“I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists,” Einstein replied to an interviewer. “That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.”
Einstein, however, emphatically did not believe “in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind. … I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals, or would sit in judgment on creatures of his own creation.”
In fact, in the words of biographer Walter Isaacson, “Einstein…believed, as did [17th century philosopher Baruch] Spinoza, that a person’s actions were just as determined as that of a billiard ball, planet or star…. Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control.”
In his adherence to the scientific principle of invariable cause and effect, Einstein was as confident and uncompromising as his hero, Spinoza.
But, also like Spinoza, Einstein was generally humane and modest in his personal life, and generously radical in his political views. “From the standpoint of daily life, there is one thing we do know; that we are here for the sake of others”
His great scientific discoveries and charming personality eventually won him huge popularity across the globe and in all classes of society, from Presidents to other scientists to the immigrant garment workers of New York City.
But while Einstein’s description of the large-scale structure of the universe has proved uncannily accurate, his convictions about billiard-ball determinism have been challenged by scientists viewing reality at a microscopic level. His refusal to accept quantum evidence of uncertainty in the micro-universe made Einstein appear unreasonable to some. He never overcame his mistrust in such weirdness as “entangled” particles moving in tandem, even while separated by cosmic distances. “It was as if the ground had been pulled out from under us,” he said, “with no firm foundation to be seen anywhere.”
As for his most famous discovery, Relativity, Einstein’s vision has suggested both new possibilities and new constraints for humanity’s future. His revelation of time as a fourth dimension opened new possibilities for exploring the vast universe. Travelling at the speed of light, a person (or electromagnetic waves representing that person) would not age. But from the point of view of compatriots back on Earth, Einstein’s speed-of-light “speed limit” implies it would take space travelers an inconceivably long time to visit planets around other stars — and prospective travelers might return eons later to a planet no longer there.
We can hope that the quantum uncertainty that Einstein rejected, and other revelations to come, will open a path for our descendants to move beyond Einstein’s automated universe. We might begin with a recognition he shared with Spinoza: “I am compelled to act as if free will existed, because if I wish to live in a civilized society I must act responsibly.”