Einstein, Ethics, and Science

Alex C Michalos. Journal of Academic Ethics. Volume 2, Issue 4. December 2005.


One hundred years after Albert Einstein’s famous string of relativity papers were published, it might have been expected that there would be and indeed it has already turned out to be the case that there have been many conferences, symposia and individual presentations and articles produced in celebration of those papers. The original version of this essay began as an invited contribution to just such a celebratory symposium, and it has been altered a bit to fit the specific scope of this journal. Because Einstein was both a brilliant scientist and a political activist, there should be some benefit for ordinary scholars in an examination of some of his basic assumptions and motives. I believe this presumption is warranted, as I will show below.

Einstein’s Intellectuals

For any of the extraordinary, if not great, philosophers of the first half of the 20th century, the place to begin looking for an overview of their work is Paul Schilpp’s famous Library of Living Philosophers. One can find excellent, comprehensive analyses of the likes of Bertrand Russell, Sri Radhakrishnan, Rudoph Carnap, G.E. Moore, Karl Popper and Einstein, to mention a few. Each volume has about 25 essays by experts on various aspects of the philosopher’s work and life, and each has some sort of autobiography and replies to his critics.

The first thing that strikes one examining the Schilpp (1951) volume on Einstein is that of the 25 critical essays in the volume, only one deals with a subject not properly within the discipline of physics, namely, Hinshaw’s essay on “Einstein’s Social Philosophy.” The second thing that strikes one is that in Einstein’s replies to his critics in that volume, he did not reply to Hinshaw.

Hinshaw said it was “hard to discover, in Einstein’s speeches and writings, any systematic position in social ethics” (p. 649). So, he preferred to talk about Einstein’s “convictions” rather than Einstein’s “position in social philosophy.” Among his convictions, Einstein thought that “intellectuals” should engage in social action. He never went as far as Gloria Steinem in favouring “anything that gets people off their asses” (a remark she made in a television interview), but typically he preferred action to inaction. He often used the term “intellectual” to refer to educated professionals of one sort or another. In contemporary terms, Einstein was a thorough-going elitist, who apparently accepted the special obligations of those having special talents, i.e., noblesse oblige. In 1931 or 1932 he wrote to Sigmund Freud, deprecating politicians and proposing an organization of intellectuals.

“Political leaders or governments” he said, Bowe their position partly to force and partly to popular election. They cannot be regarded as representative of the best elements, morally or intellectually, in their respective nations. The intellectual elite have no direct influence on the history of nations in these days; their lack of cohesion prevents them from taking a direct part in the solution of contemporary problems. Don’t you think that a change might be brought about in this respect by a free association of people whose previous achievements and actions constitute a guarantee of their ability and purity of aim? This association of an international nature … might, by defining its attitude in the Press … acquire a considerable and salutary moral influence over the settlement of political questions. Such an association would, of course, be a prey to all the ills which so often lead to degeneration in learned societies, dangers which are inseparably bound up with the imperfections of human nature. But should not an effort in this direction be risked in spite of this? I look upon such an attempt as nothing less than “an imperative duty” (Einstein, 1954, pp. 104Y105).

I am not a populist. Forty years of driving the sharpest ideas from history’s sharpest minds into the thick skulls of North America’s most intellectually advantaged youth strongly militates against any populist inclinations I may have had. Apart from the lessons of my own experience, there is the plain logical fact that the moral requirement to tell the truth implies due diligence in the pursuit of truth and the avoidance of falsehood. After all, without the latter, one’s ability to tell the truth is little more than a crap shoot, which would be considerably less than the moral maxim demands. Among other things, like moral courage and personal integrity, I suppose it is this willingness to pursue the truth with due diligence that distinguishes John Gardner’s (1990) “responsible” from run-of-the-mill populists.

