Friday, 27 April 2012

Sorry Guys, Einstein Didn't Say That

Albert Einstein was not on either side. Let's stop trying to make it seem like he was.

“It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”
- Albert Einstein, letter to an atheist (1954), quoted in ‘Albert Einstein: The Human Side’, edited by Helen Dukas & Banesh Hoffman

“The biggest problem with the internet is that anyone can attribute any quote to anybody.”
- Han Solo

You may well have seen this copypasta cropping up on your various social media sites over the last couple days or weeks. I would paste it in here but the thing’s massive, so instead just hit the link if you want to see what I’m referring to.

To give you the short of it, it’s a copy/pasted dialogue between ‘THE NASTY ATHEIST PROFESSOR’ and ‘THE HEROIC RELIGIOUS STUDENT’ in which the nasty professor type attempts to ridicule and browbeat the student for his faith in god, only for the student to retaliate with a can of supposed logical whoop-ass that turns the table on the professor.

Oh, and apparently this student is Einstein.

I saw this flare up across in the US via r/atheism a few weeks ago, with lots of irreligious redditors voicing their criticisms of this copypasta. Now it’s crossed the pond to appear on social media feeds here, so I figured now would be an excellent time for me to take a good hard look at it and point out the flaws in the history of the copypasta itself, it’s content and the fact that Einstein’s name has been attached to it.

Much of what I’m about to say I would not be able to argue had those lovely chaps and chapettes over at r/atheism on Reddit not pointed it out first, to give credit where credit is certainly due. Cheers, Reddit.

Now then, let’s get this deconstruction started.

We start off with a vague butchering of the Problem of Evil Argument being bandied about by the Professor against the Student as a way to discredit god and the belief in him. It misses out a lot of the key points of the Problem but I’d prefer to focus on the Student’s response, so we’ll move past that to the part where the Student starts countering the Professor’s onslaught. His first point is about heat and cold, arguing that cold is simply the absence of heat. Okay, I can accept that too.

But here’s where things start to get silly.

Student: You’re wrong again, sir. Darkness is the absence of something. You can have low light, normal light, bright light, flashing light. But if you have no light constantly, you have nothing and its called darkness, isn’t it? In reality, darkness isn’t. If it is, well you would be able to make darkness darker, wouldn’t you?

This view has a few key flaws in its reasoning. Whilst it is acceptable to label darkness as the absence of light, it should be noted that there are things in cosmology that are dark by their very nature and that there are things we consider to be dark because we cannot perceive the wavelengths of light that do actually illuminate them. The view itself is solid enough but does imply that the Student has a limited grasp of astrophysics. Considering who they attribute authorship to, this does cast a bit of doubt on the whole thing.

Moving on:

Student: Since no one has ever observed the process of evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going endeavour. Are you not teaching your opinion, sir? Are you not a scientist but a preacher?

Here we start to fall into the territory of the evolution denier. The usual ‘can’t see evolution so that means it’s just like god lolololol’ trash spouted by creationists and intelligent design proponents. They fail to realise that we have actually observed evolution. We have observed HIV evolving to adapt to living beings across the years. We have observed viruses and diseases reacting to medicine by evolving to resist it better. By using things like bacteria and insects as control species scientists can indeed “observe evolution”, as they reproduce fast enough in laboratory conditions to see it happening.

And of course the Student cannot help but drop the “I DIDN’T EVOLVE FROM A MONKEY” faux-pas into this rant. He’s absolutely correct, of course. We didn’t evolve from monkeys. We evolved from an ape-descendant that we also share with other animals, such as monkeys. Please actually understand what you are criticising before you criticise it.

Student: Is there anyone here who has ever heard the Professor’s brain, felt it, touched or smelt it? No one appears to have done so. So, according to the established Rules of Empirical, Stable, Demonstrable Protocol, Science says that you have no brain, sir. With all due respect, sir, how do we then trust your lectures, sir?

Absolute nonsense. Through scientific methods such as MRI scans we have indeed observed the brain. Scientists have mapped out causal links between brain activity and all functions of the body; observation of a sort. Finally, if we really felt the need to we could also cut open the Professor’s head and observe the brain. Hell, isn’t that what brain surgeons do? The brain is a thing; through evidence and reason we know it to be there. Have I seen one? Admittedly, no. Has the Professor? Given his focus on Philosophy, probably not. However, belief in the brain is not a matter of faith, as the Student seems to be implying; we have evidence and reason to consider it a real thing. A philosophy student might claim that all this evidence could be false and based on flawed evidence, but I think that a swing from Ockham’s Razor puts this to bed. What is more believable, after all? That through evidence we know the brain is there, or that because this evidence could (very, very) potentially be false we can never truly know it is there?

