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.