Walter Isaacson’s biography Einstein: His Life and Universe hit bookstands yesterday and promises to be a bestseller. Time magazine has made an excerpt available online called "Einstein & Faith" that is very much worth reading.

Although Einstein abandoned his faith in a personal God at a young age, Isaacson notes that he had little patience or respect for simple materialist atheism. "The fanatical atheists," Einstein wrote, "are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who¯in their grudge against traditional religion as the ‘opium of the masses’¯cannot hear the music of the spheres." The cosmos was symphonic for Einstein, and his God was revealed in the harmony of its laws. Simultaneously a determinist and a theist, Einstein saw proof of a divine Author in the intricate, beautiful ways in which everything seemed to be determined.

How, then, did Einstein balance beliefs in both physical materialism and human ethics? Isaacson writes:

Einstein’s answer was to look upon free will as something that was useful, indeed necessary, for a civilized society, because it caused people to take responsibility for their own actions. "I am compelled to act as if free will existed," he explained, "because if I wish to live in a civilized society I must act responsibly." He could even hold people responsible for their good or evil, since that was both a pragmatic and sensible approach to life, while still believing intellectually that everyone’s actions were predetermined. "I know that philosophically a murderer is not responsible for his crime," he said, "but I prefer not to take tea with him."

Evidently, even a genius can’t resolve this contradiction. But perhaps it was never necessary for Einstein to put himself in this position.

Since Einstein’s death, quantum theory’s verification has cast serious doubts on determinism and helped recover human free will in science. As Stephen Barr writes in "Faith and Quantum Theory" (subscription required, First Things , March), Einstein "detested the idea that a fundamental theory should yield only probabilities. ‘God does not play dice!’ he insisted. In Einstein’s view, the need for probabilities simply showed that the theory was incomplete."

Well, he was wrong. And in being wrong about quantum theory, Einstein was also wrong about the impossibility of free will. The steps in logic taken to get from quantum probabilities to the freedom of the human mind are surprising, yet convincing. Barr concludes: "As long as only physical structures and mechanisms are involved, however complex, their behavior is described by equations that yield only probabilities¯and once a mind is involved that can make a rational judgment of fact, and thus come to knowledge, there is certainty. Therefore, such a mind cannot be just a physical structure or mechanism completely describable by the equations of physics." This leaves room for the mind to be free.

Others will disagree with Barr, siding with Einstein or proposing still other ways of interpreting quantum theory. Their objections will be heard, as well as Barr’s responses to them, in the correspondence section of the June/July double issue of First Things .

As for myself, I wonder what Einstein would think had he lived to see the evidence for quantum theory. His reaction would help tell us whether his belief in determinism was scientific (as he always claimed) or itself a sort of prescientific faith. And, assuming for the moment he came to accept quantum theory and its implications for free will as given by Barr, would Einstein have viewed the universe as no longer harmonious¯and might he have reconsidered religion?

John Rose is an assistant editor at First Things .

Articles by John Rose


Show 0 comments