Almost every educated human being around the world knows Albert Einstein as a great scientist, with allusion to his path-breaking formula e=mc2. But what about his philosophical orientations outside physics and mathematics? This article presents a reading of some of his opinions beyond the scope of fundamental sciences.
A remarkable aspect of Einstein’s idea about science lies in how he defines the identity and role of a scientist in relation with other identities and roles. Unlike most of us who see science in hard work within a specific circle, and worse, in the crafty maneuvering of data through modern gadgets, Einstein takes a scientist for a “real seeker after truth” perhaps identical to a sage in penance and distinguished from “a mere artisan or a specialist.” For him, a scientist’s identity is best characterized by his “knowledge of the historic and philosophical background” of the subject of his pursuit. Thus, a scientist is expected to grow to be a philosopher developing the competent vision as much to internalize and communicate the results of his hard works and to challenge and appreciate existing knowledge, as to signal the avenues for future adventures. The scientist is also a historian for his careful documentation of the erstwhile achievements and failures in a field of knowledge. A physicist, for this reason, has no need to wait till a philosopher does “critical contemplation of the theoretical foundations”; it is his own responsibility to be able to document, assess and disseminate the vital (and sometimes dangerous) aspects of his discoveries because “he himself knows best, and feels more surely where the shoe pinches.”
A large part of Einstein’s discourse on science involves his ideas on the responsibilities of a scientist. His primary emphasis in this direction is on the scientist’s public role, which fundamentally includes critical awareness towards possible misuses of scientific knowledge, especially during violence and war. He explains, “When men are engaged in war and conquest, the tools of science become as dangerous as a razor in the hands of a child. The fate of mankind depends entirely on our sense of morality.” This reflects a general condition of a time during the twentieth century when Einstein, earlier as a member of the League of Nations in the aftermath of World War I, and later as a witness to the nuclear devastations of World War II, advocated the need of a world government, and of disarming warring countries towards ensuring peace and harmony in the world as a whole. So, he foresees the intensity of the dangers of nuclear warfare in forthcoming periods of human history, and stresses the urgency of ethically reorienting scientists and engineers towards general human welfare. He terms such reorientation as “a particularly heavy burden of moral responsibility” rooted in the fact that “the development of military means of mass destruction is dependent on their work.”
Often great people are believed to be associated with a political philosophy. Sometimes they themselves appear to claim a particular association. But mostly, they maintain a universal balance in their lives and works. And, it is common for their public image to come under the scrutiny of the press and general people. Einstein’s involvement in disarmament movement on behalf of the League of Nations during the 1920s gave his relatively neutral, apolitical stance a semblance of political identity. But in his thoughts he reserves himself a nonaligned position. He idealizes democracy as a system to guarantee human rights and dignity. He declares: “My political ideal is democracy.” And he deplores autocracy thus: “An autocratic system of coercion … soon degenerates. For force always attracts men of low morality, and I believe it to be an invariable rule that tyrants of genius are succeeded by scoundrels.”
Of Einstein’s thoughts on universal human identity and co-existence, the notion of cosmic religion appears to be the most representative. In his seminal work “Religion and Science” Einstein defines cosmic religion as “a third stage of religious experience,” which belongs to or represents all other religions, “even though it is rarely found in a pure form… .” For him the first and second stages are “religion of fear” and “moral religion,” in which the images of diverse individual Gods were inherent. He asserts that such diversity stems from the generally perceived plurality of races, locations, rituals and beliefs, and involves the state of obligation to, or rather oppression by, an omnipotent yet inherently emaciated power. It further signifies a general moral dilemma of whether to worship individuality or idolatry.
The notion of cosmic religion transcends any barriers created by multiple religious sects, leaders and preachers. In other words, it foresees the end of divisions, or at least the reduction of their recurrence. There is a rare emergence of a representative, unifying religious leadership from within the existing multiplicity. So, Einstein argues, such emergence as that of Moses or Buddha has been distinguished by cosmic religious feeling, “which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man’s image.” Cosmic awareness both indicates unity in diversity, and shows the absence of diversity. Imbued with cosmic religious orientation, an individual would feel the “futility of human desires and aims,” meaning that cosmic awareness would make individuality appear like moral imprisonment subsequently impelling a person to accept the world as “a single significant whole.” Interestingly, Einstein appears to reflect Rabindranath Tagore’s notion of a world devoid of “narrow domestic walls.” Thus, in faith and pursuit of cosmic religion, Einstein believes, an individual “achieves a far-reaching emancipation from the shackles of personal hopes and desires.”
But does Einstein mean to be an atheist? Alan H. Batten puts that though his ideas reflect some sense of atheism, it is only the “condemnation of anthropomorphic images of God.” Cosmic religion underscores the call for glorifying the concept of godhood and religion as greater and more inclusive than what is generally believed and practiced in everyday life. The cosmic sense — the emphasis on the convergence of individualities into one encompassing principle, the concerns for universal brotherhood and harmony — makes Einstein a true preacher of humanity. This is the aspect many educated people and scientists alike may not know about Albert Einstein. It takes more reading on/of his ideas to realize that the great scientist was much greater and more polysemic than his scientific works.
- Batten, Alan H. “Subtle are Einstein’s thoughts.” 26 Sep. 2005. 3 Oct. 2007<http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/print/23008>.
- Einstein, Albert. Ideas and Opinions. Trans. Walter E. Delhi: Rupa, 2003.
- Heckman, Jessica. “Action at a Distance: Einstein as Activist.” Vassar College Libraries, Archives and Special Collections. 3 June 2011 <http://specialcollections.vassar.edu/exhibits/einstein/essay3.html>
- Kafle, Hem R.“Cosmic Awareness in Laxmi Prashad Devkota.”Devkota Studies 3.2(2008):27-31.
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.“Albert Einstein, Philosophy of Science.” 11 Feb. 2004. 3 June2011 <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/einstein-philscience/>.
[Originally posted in Forum for Interdisciplinary Thoughts]