Science and Spirit

Reprinted with permission from Science & Spirit Magazine.

On a winter evening in 1927, a small group gathered for a dinner party at the home of the famous German-Jewish publisher Samuel Fischer. A middle-aged Albert Einstein was there, as were novelist Gerhart Hauptmann, critic Alfred Kerr, and patron of the arts Count Harry Kessler, who recorded the night's events in his diary. "Professor!" Kerr reportedly called out to Einstein as discussion heated up. "I hear that you are supposed to be deeply religious." To that, the story goes, Einstein replied: "Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in point of fact, religious."

"Religious," but without a traditional God. Einstein did not pray, nor did he have faith in a deity who interfered in day-to-day life. Rather, as he told Rabbi Herbert Goldstein of the Institutional Synagogue in 1929, he believed in "Spinoza's God, who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists." By the time he was fifty, Einstein's view of God had been so greatly influenced by the seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza-who had altogether rejected the Judeo- Christian personal God-that he, too, believed it was the universe that was ultimately divine.

Spinoza had used the word "God" to describe the impersonal laws of nature-laws he believed to be beautiful, harmonious, and universally obeyed. It was this humble view of the world that Einstein admired: Man was not the focus of God's attention. Instead, humans must surrender to "the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought," he wrote in "Religion and Science," a 1930 New York Times Magazine article. Only then could they reach a "cosmic religious feeling."

Yet his loyalty to Spinoza may have led to what Einstein called his greatest blunder. According to Israeli physicist Max Jammer, who knew Einstein personally and wrote the book Einstein and Religion, there are those who believe Einstein adjusted his equations-which initially predicted expansion or contraction of the universe-with the cosmological constant in order to accommodate a static universe. The reason: Spinoza believed that God, and therefore nature, is immutable.

Of course, in the late 1920s, astronomer Edwin Hubble measured a universe that expands. And in the decades since, as telescopes have seen farther and cosmologists have refined their theories, the science of the stars has advanced beyond what Einstein could have imagined. We now know the universe started with some kind of big bang close to 14 billion years ago. We know that black holes are collapsed stars from which even light cannot escape; that galaxies could not form were it not for the presence of cold dark matter filling space; that there was likely a period of quick expansion soon after the universe was born.

"It is phenomenal how well cosmology has come along in the last twenty to thirty years," says Sandra Faber, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Santa Cruz and a self-described vehement atheist. "If you had told me as a graduate student that we'd [understand what happened] 10-35 seconds after the big bang, I would have said, `Don't be ridiculous.'"

Still, many unanswered questions remain. Would the universe as we know it, and life within it, have formed under the influence of a different set of physical laws? In other words, as Einstein asked, did God have a choice in creating the universe? What happened before the big bang? Why is time a one-way arrow? Will there be a "big crunch" at some point in the future, or will the universe expand forever? Why are the laws of physics the way they are?

We do not understand why the laws exist as they do, but still we can claim they are special-an argument known as the anthropic principle. According to one version of the anthropic principle, the laws of physics and the numbers we use to describe our world-which have been discovered rather than devised- are fine-tuned. Even small deviations from basic constants like the speed of light, the mass of an electron, and the strength of nuclear forces would mean stars and galaxies could not have formed. As a result, we would not be here to observe them.

Perhaps it is mere coincidence that the universe so particularly evolved to the point at which carbon-based life forms could survive. Or perhaps there is another explanation. Some scientists believe that many universes with different properties exist, and that we inhabit one compatible with our presence. Or it could be, as some cosmologists continue to believe in this age of skepticism, that the universe is the work of a divine creator.

In attempts to understand how humans came to be in the universe, most theologians and many scientists have invoked God. Yet the way they have done so has changed over time. Natural theology used to look to effects, such as the existence of life or the complexity of the eye, for evidence of God's existence. No more, explains British particle physicist and ordained Anglican priest the Reverend Doctor John Polkinghorne in his book Belief in God in an Age of Science. Polkinghorne highlights a theology that now looks back to the causes-the laws of physics-that made our world possible.

"In the world of science, cosmologists may have more room for religious faith than do their peers..." Read more >>

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