make you more of an authority on God's existence. But it is interesting to hear intelligent people's (like Einstein's) thoughts on the matter.
posted by Triplanetary at 1:48 PM on May 14, 2008


re: Mathematical realism: in 'Contact', Carl Sagan describes some aliens looking for messages from god in Pi. This idea has always intrigued me, for reasons that Mr. Wiki states far more clearly than I could.

I like xkcd's take on it.
posted by martinrebas at 1:55 PM on May 14, 2008


I'm glad I have "mad scientist hair"
I might get somewhere.
Mock me when I'm gone,
I won't care.
posted by zengargoyle at 2:00 PM on May 14, 2008


Once you can accept the universe as matter expanding into nothing that is something, wearing stripes with plaid comes easy. --Albert Einstein
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:41 PM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


How is what Einstein has to say about religion any more relevant than what the Dalai Lama has to say about general relativity?

I'd be interested in knowing what the Dalai Lama has to say about General Relativity.
posted by empath at 2:55 PM on May 14, 2008


In fact, you can listen to what he thinks of it here.
posted by empath at 2:56 PM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


ornate insect: religion developed not just as a kind of protoscientific, teleological doctrine of cosmological explanation, that should or should not be now sloughed off in the post-Enlightenment age, but also as ethical, societal, cutural glue

The Age of Enlightenment ended roughly 200 years ago. Can we please have the latter without the former? That's not too much to ask, is it?

Seriously, we should by now be able to make and use the glue without the involvement of Daddy in the Sky.
posted by oncogenesis at 3:08 PM on May 14, 2008


A spoonful of relevance makes the Einsteinian run round.
posted by fook at 3:18 PM on May 14, 2008


Einstein's famous for his theories of relativity. It's not terribly obvious from seeing E=mc2 everywhere but they're just mind-bogglingly beautiful pieces of logic, starting from innocuous-seeming assumptions and ending up with equations that tell you what gravity is and tell you how the entire universe evolves. They are astounding extrapolations from the simplest principles to entire mathematical descriptions of the behaviour of things.

He's also famous for the stuff he got wrong. Quantum mechanics - he rather dropped the ball on that one, and he described the inclusion of the cosmological constant the biggest blunder of his life. Which, to be fair given his reasons for including it, it probably was. But it turns out it's probably there anyway doing exactly what he invented it not to do. I'm not sure how much of a mistake it is to predict a thing in order to get it to do exactly the thing it isn't. But it's a mistake.

If he'd actually had anything really insightful to say on theology, especially with the kind of blinding logic he showed he was capable of with relativity, you wouldn't be finding it out from a letter at this stage in the game. He was a genius. He wasn't a theologian. (But the snarker in me would use the word 'tautology' at that point.)
posted by edd at 3:22 PM on May 14, 2008


How is what Einstein has to say about religion any more relevant than what the Dalai Lama has to say about general relativity?

Well, presumably the Dalai Lama could learn about general relativity since it is a scientific theory. What facts, exactly, regarding religion could Einstein possibly not know? Are you saying that the DL is somehow more of an authority regarding the number of angels that could fit on the head of a pin? Would the Pope be?

Also, this and other letters of his are pretty strong statements of personal belief. In the face of what? The "dice" statement? Come on. Not everyone uses "god" in some people's narrow theistic use of the word.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 3:25 PM on May 14, 2008


Quantum mechanics - he rather dropped the ball on that one

The question of hidden variables is still open. As he says in the letter, "a limited causality is no longer a causality at all."
posted by No Robots at 3:43 PM on May 14, 2008


Someone upstream said it much better than I. But an interpretation of ANY subject by someone like E is always going to be more interesting to me than Rev. Hagee's or Billy Graham's interpretation of Christianity. It is not as if mathmatics was E's only interest. I would not be surprised if he had a stronger background in metaphysics than some of today's respected purveyors of Christianity.
posted by notreally at 4:27 PM on May 14, 2008


(God can only definied by what it is not, see the existential theologian Jean Luc Marion)

Apophatic theology goes way further back than this, however. Religious thinkers figured out apophaticism pretty early on.

might precisely be an indication of mysticism (as distinct from "religion") that rears its head in thinkers like Spinoza, Wittgenstein, and possibly even Einsten.

Except that Wittgenstein was an explicit atheist. His main concern, to me, always seemed to be about understanding religious thinking and language. It's been fairly clear that Einstein didn't believe in the idea of a personal, Judeo-Christian God. The question is whether, when Einstein referred to God, he was referring to a Deistic "divine watchmaker", some nebulous "divine presence," or just a metaphor for "the structure of the universe." Heck, this last letter is from just a year before his death, and I find it difficult to believe that we can infer what he was thinking in his other famous "God quotes" on that basis alone, here.

