Albert Einstein, Spinozist

Baruch! Albert Einstein, world-famous physicist but little-known fellow Spinozist, is having a letter sold at auction this week whose contents should finally put to rest that silly notion that Einstein was religious.

We know Spinoza left a strong impact on Einstein. I visited Spinoza’s home in Rijnsburg a few years ago and saw with my own eyes Einstein’s signature in the visitor’s book, dated 1920. In 1929 a Rabbi alarmed by the suggestion that Einstein’s theory of relativity might present a slippery slope to atheism asked Einstein for a clarification of his beliefs:

New York’s Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein asked Einstein by telegram: “Do you believe in God? Stop. Answer paid 50 words.” In his response, for which Einstein needed but twenty-five (German) words, he stated his beliefs succinctly: “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.”

Spinoza’s God, of course, is exactly analogous to “Nature”. Unlike anyone else before him, Spinoza maintained that “God, or nature” is intrinsic to the universe (as opposed to extrinsic, e.g. a God that can create a universe). Thus, postulating the existence of God is no different than postulating the existence of a universe governed by physical laws. And that is something atheists can live with.

So what does the letter being sold at auction this week reveal about Einstein’s religious views? Einstein was writing in 1954 to the philosopher Eric Gutkind, and here is what he wrote, among other things:

The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.

[…] For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they 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.

Those words could have been uttered by Spinoza 300 years earlier, and indeed Spinoza’s writings make those very same arguments. At one point, Spinoza writes that perhaps not everyone has the mental fortitude to abandon conventional religion — that his abstract notion of God = Nature may only really be accessible to a philosophical elite — and that conventional religion would suffice to bring happiness to the rest. In Steven Nadler’s Spinoza: A Life (p.290) we get this response from Spinoza to his landlady when she asked him if she has chosen the right religion:

One day, when Van der Spyck’s wife asked Spinoza whether he thought she could be saved in the religion that she professed, he replied: “Your religion is good, and you need not search for another one in order to be saved, as long as you apply yourself to a peaceful and pious life.”

In other words, belief is merely a means to an end; what is more important is good deeds. Still, you might think Spinoza is being a bit patronizing here to a good but not particularly clever soul.

Myself, I am a little less sanguine about belief — happiness at the expense of a realistic world view seems like too high a price to pay. Perhaps, however, I’ve been lucky, and I can’t fathom the kinds of misery that make the crutch of religion a necessity for many.

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5 thoughts on “Albert Einstein, Spinozist”

  1. My first reaction to this is to wonder at the astonishing advantage German speakers must have had in the days of the telegraph, if pricing was per word. “Donaudampfschiffskapitänskanagroomutter” would thusly be 15x times more economical than the “mother of the kangaroo owned by the captain of the steamship on the Danube”.

    Astonishing.

    As for Albert, I am pleased he has been revealed as more of a modern Spinozist — one that has the confidence to be open about his scepticism, wheras a Spinozist back in 17thC Holland had to be a bit more circumspect.

    I half finished his autobiography the other month, and was struck that he actually was part of a little 3-man philosophical colloquium, much like this online one we share, where they would discuss philosophy and the issues of the day. Given the wonders of the internet, we can do that here, remotely, and have others join in too.

    Imagine if Einstein had been a blogger! I would have dropped in on that from time to time.

  2. Problem is— as one trained in psychology— I can almost attest to the fact that we are wired for SOME religion; we have a fundamental NEED to believe in something transcendental. Unfortunately, I was brought up largely without belief, and I lost whatever shreds were left in adolescence. Nevertheless, I feel the void; it must be nice to believe in a Higher Power, especially one that will grant you eternal life (not necesarily a benefit, if you think about it carefully) and save you from (or ameliorate?) the worst happenings in your life. (Not perfect, why couldn’t He prevent those unfortunate vicissitudes entirely?)

  3. Unlike anyone else before him, Spinoza maintained that “God, or nature” is intrinsic to the universe (as opposed to extrinsic, e.g. a God that can create a universe).

    Hmm… doesn’t the orthodox Christian doctrine of incarnation require a notion of God as intrinsic to the Universe?

  4. Myself, I am a little less sanguine about belief — happiness at the expense of a realistic world view seems like too high a price to pay. Perhaps, however, I’ve been lucky, and I can’t fathom the kinds of misery that make the crutch of religion a necessity for many.

    Your objection to religion seems to be based on aesthetic rather than instrumental grounds. You do not deny that religion can provide relief from suffering, even happiness. It sounds like relief from suffering, or even happiness, is less important to you than clear vision. But what makes you confident that a worldview that does not encompass some form of religion is a complete one? Do you not believe that the theories we use to process the data about the world that our bodies transmit to our brain are as important as the data itself to our perception? And if so, should not the domain of religious belief, which is inaccessible to the rigors of reproducible experimental verification, be permitted a wider range of theoretical possibilities.

    If the idea of a personal God who exists as part of but also in control of nature does not appeal to you, then it seems it must be for aesthetic rather than instrumental reasons.

  5. Religion could be summed as a box of cereal metaphorically speaking, filled with marshmellows that signify all different beliefs. Thats when someone that doesn’t see any as significant, just something that people do. Its hard to say that believing in Jesus is believing in a religion to me, there is no category to me, there is only one Him (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) and people do miss out. Depression, no fulfillment, no satisfaction, lives of void as normxxx says. Science comes up short when it comes to God, no way to prove the word of the Bible wrong. Jesus is the only one compared to so called God’s that has risen after death. Reading the word about God’s construction for earth makes sense when you think about it. We have everything we need here (outside of not being perfect beings), but we screw that up daily with the destruction of the earth. Oxygen is here, water, food, and it tends to be renewable. I’m sure there are cures for everything growing from the very earth that we mistreat, but in the United States the medical industry can’t profit off a natural resources, and why on earth would you want anyone to be completely better, if you can profit from them being sick long term? (Anyone with a heart would want them to be cured, but greed stands in the way.) Think of the aids medications that people have to take, i’m sure they can’t stand it, but thats a money machine. No one being treated for sickness would be a rapid drop in profit. So the earth gives to us, we take away, and don’t appreciate God enough to acknowledge that He has created it for us.

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