Sunday, May 20, 2012

Do Scientists Pray?

Here is something fascinating that reader Gidon Shaviv sent to me.

In January of 1936, a young non-Jewish girl named Phyllis wrote to Albert Einstein on behalf of her Sunday school class, and asked, "Do scientists pray?" Her letter, and Einstein's reply, can be read below. (Source: Dear Professor Einstein; via Letters of Note)
The Riverside Church
January 19, 1936
My dear Dr. Einstein,
We have brought up the question: Do scientists pray? in our Sunday school class. It began by asking whether we could believe in both science and religion. We are writing to scientists and other important men, to try and have our own question answered. We will feel greatly honored if you will answer our question: Do scientists pray, and what do they pray for?
We are in the sixth grade, Miss Ellis's class.
Respectfully yours, Phyllis

January 24, 1936
Dear Phyllis, I will attempt to reply to your question as simply as I can. Here is my answer: Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish.
However, we must concede that our actual knowledge of these forces is imperfect, so that in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith. Such belief remains widespread even with the current achievements in science. But also, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.
With cordial greetings,
your A. Einstein 
For discussion of various possibilities as to how providence interacts with natural law, see chapter four of The Challenge Of Creation. For a discussion of Rambam's view of petitionary prayer, see Marvin Fox, Interpreting Maimonides.

While on the topic of prayer: Longtime blog reader Rabbi Joshua Cohen of Elizabeth NJ has tragically suffered a stroke. He is only 38 years old and has a wife and four small children. Please pray for Moshe Yehuda Yehoshua Michoel ben Chava, that God should keep him with us and preserve his mind intact.

28 comments:

  1. I found God in the helix of DNA, exactly where Watson and Crick said He was nowhere to be seen.
    Certainly a scientist has a deeper appreciation for God given he has a deeper understanding of the complexity of the universe.
    But here's the quibble - one cannot "believe" in science. Science is testable and based on facts. No faith is required. Therefore one practices science and believes in religion.

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  2. Thanks for sharing that little piece of history. And a big refuah sheleimah to Rabbi Cohen.

    Just a question I'd like to pose to Einstein:
    "Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature."

    I wonder if Einstein really meant to say, "Scientists are supposed to do their work as if every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature."

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  3. I thank Rabbi Slifkin for this very illuminating post about the views of Einstein on G-d and on prayer.

    This rings quite different than the way other physicists seem to perceive Einstein. For example, I came across a webpage of a physicist Prof. Joe Wolfe of the University of New South Wales (http://www.phys.unsw.edu.au/~jw/danish.html). He argues that Einstein's use of G-d in the statement "G-d does not play dice with the universe" is purely metaphorical--that the universe is not probabilistic. [Stephen Hawking agreed with that assessment.]

    The letter Rabbi Slifkin cited certainly paints Einstein as more theistic than how Prof. Hawking perceives him.

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  4. please could you check the link of letter of note. It does not seem to work

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  5. Yehudah P. said:

    "The letter Rabbi Slifkin cited certainly paints Einstein as more theistic than how Prof. Hawking perceives him."

    It is very clear from other Einstein quotes that he was certainly not a theist in an sense. At most he was a pantheist.

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  6. Einstein's consideration of some "spirit" is very far from our religious views, although some people use quotes to imply otherwise. Here is one which speaks more directly to many of our beliefs:

    "For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything 'chosen' about them."

    A prescient comment considering how we have changed with our increasing power.

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  7. "I wonder if Einstein really meant to say, "Scientists are supposed to do their work as if every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature.""

    It's clear from the question and answer that that is not his intention.

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  8. As per Worf's statement: "It is very clear from other Einstein quotes that he was certainly not a theist in an sense. At most he was a pantheist."
    To be perfectly honest, from Einstein's book "The World As I See It", I vaguely remember statements that Einstein didn't believe in a personal G-d (that rewards and punishes, listens to prayer and the like). So I have to concede on that.

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  9. One important point to note is that both Einstein and Hawking reject the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics (QM), and instead feel that the universe is ultimately deterministic. This leads to the same conclusion championed by thinkers such as Laplace before the discovery of QM, namely that any being with sufficient knowledge of the state of the universe at a given time could predict all events that will happen until the end of time, ruling out not only the efficacy of prayer, but even free will.

    This stands in contrast to the "orthodox" (no pun intended) Copenhagen interpretation of QM that dictates that at the universe's most basic level it is indeed probabilistic, and it is a fundamental impossibility to precisely predict the future. Although this interpretation does not dictate that divine intervention and free exist-the universe and human behavior could just as well be interpreted as inherently random, an argument found already in pre-Socratic philosophy-it does at least leave room for them.

    In short, despite his fame and prestige Einstein should not be used as an example of mainstream philosophy of science.

    P.S. Those interested in a scholarly if poorly organized free online bibliography of various interpretations of QM should go to arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/0012089

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  10. "Although this interpretation does not dictate that divine intervention and free exist-the universe and human behavior could just as well be interpreted as inherently random, an argument found already in pre-Socratic philosophy-it does at least leave room for them."

