June 2, 2020

A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Brief Guide to Einstein, Relativity, and His Surprising Thoughts on God by Alister McGrath- Part 2 Introduction and Chapter 1- Approaching Einstein: The Wonder of Nature

A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Brief Guide to Einstein, Relativity, and His Surprising Thoughts on God by Alister McGrath- Part 2 Introduction and Chapter 1- Approaching Einstein: The Wonder of Nature

We are reviewing Alister McGrath’s new book, “A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Brief Guide to Einstein, Relativity, and His Surprising Thoughts on God”.  McGrath says, “Albert Einstein remains the world’s favorite genius.  He has appeared on the cover of Time magazine no fewer than six times and was lionized as its Person of the Century in 1999. Einstein’s equation E = mc2―along with his trademark hairstyle―has found its way onto T-shirts and billboards.”

Einstein was a favorite of photographers.  One of the most iconic of his photos is Arthur Sasse’s shot of him sticking out his tongue.  It was taken right at the end of his birthday party in 1951 at Princeton.  A weary Einstein entered his chauffeured automobile to be driven home.  Sasse, who had been covering the event, ran up to the open door and asked Einstein for one final shot.  Einstein turned toward him and stuck out his tongue just as Sasse’s flashbulb went off.  Einstein liked the resulting photo so much that he used it for greeting cards he sent to his friends.

McGrath points out that most of us rely on his theory of relativity when using a Global Positioning System (GPS) without realizing it.  The light and warmth of the sun are the direct result of the conversion of mass to energy, first recognized by him in 1905, and expressed in the iconic equation E = mc2.  The same principle lies behind nuclear power – and atomic bombs.  McGrath credits Einstein’s letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939, warning of Nazi Germany progress in its development, for America’s race to build the bomb first.  Imagine the destruction that would have been wrought on England, not to say the world, had Germany built the A-bomb first.  It could have changed the course of history for the worse. McGrath delves more into this later in the book.

Nobody thinks a scientific genius is infallible.  Still Einstein’s status makes him worth listening to.  McGrath says he had a fascination with “big picture” questions and wove together science, ethics, and religious faith to yield a richer account of reality – as McGrath says, a theory of everything that matters. McGrath cautions that many sayings attributed to Einstein have no connection with him whatsoever, McGrath rigorously tries to sort those out.  For example, one attributed to him is: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”  It’s pithy, sure, and maybe even a great idea – but it’s not Einstein’s.

McGrath notes an authentic quote that sets up the agenda for this book: “Science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be” (Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, page 45).  Although the book explores Einstein’s scientific ideals, its real focus is how he attempted to develop a coherent view of the world – a grand theory of everything – that embraces both our understanding of how the world functions and the deeper question of what it means.

Chapter 1 is entitled, “Approaching Einstein: The Wonder of Nature.”  McGrath notes the year 1919 followed the end of “the Great War” as well as the social revolutions in China (1911) and Russia (1917).  There was a sense of an old order being swept away.  On November 7th of that year, the London Times printed a headline, “Revolution in Science, New Theory of the Universe, Newtonian Ideas Overthrown.”  Newton, the scion of British scientists had been discredited and dethroned.  And who dethroned him?  An obscure German physicist, hitherto unknown to the readers of the Times – Albert Einstein.  The Time headline propelled Einstein to international celebrity, so much so that in the early 1920s he had become a cult figure, an international icon of genius.  It didn’t hurt that he won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921.  In 1930, security staff at New York’s American Museum of Natural History had to deal with a near riot when 4000 people tried to see a film offering to “demystify” Einstein’s ideas.

