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Oct 11

Albert Einstein: Beyond Relativity

I remember my very first Astronomy course, which I selected as one of my required “real science” electives during my early education as a “social scientist.” Only a few lessons into the semester, the class tackled Albert Einstein’s famed general theory of relativity. The professor explained the theory using two chairs, a bed sheet and a paperweight. Despite this innovative approach, I left the course embarrassed to have (barely) understood relativity only in terms of furniture, linens and office supplies.

For that very reason, I have since kept my distance from Einstein—until, that is, I grabbed The World as I See It from a local bookshop shelf. The book is a compilation of various works (articles, essays, letters and such) written by the celebrated scientist between the two World Wars. While the original 1949 edition contained science-themed works, the abridged edition I brought home (released in 2006 by Kensington Publishing Corp.) conveniently leaves only content related to human affairs, from the Meaning of Life to International Politics, Pacifism to Judaism.

The World as I See It is a challenging book to review because no central idea emerges. Taken as a whole, however, the compilation reveals the thoughts and concerns of a man who cared deeply about human wellbeing and international harmony. It is fascinating to explore Einstein’s thoughts regarding subjects of relevance to us all, for once allowing an internal discussion with Einstein that does not require familiarity with his specialized set of knowledge. In this spirit, I focus this review both on the themes I felt Einstein developed with particular thoughtfulness, and on my personal reactions.

On Nature and Religion

Einstein describes himself as religious to the degree that he stands in constant awe of the scientifically impenetrable beauty of the cosmos. However, “[to] tack this on to the idea of God,” he grumbles, “seems mere childish absurdity” (p. 104). As Carl Sagan remarks in his seminal Cosmos documentary series (1980; Episode 2: One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue), to explain nature through magical means dampens its majesty. Regarding metaphysical postulates in general (e.g., deities, life after death), Einstein dismisses these as the desperate creations of “feeble souls” (p. 7) blinded by fear and egotism.

The universe humbles Einstein, and his willingness to stand in awe before nature without appealing to supernatural forces embodies his own idiosyncratic religion. From this particular point-of-view, the irreligious life, he believes, much like the unexamined variety, is simply not worth living. I am not certain that the romanticization of nature and our relation to it is completely warranted, yet it is nevertheless reassuring to find that genius can be compatible with spiritual sensibility. Regardless, Einstein’s conceptualization of religion as involving a sense of mystery (as opposed to one of mysticism) certainly sheds new light onto his famous assertion that “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind” (1940, p. 606).

While I agree with Einstein that religious beliefs are misguided, I certainly do not consider those who entertain such beliefs to be deficient: believers’ “souls,” their inner core as human beings, are not “feeble.” Life inspires innumerable questions, and we all do our best to answer these to the finest of our ability; there is no need to demean or vilify those who settle on different answers. Life can be lived fully even when grounded within inaccurate conclusions, religious or otherwise. For example, a popular piece of secular advice urges us to be optimistic at all times, when realism is probably more sensible (Greenberger & Padesky, 1995).

And so, while I value a factually lived life, that does not mean a fantastically lived life has no value, or is feebly subpar. Those who fail to live factually do not ipso facto fail at life. Some believers, on the other hand, accuse non-believers of neglecting the God-shaped hole in their hearts, based on the degrading assumption that a person can only become “whole” once he or she accepts God into his or her heart. Jesus Christ Himself judged those somehow different from himself (whether in body or belief) to be inadequate. When blind Bartimaeus begged Him to restore his sight, Jesus offered the following words of comfort: “[Thy] faith hath made thee whole” (Mark 10:52, KJV). The man at once regained his sight. This story, whether taken literally or as metaphor, is simply offensive: Bartimaeus, whether physically or spiritually blind, was never not whole. In some translations, “whole” appears as “well,” but that does not make Jesus’ claim any more accurate: physically and spiritually blind people can lead perfectly fulfilling lives. In any case, Bartimaeus’ leap of faith was not curative, as Jesus sought to imply, because there was no “disease” to speak of in the first place.

