Einstein's Enlightenment

Chapter 7: From Descartes to Einstein

The strategy of thinking according to logical rules has always been a part of human mental life. Logic is a means of relating items taken as factual. If I know that the game animals my tribe depends upon have taken an alternate migration route then rationality may advise me to move my tribe to intercept them. The ‘facts’ weighted in coming to a logical decision only need to seem like facts and may be derived from superstition or religion. If our misfortune with the wild game no longer migrating through our territory is a result of the Gods’ anger then we should placate his anger maybe some sacrifices would do it.


Rationality; the idea that the road to truth and power might entail the use of logic to form explanations linking only empirical facts; facts verifiable by the senses, had a sporadic start and only recently assumed a mainstream historical continuity. Rational thinking had a brief flowering in Egypt that ended with the burning of the library at Alexandra and the murder of intellectuals associated with it by religious fundamentalists. Latter the ancient Greeks produced a brilliant body of intellectual work during a brief period that inspired Western thought for two thousand years. Not until the Renaissance did Western thought again envision the goal of using logic to link exclusively empirical facts.


In 1641, at the age of forty-five, Rene Descartes undertook one of the most courageous and productive quests for truth in the history of Western thought and earned the title of ‘father of modern philosophy’. He vowed to clear his mind of all preconceptions, superstitions and prior beliefs. With a clear and open mind, using only rationality as his compass, he would attempt to construct a system of philosophy from the ground up.


Several years have now passed since I first realized how numerous were the false opinions that in my youth I had taken to be true, and thus how doubtful were all those that I had subsequently built upon them. And thus I realized that once in my life I had to raze everything to the ground and begin again from the original foundations, if I wanted to establish anything firm and lasting in the sciences.’[i]


His commitment to truth was especially courageous as he had received a strict Jesuit Catholic education and was well aware that Galileo had been placed under arrest and threatened with burning at the stake for publishing unauthorized thoughts. Nevertheless Descartes published his ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’ and largely on the basis of the program expounded there, a rejection of faith and an embrace of rationality provided the foundation on which modern philosophy has been built.


His attempts to build a rational philosophy had some initial success. After clearing his mind of all prior knowledge he identified the one thing we can be sure of, the rock on which he would build his philosophy: ‘I think therefore I am.’ Unfortunately, after this first brave step, his next was a proof for the existence of God.


Even the most valiant and committed seeker of the truth is crushed in the vacuum created when cultural explanations are swept aside and we try to experience our situation with fresh eyes. The planet we inhabit is replete with tremendously complex processes and we ourselves are obviously pushing the pinnacle of complexity. No obvious explanation leaps to mind. A mature fully healthy human being without a cultural cocoon is without precedence. How can he function, how can he survive? It is impossible for such a point of view to compete with a set of cultural explanations, developed over the eons providing practical guidelines for living ones life.


Descartes was crushed in his quest for a purely rational philosophy nearly four hundred years ago but a multitude have been inspired by it, taken up the banner, and pushed the mission forward. Today’s body of scientific knowledge is the result of their cumulative efforts. Today if we hunger for rationality and truth we do not have to discover it all our self, we can adopt the accumulated knowledge and spirituality of science as our own.


Rationality was Descartes’ ideal and he exercised it where he could. His personal philosophy remained centered on religious and superstitious beliefs that he was unable to supplant with rational alternatives. He was not alone in this struggle. Centuries were required to develop rational alternatives of philosophy, science and spirituality that could successfully challenge the hold of religion and superstition.  These intellectual attempts were met with ferocious brutality from the Church. Many who showed such intellectual inclinations were murdered. Galileo, a near contemporary of Descartes, was forced on the pain of death to recant his view that the earth was not the center of the universe and Copernicus delayed publication of his work on the same subject until after his death to avoid the viscous reaction of the church.


Even when these first brave souls were not under immediate threat of religious persecution, rationality and a world view based on scientific thinking was beyond their grasp. Slowly rational explanations based on empirical facts composing a scientific worldview were developed by countless numbers who shared the vision. Eventually this worldview has developed to a state of maturity where it can provide a complete and satisfying intellectual and spiritual home but it has taken centuries.


Francis Bacon, who laid the philosophical foundations of modern science by stressing the power of connecting empirical facts using rationality, did not have what we would consider an exclusively scientific worldview. He urged society to pursue technology in order to be better prepared to defeat the Antichrist.