Einstein’s influence continues to this day.  In 2016, a team of scientists reported they had recorded two black holes colliding.  They had heard and recorded the sound of two black holes colliding a billion light-years away, a “fleeting chirp” that fulfilled the last prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.  McGrath says:

But beyond his scientific discoveries, what I have come to find really interesting is Einstein’s spiritual significance.  I write this book as someone who both encountered Einstein’s ideas and discovered the intellectual and spiritual riches of the Christian faith at Oxford University.  Although I will be aiming to give as reliable and accessible an account of Einstein’s views on science as possible, I will also explore his ideas on religion and how he weaves these together.  Yet perhaps more importantly, from my own personal perspective, I will also consider how his approach can be used by someone who, like me, wants to hold science and faith together, respecting their distinct identities yet finding a way of allowing them to enrich each other.  My views are not the same as Einstein’s, yet he has been an important influence in helping me navigate my way towards what I consider a workable and meaningful account of how this strange universe works and what it – and we – might mean.  Einstein opens the way to trying to develop a theory of everything that matters.

McGrath recounts how as a 13-year old he tried to understand the theory of relativity and a teacher gave him a book to read that went substantially over his head.  He still never lost his fascination with Einstein’s theories as he went to Oxford in 1971, where he took up chemistry and specialized in quantum theory.  Yet although he was thrilled at science’s capacity to explain how things worked, he could not shake the feeling it did not seem to be able to address deeper human longings and questions about meaning and purpose.  And Einstein himself made clear the sciences have their limits.  They are not equipped to answer questions of value or meaning, and they are not meant to.  McGrath says:

As a teenager, I assumed that my love for science required me to be an atheist.  After all, science and religion were meant to be at war with each other – at least according to the popular atheist tracts I had read. Yet is soon became clear to me that my teenage atheism was not adequately grounded in the evidence.  It was mere opinion on my part, which I had mistakenly assumed was a necessary outcome of reason and science.  There were other options available. If I might borrow some words from the novelist Salman Rushdie, I discovered that the “idea of God” is both “a repository for our awestruck wonderment at life and an answer to the great questions of existence”.

McGrath found himself drawn to the approach of Charles A. Coulson, Oxford University’s first professor of theoretical chemistry, who saw science and religious faith as offering complementary perspectives on our world.  At the same time he proposed a greater vision that allowed engagement with questions that were raised by science yet which lay beyond its capacity to answer.  McGrath was interested to note that Coulson regularly cited Einstein in his exploration of the relation of science and faith.

McGrath notes that Einstein was a complex and nuanced thinker, which made him vulnerable to ideologues who wanted to shoehorn his ideas into their own ways of thinking.  He says perhaps the most ridiculous of these distortions is the suggestion that Einstein’s theory of relativity provides scientific justification for rejecting moral absolutes and adopting relativism.  As a matter of fact, Einstein’s theory of relativity does not endorse relativism but affirms a regular universe governed by laws.  McGrath quotes Einstein from conversation with William Hermanns, Einstein and the Poet, page 132: “My God created laws… His universe is not ruled by wishful thinking but by immutable laws”.  In a letter of 1921 (Letter to Eberhard Zschimmer, dated September 30, 1921), noting the cultural misunderstandings of the scientific term relativity, Einstein suggested his approach was better described as a “Theory of Invariance” rather than a “Theory of Relativity”.  McGrath will expand on this point later in the book.

McGrath also says that Einstein has been conscripted by some propagandists as a mascot for their scientific atheism.  He says that Richard Dawkins, in the God Delusion (2006), presents Einstein as a closet atheist who was “repeatedly indignant at the suggestion he was a theist”.  Dawkins does not substantiate this incorrect assertion, offering instead a rather selective reading of some quotes from Einstein drawn from a secondary source.  McGrath says:

What really annoyed Einstein, according to his own writings – which merit reading in their totality, rather than in selective snippets – was the repeated suggestion that he was an atheist, or being quoted by certain kinds of atheist writers as if he shared their views, particularly those he termed “fanatical atheists” with a “grudge against traditional religion” (Letter dated August 7, 1941, Einstein Archive, Reel 54-927. For comment see Jammer, Einstein and Religion, page 97).

