Albert Einstein is almost like a character out of a novel. He seems too interesting to be true. It would be hard to find a 20th century personality who is more admirable, more laughable, more quotable, more revered, and more alien from the norms of society, than Einstein. Probably the most famous photo of Einstein is the old man with the wild white hair, sticking his tongue all the way out of his mouth at the photographer. His name is literally synonymous with genius. He has been quoted everywhere, from boxes of herbal tea to sporting events to the United Nations. Yet his portrayal of himself is: ’I am a lone traveler and have never belonged to my country, my home, my friends, or even my immediate family, with my whole heart…’ Who was this remarkable man and what does he have to say about the purpose of life?
The biographical details are available everywhere. His scientific achievements are equally well-known even if they are not widely understood. What is less known is his outlook on life and its purpose. Around 1929 he wrote an essay that was included in various publications over the years. It is usually entitled ‘The World as I see it’. In this essay, we get an astounding window into the intimate thoughts of this brilliant thinker concerning the meaning of life. One gets the impression that Einstein didn’t just jot down the first few ideas that popped into his head when asked to write about this subject. On the contrary, it seems that he had thought about it quite deeply, perhaps over many years. Without a doubt his views on the subject were influenced by his science. But in this essay, one gets to see the reverse - how his science was influenced by his outlook on life.
‘How strange is the lot of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people - first of all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy…’
Up to this point it is rather conventional, if not a little unexpected from a scientist such as Einstein. But then he changes direction and turns to something entirely new:
‘The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery, even if mixed with fear, that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man... I am satisfied with the mystery of life's eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvelous structure of existence, as well as the humble attempt to understand even a tiny portion of the Reason that manifests itself in nature’
The mysterious. What is the mysterious? Why did Einstein, widely acknowledged as the greatest scientist of the 20th century and perhaps the greatest ever, speak of the mysterious as ‘the most beautiful experience we can have’? A little background to Einstein’s religious orientation is necessary here. He was not religious in any formal sense, and he rejected all versions of a personal God (one who has human-like concerns for the world). In this essay he ridicules belief in an afterlife. Elsewhere he claimed that he definitely believed in God, but it was the indifferent God of Spinoza as opposed to the tempestuous God of the Bible. His God was ‘subtle but not malicious’. His God ‘did not play dice with the universe’. These and other famous Einstein quips were directed towards his fellow physicists as they argued over the correct interpretation of quantum mechanics. But they tell us something about him – that his God existed and played by the rules that He either made or that came along with Him.
But here he speaks of mystery as an emotion. Though he may have accepted Spinoza’s God, he did not accept Spinoza’s relegating of the emotions to some netherworld of the mind. One emotion at least - the emotion of wonder that springs from the depths of mystery in the universe, is the basis of both science and art, and is the foundation of religion. What an amazing idea! Wonder at the mystery of it all is the common source of science and religion. The interface of these two apparently conflicting pursuits was among Einstein’s many profound interests. It lay at the core of his science.
Many people think of science as a dry and objective search for dry and objective things. No matter what the subject, no matter how intriguing it may appear to be, scientists have an uncanny way of making it boring and unappetizing. While great strides have been made in popularizing science, for the most part science has retained its dry and objective image. Religion, on the other hand, has acquired over the past couple of centuries an image of being irrelevant and oppressive, to say nothing of untrue. While it offers much emotional and spiritual solace to believers, it comes at the great cost of having to swallow quite a bit. The two of them, religion and science, have almost nothing to say to each other. Each considers the other to be varying degrees of false and misleading, and a major threat to its faithful.
Einstein seems to be wiping all that out with a few strokes of the pen. While he wasn’t so naive as to think that the two could be totally reconciled, and he definitely sided with science in its battle with religion, he felt there was a religious side not just to science, but to life itself. His religion did not worship a god who intervenes in the affairs of the world. He bowed to the profound mystery that underlies all of existence. He called this mystery the conventional and controversial term ‘God’.
God is the fount of the mystery. Our part is to try to understand whatever bits and pieces we can, and to use that understanding to enhance our sense of wonder and to perceive the radiant beauty. We don’t want to ‘penetrate’ the mystery – we want it to remain mysterious, even as we strive to understand it deeper.
Science, to Einstein, was not a bunch of equations that reveal a few things about particles and energy. It may begin with those equations, but they are really just the tip of the iceberg. The real task of science, the real goal, is to grasp the great mystery and to revere it. This is nothing less than a religious task, a sacred task. To truly understand the world through the eyes of science does not mean to cut through the mystery towards some answer that removes all wonder. It means uncovering a little corner of the mystery and seeing the path that leads deeper inside. It means realizing that science is just one path on that great quest, and that other paths, that may not have equations as signposts, lead to the same goal. They may compliment each other, each revealing a little of what the others miss. ‘Religion without science is lame, science without religion is blind’ – Albert Einstein.
Mystery is not restricted to ‘whodunits’. It is waiting for us all, lurking in hidden corners and blazing in the sunlight. It is found both in mathematical equations and in the eyes of a loved one. The starry sky shines with it, but only if one is willing to look and listen. Who isn’t captivated by the aura of mystery? Who doesn’t crave that feeling of wonder, that sense of beauty that defies description and explanation? Why don’t we seek it more? Why are we so often resistant to its call?
Perhaps we are afraid of mystery. Perhaps there is something about incomprehensibility that leaves us uneasy. We want answers - we want facts, figures, maps, weather reports. We don’t want to face an unknown future or deal with a present that lacks the steady predictability of a computer. Death is the greatest mystery, so it should be no surprise that it is our greatest fear. Nobody looks forward to the mystery of death with a sense of wonder. We fear the unknown because it shakes our security and lets us realize that, in the long run, we are not in control.
But it need not be like that. The wonder of a flower blooming and the mystery of the unknown both come from the same source. They both tell us, one through the emotion of beauty and one through the emotion of fear, that there is something else aside from us and our little world. That something else, whether we call it God or nature, is the source of all mystery. It awaits our call and never disappoints us if we allow it to work its magic.
Would it be such a terrible thing if we all sought a little more wonder in our lives? We live in a world which is increasingly inundated with high tech devices that take all the mystery out of life. It's all laid out in a very predictable and hum-drum manner. Things only promise to head in that same direction faster and faster as time goes by. Where can mystery be found in life? The answer is everywhere, but it must uncovered like buried treasure. It lurks underneath the surface, waiting to be revealed and revered. The mysterious is the path that enables us to avoid the bleak future of a world dictated by the machines that do our thinking for us. Those machines may work faster and more accurately than our brains, but they also take all the wonderful mystery out of life. Mystery is our ticket out of that future, the rope that we must grasp to hang on to wonder. But we must seek it out if we hope to retain it, and when it is sensed it should be cherished like an old friend. It is profound and reverent, and absolutely precious to those who seek meaning in life.
Food for Thought
It is a little strange that Einstein of all people should attach so much value to the mysterious. Science steadily erodes the veil of mystery that has always shrouded the universe. Is there any way that science and the religious sense of mystery can not only co-exist, but can complement each other?
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