Fundamentally Observers of Our Universe
Einstein is an example of a scientist who does not fall into the trap of Western subjectivism. Indeed there are several passages in his writings that reveal a disposition close to that of Eastern traditions—in tune with the formless—such as the following text from his Ideas and Opinions:
The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained liberation from the self. (Einstein and Seelig 1960, p. 12)
From an Eastern perspective, this statement is easy to understand. If a human is identified with a self, that self becomes a structure—a set of ideas, beliefs, or sto- ries—about who that human is, what the human should do, and how the human should act. Another way of putting this is to say that the human comes to identify with a set of belief structures, and the stronger and more elaborate those structures are, the more restrained the human becomes. For a human to be liberated from the dictates of such structures means greater possibilities for being open to experience of the world and for truly listening to other humans without preconceived opinions.
What Einstein is after is not merely the idea that we as human beings should avoid egoism or selfishness. I believe Einstein cherished a state of openness to the world and other people, unfettered from fictitious ideas about who we are as human beings.
From an Eastern meditative perspective, the self is an illusion; it is fleeting, and it will dissolve when we die or earlier (to a greater or lesser degree), for natural or pathological reasons. So what is left, then, if we have attained liberty from the self? To some, it may sound depressing to give up a self that is supposedly the sort of thing we ultimately are. However, from an Eastern meditative perspective, it means freedom. There is nothing sad about losing an identity that is an illusion, and it does not mean that you will forget your name, what you have done in the past, and so on. You function in society as a normal human being, but you no longer derive a sense of who you are from clinging to stories or belief structures. You derive a sense of who you are from consciousness or nothingness, read as a no-thingness. You are not a thing; you are consciousness. You know who you are in much the same way that a newborn knows it, with the added dimension of having gone through a life of identification with a fictitious self. So there can be a deepened connection to consciousness, and not only an individual consciousness but one that is part of the universe we all share—a universal consciousness or, as Einstein put it:
A human being is a part of the whole called by us “the universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical illusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening the circle of understanding and compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. (Einstein 2011, p. 339)
In an obituary for physicist Rudolf Ladenburg, Einstein continues the theme of shared consciousness and writes:
Brief is this existence, like a brief visit in a strange house. The path to be pursued is poorly lit by a flickering consciousness whose center is the limiting and separating “I.” . . . When a group of individuals becomes a “we,” a harmonious whole, they have reached as high as humans can reach. (Einstein 2011, p. 93)
From a Western perspective, Einstein was a panentheist who aligned himself with Spinoza’s views. Consciousness, from the perspective of Spinoza, is an attribute of God, and human consciousness is a mode of this attribute. God is the universe and more. Spinoza was not simply a pantheist; he believed that God is our universe, or what we call reality, but also more. Moreover, for Spinoza, we might also simply use the term “nature” rather than “God”; that, incidentally, is why he was excommunicated from the Catholic church, exiled, and cursed. Einstein, however, affirmed Spinoza’s view of God, as Virgil Hinshaw makes clear:
Einstein’s conception of God has been the subject of considerable conjecture. On more than one occasion, he has made himself quite clear as to his conviction in the matter. “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals Himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of Human beings.” Of this cablegram, Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein drew the following interpretation. He made use of it to substantiate his own belief that Einstein was neither atheist nor agnostic. Says Rabbi Goldstein: “Einstein points to a unity.” If carried out to its logical conclusion, his theory “would bring to mankind a scientific formula for monotheism.” (Hinshaw 1970, pp. 659-660)
The interpretation of Goldstein that Hinshaw conveys is also consonant with Einstein’s approach of wanting to understand God through science.