It is easy, however, to see how a superficial reading of Einstein could lead to the conclusion he was an atheist.  He did make it clear he did not believe in a “personal God”.  But as Max Jammer, a personal friend of Einstein, and professor of physics at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, points out in his book, Einstein and Religion, page 150, Einstein “never considered his denial of a personal God as a denial of God”, and was puzzled why anyone would even make the suggestion.

McGrath cautions that Einstein’s ideas about God and religion don’t’ fit our regular categories, and we need to listen to what he himself had to say about them, rather than forcing him into predetermined categories through selective quotation.

Since Einstein is often said to have “overthrown the views of Isaac Newton”, McGrath, in the next chapter, begins his assessment of Einstein’s significance by considering Newton’s approach – often, though not entirely accurately – described as a “mechanical universe”.

 

 

Comments

  1. I just want to take this opportunity to thank you for your contributions here, Mike. I really appreciate having a “Reader’s Digest” overview of all these books which I would not know about if you didn’t review them, and probably won’t ever get around to reading.

    Also: Jon Garvey has a new book out, I haven’t bought/read it yet.

  2. What are the attributes and characteristics of a non-personal God? Would a non-personal God not be conscious or aware? Not creator? Would a non-personal God not relate to humans, animals, or the inanimate world? Would a non-personal God not have a will?

    Or, conversely, what positive attributes and characteristics would a non-personal God have?

  3. Adam Tauno Williams says

    > Einstein “never considered his denial of a personal God as a denial of God”,
    > and was puzzled why anyone would even make the suggestion.

    Not all that puzzling; there are *MANY* (including Evangelicals) who would say that the denial of a|the personal God *IS* a denial of God. I’ve heard that sermon: “they|you do not ‘really’ believe in God’. 🙁

    • I’m not sure what is meant by “personal” or “person”. We seem to think we know what we’re talking about when we use those words, but I tend to think we assume more than we know.

      Campus Crusade/Bill Brightites and Billy Graham seem to have popularized the phrase “personal savior” which expressed the sense of “personal” as “mine, of my possession.” Perhaps Einstein was reacting to an idea such as that?

      • “I’m not sure what is meant by “personal” or “person”. We seem to think we know what we’re talking about when we use those words, but I tend to think we assume more than we know.”

        At the very least, I would assume that it means “self-aware, sentiment, and communicative”. Maybe a post on sentience and alien intelligence could shed some light on the subject…

      • As a young man a moving from evangelicalism to a liturgical tradition, I realized at some point that when someone in my youth had said “God is a personal God” they nearly always meant “I, as a person, can relate to God” rather than “God Himself is to be understood as three persons of the Blessed Trinity”.

        • My understanding of the Evangelical’s “personal relationship” with God is that one regards God as someone you call on the phone and who will always be available for a chat. This is nearly entirely unrelated “person” in the trinitarian sense of the word. The Evangelical “personal relationship” is a reaction to both Deism, with its impersonal cosmic clockmaker, and Catholicism, with its myriad saints acting as intermediaries. Conversionism was a key feature of Evangelicalism from the start, and is one of the few features to remain intact to this day. The “personal relationship” is an elaboration–a continuation–of the personal conversion experience.

          • That’s an accurate assessment, Richard, and I’d never really considered the idea of personal relationship as a continuation of the/a conversion event. I don’t think most Evangelicals would really object to the idea either.

        • The idea that the God is a Trinity of three Persons includes the idea that these Persons are in intentional, responsive relationship to each other. We can fairly conclude that they are also in intentional, responsive relationship with us and the rest of creation as well.

          • Yes, the key point of Trinitarian theology is relationship/interconnectedness.

            BTW, my understanding of the early church Fathers is that they weren’t thinking “person” in the way we think of such, but rather “personae” — “face”, the idea rooted more in their Greek philosophical concepts. So, it isn’t “three PERSONS”, rather three “aspects”.