On Society and the Self 

Einstein reminds us that we are defined by our relationships with others: “[The] individual is what he is and has the significance that he has not so much in virtue of his individuality, but rather as a member of a great human society, which directs his material and spiritual existence from the cradle to the grave” (p. 10). Thus, the life lived entirely for the other is deemed especially worthy. In fact, Einstein holds in the highest regard those of generous spirit, who contribute to society via the arts or the sciences with the intent to enhance or ameliorate the lives of its members: “The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained to liberation from the self” (p. 10).

Einstein no doubt uses the expression “liberation from the self” to denote “concern for others,” as opposed to “discounting of the self.” Taking the sentence at face value, however, I wonder: is complete liberation from the self truly necessary for us to fulfill our true worth? Many religions postulate that the self is inherently inclined toward evil, and that this inborn tendency tempts us to dabble in sin; likewise, contemporary psychology postulates that inner flaws cause unhealthy behaviors. To ensure liberation from this broken self, religion encourages relinquishing oneself to a higher power, whereas psychology prescribes, ironically enough, a hefty dose of therapist-assisted self-absorption. As we shall see, it turns out that both religion and psychology are wrong, in that self-related shortcomings do not necessarily have anything to do with behavior. In short, there is nothing in the self to actually liberate ourselves from!

The idea of the self as innately inadequate, and therefore of self-fulfillment as release from the self, can be traced back in history to the Old and New Testaments. According to the Good Book as interpreted by former evangelical preacher Dan Barker (2008), Man is inherently Evil (Psalm 14:3, Psalm 51:5, Romans 3:10, Romans 3:23). He can, however, shed his deep-seated inadequacy by submitting his entire person to that of Jesus Christ (Acts 5:31). Christ, always the diplomat, said of Man that, while he is still capable of Good, he remains nonetheless intrinsically Bad (Matthew 7:11). Ironically, Christ’s own Father had Himself an affinity for the Dark Side (Isaiah 45:7, Jeremiah 18:11, Lamentations 3:38, Ezekiel 20:25, 26), sometimes preferring to live in Darkness (II Samuel 22:12, I Kings 8:12, Psalm 18:11, Psalm 97:1-2).

According to psychiatrist Thomas Szasz (1988), the concepts of sin and inborn evil represent initial attempts at making sense of undesirable behavior. The postulate that we behave badly because we are inherently bad, however, appears to be misguided. As psychological researcher Robyn Dawes (1996) explains: “The assumption that behavior we dislike or condemn is due to internal problems is religious” and “not established by empirical science” (p. 282). Nevertheless, this religious assumption has found new life amongst many of today’s psychological theories about the self. Specifically, we believe that personal shortcomings cause unhealthy behavior. To rectify this, the “vile” self must be “purified” in therapy, substituting psychological weaknesses with psychological strengths, thereby bringing about healthy behavior.

While Christianity locates absolution outside of the self in the person of Jesus Christ, psychology locates absolution within the person him/herself, conceptualizing the self as not only the source of negative behavior, but of positive behavior as well. Dawes (1996) appropriately dubs such deification of the self “egoistic individualism.” As he warns, however, “[professional] psychology’s harping on the self—and in particular on how the self feels about the self—as the focus of all desirable or undesirable behavior” (p. 282) is empirically unwarranted. In his revelatory book’s empowering conclusion, Dawes reaffirms what contemporary psychology insist on hiding from us:

“It is simply not true that optimism and a belief in one’s own competence and prospects for success are necessary conditions for behaving competently. Good feelings may help, but they are not necessary. Moreover, we do not need to believe that in general we are superior, we are invulnerable, and the world is just. […] It is not true that we are slaves to our feelings or to our childhood experiences [.] More importantly, we do not have to feel wonderful about ourselves and the world in order to engage in behavior that is personally or socially beneficial” (p. 293; italics in original).