Notwithstanding the fact that I am not a populist, I find Einstein’s easy dismissal of the moral authority of democratically elected governments and easy acceptance of the moral authority of intellectuals troublesome. After all, there is no good reason to believe that the virtue of excellence displayed by a great physicist, philosopher, painter or musician is equivalent to, exchangeable or substitutable for moral virtue (notwithstanding the predilections of classical utilitarians and robust consequentialists). To imagine that the production of fine works of science, humanistic studies or art makes one morally virtuous or politically astute is to imagine a world that does not exist. To imagine that a group of highly productive scholars and artists would automatically be willing and able to craft a common political agenda for action is to believe in politics without tears. The Royal Society of Canada is a fine example of just such a group of scholars and in over a century of its existence, it is not a great exaggeration to say that its most obvious goals seem to have been to find someone in government to take “our” advice (whatever that might be and whoever might be able to discern it) and to pay the rent on our offices. Regarding the former point, writing to one of his friends, about five hundred years ago, Machiavelli complained that no matter how comprehensively and carefully he offered advice to his Florentine governors, they only used the parts that were consistent with policies that they seem to have adopted prior to receiving his advice. Writing to his friend Henrich Zangger in December 1917, Einstein said, “Our whole, highly praised technological progress … and civilization in general, can be likened to an ax in the hand of a pathological criminal.” To this remark Levenson added, “If so, it was his friends who forged that ax while he watched, fully aware of what was happening around him” (Levenson 2001, p. 84).

After World War I Einstein accumulated additional evidence of the irresponsibility of some politicians and governments, as well as evidence that the social action of intellectuals is as likely as not to be not only narrowly self-serving but socially pernicious. When Hitler “took the oath as Chancellor of a republic about to become a reich” in January 1933, Einstein was in Pasadena about to travel to a conference in Belgium and from there back to his home in Berlin. He issued a public statement indicating that he would not return to Germany because it was no longer a country “where civil liberty, tolerance and equality of all citizens before the law prevail,” and he sent a letter of resignation to the Prussian Academy of Sciences and later to the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, including “renunciation of German citizenship.” According to Levenson (2003, pp. 3, 418-419), it was the second time in his life that he had renounced his German citizenship. Hitler’s propaganda machine and several newspapers responded with bitter denunciations, which Einstein would have expected. What were perhaps less expected were the attacks from “his fellow members” of the Academies, and what was certainly unexpected was the way his dear old friend, idol and great physicist Max Planck joined the critics.

In Levenson’s view, “Max Planck disgraced himself.” In Planck’s

“Public statement on Einstein’s resignation from the Academy … He praised Einstein as a physicist without equal since the days of Kepler and Newton, but, he concluded, his exile was his own fault: It is … greatly to be regretted, he said at the Academy meeting that day, that Mr Einstein through his political behavior himself rendered his continued membership in the Academy impossible. Einstein’s politics were to blame, not those of a German government that had chosen to destroy him. Planck’s declaration was as clear a signal as Einstein needed of the state of affairs in Berlin. Planck had always ranked with the best of Germany’s intellectuals, an honest, generous friend and an uncompromising scientist. But just as he had thrilled to the call of war in 1914, in 1933 he could not resist the siren lure of loyalty to the state, even one run by Hitler … He became a kind of moral imbecile: not evil in himself, not at all, but still incapable of acknowledging evil’s presence at the heart of his beloved state” (Levenson, 2003, p. 420).

Personally, I suspect that Levenson’s characterization of Planck as a “moral imbecile” probably does not do justice to Hanna Arendt’s (1976) persuasive analysis of the banality of evil and the role of such evil throughout history. This is not an issue that has to be pursued at length here, but it does merit some thought. Lucky enough for all of us, we seldom see evil in its most ugly and heartbreaking forms, e.g., as reported by Dallaire (2003) or as most of us saw on our television screens on September 11, 2001. Monstrous as these things are, and monumental as they are as highly visible signs that the world is not as it should be, they are not as dangerous to the body politic as the apparently banal, microbial-sized evils that gnaw away at the fibre of our democracy.

