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."


  1. Here's a different view. The crux of the matter is causation. Talk of God by either Spinoza or Einstein is a surrogate for talk of causal necessity. Both were deeply shaped by the Principle of Universal Causation: every event has a cause. "God" was what guaranteed that necessity -- and that's all that God did.

    The PUC is accepted by theists and scientists of almost all stripes. The exceptions are some quantum theorists and some contra-causal libertarians.

    Those who are in the mainstream are faced with the problem of why the PUC seems to have such plausibility. I was once told that it just "hits you between the eyes with the force of truth".

    I can understand someone like Spinoza wanting to theologise it. I'm not inclined to see that as an example of magical thinking. On the contrary: magical thinking seems to be anti-causal. No?

    1. The term 'magical' is used to refer to events that appear not to conform to the laws of physics, etc., but I am using the term 'magical thinking' in the way (I think) Matthew Hutson is using it, namely to identify certain patterns of thinking which our brains push us inexorably towards - like Cartesian dualism, or the belief that everything happens for a reason - religious thinking, superstition etc.

      What I am suggesting here in effect is that perhaps there is no clear dividing line between the idea, characterized as magical thinking by Hutson, that everything happens for a reason and the principle of universal causation to which you allude. Gödel in his sublime nuttiness is a classic example of the former; and Einstein had a passionate commitment to the latter.

      Indeed your quote regarding the way the principle of universal causation hits us between the eyes does seem to put it into the same general category as Hutson's other examples of magical thinking. Our minds just happen to work like this, and we assume the world conforms to the patterns in which we think.

  2. nice posting.. thanks for sharing.