Updated: Oct 8
Author: Arpan Dey
[Source: From the Grapevine. https://media.fromthegrapevine.com/assets/images/2018/4/einstein-0417-social.jpg.480x0_q71_crop-scale.jpg.]
Yes, Einstein did believe in God. "The more I study science," he remarked, "the more I believe in God." Many notable scientists believe(d) in God. But wait a second. This does not mean what you may think it means (if you are not well-versed in fundamental physics). In short, if you are a theist (in the usual sense of the word), don’t even think of using the example of Einstein’s 'belief in God’ to defend and justify your views (no offence). Einstein was not a devout believer in some particular religious God.
Before we proceed further, let me clarify a point. There is nothing wrong in believing in a particular religion, as long as you don’t justify incorrect actions on the basis of that. But physics (or in general, science) is better and more fundamental than religion. This is easily settled. As Steven Weinberg explains, physics all around the world is the same. It is not the case that an Indian physicist and a German physicist discover different fundamental laws. In all countries, the study of physics has evolved independently; and we have all reached the same conclusions. That clearly is not the case with religion. All the religions of the world do not converge to a single explanation. People bend religion to their wills. Indeed, I tend to agree with Steven Weinberg that: “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” (Please note that no offence is meant by the above lines. Anyone is free to follow any religion and there is nothing wrong with that. The problem is when religion clashes with science.)
God. What do we even mean by that? Essentially, there are two types of God. One is the interfering God. This type of Gods can interfere in our lives and watch over us and punish us for our sins. In short, these Gods are concerned about us and we humans are special in its eyes. Secondly, there is the uninterested God who does not interfere in our lives. He just creates the world and lets it evolve on its own.
Basically, there are two options open to us:
To believe in the first type of God, or
To believe in the second type of God.
If you believe in the first type of God, then in short, there is no point to fundamental science. Everything can be changed by God. If that is true, instead of researching, our times would be better employed in worshipping this God. We need to keep Him happy. Everything is in His hands and nothing is in our hands. Our quest to uncover the secrets of nature is futile. Before we fall for such a desperate and unscientific explanation, we must make sure that God is not of the second type. We must make sure that we have exhausted all our intellect and intelligence and yet not discovered anything worthwhile. But we haven't, yet. So, as of now, I think we should believe in the second type of God. But is even that ‘necessary’? We'll see.
Now, Einstein. A man who has revolutionized physics forever. Einstein did nothing that a physicist with some amount of luck and a great ability to imagine and have insights could not have done. Yet, no point denying it, Einstein is Einstein. In fact, according to me, he is so famous that we at times believe and justify even his wrong philosophies. Well, maybe that’s a bit harsh. We can have our own philosophies about the world. Such things can’t be classified as ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’
Einstein did believe in God. The second type of God. The aloof and unconcerned God. Einstein remarked that God may be subtle, but malicious He is not. I think he meant that God has created the universe in subtle ways, but He is not malicious and has no direct interest in us humans. We do not hold any special position in His eyes, and this is the view always supported by science.
But why did Einstein believe in God? Now, this is psychology. From what I know about Einstein and his philosophy, I think I can explain this.
Einstein, like most serious physicists, didn’t just accidentally come into the field and continue to earn his livelihood. Maybe, in some sense, he did accidentally come into the field, yes. But once he had entered the field, he had a clear goal. He had discovered the theory of gravitation in terms of the geometry of spacetime. So he already had felt the beauty in physics - the fundamentality of a theory, the rigidity, the simplicity, the symmetry.
But he couldn’t ever really accept some concepts in quantum mechanics. He was enraged by the uncertainty principle, which stated that the position and momentum (or energy and time) of a particle can’t be measured simultaneously with 100% accuracy. Einstein, deep down, believed in a perfectly deterministic and orderly universe. He believed that some God had created the universe and set some fundamental laws according to which the universe functions. Einstein’s goal was to discover these fundamental laws. (This might be done by unifying different forces. We can also try expressing the fundamental nature in terms of strings. Particles and waves have been replaced by fields; particles are simply the result of the vibrations of the field. But that is not our concern here, so I am not going deep into this.)
