Questionable Motives

December 31, 2010

What does Einstein mean by the mental grasp as the supreme goal?

Filed under: Einstein,Inquiry,non belief,Science — tildeb @ 2:26 pm

Excerpt from Albert Einstein’s Autobiographical Notes:

When I was a fairly precocious young man I became thoroughly impressed with the futility of the hopes and strivings that chase most men restlessly through life. Moreover, I soon discovered the cruelty of that chase, which in those years was much more carefully covered up by hypocrisy and glittering words than is the case today. By the mere existence of his stomach everyone was condemned to participate in that chase. The stomach might well be satisfied by such participation, but not man insofar as he is a thinking and feeling being.

As the first way out there was religion, which is implanted into every child by way of the traditional education-machine. Thus I came – though the child of entirely irreligious (Jewish) parents – to a deep religiousness, which, however, reached an abrupt end at the age of twelve. Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true.

The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression. Mistrust of every kind of authority grew out of this experience, a skeptical attitude toward the convictions that were alive in any specific social environment — an attitude that has never again left me, even though, later on, it has been tempered by a better insight into the causal connections.

It is quite clear to me that the religious paradise of youth, which was thus lost, was a first attempt to free myself from the chains of the “merely personal,” from an existence dominated by wishes, hopes, and primitive feelings. Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking. The contemplation of this world beckoned as a liberation, and I soon noticed that many a man whom I had learned to esteem and to admire had found inner freedom and security in its pursuit. The mental grasp of this extra-personal world within the frame of our capabilities presented itself to my mind, half consciously, half unconsciously, as a supreme goal. Similarly motivated men of the present and of the past, as well as the insights they had achieved, were the friends who could not be lost. The road to this paradise was not as comfortable and alluring as the road to the religious paradise; but it has shown itself reliable, and I have never regretted having chosen it.

(h/t to Releasing Religion)


  1. I think he means achieving the goal of understanding the ‘unknowable’ – having being told ‘religious’ answers that he found unsatisfactory or contradictory to his own understanding of the universe.

    I also think that he thought that the universe was us – that we are part of the universe and therefore to understand ourselves we must first understand the full nature of the universe from a non-personal perspective – i.e. as it appears to everyone.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — December 31, 2010 @ 6:19 pm | Reply

  2. You do realize that Einstein did believe in a supreme power right? We are a part of the universe as well!

    Comment by 4amzgkids — January 16, 2011 @ 2:36 pm | Reply

    • Einstein describes himself as “a deeply religious non believer.”

      Comment by tildeb — January 19, 2011 @ 10:14 am | Reply


    Einstein’s religious views are well known and sometimes misunderstood. Einstein used the word ‘god’ to mean nature as many scientists do – Stephen Hawking is another non-believer who uses the word ‘god’ metaphorically.

    What you have to remember is that the word ‘god’ is just a word – it means different things to different people, it is also a flexible word – the ‘god’ particle, the ‘god’ gene, the super user called ‘god’ – that man is ‘god’s’ gift to women/business/maths or whatever. Even I say thank ‘god’ it is not raining, or thank ‘god’ I was not late for the bus – why do I say this? Is it because there is a ‘god’ to thank or is it just a cultural meme.

    I prefer to use the word nature when talking about creation, instead of the word god, because it less confusing for those people who do not understand what I mean. If you want to call nature a supreme being then I am with you 100% – but then you must also understand what I mean by saying that if nature is the supreme being, then we are all sons of god, and therefore proclaiming that Jesus Christ is the only son of god, is actually a misrepresentation of the truth.

    We are all part of nature – and I think Einstein thought this – he saw the universe not as something you stare at through a telescope, but as everything around us – matter. The difference here is that nature is not sentient, you can’t hurt nature’s feelings, and it doesn’t matter if you pray to nature – nature just is. And can I prove that we are part of nature… you bet, more than you can prove that we are the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. This was also Darwin’s realisation – that man was not a special case, a separate entity or creation from the rest of the world’s living organisms, but was in fact part and parcel of the same material.

    It is a key observation here – that the religious do their best to segregate and separate man from nature, while scientists observe a different truth, that man is a part of nature – biologically, chemically and physically.

    The key thing here is I am not concerned really with what Einstein believed, what I am concerned with is what his theories said and how he proved them to be true representation of what he observed… or rather how other people proved what he had said to be true by what they observed.

    Notice that Einstein did not look to the bible for inspiration for his work – he looked directly at nature – I encourage you to do the same.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — January 18, 2011 @ 3:34 pm | Reply

  4. The difference here is that nature is not sentient, you can’t hurt nature’s feelings, and it doesn’t matter if you pray to nature – nature just is.(Rant)

    Really, really really? Wow, little did I know that you know all this about nature. Interestingly enough, you sound more and more like a religious fundy when you make absolute statements like this.

    Comment by Titfortat — January 18, 2011 @ 6:03 pm | Reply

  5. It’s not an absolute statement it is a statement of fact – if I pray to nature the weather does not change for me does it? If I wish for pear tree but all I have is apple seeds do I get a pear tree?

    “Interestingly enough, you sound more and more like a religious fundy when you make absolute statements like this.”

