Daily Archives: September 6, 2007

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Einsteinian Religion

Ch.1, §1: ‘Deserved Respect’ (pp.31–41), continued

On pp.39 and 40, Dawkins twice quotes Einstein:

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

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. In this sense I am religious.

If Einstein used the word ‘God’ for this something, then he was, says Dawkins, using it in a

purely metaphorical, poetic sense.

This discussion of Einstein serves at least three purposes in Dawkins’ discussion. It prepares for his later attack on those who seek to prove the existence of God by claiming that various eminent scientists are on their side (pp.123–130). It provides Dawkins with a way of responding to those who claim that he, with his quasi-mystical awe at nature, is religious (he is religious only in the purely metaphorical Einsteinian sense). And it provides him with a foil against which to define the utterly different ‘supernatural’ sense of the word God (pp.34–40) – and thus it plays a crucial role in clarifying Dawkins initial definition of his target, God.

The first of these uses does not interest me, though I will have a comment or two once we reach Dawkins’ discussion of ‘The Argument from Admired Religious Scientists’.

The second is much more interesting. After giving the quote from Einstein, Dawkins says:

In this sense I too am religious, with the reservation that ‘cannot grasp’ does not have to mean ‘forever ungraspable’.

I am not at all sure about that caveat. Going only by the quotations from Einstein that Dawkins gives, and making the assumption that Einstein knew what he was doing when he quoted Spinoza, it seems to me that Dawkinsian and Einsteinian religion are not quite the same thing.

The most natural way of reading Dawkins’ statement (alongside what he has already said about ‘quasi-mysticism’) is that he is speaking simply about the knowable but as yet incompletely known order of things: the marvellous law-governed intricacy of the cosmos that is both utterly open to our exploration and explanation, and utterly mind-blowing. Any mystery involved is mystery-as-problem: something that may overwhelm and inspire and even terrify, but which our investigations can potentially turn from a mystery into something understood (though no less beautiful and majestic for all that).

The most natural way of reading Einstein’s statements seems to me to be rather different, without at all making him what Dawkins would call a ‘supernaturalist’. I say this because I don’t find it easy to read ‘a something that our mind cannot grasp’ as meaning ‘a something that our mind could in princpiple grasp, but which it has not yet in fact grasped.’ It sounds to me more like Einstein saw the ordered world that his mind could explore (rather more profoundly than most!) as the expression or outworking or emanation of a ‘something’, which ‘something’ could only be known in this expression or outworking or emanation. I do not at all assume that he meant by ‘something’ some literal, separate ‘thing’, distinct from the cosmos in much the same way that one physical thing is distinct from another physical thing. If Einstein was serious about Spinoza, I’d expect that to be a point about which his language would remain thoroughly ambiguous.

In other words, the two quotations together do not suggest to me that Einstein thought that alongside all the things we could know with our minds, there was one more thing that we could know in some other, more mysterious way (‘sensing’). Rather, I take ‘sensing’ to be about a way of reading or understanding everything that is, all that we can know with our minds: reading it as ‘coming from’ a source, a ground of possibility, a ‘something’ – a ‘something’ that can only properly be talked about by talking about the world as read in this way. If this is right (and like I say, I’m assuming Einstein cited Spinoza deliberately and chose his words carefully), then we could say both that talk about Einstein’s God could only ever be a certain kind of talk about the cosmos, without that meaning that Einstein’s God was simply another name for the cosmos. ‘God’ would, rather, name the whatever-it-is that means that it is proper to read the world in this way, and there might be nothing whatsoever that could be said about this God other than that.

This brings us to the third point: the contrast between Einsteinian and ‘supernatural’ religion. There are two ways of tackling this. The first is to note that everything I have read about Einstein in Dawkins book so far is consistent with Einstein’s own statement that he believed in Spinoza’s God. I don’t mean to attribute to Einstein all the details of Spinoza’s metaphysics, simply to say that (on the evidence provided) he seems to be working recognisably within the same tradition of thought as Spinoza. But Spinoza was himself working recognisably within a tradition of thought flowing from medieval Jewish philosophy/mysticism – such figures as Moses Maimonides. And Moses Maimonides, on precisely the points which are echoed in Spinoza and then in Einstein, was working in a tradition of thinking which was inter-religious: you can find a version of it in Islam, in figures such as Ibn-Sina (Avicenna), and you can find a version of it in Christianity, in figures such as Thomas Aquinas. To me, reading the description of Einstein in Dawkins, he sounds like nothing so much as a radical Thomist (follower of Aquinas). There is, in other words, a prima facie case for saying that ‘Einsteinian religion’ is a way of thinking about the meaning of ‘God’ and the nature of this God’s relationship to the world that stands squarely in the core intellectual traditions of the great monotheistic religions.

That first, name-dropping claim, though, needs to be supplemented by a second, more substantive claim. Let me, briefly, put it this way: the re-description I have given above of what I take to be Einstein’s Spinozan ideas (on the basis of the limited evidence Dawkins supplies), provides a definition for ‘God’ that is certainly in the same ballpark as some mainstream, traditional ideas about God from the heartlands of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Einsteinian religion and at least one major strand of Jewish, Christian and Islamic thought about God do not stand on opposite sides of a great gulf – and many Christian theologians in the past and in the present are more Einsteinian than they are ‘supernaturalist’.

Useful further reading:
Richard Mason, Spinoza’s God: A Philosophical Study (Cambridge: CUP, 1999)
David B. Burrell, Knowing the unknowable God: Ibn-Sina, Maimonides, Aquinas (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986)

[Edit: I should make it clear that I’m not investing much in the accuracy of my guesses about Einstein. I may well be wrong, and other evidence may show that he the words Dawkins quotes are misleading, or that Einstein interpreted Spinoza in a more straightforwardly atheist way than I think is sustainable. My musings about Einstein are simply a hook on which to hang a sketch of an important theological tradition that is not well captured by Dawkins’ description of ‘supernaturalism’.]