Maggie and Me (a philosophical dialogue): On Einstein, Part 1

Maggie: Today we are talking about Albert Einstein, right?

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John:  Yes, this will be the first of a few discussions on the great scientist.  But I want to do something just a little different, if that is okay with you.

Maggie:  Like what?

John:  Einstein was more that a great physicist, he was also a creative thinker.  He made some wonderful contributions to philosophy through his thoughts about physics, religion, thinking, and living.  In this conversation, I want to list out some of his thoughts and discuss them.  Does that work for you?

Maggie:  I’m not sure I understand.

John:  One of the ways to introduce people to a great thinker is through the thinker’s great quotes.  These provide small insights into the greater ideas, but more than that, they give readers ideas that are easily digestible and readily considered.  By providing great ideas in small quotes, readers can take the ideas and make them their own.

Maggie:  And by thinking about these smaller ideas, they become more interested in the greater ideas. Right?

John:  Right!  I like the way you are thinking. 

So does this process work for you?

Maggie: Sure.  I love great quotes. 

John: Good.  But before we begin, let’s give credit where credit is due. 

Walter Isaacson wrote what I consider to be the best biography of Einstein currently in print, and I highly recommend that you read it.  It’s title is “Einstein: His Life and Universe,” and it was published by Simon & Schuster in 2007.  Isaacson does an amazing job making the science accessible to his readers, but that is not the best part of the biography.  Isaacson uses his considerable writing skills to make Einstein come alive.  The scientist becomes relatable to us and, by the time you finish the book, you will regret that you never got a chance to be friends with the guy. It’s a great book, and most of the quotes below come from it.

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I also recommend “Einstein: The Life and Times,” by Ronald W. Clark.  It was published by Avon Books in 1984.  Clark’s biography is almost 800 pages of small print, but like Isaacson’s biography, it is also quite readable.  And it compliments Isaacson’s book nicely by adding additional information and details for those who are interested in doing an even deeper dive into Einstein’s life.

Maggie:  Can I borrow Isaacson’s biography?

John: Sure.  But I hope you don’t mind a lot of underlining and writing in the book.  I am more of a reader than a collector, so I write all over my books.

Maggie:  Not a problem for me.

John:  Come by tomorrow and I will give it to you.

Maggie: Thanks.  So where do you want to start?

John:  Let’s start with a few quotes from Einstein on the process of thinking and education. 

On Thinking and Education

*    Accumulation of intellectual material should not stifle the student’s independence.  A society’s competitive advantage will come not from how well its schools teach the multiplication and periodic tables, but from how well they stimulate imagination and creativity.

*    Imagination is more important than knowledge.

*    A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way.

*    The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think.

Maggie:  I love this and I couldn’t agree more with Einstein.  Education is about learning how to think about certain subjects, not just memorizing ideas in order to spit them back out on a test.

John:  I agree with you, but not everyone does.  A few years ago, I heard a noted professor tell his students “You are too young to think for yourself.  Just accept what I am telling you.  When you are older and more experienced, then you can start to think independently.”

Maggie: That just seems wrong to me.  It defeats the whole point of going to college.

John:  I agree.  This idea assumes that education is simply about obtaining information, which is just wrong.  Like Einstein pointed out, a college education is about learning how to think logically and creatively; it’s not just about accumulating data to regurgitate later.  This idea also assumes that students are too young to learn to think, which I strongly disagree with. No one is too young to have original thoughts and no one is too young to learn the process of thinking thoroughly and deeply about issues. 

Maggie:  This professor’s view is so arrogant.

John:  It is, but there are a lot of teachers who agree with him.

Maggie:  What are some other quotes?

John: Einstein is famous for his promotion of individual creativity and his contempt for authority, and the next quotes are about these topics.

On Individuality and Authority

*    It is important to foster individuality, for only the individual can produce new ideas.

*    A foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth.

*    I believe that the most important mission of the state is to protect the individual and to make it possible for him to develop into a creative personality.

*    To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself.

*    How an intelligent man can subscribe to a [political] party I find a complete mystery.

Maggie:  I haven’t really given this much thought, but it makes sense to me that advancement in any topic requires individuality. 

John:  Group thinking—including slavish adherence to the ideas of authority figures in a group—stifles intellectual advancement. 

Maggie:  But why?

John:  Hmmm…  I think there are actually two “why” questions here, and I am not sure which one you are asking.  So let’s look at both.

The first question is “why does group thinking inhibit intellectual advancement?” 

Maggie:  Can I try to answer this?

John:  Of course!

Maggie:  By their very nature, groups are formed to promote certain ideas or patterns of thinking.  Take any group as an example.  The Girl Scouts promote a distinct set of ideas about how to live. The Democratic political party promotes a distinct set of political ideas.  And different religious groups promote their own theological and religious ideas.  It takes an individual thinker with real courage to suggest new ideas to these groups to help them grow and develop beyond their original ideas.

