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’.]

7 Thoughts on “Einsteinian Religion

  1. Isaac Gouy on March 16, 2008 at 5:24 am said:

    The 2006 US Houghton Mifflin hardback in front of me seems to have different Einstein quotes – how curious!

    > If Einstein used the word ‘God’ for this something, then he was, says Dawkins, using it in a “purely metaphorical, poetic sense.”

    In the copy I’m looking at Dawkins characterises sayings like “God is subtle but he is not malicious” and “Did God have a choice in creating the Universe?” as “pantheistic, not deistic, and certainly not theistic.”

    Dawkins then goes on to say “‘Did God have a choice in creating the Universe?’ means ‘Could the universe have begun in any other way?’ Einstein was using ‘God’ in a purely metaphorical, poetic sense.”

    Dawkins main source “Einstein and Religion” examines whether when Einstein spoke about the thoughts of God he was speaking about a personal God, or whether “he had used this expression in merely a metaphorical sense.”

    ‘”What I am really interested in is knowing whether God could have created the world in a different way; in other words, whether the requirement of logical simplicitly admits a margin of freedom.” The second part of this statement, begining with “in other words” indicates that Einstein’s reference to God in the first part was merely a manner of speaking.” p124

    > [Dawkins] quasi-mystical awe at nature

    Perhaps worth noting that along with his denials of atheism and a personal God, Einstein strongly rejected mysticism.

  2. Isaac Gouy on March 17, 2008 at 6:49 pm said:

    > If Einstein used the word ‘God’ for this something, then he was, says Dawkins, using it in a “purely metaphorical, poetic sense.”

    Einstein avoided using the word ‘God’ for “this something”.

    Dawkins doesn’t suggest anything about Einstein using the word ‘God’ for “this something” – no need for Dawkins to explain away things Einstein didn’t say.

    Einstein did use the word ‘God’ as a metaphor when he was discussing the nature of the material universe, and that is plainly Dawkins’ meaning when “purely metaphorical, poetic sense” is read in context.

  3. I was taking the two quotes I give at the top of the post together – and assuming (perhaps incorrectly) that they were talking about the same thing. (Dawkins seems to assume the same thing: he glosses both as showing that Einstein was a kind of ‘pantheist’). So I was assuming that the ‘something that our mind cannot grasp’ spoken of in the second quote was what Einstein was talking about when he said ‘I believe in Spinoza’s God’.

    And, as I say, if Einstein knew what he was doing when he referred to Spinoza, and if he was choosing his words carefully when he gave the quotes I listed, then it may be that, like Spinoza, what he meant by ‘God’ was neither ‘a personal God’ nor simply a ‘purely metaphorical’ way of talking about the material universe.

    I am interested in this not because I know much (or, to be honest, care much) about Einstein’s religious views, but because it seems to me that Dawkins thinks that we have only two options (the supernaturalist option: a ‘personal’ God, or the naturalist option: a purely metaphorical use of the word ‘God’), but that there are in fact other possibilities – represented, for instance, by Spinoza who falls into neither camp; possibly by Einstein, if he was serious about Spinoza – and, actually, by quite a few other religious thinkers and theologians.

  4. Isaac Gouy on March 18, 2008 at 8:34 pm said:

    > the two quotes I give at the top of the post

    The second quote is characteristic of the way Einstein expressed his religious feeling – note he doesn’t use the term ‘God’.
    The first quote is Einstein referring to the way others have expressed their religious feelings – ‘God’.

    > what he meant by ‘God’ was neither ‘a personal God’ nor simply a ‘purely metaphorical’ way of talking about the material universe

    You seem to have snipped Dawkins’ “purely metaphorical, poetic sense” out of context (Einstein talking physics) and applied it to a different context (Einstein talking religious feeling).

    Einstein avoided the term ‘God’ when he talked about religious feeling!

    Rather than ‘God’ Einstein talks of “sheer being”:

    “The religious engendered by experiencing the logical comprehensibility of profound inter-relations is of a somewhat different sort from the feeling that one usually calls religious. It is more a feeling of awe at the scheme that is manifested in the material universe. It does not lead us to take the step of fashioning a god-like being in our own image – a personage who makes demands of us and who takes an interest in us as individuals. There is in this neither a will nor a goal, nor a must, but only sheer being.” p69
    Albert Einstein: The Human Side

    > it seems to me that Dawkins thinks that we have only two options

    We keep touching on this, scattered across different comments. It seems to have coloured your reading of Dawkins book.

    (I’ll look for somewhere more appropriate to respond.)

  5. I did not claim, and did not need to claim, that Einstein ‘characteristically’ used the word ‘God’ in the way I described.

    However. I will say that, even if you want to distinguish carefully between Einstein’s citing of Spinoza’s use of the word ‘God’, and Einstein’s own uses of the word God, Dawkings clearly does not. He introduces the Einstein-Spinoza quote to illustrate the possibility that instead of being a theist or a deist, Einstein was a pantheist; in the next paragraph he clarifies what ‘pantheist’ means (‘non-natural synonym for Nature…metaphoric…poetic’). Having made that clarification, he answers the question he posed two paragraphs back: Einstein is not a theist or a deist; there is ‘every reason to think’ that his own uses of the word ‘God’ were pantheist – i.e ‘purely metaphorical, poetic’.

  6. Isaac Gouy on March 19, 2008 at 5:03 am said:

    Well at least I’ve now found those two quotes in my copy of the text!

    > He [Dawkins] introduces the Einstein-Spinoza quote …

    > he answers the question he posed two paragraphs back

    Dawkins doesn’t have to consider ‘Did God have a choice in creating the Universe?’ as an indicator of theism (Einstein was clear about that) or as an indicator of deism (‘merely a manner of speaking’).

    The problem for me is that you have snipped out “purely metaphorical, poetic sense” and applied it to the quote two paragraphs back and the quote one paragraph forward – instead of the quotes it directly follows.

    The two quotes you show are about religion; the quotes Dawkins attaches “purely metaphorical, poetic sense” to are about physics.
    I think we can allow that Einstein would use ‘God’ as a metaphor when talking about physics and still understand that “Spinoza’s God” was not a metaphor.

  7. My response to this, and to your other recent points, has turned into a new post – http://mikehigton.org.uk/?p=165

    You’ll see in that post that I don’t think you’re right about Dawkins’ application of the word ‘metaphorical’.

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