Friday, May 22, 2009

Einstein on atheism and determinism

What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos. * * *

The fanatical atheists are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who -- in their grudge against traditional religion as the "opium of the masses" -- cannot hear the music of the spheres.

-- Einstein, as quoted by Walter Isaacson. (I've mashed two sources together.)

The allusion to Nietzschean ressentiment is provocative.

But I do wonder about Einstein on determinism:
Einstein, on the other hand, believed--as did Spinoza--that a person's actions were just as determined as that of a billiard ball, planet or star. "Human beings in their thinking, feeling and acting are not free but are as causally bound as the stars in their motions," Einstein declared in a statement to a Spinoza Society in 1932. It was a concept he drew also from his reading of Schopenhauer. "Everybody acts not only under external compulsion but also in accordance with inner necessity," he wrote in his famous credo. "Schopenhauer's saying, 'A man can do as he wills, but not will as he wills,' has been a real inspiration to me since my youth; it has been a continual consolation in the face of life's hardships, my own and others', and an unfailing wellspring of tolerance."
Considering some of the rather harsh behavior he showed regarding his first wife and child, one can see where determinism would be a consolation to Einstein. Which doesn't make determinism wrong, of course; one would have to be a deep cynic to find that everything which consoles is therefore false.

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