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Einstein's God, or The Hopes for a Secular Spirituality (Part 2)

Einstein spent decades in a search for a God that could survive the scrutiny of science. One may think at first that this has little to do with ordinary religious belief. The spiritual needs of a genius who formulated the General Theory of Relativity seem far removed from those of people whose contact with science is minimal. But each of us has a great deal in common with Einstein. Like him, we struggle with the possibility that God cannot survive rational scrutiny. Yet among his generation of brilliant physicists, Einstein was the most stubborn in insisting that God could survive all the obvious arguments.

These arguments still float in the air. Since they are so familiar, I'll just touch on them.

God is supposed to be good, but he allows enormous cruelty in the world.
God is supposed to be the supreme judge, but life is incredibly unfair.
Creation stories don't fit the facts of physics; Genesis can't stand up to the proof of Darwinian evolution.
An orderly universe presided over by an all-knowing God seems like the opposite of the random universe we actually observe.
The laws of Nature don't need God to run them; they seem to operate independent of any outside intelligence.
God is said to be an incomprehensible mystery, which is only a kind of special pleading to keep us from admitting that he is simply a fiction.

These arguments have convinced millions of people to reduce their belief in God to a mere formality or a comforting holdover from childhood. Two hundred years of science effectively demolished the age of faith. The paradox is that Einstein, with his acclaimed genius, didn't buy the kind of reasoning that convinced lesser minds. You'd think he would be the first to pronounce the death of a personal God. But his mind went beyond the obviousness of the arguments against God.

I'm thinking in particular of a dinner party in Berlin in 1929, as recounted by Einstein's biographer, Walter Isaacson. The conversation had turned to astrology, which was dismissed as superstitious and unbelievable, but when a certain guest said that God fell into the same category, the host tried to silence him, pointing out that even Einstein believed in God. "That isn't possible!" the guest exclaimed. In reply, Einstein gave one of his subtlest and most consistent reasons for believing:

"Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature, and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in fact, religious."

This comment is rich with possibilities. It reinforces the idea that a modern search for God shouldn't be pursuing the old image of a patriarch sitting on his throne above the clouds. Einstein wasn't after that. He was looking for God behind the curtain of material appearances. The key word here is "subtle." Like all scientists, Einstein explored the material world, but he perceived a subtler region of existence. Notice that he didn't claim that is religious belief was pure faith. Perception was involved, personal intimation through the mind. In short, Einstein was well aware that consciousness and God were intimately linked.

Another of his famous quotes touches on the same conviction: "The religious inclination lies in the dim consciousness that dwells in humans that all nature, including the humans in it, is in no way an accidental game, but a work of lawfulness, that there is a fundamental cause of all existence."

Einstein held true to the hope of finding ultimate causes in Nature, laws that were open to reason, and eventual understanding of God's mind. But I am struck by a simple phrase he uses: ". . .all nature, including the humans in it." why is this striking? Because lesser scientists, including all the recent popular skeptics, make the mistake of believing that humans can stand outside nature and look into its workings like children pressing their noses against a bakery shop window. They presume objectivity of the kind that quantum physics totally abolished almost a hundred years ago. Einstein, on the other hand, understood the ambiguity of the human situation. Our "dim consciousness" of something beyond the observable universe puts us in a strange position. Science was born from the same dim consciousness, during an age of faith, that there might be mathematical laws behind God's handiwork. In the same way, Einstein couldn't explain what lay beyond time and space -- he had reached the mathematical frontier of explanation -- but he didn't make the crude mistake of dismissing his own "dim consciousness" as a throwback to superstition.

Let's look at where he thought the search might lead if it went beyond the mask of materialism and the illusion of objectivity.

(to be continued)

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