THE SCIENTIST Princeton, New Jersey, September 1945The Institute for Advanced Studies
My father was a physicist at the University of Chicago before and during World War II. From him, I learned to appreciate the wonders of mathematical physics. And I did enough mathematics myself to see and experience how beautiful a good mathematical proof can be. (When mathematicians talk about a really good mathematical proof –one that is as clear as can be but uses the fewest possible steps– they even call it “elegant.”) But I had neither sufficient talent nor, because of that, the inclination, to become a professional mathematician or physicist myself. Mathematics at its best, they say, is generally a young man’s calling, and by the time the War was over, I was already too old to start. And as for physics, its more abstruse realms in the reaches of the subatomic are simply beyond me. (J. Robert Oppenheimer said that “Whoever is not astonished by the teachings of subatomic physics does not understand them.”) So I have remained a curious amateur, one who, even at my advanced age, is still completely astonished by the basic idea, first laid out more or less comprehensively in mathematical terms by Sir Isaac Newton, that the entire universe is governed by mathematical principles. I mean, why should this be so? Why should the universe not be, as some physicists today say it is, the result of one after another of totally random events?
But then, when I consider that point of view, I also think of what has actually been done with mathematics. Think of it yourself.
Beginning with a mathematical point — a totally abstract and unreal entity– and going on to equally unreal and abstract ideas like triangles, and circles, and ellipses, and parabolas and hyperboles, and then on to Newtonian ideas like gravity –which even today no one will say they really understand– it has been possible, using points and ellipses and parabolas and the idea of the “forces of gravity,” to take a hunk of metal and propel it –actually get it– millions and millions of miles away, on target, to circle (or parabola) another planet. Think of the wonder of that!
If there really are no such things as points or parabolas, how is that, just by assuming that there are such things, we can get a man to the moon? I mean, what is this mysterious relationship between the unreal mathematical creations of our minds, and what we are able actually to do in the world with these “unreal” ideas? Who would have really known, for example, that by thinking up E = MC2 — an equation, a construct of thought– we would develop the power to blow up the world? Even the man who thought that equation up didn’t know it. In fact, twenty years after I met him, he said “If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.”
My father had met with him many times. Physicists, though often solitary types, do get together now and then. And when I had heard about “The Bomb” as I was mustering out of the Air Force, I pleaded with my father to arrange for me to meet him. And he did.
He was just as he appears in his photographs –mussy and homey and old shoe comfortable. We met at the Institute, and the first thing he did was to offer me a cup of tea which, of course, I accepted. He asked after my father, who was well, so there was no reason for much chit-chat about family matters. Then he asked me about myself, and about how my experiences as an American airman in combat in Europe had affected me. I knew he was a pacifist, and would have sympathized with my reactions to the horrors I had seen, but I was afraid he would not look kindly upon my having chosen to enlist, so I hesitated in my answer. I didn’t have to hesitate long, though, because he said to me, no doubt seeing my reluctance to speak: “My pacifism is not based on any intellectual theory, but on a deep antipathy to every form of cruelty and hatred.” I could not have thought of any words he could have said that would have put me more at ease. He could not even hate hatred; he felt an antipathy toward it; so what had I to fear from him by saying whatever I had to say?
His gentleness and humane understanding had so moved me, that I immediately felt I could completely unburden myself to him. Before I could get out even one sentence about my experiences in Europe, however, I came close to bursting into tears. (I was still pretty young at the time, even if I was too old to become a mathematician.) I didn’t mean to make him my psychiatrist, but he sensed what I was feeling, and almost took on that role. He said nothing at first as I struggled with my feelings, and then asked me very quietly, actually puffing on his pipe: “Would you like to talk about it?”
“No, Professor,” I said, “I do not want to talk about it. I have come to ask you some questions that are very important to me though; questions that grow partly out of my experiences in Europe and — forgive me please — questions that grow out of what I have heard about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” He looked down, almost as if ashamed, and slowly shook his great head from side to side, many times, not really in shame, but in silent empathy with the questions I think he already knew I was going to ask.