            • I know the Fathers used the language of personae, or masks, but at the same time they did not mean that God was only three different modes of the same reality in relation to human beings. That would be modalism, which they rejected; they affirmed that the Persons of the Trinity were Persons in relation to each other, even prior to their relationship to us.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Campus Crusade/Bill Brightites and Billy Graham seem to have popularized the phrase “personal savior” which expressed the sense of “personal” as “mine, of my possession.”

        A Gospel of Personal Salvation and Only Personal Salvation is at heart a very Selfish Gospel.

        “Pull up the ladder — I’M ABOARD!”

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > I’m not sure what is meant by “personal” or “person”.

        I think that is a vast, dark, and deep rabbit hole.

        We are so darn sure we mean what we mean… and just push a little bit and our meaning dissolves into mist.

        Even (see all the pro-life/et-al debates) “life” is a rabbit hole. Ask, okay, can you give me a functional definition of “a life”?

        More caution is merited than is often used with these words.

    • Puzzling, in that Deism was hardly a new idea. Whatever one things of it as theology, the idea should hardly be unfamiliar. This is not to say that Einstein was a Deist. I am not qualified to say. I am open to there being other versions of a non-personal God.

  4. Christiane says

    ‘BY THE TRUTH OF HIS RIGHT HAND’

    I am very moved by this man’s stand for what it will cost him . . . for the hope it returns to people who needed witness to that which is intangibly beyond all ‘politics’

    sometimes the voice of ONE PERSON matters, when it comes from a place of honor and conscience, when it costs him, when a promise before God is honored above all considerations

    for this witness, I am thankful

    I also am a CS Lewis fan and a great fan of his friend JRR Tolkien. When I heard Romney’s speech in the Senate, I thought of this by Tolkien:

    ““There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

    –The Return of the King”

    For the return of ‘hope’ in what is honorable in our land, even if only from one strong voice, in honoring ‘the truth of his right hand’, I do hope all Americans can step away from politics for a moment, and appreciate what this man has done for ALL of the people of this country. . . . he has put aside his own interests and honored a promise to God, for which he will be ‘taken outside the gates’ and punished by his own;
    but after they consider what he did and what it costs, they might recognize in his stand that it was FOR THEM ALSO in the end, and for all the ‘others’ who needed the return of hope and a reminder of what it means to be ‘above partisanship’.

  5. Klasie Kraalogies says

    Einstein was not an atheist, as he declared himself quite clearly. But he did rather clearly declare himself to be an agnostic (see this letter: https://farm3.static.flickr.com/2687/4496554935_0b573db853_o.jpg)

    Thus it might be more accurate to think of Einstein’s God as equivalent to Spinoza’s god. The then cardinal for Boston, William Henry O’Connell criticized relativity as a cloak for atheism. Seeing this, Rabbi Hernert S Goldstein sent a telegram to Einstein pressing him to answer if he believes in god, even saying he will pay for up to 50 words for the reply telegram.Eistein used half the words only:

    “I believe in Spinoza’s God,” who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”

    Spinoza, who was exiled from Amsterdam’s Jewish community because of his philosophy (as well as condemned by the Catholic church) basically identifies the universe as god (over simplifying here). He is sometimes called a panentheist. Eiatein knew well what he was doing when invoking Spinoza. BTW, as an atheist, I have no quarrels with Spinoza.

    Reviewing the evidence therefore, I think McGrath is 9n danger of falling into the same trap he notes others to have done:

    • Klasie Kraalogies says

      A bit more on Spinoza’s God, this from Wikipedia:

      In a letter to Henry Oldenburg, Spinoza wrote: “as to the view of certain people that I identify god with nature (taken as a kind of mass or corporeal matter), they are quite mistaken”.[1] For Spinoza, our universe (cosmos) is a mode under two attributes of Thought and Extension. God has infinitely many other attributes which are not present in our world. According to German philosopher Karl Jaspers, when Spinoza wrote “Deus sive Natura” (“God or Nature”) Spinoza meant God was Natura naturans not Natura naturata, that is, “a dynamic nature in action, growing and changing, not a passive or static thing.”