But this does get back to why we spill so much ink thinking about the issue. People seem to have a lot invested in the idea that Einstein believed in God. By contrast, no one spends much time worrying what Stephen Hawking thinks about God. For certain believers, I think it was tempting to use Einstein as a cudgel to claim to non-believers that even Einstein was on the side of the believers.
posted by deanc at 4:45 PM on May 14, 2008


Good. I really hope this stops everyone for quoting Einstein for every little thing and smiling smugly because "a really smart guy once said he agreed with me." Quote him on relativity if you want, but all these quotes for everything else are even more meaningless.
posted by damn dirty ape at 4:46 PM on May 14, 2008


deanc--I'm well aware apophantic theology goes way back; I brought up Marion b/c he is a contemporary thinker who has explored apophansis extensively.

Regarding Wittgenstein, the subject of his religious belief has been much debated. To my knowledge, he was NOT an explicit atheist at all (perhaps you are thinking of Russell?)....

There are several places confirming the ambiguity in his work towards religious belief:
to list but two, see here and here, etc. And Wittgenstein is sometimes seen by scholars as turning towards something like mysticism in his later works.

I don't have a lot invested in whether or not Einstein believed in God.
posted by ornate insect at 5:08 PM on May 14, 2008


Let me tell you something about religion.

It tells you that you are so much better than those sinners and then forgives your pride. It cures you of your same sex lust and then admits you to the cloisters. It talks about prayer then asks you to recite your hate of fags, bastards and heathens. It forgives and it forgives and it forgives and then it damns you to hell for everything you did and for everything your fathers did. It tells you that you are weak, and bleak, and tarnished and then asks you to live up to its standards as it stands in judgment of death after death after death. And it hates. It hates. It hates every fucking idea you have that is not your own, every fucking stone you use to build that is not in the service of its own cathedral. It kills women whose bodies are not their own, it kills men who become apostate, it kills fucking children with something so simple as prayer and nothing else, such as medical attention.


It is a lie and it destroys lives.

Fuck it. It deserves no sympathy.
posted by Sparx at 6:18 PM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


Actually Spark, last time I looked it said something like, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone", thereby rubbing my nose in the big puddle of self righteous I left on the living room rug.

But who has time to read the instructions.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:34 PM on May 14, 2008


sparx--not all religions have a notion of "sin" as the Abrahamic religions (Judeo-Xtian-Islam) conceive it. Some, like animism and Buddhism, do not acknowledge "sin," nor even necessarily God. You are aware that religion existed long before the Bible, and that there are many religions besides the ones in churches, mosques and synogogues? Forget about sympathy: basic facts might help your case, whatever it is.

(And I consider myself an apathist, athiest, and sometimes even an agnostic, but I'm not religious).
posted by ornate insect at 7:04 PM on May 14, 2008



Ornate Insect: Indeed. Buddhism as a religion, for example, suggests that bad behaviour leads to rebirth in the realm of hungry ghosts, born with bloated stomachs without the necessary orificial capacity to fill them. Because that's true. In BizzaroPacMan world.

Kid Charlemagne: That is not all that was said. The devil himself can quote scripture
posted by Sparx at 7:20 PM on May 14, 2008


I take a scientist's view of religion very seriously.

Yeah, but can you do something about the shitloads of nonsense about science spewed daily by theists? Just curious.
posted by dobbs at 8:18 PM on May 14, 2008


I'M UP IN UR BELIEF SYSTEMZ, LOLLIN @ UR FAITH!
posted by turgid dahlia at 8:50 PM on May 14, 2008


People seem to have a lot invested in the idea that Einstein believed in God. By contrast, no one spends much time worrying what Stephen Hawking thinks about God.

That's because Einstein is marketable. He's hot, babe, like Madison Ave pie in the sky — cute, cuddly, and everyone's favorite grandpappy: a fuzzy head of hair, soft eyes, always spouting pleasant truisms while giving you nickels for ice cream on a hot day. If he can put in a good word for the Lord, it's a 24KT sacred cash cow. Guaranteed.

On the other hand, Hawking is a Dalek-sounding trollbeast. How can anyone hawk God from a robotically-enhanced wheelchair-bound cryptkeeper from the eighth plane of Hell? You might get a Bond villain or two out of him, though.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:04 AM on May 15, 2008 [2 favorites]


I've never quite understood people who complain that person X is not properly able to criticize religion because they haven't studied it their whole life. Its the Courtier's Reply.

What, really, is to study? I mean, there aren't any facts or observable phenomina involved in religion, its just a bunch of wankers talking in circles. I don't have to study the details, the intracies, the entire history of, for example, astrology to state that its a bunch of nonsense. You only need to know the basic proposition: human affairs are governed by the apparent movements of stars and planets. From that its pretty easy to say "no, that's BS". You don't have to know the ins and outs of Chinese astrology vs. Babylonian astrology, to have read any of the definitive texts on astrology, to know how to cast a horoscope, etc.