In 1948, fifteen years after his mistreatment by the Prussian intellectuals, Einstein wrote a speech for the Intellectuals’ Conference for Peace in which he said,

By painful experience we have learnt that rational thinking does not suffice to solve the problems of our social life. Penetrating research and keen scientific work have often had tragic implications for mankind, producing, on the one hand, inventions which liberated man from exhausting physical labor … but on the other hand, … creating the means for his own mass destruction … We scientists, whose tragic destination has been to help in making the methods of annihilation more gruesome and more effective, must consider it our solemn and transcendent duty to do all in our power in preventing these weapons from being used for the brutal purpose for which they were invented (Einstein, 1950, pp. 24-25).

The Organizing Committee of the Conference rejected his contribution, which he published later anyhow. Still, Einstein never seems to have given up his faith in intellectuals. While he could always count on intellectuals like Bertrand Russell and George Bernard Shaw (which is more than any of their wives could say) as a collaborative class, the intellectuals of his day seem to have left a lot to be desired. Lest the parenthetical remark is missed, along with many privileged males before and since, Einstein, Russell and Shaw shared the unattractive moral flaw of being very good to people in the abstract, but very inconsiderate and thoughtless to their own wives. Levenson (2003, pp. 149-150) described this characteristic of Einstein as follows.

He had no gift for empathy, no ability to imagine himself into the emotional life of anyone else. His behavior was of a piece, a symptom of that same deep gap in his understanding of people. He could reason himself to a powerful moral position and then rely on his strength of mind and will to hold it. He did oppose the war [both world wars]; he did defend his fellow Jews; he longed for justice and was willing to put himself to great pains and occasional real risk to uphold his beliefs. But to grasp what someone else felt, to understand the impact of his personal desires and deeds on the minds and hearts of the individual human beings around him Y that was vastly more difficult … There is no question that he sought a real connection to his son [Hans Albert]. But he had scant resources to offer. The lasting message was that physics did outrank family for Einstein.

I digressed a bit into Einstein’s personal life. The main point of reviewing the little bit of his history was to show that he had evidence of the fickleness of intellectuals in general and of the best and brightest of intellectuals in particular that extended over two-thirds of his life. Although he never gave up on them, he never forgave the non-German intellectuals for their Black of courage^ or the German intellectuals for behaviour he regarded as “no better than the common mob” (Levenson, 2003, pp. 422, 427).

In the 120 years or so of the Royal Society’s existence, I do not know of any case where Fellows had to face the sorts of conflicts of conscience and self-interest faced by those in the Prussian Academy in Hitler’s Germany. Shortly after 9/11, the Royal Society of Canada was asked to organize a small conference on Research and Security, which took place in Ottawa in May 2002. A number of us were invited to suggest topics and speakers. I told the President that it was important to prevent the meeting from focusing on developing and spreading more lethal weapons, and to make sure that speakers were invited who would represent Canada’s most profound proponents of building human security through the development of a culture of peace across the globe. I also suggested several names of the usual suspects from Project Ploughshares, Science for Peace and UNESCO. Anyone who attended that conference knows that nothing of the sort happened. At a time when our friends in the USA especially needed the wise counsel of their closest friends to remind them that the best road to lasting security begins with trust built on understanding, the Royal Society conference provided little more than assurance that our best and brightest Canadians “stood at the ready” as required. Officially, within the Society, that conference has been celebrated as a great success because, after all, the Society not only pulled it off in a relatively short time, but made a bundle of money on top of it. To me, it was a great failure, not a failure of imagination as described by Arendt in her account of the banality of evil, but a failure of moral courage and professional integrity. If Canada’s best and brightest could be so easily co-opted in circumstances far less treacherous and dangerous than those faced by Einstein and his German colleagues, what would we do in those circumstances?

