July 15, 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.””

Read more

JJ Editor's Daily Picks

"India’s water crisis offers a striking reminder of how climate change is rapidly morphing into a climate emergency. Piped water has run dry in Chennai, the southern state of Tamil Nadu’s capital, and 21 other Indian cities are also facing the..."

"Such a blackout is coming. It is only a matter of time. Again, leaving aside the growing threats of cyber and terrorist attacks upon our power grid, the fact of the matter is that much of our grid is antiquated junk desperately in need of billion."

"In Israel’s early years—even earlier, in fact, during the decades leading up to independence—the kibbutz played an integral role in creating the country’s economic and political infrastructure. Based on a shared economy and hard work..."

"Scarlett Johansson became something of a conservative hero on Friday for speaking out against identity politics. She told As If magazine, in quotes excerpted by the Daily Mail, “You know, as an actor I should be allowed to play any person, or..."

"During the 2012 presidential election, there occurred one of those remarkably rare moments when campaign rhetoric actually clarified a large issue. It happened when Barack Obama, speaking without a written text, spoke from his heart and..."

"IN FEBRUARY, LEAKED software code predicted the demise of the back button on the latest version of Google's Android smartphone. Apple did away with the iPhone's home button in 2017. LG’s latest handset allows users to control their devices..."

"I am in the mosh pit of West Hollywood’s El Rey Theatre, jangly from two cups of Zoe Ministries’ excellent self-branded coffee. Twenty 20-somethings in mom jeans, sneakers, and colorful baggy shirts are singing Disney-radio-inflected anthems..."

"Before the advent of scientific evidence and philosophical guidance on the subject, literary odes to the creative and health benefits of walking flourished. No one has been more tireless in reviving the history of exhortations to join the “Order..."

"Facebook and Twitter feeds were buzzing with discussion after the late-May New York Times article declaring that millennials are no longer interested in marriage. The article’s popularity can be attributed, in part, to the uncomfortable truth it..."

"The run happened — or didn’t — maybe five days into the raw-diet experiment. I had formed a sort of fitness pact with a friend to forgo cooked food, and after days of nothing but salads, almonds, sashimi and black coffee, my body felt taut and..."

"Humans have long sought the elixir of youth, so it is not surprising that even non-scientists closely follow the latest research into aging. But is what most people consider simply a fact of life actually a “disease” that can be cured? Or is..."

"It’s no secret that many Jews are struggling to keep up. More and more, middle and even upper-middle class Jews are finding religion to be an increasingly expensive component of their lives. My husband has a good job and I have a burgeoning..."