Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Albert Einstein's letter coming up at auction: Does it show that he was an atheist?

A letter by Albert Einstein in the last years of his life has just come up at auction, and is being touted to show that he didn't really believe in God, as when he says, for example,
"The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. (Breitbart, May 13, 2008)

Has anyone noticed that the article is written in such a way as to imply an atheism that the actual quotations in the article do not back up?

Or that the managing director of the Bloomsbury auction house, Rupert Powell, is treated as the authority on Einstein's views? Surely information released to the media was intended to flog up the sale price of the letter. This would be a very convenient time to do that, given the recent spate of "new atheist" books.

Einstein talks about the word "God" in the quotations, not about God as such - as he usually does when he is describing what he does believe. Einstein's God was not personal in the sense that Western theists attribute personality to God. In any event, Einstein probably changed his views at various times, but usually revolving around a central pole. Anyway, here's an excerpt (pp. 101-3) from There IS a God by Antony Flew with Roy Abraham Varghese, that may shed some light:

--- --- ---

Einstein clearly believed in a transcendent source of the rationality of the world that he variously called "superior mind," "illimitable superior spirit," "superior reasoning force," and "mysterious force that moves the constellations." This is evident in several of his statements:
I ahve never found a better expression than "religious" for this trust in the rational nature of reality and of its peculiar accessibility to the human mind. Where this trust is lacking science degenerates into an uninspired procedure. Let the devil care if the priests make capital out of this. Ther is no remedy for that. [12]

Whoever has undergone the intense experience of successful advances in this domain [science] is moved by profound reverence for the rationality made manifest in existence ... the grandeur of reason incarnate in existence. [13]

Certain it is that a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality or intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order .... This firm belief, a belief bound up with deep feeling, in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God. [14]

Every one who is seriously engaged in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that the laws of nature manifest the existence of a spirit vastly superior to that or men, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. [15]

My religiosity consists of a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God. [16]
--- --- ---

He made quite clear how he felt about popular religion:
It is a different question whether belief in a personal God should be contested. Freud endorsed this view in his latest publication. I myself would never engage n such a task. For such a belief seems to me referable to any lack of any transcendental outlook of life, and I wonder whether one can ever successfully render to the majority of mankind a more sublime means in order to satisfy its metaphysical needs.[17]

In other words, he thought popular religion childish but better than nothing. Incidentally, Flew criticizes Richard Dawkins for flogging up the idea that Einstein was an atheist.

Although it won't help sell the letter at Bloomsbury's, Einstein name should be removed from the rolls of persons believed to be atheists.

Also: Here is my review of There IS a God.

Sources for quotations from Einstein:

[12] Albert Einstein, Lettres a Maurice Solovine reproduits en facsimile et traduits en francais (Paris: Gauthier-Vilars, 1956), 102-3.
[13] Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, trans. Sonja Bargmann (New York, Dell, 1973), 49.
[14] Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, 255.
[15] Max Jammer, Einstein and Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 44.*
[16] Albert Einstein, The Quotable Einstein, ed. Alice Calaprice (Princeton, +NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 195-6.
[17] Jammer, Einstein and Religion, 51. (Citation [10] in the book.)

*This is a full citation. In the original, it is abbreviated, as it is not the first citation.

Materialists start to come to grips with global failure, but materialism dies hard

In "The Neural Buddhists," David Brooks references Tom Wolfe's dramatic 1996 article "Sorry, but your soul just died,"

.. in which he captured the militant materialism of some modern scientists.

To these self-confident researchers, the idea that the spirit might exist apart from the body is just ridiculous. Instead, everything arises from atoms. Genes shape temperament. Brain chemicals shape behavior. Assemblies of neurons create consciousness. Free will is an illusion. Human beings are “hard-wired” to do this or that. Religion is an accident.

In this materialist view, people perceive God’s existence because their brains have evolved to confabulate belief systems.

Uh huh. Mario and I took it all to pieces in The Spiritual Brain. Modern neuroscience provides no basis whatever for that view - on the contrary.

Brooks, the author of BoBos in Paradise, acknowledges,
Over the past several years, the momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings. Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development.

Researchers now spend a lot of time trying to understand universal moral intuitions. Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. Instead, people seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment.

Scientists have more respect for elevated spiritual states.
Do they indeed? In that case, to learn what is really going on, they must acknowledge where they have been mistaken.

Brooks, however, hopes that the revolution will stop with "neural Buddhism,"which turns out to mean things like "the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships" and "God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is."

Sorry, BoBos, it's not up to you to decide where it will end. It will end where the evidence leads, and the evidence simply does not favour materialism - yours or anyone else's.

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Evolutionary psychology: So you don't stick to your goals? Blame your kludgebrain ... or maybe not

I see where Gary Marcus, author of Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind encourages us to blame "the sloppy engineering of evolution" for the fact that we often do not stick to our goals.

But why evolution? What happened to our stars, our parents, our societies, our religion, and our genes as the explanations for why we do not meet our goals? Oh, come to think of it, evolution is in the news right now, what with Darwin's anniversary celebrations and the Expelled film.