    People write things like this all the time, but I just can't figure out what they're trying to say. Are you suggesting that there is some outside entity (a "soul"?) which secretly makes all the quantum decisions in one's head? Aside from the prima facie implausibility of such an argument, do you think it coincidental that quantum mechanics turns out to be quite predictable on a macro scale? Or perhaps God/the soul just does this intentionally so that people can't tell that they're hiding in there?

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  11. Reminder: Anonymous comments are not posted.

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  12. "Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish."

    Unless manifestation/prayer is a law/part of nature. Short of this it seems that from his answer Dr. Einstein did believe that "nature" was created by God.

    As he writes, "....the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort,"

    But he believed that we do not have a say/ratzon in which way it turns.

    As for the statement Abe quoted.

    "For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.........Otherwise I cannot see anything 'chosen' about them."

    Dr. Einstein was obviously observing the charedim in Bet Shemesh, and not looking at the Jewish nation as a whole. Everyone (myself included) has this same conclusion, even some chardim.
    o

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  13. Garnel writes: "Science is testable and based on facts."

    Or so we hope. But you know very well that a lot passes for science that doesn't fit that description.

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  14. Einstein: "For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything 'chosen' about them."
    It's somewhat ironic that it is Einstein of all people who cannot see anything 'chosen' about the Jewish people. He himself, considered by all to be the greatest scientist of the 20th century, is a testimony to the chosen-ness of the Jewish people. Whether it was nature, God or ourselves that chose us, it's pretty clear that the Jewish people is 'chosen'. Even just opening today's newspaper tells the story. $100 billion Facebook, the second largest website in the world - Jewish. Spots 1 and 3 go to Google and YouTube - Jewish. Last nights Champions League win by Chelsea, a team owned by Roman Abramovitch - Jewish. These Jews don't believe in the traditional Jewish beliefs, but the 25% figure of Jewish nobel laureates, proves that our tiny people is so-to speak chosen.

    Abe said: A prescient comment considering how we have changed with our increasing power.
    I disagree. I look at Israel where the Jewish people finally have sovereignty over themselves and I see a light unto the nations and the most moral country in the world.

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  15. "People write things like this all the time, but I just can't figure out what they're trying to say. Are you suggesting that there is some outside entity (a "soul"?) which secretly makes all the quantum decisions in one's head? Aside from the prima facie implausibility of such an argument, do you think it coincidental that quantum mechanics turns out to be quite predictable on a macro scale? Or perhaps God/the soul just does this intentionally so that people can't tell that they're hiding in there?"

    I'm actually not exactly sure what your questions are, but I will do my best to answer them as I understand them, apologies in advance if I misrepresent your viewpoint:

    To answer your second question first: "do you think it coincidental that quantum mechanics turns out to be quite predictable on a macro scale?"

    Actually, QM is hardly unique in that respect, much (most?) of physical chemistry relies on phenomena which are entirely unpredictable on a microscopic scale yet highly predictable on a macroscopic scale. To take an example from classical thermodynamics, consider the entropy of gasses. If I take a handful of gas molecules in a container, I can make no reliable prediction as to their movement. It is entirely possible that they will move to the bottom of the container and bounce around there. Expanding on this idea, I could argue that all the molecules will move to the bottom of the container and leave the top essentially a vacuum. However, entropy dictates that it is much more probable that the molecules will be evenly distributed. Thus even though I cannot predict the movement of any given molecule, I can predict that the container will experience constant pressure on all surfaces.

    Similarly, in the room that I'm sitting in I cannot predict the movement of a given oxygen molecule, it could move to the other side of the room. So why am I not concerned that all the oxygen will go to the other side of the room leaving me to asphyxiate? Again, entropy predicts that such an event is improbable, and it is far more probable that different gasses will to mix together.

    So too, QM can make far better predictions on macro scale than a micro scale; I may have little ability to predict the position of electrons relative to nuclei of a molecule at a given time, but I do know that certain configurations are more probable than others. Therefore, given a system of many molecules, I can say how most of them will behave most of the time, and use this information to make predictions about the system.

    "Are you suggesting that there is some outside entity (a "soul"?) which secretly makes all the quantum decisions in one's head?"

    I was actually trying to avoid making any suggestion, as most any suggestion will be non-falsifiable, and hence more theological than scientific. I will say that the above idea would appear to easily decay into the homunculus fallacy, although I suppose one could avoid this by arguing that the true being is the spiritual soul which exists outside the realm of the scientific world. In any event, I was merely saying there is a limit to what can be learned from science, and beyond that one must choose what, if anything, one believes (assuming of course, that we have free choice to begin with).

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  16. So we are "convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man" but we cannot see how it's possible that the Spirit can work out how to influence the world and answer prayers?

