Monday, 1 February 2016

Einstein and Lennon

This is an excerpt from an upcoming book: Einstein's Enlightenment

Einstein and Lennon

John Campbell

Many of the greatest challenges that life presents us take the form of choosing the type of person we will be. Clearly, these choices are tightly constrained, largely by the cultural circumstances in which we are born; we all learn the language of our parents as well as countless other attributes specified by our culture. However, all cultures provide some wiggle room; some choices are individual ones and may be chosen from the menu which our culture makes available.

Thus we copy from among the cultural beliefs, attitudes and ways of being which the evolution of our culture has made available and make this selection our own. This allows for some individual variations as the copying is never perfect; we all exhibit some small variations in the cultural traits we adopt.

Still, how do we best chose or select from those choices available to us? Social scientists studying cultural evolution understand that a common and successful strategy is to adopt the choices we observe to have been made by the most successful individuals in our group (1).

This is a brilliant selection mechanism as it allows one to adopt the best of the cultural traits which their culture has evolved. It also furthers cultural evolution in that the most successful cultural traits tend to become mainstream or conventional.

I will just note in passing that this description of cultural evolution is in terms of a Darwinian process: one with copying, variation and selection.

A related strategy for individuals, one which minimizes the stress of agonizing over such weighty decisions, is to choose the culture’s conventional answers, those adopted by the majority. Conventional traits are likely to be relatively successful and so this provides an easy way of arriving at a near-optimal choice.

However, there may be good reasons for not always taking this path. What has proved successful in the past, may not be as successful now or in the future. As well, there may be new successful opportunities that have not yet been widely recognized or adopted by the wider culture. Thus the adoption of non-conventional cultural traits can result in a big payoff but unfortunately, this is unlikely; most unconventional traits are unsuccessful and are ultimately rejected by the wider culture.  Yet from the perspective of cultural evolution it is the few non-conventional but successful traits that provide evolutionary progress, which allow for the expansion of the conventional wisdom.

Again I will note in passing that this is similar to the evolutionary process in biology where most mutations are harmful but it is the rare beneficial ones that are adopted by the population and which contribute to its evolution.

It is difficult to think of an individual who originated more successful non-conventional traits than Albert Einstein. His unconventional understanding of scientific subjects is widely considered brilliant and is a legend. I will argue that, as well, his non-conventional understanding of religion and humanism, although less well known, are equally brilliant. Those unsatisfied with selecting their life choices from the conventional may do well to consider the alternatives which Einstein has bequeathed us.

Einstein was able to synergize between two of his most brilliant eccentricities to create a blazingly radical vision of human society. The first is his unequalled ability to develop a logical chain of thought including its many implications and the second is his great powers for free-thinking, brilliantly original and unconstrained by conventional bias. He thought, in big brush strokes, about what human society was and what it could be.

He died an isolated man. Although his insights had transformed all of physics and formed the starting point for the generations of physicists following him, he left behind no devoted group of followers.  During the last half of his career, he conducted a futile quest to unify General Relativity with the quantum forces. His other scientific legacy during this period was sniping at the consensus claim of quantum theory that it was a complete description of micro-reality and the numerous attempts he made to demonstrate this incompleteness. Among those in the consensus, his non-believer stance contributed to a widespread view that the old man had lost his marbles.

Outside of physics Einstein’s legacy is practically unknown, his philosophical and sociological views remain obscure. At the time of his death in 1955, one of those waves of conservative fanaticism that periodically sweep America was well underway. 

Conservative elements had whipped the citizenry into a nationalistic frenzy through false claims that their government and society was riddled with the agents and spies of their great enemy, the communists. The hitherto obscure US senator, Joseph McCarthy was rocketed to national prominence by speeches he made fanning this paranoid frenzy:

The State Department is infested with communists. I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.

Fortunately, these periodic waves of witch hunting do eventually pass and in late 1954 McCarthy was censured by the Senate for his excesses. His personal popularity quickly faded and President Eisenhower, who had always despised McCarthy, quipped that McCarthyism was now "McCarthywasm"

Einstein did not find McCarthyism amusing. In the 1930s he had direct experience of Hitler and the Nazis, they had raided his apartment, confiscated his belongings, denounced his science and chased him out of Germany to America. He was neither cowed nor deceived by the likes of Hitler and wrote to a friend (2):

A group of armed bandits in Germany has successfully silenced the responsible segments of the population and imposed a kind of revolution from below which will soon succeed in destroying or paralyzing everything that is civilized in society.