Plato saw the danger lurking in a form of government (democracy) that would allow people to elect scoundrels or weaklings merely because they were excellent representatives of the people themselves. Churchill was not joking when he said that democracy was a bad form of government, but preferable to all others. My own view is that democracy just barely works, and works very slowly at that, but it works exactly insofar as some people (Gardner’s “responsible” again), with whatever skills they happen to have, make the necessary personal investments in time, energy, research and so on. The rich mixture of ordinary and extraordinary resources and investments over time makes it work. As long as people from all walks of life are willing to step up to the plate and donate a fair share of their resources and their lives to making democracy work, it will work. The solution to the problems of an inadequate democracy lies not in some sort of an aristocracy of intellectuals, but in a greater, more fully developed and functional democracy of “responsible.” I am not sure that Einstein would have approved of this view.

Einstein’s Ethics

I spent some time looking for the roots of Einstein’s moral philosophy. In 1931, he wrote that

To inquire after the meaning or object of one’s own existence or of creation generally has always seemed to me absurd from an objective point of view. And yet everybody has certain ideals which determine the direction of his endeavours and his judgments. In this sense I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves Y such an ethical basis I call more proper for a herd of swine. The ideals which have lighted me on my way and time after time given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Without the sense of fellowship with men of like mind, of preoccupation with the objective, the eternally unattainable in the field of art and scientific research, life would have seemed to me empty. The ordinary objects of human endeavor—property, outward success, luxury—have always seemed to me contemptible (Einstein, 1979, p. 2, emphasis added).

When I saw the italicized part of this quotation, I figured he was pretty clearly not a utilitarian, and certainly not a hedonist. The italicized part reminded me of a comment of Aristotle’s in the Nicomachean Ethics (c.350 B.C.E., p. 4).

“The many,” he wrote, “the most vulgar, would seem to conceive the good and happiness as pleasure, and hence they also like the life of gratification. In this they appear completely slavish, since the life they decide on is a life for grazing animals.”

Like most of his contemporary Greeks and anyone who has ever had a morning hangover after a joyous party the night before, Aristotle knew the difference between having a good time and having a good life. In Aristotle’s view, a good life, which he identified with a happy life, required a bundle of good things, which he collected under the general rubrics of “goods of the body” (e.g., health), “goods of the soul” (e.g., wisdom) and “external goods” (e.g., friends). This is not a topic to be pursued here, but it is worth mentioning because many people still seem inclined to confuse pleasure and happiness.

Einstein often mentioned happiness as a worthwhile and desirable end for human beings. In 1938 he wrote,

To be a Jew, after all, means first of all, to acknowledge and follow in practice those fundamentals in humaneness laid down in the Bible Y fundamentals without which no sound and happy community of men can exist (Einstein, 1950, pp. 109-110).

In 1943 he wrote,

Our Jewish forbears, the prophets and the old Chinese sages understood and proclaimed that the most important factor in giving shape to our human existence is the setting up and establishment of a goal: the goal being a community of free and happy human beings who by constant inward endeavor strive to liberate themselves from the inheritance of anti-social and destructive instincts (Einstein, 1950, pp. 108-109).

In his 1947 memorial address for his friend Paul Langevin he said that Langevin’s “desire to promote the happier life for all men was perhaps even stronger than his craving for pure intellectual enlightenment” (Einstein, 1950, p.87), and in 1949 about Steven Wise he said that “everybody knows that behind the enormous labors of this man there has always been the passionate desire to make mankind better and happier” (Einstein, 1950, p. 116). Presumably he was not praising his departed friends for their interests in promoting a life suitable to “a herd of swine.” Most likely, he had in mind a relatively robust notion of happiness along the lines of Aristotle.

In his 1949 paper on socialism, Einstein raised a fairly standard utilitarian type of question, namely, How should “the structure of society and the cultural attitude of man … be changed in order to make human life as satisfying as possible?” After a brief, straightforward Marxian analysis of the problem, he concluded that

The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil … Unlimited competition leads to a huge waste of labor, and to that crippling of the social consciousness of individuals which I mentioned above. This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career. I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion … Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that a planned economy is not yet socialism. A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual. The achievement of socialism requires the solution of some extremely difficult socio-political problems … (Einstein, 1950, pp. 5-8).