In short, both religion and psychology have failed to recognize the basic truth that inner perfections (Goodness or mental health) no more determine outer successes (saintly or healthy behavior) than inner imperfections (Evil or mental un-health) determine outer failures (sinful or unhealthy behavior). Dawes also happens to resent the idea that attaining happiness is life’s ultimate goal. He quotes poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who counseled his readership to reject “the vulgar, insultingly patronizing fairy tale that has been hammered into your heads since childhood that the main meaning of life is to be happy” (1996, p. 277). Einstein himself echoes this sentiment when he confesses: “I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves [.] The ideals which have lighted me on my way and time after time given me courage to face life cheerfully, have been Truth, Goodness, and Beauty” (p. 4).

On Goodness and Humanity

Einstein claims that the ethical life is “based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties” (p. 30). “No religious basis is necessary” (p. 30), he continues, because “there is nothing divine about morality,” it being a “purely human affair” (p. 31). In the animated musical The Prince of Egypt (1998), Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, in apparent disagreement with this, urges him to look at his life “through Heaven’s eyes” (Schwartz, track 7). Jethro’s advice, however well-intentioned, may in reality be unsound, for philosophers of the non-theistic persuasion have provided ample support for the assumption that morality is in fact, as Einstein put it, a “purely human affair.”

According to Barker (2008), there is no evidence that the Higher Power purported to exist by many religions is the source of all Good, and therefore the benchmark against which to measure all values. In nature, God’s own creation, the higher the life form, the more capable of destruction it is. In fact, there is nothing to say that God, the highest power, could not create the most heinous crime. The Old Testament, after all, is laden with offences committed by God: mass-murder (e.g., the flooding of Earth, the razing of Sodom, the eradication of Egypt’s firstborns, the slaying of the 42 youths near Bethel), endorsement (Leviticus 27:28-29) and acceptance of human sacrifice (Judges 11:30-39, II Samuel 21:8-14), endorsement (Exodus 21) and practice of slavery (Judges 3:8, 3:14, 4:2-3, 6:1, 13:1), sexual molestation (Isaiah 3:17), emotional blackmail (Leviticus 26:14-38), hateful speech (Leviticus 21:18-23, any verse on homosexuality), the list goes on…

Yes, as my boyfriend reminds me, there is much debate concerning the latter verses, and there are countless examples of God behaving exemplarily. But if God cannot Himself act ethically in any clear way, He cannot possibly expect our own behaviors to be unmistakably black or white either. Despite this, He is known for making snap judgments regarding those He feels have offended Him. Without ever awarding a fair trial, He imposes sanctions (e.g., exile, death, misery) sometimes spanning generations upon individuals every bit as real (supposedly) and complex as you and me. Many believers regrettably tend to dehumanize these ancient victims as undeserving sinners with no hope of rehabilitation. Yet, it is crucial to our present Humanity that we do not forget theirs. We can therefore add a staunch dislike for due process to God’s list of offences.

While God is not necessarily all Evil, it appears He is not necessarily all Good either. And if He is, there is no way to tell for sure. As such, it would be unwise to rely wholeheartedly on Him, especially when trying to figure out how to live the Good Life. Besides, as Barker (2008) asks: why should we trust God to know how to overcome life’s challenges here within Time and Space? Indeed, has He ever truly experienced genuine distress, be it lack of anything or punishment of any kind? The experience of being downtrodden is especially inaccessible, since all-powerful deities do not—by definition, cannot—answer to anyone. Christians will mention that Jesus came to Earth to give His Father a taste of what it is truly like to be human, but one can hardly deny that the suffering experienced by Jesus pales in comparison to that experienced both voluntarily and involuntarily by the whole of Humanity, including, most notably, the kind of pains only those not of Jesus’ own gender can experience. Moreover, knowing that one is God’s progeny and that one will be reunited with His parent once the torment ends effectively takes away from the genuine experience of suffering.

It is for these very reasons, Barker (2008) concludes, that morality should be conceived in natural terms; that is, according to humans and their experience of the natural world. Besides, values are subjective products of the human mind; and so, only that which the mind processes can be used to decipher these values. Thus, not only is morality a human affair, as Einstein stated, but it also should be.

