Albert Einstein, the Taoist

Albert Einstein lived at a time when technology, especially with regards to warfare, made advances with increasingly far-reaching implications.  He said, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”  He was not the only scientist who grappled with the questions of space, time and the rapid growth of technology and how humans would cope with these advances.  John von Neumann, a brilliant mathematician and physicist, as well as a colleague of Einstein’s who contributed to the development of the atomic bomb, wrote a remarkable essay in which he tries to assess the course of humanity in the face of rapidly expanding technology. In this essay, written more than 50 years ago, von Neumann also foresees the impact of global warming on our political and social systems. (You can read his essay here.)  Von Neumann, however, does not delve into human nature as a potential answer as to how we can continue to exist with the expanding scope and threat of technology to our social and political systems.

Einstein, as a scientist and observer, tried to answer this question of how we can survive technology and preserve humanity by essentially regarding all things as being interrelated.  In short, he believed that as human beings, we and everything around us are integrated, governed by the same laws, while acknowledging that science may only be a measure in part of what we observe., i.e. what is measurable in scientific terms encompasses only part of the universe.  The nature of being human to him was best if we could come to recognize that integration of self with the universe is key to both individual happiness and greater peace in the world.  To him, science fell short in being able to explain certain truths, such as our wonderment of beauty and our mind’s ability to see beyond certain measurable realities.  Unlike Descartes, who famously said, “I think; therefore, I am,” Einstein did not endeavor to separate mind and body or existence into distinct parts in order to try to prove the existence of God.  To Einstein, to be natural, happy, and peaceful meant recognizing and surrendering ourselves to a greater whole, thereby de-emphasizing the ego and the importance of self, being able to achieve harmony with ourselves and with perceived external realities.  Creativity, imagination and a childlike state of curiosity to him are more important than knowledge and essential to our path to preserving happiness and humanity.

A human being is part of the whole called by us universe … We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.  – Albert Einstein

In Taoism and Buddhism alike (which share an intertwined history in China), as well as in many other religions and philosophies of the world, there is a strong recognition of the self being part of a greater whole.  One of the aims is to be free from the self and be less slave to our emotions.  In this sense, it is quite antithetical to the Western idea of self, passion or ego, where we assign great importance to achievement by the individual (and, on the other side of the coin, assign great blame to individuals for their failures).  In the Western tradition, we separate ourselves from others, from ourselves and from the world in many ways.  This can lead us to believe that we are “better” than others and give us a sense of pride and security when we are doing well or lead to a sense of separation and isolation when we are not doing well.  

The separation of self can lead us to feel less responsible for the things and people around us and to assign responsibility for both hardship and wellness in our lives to others or to a higher power than ourselves.  You may be surprised, however, to learn that Taoism, Buddhism and other similar philosophies do not foremost advocate that we should feel responsible for others.  Rather, the basic philosophy in Taosim and Buddhism is to attain freedom from worldly attachment and the self.  Recognizing and accepting that suffering and death is part of existence and all worldly things as fleeting allows one to find peace, harmony and compassion.  In Taoism, there is also an emphasis on not struggling with what is natural and, in a sense, reverting to the simplicity of being a child.  If we do what is natural, harmony and compassion will follow.  Taoism and Buddhism also do not advocate that we should not try our best.  The focus is on the act of doing and of being in the present moment.  This, in itself, should give us a sense of fulfillment, and the results, success or failure, are, in a sense, irrelevant and left to “fate.”  Put in another way, if we expect success (and, inevitably, we cannot always be successful), we will often be disappointed and unhappy.

I love many other quotes by Albert Einstein.  I have listed some here and think they express a coherent (and, in many ways, Toaist) view of Einstein’s belief in humanity:

It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.

He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would surely suffice.

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the the universe.

Reality is merely an illusion, although a very persistent one.

The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.

Until this moment, I never understood how hard it was to lose something you never had.

I sometimes ask myself how it came about that I was the one to develop the theory of relativity. The reason, I think, is that a normal adult never stops to think about problems of space and time. These are things which he has thought about as a child.

I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.

Many times a day I realize how much my own life is built upon the labors of my fellowmen, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.

Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment. Full effort is full victory.