Needless to say, he did not know how to solve the problems of a planned economy as far as he could see them. I am not going to get into his democratic socialism, though I am sympathetic to it (interested readers may read Michalos, 1995, 1997). In fact, for most of the years he lived in Berlin (1914-1932), most Berliners were sympathetic to it. In those years, Berlin was something like the Regina of social democracy in Germany. (I’m sure they would have been impressed by the comparison).

Although one can find utilitarian language in Einstein, the roots of his moral philosophy came from the prophetic tradition in Judaism. He was very clear about this on more than one occasion. For example, in 1934 he wrote,

The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice, and the desire for personal independence Y these are the features of the Jewish tradition which make me thank my stars that I belong to it … Judaism seems to me to be concerned almost exclusively with the moral attitude in life and to life … The essence of that conception [of life] seems to me to lie in an affirmative attitude to the life of all creation. The life of the individual has meaning only in so far as it aids in making the life of every living thing nobler and more beautiful … serving God was equated with serving the living. The best of the Jewish people, especially the Prophets and Jesus, contended tirelessly for this. Judaism is thus no transcendental religion; it is concerned with life as we live it and can up to a point grasp it, and nothing else (Einstein, 1979, pp. 90-91).

These remarks might have been as comfortably rooted in the prophetic tradition as they would have been in Spinoza’s pantheism (as Einstein explicitly recognized) or Schweitzer’s reverence-for-life philosophy. In any event, such remarks make it easier to think of his moral philosophy as having humanistic rather than theistic foundations, although the prophets themselves might have been appalled at the idea of divorcing the moral law from its creator.

Einstein often referred to the Jewish prophets and the ancient Greek philosophers in the context of remarks on the origins of ethics. Unlike the prophets, many of the Greeks would not have found it extraordinary to insist upon moral virtue in the absence of a supernatural moral law maker. For example, among the fragments attributed to the philosopher-politician Solon (c.594 B.C.E.), one finds such maxims as “Never tell a lie. Pursue worthy aims. Do not be rash to make friends and, when once they are made, do not drop them. Learn to obey before you command. In giving advice seek to help, not to please, your friend. Be led by reason. Shun evil company. Honour the gods, reverence parents,” (Diogenes Laertius, c.225 A.C.E., p. 61). So far as I know, there is no fragment in which Solon claims the gods as the authors of his moral maxims or the source of his own moral authority.

Einstein’s Philosophy of Science

Granting his humanism, I was very surprised to find Einstein using some very unhumanistic, religious language to talk about science. In 1930, after describing a “state of religious experience” that he called “cosmic religious feeling,” he said,

The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole … The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, … In my view, it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it … I maintain that cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research (Einstein, 1954, pp. 38-39).

I am not sure how we are to understand this paragraph, and especially the very last sentence. It seems quite out of character for a relatively hard-headed humanist, but it apparently captured some very important aspect of Einstein’s own feelings and motives about his scientific work. I have never seen any research in the psychology or sociology of science that would confirm his claim. If I had to bet, my guess would be that among physicists, such feelings and motives might be found mostly among cosmologists, but I have never seen any systematically gathered evidence of that. Among psychologists and sociologists, and even more so among political scientists and economists, I think such feelings and motives would be relatively rare. Personally, I would never use such language to characterize my own motives and feelings about my social scientific research, or even my philosophical speculations for that matter. I began my graduate work studying comparative religion and abandoned work in that field because it seemed to me that the religious language that was so essential to most of the writers in the field was cluttering up my thinking. For me, the path to what I regarded as clear thinking about those aspects of the world of interest to me was a path free of religious language. Apparently, that was not the case for Einstein.

