Einstein’s God: Krista Tippett and Theoretical Cosmologist Janna Levin on Free Will, Science, and the Human SpiritBy: Maria Popova
“How we ask our questions affects the answers we arrive at… Science and religion… ask different kinds of questions altogether, probing and illuminating in ways neither could alone.”
Seven decades after a little girl asked Einstein whether scientists pray, Peabody Award-winning journalist Krista Tippett began interviewing some of the world’s most remarkable scientists, philosophers, and theologians about the relationship between science and spirituality in her superb public radio program On Being — the same trove of wisdom that gave us Sherwin Nuland on what everybody needs and Joanna Macy on how Rilke can help us live more fully. Tippett, who was awarded the National Humanities Medal for her ennobling work, collected the best of these dialogues in Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit (public library) — an immeasurably rewarding compendium featuring such contemporary luminaries as Parker Palmer, Freeman Dyson, Andrew Solomon, and Sherwin Nuland.
Lamenting that we have “lost a robust vocabulary for spiritual ethics and theological thinking” in the “polite, erudite, public-radio-loving circles” of public life, Tippett writes in the introduction:
The science-religion “debate” is unwinnable, and it has led us astray. To insist that science and religion speak the same language, or draw the same conclusions, is to miss the point of both of these pursuits of cohesive knowledge and underlying truth. To create a competition between them, in terms of relevance or rightness, is self-defeating. Both science and religion are set to animate the twenty-first century with new vigor. This will happen whether their practitioners are in dialogue or not. But the dialogue that is possible — and that has developed organically, below the journalistic and political radar — is mutually illuminating and lush with promise.
Tippett invokes her grandfather, a “preacher of hellfire and brimstone” with a “large, unexcavated mind that frightened him” and “sharp wit, a searching attentiveness, a mysterious ability to perform mathematical feats in his head”:
People like him became the object of erudite parody, straw men easily blown down by prophets of reason. His kind of religiosity was small-minded at best, delusional at worst, and, most damnably, the enemy of science.
The mundane truth is this: my grandfather did not know enough about science to be against it. I summon his memory by way of tracing, for myself, why I’ve found my conversations with scientists to be so profoundly sustaining. It is not just that they are intellectually and spiritually evocative beyond compare. Cumulatively they dispel the myth of the clash of civilizations between science and religion, indeed between spirit and reason, that we’ve accepted as the backdrop for so many tensions of the modern West.
How we ask our questions affects the answers we arrive at. Light appears as a wave if you ask it “a wavelike question” and it appears as a particle if you ask it “a particle-like question.” This is a template for understanding how contradictory explanations of reality can simultaneously be true.
And it’s not so much true, as our cultural debates presume, that science and religion reach contradictory answers to the same particular questions of human life. Far more often, they simply ask different kinds of questions altogether, probing and illuminating in ways neither could alone.
Hardly anything illustrates this notion more crisply than a line from the bewitching novel A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines — “To see some truths you must stand outside and look in.” — by astrophysicist and theoretical cosmologist Janna Levin, one of Tippett’s interviewees, who studies the shape and finitude of the universe. In her conversation with Tippett, Levin reflects on the relationship between mathematics and truth, central to both her novel — which explores the parallels between the extraordinary minds of computing pioneer Alan Turing and mathematician Kurt Gödel — and her life:
I would absolutely say I am also besotted with mathematics. I don’t worry about what’s real and not real in the way that maybe Gödel did. I think what Turing did, which was so beautiful, was to have a very practical approach. He believed that life was, in a way, simple. You could relate to mathematics in a concrete and practical way. It wasn’t about surreal, abstract theories. And that’s why Turing is the one who invents the computer, because he thinks so practically. He can imagine a machine that adds and subtracts, a machine that performs the mathematical operations that the mind performs. The modern computers that we have now are these very practical machines that are built on those ideas. So I would say that like Turing, I am absolutely struck with the power of mathematics, and that’s why I’m a theoretical physicist… I love that we can all share the mathematical answers. It’s not about me trying to convince you of what I believe or of my perspective or of my assumptions. We can all agree that one plus one is two, and we can all make calculations that come out to be the same, whether you’re from India or Pakistan or Oklahoma, we all have that in common. There’s something about that that’s deeply moving to me and that makes mathematics pure and special. And yet I’m able to have a more practical attitude about it, which is that, well, we can build machines this way. There is a physical reality that we can relate to using mathematics.
When Tippett stretches this into the difficult question of whether “the fact that one plus one equals two [has] anything to do with God,” Levin — a self-described atheist — echoes Tolstoy’s quest for meaning and answers with remarkable poetry and poise:
If I were to ever lean towards spiritual thinking or religious thinking, it would be in that way. It would be, why is it that there is this abstract mathematics that guides the universe? The universe is remarkable because we can understand it. That’s what’s remarkable. All the other things are remarkable, too. It’s really, really astounding that these little creatures on this little planet that seem totally insignificant in the middle of nowhere can look back over the fourteen-billion-year history of the universe and understand so much and in such a short time.
