January 16, 2019

Understanding Einstein's "God Letter"

“Albert Einstein’s so-called God letter first surfaced in 2008, when it fetched four hundred and four thousand dollars in a sale at a British auction house. The letter came back into the news earlier this month, when its owner or owners auctioned it off again, this time at Christie’s in New York, and someone paid $2.9 million for it, a pretty good return on investment, and apparently a record in the Einstein-letters market. The former top seller was a copy of a letter to Franklin Roosevelt from 1939, warning that Germany might be developing a nuclear bomb. That one was sold at Christie’s for $2.1 million, in 2002. If you have any extra Einstein letters lying around, this might be a good time to go to auction.

Although it bears his signature, Einstein didn’t actually write the bomb letter. It was written by the physicist Leo Szilard, based on a letter that Einstein had dictated. But, if auction price is at all relative to historical significance, that letter should be way more valuable than the God letter. The God letter was cleverly marketed, though. “Not only does the letter contain the words of a great genius who was perhaps feeling the end fast approaching,” Christie’s said on its Web site, “It addresses the philosophical and religious questions that mankind has wrestled with since the dawn of time: Is there a God? Do I have free will?” The press release called it “one of the definitive statements in the Religion vs Science debate.” Journalistic interest was stirred up by the question of whether the letter might contradict other comments that Einstein is recorded having made about God.

This all made the letter sound a lot more thoughtful than it is. Einstein did have views about God, but he was a physicist, not a moral philosopher, and, along with a tendency to make gnomic utterances—“God does not play dice with the universe” is his best-known aperçu on the topic—he seems to have held a standard belief for a scientist of his generation. He regarded organized religion as a superstition, but he believed that, by means of scientific inquiry, a person might gain an insight into the exquisite rationality of the world’s structure, and he called this experience “cosmic religion.””

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