“How can it be,” I asked, “how can it be, that something as pure and clean and noble as the higher attainments of mathematical thinking, can be transformed into something as ugly and barbaric as the slaughter of innocents and the possible destruction of the world? What is there in us, or lacking in us, that can lead us so quickly to use what science, after millenia of intellectual struggle, has discovered in pursuit of truth? I know, Professor, that this development, this horrifying development, must in no way have been in your mind when you first saw the mathematical relationship between matter and atomic energy –but why, Professor, why? How can the God that created mind also have permitted this realization of Hell on Earth?”
My questions were impassioned, perhaps even intemperate, but he had no difficulty absorbing them. He serenely observed me as I spilled out my guts to him, his head slightly nodding while he continued puffing on his pipe, a picture of grandfatherly solicitude. Then he looked up, took his pipe out of his mouth, and began speaking to me.
“You know, Mr. Berger, I am sure, that there are many, many subsidiary questions implied in the questions you have put to me, although what you are asking seems to me, on the whole, to be quite clear. What has happened cannot rightly, I think, be blamed upon the nature of scientific research itself; nor can it be simply dismissed, for example, as the consequence of the existence of a cosmic ‘evil’ in the world. I prefer not to think about it that way.
“Science itself can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain, value judgments of all kinds remain necessary. It is because of this I have come to believe that science without religion is lame; but religion without science is blind. And what do I mean by ‘religion’? Whether a man is a scientist or not, it seems to me that his ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education and social ties and needs; no ‘religion’ basis is necessary.”
“On the other hand, Mr. Berger, one may too easily dismiss, particularly on the basis of what has now happened, the contribution science may make to elevating our ethical sense. Scientific research can reduce superstition by encouraging people to think and survey things in terms of cause and effect. I am certain, that a conviction, akin to a religious feeling, of the rationality or intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order. This firm belief, a belief bound up with deep feeling, in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God. In common parlance, by the way, this may be described as ‘pantheistic.’ So we need not yet despair entirely, I think, about the relevance of the scientific enterprise to the advancement of our ethical condition.”
He paused here to see what I had taken in of what he had said, and permitted me the luxury of taking a few moments to think about it. As I did, my reflections were interrupted by a renewed realization that I was hearing the thoughts and words of one of history’s greatest minds, a man who, no doubt, had more important things to do that day, and every other day, than comfort a morally troubled young man with no real claim on his time. But that was obviously not the way he looked at our meeting. The undivided attention he gave to me and to my concerns was reassuring; it made me feel that, in his own mind, there was, at that moment, nothing more important for him to do than to talk to me about my questions.
This sense of reassurance permitted me to return to my reflections upon his words, and I resumed our conversation.
“I believe I understand what you have said Professor. But it only reinforces my confusion; it doesn’t dissipate it. If scientific thinking at its best is based on a conviction, akin to a religious feeling, of the rationality of the world,’ then I ask again, how can the priests of this enterprise have permitted, and even directly participated in, the most powerful demonstration of cruelty and hatred the world has ever seen?”
“In the temple of Science are many mansions, Mr. Berger, and various indeed are they that dwell therein and the motives that have led them thither. Many take to science out of a joyful sense of superior intellectual power; science is their own special sport to which they look for vivid experience and the satisfaction of ambition; many others are to be found in the temple who have offered the products of their brains on this altar for purely utilitarian purposes. Were an angel of the Lord to come and drive all the people belonging to these two categories out of the temple, it would be noticeably emptier, but there would still be some men, of both present and past times, left inside. Max Planck, for example, is one such, a very lovable man. Your father knows him. And your father himself is another such.
“What has brought such men as these to the Temple we might ask? That is a difficult question and no single answer will cover it. To begin with I believe with Schopenhauer that one of the strongest motives that lead men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one’s own ever shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from personal life into the world of objective perception and thought — like a townsman’s longing to escape from his noisy, cramped surroundings into the silence of high mountains, where his eye can range freely through the still, pure air and fondly trace out restful contours apparently built for eternity. The state of mind which enables a scientist such as Planck to pursue, with inexhaustible patience and endurance, an understanding of those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deduction, is akin to that of the religious worshiper or the lover; his daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart.”