So that is where I would get a sense, again, of meaning and of purpose and of beauty and of being integrated with the universe so that it doesn’t feel hopeless and meaningless. Now, I don’t personally invoke a God to do that, but I can’t say that mathematics would disprove the existence of God either. It’s just one of those things where over and over again, you come to that point where some people will make that leap and say, “I believe that God initiated this and then stepped away, and the rest was this beautiful mathematical unfolding.” And others will say, “Well, as far back as it goes, there seem to be these mathematical structures. And I don’t feel the need to conjure up any other entity.” And I fall into that camp, and without feeling despair or dissatisfaction.
The emboldening poetics of Levin’s orientation to the universe and its meaning — at the heart of which is the same inquiry Alan Watts tussled with in probing what reality is — comes alive in this passage from her novel:
In the park, over the low wall, there are two girls playing in the grass. Giants looming over their toys, monstrously out of proportion. They’re holding hands and spinning, leaning farther and farther back until their fingers rope together, chubby flesh and bone enmeshed. What do I see? Angular momentum around their center. A principle of physics in their motion. A girlish memory of grass-stained knees.
I keep walking and recede from the girls’ easy confidence in the world’s mechanisms. I believe they exist, even if my knowledge of them can only be imperfect, a crude sketch of their billions of vibrating atoms. I believe this to be true… I am on an orbit through the universe that crosses the paths of some girls, a teenager, a dog, an old woman…
I could have written this book entirely differently, but then again, maybe this book is the only way it could be, and these are the only choices I could have made. This is me, an unreal composite, maybe part liar, maybe not free.
Therein lies the obvious question — a question raised memorably and somewhat controversially by C.S. Lewis — of free will in a universe of fixed laws. Levin tells Tippett:
I think it’s a difficult question to understand what it means to have free will if we are completely determined by the laws of physics, and even if we’re not. Because there are things—for instance, in quantum mechanics, which is the theory of physics on the highest energy scales—which imply that there is some kind of quantum randomness so that we’re not completely determined. But randomness doesn’t really help me either.
There is no clear way of making sense of an idea of free will in a pinball game of strict determinism or in a game with elements of random chance thrown in. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t a free will. I’ve often said maybe someday we’ll just discover something. I mean, quantum mechanics was a surprise. General relativity was a surprise. The idea of curved space-time. All of these great discoveries were great surprises, and we shouldn’t decide ahead of time what is or isn’t true. So it might be that this convincing feeling I have, that I am executing free will, is actually because I’m observing something that is there. I just can’t understand how it’s there. Or it’s a total illusion. It’s a very, very convincing illusion, but it’s an illusion all the same.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s revelatory work on intuition, exposing the lack of correlation between our confidence in our beliefs and the validity of the evidence behind them — something that often manifests as “the backfire effect” — Levin considers the nature of these convincing illusions to which human nature so easily succumbs:
Our convincing feeling is that time is absolute. Our convincing feeling is that there should be no limit to how fast you can travel. Our convincing feelings are based on our experiences because of the size that we are, literally, the speed at which we move, the fact that we evolved on a planet under a particular star. So our eyes, for instance, are at peak in their perception of yellow, which is the wave band the sun peaks at. It’s not an accident that our perceptions and our physical environment are connected. We’re limited, also, by that. That makes our intuitions excellent for ordinary things, for ordinary life. That’s how our brains evolved and our perceptions evolved, to respond to things like the Sun and the Earth and these scales. And if we were quantum particles, we would think quantum mechanics were totally intuitive. Things fluctuating in and out of existence, or not being certain of whether they’re particles or waves — these kinds of strange things that come out of quantum theory — would seem absolutely natural…
Our intuitions are based on our minds, our minds are based on our neural structures, our neural structures evolved on a planet, under a sun, with very specific conditions. We reflect the physical world that we evolved from. It’s not a miracle.
And yet, crucially, the lack of evidence for free will is by no means a license to abdicate personal responsibility in how we move through the world:
If I conclude that there is no free will, it doesn’t mean that I should go run amok in the streets. I’m no more free to make that choice than I am to make any other choice. There’s a practical notion of responsibility or civic free will that we uphold when we prosecute somebody, when we hold juries or when we pursue justice that I completely think is a practical notion that we should continue to pursue. It’s not like I can choose to be irresponsible or responsible because I’m confused about free will.
Six decades earlier, and long before the dawn of modern astrophysics, Anaïs Nin made a humanistic case for the same.
Einstein’s God is a spectacular read in its entirety, as is Levin’s novel. For more perspectives on the relationship between science and spirituality, step into the cultural time machine with Carl Sagan on science and religion, Flannery O’Connor on dogma, belief, and the difference between religion and faith, Alan Lightman on science and spirituality, Ada Lovelace on the interconnectedness of everything, Jane Goodall on science and spirit, and Sam Harris on spirituality without religion.