  6. “Revolution in Science, New Theory of the Universe, Newtonian Ideas Overthrown.”

    Sorry but this has always been a personal quibble. Einstein didn’t “overthrow” Newton. He recontextualized him. Newton was right within his own framework. Einstein provided a larger framework that integrated Newton within it. I think it was Niels Bohr who said that “Einstein swallowed Newton alive.”

    The reason it’s important to point this out is this is the way science normally works. There are cases where previous theories are thrown out but it’s much more common for current theories to build on what went before.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > Sorry but this has always been a personal quibble

      Yep.

      And have you noticed how incredibly easily many many many people fall into X vs. Y dichotomies and/or both-sides-ism?

      You’d think professional writers/thinkers would recognize that fallacy…

    • Another way to look at it is that every theory (at least until the last one) has edge cases where it doesn’t work well. The replacement theory will resolve some of those edge cases, while otherwise looking just like the old theory. I am, at least tentatively, willing to go so far as to take this as a defining characteristic of modern science for any given field. If you are still throwing out theories entirely, like chemistry with its phlogiston theory, the field has not yet entered its modern phase. Once you get past that and have some understanding of, in this case, oxidation, then you have a modern science that can go about the business of refining this understanding.

    • Some Mechanical and Civil Engineers can go their whole professional life using only Newtonian physics and do just fine. Newtonian physics is a limiting case in the current view, the case that holds at low speeds and the macroscopic.

  7. Jung always seemed to hold to a nonpersonal God. He placed us in a category of being that could only apprehend God through symbolic imagery as seen in dreams, art and such. God was simply out of the realm of direct knowabilty. I think that was a Kantian principle as well. I certainly hold to some form of that. I guess it’s my own version. If I didn’t think God took an interest in individual humans I’d be an idiot to pray. I do pray and I don’t think I’m an idiot so obviously I believe there is a connection but I am sure that it’s not an equal one. If God were to appear in front of me I imagine I would fall down as a dead man, just like any other one who has had such an experience.

    • –> “If God were to appear in front of me I imagine I would fall down as a dead man, just like any other one who has had such an experience.”

      Which was why He had to come to us wrapped inside a man’s skin.

      • Yes, and somehow that just says to me that he has taken a personal interest. I suppose anyone who reads scripture in a way where certain things are taken as literal events, they would have to think that God has taken a personal interest. If one were to think that Jesus the man was not a literal person well then I suppose you could imagine God being somewhat more removed.

    • The doctrine of the Incarnation seems to refute the idea that human beings cannot know God directly — if Christ was both God and human, and also one person not two, then his human nature, which he shares with us all, must have had direct knowledge of his divine nature, that is, of himself. But I’m pretty sure Jung did not believe in the Incarnation, at least not as it is formulated in the Creeds of the Western and Eastern churches.

      • “Knowing God” must embrace both the cataphatic and apophatic “knowings.”

        • Yes, and apophatic knowing, mystical knowing, is direct knowledge unmediated by any word or symbol; this would have been the mode of knowledge between the human and divine natures in the one Person of Jesus, as well as between the human nature of Jesus and the divine nature of the Father and Holy Spirit. But Christian mystical theology also asserts that it is a capacity of all human nature and all human beings, not just Jesus’ human nature, to know God with direct knowledge, unmediated by words or symbols.

      • Yes. As big a fan as I am of Jung, and I’m a significant one, on that point I diverge. His thinking does inform mine in this regard though. I know how minuscule my knowledge is and take that very seriously. It’s a guard against inflation and speaking out of turn. Acting like me and the Father hang out and chat casually. That’s a billion light years from the present and in fact would never be characterized as such I don’t believe. That sounds quite casual.