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Einstein on Prayer, Purpose in Nature, and the Soul

The following excerpts are taken from Albert Einstein - The Human Side,Selected and Edited by Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman, Princeton University Press, 1979.

Einstein on Prayer (pp. 32 - 33)
A child in the sixth grade in a Sunday School in New York City, with the encouragement of her teacher, wrote to Einstein in Princeton on 19 January I936 asking him whether scientists pray, and if so what they pray for. Einstein replied as follows on 24 January 1936:

I have tried to respond to your question as simply as I could. Here is my answer. Scientific research is based on the idea that everything that takes place is determined by laws of nature, and therefore this holds for the actions of people. For this reason, a research scientist will hardly be inclined to believe that events could be influenced by a prayer, i.e. by a wish addressed to a supernatural Being.

However, it must be admitted that our actual knowledge of these laws is only imperfect and fragmentary, so that, actually, the belief in the existence of basic all-embracing laws in Nature also rests on a sort of faith. All the same this faith has been largely justified so far by the success of scientific research. But, on the other hand, every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe-a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.

It is worth mentioning that this letter was written a decade after the advent of Heisenberg's principle of indeterminacy and the probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics with its denial of strict determinism.

Einstein on Purpose in Nature (p. 39)
In 1954 or 1955 Einstein received a letter citing a statement of his and a seemingly contradictory statement by a noted evolutionist concerning the place of intelligence in the Universe. Here is a translation of the German draft of a reply. It is not known whether a reply was actually sent:

The misunderstanding here is due to a faulty translation of a German text, in particular the use of the word "mystical." I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or a goal, or anything that could be understood as anthropomorphic. What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of "humility." This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism.

Einstein on the Meaning of Life (pp. 26 - 27)
The next excerpt is a letter written by Einstein in response to a 19-year-old Rutger's University student, who had written to Einstein of his despair at seeing no visible purpose to life and no help from religion. In responding to this poignant cry for help, Einstein offered no easy solace, and this very fact must have heartened the student and lightened the lonely burden of his doubts. Here is Einstein's response. It was written in English and sent from Princeton on 3 December 1950, within days of receiving the letter:

I was impressed by the earnestness of your struggle to find a purpose for the life of the individual and of mankind as a whole. In my opinion there can be no reasonable answer if the question is put this way. If we speak of the purpose and goal of an action we mean simply the question: which kind of desire should we fulfill by the action or its consequences or which undesired consequences should be prevented? We can, of course, also speak in a clear way of the goal of an action from the standpoint of a community to which the individual belongs. In such cases the goal of the action has also to do at least indirectly with fulfillment of desires of the individuals which constitute a society.

If you ask for the purpose or goal of society as a whole or of an individual taken as a whole the question loses its meaning. This is, of course, even more so if you ask the purpose or meaning of nature in general. For in those cases it seems quite arbitrary if not unreasonable to assume somebody whose desires are connected with the happenings. Nevertheless we all feel that it is indeed very reasonable and important to ask ourselves how we should try to conduct our lives. The answer is, in my opinion: satisfaction of the desires and needs of all, as far as this can be achieved, and achievement of harmony and beauty in the human relationships. This presupposes a good deal of conscious thought and of self-education. It is undeniable that the enlightened Greeks and the old Oriental sages had achieved a higher level in this all-important field than what is alive in our schools and universities.

Einstein on the Soul From p.39
On I7 July I953 a woman who was a licensed Baptist pastor sent Einstein in Princeton a warmly appreciative evangelical letter. Quoting several passages from the scriptures, she asked him whether he had considered the relationship of his immortal soul to its Creator, and asked whether he felt assurance of everlasting life with God after death. It is not known whether a reply was sent, but the letter is in the Einstein Archives, and on it, in Einstein's handwriting, is the following sentence, written in English:

I do not believe in immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it.

In Berlin in February 1921 Einstein received from a woman in Vienna a letter imploring him to tell her if he had formed an opinion as to whether the soul exists and with it personal, individual development after death. There were other questions of a similar sort. On 5 February 1921 Einstein answered at some length. Here in part is what he said:

The mystical trend of our time, which shows itself particularly in the rampant growth of the so-called Theosophy and Spiritualism, is for me no more than a symptom of weakness and confusion. Since our inner experiences consist of reproductions and combinations of sensory impressions, the concept of a soul without a body seems to me to be empty and devoid of meaning.