Albert Einstein and his dice – part 2

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In Part One of this post, I described how Albert Einstein clashed with the younger generation of physicists over the role of probability in the events shaping this universe daily. Over the years he more than once invoked the name of God to say that “He does not play dice with the world.” The curious thing here is that Einstein was using “God language” not only in ways that would make many friends and fellow scientists uncomfortable, but religious believers as well.

You will find that I typically use the term “God language” in this blog rather than “theology” in talking about religion because my view is that the invocation of some deity to “explain the unexplainable” is embedded deep in the roots of most human languages. But at the same time, even two people speaking English frequently mean very different things when they invoke divinity. A female Episcopalian from Massachusetts and a male Baptist from Mississippi will likely agree about very little regarding the nature and moral priorities of God, and yet they are both nominally Christian and American.

The word theology usually carries a lot of baggage, pro and con, among different audiences. I tend to use the word when talking about an intentional study of the history and literature of past purveyors of “God language.” But, opinions vary and this is just my preference.

In occasionally invoking “God” or “the Old One” (another favored expression of Einstein’s) in his written correspondence and public presentations, Einstein was reviving an older method of communication, one that had begun to die out after the 1700s, when the rival discoverers of calculus, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, would liberally sprinkle their mathematical and scientific writing with their own individual (and usually incompatible) theologies.

By the time of Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, there was a common differentiation between the language of science and the language of God. “Belief” and “faith” are attributes typically critical to one’s personal understanding of “God,” while science is something that “is true whether or not you believe in it.” [1]

Einstein was quizzed about his particular use of “God language” by Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein in 1929, to which he responded (in an English translation of his expanded German response), “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” [2]

The conception of God defined by philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), a Portuguese Jew who lived in the Netherlands, would likely not satisfy most Christians or Jews as being sufficiently theistic, or certainly not “interactive” enough. While it is very difficult to describe Spinoza’s rationalist conception of God in pithy terms, Einstein clearly saw the very order of nature that he was investigating with his physics to also be at the core of any “ultimate reality” that might be defined as “God,” which was close enough to Spinoza’s conception to satisfy him.

In short, wherever the idea of E = mc2, or his more complex mathematical models describing the cosmos, came from, he would sometimes call that “God” as a measure of both convenience and interpersonal communication with his frequent non-science audiences. This included his reference to “God” as “not playing dice,” to describe his deterministic view of physics. Apparently this habit occasionally got the best of his closest friends. Fellow physicist Niels Bohr reportedly once pleaded, “Einstein, stop telling God what to do!” [3]

Einstein also had the practice of interrupting his daily deep dives into the mathematics of physics by playing classical music on his violin, either alone or with friends. He would, on occasion, describe these events of blissful escape in numinous terms using “God language” as well. [4]

My own preferred definition of “God language” helps me escape the limits of my own culture and experience, and to attempt to describe the more universal experience. “God language” is what humans of almost all cultures use to say, “I can’t describe this in better way, but I really wish…” or “I really hope…” or “I really fear…”

So, when you encounter “God language” from me in this blog, please assume that intention. It is but one more out of many human definitions of divinity, but in my experience, this definition works for most religions or books of scripture that I have encountered so far, and likely even for the non-theist who hits his thumb with a hammer. The speakers may likely assume a larger definition than this, bringing greater comfort and personal enlightenment, but I am looking for a lowest common denominator for mutual communication.


Notes

  1. This quote is commonly attributed to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
  2. There are several different accounts of this, often drawing widely divergent conclusions. One example is He, Yi. “Einstein’s (Bad) Love Poem.” DUJS Online, 3 Nov. 2013.
  3. Walter Isaacson’s excellent biography of Einstein has an entire chapter on his use of religious language. This quote is from Einstein: His Life and Universe. Thorndike Press, 2007, p. 326.
  4. I prefer the term “numinous” to the alternative “spiritual,” the latter also carries a lot of theological baggage. A numinous experience can be simply aesthetically pleasing to the human brain in and of itself, or interpreted more expansively in various expressions of “God language.” The experience is real, but the description is subjective.

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2 thoughts on “Albert Einstein and his dice – part 2

  1. Pingback: Cancer, probability, normality and theodicy – part 4 – When God Plays Dice

  2. Pingback: Me and my homunculus – When God Plays Dice

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