miércoles, 1 de noviembre de 2006

Einstein´s God

Este artículo lo publiqué en Mysterium Magazine (www.mysterium.org) en la edición de enero de 2006. Próximamente en español.

In 1.980, a TV series was reaching an audience of more than 140 million people all over the world. What made the phenomenon so singular was that it was not a sitcom but a serious effort to popularise science. Its name was “Cosmos”. Carl Sagan was able to present difficult concepts in such a way that many people thought for the first time they were able to understand mythical scientific theories like special relativity. The scientists involved in the development of these theories were also presented. One of them was somehow different from the rest: Albert Einstein.
In 2005 we have commemorated the centennial of the publication of a series of articles that changed definitively our views of the universe: about the brownian motion (demonstrating indirectly the existence of molecules), about the so-called special relativity theory (refining Newton´s physics) and about the photoelectric effect (that officially deserved a Nobel Prize). To explain the photoelectric effect Einstein used a recently (1901) published theory by a physicist called Max Planck, quantum theory, thus giving almost a definitive support to it. Quantum theory was able to explain a lot of things and its development was very quick. But then something very strange happened: some logical consequences of the theory (with a growing experimental support) were not accepted by Einstein. Among them the most important was Heisenberg´s uncertainty principle.Isaac Asimov says, after explaining its implications, “ the principle of uncertainty has in no way shaken the attitude of scientists toward scientific investigation”. That was not quite true for Einstein. In 1930 (only 2 years before Heisenberg was awarded his Nobel Prize) he was still trying to disproof it (Bohr proceeded to show that Einstein´s attempted disproof was wrong). It was shocking to hear how he expressed his ideas when asked about the question: they did not seem scientific but religious!: “Subtle is the Lord, but not mistrustful” or “That God plays with dice and uses telepathic methods is something I can not believe even for a second” are well known quotes.Then the question arises: Which God is Einstein referring to?, which were his beliefs that were so strong as to think for the rest of his life there should be another explanation to the physical phenomena the quantum theory had so successfully explained? When he was asked his answer was “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.”
Among the many different thinkers who have either regarded themselves as, in a broad sense, spinozists, or as strongly influenced by him, are, apart from Einstein, Goethe, Lessing, Heine, Nietzsche, George Eliot, Freud, Bertrand Russell, Mark Twain, Arne Naess and George Santayana. All of them considered themselves, using Scruton´s words, “members of a sacred order whose servants were transported to a supreme and certain blessedness”. This order is philosophy understood as a way of life, not as a weapon to be used in intellectual battles. Its founder was Baruch (Benito, Bento, Benedictus) Spinoza, a Dutch sephardic-jew-born lens grinder who lived in the Netherlands between 1632 and 1677. He lived at a time when scientific discovery, religious division, and profound political change had revolutionized the nature and application of philosophy.Spinoza appeared to his contemporaries, and for many years after his death, he was regarded as the greatest heretic of the 17th century. He only published two books in his lifetime, the second one anonymously for reasons of prudence with a falsely titled frontispiece and binding. Shortly after his death “Opera Postuma” was published by his friends, containing the “Ethics”, one of the major and most influential works of Western philosophy.The “Ethica More Geometrico Demonstrata” is presented as a deductive system in the manner of Euclid. Each of its five parts (“Concerning God”; “On the Nature and Origin of the Mind”; “Concerning the Origin and Nature of Emotions”; “Of Human Bondage, or the Strength of Emotions”; “Of the Power of the Intellect, or of the Human Freedom”) opens with a set of definitions and axioms and is followed by a series of theorems proved upon the basis of what precedes them, with more informal remarks in scholia and appendices.In part 1 Spinoza proves (or intends to prove) that there is only one substance, and this answers both to the traditional meaning of “God” and of “Nature”. Thus God did not create but is Nature (Deus sive Natura). This claim is derived pushing the traditional notions of an individual substance to its limit.
But, is Spinoza´s God Einstein´s? Their views have some coincidences but differ in fundamental aspects. In order to illustrate this a couple of examples will suffice.Einstein usually speaks of the order of what exists, as in the quote above. He also wrote about it. For instance in 1931 in “ The World as I See It” he concluded: “ I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and with the awareness and a glimpse of the marvellous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature”. Compare this with what Spinoza says in the Appendix to Part 1 of the Ethics: “When phenomena are of such a kind, that the impression they make on our senses requires little effort of imagination, and can consequently be easily remembered, we say that they are well-ordered; if the contrary, that they are ill-ordered or confused. Further, as things which are easily imagined are more pleasing to us, men prefer order to confusion--as though there were any order in nature, except in relation to our imagination--and say that God has created all things in order; thus, without knowing it, attributing imagination to God, unless, indeed, they would have it that God foresaw human imagination, and arranged everything, so that it should be most easily imagined. If this be their theory they would not, perhaps, be daunted by the fact that we find an infinite number of phenomena, far surpassing our imagination, and very many others which confound its weakness.”. This last sentence in particular seems to apply very well to the relationship of Einstein with Heisenberg´s uncertainty principle.Einstein, a violinist himself, refers more than once to the harmony of the universe. This is precisely the kind of “nonsense” Spinoza attacks in the same Appendix: ”…And such things as affect the ear are said to produce noise, sound or harmony, the last of which has made men so insane, that they have believed that harmony delights God. Nor have there been wanting philosophers who assert that the movements of the heavenly spheres compose a harmony. All of which sufficiently show that each one judges concerning things according to the disposition of his own brain, or rather takes for things that which is really the modifications of his imagination”Spinoza´s system is a whole: you take it or you leave it, but you cannot take a part of it and call yourself Spinozist. Spinozism is a sound logical system, i.e., if you accept its axioms and assumptions you must accept all the logically derived propositions. Consequently, Einstein should not be regarded as a Spinozist as he could not accept a pivotal idea: there is no order in Spinoza´s Nature (i.e., God).
But then, which was Einstein´s belief? Most likely, considering both what he said and what he did, he was a romantic pantheist with a superficial knowledge of Spinoza, probably coming more from the German Pantheismusstreit and Novalis than from the German and Dutch scholarship of the beginning of 20th century. It is dubious that he had read the Ethics completely, if any (assuming he would have comprehended it if he actually had). His quest for a unification theory - as his rejection of quantum theory -, alone, for more than 25 years, only confirms his romantic views of science, the universe and God. It is not an exaggeration to affirm that Einstein can be considered the last 19th century scientist.On the other hand, Spinoza would have enjoyed very much Carl Sagan´s “Cosmos”. However, he surely would have politely suggested a change in the name of the program.

Do you want to know more about…?

1. Carl Sagan´s “Cosmos”: Sagan, Carl; “Cosmos”, Random House
2. Einstein´s ideas and opinions: Einstein, Albert; “Ideas and Opinions”, Wings Books
3. History of Physics:Asimov, Isaac; “The History of Physics”, Walker & Co.
4. Spinoza:Scruton, Roger; ”Spinoza”, Oxford University Press
5. Spinoza´s “Ethics”Spinoza, B.; “Ethics”, Everyman