July 4, 2020

A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Brief Guide to Einstein, Relativity, and His Surprising Thoughts on God by Alister McGrath- Part 7, Chapter 5- Einstein and the Bigger Picture: Weaving Things Together

A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Brief Guide to Einstein, Relativity, and His Surprising Thoughts on God by Alister McGrath- Part 7, Chapter 5- Einstein and the Bigger Picture: Weaving Things Together

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”.  Chapter 5 is Einstein and the Bigger Picture: Weaving Things Together.  In November 1944, Einstein wrote to Robert Thornton, who was hoping to launch a program at the University of Puerto Rico, emphasizing the importance of the philosophy of science.  Einstein wrote, “So many people today (including professional scientists) seemed to be “like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest”.  McGrath says that, for Einstein, it was important to develop a unified Weltbild—a coherent and comprehensive way of seeing the world.

The great German physicist, Max Planck, commenting on this aspect of Einstein’s thought said:

As Einstein has said, you could not be a scientist if you did not know that the external world existed in reality—but that knowledge is not gained by any process of reasoning.  It is a direct perception and therefore in its nature akin to what we call Faith.  It is a metaphysical belief. (Planck, Where is Science Going? p. 218)

The fundamental unity of phenomena turns out to a philosophical or even theological belief, which provides both a motivation and justification for the scientific enterprise.  It is not something that can be proved, but it nevertheless provides a working basis for the scientific project.  For scientists like Planck and Einstein, there is a faith that there is an underlying yet unseen order to all things.  Einstein said:

Creating a new theory is not like destroying an old barn and erecting a skyscraper in its place.  It is rather like climbing a mountain, gaining new and wider views, discovering new connections between our starting point and its rich environment.  But the point from which we started still exists and can be seen, although it appears smaller and forms a tiny part of our broad view gained by the mastery of the obstacles on our way up. (Einstein and Infeld, The Evolution of Physics, p. 159)

The best theory, for Einstein, weaves together what might have once been seen as disconnected threads but that can now be seen as integral parts of the same “big picture”.  And Einstein rightly saw this as an act of imagination as much as of understanding.  He said:

Imagination is more important than knowledge.  For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.  It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research. (Einstein, Cosmic Religion with Other Opinions and Aphorisms, p. 97)

Einstein suggested that he never thought in logical symbols or mathematical equations but rather found it more natural to use images, feelings, or even musical structures in his attempts to visualize the complex realities that could only be partly disclosed  through science.  He quipped that if he were not a physicist, he would probably be a musician.

Einstein’s viewpoint is not shared by many postmodern philosophers.  Many suggest that there is no “big picture”, only a number of smaller pictures that are not necessarily connected with each other.  In works such as Nancy Cartwright’s The Dappled World and Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, reality is suggested to be like a patchwork quilt, each panel different and has little connection to its neighbor.  They say there is no fundamental coherence to our universe, at best, just localized areas of patterns and meanings, none of which can claim exclusive authority.

Einstein held to a unified view of nature while emphasizing the limits placed on humanity as we seek to grasp our vast universe in its totality.  In 1914, Einstein wrote a letter to a fried using an analogy to help explain this limited grasp of reality: “Nature shows us only the tail of the lion.  But I do not doubt that the lion belongs to it even though he cannot at once reveal himself because of his enormous size.”  The first point Einstein’s parable conveys is that what we observe of the universe is a manifestation of a far greater unseen reality that lies beyond to grasp and hold.  Einstein often pointed out that the “real” is not given to us directly; what is given is our experience of the real.  There is indeed a connection between our experience and reality, but it is indirect.

Einstein raises the deep question: is there some fundamental harmony between human thought and the deeper structures of the universe, an idea that was often discussed during the Renaissance in terms of “the music of the spheres”.  Einstein’s well known love of music was linked with a sense that certain composers were tuning in to something deeper about our world.  He said, “Mozart’s music is so pure and beautiful that I see it as a reflection of the inner beauty of the universe.” (Isaacson, Einstein, p. 14)  Einstein often spoke of theoretical physics as an attempt to uncover “the music of the spheres”, which revealed a “pre-established harmony” within the fabric of the universe.