Antichrist will use these means freely and effectively, in order that he may crush and confound the power of this world... the Church should consider employment of these inventions, because of future perils in the times of Antichrist which with the grace of God it would be easy to meet, if prelates and princes promoted study and investigated the secrets of nature.


These people and others founded the period of the Enlightenment, the historical era typified by rationality and suspicion of authority. Their vision spread to dominate philosophy and political thought eventually culminating in the American revolutionary state with its principal of equality. America was also amongst the first nations to reject a state religion.


Newton, one of the greatest scientists of all times and a strong voice of the Enlightenment, was devoutly religious and produced over four million words of writing on religious topics. He idiosyncratically blended great scientific accomplishments in mechanics, optics and universal gravitation with an all powerful Christian God. Fortunately for him he lived in England, a Protestant country, who’s King had little interest in enforcing official religious views on all subjects.


Science, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was mostly occupied with developing Newton’s mathematical and scientific framework. At the forefront of this effort were those in Enlightenment France. Two of the greatest scientist of their day, Laplace and Lagrange discuss religion with Napoleon:


Napoleon: How is it that, although you say so much about the Universe, you say nothing about its Creator?
Laplace: No, Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis.
Lagrange: Ah, but it is such a good hypothesis: it explains so many things!
Laplace: Indeed, Sire, Monsieur Lagrange has, with his usual sagacity, put his finger on the precise difficulty with the hypothesis:
it explains everything, but predicts nothing.


Clearly scientists were starting to feel more confident in trusting rationality as their guide. Society was transforming under the influence of the industrial revolution with its close relationship to a scientific worldview. Power was shifting  away from hereditary inheritance and devolving to entrepreneurs able to take advantage of opportunities presented by science and technology.


In the 19th century Charles Darwin, delayed publication of his Origin of Species, in order to spare his beloved wife Emma the pain of grieving his soul’s eternal damnation, which he knew would be the verdict of the Church on his theories.  He described himself as an Agnostic; he was not dependent on a religious worldview.


 The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.[iii]


Darwin was representative of a new type of ‘free thinker’ who saw religion as largely irrelevant in making sense of their situation in the world and who were comfortable with a rational and scientific worldview. This rational worldview included a sense of awe for the brilliance and power inherent in natural process and hence also provided an alternate spiritual home.


In Darwin’s writings on philosophy we see a changed framework. He unlike earlier rationalist does not discuss rationality within a religious framework rather he examines religious claims rationally. He is unwilling to invoke faith and look away from the issues. He expects any true understanding to be rational.


But I had gradually come by this time, i.e. 1836 to 1839, to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rainbow at sign, &c., &c., and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian. [iv]


Darwin and his many like minded supporters fought and won a heroic battle with the religious establishment over the theory of evolution. Never since has the religious worldview seriously challenged the scientific in the arena of explanations concerning the natural world. In the past couple of years even the Pope has removed his ban on Galileo’s writings and acknowledged evolution as a true theory, although he insists that some unexplained magic occurred in the evolution of man whereby we acquired a soul.


Although many varieties of the Christian faith have adapted to coexist with evolutionary teaching there are still pockets of deep resentment. Darwinism strikes decisively at the right, which many religious sects have claimed, to provide an undisputed interpretation of meaning in our lives and to answer our big questions. This resentment still festers and recently in America some jurisdictions have approved the teaching of ‘Intelligent Design’, a thinly veiled religious dogma, in the public school system. Inspired by Intelligent Design some Catholic theologians have again raised religious challenges to Darwinism.


Perhaps the man who most clearly demonstrates the strength of basing ones philosophic and spiritual worldview on science is Albert Einstein. Time magazine paid Einstein its highest honour and named him The Person of the Century. As Time is a magazine concerned with presenting popular news it failed to capture his significance and depth but decided instead on a comic assessment:


He was the embodiment of pure intellect, the bumbling professor with the German accent, a comic cliché in a thousand films. Instantly recognizable, like Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp, Albert Einstein's shaggy-haired visage was as familiar to ordinary people as to the matrons who fluttered about him in salons from Berlin to Hollywood. Yet he was unfathomably profound — the genius among geniuses who discovered, merely by thinking about it, that the universe was not as it seemed.[v]


He is caricaturized as a bumbling, comic figure with a peculiar genius allowing him to see the universe in a manner truer than any had before him. This might be flattering but it fails to probe many of his qualities and completely ignored his spiritual message.