Einstein, as a physicist, knew that discovering a true final theory is not so easy. It was particularly difficult and even (in some sense) ‘impossible’ for Einstein, since he chose to ignore a very important theory - quantum mechanics. (But again, Einstein's battle with quantum mechanics is not our main concern here.) He regarded quantum mechanics as ‘incomplete’ and he attempted to unify gravitation and electromagnetism for the last three decades of his life. He failed.
Einstein’s philosophy against quantum mechanics can be beautifully summed up in his words: “God does not play dice with the world.” (Niels Bohr famously retaliated with “Stop telling God what to do.”) Einstein believed that there are some definite laws according to which the nature functions, and not even God can change these laws just as he wished. Einstein once wondered whether God had a choice in making the world. The fundamental laws are supposed to be rigid, and any small change in them would destroy the whole conceptual framework. So maybe only a single set of laws can govern our world, in which case God had to create the world according to that set of laws. Simply because a world governed by any other set of laws wouldn’t exist, at least according to our physics.
The randomness and uncertainty surrounding quantum mechanics was disliked by many notable scientists, including quantum physicists themselves. Today, we know that nature is, to some extent, probabilistic and random. However, as modern physicists are suggesting, this apparent randomness is just emergent of a deeper level of ordered and deterministic reality.
The point I am trying to make is that Einstein had a clear goal - to unify gravity and electromagnetism. But, as a physicist, he was obviously curious about the origins of the universe (and everything). Why and how did the universe come into existence? Fundamentally and exactly, we have no answer to that. And if you think about it deeply, it is reasonable that we can never find answers to such fundamental questions without some presuppositions. What was there before the universe? Even before that? Where did the formation of the universe take place? If he decided to dig deep into philosophical and metaphysical ideas, Einstein wouldn’t have discovered anything really worthwhile and he would have to abandon his efforts at unifying gravity and electromagnetism. So, Einstein decided to pursue physics. But he couldn’t simply abandon those questions. He simply assumed that there was some God who created the universe. There is nothing wrong with this belief, as long as you are not referring to a particular religion and you are not referring to an interfering God.
Now, at this point it should be noted that, the term ‘God’ here simply refers to something (maybe conscious, or not, or conscious but in a different sense) that created (or affected the creation) of the universe. Just that. Physicists don’t usually delve deep into this. But they always believe that the world is ruled by a simple and beautiful set of fundamental laws, and not even God can interfere or tamper with these laws. These laws are fundamental, definite and scientific. As long as we don’t discover such a law, we can’t be sure that such a final law is at all possible. But nor can we conclusively prove that such a law doesn’t exist simply because we haven’t discovered it yet. As long as the journey continues, we must maintain that the world is ruled by a simple and beautiful set of fundamental laws, and not even God can interfere or tamper with these laws. Stephen Hawking referred to the fundamental laws of nature as the mind of God. He writes: "… if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God."
Theists and some non-scientists need a concerned God; some scientists (like Einstein) need an unconcerned God; while some people (like myself) need no God. Einstein’s philosophy clash with mine at one point. I am aware that the goal of physics is to search for the fundamental laws of nature and not to discuss God, and I myself wish to pursue physics (and not philosophy or metaphysics) as I grow up. Yet, I still want to try and build a model that can answer questions of the most fundamental nature. Like the questions discussed above, which today are beyond the scope of science. I know, answering such questions without some presuppositions is impossible, and will always remain so. (It is not simply a matter of scientific and technological advancement.) But physics and logic can achieve that feat, to some extent. I know that most scientists would say that such theories cannot be experimentally tested. That is true, but I still wish to try. I do not wish to devote my entire life to finding these answers; the quest for the final theory is more interesting, perhaps. But I would spare more time to such questions than most physicists normally do.