Friday, January 8, 2010

Week 2: Einstein's Ethics

Distribution Source: iTunesU
Content Source: American Public Media
Format: Audio
Length: 51 minutes, 3 seconds

Anyone who has taken a basic physics course (and many who haven't) will recognize the theories of special and general relativity as the work of Albert Einstein. These and countless other advancements in science have made Einstein's name synonymous with brilliance. While scrolling through lecture options for this week I was drawn to a series of interviews with physicists in which they discuss not Einstein's science but rather his ethics, covering everything from his views on religion to the development of nuclear weapons.

I went into these interviews expecting that Einstein's views on the atomic bomb and, by extension, World War II, would be most interesting to me given his unique perspective as a German Jew and his status as arguably the most prominent physicist of his time. While not disappointed on this front, I was fascinated by the fact that Einstein was an avid supporter of civil rights, specifically with regard to the plight of African Americans in the United States. This was surprising to many at the time, including the African American population. To Einstein, however, it was simple. Just as he approached science by asking simple questions whose answers would often lead to unique insight, he also approached social issues by asking basic questions: What if I were black? Would my work be as respected? Would my ideas be given the same weight? This thought process, coupled with his own family's persecution during the war, helped shape his ardent stance on civil rights. In his elder years he turned down lectures everywhere (including Harvard), yet chose to speak at Lincoln College, the first college to embrace and admit men of African descent.

Einstein was also philosophically anti-war. Interestingly, he seemed to accept the futility of this philosophy, noting that only if everyone is fully committed to peace could it be achievable. Given his sardonic view on the general intelligence of humanity, it is easy to see how Einstein believed the human race is basically screwed. He blasted those who led wars as nothing more than children fighting in a sandbox. These types of analogies represented an underlying view, which Einstein discussed with Sigmund Freud, that aggression is innate to humans. His discussions with Freud led him to the belief that only through wealth generation could we reach a societal tipping point at which people would believe that fighting wars was too expensive. He believed this wealth creation over time would instigate an evolutionary change that would effectively reverse the aggression instinct.

It is ironic that such a strong anti-war activist played an important role in convincing President Roosevelt to develop the atomic bomb. Of course Einstein did not actively work to create the atomic bomb (though his E=MC^2 discovery was instrumental to the process); he did, however, sign a letter to Roosevelt urging him to create what became the Manhattan project. He did this because he realized very early on that Adolf Hitler could be stopped only through force, and that the Germans were pursuing a nuclear program (having split an atom in 1938). As early as 1933, Einstein informed Churchill that Hitler could be not be defeated politically, and that military force would be necessary. Einstein's support of such a project demonstrated a sharp pragmatism that contrasted with his idealist lamentations that technology was not being used to make life happy and carefree; at a disarmament conference in 1932 he said "as it is these hard won achievements (technological advances) in the hands of our generation are like a razor in the hand of a child of three."

While coming from a Jewish family, Einstein himself had a tumultuous history with his religion, and did not fully support Judaism until after the Holocaust. As a teenager, Einstein began to view religion as inconsistent with objective reality and his evolving understanding of scientific truths. Following the second world war, Einstein began to re-connect with his Jewish roots. He adopted a view that intertwined his deep respect and belief for that which science had proven with the staggering amount that we could not (and cannot) possibly understand about the world. He said of religion: "My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind, that deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God." To Einstein, God is about what we cannot understand - all the mysteries of life - and this concept delighted him.

I was also struck by the multiple references to Einstein's personal life; there seems to have been a dichotomy between his normative, idealistic views on humanity and the intense pain he caused those closest to him. It is written that after dumping his first love for his eventual wife, Einstein continued to send his dirty laundry to his ex (which she, apparently, did willingly). Einstein accepted himself as a deeply flawed individual.

It's clear to me that Einstein was a rebel; he turned away from religion at a young age, routinely (and publicly) berated those in charge of the world, and took an unapologetic and atypical view on civil rights. He did what so many of us want, but do not have the courage, to do: he disregarded dogma and authority and blazed his own trail...

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