Einstein in the West, Quanta in the East: Physics, Philosophy, and Religion

Originally published on May 27, 2005 on Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly (PBS) website

In the coming months, you may experience strange urges to spend quality time with protractors, gaze up into the night sky and ponder the nature of the universe, or sidle up to a few thousand volts of static electricity emitting from a Van de Graaff generator just to make your hair stand on end.

Is this some kind of bizarre astrological prediction? No — 2005 has been designated the World Year of Physics, and physicists, universities, and science-friendly organizations are celebrating with events from Aspen to Zurich.

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein

The reason for all the hubbub is the centenary of Albert Einstein’s “annus mirabilis” or miracle year, 1905, during which he produced three groundbreaking papers that revolutionized physics. In addition to a slew of books, lectures, and exhibitions on Einstein, the many festivities include a new ballet in London called “Constant Speed,” a contest sponsored by the Pirelli tire company to find out who can best explain the theory of relativity, and a gathering of scholars at Oxford University to ponder “Einstein, God and Time.”

This smorgasbord of events will no doubt evoke at least hazy memories of the profound ways Einstein transformed our conceptions of light, space, and time in even the most science-befuddled minds. But without the threat of a final exam, few people are likely to spend much time considering the ideological principles that informed Einstein’s scientific description of the cosmos. Even these philosophical types might be surprised to discover that, although his radical ideas ushered in the era of modern physics, Einstein believed a deterministic universe lay beneath the mind-bending aspects of our physical world revealed by his theories. Moreover, his conviction about this overarching order makes Einstein an heir to the deeply rooted themes of positivism, unity, and determinism that run throughout the Western traditions of religion, philosophy, and science.

Einstein himself acknowledged that his work was built upon the bedrock of classical physics. As he put it in an April 1921 interview in THE NEW YORK TIMES, “There has been a false opinion widely spread among the general public that the theory of relativity is to be taken as differing radically from the previous developments in physics. … The men who have laid the foundations of physics on which I have been able to construct my theory are Galileo, Newton, Maxwell and Lorentz.”

Sir Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton

Perhaps the most revered in that list of eminent predecessors is Sir Isaac Newton, the father of classical mechanics. Newton’s monolithic physics is synonymous with the empiricism that flowered during the scientific revolution, and was built upon a conviction that the laws he observed in nature revealed a clockwork universe. Though Einstein threw a wrench into Newton’s conception of space as a fixed entity, he believed that with time added to the familiar three dimensions of physics the “four-dimensional space of the special theory of relativity is just as rigid and absolute as Newton’s space.” More important, Einstein also shared Newton’s confidence in a fundamentally lawful world, which he summed up in his oft-quoted phrase, “God does not play dice with the universe.”

Newton also believed in a creator who had fashioned the laws of nature and set them in motion, but Einstein’s belief system did not include the existence of a personal God. In his writings on religion, Einstein emphasized a “cosmic religious feeling,” the essential beauty and mystery of the universe, and a metaphorical deity “who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists.” He tried repeatedly to explain his views, but they were often poorly understood and were by turns co-opted in support of or in opposition to different religious creeds. For example, in an attempt to defend Einstein’s theory of relativity against the claim that it was atheistic, Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein of the Institutional Synagogue in New York cabled the professor in 1929 and asked him to clarify his views on God. Einstein replied that he believed in a God who “reveals himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” The good rabbi somehow extrapolated from this brief sentence that “Einstein’s theory, if carried out to its logical conclusions, would bring mankind a scientific formula for monotheism. He does away with all thought of dualism or pluralism. There can be no room for any aspect of polytheism.”

Einstein himself called his theory “a purely scientific matter [that] has nothing to do with religion,” and he ultimately rejected the trappings of traditional faith. But his pursuit of theoretical unity, belief in causality, and trust in a harmonious universe all echo the Western religious traditions. It was these principles that guided Einstein’s quest for a “grand unified theory” to unite the disparate theories described by modern physics — a task that consumed the latter part of the great scientist’s life and remains the holy grail of physics today.

After abandoning the traditional religion of his youth, Einstein turned to Western philosophy; he later considered his readings in this area to have played an important part in the development of both his religious speculations and his physics. The most influential figure in his philosophical pantheon was the “God-intoxicated” 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Einstein found a kindred spirit in this excommunicated Jew who devoted his life to quiet philosophical speculation, and in 1920 Einstein wrote a poem entitled “Zu Spinozas Ethik” (On Spinoza’s Ethic). As translated in Max Jammer’s EINSTEIN AND RELIGION (1999), it begins with the following lines:

How much do I love that noble man
More than I could tell with words
I fear though he’ll remain alone
With a holy halo of his own.

Baruch Spinoza
Baruch Spinoza

In Spinoza Einstein also found a champion for his belief in a deterministic universe that could be understood by human reason. Spinoza’s pantheistic philosophy held that the cosmos was an extension of God or Nature and was therefore fundamentally immutable and strictly ruled by cause and effect. Einstein regarded Spinoza’s conception of the universe so highly that he committed what he called the biggest blunder of his career in an effort to preserve his own vision of it. In 1915, he inserted an extra term, the “cosmological constant,” into his theory of general relativity so that it would yield a static universe similar to the one described by Spinoza instead of the expanding one his calculations produced without it. When astrophysicist Edwin Hubble’s observations revealed in 1929 that the galaxies in our universe were indeed hurtling away from each other, Einstein realized that this error had cost him the opportunity to be the first to announce that the cosmos was expanding.

Perhaps the most telling indication of Einstein’s faith in a deterministic universe can be found not in what he himself believed but in the rival physics theory he refuted: quantum mechanics. The work of a prominent group of early 20th-century physicists that included Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Wolfgang Pauli, quantum mechanics crystallized during roughly the same period as Einstein’s own work. Ironically, Einstein’s 1905 explanation of the photoelectric effect, for which he won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1921, also makes him one of the early fathers of this theory.

