The great scientist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) possessed not only a unique genius, but also a special humility, without which his deep ethical philosophy would not be possible.
Einstein’s theory centres on the idea that humanity is filled with self-importance, and this is the greatest impediment to its morality… a morality that is essential in light of the enormous and sometimes threatening discoveries in scientific theory.
Self-Restraint is Easier Said than Done
Chin-Hung Woo, in his article Einstein’s Morality, explains how Albert Einstein believed we should curb our natural inclination to conceit, a concept still highly relevant today when we consider the possibilities and, indeed, the dangers, posed by the explosion in scientific knowledge. According to Woo, Einstein himself pinpointed the problem:
“The precariousness of peace was what Einstein had in mind when he said that the continued existence of humanity requires morality.”
Further, Einstein insisted that humanity’s very survival depended on its morality. So – is morality really that important?
When we contemplate the relationship between morality, science and religion, must we ask ourselves, as Einstein did, should morality be separated from religion? Should it be, as quoted by Woo, “…treated as a secular matter of bringing dignity and happiness as much as possible, to all people?”
There is No Such Thing as Free Will
This absence of free will in human nature is, according to Einstein, the human conceit most responsible for preventing us from being moral beings. We believe we have free will and the fact that we do not was, according to Woo, so obvious to Einstein that he didn’t bother to explain his reasoning in any great depth.
Einstein also championed individual freedom against authority, which may seem to be a contradiction, but, says Woo, it is possible to reconcile these two apparently opposing positions.
Professor Ching-Hung Woo describes Einstein’s position as follows:
“Now in the scientific framework favoured by Einstein, where events unfold by deterministic laws, once an initial state of the world is completely specified, all subsequent phenomena are determined. Hence, when a person faces multiple alternatives and makes a choice the will of the decision maker at the moment of decision was actually already fixed from the beginning of the universe.”
This position confirms that the idea that we have free will is no more than an illusion, according to Einstein. In an article in the New York Times in 1930, Einstein says: “…man acts in accordance with an inner and outer necessity, and would, in the eyes of God, be as little responsible as an inanimate object is for the movements which it makes.”
Chains of Events are Never Random
How can we come to terms with this? The philosopher Baruch Spinoza who lived from 1632 to 1677 claims a causal connection between a person having a wish and then moving the body to attain that wish. Woo says: “…because the person cannot enumerate the myriad earlier causes that led to his having the wish, he takes the earliest traceable cause namely his wish, as the source of the subsequent chain of events.”
Woo suggests a modern parallel when President Bush took the responsibility for what happened after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina – the causes of its mishandling were too complex to enumerate and the President’s stance was merely “…a form of bookkeeping.”
Einstein did not even believe that quantum mechanics is truly random.
Woo quotes Einstein: “God does not play dice.” (Bohr apparently replied that Einstein shouldn’t tell God what to do.)”
Against Uncertainty – Albert Einstein is Unmoved
Niels Bohr, one of the main voices in the debate on the Copenhagen interpretation, which examined the nature of quantum mechanics, was a great friend of Albert Einstein although the two men frequently disagreed. One such disagreement between these two titans of physics is described by Andy Boyd in his article on the Bohr-Einstein Debates as follows:
“Bohr proposed that wave equations described where entities like electrons could be, but, the entities didn’t actually exist as particles until someone went looking for them. The act of observation caused existence. In Bohr’s own words, the entities in question had no “independent reality in the ordinary physical sense.”
Einstein wouldn’t have any of it. An electron was an electron, and just because someone wasn’t looking at it, it was still there — wherever “there” happened to be.”
Clearly, for Einstein, “random” did not work in physics any more than it did in moral philosophy.
Can we Take Credit for Being Good?
All the same, it is hard for us to conceive that we cannot make real choices, and that we not the true source of our decisions. Must we accept that whatever we do, whatever action we take, has been determined by prior causes?
You might even make choices about the same matter on two separate occasions, and reach a different decision the second time, but that would only mean that some change had occurred in your life or just in your brain, that determined the variation in outcome.
The Moral Consequences of the Absence of Free Will
Einstein’s angle of free will brings up serious moral considerations, for example, were the perpetrators of the crimes of WWII culpable? Albert Einstein does not make any exceptions for his theory, as Woo explains:
“…since everyone’s actions are determined by prior factors, Hitler could not help but to do what he did, and so the moral arguments used for instance to exempt a madman from retributive punishment – that they couldn’t help or didn’t know what they were doing – could also be applied to Hitler.”