That is the jist of this version of the copypasta. The Student drops the conclusion that “the link between man & GOD is FAITH. That is all that keeps things alive and moving”. And then the final bombshell drops in the last line:

“By the way, that student was EINSTEIN.”

Here is my main issue with this copypasta, the reason why I’m devoting a blog post to criticising it. There are thousands of these things floating about the internet. Hell, there are multiple versions of this one; you can see older versions of the dialogue between the Student and the Professor that date back to 2007, interestingly without Einstein’s name forcibly affixed to the bottom.[1] It is the religious apologist equivalent of an urban myth popularised by the internet; this exchange likely never happened.

This fact ties nicely into my next point.

Which is that Einstein never said this. The copypasta you have just read is a huge misrepresentation of him aside from being logically flawed.

Albert Einstein was undoubtedly one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century, arguably one of the greatest minds our species has ever produced. His theory of general relativity was a work of unparalleled genius that continues to define the field of physics to this day, holding up and remaining solid in the face of rigorous testing. Einstein himself is hailed as a genius, and rightly so; his name has entered into popular language as a stand-in for genius in many places (“what are you, some kind of Einstein?”).

Is it any wonder that many factions and ideologies want to claim him as their own?

That is what this copypasta seeks to do; tie Einstein firmly to the theist camp. Yet this is a gross misrepresentation and an insult to what the man actually believed. He was a man who decried the belief in the personal god theists so ardently cling to.[2] This he perceived as “child-like”. He was not even Christian; his mother and father were non-practising Jews.[3] It is important to note, however, that Einstein was not an atheist either. Indeed, he was quite critical of atheists and atheism at times, calling out our “crusading spirit” and stating that he preferred an attitude of humility.[4] I guess you could call him an agnostic, or perhaps a pan-theist at a stretch.

This is the point I am trying to make in all this. Would I have liked it if Einstein identified himself as an atheist? Certainly I would; it’s always nice to know that great minds of the past thought similarly to you. But that does not mean I am going to deliberately misquote him, deliberately falsify his views in order to try and deceive people into thinking that he is of a similar mindset to me. To do so is to simultaneously insult the memory of a truly gifted scientist.

It also implies that I secretly worry that my views lack validity and plausibility; after all if I was confident in them why would I feel the need to lie in order to make them superficially appear stronger?

So when it comes to the debate on the validity of religion, ladies and gentlemen on both sides of the court, let’s just leave Einstein out of it shall we? He was a scientist first and foremost. He did not believe as either side does. Why is that?

Simply because he did not really have time for religion; he was too busy being one of the greatest scientists who ever lived.

Let’s stop insulting such a man’s memory, shall we?

[2] Calaprice, Alice (2000). The Expanded Quotable Einstein. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 217. Einstein Archives 59-797
[4] Isaacson, Walter (2008). Einstein: His Life and Universe. New York: Simon and Schuster


  1. Wait, I don't remember Han Solo ever saying...ah, I see what you did there.

    Yeah, I've pointed out that Einstein never said that either. The poster usually just retorts "well it doesn't change the message."

    Sure, it just strips it of all credibility, like other writings they use to prove their faith.

    1. Sadly you're always going to get silly copypasta nonsense like this on the internet. From both sides, as well; I've seen a few atheist/agnostic ones floating about. This one just rubbed me the wrong way because someone had grafted Einstein's name to the bottom.

      I guess the fact that Einstein didn't say it doesn't change the message. But they don't seem to address the fact that the message is total nonsense.

      Thanks for reading by the way, mate.

  2. I like your thoughtful analysis and you are quite correct in your approach to this copypasta (in my opinion).

    I am a believer in God but I dislike people using this kind of illogical reasoning to try and convince others about His existence. These are the people who make it so hard for people like you to even get a glimpse of the possibility of God's existence.

    The truth is that either way we go, there is the exercise of faith. Neither side has concrete, tangible, measurable proof for their belief (or lack thereof). We both depend on 'evidence' on which to build our faith.

    Unfortunately, most atheists do not take the time to examine the 'evidence' of God sufficiently and most theists do not take sufficient time to examine the 'evidence' offered by the atheists.

    I perhaps haven't looked at everything on both sides yet, but I have looked at a lot of it and at this time I still feel more convinced that the universe is the result of intelligent design rather than 'an accident' of science.

    Perhaps one of these days I will also start a blog to present my 'evidence'

  3. I just came across that on Facebook. It's absolutely ridiculous. All that said, the student would have been wiser to just keep his mouth shut and let the teacher ridicule him. Because when he said that part about the professor not having a brain, that was beyond stupid. He spoke too much too soon.