Similarly, I have no problem with people who aren't experts on religion saying "nope, that's BS". Personally, I find religion fascinating and so I've not only rejected it as BS, I study it as interesting BS. But that's more a hobby and I don't think it gives me any particular extra authority than any other atheist has in rejecting the entire thing. A deep and lifelong study of religion is no more or less valuable than a deep and lifelong study of baseball, or Star Trek, its something invented by humans that has no relation with reality, and like all other fiction I don't think you have to be an expert to say "yup, its fiction".
posted by sotonohito at 6:04 AM on May 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


Baseball is not fiction!
posted by grubi at 6:26 AM on May 15, 2008


Poor choice of words on my part there, sorry. I hate when I do stupid stuff like that. Let's try "entirely created by humans" instead.
posted by sotonohito at 7:39 AM on May 15, 2008


sotonohito, let me try to help you understand. First of all, nobody complains "that person X is not properly able to criticize religion because they haven't studied it their whole life." (Emphasis mine.) That assertion is known as a straw man. (PZ Myers seems to be a master of this particular fallacy as well.)

All you really need to do is to study religion sufficiently that you know what it is, so you can make sure that what you're "criticizing" is not a straw man. Here's an example: any argument that analogizes God to some object within His creation is a straw man. God is the Ground of Being, and is therefore unique and unitary (with respect to our universe, at least). God is not a teapot in orbit around the sun. God is not an airborne pasta creature. God is not the relative motions of planets in our solar system. Kindly keep this in mind.

Also, when you say that religion is fiction, and therefore you don't have to be an expert to say that it's fiction, you're engaging in a fallacy known as begging the question. I do hope this has been helpful for you.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 12:57 PM on May 15, 2008 [2 favorites]


The wikipedia for petitio principii really needs a picture of a fat guy at a keyboard.
posted by Burhanistan at 2:19 PM on May 15, 2008


Crabby The phrase "their whole life" was, I think, self evidently a bit of semi-humorous exageration meaning "possessing a state of expertise" and not intended as being literally true. Sheesh.

And, while I congratulate you on correctly using the term "begging the question", I'm afraid you are mistaken about my position, or being deliberately obtuse, I'm not sure which but I'm inclined towards deliberately obtuse. But, what the hell, I like hairsplitting as much as the next language geek so let me dive in.

To clarify, for the hairsplitting crowd, I am not engaging in circular reasoning WRT religion and its dismissal. Nor, for that matter is Mr. Meyers, and I argue that the Courtier's Response is a valid explanation of criticism directed towards non-experts who dismiss religion.

The core of my argument is that one does not need to be an expert in religion in order to dismiss the entire thing as nonsense, anymore than one needs to be an expert in Star Trek or astrology to classify them, respectively, as fiction and nonsense. I am *NOT* arguing that God is astrology, merely that both belong in the category of "stuff you don't have to be an expert on in order to dismiss as nonsense". A rat is not a cat, but they both belong in the category mammal, yes?

Your complaints about Russell's Teapot and the FSM are similarly based out of an essential misunderstanding of intent. No one claims that God is a teapot, merely that both Russell's Teapot and God belong in the same category. In this case the category is "non-falsifiable non-evidential"; I'll be abbreviating that NFNE from now on.

The point of things like Russell's Teapot, the FSM, the IPU, etc is not to say "they're God haha!" but to point out that they fit the same category as God and are entirely preposterous. Theists like to imagine that their greatest creation, God, is unique, that nothing else fits his category, but this is incorrect.

I cannot prove that God, as he is commonly defined, does not exist. However, no evidence exists to support the notion that God, as he is commonly defined, does exist. God is not the only thing that fits the NFNE category. Russell's Teapot, the FSM, the Invisible Pink Unicorn, and my own contribution, the Immaterial Voyeuristic Bunnies all fit into that same category. I can't prove that God does not exist, and you cannot prove that the Immaterial Voyeuristic Bunnies don't exist. No evidence exists to suggest that God exists and no evidence exists to suggest that the Invisible Voyeuristic Bunnies.

Now, assume that I have written gigabytes of carefully thought out and internally consistant stuff about the Voyeuristic Bunnies, do you have to be an expert on my writings to dismiss the Bunnies? Of course not, you know they fit the NFNE category so its perfectly safe to dismiss them as just something I made up. Similarly, without being an expert on God, without reading many (or indeed any) of the multiple gigabytes of text about God, a reasonable person can realize he fits the NFNE category and dismiss him entirely.

The same, naturally, goes for Nirvana, karma, dharma, kami, magic (with or without a "K"), etc.
posted by sotonohito at 5:06 PM on May 15, 2008 [2 favorites]


sotonohito--where is it written that what is called religion reduces to belief or nonbelief in God or even to belief or nonbelief in the supernatural? For example, Buddhism, as I understand it, does not require said belief of its practitioners. Furthermore, the psychological, social, and ethical dimensions--quite apart from the metaphysical dimension--are key to understanding what keeps religion alive as an activity meaningful to modern homo sapiens. As far as I can tell, the sanctuary of belonging rather than labratory of belief is what matters most to many both mildly and intensly religious people. Does love exist?
posted by ornate insect at 8:44 PM on May 19, 2008


Does the Constitution Permit Government to Favor Religion over Nonreligion? Justice Scalia Says Yes
posted by homunculus at 11:25 PM on June 5, 2008


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