On the occasion of celebrating Max Planck’s sixtieth birthday in 1918, Einstein suggested a remarkably escapist motive for scientific research, following Schopenhauer. At that time he wrote,

I believe with Schopenhauer that one of the strongest motives that leads men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one’s own ever shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from personal life into the world of objective perception and thought; … With this negative motive there goes a positive one. Man tries to make for himself in the fashion that suits him best a simplified and intelligible picture of the world; he then tries to some extent to substitute this cosmos of his for the world of experience, and thus to overcome it. This is what the painter, the poet, the speculative philosopher, and the natural scientist do, each in his own fashion. Each makes this cosmos and its construction the pivot of his emotional life, in order to find in this way the peace and security which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience (Einstein, 1954, p. 225).

Personally, I always found Schopenhauer a bit depressing, and it doesn’t surprise me that he would have thought about science along the lines in this paragraph. Notice that even the so-called “positive” motive in this paragraph is escapist, and in that sense it is still negative. Unattractive as it is, I would bet that the escapist motive is much stronger than the “cosmic religious feeling” motive among most academics, although the two motives are not mutually exclusive. Again, my view is only based on 40 years of casual observation of colleagues in a handful of universities, not on systematic research. But I have the clear impression that one of the main reasons people become scholars and work in universities is that they much prefer the world of ideas to the real world. In principle, the world of ideas is much tidier, although in fact any individual’s personally crafted cosmos may be a garbage bin of half-baked baloney. Still, I suspect people find such baloney easier to digest than the meat and potatoes of real life.

I suppose I am not the only person who has found his or her own office, if not the smaller space of his or her own head, to be the safest place in the world on some days. So, I suppose few of us would have trouble relating to the Schopenhauer-Einstein hypothesis. Nevertheless, I think it would be inaccurate and unfair to a lot of academics, as well as poets, painters and other creative people if we fail to mention altruistic motives. That is, some of the creative work that people do is designed to make the world a better place, or more precisely, to make life better for some people than it might otherwise be. While Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw may have written delightful plays largely in the interest of creating excellent art, Shaw was also motivated to write plays in the interest of getting people to see the evils of social injustice that were all around them and to motivate them to remedial action. And, of course, they both wrote to make a living. Regarding my own work, I know that some of it was motivated primarily by a desire to understand some things better (e.g., my North American Social Report (1980-82), and Global Report on Student Well-Being (1991-93)), some was written to instruct students (e.g., Principles of Logic (1969), Improving Your Reasoning (1970)), some was designed to motivate others to action (e.g., Militarism and the Quality of Life (1989), Good Taxes (1997)), some was written for the fun of it (e.g., Bernard Shaw and the Webbs, Michalos and Poff (2002)), and at least one was published to prove that Imre Lakatos was wrong and I was right about The Popper-Carnap Controversy (1971). Thus, even the briefest of reflections on some of my own work indicates a variety of motives for scientific research beyond those suggested by Einstein.

While Einstein’s views about motives for scientific research seemed to be a bit extra-ordinary, his views about the nature of science itself were fairly prosaic. Along with many others, he thought of technology as applied science (Einstein, 1950, p. 11, from a 1935 paper), although he must have known that very often technological advances precede and provoke scientific research. Without reviewing a longer treatment of this subject in Michalos (1981), it is probably enough to quote a remark made in 1971 by Caryl Haskins; “modern archaeological research leaves little room for doubt that the basic technological revolutions of mankind antedated the scientific revolution by many thousands of years” (quoted in Michalos, 1981, p. 4). Regarding the frequently mentioned distinction between basic and applied science, I think the view expressed in the 1971-72 Annual Report of the Science Council of Canada was right on the button. Contrary to the view expressed by the Senate Special Committee on Science Policy, the Science Council questioned “the desirability of separating basic and applied research—in their performance, funding, administration, and communication. This is [the Council felt], a retrograde step, and runs counter to the whole weight of evidence on the advantages of interaction” (quoted in Michalos, 1981, p. 3).

