Misquoting Einstein: Walter Isaacson doctors a quote (maybe)…

If you’re not already familiar with Aspen Institute CEO and acclaimed biographer Walter Isaacson, you should be. His most notable works are Einstein: His Life and Universe and the recent Steve Jobs biographies. Both get two thumbs up from me – the first actually sparked a pretty intense fascination with Albert Einstein, which has continued to this day (somewhat embarrassing example: I have a portrait of Einstein above my bed…). And when you combine that personal fascination with an equally intense interest in religion and philosophy, and you end up with someone (me) who has read pretty much every quote attributed to Einstein having anything to do with faith or lack thereof. That will be my only claim to credibility on this issue – simply  that I’ve read a lot about the subject – and so I hope you don’t find me too bold for suggesting that, in the clip below, Walter Isaacson has pretty egregiously (in my opinion) misquoted the man. If anyone can find proof Einstein said what Isaacson claims he said, I’ll be happy to retract – but until then, let the venting commence.

First, the contested quote. Isaacson claims, starting at about 2:30, that Einstein said this: “There’s a spirit manifest in the laws of the universe, in the face of which we must be awed and humbled. To me, that is the closest feeling I can have to a cosmic religion and to me that explains my faith in a creator and a faith in God.”

The first part seems to be paraphrased from Einstein’s reply to a sixth grade girl in 1936, who was asking him, “Do scientists pray?” I’m familiar with the quote, printed in full below:

Scientific research is based on the idea that everything that takes place is determined by laws of nature, and this holds for the actions of people. For this reason, a scientist will hardly be inclined to believe that events could be influenced by prayer, i.e. by a wish addressed to a supernatural Being…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.

I take no issue with Isaacson’s paraphrase of the section above, but you might notice that the phrase, “and to me that explains my faith in a creator and a faith in God” is noticeably absent. Why? Well, my claim is that Einstein never said it – and never would have said it because it’s so incommensurate with his views as expressed elsewhere. I was actually pretty shocked upon hearing it, and began searching my main sources (mostly the inter-webs and Max Jammer’s thorough, Einstein and Religion) in vain for any quote invoking the word “creator” or “faith in a creator”. I even re-read Isaacson’s chapter, “Einstein’s God” but turned up nothing. I emailed Isaacson about a week ago (he responded to a letter from me back in high school so I’m hopeful) to see if he can give me the source, and if he can I’ll happily update this post accordingly. Until then, I’m assuming it was a misquote.

Now, why do I care? Isn’t this a small difference? No, not really. Saying something like “faith in a creator” reeks of deism or even theism, which are contrary to Einstein’s actual views, most readily described as pantheism (again, see Jammer’s Einstein and Religion). Einstein is already one of the most quote-mined figures of the 20th century, and is frequently taken out of context by both believers and nonbelievers alike. We don’t need to fuel this fire, and tacking on phrases, even small ones, is how misattributions are born.  People, particularly of such esteem as Isaacson, need to be careful when quoting others, especially those who are long dead and can’t defend themselves anymore. It’s an issue of respect and an issue of intellectual honesty – we all want Einstein to agree with us (who wants to be in disagreement with a genius?), but if there is no evidence he agreed with our views, we’ve no right to argue as such, and certainly no right to liberally paraphrase. My speculation is that Isaacson is religious in some way himself, and was, in the above clip, projecting some of his own views onto Einstein.

As for Einstein’s actual thoughts on religion, I recommend you read Jammer’s book, but I will try to give a short summary. First, he explicitly stated multiple times he did not think of himself as an atheist (think Sigmund Freud for what he meant by atheist). He invoked God many times in public statements about the harmony of nature and the Universe (though he meant Spinoza’s God, which is pantheistic, more or less, if you can understand what Spinoza is saying), and even described himself as “religious” in a cosmic sense. All of this has been used by believers to make assertions Einstein was one of them, but that is clearly false. He was straightforwardly not a believer in a “personal” God of any sort – which means he was adamantly not a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim. He did not believe in a God who intervenes or rewards or punishes or has anything whatsoever to do with humanity. In other words, he didn’t believe in a God anything like what most people think of when they think of God. Jammer concludes that this made Einstein more or less a “practical atheist”  because what’s the difference between there being no God and there being a God who doesn’t interact at all with the fates of humanity? I get Jammer’s point, but disagree slightly – I do in fact think there’s a big difference between those two hypothetical realities (one would suggest some sort of teleological direction in nature, the other would suggest chaos and nothing more, though a pretty cool brand of chaos). Moreover, if what you care about is the fundamental truth and nature of the Universe – which I suspect is what Einstein cared about – and not necessarily humanity’s role or involvement in it, then again, there’s a big philosophical difference between those two worldviews that I imagine would play out practically in some form during one’s life. Now, if Einstein were around today, what do I think he would call himself? My guess is that with the softening of terms that has happened since his death, he would likely call himself an agnostic when talking generally (in the Carl Sagan vein), and an “atheist” when confronted about Judeo-Christian beliefs.

Of course, he’s not here, so I can’t claim he’s either of those things with any certainty…unless I doctor a quote…


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