Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Another case of magical thinking: Albert Einstein

Having recently noted that Kurt Gödel's general outlook (especially his conviction that everything happened for a reason) fits Matthew Hutson's notion of magical thinking, I want to suggest that Gödel's friend, Albert Einstein, may in fact have had very similar ideas.

The general view is that Einstein was a model of scientific objectivity, perhaps a little stubborn in following his scientific intuitions and perhaps a little naive politically, but in no way prone to superstition or to conventional modes of religious thinking. He talked about 'God' (or 'the old one') but made it clear that his God was nothing like the personal God of the Bible, but rather was an impersonal entity, like Spinoza's deus sive natura.

In his final years Einstein was very close to Gödel and the two spent many hours walking together and talking. Einstein said at one stage that he only went to his office at the Institute for Advanced Study so he could have the pleasure of walking home with Gödel. They were clearly on the same wavelength.

The best assessment I know of what Einstein believed is an essay by Gerald Holton. Holton – a physicist with an intimate knowledge of Einstein's writings, including his correspondence – argues that his beliefs in later life were deeply influenced by early religious experiences as well as by Spinoza's Ethics.

Einstein's commitment to determinism (and rejection of the indeterminism of quantum mechanics) is well known, but it is not generally thought that this conviction had a religious source. But Holton thinks it has, and his view is very plausible.

In fact, Einstein's determinism could be seen as having much in common with Gödel's idea that everything happens for a reason. And though Einstein didn't apply the principle – which Matthew Hutson sees as a keynote of magical thinking – to mundane events (as Gödel did), he believed in it no less passionately than his friend.

Admittedly, determinism has often been associated with a non-religious perspective, but one can see how even a scientifically-informed determinism might also be the expression of a broadly religious point of view. From the time of Augustine, a particular form of determinism was a powerful strand in Christian thinking, for example.

It is difficult to come to clear conclusions and I have some sympathy with the point of view of Karl Popper in this matter. Popper was actually very respectful of religion and was a Cartesian dualist (putting him clearly in Matthew Hutson's 'magical thinking' camp), but even he was put off by Einstein's theological modes of thought and expression. Holton writes:

Karl Popper remarked that in conversations with Einstein, "I learned nothing . . . . he tended to express things in theological terms, and this was often the only way to argue with him. I found it finally quite uninteresting."