In 1949, Einstein expressed the view that “Science … cannot create ends and, even less, instill them in human beings; science, at most, can supply the means by which to attain certain ends” (Einstein, 1950, p. 2). For a man whose whole adult life was spent working at the known frontiers of physical research and crafting solutions to problems that were only intelligible to other scientists working at the same frontiers, this is a remarkably limited view of the power of science, of scientific theories in particular, to create ends. Without reviewing discussions in Michalos (1971, 1981), Popper was certainly right when he insisted that scientists should try to construct bold theories, whose empirical content reaches beyond known data to predictions and observations of data hitherto unknown. Insofar as this conceptualization of good science or good scientific research is logically prior to actually producing such science or engaging in such research, the latter is driven by the former. That is, in the sense that good scientific research specifies and demands certain kinds of theorizing or hypothesizing, it creates appropriate ends. While it is possible and often happens that people engage in scientific research in the interest of obtaining marketable products or solving practical problems (e.g., octane enhancing fuel additives), it happens as well that the internal logic of science or of scientific theories creates both general and specific ends. For example, in my own field of research on personal satisfaction or happiness, it is no mere coincidence that scientists around the world focused their attention on exploring the psychometric properties of frequently used measures, examining the impact of such things as question phrasing, the order of questions, the length of questionnaires, the length of questions, introductory remarks preceding questions, the effects of personal interviews versus mailout questionnaires, effects of male versus female interviewers, numbers of response categories, off scale options, seasonal effects, gender effects, age effects and so on. The fact that scientific research in all disciplines has its own internal logic probably makes it more difficult for scientists and philosophers of science to appreciate the work of sociologists of science and others who take the external conditions or context of people’s work more seriously. Since good cases can be and have been made for the so-called internalist and externalist histories of the growth of science (Durbin, 1980), we need not press the internalist case any further.

Einstein’s limited view of science as a creator of ends was matched by his view of the intellect itself.

We should take care not to make the intellect our god; he wrote in 1943, “Bit has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality. It cannot lead, it can only serve; and it is not fastidious in its choice of a leader. This characteristic is reflected in the qualities of its priests, the intellectuals. The intellect has a sharp eye for methods and tools, but is blind to ends and values. So it is no wonder that this fatal blindness is handed on from old to young and today involves a whole generation” (Einstein, 1950, p. 108).

This he could not have learned from the Greeks, at least none of the most prolific and profound Greeks. It is an old problem, of course, the relations between our passions and our reason, and simply put it has an air of artificiality about it. That is, the very idea that human motives, inclinations, emotions, desires, thoughts and needs can be sorted out like fish and chips at a picnic smacks of academic artificiality. Still, the tradition out of Socrates and Plato, not to mention Solon who preceded them, was that reason could and ought to (prudentially and morally) govern one’s actions. The contemporary cognitivist view of psychologists is that reason often, if not always, does govern one’s actions and that it ought to (Michalos, 1985). Einstein apparently followed Schopenhauer, who followed David Hume, who may have followed others unknown to me, in believing that one’s passions govern one’s actions, whether or not they ought to prudentially and morally. The contemporary anti-cognitivist view in psychology is represented very well by Zajonc (1980). Apart from the fact that I do not know how I would do it briefly, there is no need to try to resolve this problem here. It is enough to note that Einstein’s view of the problem was consistent with his view of the nature of science. Given his position on this problem, it was remarkable that to his political opponents

“He represented intellect—mind, not heart. More broadly, he was the embodiment of reason as opposed to authority, reason that could compel changes in fundamental beliefs. That was subversive enough, especially when there were German orators who argued in the 1920s that “we suffer today from an excess of culture. Only knowledge is valued … What we need is instinct and will,” (Levenson, 2003, p. 246; the quoted orator was Hitler in 1923).

If Einstein’s position is true, then our “fundamental beliefs” are finally selected by our passions, merely aided and abetted by reason, and there may well be no good reason, logically speaking, to prefer anyone’s “fundamental beliefs” to those of anyone else. Artificial though the problem may be, it does have some philosophical bite when you think about it.