John.  That, my friend, was really well said. To advance or even survive in such groups, a person has to put forward the ideas promulgated by the group.  Members cannot think outside of the box or go against the foundational ideas and beliefs of a group.  But this sort of thinking stifles creativity, which in turn stifles new ideas.  This is why there is so little advancement in theology, for example.  In different religions and denominations, there are always those witch hunters who are afraid of new ideas and are looking to censure creative thinkers who present such ideas.  As a result, religious doctrines rarely advance in thought.  But this happens in all group contexts, not just religion.

Maggie:  Didn’t this same thing happen to you at one of your jobs?

John:  Kind of.  I had a boss once describe me to his colleague as someone “who thinks differently about issues from others on the team.”  He meant it as an insult though, because he didn’t like anyone who presented ideas out of sync with his own ideas.   

But again, this just shows that the dangers of authoritative thinking exist in all kinds of groups, including employment teams. 

Maggie: Einstein is right: we need to stand up against authoritative thinking if we want advancement in any area or topic. 

What is the second question?

John:  The second is “why don’t people promote individuality?”

Maggie:  We kind of touched on this already, but can I take a shot at this question also?

John:  You’re on.

Maggie: People feel safe around other like-minded people.  There is a kind of security in being a member of a group, so they never question the ideas promoted by the group.  Doing so would upset the apple cart, so to speak, and many people just want to go along with the prevailing opinions.

John:  I love the way you are formulating your thoughts these days.  And you are right: people fear change because change means their own relevance is in question.  And that is scary for many, especially those who have been part of an authoritative group for a long time.  So they never ask the challenging questions.

Maggie:  But we need change and new ideas to move forward.

John:  That is true in any context, including politics, religion, leadership, and business.  But change is hard for people who maintain their authority solely based on previous and outdated ideas.  So we need courageous people to stand up and present ideas, even at the risk of censure.

Maggie:  That has to be hard.

John: Especially in autocratic contexts like workplaces and religious groups. 

But where would we be if people like Einstein didn’t have the courage to stand against the conventional wisdom and present their own ideas?

Maggie:  Where would we be?  That’s a bit scary to think about. 

What are the next quotes?

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John:  Einstein had some great ideas on living well.

On Living Well

*    Life is like riding a bicycle.  To keep your balance you must keep moving.

*    I believe that love is a better teacher than a sense of duty, at least for me.

*    People like you and me never grow old.  We never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.

*    One of the strongest motives that leads [people] to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness.  Such [individuals] make this cosmos and its construction the pivot of their emotional life, in order to find the peace and security which they cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience.

Maggie:  I like the idea that curiosity keeps us young.

John:  And here is an interesting thought. Curiosity also prevents authoritarianism because it keeps us questioning every idea and premise, which is why we should promote “constant curiosity.” 

Maggie:  I like that.  Curious people are not glued to old ideas because they are always questioning those ideas.

John:  And curious people are always moving forward because they are open to new ideas.  It is that openness that is the key to true advancement.

Maggie:  So cool!  What’s next?

John:  Einstein had a lot of great quotes about the relationship between science and religion. 

On Science and Religion

*    Subtle is the Lord, but malicious he is not.

*    Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing.  The theory says a lot, but it does not really bring us any closer to the secrets of the Old One.  I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not play dice.

*    One time when Einstein declared that God would not play dice, Bohr responded, “Einstein, stop telling God what to do!”

*    What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos.

*    Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

*    When I am judging a theory I ask myself whether, if I were God, I would have arranged the world in such a way.

Maggie:  Did Einstein actually believe in god?

John:  Not in the Judeo-Christian sense of the word. When Einstein speaks of god, it is similar to the way the philosopher Spinoza spoke of god.  He believed in determinism and causality, meaning that there is a design to the universe that is knowable, and that the workings of the universe are governed by specific laws that are likewise knowable.

Maggie:  So when he talks about the Lord or the Old One, he is not talking about a creator?

John:  Not a personal creator, no.  He is talking about the universe as a whole and the causal laws that govern it.

Maggie:  That’s weird.

John:  Not really.  It’s only weird if you want to use the word god in a Judeo-Christian sense.  But the word has a much broader meaning throughout history, and Einstein is borrowing from a long historical tradition.

Maggie:  I need to think about this a little more, to wrap my head around it.  And maybe read Spinoza.

John:  I highly recommend it.

Maggie:  What’s next?

John:  Our list wouldn’t be complete without a few quotes about Einstein’s scientific ideas. 

On Einstein’s Scientific Theories

*    When I asked myself how it happened that I in particular discovered the relativity theory, it seemed to lie in the following circumstance. The ordinary adult never bothers his head about the problems of space and time.  These are things he has thought of as a child.  But I developed so slowly that I began to wonder about space and time only when I was already grown up.  Consequently, I probed more deeply in the problem than an ordinary child would have.

*    Nature is the realization of the simplest conceivable mathematical ideas.

*    I still believe in the possibility of a model of reality—that is to say, of a theory that represents things themselves and not merely the probability of their occurrence.

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Maggie:  I love the fact that Einstein continued his childlike curiosity into adulthood, which led him to think deeply about the universe.

John:  Me too.  We are going to discuss his theories in more depth in a later conversation, which should be fun.

Maggie: Einstein is so fascinating. Can we chat about his life next?

John:  That sounds good to me. 

Maggie:  See you then.

John:  Okay, see you later.

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