Einstein is scathing toward those who are tone-deaf to the beauty of the universe and especially to the mathematical representations of its structures, which often possess an elegance that seems to be correlated with their truth.  He singles out what he terms “fanatical atheists” for particular comment, remarking that “their grudge against traditional religion as the ‘opium of the masses’ makes them unable to “hear the music of the spheres”. (Letter to an unidentified recipient, dated August 7, 1941, Einstein Archive, Reel pp. 54-297)

McGrath notes that Einstein’s writings of the 1930’s and 1940’s show an increasing interest in areas beyond the field of natural sciences, in particular including ethics, politics, and religion.  Einstein was keen on scientists realizing their responsibility to deal with the social, ethical, and political consequences of their discoveries and to not compartmentalize them, but see them as interconnected.  McGrath says:

This is particularly evident in Einstein’s 1949 essay, “Why Socialism?”  Einstein here argued that the natural sciences cannot create moral goals, even though science may provide means by which those goals could be achieved. Such goals do not themselves arise as a result of scientific inquiry, yet science might help implement their application—for example, in the field of medicine.  “Science… cannot create ends and, even less, instill them in human beings; science, at most, can supply the means by which to attain certain ends.”  Einstein makes a moral case for socialism, fully aware that those moral norms cannot be established or confirmed by the natural sciences.

It is generally agreed that it is difficult to find a comprehensive ethical system either explicitly stated or implicitly assumed in Einstein’s writings.  Nevertheless, there is clearly an intuitive ethical vision that led Einstein to affirm the value of scientific research while criticizing some of its outcomes.  Consider, for example, this powerful 1948 statement on the moral obligations of scientists (Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, p. 148):

Rational thinking does not suffice to solve the problems of our social life.  Penetrating research and keen scientific work have often had tragic implications for mankind, producing, on the one hand, inventions which liberated man from exhausting physical labor… but on the other hand… creating the means for his own mass destruction…  We scientists, whose tragic destination has been to help in making the methods of annihilation more gruesome and more effective, must consider it our solemn and transcendent duty to do all in our power in preventing these weapons from being used for the brutal purpose for which they were invented.

The fact that science enables us to do certain things does not make those things moral.  A framework of values originating from outside science is needed to make such judgments.  Where can that framework come from?  Is Einstein’s concept of the connectedness of all things just his own mystical musings, or is there a true value in that realization?  McGrath tries to answer that question in the next chapter by looking more closely at Einstein’s quite distinct concept of religion and consider the role that this plays in his thought.

 

 

Comments

  1. Not very qualified to comment, but am commenting anyway because I wouldn’t want my silence to be interpreted as a lack of interest for these subjects!

  2. Michael Z says

    > The fundamental unity of phenomena turns out to a philosophical or even theological belief, which provides both a motivation and justification for the scientific enterprise.

    In mathematics, there’s a similar concept: imagine that God has a book somewhere that contains the simplest and most elegant proof for any mathematical theorem. The goal is not just to find any clunky way of proving something, but to find the proof that’s “in the book.”

    Similarly, as a software engineer, when I find myself trying to decide between multiple solutions to something and they’re all flawed in one way or another, instead of going with the “least bad” option I often find myself going back to the drawing board in the belief that sooner or later, I’ll hit on a solution that fits perfectly, instead.

    In both cases, it’s an inner impulse that drives someone to think more deeply and to search more carefully for ideas that pull everything together rather than just explaining one thing. It seems like some people have that impulse to try to integrate everything together into a unified whole, while others take a much more fragmentary or compartmentalized approach to life and cognition. (As an engineer, I always get frustrated when trying to work with the latter!)

