Tuesday, May 29, 2012

John Piper plays Chinese whispers with Einstein

John Piper's book Think has an Appendix: "The Earth is the Lord's: The Supremacy of Christ in Christian Learning, Biblical Foundations for Bethlehem College and Seminary". In it he states:

Albert Einstein's indictment of preachers illustrates what I am trying to say. Charles Misner, a scientific specialist in general relativity theory, was quoted this way: 
     "I do see the design of the universe as essentially a religious   question. That is, one should have some kind of respect and awe for the whole business . . . It’s very magnificent and shouldn’t be taken for granted. In fact, I believe that is why Einstein had so little use for organized religion, although he strikes me as a basically very religious man. He must have looked at what the preachers said about God and felt that they were blaspheming. He had seen much more majesty than they had ever imagined, and they were just not talking about the real thing. My guess is that he simply felt that religions he’d run across did not have proper respect . . . for the author of the universe."
Scientists know that light travels at the speed of 5.87 trillion miles a year. They also know the galaxy of which our solar system is a part is about 100,000 light-years in diameter-about 587 thousand trillion miles. It is one of about a million such galaxies in the optical range of our most powerful telescopes. In our galaxy there are about one hundred billion stars. The sun is one of them, a modest star burning at about 6,000 degrees centigrade on the surface and traveling in an orbit at 155 miles per second, which means it will take about two hundred million years to complete a revolution around the galaxy. 
Scientists know these things. Einstein was awed by them. He felt something like this: “If there is a personal God, as the Christians say, who spoke this universe into being, then there is a certain respect and reverence and wonder and dread that would have to come through when we talk about him. And certainly we would be talking about him all the time since he is the most important reality.”

Note that in the last paragraph Piper directly constructs what he thinks Einstein's views were.

I found it interesting to trace the lineage of these views attributed to Einstein. The Desiring God website shows three previous talks, going back to 1993, where Piper has used the Misner quote. A Google search on "Piper Einstein Misner" shows a lot of people  have picked up on Piper's argument.

For the Misner quote Piper references an editorial in First Things by Richard John Neuhaus.

That references an article by Daniel Kevles in the NewYork Review of Books.

Did Charles Misner discuss these matters with Einstein? Perhaps. Misner was a graduate student at Princeton beginning in 1952. Einstein died in Princeton in 1955.

Misner's thesis advisor was John Archibald Wheeler, who did have extensive interactions with Einstein over the years. Misner's views may have been shaped by Wheeler's view of Einstein's view.

But what did Einstein actually think, as opposed to what people think he thought or wished that he thought?
He did write about religion and his views have been analysed in detail in a book by Max Jammer. An earlier post Einstein on Religion contains an extensive quote from Einstein. It shows that his real problem was not the quality or passion of the preaching he heard but the concept of a personal God.

It is disappointing to me that Piper did not use primary sources to establish Einstein's actual views.

But, I have a larger problem with invoking Einstein in such discussions. It is really an argument from authority. Einstein is certainly an authority on theoretical physics.
But the problem is that Einstein is not an authority on preaching, theology, or ethics. So why should his view carry any more weight than other "wise" or "foolish" person.

Afterword: I really do still like the book Think. I am just practicing what it advocates: think and ask questions about what you read!

No comments:

Post a Comment