Marcus's basic thesis is this:
Our attempts to pursue our goals are often thwarted by the fact that evolution has built our most sophisticated technologies on top of older technologies -- without working out how to integrate the two. We can plan in advance, using our modern deliberative reasoning systems, but our ancestral reflexive mechanisms, which evolved first, still basically control the steering wheel. When the chips are down, it's those mechanisms that our brains turn to, and that means that our brains frequently wind up relying on machinery that is all about acting first and asking questions later, squandering some of the efforts of our deliberative system.

No sensible engineer would have designed things this way. Why design fancy machinery for making long-term goals if you're not going to use it? Yet the brain is structured such that the more tired, stressed or distracted we are, the less likely we are to use our forebrains and the more likely to lean back on the time-tested but shortsighted machinery we've inherited from our ancestors.
Which is nonsense. The examples he gives are failure to lose weight and failure to meet deadlines. But it takes no very great insight to see that goals like these are too socially and personally complex to be often met.

Take losing weight, for example: Most people don't lose weight because - overall - thinness doesn't matter as much to them as living comfortably. It doesn't matter as much in their forebrains or anywhere else. That has nothing to do with evolution.

As I have written elsewhere - there is very little evidence that overweight, all by itself, is an important health hazard. Lack of physical activity is a much more serious health problem.

Now that probably has a lot to do with evolution!

Obviously, the human body evolved or was designed to support specific activities, not to support a lack of activity. But it's hard to imagine the body either evolving or being designed in such a way that a bit of extra weight would be a serious health hazard. After all, food shortages and wasting illnesses have been endemic through human history, so a bit of padding is a good insurance policy.

At any rate, people who are trying to achieve an arbitrarily set weight dictated by health professionals or fashion gurus - when they are in no physical discomfort with the weight they now carry - are likely to experience internal conflict over their goals. But don't blame evolution or poor engineering. Blame the adoption of goals that conflict with reality.

Now, what about deadlines? In my line of work (writing), there is an expression "phantom deadline." That means a deadline with a weak relationship to reality. Young freelancers often half kill themselves to finish a project for a Friday deadline only to discover that the boss left at noon - so the job will just sit on her desk all weekend!

Actually, most people learn to fudge deadlines for their own well-being. Again, if this is evolution, it is the evolution of survival skills in relation to one's environment, and not a symptom of poor engineering. Sometimes, lateness is also a social message.

Some people even use lateness as a form of manipulation. And then we must ask, does it work? Often, it does - but only for accomplished practitioners. (If you have never in your life tried to control others by being chronically late, trust me, it would be a mistake to start now. You just haven't evolved in that direction.)

In short, I don't think that "blame it on kludgy brain evolution" will fare any better than the 1950s' "blame it on cruel potty training" as a reason why we behave as we do.

See also: Evolutionary Psychology: Eliot Spitzer is a kludgebrain! psychologist opines (but so are we all)

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Health can sometimes be fun, free, and painless: The placebo effect gets its own Web site

One of the non-material phenomena that Mario Beauregard and I wrote about in some detail in The Spiritual Brain is the placebo effect: You take a pill that you are told will help you feel better, and you do. That's pretty convincing evidence for the pill's curative powers - except for one thing. Studies* show that you might have experienced the same effect if the pill were only compressed sugar. Most people have experienced this action of the immaterial mind on the body.

A light-hearted Web site - sponsored by Australians Marg, Brian, Ludmila, and Michael - explores the effect in more detail, and addresses some common misconceptions - for example, that the placebo effect only works if you don't "know"that the pill is a placebo:
One of the rare studies into the action of the placebo effect in 'non-blind' clinical trials was undertaken by Lee C. Park and Uno Covi at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1964. 'Non-blind' means that patients were informed that the pills they were issued were totally inert, that they were placebos, and in this case they were also assured that despite this the pills would be of benefit to them. The study concluded:

'The primary finding is that patients can be willing to take placebo and can improve despite disclosure of the inert content of the pills; belief in pill as drug was not a requirement for improvement.' (Ref. L. C. Park, U. Covi, Nonblind Placebo Trial - An Exploration of Neurotic Patients' Responses to Placebo When Its Inert Content Is Disclosed, Archives of General Psychiatry, April 1965, Vol. 12, pp. 336-345)
Research from the page also reminds us that nearly half of all physicians admit to prescribing placebos. As our Aussie "placebists" explain,
Whichever way we cut the arguments and the theories, the placebo effect is real and it is real because it engages those parts of human beings which defy reduction to the mechanical. It is real because it therapeutically engages human capacities and capabilities for which conventional medicine has only approximations and crude theorization, if not actual distrust. It may work in what to many are the scientific borderlands, but the important thing for us is that it works.

"The placebo effect can occur," as the physician Herbert Spiegel once put it, "when conditions are optimal for hope, faith, trust and love."

In my experience, most "skepticism" about the placebo effect - possibly the best attested effect in medicine - is linked to mechanistic materialism. If the mind doesn't exist, the placebo effect shouldn't work. But the one does ... so the other does.

On the main page, the enterprising placebists offer "Universal Placebo" pilules for sale. They are not, please note, claiming that it is a pharmaceutical. They emphasize that it is just plain sugar - add belief and swallow.

*Note: For more examples of such studies, see Placebo Effect: Your "mind's role in your health."