In his speech to me about the pure scientist, he had become more animated, and he carried me along, higher and higher, to something of a renewed faith in the character of the very best scientists. It occurred to me that he was also in a way, though very indirectly and unself-consciously, talking about himself. My admiration of his character as I was seeing it displayed before me, turned my respect for him at that moment into love for a very, very great man. He had paused after his reverential description of the motivations and character of the pure scientist, and then he sighed.
. “But, of course,” he said, in a different mood, “things have changed now. Dr. Oppenheimer, you know, has said that the scientists at Los Alamos ‘knew the world would not be the same.’ And he added, later, ‘The physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.’ Things have now indeed changed. The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything but our modes of thinking, and I fear that, unless we change some of our ways of thinking too, we will drift toward unparalleled catastrophe. Still, though, there is some hope that we will learn.”
“And what basis, Professor,” I asked him, “do you have for your hopes when, as you have pointed out, the temple of science is so heavily populated by vain, ambitious, and unduly competitive people, and those who seek utility without regard to ethical consequences?”
“Yes, yes,” he nodded emphatically, “for those people any sphere of human activity will do, if it comes to a point; whether they become officers, tradesmen or scientists depends on circumstances. But, as I have said, a person’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education and social ties and needs. And it is here, in the growing recognition I think may come of the social need now for a more determined ethical dimension in science, that there may be hope. There is hope, I think too, in education and the educational possibilities suggested by a greater awareness of the seriousness of the problem we now face. –an awareness which, I think, is likely to grow. The ethical axioms we adopt are found and tested not very differently from the axioms of science. Truth is what stands the test of experience. Truth is, all in all, more powerful than ignorance; given enough time and visibility, it often has eventually compelled assent, despite our superstitions and our prejudices and our weaknesses.”
“You mean,” I asked, “it’s like mathematics?”
“In a sense, yes, but in another sense not. As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality. On the other hand, you are probably aware of my having said that I believe God is subtle but not malicious, and that God does not play dice with the universe. The evidence of a cosmos ordered by an intelligence far, far more vast than we can even yet begin to comprehend, is compelling to me. Some would call this a kind of faith, but I think that reason and experience –and science itself — all point toward it. We may never all be angels, but perhaps the better angels of our nature will emerge sufficiently, in time, to save us from ourselves.”
Despite what happened in 1945, my conversation with him helped me to keep my appreciation of the beauty of science and mathematics, and the faith that by giving scientists free rein to try to understand the physical universe, there is at least some good reason to suppose that they will discover things that will help to elevate, rather than degrade, our moral condition. Even if God is playing a kind of dice with the universe, I prefer to put my money on the higher souls he has created –like Einstein’s. As history has demonstrated, the truth is, in a sense, more powerful even than a Hitler or a Stalin. And as a thoughtful political writer here in Chicago has written: “Even tyrannies must rely upon some notion of justice and respect the truth.”
Einstein and The Light of Science
Albert Einstein (1879-1955), born in Ulm, Germany, was naturalized as a Swiss citizen at the age of 15, returning to German citizenship in 1914, and becoming a naturalized American citizen in 1940, after leaving Hitler’s Germany. He was a member of Princeton University’s Institute of Advanced Study from 1933 to 1955. His epochal equation, E = MC2 (Energy = Mass times the speed of light squared) furnished the theoretical basis for understanding atomic power, that is, the vastness of the energy contained in each atom of matter. When an atomic bomb explodes, only a fraction of one percent of the atomic mass is converted into energy.