  3. It is perhaps the foundational philosophical question. Why is the universe amenable to our understanding? It’s not at all obvious why it should be; the humble cockroach has thrived for 320 million years without having the least interest in math or physics. But once you grant that there is a relationship between our perceptions and “reality” (a word that must forever more be put in quotes) you get spaceships and pez dispensers, the Principia Mathematica and Marvel comics.

    There are many reasonable, practical voices counseling pragmaticism. The equations work, they allow us to make testable predictions, accept that and move on. But what person, presented with this world of wonders, who looks an inch beyond their nose, can fail to ask themselves “why”?

    • Albert Einstein:

      “It is quite clear to me that the religious paradise of my youth, which was thus lost, was a first attempt to free myself from the chains of the “merely personal,” from an existence which is dominated by wishes, hopes, and primitive feelings. Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking. The contemplation of this world beckoned like a liberation […] The mental grasp of this extra-personal world within the frame of our given capacities presented itself, half consciously and half unconsciously, as the highest goal. The road to this paradise was not as comfortable and alluring as the road to the religious paradise; but it has shown itself reliable, and I have never regretted having chosen it.”

    • Stephen, I really, really like this post of yours! The other day, I kinda had a similar thought as yours about the humble cockroach as I was feeding my dog. My dog doesn’t care about the coronavirus, has zero fear of it; he just cares that he has food in his bowl twice a day, his water refreshed every now and then, and to be taken on long walks. Zero interest in math or the sciences. Oh, he’d wag his tail and pretend to be interested if I read him Mike the Geo’s article, but that’s only because I would be showing him attention…LOL.

      Anyway, loved your comment.

  4. the new ‘reality’?

    or Trump’s own ‘Chernobyl’?

    ” “No one believed the first newspaper reports, which patently understated the scale of the catastrophe and often contradicted one another. The confidence of readers was re-established only after the press was allowed to examine the events in detail without the original censorship restrictions. The policy of openness (glasnost) and ‘uncompromising criticism’ of outmoded arrangements had been proclaimed at the 27th Congress (of the Communist Party of Soviet Union), but it was only in the tragic days following the Chernobyl disaster that glasnost began to change from an official slogan into an everyday practice. The truth about Chernobyl that eventually hit the newspapers opened the way to a more truthful examination of other social problems. More and more articles were written about drug abuse, crime, corruption and the mistakes of leaders of various ranks. A wave of ‘bad news’ swept over the readers in 1986–87, shaking the consciousness of society. Many were horrified to find out about the numerous calamities of which they had previously had no idea. It often seemed to people that there were many more outrages in the epoch of perestroika than before although, in fact, they had simply not been informed about them previously.” Kagarlitsky 1989, pp. 333–334.

  5. anonymous, It seems you have found the center of the universe as well as the alpha and the omega. Of course with you it is Trump. There is a debate about the ever expanding theory of Trump and the contraction of Trump as time goes on, you are the first theory.. Please we hear enough about Trump. Make a real sacrifice, give up Trump for Lent. Perhaps you just miss Celebrity Apprentice too much, it was a highly intellectual show wiith yuge ratings.

    • nothing to see here – coronavirus is a HOAX against Trump

      move on, keep silence, move on

      enough already

      HOAX !!!

      enough trump

      HOAX, i say, HOAX

      • anonymus, I understand now how Trump came into your thoughts, Like Einstein Trump is a brilliant genius , Trump himself as so stated so it is true However I am glad you posted as I understand Trump derangement but I have no clue about Einstein work. I have to go back underneath my bridge as my work here is done. Keep equating Trump with Einstein, I think you are on to something. Both genius in their fields except Einstein could not be President,. Nice article from Mike , so we go from the mystery of the universe to Trump, Thanks a lot.

        • anonymous says

          ‘how Trump came’
          ‘Trump is a brilliant’
          ‘Trump himself’
          ‘I understand Trump’
          ‘equating Trump with’
          ‘universe to Trump’

          dan you da new trump-man?

