Einstein’s example also demonstrates how this religious appreciation of mystery can inform scientific endeavors, that is, when exercised with caution. The first lesson to learn from Einstein’s example is a positive one: lowliness of mind precedes greatness of thought. He reminds us that while observation is key to a complete understanding, observation alone cannot answer the greatest questions posed by the natural world.
As Kuhn later discussed, each form of measurement is developed within (and therefore influenced by) a certain system of previous findings, assumptions, and so on. So while the scientist may accurately describe his observations within the framework of his own spatial and chronological position in the universe, such observations may not hold true if seen from another vantage point (Einstein, Foundation 1201-1203). In a more general sense, then, the goal of a scientist is not merely to describe his observations and formulate his theories from his own perspective, but to state (or restate) natural laws in a way that makes them universally applicable, regardless of variables in space and time (Einstein, Foundation 1203-1206). This is, in a nutshell, Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.
Though such a claim is bold, Einstein succeeds by the force of his own humility as well as the simple beauty of his geometry (Einstein, Foundation 1237). What is perhaps even more impressive, though, is that he admits toward the end of his work that while his theory is surely correct (humility, after all, does not mean assuming you are wrong) it requires further astronomical and gravitational observations in order to be fully vetted (Einstein, Cosmological 1257-1258). Thus Einstein’s work combined an appreciation for the beauty and simplicity of good math with “the humble recognition that the ultimate word in science belongs to the facts, that is, to the observational verification of theories” (Jaki 36).
At its best, then, science is a continuing conversation on the cosmos that depends upon both personal humility and the willingness to accept that even the best theories are only potentialities in the absence of further verification. So while the universe will be and do what the universe is and does, the scientist must be ever mindful of his own finite nature and remember that his perspective is not the only valid vantage point. Einstein’s theory of relativity thus removes the self from the center of science, just as Copernicus moved the earth from the center of the universe. Humility, then, is the chief virtue for both the saint and the scientist, and begins to explain why scientists need something like methodological naturalism. Quite simply: scientists seek a comprehensive understanding of nature that is held accountable to the facts of nature itself.
But there is another side to this methodological naturalism that Einstein had more trouble with, which brings us to the second lesson we learn from his sense of mystery. While Einstein is still popularly regarded as the world’s favorite scientist, many within the scientific community have questioned his genius (even in his own time) due to his rejection of modern quantum theory. Though Einstein had several reasons for this rejection, the chief of these was that “it was probabilistic” (see Natarajan 660). At the core of this theory is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states that, “The more precisely the position of something is defined, the less precisely its speed can be defined, and vice versa” (Hawking). So while we can measure the position and speed of an object with a fair degree of accuracy, we cannot always measure both at the same time, especially in situations where the very tools we use to measure can affect the outcome of the measurement.
Rarely does this principle affect us on a day-to-day basis, where approximation reigns, but on the micro level in a laboratory or the macro level in the heavens, such approximation must be recognized and understood before making far-reaching conclusions. Newtonian physics, though, did not understand this and therefore believed humanity capable of perfectly knowing the natural world. Coupled with the existence of immutable natural laws, Newtonian physics led to a worldview (modernism) in which certainty was not only possible in the present, but also in the past and future. If we know where an object is now and what rules govern its behavior, it was thought, we can find out where it was and where it is going.
In quantum theory, however, such is simply not the case: “The Uncertainty Principle . . . implies that even if one had all the information there is to be had about a physical system, its future behavior cannot be predicted exactly, only probabilistically” (Barr, Faith). Or as we have stated before, precision does not eliminate mystery—mystery moves in and around it.
Einstein’s rejection of quantum theory, however, was not due as much to its lack of mathematical or explanatory power (since it had both on its side), as to his own commitment to absolute determinism. As (in my view) a deist, “Einstein denounced positivism, endorsed a realist metaphysics [what you see is what you get], and professed his belief in the objectivity of physical reality” (Jaki 30). In fact, it was in part because of this pre-commitment to determinism that he could not bring himself to believe in a personal God:
If this Being is omnipotent, then every occurrence, including every human action, every human thought, and every human feeling and aspiration is also His work; how is it possible to think of holding men responsible for their deeds and thoughts before such an Almighty Being? In giving out punishments and rewards he would to a certain extent be passing judgement on Himself. How can this be combined with the goodness and righteousness ascribed to him? (Einstein, quoted in Brooke 946)
In other words, if all power belongs to God, then all we see happening around us is His work, everything good and everything evil. To Einstein, then, a personal God is either all-powerful or all-goodness, but cannot be both, and a God without all power is no God at all. Einstein therefore chose to believe in a non-personal, all-powerful God who knew and worked all things.
So while in theory he understood that individuals only possess a relative, partial view of the cosmos, he failed to realize that his own reliance on a “model of reality which shall represent events themselves” rather than probabilities, was itself the product of an isolated, dogmatic individualism rooted in post-Enlightenment rationalism (Brooke 950). Quantum theory, however, though silent on determinism per se, threatened to discredit both his personal and professional views on the subject. If precise measurement and understanding is unlikely, it required a modification of Newtonian science and Einstein’s own deistic interpretation of the world’s predictability. And though no quantum physicist would deny the knowability or predictability of science, Einstein simply could not bring himself to accept even this qualified approach to the world.
In other words, although Einstein’s general theory of relativity challenged Newton’s concept of time, Einstein dismissed these implications in order to maintain his own conception of God as an impersonal, self-sustaining and all-powerful being par excellence. As Barr points out, if true, quantum theory would be of the greatest “philosophical and theological importance” in that, “It would spell the doom of determinism” and eventually bring an end to purely materialist conceptions of human thought and action (Barr, Faith).
So while mystery was of utmost importance to the direction of Einstein’s thought, it points us to some very un-Einsteinian conclusions: “that the traditional Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory . . . makes the most sense” and that its logical end may very well be the end of “physical determinism” and a renewed appreciation for the “special ontological status” of “the mind of the human observer” (Barr, Faith). So while the universe is self-evidently ordered, it is also dynamic—and therefore so is our understanding of the universe.
We conclude, then, with two observations about what Einstein’s example means for us today. First, science and religion have nothing to fear from one another when methodological naturalism is understood as the way scientists make authoritative claims about nature. On the side of science, this means science is accountable to what nature itself teaches, and we have nothing to fear from what they find there. On the side of faith, it also means that while we often want science to say something more than it does or even something different, that too will require additional research and verification. Einstein understood the first lesson well, but his incorrect views on God led him to reject the more accurate perspective provided by quantum theory, and we should learn from his example in both cases.
Good science and its inbuilt sense of mystery point to the rationality of faith, and our faith can and should inspire our views of nature, but where faith and science appear to disagree we should carefully examine the evidence on both sides to ensure we stand on the side of truth and the God who is truth. So whether we are studying the laws of nature or nature’s God, we ought to be continually impressed with the order of our world, the strong sense of mystery that surrounds it, and the unimaginable fortune we have in being part of it all. Einstein, of course, falls short of a fully Christian view of God or faith, but the mystery he discovered in nature points beyond the merely unknowable to the One whose wisdom and knowledge surpass all depths; whose judgments are unsearchable and whose ways are past finding out (Rom 11:33).