He was certainly not cowed by the pathetic antics of McCarthyism. Although under scrutiny himself, Einstein argued that those called before the committee should assert their rights (3):

Invoking the Fifth Amendment was problematic, Einstein wrote, because “the individual is offered no legal middle ground for him to defend his actual rights.” In closing, he pointed to a more “revolutionary” tactic - non-cooperation, like Gandhi used with great success against the legal powers of the British Authorities.”

Later that year, Einstein also counselled fellow physicist Al Shadowitz to refuse to provide testimony at the McCarthy hearings—not by invoking the Fifth Amendment, but by asserting that the questioning was in violation of the First Amendment.

However, Einstein’s socio-political views were considered “verboten” by the American authorities for some time after his death as Cold War fervour and lingering McCarthyism maintained their hold on the nation. American society was reduced to frantic demonstrations of flag saluting and loyalty pledges. In this milieu, Einstein’s more rational pleas for world government and democratic socialism fell largely on deaf ears. During this era, it was unsafe to hold such political views; many were imprisoned and even more lost their jobs. Some of the victims of this purge were homosexuals, as somehow right-wing logic understood that ‘sexual perverts’ are by nature politically subversive.

Wikipedia describes some of the more shameful persecutions of this era (4):

It is difficult to estimate the number of victims of McCarthyism. The number imprisoned is in the hundreds, and some ten or twelve thousand lost their jobs. In many cases simply being subpoenaed by HUAC or one of the other committees was sufficient cause to be fired.  Many of those who were imprisoned, lost their jobs or were questioned by committees did in fact have a past or present connection of some kind with the Communist Party. But for the vast majority, both the potential for them to do harm to the nation and the nature of their communist affiliation were tenuous. After the extremely damaging "Cambridge Five" spy scandal (Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt, et al.), suspected homosexuality was also a common cause for being targeted by McCarthyism. The hunt for "sexual perverts", who were presumed to be subversive by nature, resulted in thousands being harassed and denied employment. Many have termed this aspect of McCarthyism "The Lavender Scare".[

Einstein himself was in danger. For the last 23 years of his life the FBI amassed a 1,427-page file on him and colluded with the Department of Immigration to bring deportation proceedings against him.  The New York Times reported on this bizarre episode of official paranoia regarding Einstein (5):

For many years, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and 
other agencies spied on him, acting on suspicions as disturbing as a tip that he had been a Russian spy in Berlin; as vague as an unease with his support of civil rights and pacifist and socialist causes; and as goofy as claims that he was working on a death ray or that he was heading a Communist conspiracy to take over Hollywood.

America did not fully emerge from this wave of fanaticism until a younger generation began questioning the contradictions between the officially espoused notions of liberty, freedom and equality on the one hand and the reality of segregationist laws which made second class citizens of Negroes on the other. A little later in that decade this same generation of Americans also protested the actions of their country (the so-called champion of revolutionary and anti-colonial movements) in subjugating the Vietnamese and in the process causing the death of between 1.5 and 3.6 million south-east Asians (6).

American cities burned, and the ideals of the counter-culture emerged to become a major influence in the culture’s evolution. Environmentalism, feminism, gay rights and anti-racism enjoyed a rebirth during this period and have since become more or less accepted standards of American society.  This new generation dealt the final death blow to McCarthyism when Jerry Rubin and his Yippee collaborators appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in revolutionary garb complete with toy assault rifles. The jig was up; the ridiculousness of McCarthyism suddenly became clear, the Emperor had no clothes.

Figure 4 : Jerry Rubin and the Yippies demonstrated that the House of Un-American Activities Committee was a sham and a laughing stock.

Perhaps some of the headiest aspirations of this movement were encapsulated in the near saintly status bestowed upon the great musical prophet John Lennon. The lyrics to ‘Give Peace a Chance’ were chanted at many mass demonstrations against America’s war machine.

Figure 5: Lennon's Give Peace A Chance campaign was an integral part of the American anti-Vietnam war movement.

Just as the FBI had sought to quell Einstein’s influence through deportation, they used the same strategy to counter the huge popularity of John Lennon’s radicalism. A file was maintained on him that was used by the Nixon administration to initiate deportation hearings. In many ways, it is understandable that the FBI saw both these men in a similar light, for Lennon’s political idealism and demands for social justice are a close reincarnation of Einstein’s views.

Perhaps the principles of the counter-culture achieved their most direct and poetic expression in Lennon’s song Imagine.  Those lyrics envision an ideal world, a world with no religion, no nations, no possessions, no greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man. They describe a world very much like the one advocated by Einstein.