What does the mind process? The external and internal natural world. The external world consists of nature itself, with its own set of laws (e.g., of motion and gravity) that can potentially affect core human needs and functioning, whereas the internal world consists of human needs and functioning themselves. Moral behavior entails avoidance (minimization of harm) and approach (maximization of quality of life) needs. Thus, scouring the external world, we can induce the values: because human bodies cannot withstand large objects crushing into them, it is unethical to remove stop signs from an intersection, or b) because human bodies cannot fall back up, it is ethical to grab someone accidentally teetering over the edge of a cliff. Likewise, scouring the internal world, we can induce the values: a) because humans need food to survive, it is unethical to intentionally starve another, or b) because humans function together as members of a worldwide family, it is ethical to volunteer our time in a local homeless shelter.

Reality being complex, inducing values from it can easily become a challenge. Still, we can always rely on sound empirical study (both individual and professional), driven by reason, compassion and determination, to help us a) locate the different varieties of harm that can afflict humanity, b) understand how to best avoid them, and c) implement ways of remedying them when they do impose themselves upon us.

(Note: It was mentioned previously that the meaning of life is not grounded in a quest to be perfectly happy. And so, it is important to mention that while morality seeks to maximize happiness while minimizing harm, and while life should generally be lived morally, there remains nevertheless more to life than maximizing happiness: for example, experiencing Love, creating Art, generating Knowledge, etc. To enact these for their own sake, as ends in themselves, often requires painful amounts of tireless dedication. As in the case of necessary evils, even doing Good sometimes means doing Bad. And so, happiness and misery are equal parts of life’s fabric and purpose.)

On Science and Specialization

Exploring the culture of Science, Einstein recognizes a growing tendency among its members that I too have come to find particularly disconcerting: more and more, scientists voluntarily relegate themselves to “an ever-narrowing sphere of knowledge, which is threatening to deprive the investigator of his broad horizon and degrade him to the level of a mechanic” (p. 17).

I cannot comment on other fields, but I can testify to the truth of this admonishment in relation to experimental and (despite it not being a science) clinical psychology as well. In the case of the former, our researchers have regrettably become increasingly specialized. Gone are the days when authors meticulously explored particular subjects and phenomena by gathering not only knowledge from their home field, but by integrating knowledge from various sibling fields as well. In the case of the latter, we are trained to administer particular so-called “treatments.” Yet, query any intern or licensed practitioner regarding either the philosophical underpinnings or historical antecedents of their favored approach, and not only will they likely not know, but they will also question the very relevance of knowing.

Exploring the notion of Zeitgeist, Einstein recommends that each of us (scientists and laymen alike) “do his little bit towards transforming the spirit of the times” (p. 8). In the case of professional helpers and their clients, I believe it is our ethical duty to oppose psychiatry’s current stronghold over psychology in defense of secular humanistic conceptualizations of human behavior and relationships (specifically, the sorts of relationships that cause or alleviate distress).

On the Jewish People, Judaism and Israel

Einstein idealizes the Jewish People and Judaism, investing many hopes in the prospect of a Jewish State. According to him, “the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice, and the desire for personal independence” (p. 103) are the mark of the Jew. Einstein even goes so far as to liken rejecting one’s Jewish Heritage to a disorder with its very own set of causes (see p. 119–121). Seemingly unimpressed with religion, Einstein also rather incredibly seeks to redefine the meaning of “serving God” in the Jewish tradition. In other religions, he explains, serving God entails fear-based submission; in contrast, Judaism defines serving God as “serving the living” (p. 104), a truly humanistic endeavor that is free of self-loathing, and, most importantly, that is more in line with Einstein’s own values and beliefs regarding life and how one should spend it.

Einstein expresses the following hopes for the Jewish People: “We Jews should once more become conscious of our existence as a nationality and regain the self-respect that is necessary to a healthy existence. We must learn to glory in our ancestors, as a nation, cultural tasks of a sort calculated to strengthen our sense of community” (p. 114). To Einstein, a common goal, a Home in Palestine, was necessary for this to come to fruition. In fact, within its settlers resides “the most valuable sort of human life” (p. 118).