His unkempt appearance and the widely circulated anecdotes portraying him as the absent minded genius have served to reinforce the ‘comic cliché’. We should consider this assessment a misunderstanding. Einstein rejected the material world and cared little for his appearance or the address at which he lived. He took this well thought out course for explicitly spiritual reasons.


Very early in his life Einstein understood the futility and constraining life that results from a focus on the ‘one time only’ concerns of the self. He expressed his rejection of this life and its preoccupation with vanity and material wealth:


When I was a fairly precocious young man I became thoroughly impressed with the futility of the hopes and strivings that chase most men restlessly through life. Moreover, I soon discovered the cruelty of that chase, which in those years was much more carefully covered up by hypocrisy and glittering words than is the case today. By the mere existence of his stomach everyone was condemned to participate in that chase. The stomach might well be satisfied by such participation, but not man insofar as he is a thinking and feeling being.


At first he turned to religion in his search for a cosmic home:

As the first way out there was religion, which is implanted into every child by way of the traditional education-machine. Thus I came - though the child of entirely irreligious (Jewish) parents - to a deep religiousness, which, however, reached an abrupt end at the age of twelve.


He soon found the religious worldview to be fraudulent and discarded it:


Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression. Mistrust of every kind of authority grew out of this experience, a skeptical attitude toward the convictions that were alive in any specific social environment-an attitude that has never again left me, even though, later on, it has been tempered by a better insight into the causal connections.


On rejecting the religious he found his spiritual home in the scientific worldview, not as a cold and uncaring intellectual exercise but as a doorway to the cosmic religious experience. He freed himself from the chains of the merely-personal:


It is quite clear to me that the religious paradise of youth, which was thus lost, was a first attempt to free myself from the chains of the “merely-personal”, from an existence which is dominated by wishes, hopes and primitive feelings. Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking.  The contemplation of this world beckoned like a liberation, and I soon noticed that many a man whom I had learned to esteem and to admire had found inner freedom and security in devoted occupation with it. The mental grasp of this extra-personal world within the frame of the given possibilities swam as highest aim half consciously and half unconsciously before my mind’s eye. Similarly motivated men of the present and of the past, as well as the insights which they had achieved, were the friends which could not be lost. [vi]


Einstein described a state of spiritual enlightenment beyond religion he named the Cosmic Religious Experience. This state is in many ways the realization of the program began by Descartes to discover a mental life combining rationality, empiricism and spirituality. This enlightened state he describes is characterized by:


1)      No personal God or theology. This state does not consist of revealed theology but is a way of rationally relating to the awe inspiring and eternal universe we inhabit.


Common to all these types (of conventional religion) is the anthropomorphic character of their conception of God. In general, only individuals of exceptional endowments, and exceptionally high-minded communities, rise to any considerable extent above this level. But there is a third stage of religious experience which belongs to all of them, even though it is rarely found in a pure form: I shall call it cosmic religious feeling. It is very difficult to elucidate this feeling to anyone who is entirely without it, especially as there is no anthropomorphic conception of God corresponding to it. [vii]


2)     A release from human desires and merely-personal or ‘one time only’ concerns. In this enlightened state one’s focus is drawn to the eternal principals of existence and the hold of the merely-personal is loosened.


The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvellous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole. [viii]


Einstein lack of self and his almost total freedom from one time only concerns is legendary:


"I feel so much a part of every living thing that I am not in the least concerned with where the individual begins and ends."[ix] 


3)     Science is a key to the enlightened state. Einstein believes this is the normal spiritual home of those involved in basic scientific research.


Only one who has devoted his life to similar ends (scientific research) can have a vivid realization of what has inspired these men and given them the strength to remain true to their purpose in spite of countless failures. It is cosmic religious feeling that gives a man such strength. A contemporary has said, not unjustly, that in this materialistic age of ours the serious scientific workers are the only profoundly religious people. [x]


His contention is born out by the spiritual nature of many scientists perception of their work:

We dedicate this book to our fellow citizens who, for love of truth, take from their own wants by taxes and gifts, and now and then send forth one of themselves, as dedicated servant, to forward the search into the mysteries and marvellous simplicities of this strange and beautiful universe, our home[xi].


