Saturday, 18 April 2015

Einstein's Enlightenment


This is an excerpt from the introduction to a new book titled Einstein's Enlightenment.

Once in a very long time an individual appears who is able to get just about everything right. Shakespeare was like that with his unrivaled understanding of how people work. For the first time in literature he created characters having a rich inner life. Shakespeare’s characters ‘overheard’ themselves and developed a novel type of individuality. That meme went viral around the planet and may have stimulated a new kind of psychological development resulting in our modern sense of self, highly conscious of our role in the world. Indeed the Harvard scholar Harold Bloom claims that by this means Shakespeare invented the modern human (1).


His unrivaled intellectual prowess has left behind a community, largely composed of writers and scholars, standing in reverential awe. A cult of ‘bardolatory’ has arisen around his legacy that regards him as a transcendent genius worthy of worship. This cult became prominent during the eighteenth century and has remained strong ever since. As Wikipedia notes the sect venerates Shakespeare in religious terms (2):

many writers treated Shakespeare's works as a secular equivalent or replacement to the Bible
Little is known however about the contents of Shakespeare’s own thoughts and we have almost no idea of his ideological or religious outlook. All of his great quotes were placed in the mouths of his literary characters. Shakespeare was born in the reign of Elizabeth I and died in the reign of James I. Executions for both heresy and treason were exceedingly common. On Shakespeare’s first arrival in London he crossed London Bridge and would surely have noted the many fresh heads mounted on pikes that lined it. This was a clear message to newcomers that the authorities would not tolerate deviant behaviour.  It was not safe to proclaim either original religious or ideological thoughts, it was much safer to put any such ideas into the mouths of others. 


The potency of Shakespeare’s ‘invention of the human’ was such that soon individuals’ notions of a self who enjoys liberty and autonomy could no longer be contained. Driven by the winds of the enlightenment, only thirty-five years after Shakespeare’s death, the absolutist monarch Charles I had to defend his God given right to rule his subjects in a civil war against his people’s parliament. He lost and was executed. For the first time the monarchy was replaced, albeit for only twelve years, with a Republic. Thus genius, even when confined to literature, may have a profound effect on the evolution of society.


I consider Albert Einstein to be another such prophet, one who wrote copiously on religious and ideological matters as well as on science. I will argue, that similar to Shakespeare, he got just about everything right. Admittedly, this view is in conflict with the consensus view that, especially in his later years, Einstein became muddled and out of step.


His first apparent blunder was with quantum mechanics, which some say he invented, but by the 1930s he was considered the cranky old man of physics, reduced to making guerrilla attacks against the prevailing quantum orthodoxy. Nonetheless as Nobel Laureate Gerard ‘t Hooft argues in his latest research, even here Einstein’s views may yet be vindicated (3):

Our models suggest that Einstein may still have been right, when he objected against the conclusions drawn by Bohr and Heisenberg. It may well be that, at its most basic level, there is no randomness in nature, no fundamentally statistical aspect to the laws of evolution.

He also offered thoughts (which today often elicit eye-rolling) on religion and spirituality. These remained important issues to Einstein throughout his life and he devoted much thought to them. In fact he prophesied the evolution of a new form of religion (4):

The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion.

‘Cosmic’ is exactly the word he meant. As Merriam Webster defines it (5):

·         of or relating to the cosmos, the extraterrestrial vastness, or the universe in contrast to the earth alone

·         of, relating to, or concerned with abstract spiritual or metaphysical ideas 
In other words he prophesied that a new religion based on both scientific and spiritual understanding would arise. To many of us this is precisely the tonic which humanity currently lacks. Religion can unite us as no other force and we sorely need social cohesion to effectively confront the many hurdles which face our species. Success in meeting these challenges will depend largely on science-based solutions. A religion which would unite us in the pursuit of an evidence-based approach would appear to be just what we need.


However in the sixty years since Einstein’s death there appears to have been little progress in this direction. This lack might be attributed to a perceived incompatibility between spirituality and science. Spirituality is most powerful when it is simple and carries an emotional punch as does the image of an all-powerful and caring father figure. On the other hand science is often considered cold and complex. 


Perhaps an even more basic incompatibility is that science is evidence-based while religion is faith-based. The great strength of evidence-based understanding is that it leads to truth in a manner which faith-based understanding cannot. Facts are truths we know to be the case because we have incontrovertible evidence. A basic definition of a scientific explanation may be: ‘the simplest explanation explaining all of the pertinent evidence’. But evidence is our experience of the world and thus science is uniquely positioned to harmonize with the truth conveyed through our experience in the world. Our trust that our own experience, especially sensory experience is the most reliable guide to truth is cliched and reflected in truisms such as ‘seeing is believing’.