While Einstein’s impassioned views regarding everything Jewish are not noteworthy in and of themselves, they do nonetheless stand at odds with his views regarding the subject of nationalism. Einstein generally condemns nationalism: “The greatest obstacle to the international order is that monstrously exaggerated spirit of nationalism which also goes by the fair-sounding but misused name of patriotism. During the last century and a half this idol has acquired an uncanny and exceedingly pernicious power everywhere” (p. 65). Further, only when Man overcomes “national and class egotism” will “he contribute towards improving the lot of humanity” (p. 87). Yet, despite all this, Einstein chooses to praise Jewish nationalism.

How did Einstein come to forego his own anti-nationalistic principles? Perhaps, his (rather selective) change of heart was a reaction to the persecution of his own ethnic group. I am reminded of philosopher Karl Popper’s observations regarding the post-World War II Jewish people: “Admittedly, it is understandable that people who were despised for their racial origin should react by saying that they were proud of it. But racial pride is not only stupid but wrong, even if provoked by racial hatred. All nationalism or racialism is evil, and Jewish nationalism is no exception” (1976/2002, p. 120).

Einstein retorts that while “there is something in the accusation” (p. 122) that he is committing the offence of nationalism, “it is a nationalism whose aim is not power but dignity and health” (p. 123). Lending credence to Popper’s hypothesis, Einstein subsequently succumbs, revealing the reason behind his change of heart: “If we did not have to live among intolerant, narrow-minded, and violent people, I should be the first to throw over all nationalism in favor of universal humanity” (p. 123). Thus, in the face of Germany’s declining treatment of the Jews, it appears Einstein struggled to reconcile his disdain of national pride with his hopes for his People. Redefining the very term “nationalism” somewhat solved the cognitive dissonance that naturally ensued.

I have previously admitted that, even as a Jew, I am more than slightly perplexed by Jewish nationalism, not to mention any other variety of racial pride. When asked whether the late-life revelation that he was Jewish caused him to reconsider his antireligious stance, Christopher Hitchens revealed: “My attitude toward Zionism has always been […] that I very much doubt it to be the liberation of the Jewish people” (2011, p. 62). Thus, while nationalism may arise in response to prejudice, it will not necessarily free us from it. I have also expressed that, in an age of ever-expanding globalization and transcended borders, and in light of the escalating necessity for humans to become better global citizens, we should feel proud not of our national heritage, but, more importantly, of our cross-cultural one. Paradoxically, Einstein himself echoed this when he observed: “The world is to-day more than ever in need of international thinking and feeling by its leading nations and personalities, if it is to progress towards a more worthy future” (p. 36).

Final Thoughts

Suffice it to say, The World as I See It made me think. A lot. And this review only focused on a brief sample of the many topics addressed throughout. However rich in content The World as I See It is, it does not lack entertainment value. Take, for example, Einstein’s scathing indictment of soldiers: “That a man can take pleasure in formation to the strains of a band is enough to make me despise him. He has only been given his big brain by mistake; a backbone was all he needed” (p. 6). Or, his humorously trenchant description of government: “Bureaucracy is the death of all sound work” (p. 85). In the end, it is incredibly humbling to ponder important subjects along with Einstein. That the book also provides a humanizing peek into the mind of one of the 20th century’s most productive personalities makes it all the more unique.

References

Barker, D. (2008). Godless: How an evangelical preacher became one of America’s leading atheists. Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press.

Dawes, R. M. (1996). House of cards: Psychology and psychotherapy built on myth. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Einstein, A. (1940). Science and Religion. Nature, 146, 605–607.

Greenberger, D., & Padesky, C. A. (1995). Mind over mood: Change how you feel by changing the way you think. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Hitchens, C. (2011). Christopher Hitchens in conversation with Noah Richler. In R. Griffiths (Ed.), Hitchens vs. Blair: Be it resolved religion is a force for Good in the world (The Munk Debates) (pp. 55–66). Toronto, ON: House of Anansi Press.

Popper, K. (2002). Unended quest: An intellectual autobiography. New York, NY: Routledge. (Original work published 1976)

Szasz, T. S. (1988). The myth of psychotherapy: Mental healing as religion, rhetoric, and repression. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

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