Even more important than his discovery and formulation of the equivalence of mass and energy, was Einstein’s enunciation of the Theory of Relativity, publishing his account of the Special Theory of Relativity in 1905 and his General Theory in 1916. These works revolutionized the understanding of mathematical physics by replacing Newtonian concepts of absolute time and space with the conception that time and space are relative, and differ depending upon considerations of an observer’s position, motion, and forces of gravity. In 1929, Einstein published papers on a unified field theory which sought to include, in a single mathematical formula, the laws of electromagnetics and gravitation, as a result of which he also deduced the influence of gravity on the propagation of light. He was awarded the Noble Prize for Physics in 1921, and is still generally regarded as the greatest mathematical physicist since Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), and thus perhaps the greatest in all history. A declared pacifist, in 1933 Einstein wrote, with Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) a pacifist book titled Why War?
J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) was Director of the Institute of Advanced Study from 1947 to 1966 (during which period the author of this book was once privileged to meet him). He had been director of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico (1942-1945), the government applied research project that developed the atomic bomb. The first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 7, 1945, ending World War II.
Max Planck (1858-1947) was a German physicist who first developed quantum theory, the foundation for subatomic physics, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1918. Einstein deeply admired him for his work and for his character, and many of Einstein’s statements about scientists in THE SCIENTIST are taken from a tribute to Max Planck Einstein made in 1918, on the occasion of Planck’s sixtieth birthday, to the Physical Society in Berlin, Germany.
The convergence of science, philosophy, and theology at the upper reaches of each of these fields of abstract study, and the increasingly difficult ethical questions posed by the power of modern applied science, are the focus of Einstein’s conversation in the story. His comments to the fictional Mr. Berger closely follow his own words and writings.
Those who wonder about just how much we can know about the world, also ask about the relationship between scientific knowledge and other kinds of “knowing.” Any well educated modern scientist will tell us that the inquiries of modern science have led it, more and more, to consider questions that once were considered to be the kinds of questions only philosophers or theologians asked: How was the world created? How large is the universe? What are space and time? What is the nature of cause and effect, and how does it work? What is the relationship between what a thing really is and its perceived form? What is the end, if any, toward which the universe is tending?
Immanuel Kant is perhaps the most influential of modern philosophers. His thinking forms the roots of even post-modernist thought. He demonstrated, not scientifically, but logically, that time and space are conditions of our thinking, not objective realities. It seems to me that this may suggest the reality of our true being in eternity, out of time and space, and the illusoriness of temporal existence. Kant also famously wrote:
Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more seriously you reflect upon them: the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me.
Modern science has also reaffirmed in at least two ways the ultimate unity of being. It suggests it cosmologically, in the prevailing conclusion that the universe was created with a Big Bang (ex nihilio as the result of a “random quantum fluctuation of nothing”), through expansion of a point of infinitely dense energy and light –an indivisible, unitary source of all that is.
Subatomic physics has other implications suggesting an even closer connection among all created beings. Quantum theory tends to confirm the illusoriness of our separation from all that is. Its more recent refinements call into question even such basic notions as cause and effect, matter and energy, mind and matter, and the idea that there are any independent existent things at all. The experiments of subatomic physics appear to demonstrate that the nature of anything depends no more upon any intrinsic qualities, than upon the question a scientist chooses to ask about that thing. Light, for example, can appear to consist of particles or of waves, depending upon the experiment designed to examine its characteristics. At least one experiment has led to the hypothesis (“Bell’s Theorem”) that there may, in fact, be only one particle in the entire universe, perceived by us in different forms as the result of the necessary organization of our sense experience into categories of time and space — as Kant asserted, not scientifically, but through the use of pure reason.
This scientific hypothesis suggests that it is more than just a poetic conclusion that we should ask not “for whom the bell tolls — it tolls for thee,” but a scientific as well as spiritual truth. It indicates everything is truly one in more than a metaphorical sense; that, for example, the consciousness of the author of this book and its readers are literally one consciousness, reflected through, and only apparently fractured in, separate bodies.
It is as though the Light of Consciousness shines through the darkness of eternity, and our transient separate being passes through that Light, so that the very thing that makes us conscious creatures abides forever, while the filter of our smaller selves gives us an opportunity to reflect (and view) it from a unique perspective –during that brief time, and within that limited space, occupied by our smaller selves. Another way of saying this is that we are as much within eternal Understanding as “understanding” is within us. It is what is under us; and we stand upon it.