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  17. Phyllis's question was, "Do scientists pray, and what do they pray for?" Note that Einstein's answer was incomplete. He made it clear that he did not pray "for" anything, but he may not have been aware that the Jewish concept of prayer includes not only bakashah (petition) but also shevach and hodayah (praise and thanks). Conceivably, Einstein's courteous and thoughtful reply could have left room for the latter two elements of tefillah.

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  18. I would like Abe to elaborate on his statement, "A prescient comment considering how we have changed with our increasing power.".

    A response that immediately came to mind was the testimony of Col. Richard Kemp, in response to the Goldstone report, "the IDF did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare."
    Not to mention the fact that the combatants blend in perfectly with the civilians.

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  19. "Actually, QM is hardly unique in that respect, much (most?) of physical chemistry relies on phenomena which are entirely unpredictable on a microscopic scale yet highly predictable on a macroscopic scale. To take an example from classical thermodynamics, consider the entropy of gasses. If I take a handful of gas molecules in a container, I can make no reliable prediction as to their movement. It is entirely possible that they will move to the bottom of the container and bounce around there. Expanding on this idea, I could argue that all the molecules will move to the bottom of the container and leave the top essentially a vacuum. However, entropy dictates that it is much more probable that the molecules will be evenly distributed. Thus even though I cannot predict the movement of any given molecule, I can predict that the container will experience constant pressure on all surfaces."

    What's really fascinating, is how this principle works with Human beings as well.

    A single individual person can be very unpredictable, especially if you have little data about them. However, take 100 or 500 people, and you can simulate /predict their behavior as a group almost 100%. Lots of cool stuff here for crowd control purposes, or how to optimize filling up a parking lot etc.

    I believe there are some authors out there who have used this situation to talk about free will, with either sub-atomic particles having it, or human beings not having it.

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  20. Einstein was an early, enthusiastic, and crucial supporter of YU. He said he wished there had been something like it when he was young, so he wouldn't have had to choose between secular and Jewish education. (This is open to interpretation, I suppose, but there it is.) Just thought I'd say.

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  21. "$100 billion Facebook, the second largest website in the world - Jewish. Spots 1 and 3 go to Google and YouTube - Jewish."

    And he just married his Chinese girlfriend of 9 years. But seriously, why does anyone care what Einstein may or may not have believed about religion? Expertise in one area doesn't confer expertise in other areas. If fact, exactly the opposite is the case. The greater an expert someone is in one area, the less they tend to know about other areas, basically because they live and breath their specialty almost exclusively. And with all due respect to Einstein, you're talking about someone who was an avowed pacifist during WWII! He may have been a brilliant physicist, but I wouldn't trust his opinion on anything outside of physics and mathematics.

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  22. Nachum's comment shouldn't simply be ignored because of its fantastical nature. Perhaps he read this on the internet, rather than making it up himself. Of course, Einstein had little or nothing to do with YU. Nor would he have preferred to engage in torah as well as physics. Au contraire, he disdained conventional religion as superstition. He did advocate and support the founding of the Hebrew University since he identified with the Jewish people and sought their advancement.

    His answer to the school girl and her Sunday school class was nice, but biased. Neither he, nor any one individual could speak for all scientists. In fact, most physical scientists profess some religion. Einstein considered that all events are foreordained, leaving no room for free will. The Universal Intelligence that he sensed behind the laws of physics and the logic of mathematics was not something, in his view, that had any interaction with creation once started. That accounts for Einstein's attitude towards prayer. I don't know if he would have harbored similar feelings towards a prayer to be connected to the Universal Intelligence whose presence he felt deeply.

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  23. Einstein, as it is clear from this letter as well as many other quotes from him, believed only in Spinoza's God.

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  24. Actually, Y. Aharon, I did not read this on the internet. Einstein had a close, documented connection with YU. He had a regular correspondence with R' Revel, received an honorary degree from them, fundraised for them, had a medical school named after him (he was still alive), contributed to their mathematics journal, hosted their physics majors at Princeton, and more. YU had an exhibit on this a few years back.

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  25. Nachum, while my rejoinder that Einstein had little or no connection to YU was not entirely correct since he did have a part in the founding of the medical school bearing his name, my objection to your pronouncement remains. You stated, "Einstein was an early, enthusiastic, and crucial supporter of YU. He said he wished there had been something like it when he was young, so he wouldn't have had to choose between secular and Jewish education". That statement contradicts everything that I have read from and about Einstein. Perhaps you confused his advocacy and support for the Hebrew University, a basically secular institution, with YU, a basically Orthodox institution. His support for a medical school under YU auspices may have had similar ethnic motives, i.e., providing more opportunities for Jews wishing to enter medicine. If you disagree, kindly provide some supporting material. I invite Prof. Charlie Hall, who teaches at Einstein to chime in.

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  26. "since he did have a part in the founding of the medical school bearing his name"

    As I demonstrated, it was a lot more than that. And as I said in my original post, what he said is "open to interpretation." I can't say exactly what he meant, but he clearly felt that YU was a good idea.

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