Quantum mechanics elegantly describes the behavior of matter at the atomic level, but it contains strange effects that often seem to have more in common with Zen koans than traditional physics. For instance, wave-particle duality says that both light and matter at the atomic level can exist in either particle or wave form, depending upon how we look at them. And Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that it’s impossible to determine such simple characteristics as the position and momentum of a particle simultaneously. Physicists even differ over exactly what type of universe quantum mechanics describes. One of the most far-out opinions is American physicist Hugh Everett’s “many worlds” interpretation, which holds that our own is just one of countless equally real universes that continuously arise out of quantum probability.

Probability densities of hydrogen atom orbitals
Probability densities of hydrogen atom orbitals

Despite its success in describing the atomic world, Einstein couldn’t accept the indeterminacy, contingency, and importance of observation that lie at the heart of quantum mechanics. In an effort to prove it an incomplete theory, Einstein, along with fellow physicists Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, presented a paper in 1935 introducing a clever thought experiment that came to be known as the EPR (Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen) paradox. It hinged upon a bizarre aspect of quantum mechanics in which two “entangled” particles essentially transmit information to each other across distances. If this were true, it would mean that quantum mechanics contradicted special relativity’s rule that nothing, not even information, can travel faster than the speed of light. Such particles would display a kind of unexplained “spooky action at a distance,” as Einstein put it.

The EPR paradox remained purely theoretical until 1982, when French physicist Alain Aspect’s experimental data suggested that entangled particles do mysteriously interact after being spatially separated. Though some physicists remained unconvinced, Aspect’s results were enough to convince the majority that quantum mechanics had beaten Einstein’s paradox.

But if Einstein didn’t appreciate the spookiness of quantum mechanics, that very quality has helped efforts to link science with Eastern or New Age philosophies. The indeterminacy in quantum mechanics seems almost tailor-made for those wishing to rescue a sense of free will from a mechanistic universe, and some perceive quantum systems as fundamentally holistic, an idea that dovetails nicely with Eastern traditions that view everything in the universe as part of an interconnected whole.

The resemblance between quantum mechanics and certain aspects of Eastern philosophy was recognized by some of the architects of the theory themselves. But these speculations remained outside the mainstream until physicist and systems theorist Fritjof Capra’s 1975 book THE TAO OF PHYSICS heralded a contemporary movement that sought to fuse quantum physics and spirituality. Other works soon followed, such as Gary Zukav’s THE DANCING WU LI MASTERS (1979) and Deepak Chopra’s QUANTUM HEALING (1989), which combined molecular physics with meditation.


More recently, a quirky film entitled WHAT THE BLEEP DO WE KNOW!? has sought to hitch its own mystical view of reality to science’s wagon. Mixing fact with fiction, WHAT THE BLEEP uses interviews with 14 interdisciplinary experts and special-effects sequences to put forth an extraordinary hypothesis: the key to self-actualization lies in the conscious creation of our own made-to-order reality from the quantum realm up.

The inspirational message at the core of WHAT THE BLEEP struck a chord with many moviegoers, and after being released in just a handful of West Coast theaters, the film grew into something of an art house phenomenon. But as it opened in more and more theaters across the country, WHAT THE BLEEP also elicited a collective groan from the physics community. One Columbia University scientist featured in the film, Dr. David Albert, claimed his views had been so badly distorted by the filmmakers that he refused any connection with the final product. Dr. Albert’s and many other scientists’ complaints revolved around the film’s mixing of quantum mechanics and consciousness — a hotly contested issue where physics meets philosophy.

Theorists have long posited that the raw potentiality and the important role of observation in quantum mechanics may make it helpful in explaining complex brain processes and human consciousness. For instance, physician and researcher Stuart Hameroff, who appears in WHAT THE BLEEP, and Oxford mathematics professor Roger Penrose have put forward a theory that quantum processes inside tiny microtubules in the brain may form the foundation of consciousness. But the film goes even further than such physically-based explanations to suggest that consciousness itself influences quantum processes and, by extension, our macro-level, everyday reality. This is certainly an intriguing proposition, but for the time being such hypotheses remain highly speculative, and only a few physicists subscribe to them.

But if the science in WHAT THE BLEEP and other works like it is questionable, they have at least served to bring into relief the need for constructive dialogue about the relationship among religion, philosophy, and science. When these diverse fields intersect today, the debate that follows is often stunted and acrimonious. Those with spiritual concerns claim that science extends beyond its rightful bounds and in effect disenchants the world. For their part, many scientists are reluctant to explore the philosophical implications of their work and content to ignore any metaphysical questions that might arise from it.

Contrary to such polarized positions, a few notable physicists, such as this year’s winner of the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries About Spiritual Realities, Nobel laureate Charles Townes, have advanced the view that science and the spiritual might best be viewed as complementary disciplines that can inspire each other to greater heights. As Townes put it, “Wonderful things in both science and religion come from our efforts based on observations, thoughtful assumptions, faith and logic.”

Einstein, too, felt a sense of reverence that motivated his efforts to expand more than just the boundaries of science. He challenged people to look beyond the parameters of their religion, culture, and nationality and to focus instead on the bigger cosmological picture. At that magnitude, our preconceived notions of what separates us from one another shrink beside a sense of what Einstein called “the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds.”

In the end, Einstein sought to unite more than scientific paradigms — he envisioned a world in which humanity itself was unified by sweeping commonalities on the celestial scale. As we celebrate Einstein’s scientific achievements this year, we should also make a point of remembering that he was a great humanist as well. In the future, we will surely need both of these important legacies.