The Original of Albert Einstein’s Famous Letter on the Nature of God and Limitations of Science

The idea that there is a personal God who rewards and punishes is “childish”, he says, but ultimate answers about the universe may be beyond the “grasp” of mankind.

This letter is quoted on dozens of websites and in many books: “We have to admire in humility the beautiful harmony of the structure of this world – as far as we can grasp it, and that is all.”

Einstein early developed a great interest in the observation of nature, the stunning...

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The Original of Albert Einstein’s Famous Letter on the Nature of God and Limitations of Science

The idea that there is a personal God who rewards and punishes is “childish”, he says, but ultimate answers about the universe may be beyond the “grasp” of mankind.

This letter is quoted on dozens of websites and in many books: “We have to admire in humility the beautiful harmony of the structure of this world – as far as we can grasp it, and that is all.”

Einstein early developed a great interest in the observation of nature, the stunning beauty and symmetry of which was compelling to him. He instinctively believed that there is a complete rationality to the universe, and that its logical order precluded its being random. To him this implied a “pre-established harmony” linking all things that could be observed, experienced, felt and studied. It was up to man, through science, to unravel and understand the workings and relationships of this schema. As he wrote, “Science is the century-old endeavor to bring together by means of systematic thought the perceptible phenomena of this world into as thoroughgoing an association as possible.” The laws of nature, such as those of relativity theory, were waiting to be plucked out of the cosmos by someone with right eyes to see and discover them.

The search for such answers are, of course, questions of science, but they are also questions of religion. Einstein had views on the relationship between the two. If a scientist sought provable rules, he thought, a religious person is focused on the significance and loftiness of that which neither requires nor is capable of rational foundation. Thus, religion and science need not clash, and he melded these definitions into his classic religious statement about order and harmony: “God does not play dice with the universe”. Thus, Einstein’s God revealed himself in the marvelous structure of the universe and all its components. But although religion and science can mesh in theory, Einstein recognized in an essay he wrote for The New York Times in 1930 that in practice that there are very often “conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science” as the result of the “concept of a personal God”. To him, the error lay in the “anthropomorphic character of their conception of God”, meaning the belief that attributes to God human characteristics like anger and love. He did not believe that there could be “a God of Providence, who protects, disposes, rewards, and punishes”, one based on social interactions and impulses that are clearly human in nature. Rather, he believed “in Spinoza’s God who reveals Himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings…The man [scientist] who is thoroughly convinced of the universal operation of the law of causation cannot for a moment entertain the idea of a being who interferes in the course of events”. We would today consider that Einstein’s position was an agnostic one.

But science has its limits, as it can only determine facts and how they are related to, and conditioned by, each other. Einstein wrote, “One can have the clearest and most complete knowledge of what is, and yet not be able to deduct from that what should be the goal of our human aspirations…Here we face, therefore, the limits of the purely rational conception of our existence”. Further, considering ethics as instrumental in religion, he said, “Every attempt to reduce ethics to scientific formulae must fail.” This evocative statement shows his views even more clearly: “It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense. It would be a description without meaning—as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.”

Einstein was asked about his personal religious views on many occasions. And though in articles and books he sometimes clearly articulated his true beliefs as above, over the years he learned to be generally reticent about the question because his responses were often mis-reported or distorted in the popular press. For example, the Hearst Sunday newspapers published accounts attributing conventional religious pietism to Einstein. So he usually couched his responses in broad or metaphoric terms, or framing aphorisms in religious language, all of which were (and are) susceptible to ambiguous interpretation.

On June 14, 1945, Ensign Guy Raner, stationed on the USS Bougainville in the Pacific, wrote Einstein relating his conversation with a Catholic officer onboard ship who claimed that Einstein had converted from atheism to theism when confronted by a Jesuit priest with three irrefutable syllogisms (where a conclusion must follow from two assumed propositions). They were that: A design demands a designer; the universe is a design; therefore there must have been a designer. Raner countered by noting that cosmology and evolutionary theory adequately explain most apparent design in the world.

Einstein was at this time the most famous scientist in the world and routinely received hundreds of letters, many from prominent scholars. Raner was simply a serviceman at sea, but his letter stirred Einstein, who responded with this famous reply. While completely consistent with Einstein’s more complex statements, the response is likely the most succinct that Einstein ever wrote on the subjects of a personal God and the limitations of science.

Typed letter signed, on his personal blind, embossed letterhead, from his summer resort at Saranac Lake, NY, July 2, 1945, to Raner. “I received your letter of June 10th. I have never talked to a Jesuit priest in my life and I am astonished by the audacity to tell such lies about me. From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist. Your counterarguments seem to me very correct and could hardly be better formulated. It is always misleading to use anthropomorphical concepts in dealing with things outside the human sphere – childish analogies. We have to admire in humility the beautiful harmony of the structure of this world – as far as we can grasp it, and that is all.”

This letter is a famous one, and very often quoted. It appears in books such as Einstein: A Life by Denis Brian, The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever by Christopher Hitchens and The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies by Michael Shermer. It is also on Einstein’s Wiki page, used in many magazine and website articles, and quoted on innumerable quotations websites.

It is noteworthy that at the time of this exchange of letters, the USS Bougainville was actively participating in the Okinawa campaign preparatory to an invasion of Japan. That the two navy officers were using their free time to discuss Einstein, religion and philosophy is fascinating.

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