          • anonymous, just to be helpful, please be aware that the Onion and the Babylon Bee are not doing straight news reporting there is something call sarcastic parody that may interest you. To the others here I apologize for taking the bait, I have limited will power. Actually my first example was Mad but I wanted to sound intellectual. I was tempted to also list CNN but I am above that.

            • Whatever you believe about all that, the fact remains that there are fundamental divisions and crises in our world today that we cannot afford to ignore or pretend do not exist.

            • Headless Unicorn Guy says

              Actually my first example was Mad but I wanted to sound intellectual.

              MAD… a magazine whose motto was “WHAT? ME WORRY?”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      anonymous, It seems you have found the center of the universe as well as the alpha and the omega. Of course with you it is Trump.

      Well, when four out of five Evangelicals mistake him for The Second Coming…

  6. “ Creating a new theory is not like destroying an old barn and erecting a skyscraper in its place. It is rather like climbing a mountain, gaining new and wider views, discovering new connections between our starting point and its rich environment. But the point from which we started still exists and can be seen, although it appears smaller and forms a tiny part of our broad view gained by the mastery of the obstacles on our way up.”
    Isn’t much the same with our faith? Richard Rohr is a big proponent of incorporating your previous knowledge. We’ve often spoken here of how our days in evangelicalism are anything but a waste. They are a foundation. Certainly there are things that turn out to be falsehoods or simply bad modes of behavior that get cast aside but much or most of what has gone on before is absolutely essential to seeing what’s coming up ahead. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater is the short version.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      We’ve often spoken here of how our days in evangelicalism are anything but a waste. They are a foundation.

      Even if in a lot of cases (like mine) they are a foundation of “What NOT To Do”.

  7. “The fact that science enables us to do certain things does not make those things moral.”

    Insert Jeff Goldblum *Jurrasic Park* GIF here.

    • True but I betcha when all is said and done ignorance will have killed more folks than knowledge.

      • anonymous says

        if we don’t TEST for the virus, our NUMBERS will stay down, which is good P.R. for guess who

        ‘course the contagion will explode, but hey – it will just be ‘panic’ over a hoax after all, under guess-who’s ‘leadership’, that’s what is going to happen right? it will all calm down and go away

        • The tsunami is about to hit. Give it another few days. My area of PA has lots of retirement and nursing homes, but not a lot of hospital resources to deal with an immense surge of critical patients. Hospital will have to go into wartime triage. The suffering and tragedy will be enormous. The ignorance of the extent of already existing infection will lead to horror. We should have been doing exploratory testing for a month and a half. Now it may be too late.

        • anonymous, Focus, Focus, article is about Einstein Theory, God , Universe etc. . I am concerned about the price of chunky peanut butter, is this the forum to bring it up? I think so. Focus. Smooth should cost more as it involves more processing. I know it is hard to focus but we must. Peanut butter is good for you. It is hard to focus when you are obsessed with an issue like chunky peanut butter but we must try. We should only have one choice , chunky peanut butter, it would reduce cost. I must learn to focus or it get silly, not as silly as smooth peanut butter but close. What did Einstein think of chunky peanut butter? See, I focused, try it. Only connection between article and your comments that they both are part of the universe and so is chunky peanut butter.

          • Clay Crouch says

            dan, your ability to stick your head in the sand is tremendously remarkable. Very tremendous. Was it transmitted to you by a great uncle from M.I.T.?

            • Clay Crouch, as a follow up remember the key word is focus. I am aware enough to know the content of the nice article by Mike G. was about the universe. That someone wants to go way off the map , to hijack the conversation seems to me to be wrong. BTW , thanks for using sand as the analogy.

              • anonymous says

                “A Theory of Everything THAT MATTERS

                perhaps it was it the “that matters” that might have been the salient point after all?

  8. Light and hope, people. We need to be light and hope.

    • you won’t find it with your head stuck in the sand, no

      • And you won’t be it without taking real risks now, even risks to your own life. The early Christians would’ve know what to do — do we?