In their search for scientific knowledge (the Latin word “scientia” means “knowledge”), modern scientists make no claim that what they discover describes what really is. Modern science is, rather, an enterprise aiming to describe the appearances of things with sufficient accuracy to predict their future appearance. Science seeks confirmation of its predictions (its “hypotheses”) through the reproducibility of scientific experiments, and examination of phenomena (“appearances”) in light of its predictions. When such examination appears to confirm the prediction, it is presumed to be scientifically “correct” –not “true”. That is why even scientific hypotheses that have been confirmed by accurate prediction of the appearances are invariably changed over time, when another hypothesis seems to predict the appearances more completely or accurately.
Scientific “correctness” is, therefore, not the same as philosophical or theological “truth,” which aims to describe, not only the appearances of phenomena, but to discover the real nature of their being. The fictionalized Einstein’s statement in THE SCIENTIST that “as far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality,” is, therefore, both a scientific and a philosophical statement. Given the limitations of the modern scientific enterprise, science gives us little or no guidance about spiritual or ethical matters, the questions we ask ourselves about what it means to live a “good” life. That is why the fictionalized Einstein also says in the story –again with what are really his words: “Religion without science is blind; science without religion is lame.”
In contrast to modern science, ancient philosophers and theologians (and their modern successors) inquire into the nature of the inner reality of the outer world. Inquiry into the nature of “Being” is a philosophic questioning about what really is; an inquiry technically termed “ontology” (“the science of being”). Philosophical inquiry into the nature of our understanding and knowledge of reality is technically termed “epistemology” (“the science of knowledge”). In classical philosophy, questions even about the nature of “Beauty” were also more than the scientific study of aesthetics. Inquiry into questions about the nature of beauty were somewhere between ontology and epistemology, for both the sensual appreciation and intellectual understanding of Beauty in the world was, the ancients supposed, a manifestation of the Beauty of True Being. Likewise, the nature of the Good was also necessarily related to the nature of true being, and what we could learn about it. “Ethics,” the study of the good life, was also both ontologically and epistemologically based. The original (and probably the most influential) formulation of these connections occurs in Plato’s dialogue, The Meno, in which Socrates reaches the conclusion that “Virtue is knowledge.” Evil (or, more precisely perhaps, “vice”), according to Plato, was the result of ignorance, a misperception of the way things are, and a mistaken choice of an apparent good –such as a momentary pleasure in response to our desire for immediate gratification–over a real and greater one that is more likely to assure our true happiness.
Such inquiry into the relationship between our knowledge of the world and what it means to live a good life, has been a hallmark of philosophy at least since Plato (428-389 B.C), who believed that ideas (what he called “the forms”) have, in truth, a greater reality than things. This ancient teaching may not seem so absurd in light of some of the modern discoveries of subatomic physics — most notably Werner Heisenberg’s (1901-1976) theory of indeterminacy (“uncertainty principle”) in quantum mechanics. Heisenberg’s theory (1927), for which he won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1932, laid the foundation for some of the most important scientific research now being conducted. Research which suggests, as I have already pointed out, that our understanding of things (such as light) may be determined by the questions we ask about them, at least as much as their intrinsic characteristics. The questions posed by the entirely fictional narrator of THE SCIENTIST, Mr. Berger, about how what we know –and what we think or believe we know— relates to what we do, are, therefore, among the most important questions that can be posed by conscientious scientists, philosophers, or theologians. As the story illustrates, they were questions Einstein himself seriously considered throughout his long life.
It seems to me that these are, in fact, among the most important questions we can ask, and that they are questions which relate to every aspect of our daily lives. For we evaluate what we do –if we intend for our lives to have any sense at all– not only by what we may feel at any particular time, but, at least to some extent, by what we believe about what the world is like, what our place in it is, and what is our relationship to other human beings –both the individuals who are important to us, and to the larger communities of which we are a part.