Einstein was probably wrong when he said that science cannot instill ends in human beings. After all, one of the reasons that all of our research institutions must have Research Ethics Boards review proposed research on human subjects prior to the execution of research is that scientists have the means to instill ends in human beings, e.g., through the use of drugs, behavioural conditioning or outright deception. What’s more, given the mixed motives with which most people tend to engage in most activities, including scientific research, he was probably wrong in thinking that “science, if it is to flourish, must have no practical end in view” (Einstein, 1979, p. 30). At least since the time of Archimedes (c.250 B.C.E.), scientists, like artists, have always engaged in marketing their activities as practically useful (Gillings, 1972). While it may be regarded as a nuisance to the artists and scientists, both art and science have managed to flourish in spite of such distractions. The resources invested by the Royal Society over at least the past twenty years trying to convince the federal government of the practical value of the Society’s activities and the great potential for still greater value through federally funded, targeted research through the proposed Canadian Academies are not extraordinary in the history of science. What is perhaps extraordinary is how slow successive liberal and conservative governments have been to warm up to ideas that were accepted some time ago by governments of most industrialized countries. The proposed Academies can make a significant contribution to research in Canada, provided that they are operated in very transparent and even-handed ways, and do not become the vehicle for governments to reward their friends and punish their enemies or, what may be practically the same thing, for governments to fund industry-friendly research at the expense of research driven by the internal logic of the research theories and paradigms of diverse disciplines.


In a wonderfully provocative presentation at the 2004 Royal Society symposium on “Life, Learning and the Arts,” Alistair Macleod talked about the importance of place in literature. For example, it was not accidental or incidental to William Faulkner’s work that none of his characters was ever threatened by frostbite in a frozen tundra, or by grizzly or polar bears. Reading Einstein’s social and political papers, and his biography, it became obvious that Macleod’s point could be made regarding the importance of time. All of Einstein’s efforts to save what was best in Germany, including the cultural gem that was the Berlin he entered in 1914, only made sense because of the particular time in which he lived and the events that occurred in that period of time. “Einstein had next to nothing to do with the invention of nuclear weapons,” (Levenson, 2003, p. 426). Still, all of his work after 1945, addressing the “major moral problem of our age,” (Hinshaw, 1951, p. 651), trying to prevent the catastrophic further unleashing of nuclear weapons made sense for someone with his expertise and values in the years after the end of World War II. Even his transition from a conscientious objector to militarism and war in his Berlin years to an advocate for compulsory arbitration of international disputes backed up by the force of like-minded countries of his post-Berlin years is best understood against the historical events he witnessed. Similar remarks might be made about a variety of contextual features of Einstein’s life, or any life, for that matter, as externalist historians of science and others have reminded us.

According to Levenson (2003, p. 429), “From the anti-Hitler efforts of the 1930s to his Zionism and his antinuclear campaigns of his last years, Einstein proved willing throughout his time in America to campaign to the point of exhaustion.” He became an American citizen in 1940 but never abandoned his Swiss citizenship. Levenson thought that he was somewhat less active in his 22 years in America than he had been in his Berlin years. I suppose that is to be expected. He was 76 years old when he died in April 1955. He was a great physicist, perhaps the greatest since Newton. Expressing a view shared by many of the ancients, Diogenes Laertius (p. 519) regarded physics as “a branch of philosophy more ancient and important than the others.” From that point of view, Einstein might have been the greatest philosopher since Newton. When Bertrand Russell was asked to compare the importance of his work in logic and mathematics with his social and political philosophy, he said that the latter was more important because if we got the latter wrong, all other human activities would become impossible. I am inclined to agree with Russell, but Einstein was an extraordinary man in either case. We can learn from his failures as well as from his successes. By any reasonable measure for a human being, I think it is fair to say that his was a life well-used and worth remembering.