(At his point, I cannot help but think of the story of the Crucifixion and Jesus’ words “They know not what they do.” Whether or not a person is religious, there is ancient wisdom in this.)
The point Einstein is making is that neither a madman nor a person who knows that they are doing wrong can help it. So there is no necessity for a distinction between them.
Political theorist, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) coined the phrase “the banality of evil” when she wrote about the trial of Adolf Eichmann for his actions during the “final solution.” In his Chapter “Hannah Arendt” in 100 Great Thinkers, Jeremy Harwood says:
“…she concluded that he was seemingly incapable of the self-judgement that would have made him aware of the nature of his deeds. He did not think or question. He simply obeyed.”
From this we may assume that what we regard as autonomy is no more than a host of complexities of which we are virtually unaware.
Two Ways of Looking at Freedom
Professor Woo explains that, as far as Einstein is concerned, there are two different kinds of freedom. There is freedom from prior causes – a position that Einstein resists. There is also freedom from coercion or authoritarianism. The latter is more likely to be of benefit to us.
We are much more likely to appreciate a sense of freedom if we are not coerced or forced into an action against our will. Ideally, our “free choice” should be one that is compatible with our values. Sometimes our values may change, but this is a slow and gradual process. Generally, our values are immediate.
We should, however, remember that we derive our choices from our values which are, in themselves, subject to prior causes. We are motivated to uphold these values, in other words, we are driven by determinism. Nevertheless, when we are able to honour our values without interference, our subsequent sense of freedom from coercion enhances our happiness.
The Solitary Personality
The values of the individual are also important to Einstein.
“Whether it is a work of art or a significant scientific achievement that which is great and noble comes from the solitary personality” says Einstein in “Albert Einstein, The Human Side.”
The loners of the world, Einstein believed, would be of great benefit to mankind and, therefore, should be encouraged to pursue their projects to their rational conclusion.
Sometimes, people adopt values that are narrow and self-centred and this, in itself, can be a form of self-imposed coercion. This may cause them to become disconnected from others and so their project does not harmonise with their own nature.
“Einstein proposed, therefore, that personal striving be guided by the ideal of promoting the welfare of the world as a whole,” says Woo.
Intuition and General Relativity
Einstein believed in the importance of intuition and was a follower of the writings of the great philosopher who reconciled rationalism and empiricism, David Hume.
Intuition is just as important in science as it is in morality.
Einstein’s logic is as follows:
“If what is seen and experienced is portrayed in the language of logic, we are engaged in science. If it is communicated through forms whose connections are not accessible to the conscious mind but are recognized intuitively as meaningful, then we are engaged in art. Common to both is the loving devotion to that which transcends personal concerns and volition.” (Albert Einstein, The Human Side.)
Albert Einstein and the Bomb
In his article, Woo mentions that Einstein mocks himself for his failure to achieve harmony in his two marriages. However, he did try to follow his own moral beliefs by promoting disarmament and world government. As a professor in Berlin in WWI, he engaged in anti-war demonstrations.
More disturbingly, as Stephen Hawking mentions in his short biography of Einstein in A Brief History of Time, he was well-known for his involvement in the politics of the nuclear bomb.
Einstein was in America when Hitler came to power in 1933. He stated that he would not go to Germany. Hawking says:
“Then, while Nazi militia raided his house and confiscated his bank account, a Berlin newspaper displayed the headline, “Good News from Einstein – He’s Not Coming Back.”
As a result of Nazi hostility, Einstein turned away from his pacifist leanings. He believed Germany’s scientists to be capable of producing a nuclear bomb, and proposed the US should develop a bomb of its own. “…he signed the famous letter to President Franklin Roosevelt that persuaded the United States to take the idea seriously, and he engaged in postwar efforts to prevent nuclear war,” says Hawking.
Einstein claimed there should be “international control of nuclear weaponry.” Sadly, as Hawking comments, Einstein actually achieved very little towards peace that would last.
Woo says “As soon as it became clear that Hitler was not close to acquiring atomic weapons, Einstein regretted his participation in developing those weapons of mass destruction.”
If humankind could only embrace Einstein’s morality, and accept that the autonomous self does not exist; if only we could “curb our natural tendency towards self-importance” (Woo), resist our leanings towards chauvinism, and realise that freedom from coercion is obtainable; then Einstein’s legacy might be one that can, at last, address the precariousness and dangers constantly present in the world we live in.
It is, after all, the only one we have.