However, Einstein’s radical societal views were set forth in his usual logical manner which tended to lack the poetic punch achieved by Lennon. Nevertheless, his vision, while perhaps more thoughtful, was equally as humanitarian and cosmic.HoHoH

Lennon’s lyrics start with an invocation to imagine a world with no religion.

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…..

Likewise, the religion advocated by Einstein was the religion of Spinoza and did not envision heaven or hell nor any type of personal God.

Perhaps of greater interest is Lennon’s dream that instead of living our lives in the hope of a better life after death, it is best to focus on the lives we have now, here on earth. This notion of the value of life is central to the philosophy of Humanism. Wikipedia describes it (7):

Humanism is a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over established doctrine or faith (fideism). The meaning of the term humanism has fluctuated, according to the successive intellectual movements which have identified with it.  Generally, however, humanism refers to a perspective that affirms some notion of human freedom and progress. In modern times, humanist movements are typically aligned with secularism, and today "Humanism" typically refers to a non-theistic life stance centred on human agency, and looking to science instead of religious dogma in order to understand the world.

Einstein fully endorsed Humanism and lent his great influence to promote humanist organizations. His dedication to this movement is documented in the Wikipedia article on Einstein’s religious beliefs (8):

Einstein was a Humanist and a supporter of the Ethical Culture movement. He served on the advisory board of the First Humanist Society of New York. …. He was an honorary associate of the British Humanist organization, the Rationalist Press Association and its journal was among the items present on his desk at his death.

Clearly, Einstein and Lennon were kindred spirits in their views concerning religion and humanism.

The second verse of Imagine envisions a future where war is obsolete, where the main causes of war, nationalistic fervour and religious belief, have been left behind.

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

Many of Einstein’s writings echo these sentiments to a surprising degree. He recognized nationalism as a great evil and advocated for a world government as the only possible means of avoiding future wars (9).

Einstein was plagued throughout his life by religious believers who thought that given his spiritual nature he must believe in a religion similar to their own and in 1954, shortly before his death, he wrote to an offending Rabbi, spelling out in the clearest possible terms, his non-belief in conventional religions (10).

For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.

Imagine’s chorus stresses human agency, especially the possibility that humanity could choose a cooperative and peaceful world society.

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

This same vision of a world society was shared by Einstein (9):

The UN and world government eventually must serve one single goal – the guarantee of the security, tranquility, and the welfare of all mankind.

The last verse of Imagine is considered by many to be its most radical. In a few lines, Lennon outlines a society that has out-grown competition and has endorsed sharing.

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...

Lennon’s socialist vision is close to the democratic socialism advocated by Einstein (9).
I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals…. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.

Einstein was not naive, he had a sophisticated view of socialism and acknowledged the many potential problems entailed with centralized bureaucracy:

Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that a planned economy is not yet socialism. A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual. The achievement of socialism requires the solution of some extremely difficult socio-political problems: how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of the bureaucracy be assured?

Never-the-less, for Einstein, these problems were not ‘show stoppers’ but rather obstacles to be overcome on the path to a cooperative and sharing world society, a world society very much like the one John Lennon was to outline thirty years later.


1. A framework for the unification of the behavioral sciences. Gintis, Herbert. s.l. :, 2007, BEHAVIORAL AND BRAIN SCIENCES.
2. Einstein, Albert. Letter to Paul Langevin. 1933.
3. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American HIstory. Albert Einstein on the McCarthy hearings and the Fifth Amendment, 1953. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American HIstory. [Online] [Cited: 1 10, 2016.]
4. Wikipedia. McCarthyism. Wikipedia. [Online]
5. Overbye, Dennis. New Details Emerge From the Einstein Files; How the F.B.I. Tracked His Phone Calls and His Trash. The New York Times. May 7, 2002.
6. Wikipedia. Vietnam war causalties. Wikipedia. [Online]
7. —. Humanism. Wikipedia. [Online]
8. —. Religious View of Albert Einstein. Wikipedia. [Online] [Cited: April 9, 2015.]
9. Einstein, Albert. Essays in Humanism . s.l. : Philosophical Library/Open Road , 2011.
10. —. Letter written to Eric Gutkind . 1954.
11. —. Letter written to Raymond Benenson. January 31, 1946. Vols. Einstein Archives 56-505.
12. —. Letter written to Margot Einstein. 1951.
13. —. Letter written to Ugo Onofri. 1954. Einstein Archives 60-758.