    The ‘problem’ isn’t being a fundamentalist – the problem is what people are fundamentalist about and how they go about their fundamentalist business, and whether their fundamentalist beliefs will change in the face of new evidence.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — January 19, 2011 @ 1:03 am | Reply

  6. Does that mean absolutely prayer can have no affect on anything in nature?

    Comment by Titfortat — January 19, 2011 @ 8:38 am | Reply

    • Of course not. Prayer may work very well on Planet “g,” which orbits a red dwarf star called Gliese 581. But we have no evidence that it is efficacious here and now so this adds to the convergence that it likely doesn’t work there.

      Planet “g” probably doesn’t have any other kinds of supernatural manifestations, either, and this is a reasonable default assumption you seem unwilling to embrace… probably because of immense size of the universe. But if this is so, then this is an error in thinking. And here’s why:

      What is not reasonable is entertaining the notion that supernatural effects accessed by prayer are more likely elsewhere than right here, right now. For that assumption to have any merit, we need some evidence. Because we have no evidence to support any such effects here and now, there is no improvement in its likelihood of it being true that it can be accessed elsewhere at another time. Without evidence to support such musings, the reasonable default position is non belief here as well as there, now as much as later… not because of distance and size of the universe that contains (and constrains) such possibilities but because the distance and size of the universe cannot be shown to effect the probabilities of likelihood. The probability of supernatural access by prayer is not shifted one iota by distance and time and space… unless you can show otherwise. Until such a time, the reasonable default is non belief. This is not a ‘fundamental’ position in any way similar to faith-based assumptions about agency and intent but diametrically opposed to it even if you think it sounds similar.

      Comment by tildeb — January 19, 2011 @ 11:56 am | Reply

  7. Tildeb

    The challenge you have with science in regards to prayer is that it cannot cover all the variables. Now if I pray for an exact thing such as winning the lottery, its pretty obvious that it does not work. But let say my friend prays for my health which I take as a loving gesture. Do you think my physiology will not be affected in a positive way. And if it is, maybe the prayer was effective. Too many variables to count when it comes to absolutes.

    Comment by TitforTat — January 19, 2011 @ 12:33 pm | Reply

    • *sigh*

      That’s why we do science… to first isolate and then test for a specific variable to find out what’s actually true. In this case the variable is prayer. Is prayer efficacious? Does it cause effect and, if so, by what mechanism? Wouldn’t it be something if prayer was shown to work? It would immediately add emphasis to so many religious notions. And what a small thing for some god to do. But alas, nada.

      Many double blind studies that isolate the variable reveal no efficacy. Therefore, the current understanding is that prayer is not efficacious. If other gains are made for someone who receives prayers, then you have a very strong case to find something else responsible, whatever that something else might be… if you actually care to find out what’s true rather than rely on some form of wishful thinking about what you wish might be true.

      Comment by tildeb — January 19, 2011 @ 2:33 pm | Reply

  8. “But let say my friend prays for my health which I take as a loving gesture. Do you think my physiology will not be affected in a positive way.” (tit).

    Yeah what you are describing here is a placebo – which is understood in science, and has been measured – I suggest you read Ben Goldacre book ‘bad science’ which explains in full what we know about the placebos and how they can be used in science and when they should not be. See here for more information:

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — January 19, 2011 @ 1:17 pm | Reply

  9. Rant, Im Tat by the way, its the wife’s Tit.

    So in those cases(placebo/prayer), they are working, right?

    Comment by Titfortat — January 19, 2011 @ 5:35 pm | Reply

    • What’s working?

      That’s the point – to determine what first.

      Without doing that basic work, it’s no wonder people jump ahead freely assuming that there must be some who with some intention that pretends to answer some hokum why question and think this ‘answer’ is somehow meaningful that all those what people are too narrowly focused to appreciate or respect.

      Comment by tildeb — January 19, 2011 @ 7:57 pm | Reply

  10. tildeb

    Is it not possible to suppose a creative force and still agree with the process of determining how that manifests?

    Comment by Titfortat — January 19, 2011 @ 9:00 pm | Reply

    • Sure, you can suppose it, but then you have to suppose where the creative force for the creative force originated, and then where the creative force for the creative force that brought about the creative force originated… the supposing adds exactly zero avenues of inquiry into this supposed creative force That’s problem Number One. Problem Number Two is assigning a creative force as some kind of explanation without any means to investigate the hypothesis of origin. Additionally, problem Number Three occurs when we also suppose that the first cause must (by this force’s absenteeism in our current inquiries) be a supernatural one with a supernatural mechanism that brings about the effects we pretend informs the supposition with supposed answers (that’s what Intelligent Design does: because stuff is complicated and looks designed, there must be a designer). These supposed answers continue to cause all kinds of mischief with explanations that have overlapping and mutually supportive evidence. Supposing such a creative force unnecessarily complicates, conflicts, and impedes pursuing what is.

      Comment by tildeb — January 19, 2011 @ 9:50 pm | Reply

  11. Overlapping evidence, sounds like science. One step at a time baby. I gather from your writings you think life as we know it is a fluke, just happened. I on the other hand suppose something else is at work. I dont mind science proving that supposition right one day. Though Im pretty sure neither you or I will be around. Too bad, I would have loved to gloat about it. Hmm, who knows, maybe when our physical bodies cease to function I may still be able to do that. 😉

    Comment by Titfortat — January 19, 2011 @ 10:09 pm | Reply

  12. The point is that science hasn’t proved the supposition of a creator, because there is NO evidence. But there is plenty of evidence to back up the scientific explanations that we do have for there not being a creator. The day science lets a supposition to prevail without evidence that it is correct is the day that we stop learning about the evidence.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — January 20, 2011 @ 2:06 am | Reply

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