Why Albert Einstein Wasn’t an Atheist

“There is no good reason to believe that God exists,” declares Steven Pinker in his 2018 book Enlightenment Now. Although primarily a book about the undeniable benefits of Enlightenment ideals — such as reason, science, and humanism — Pinker briefly touches on his religious views in Chapter 23. Pinker is an atheist; he believes the world around us can be fully explained by the physical contents of the universe (space, time, matter, energy etc) and the laws that govern their interactions. He does not believe in anything beyond the natural world (i.e., the supernatural). When Pinker says that “there is no good reason” he means this quite literally. In that there exists no logical argument (relying on verifiable empirical evidence or deductive reasoning) that supports the existence of God. To Pinker, such a belief would be unenlightened.

However, another man equally committed to reason and science would disagree. The world-renowned German physicist Albert Einstein famously stated “I am not an atheist”  in an interview published in George Viereck’s 1930 book Glimpses of the Great. Einstein did not believe in an anthropomorphic God who takes an interest in human affairs (like the God of the bible), and, in a 1952 letter to Beatrice Frohlich, he described such views as “naïve.” Yet, in his 1934 book The World as I See It he still described himself as — at least in some sense of the word — “a deeply religious man.” Einstein possessed a kind of cosmic spirituality. In Viereck’s interview, Einstein continues:

The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe…We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues… It [the child] does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects.

Crucially, Einstein is not interpreting gaps in scientific knowledge as evidence for the existence of God. Instead, Einstein is alluding to the fact that there are some things we know science could NEVER explain.

In a 2007 New York Times Op-Ed titled Taking Science on Faith, physicist Paul Davies makes this exact point about the natural laws of the universe. Science proceeds on the assumption that the universe obeys a set of clearly defined laws, specifically, the laws of logic and physics. If we did not assume these laws hold then the universe would simply be a jumble of meaningless phenomena to which no scientific method could be applied.

When Davies asked his colleagues to explain why these laws exist, most simply replied “there is no reason—they just are.” Davies points out that this claim is deeply unscientific. Stating that something “just is” is no scientific explanation at all, it’s just a tautology. But of course, Davies gave them an impossible question to answer. All scientific explanation rests on the natural laws, so any scientific explanation of the natural laws themselves would rely on already assuming the laws exist. For example, it is impossible to explain the logic law ‘if A then B’ using the laws of logic themselves. 

All explanations consist of logic, so we would necessarily be using the conclusion to explain the premises (a logical fallacy). Similarly, we cannot use the laws of physics to explain why force equals mass times acceleration. Ultimately, such explanations necessarily rely on the very assumptions they are trying to explain in the first place. As such, the explanations go around in circles—the laws exist because they exist.

This observation is revealing. To comprehend anything, we must first begin with a set of assumptions. The laws of logic and physics are the inbuilt assumptions of the universe. We have no idea where these laws came from, and science can never explain where they came from because any explanation would necessarily rely on these assumptions anyway. This is the ‘mysterious order’ that Einstein was alluding to. This is not a mystery due to a lack of scientific knowledge; it is a mystery stemming from the limits of scientific knowledge itself.

Pinker addresses the mystery of the universe’s laws by appealing to multiverse theory. It is possible that there are infinitely many universes with infinitely many different types of natural laws, and it just so happens that we got a universe with our specific laws. In his article, Davies finds the multiverse argument to be a “dodge.” If there are infinite universes, there has to be some kind of mechanism that creates these universes, and some kind of mechanism that determines which natural laws each universe receives. In this sense, the problem has been shifted “one level up” from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws governing the infinite universes, an equally unexplainable phenomenon.  

Here, Einstein and Davies are both arguing against atheism; the idea that physical things and the laws that govern their interactions can fully explain the world around us. However, whether or not this constitutes a “good reason to believe God exists” depends on the definition of God. Einstein and Davies simply lay out the argument that the universe cannot explain itself, implying that something greater than the universe exists. What that something is, is unknown. However, the ‘cosmological’ argument for the origin of the universe reveals more. Consider the following premises and conclusion:

Premise One: Everything that has a beginning has a cause

This is the law of causality, and all science, reasoning, and our understanding of reality rely on it. It underlies the notion that something cannot come from nothing. This law is also embedded in the laws of physics (no energy can be created or destroyed). Important to the First Premise is that something without a beginning does not need a cause. Something infinite has always been, and therefore can’t have a cause.

Premise Two: The universe had a beginning

This beginning is commonly referred to as ‘the big bang’ and is estimated to have occurred around 13.8 billion years ago. As Stephen Hawking noted in 1996 in The Nature of Space and Time, “almost everyone now believes that the universe and time itself had a beginning at the big bang.” Important to Premise Two is that the ‘big crunch’ theory has been largely disproven. The big crunch theory hypothesises that the expansion of space and time will one day reverse and the universe will collapse back in on itself, causing another big bang and ultimately an infinite cycle of crunches and bangs. As the Nobel Prize-winning physicist (and ANU’s very own vice-chancellor) Brian Schmidt discovered, the expansion of the universe is accelerating and will likely continue forever. Essentially, our universe only had one big bang.  

Conclusion: if the universe had a beginning, then the universe must have had a cause. Since before the big bang, space, time, and matter did not exist, this cause must be spaceless, timeless, and immaterial.

Essentially, nature had a beginning, and nature cannot have caused itself (that would defy the laws of nature). Instead, the cause must have come from something beyond nature, i.e., something ‘supernatural.’ Importantly, we cannot claim that one day science will be able to explain the cause of the universe. Science relies on the laws of nature to explain things and prior to the big bang, nature did not exist. If nature is the effect, it cannot be the cause. A natural explanation for the cause of the universe is impossible in principle.

In 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, written in 2010, Rebecca Goldstein argues that the cosmological argument has two flaws. Firstly, saying that God (or something supernatural) caused the universe simply shifts the question to who created God? (the fallacy of using one mystery to explain another). However, as the cosmological argument lays out, an infinite thing does not require a cause. This is especially true for a supernatural infinite thing (which is above the laws of nature in the first place).

Secondly, Goldstein argues that we cannot apply the laws of the universe to the universe itself. This would be extending the laws to a realm where we don’t know how to use them. However, this refutation itself resembles the cosmological argument. Goldstein is arguing that the law of causality does not apply to the big bang. Instead of claiming that the thing that caused the big bang was supernatural, Goldstein is claiming that the big bang itself was supernatural (since something that is above the laws of nature is supernatural). Either way, something supernatural happened. Either way, something (the universe) appeared from nothing (a lack of the universe as we know it).

So far, we have established that something supernatural exists and that this something is spaceless, timeless and immaterial. Some people refer to this as God, but nevertheless, this argument does not establish the existence of a personal God — the kind that Einstein dismissed as naïve — or an afterlife for that matter. Instead, the main point is that these arguments refute the belief that everything can be explained by the physical universe. This is why Einstein wasn’t an atheist; the natural world alone cannot satisfyingly explain the world around us.

We exist in a cosmos that lies beyond our comprehension. Such a realisation may at first sound inconsequential, however, for the irreligious, this notion can be life-changing. There is a tendency for the atheistic worldview to make our experiences seem like meaningless physical processes we have no control over. However, when we step back and realise, we live in a universe with a mysterious order we cannot comprehend, we get a profound sense that the world around us is more than just the senseless interactions of particles. We might not understand our purpose, but perhaps this isn’t because no such purpose exists, but because our purpose is itself incomprehensible to our human minds. Perhaps our purpose also lies beyond the physical world around us.