The problem with using scientists' words to support religious beliefs.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
June 18 2008 7:10 AM

It Doesn't Take an Einstein

The problem with using scientists' words to support religious beliefs.

(Continued from Page 1)

In his best-selling biography Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson writes, "[W]e should do him the honor of taking him at his word when he insists, repeatedly, that these oft-used phrases were not merely a semantic way of disguising that he was actually an atheist." It's a generous assessment, but one that encompasses the physicist's more milquetoast pronouncements on the matter and conveniently ignores what Isaacson elsewhere concedes was Einstein's maddening tendency to be purposefully gnomic or oblique. Another biographer, Ronald W. Clark, observed that when Einstein talked about religion, "he tended to adopt the belief of Alice's Red Queen that 'words mean what you want them to mean.' " (Clark quotes the line incorrectly and attributes it to the wrong character; the line "When I use a word ... it means just what I choose it to mean. ..." is uttered by Humpty Dumpty. *) That comes closer to the mark and is best evidenced in the famous quotation, "I cannot believe that God plays dice with the cosmos." Only a literal mind would see here a prime mover at a celestial craps table.

Einstein is not the only cosmic dragoman whose figurative comments about the great "out yonder" have been taken at face value. In the last paragraph of A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking uses the phrase "knowing the mind of God" as a metonym for the Theory of Everything, which Christian physicist Karl Giberson interprets as either a cheeky way of marketing a science book or a sign of Hawking's "theological naivete."

Advertisement

Elsewhere, sincere celebrations of faith by scientists have led to troubling category problems. Stephen Jay Gould came up with the term "nonoverlapping magisteria" to compartmentalize science as the exclusive domain of facts and religion as the exclusive domain of values. Except that values must be rooted in facts if they are not to be simply invented willy-nilly by religion. And, as an analytic philosopher of my acquaintance points out, if Gould's rule rang true, then it would entail that, as a scientist, he had no authority to advance that value-laden dichotomy in the first place.

More recently, geneticist Francis Collins, a former atheist, claimed that he came to Christ after hiking one day and spotting a waterfall frozen in three streams. Even if you accept that a triune phenomenon in nature is proof of the holy trinity, it surely isn't the kind of interpretive leap Collins' colleagues at the Human Genome Project would make in the lab. Nor does competence in biology necessarily translate into competence in metaphysics (just as Ben Stein's talents as a game-show host have not translated well into documentary filmmaking).

Most believers have long given up trying to legitimize the supernatural in microscopes or cyclotrons. That scientists like Einstein resorted to a numinous vocabulary is not the "gotcha" some wishful thinkers would like it to be. Faith has had impressive minds on its side in the past, but it will have to work without the assumption that the greatest of the 20th century was one of them.

Correction, June 18, 2008: This piece contains a quotation from Einstein biographer Ronald W. Clark that attributes lines from Through the Looking Glass to the Red Queen instead of Humpty Dumpty. Clark also misquoted the line. The incorrect quotation remains in the piece, but a parenthetical explains Clark's errors. (Return  to the sentence.)

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
History
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 29 2014 3:10 PM The Lonely Teetotaler Prudie counsels a letter writer who doesn’t drink alcohol—and is constantly harassed by others for it.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 29 2014 11:32 PM The Daydream Disorder Is sluggish cognitive tempo a disease or disease mongering?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.