Religions whose sacred texts make assertions which conflict with the scientific evidence are in the awkward position of either disputing the evidence and our experience in the world or of adopting the view that their sacred texts describe the world only in a metaphorical sense. For example many Christian sects accept that the biblical description of the creation of the earth is only a metaphor and does not conflict with scientific understanding. On the other hand fundamentalist Christian sects dispute the scientific description of creation and are left in the ridiculous position of claiming that their faith-based interpretation of the scientific evidence is superior to the scientific interpretation.


Unfortunately, even within science truths may not be easy to understand. They are often cloaked in specialist jargon and fractured within disciplines. Although Einstein made many attempts to break through these barriers, to unify and popularize science, he was not able to provide the details of an easily understood cosmic science, perhaps because this ambition was so far ahead of his time and the pertinent scientific concepts were not yet fully available. Still Einstein provided a good deal of guidance in how science and spirituality could be united into his grand vision of religion. This I will call Einstein’s enlightenment. 


What does this enlightenment look like? Einstein claimed it was already in existence during his lifetime, although largely restricted to the small community of scientific researchers (6):

A contemporary has said, not unjustly, that in this materialistic age of ours the serious scientific workers are the only profoundly religious people.

Yet only a tiny proportion of humanity is as familiar with science as are its researchers; the rest of us must struggle to understand even its most basic principles and this experience is hardly ever described as a spiritual one. Perhaps now is the time for researchers to give some thought to their spiritual view of science and how it might be communicated to a wide audience. Hopefully what I am able to offer here is a tentative step in that direction and is meant to stimulate those more capable of carrying this project forward.


Some of the many scientific understandings developed since Einstein may promise progress. Central to many of these has been the concept of information. Although the scientific description of information was only introduced shortly before Einstein’s death, information is now fundamental to scientific explanations of most phenomena and within physics many consider it even more basic than mass or energy.


A second pertinent path of scientific development has been the explosion of Darwinian theories used to explain phenomena throughout science. The third and last development I will use to construct a candidate ‘cosmic science’ is the rebirth and development of Bayesian probability theory. Loosely, Bayesian theory describes how knowledge can be accumulated from information.


I have described the relationship between these three branches of scientific understanding in previous writings (7; 8; 9) but fear these often became bogged down in detailed arguments which tended to obscure their revelatory conclusion.


That conclusion is that knowledge is essential to the creation of all complex entities and that knowledge may only be accumulated through Darwinian processes operating according to Bayesian principles. This message may be summarized in three points which hopefully have some spiritual import:


1)      Knowledge is the creator and essence of all things

2)     There is but one universal source of knowledge

3)     Humans were created from this universal source and are the highest form of knowledge yet found in the universe


The scientific support for these three points is broadly:


1)      Without knowledge to locally overcome the second law of thermodynamics complex entities dissipate and cease to exist. Given their relationship to the Planck scale which underlies physics, all entities studied by science are complex entities.

2)     Darwinian processes are the unique method used by nature to accumulate the knowledge necessary for existence. As the physicist Lee Smolin has written (10)

There is only one mode of explanation I know of, developed by science, to explain why a system has parameters that lead to much more complexity than typical values of those parameters. This is natural selection.

3)     In addition to the complexities of biology and nervous systems that we share with many other species, humans uniquely, as far as we know, also participate in an additional level of complexity associated with cultural evolution.



Such a concise unification of science and spirituality may be what is required to make Einstein’s Enlightenment accessible to greater numbers.  Later I will develop this scientific framework to explain the universal reach of these three principles. However my greatest hope is that others may offer a more compelling vision of Einstein’s Enlightenment.



To be clear, I am using ‘enlightenment’ in a very strong sense similar to the state which Buddha experienced and claimed as the true understanding of reality. In several of his writing Einstein describes his subjective experience, for instance in a 1939 letter to the Queen Mother of Belgium (10):

Still, there are moments when one feels free from one's own identification with human limitations and inadequacies. At such moments, one imagines that one stands on some spot of a small planet, gazing in amazement at the cold yet profoundly moving beauty of the eternal, the unfathomable: life and death flow into one, and there is neither evolution nor destiny; only being.
Although Einstein beautifully describes this experience he does not provide any supporting scientific understanding. Perhaps he was thinking of his theory of general relativity whose solutions describe the entire history of the universe as a timeless entity. However we can conjecture that it is his general feelings of beauty and awe concerning scientific understanding and not the details which support his insight. Fortunately since his time a great deal of research has resulted in new knowledge that provides greater clarity.

My own depiction of this vision describes an all-knowing, all-powerful creator permeating reality and describes ourselves as the ‘highest’ or at least the most complex of its known creations. However this creator is not a God in our own image, rather it is a creative process well known to science; it is the Darwinian process.

A largely unnoticed scientific revolution has occurred over the past fifty years. It is not a revolution that occurred in a single branch of science but one that has swept across many fields of science. The Darwinian process has been used to scientifically explain the creation and evolution of most levels of reality including: the cosmos (10), quantum physics (11), biology (12), neuroscience (13) and culture (14). 

