Every author from the writers of the ancient sacred texts to James himself has relied on that empowering paradox. It involves the working of our linguistic minds on the world of things-in-themselves. We ascribe meaning to the unmeant, and the sentences form with such synaptic speed that the act of writing, when it is going well, seems no more than the dutiful secretarial response to a silent dictation.
This feeling, I suggest, may be the same as the scientist’s in his eureka moment, when what he has discovered by seeing past the seen to the unseen has the character of appearing as “an impersonal product of his generation.”
And there must be something common to the creative act, whatever its discipline, in James’s assertion that from one evocative fragment of conversation overheard by the writer a entire novel can be written, that from the slightest bit of material a whole novelistic world is created. We may represent this as the Little Bang of the writer’s or scientist’s inspiration, thinking analogously of the Big Bang, that prime-moving happenstance when the universe blew out into its dimensions, exploding in one silent flash into the volume and chronology of space-time.
If the analogy seems grandiose, I remind myself that the writers of the ancient texts, the sacred texts of our religions, attributed the Little Bang of their own written cosmologies not to the impersonal product of their generation but to God. The God of the universe was the author of what they wrote, so awed were they by the mystery of their own creative process.
But whether the creative mind feels it is dutifully transcribing a silent dictation, or that its work appears almost as an impersonal product of a generation, or that it is serving as a medium for the voice of God, what is always involved is a release from personality, liberation, an unshackling from the self.
That self was wildly manifest in Einstein’s youth, when he seems to have renounced both his German citizenship and his Jewish faith; it was manifest in his adulthood during the course of two difficult marriages and an affinity for extramarital wandering. His biographers tell us how, in his student days as an assimilated Jewish boy in a German gymnasium, one of his teachers held up a rusty nail and, looking directly at Albert, said such spikes were driven through Christ’s hands and feet. That brought home to the boy the social isolation he was born to, a position he came to relish because looking in from the outside, he saw clearly the pretensions and lies and dogmas upon which the society fed. He would come to distrust every form of authority. He was from the beginning, as he himself said, “a free spirit.”
It was in childhood that Einstein’s difference as a quiet, unflinchingly observant Jewish kid allowed him to hone the skepticism that as an adult he applied to intellectual postulates that had been in place for centuries. His society’s resentment grew as Einstein’s mind grew, exponentially. By the 1930s, a winner of the Nobel Prize, he was at the top of Hitler’s enemy list. He was designated for assassination, and even when he was out of the country, in Belgium, authorities insisted that he have bodyguards. Einstein’s biographers agree that he was always philosophical, always calm in the face of personal danger. As his fame grew, he had necessarily to apply his mind to social, political, and religious issues. He brought to these nonscientific issues the same clarity of thinking that was evident in the only definitions of time and space that he could allow himself: time, “something you measure with a clock,” and space, “something you measure with a ruler.” God he called Das Alte, or “the Old One,” identifying the only attribute of God he could be sure of—old in nominal existence solely. He applied that same beautiful and scrupulously pragmatic clarity of thought to the famous ethical conundrum most forcefully postulated by Immanuel Kant: How can there be an ethical system without an ultimate authority, without the categorical imperative of an ought—in short, without God?
Here is how Einstein cut through that problem: “Ethical axioms are found and tested not very differently from the axioms of science. Truth is what stands the test of experience,” he said. “For pure logic, all axioms are arbitrary, including the axioms of ethics. But they are by no means arbitrary from a psychological and genetic point of view. They are derived from our inborn tendencies to avoid pain and annihilation, and from the accumulated emotional reaction of individuals to the behavior of their neighbors. It is the privilege of man’s moral genius . . . to advance ethical axioms which are so comprehensive and so well founded that men will accept them as grounded in the vast mass of their individual emotional experiences.”
There is one more point to be made in the futile project of trying to plumb the creative mind of this genius: Throughout his life he found excuses, almost apologies, for his prodigious accomplishment. “Sometimes I ask myself,” he once said, “how it came about that I happened to be the one to discover the theory of relativity. The reason is, I think, that the normal adult never stops to think about space and time. Whatever thinking he may do about these things he will already have done as a small child. I, on the other hand, was so slow to develop that I only began thinking about space and time when I was already grown up. Naturally, I then went more deeply into the problem than an ordinary child.”
Einstein had a sense of humor; a sly diffidence was one of his stocks-in-trade when dealing with the press, and this was a sweetly funny thing to say—except that in this case I think he was quite serious. For hidden in this remark is an acceptance of himself as an eternal child. This prodigy of thought was eternally a child prodigy. And if that would seem to diminish the man, remember that it was a child who cried out that the emperor had no clothes. All his life Einstein would point to this or that ruling thought and reveal its nakedness, until finally it was the prevailing universe that had no clothes.
Dare we think that a mind of this immensity—independent, self-directed with such a penetrating clarity of thought, and driven with a rampant curiosity—must have had, too, a protective naïveté about the nature of itself? There was a confidence in reality that must have protected him from the philosophical despair of Ludwig Wittgenstein, another genius born to the power of the moment, just 10 years after Einstein, and the most influential European philosopher of his generation.
Wittgenstein revolutionized philosophy by dismissing everyone from Plato to Hegel as purveyors of metaphysical nonsense. All philosophy could do was to logically understand thought. He was a philosopher of language who used linguistic analysis to distinguish those propositions that were meaningful from those that had no justifiable connection to the existing world. “The meaning is the use,” he said. Wittgenstein’s philosophy, a technique more than a teaching, was almost directly attributable to the appropriation by science of the great cosmological questions that had traditionally been the province of philosophy. Certainly Einstein’s discoveries were the salients of this scientific encroachment. Yet Wittgenstein believed that science, even at its most successful, by its nature could go only so far. He articulated the most desolate intellectual pronouncement of the 20th century: “If all possible scientific questions are answered,” said Wittgenstein, “our problem is still not touched at all.”
What did he mean? He meant that even if Einstein, or we, find the final few laws to account for all phenomena, the unfathomable is still there. He meant all science hits a wall.
Wittgenstein’s is the steely gaze of the inconsolable and ultimately irretrievable spirit directed into the abyss of its own consciousness. His is the philosophical despair of a mind in the appalled contemplation of itself. Such a despair was not in the nature of Einstein’s beautifully childlike contemplations.
Einstein was directed outward, his face pressed into the sky. The universe had always been there, as it was, regardless of how it was conceived by humanity, and so the great enterprise was to understand it as it was in the true laws by which it operated. It was a matter for wonder and mental industry. The crackling vastness of black holes and monumental conflagrations, the ineffable something rather than nothing, such an indifference to life as to make us think that if God is involved in its creation he is so fearsome as to be beyond any human entreaty for our solace or comfort or the redemption that would come of our being brought into his secret—this consideration did not seem to be part of Einstein’s cosmology.
Einstein’s life spanned the terrors of the 20th century—two world wars, the worldwide Great Depression, fascism, communism, the Holocaust, the threat of nuclear war—and he was never less than steadfast and rational in his attention to the history of his time. He lived as he thought, in the thrill of the engagement. He was a scientist, a secular humanist, a democratic socialist, a Zionist, a pacifist, an antinuclear activist, and never, so far as I know, did he succumb to a despair of human life. So finally, even if in his Einsteinian pragmatism God could only be accurately described as the Old One, surely there was a faith in that image, perhaps an agnostic’s faith, that made it presumptuous for any human being to come to any conclusion about the goodness or incomprehensible amorality of God’s universe or the souls it contained until we at least learned the laws that governed it.
For Albert Einstein a unified field theory needn’t be the end. It can just as well be the beginning.