For our March book discussion we read Einstein’s Ideas and Opinions.1 I had previously read two biographies about Einstein2,3 as well as books by Christopher Potter4 and Amanda Gefter5 that include extensive discussions of modern developments of some of Einstein’s theoretical scientific ideas. However, until now I had never taken the time to engage in an extended reading of Einstein’s own words. What a delight! His writings underscore the fact that in addition to being a brilliant scientist, Einstein was also a very thoughtful deep thinker about a variety of social, political, philosophical, and religious issues. In this essay I am going to simply underscore a few of his quotes and comments that I found exceptionally insightful regarding some of these topics.
The Election of Donald Trump
OK, I am going to cheat a little bit on this one. Einstein did not really do time-travel and comment on our 2016 election of Trump. However, here is a quote from Einstein in which I have only changed three words (those in bold6).
Behind the Republican party stands the American people, who elected Trump after he had in his book and in his speeches made his shameful intentions clear beyond the possibility of misunderstanding. p. 233
The Nation of Israel
This quote has turned out to be prophetic.
… my awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power no matter how modest. I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain — especially from the development of a narrow nationalism within our own ranks… p. 207
Similarities of Passion in Scientists, Artists, and Religious Individuals
The state of mind which enables [a scientist] to do work of this kind is akin to that of the religious worshiper or the lover, the daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart. p. 247
The ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty, and Truth. p. 9
The standard of [scientists] ideal search for truth is … a bond forever uniting scientists of all times and in all places… p. 85
The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. … It is the knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate [and it is] this emotion that constitutes true religiosity; in this sense, and in this sense alone, I am a deeply religious man. p. 11
The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. … The most important function of art & science is to awaken this cosmic religious feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it. p. 41
[A scientist’s] religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law. … This feeling is the guiding principle of his life and work… p. 43
‘Scientific Truths’ about the existence of an ‘Objective Reality that is Comprehensible’ can only be accepted based on ‘Faith’
The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility. This expression uses the term ‘comprehensibility’ in its most modest sense. It implies: The production of some sort of order among sense impressions, this order being produced by the creation of general concepts, relations between these concepts, and by definite relations of some kind between the concepts and sense experiences. It is in this sense that the world of our sense impressions is comprehensible. The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle. p. 319
[I have] faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. p. 49
I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research. [What motivates great scientists to devote their lives to scientific research is a] deep conviction of the rationality of the Universe … and a yearning to understand. … Only one who has devoted his life to similar ends can have a vivid realization of what has inspired these men and given them the strength to remain true to their purpose in spite of countless failures. pp. 42-43
[How do we explain the enigma that] mathematics, being after all a product of human thought which is independent of experience, is so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality? p. 254
But the creative principle lies in mathematics. In a certain sense, therefore, I hold it true that pure thought can grasp reality, as the ancients dreamed. p. 300
Certain it is that a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality or intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order. … This firm belief, a belief bound up with deep feeling, in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God. p. 286
It is a matter of faith that nature — as she is perceptible to our five senses — takes the character of a well-formulated puzzle. The successes reaped up until now by science do, it is true, give a certain encouragement for this faith. p. 324
[According to Quantum Theories] the spatial functions which appear in the equations make no claim to be a mathematical model of the atomic structure. These functions are only supposed to determine the mathematical probabilities to find such structures. [But] I still believe in the possibility of a model of reality — that is to say, a theory which represents things themselves and not merely the probability of their occurrence. p. 302
Relationships between Psychology and Physics
As an academic psychologist, I have had numerous negative experiences with ‘hard scientists’ who argue that psychology, a ‘soft science’, has no relevance to the natural sciences such as physics. For this reason, I found it especially refreshing to read Einstein’s detailed exposition about how theories of physics arise out of psychic experiences.7
[I take] the existence of sense experiences as a given, that is to say, as psychic experiences of a special kind. [Then I take] certain repeatedly occurring complexes of sense impressions [and] correlate them to a concept — the concept of the bodily object. Considered logically this concept is not identical with the totality of sense impressions referred to it; but it is a free creation of the human (or animal) mind. [Then I] attribute to this concept of the bodily object a significance, which is to a high degree independent of the sense impressions which originally give rise to it [and] attribute to the bodily object ‘a real existence’. p. 319
[Even though there is no guarantee that it is not an illusion or a hallucination], by means of [this kind of] thinking (operations with concepts, and the creation and use of definite functional relations between them, and the coordination of sense experiences to these concepts) … [these sense experiences] can be put in order… p. 319
- Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, Originally published in 1954 by Crown Publishers, Inc. Based on Mein Weltbild, Edited by Carl Seelig, and other sources. All Page numbers cited in this essay are from the Modern Library Edition with new translations and revisions by Sonja Bargmann published in 1994.
- Abraham Pais, ‘Subtle is the Lord…’: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein, Oxford University Press, 1982.
- Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe, Simon and Schuster, 2007.
- Christopher Potter, You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe, Harper, 2009
- Amanda Gefter, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything, Bantam, 2014.
- Probably don’t even need to spell these out, but in case anyone really wants to know, Einstein’s three original words were, ‘Nazi’, ‘Germain’, and ‘Hitler’.
- I had not previously fully appreciated the parallel ways of thinking that are used in constructing Theories of Physics and Theories of Perception, my own area of expertise. Einstein describes in some detail how a theoretical physicist tries to build theories of the physical universe, starting with the building blocks of sense experiences. Theories of Perception go in the other direction, trying to explain how sense experiences can arise from interactions with the physical universe.