Darwinian processes, a generalization of natural selection (which is at the heart of each of these theories), were described by Richard Dawkins in terms of replicators and vehicles (15). In the familiar biological context replicators are genes and vehicles are organisms. Replicators record knowledge of successful strategies for reproductive success, knowledge which is accumulated over evolutionary time from information gathered through the experience of the vehicles in their environments. A vast array of scientific theories claim that this basic process of knowledge accumulation is responsible for the creation of most of the complex entities in the universe.

Mathematically it has been shown that the optimum method of accumulating knowledge from information is the process of Bayesian inference (16). I have argued that at their core, Darwinian process are physical implementations of the mathematics of Bayesian inference (8; 7).

The basic process involved may be paraphrased as ‘learning from experience or from the evidence’. This principle is also at the heart of the scientific method. Indeed Bayesian inference has been called ‘the logic of science’ (16) and many philosophers of science have described science itself as a Darwinian process (17; 18; 19). I have made the claim that not only science but all methods of knowledge accumulation found in nature operate according to this single principle (8).

Hopefully this brief synopsis and references to the science underlying our three proposed spiritual principles are sufficient to allow the interested reader to investigate and come to their own conclusions. However I think it is safe to say that these spiritual principals are unlike almost any others in that they are firmly based in scientific understanding.

Einstein came to the religion of Science through traditional Christianity.  Although his parents were non-practicing Jews they felt that a Christian education would benefit their son and enrolled Albert in a state Catholic school. As Wikipedia describes it (20):
The only Jewish school in Munich had been closed in 1872 for want of students, and in the absence of an alternative Einstein attended a Catholic elementary school. He also received Jewish religious education at home, but he did not see a division between the two faiths, as he perceived the "sameness of all religions." Einstein was equally impressed by the stories of the Hebrew Bible and the Passion of Jesus. According to biographer Walter Isaacson, Einstein immensely enjoyed the Catholic religion courses which he received at the school.
Einstein described this early infatuation as a (21) ‘religious paradise’ which freed him from ‘the chains of the merely personal, from an existence dominated by wishes, hopes, and primitive feelings’. Disappointingly this phase of his spiritual development came to an abrupt end at age twelve when he began reading works of popular science and realized that much of what was written in the bible could not be true.

The young Einstein reacted violently to what seemed to him a cruel intellectual deception on the part of the state and church (21):
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
He never again believed in theistic religion but he did not abandon his sense of awe and wonder of a world beyond that of mundane everyday life. He came to discover that the religious experience of awe and wonder could be realized through the practice of creative scientific research (21):
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.
 His passion for experiencing this wondrous cosmic world led him to the religion of science and Spinoza. Here the emotional impact of religion was united with the truth of science. The practitioners of science sought after truth and did not seek to lure converts through deception. Einstein came to understand that the community of scientific researchers had a type of cosmic religious motivation for their work (6):
What a deep conviction of the rationality of the universe and what a yearning to understand. Were it but a feeble reflection of the mind revealed in this world, Kepler and Newton must have had to enable themselves to spend years of solitary labor in disentangling the principles of celestial mechanics! Those whose acquaintance with scientific research is derived chiefly from its practical results easily develop a completely false notion of the mentality of the men who, surrounded by a skeptical world, have shown the way to kindred spirits scattered wide through the world and through the centuries. Only one who has devoted his life to similar ends can have a vivid realization of what has inspired these men and given them the strength to remain true to their purpose in spite of countless failures. It is the cosmic religious feeling that gives a man such strength.
Thus Einstein settled on the community of creative scientific researchers as his spiritual home, those who share ‘a deep conviction of the rationality of the universe’. This group used the rationality of science to discover a universe which is also rational. Einstein marveled at the similarity between what science reveals concerning the nature of the universe and science itself (6) :
the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought
Specific examples of this understanding that science is a manifestation of a common process of knowledge accumulation used throughout nature has been recorded in the recent literature. For instance Karl Friston describes brains as accumulating knowledge in a surprising similar manner to science itself (22):
Our capacity to construct conceptual and mathematical models is central to scientific explanations of the world around us. Neuroscience is unique because it entails models of this model making procedure itself. There is something quite remarkable about the fact that our inferences about the world, both perceptual and scientific, can be applied to the very process of making those inferences: Many people now regard the brain as an inference machine that conforms to the same principles that govern the interrogation of scientific data.
More generally science, mental models, biology, quantum physics and cosmology have all been described as Darwinian processes which seems to be nature’s exclusive method of knowledge accumulation. Thus Einstein was correct to see a cosmic relationship between science and nature. It is this method of knowledge accumulation operating over cosmic time which created us and we remain at the cutting edge of the further evolution of the universe through our continued practice of this ancient tradition.


Scientific understanding evolves as a Darwinian process and Darwinian processes are the timeless creative force employed by the universe; science is but a recent manifestation of the primal cosmic creator. In the spirit of Spinoza we can confidently say that science is an expression of the one true God.

Bibliography

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