This enlightened state is not limited to only those involved in scientific research, it is accessible to all ‘those who are receptive to it’. [xii] And how is it accessible? ‘It is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it.’[xiii] He is saying that science can serve as a doorway into this spiritual realm. He is also saying that providing this doorway is the most important function of science and by implication the most important function of his life’s work.


Einstein did a lot to make his scientific thinking accessible to the lay person. His popular books such as ‘Relativity’ are inspiring and accessible. He was not the first notable scientist to write for the interested lay person, Darwin and Poincare also wrote accessible books. Since Einstein’s day many of the foremost scientist have diligently made their works accessible to as much of the public as possible. This body of work provides the culmination of the dream started by Descartes to construct a spiritual and intellectual home composed entirely of the rational and empirical.


Enlightenment Philosophy, like all other memes, developed through an evolutionary process. Pioneers such as Descartes and Bacon had a philosophical vision combining rationality and empiricism but they were unable to develop the full content. Only through generations of thinkers, each inheriting the work of those who had gone before and making slight variations of their own could this body of knowledge develop. This work evolved towards truth as empiricism requires that the content of this philosophy match reality as it is revealed to our senses. Ideas not conforming to this stringent test were discarded.


Reproduction, heredity, differential survival; all of the ingredients required for an evolutionary process are present. It has been a great success and has evolved an extensive body of knowledge that is our best connection to the truth. Whereas the pioneers where only able  to sustain a worldview having peripheral areas of rationality dominated by vast tracts of religion and superstition by the time we arrive at Einstein 300 years latter we have a fully enlightened intellect able to discard religious teachings at a young age and never again look back.


Not all modern thinkers have embraced Einstein’s views. Many modern philosophers are still struggling, in a manner not entirely dissimilar to Descartes, with the position in which we find ourselves once we clear our minds of religion and superstition.  Nietzsche seems to conclude that the fact that ‘God is dead’ frees us to reinvent ourselves as new men. On the other hand existentialists, perhaps the most influential philosophical school of the twentieth century take a more pessimistic view:

The existentialist...thinks it very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him; there can no longer be a priori of God, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. Nowhere is it written that the Good exists, that we must be honest, that we must not lie; because the fact is that we are on a plane where there are only men. Dostoyevsky said, If God didn't exist, everything would be possible. That is the very starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to.[xiv]

The angst of existentialism brought on perhaps by the pessimistic nature of twentieth century history with its two world wars followed by a decades’ long doctrine of ‘mutually assured destruction’ may now be behind us. People such as Schopenhauer, Darwin and Einstein demonstrated the ability of agnostics and atheists to dwell in a realm of enlightened thoughts while leading committed moral lives. Today there is a multitude of people for whom God is not a concept but who find themselves at home and inspired with awe when relating to the rational/empirical world that science is revealing to us.

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[i] Descartes R. (1993). Meditations on First Philosophy. Hackett Publishing Co.

[ii] Conversation between Laplace and Lagrange mediated by Napoleon, DeMorgan's Budget of Paradoxes

[iii]  Life and Letters, cited in Peter's Quotations, by Lawrence J. Peter (1977), p. 45.

[iv]  Life and Letters, cited in Peter's Quotations, by Lawrence J. Peter (1977), p. 45.

[v] Time Magazine (January, 2000), Person of the Century: Albert Einstein

[vi] Einstein Albert: Philosopher-Scientist (1949), Edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp, Open Court Publishing

[vii] Einstein Albert, (November 9, 1930), Science and Religion, New York Times Magazine

[viii] Einstein Albert, (November 9, 1930), Science and Religion, New York Times Magazine

[ix] Einstein, spoken to Heidi Born, wife of physicist Max Born Einstein, A Life, p. 159

[x] Einstein Albert, (November 9, 1930), Science and Religion, New York Times Magazine

[xi] Misner, Charles W and Thorne, Kip S and Wheeler, John Archibald. 1972. Gravitation. W.H. Freeman and Company

[xii] Einstein Albert, (November 9, 1930), Science and Religion, New York Times Magazine

[xiii] Einstein Albert, (November 9, 1930), Science and Religion, New York Times Magazine

[xiv] Sartre Jean Paul. As quoted on the web site ‘Dividingline.com’ http://www.dividingline.com/private/Philosophy/RealmofExistentialismbyKatharenaEiermann.shtml, Last viewed January 22, 2005