Shuck and Jive

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Meaning of Life, Part 50

"It is a special blessing to belong among those who can and may devote their best energies to the contemplation and exploration of objective and timeless things. How happy and grateful I am for having been granted this blessing, which bestows upon one a large measure of independence from one's personal fate and from the attitude of one's contemporaries. Yet this independence must not inure us to the awareness of the duties that constantly bind us to the past, present and future of humankind at large.

Our situation on this earth seems strange. Every one of us appears here, involuntarily and uninvited, for a short stay, without knowing the why and the wherefore. In our daily lives we feel only that man is here for the sake of others, for those whom we love and for many other beings whose fate is connected with our own.

I am often troubled by the thought that my life is based to such a large extent on the work of my fellow human beings, and I am aware of my great indebtedness to them.

I do not believe in free will. Schopenhauer's words: 'Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills,' accompany me in all situations throughout my life and reconcile me with the actions of others, even if they are rather painful to me. This awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my temper.

I have never coveted affluence and luxury and even despise them a good deal. My passion for social justice has often brought me into conflict with people, as has my aversion to any obligation and dependence I did not regard as absolutely necessary.

I have a high regard for the individual and an insuperable distaste for violence and fanaticism. All these motives have made me a passionate pacifist and antimilitarist. I am against any chauvinism, even in the guise of mere patriotism.

Privileges based on position and property have always seemed to me unjust and pernicious, as does any exaggerated personality cult. I am an adherent of the ideal of democracy, although I know well the weaknesses of the democratic form of government. Social equality and economic protection of the individual have always seemed to me the important communal aims of the state.

Although I am a typical loner in daily life, my consciousness of belonging to the invisible community of those who strive for truth, beauty, and justice keeps me from feeling isolated.

The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as of all serious endeavour in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all there is."

--Albert Einstein's speech 'My Credo' to the German League of Human Rights, Berlin, autumn 1932.


  1. I'm sorry to learn that Professor Einstein does not accept the idea of "free will." I suppose if I were a scientist (especially these days) and realized all the chemistry that is involved in our "free will" that I might not "believe" in it either, but -- I'm happier in the delusion that my will is free from the control of others, even though it's very difficult to think outside the box -- which I suppose is another indication that there is no "free will."

  2. : )

    That paragraph caught my eye as well. I am still not sure what he means. It is a version of Paul in Romans 7? Is he saying that all of our decisions are determined by biology and culture? It seems a more measured way to say it is that we have limited free will or that our wills are never purely conscious. Maybe that is what he means.

  3. Ha! Who knows but what "free will" might not fall prey to genes, much like this:

    When I worked with the Chief Marketing Officer of Best Buy, we would have discussions about the manipulative effects of marketing. He felt quite strongly that people would not fall for marketing if they didn't really, really want the product, and claimed that marketing manipulation could not trump free will. I called bullshit on that, and I still do - perhaps more now than six years ago.

    I think that may be the same kind of free will Einstein spoke of. Another example would be people in this area fighting vehemently to prevent a state income tax, even though it would improve their lives almost immediately and likely dramatically. Or the people of Oklahoma supporting anti-government militia groups like the one that spawned Timothy McVeigh. People acting against their own self-interests because of some ideal seems to me a very solid denial of free will.

    He may also have been saying he didn't believe in free will the way I say I don't believe in shopping at Walmart. It doesn't mean Walmart doesn't exist. It simply means refusal to adopt an unhealthy practice. As I read it again, I am more convinced that is what he meant. "Man can do what he wants, but he can't will what he wants. I can avoid things I do not like but I can't necessarily unmake them. My will, free or otherwise, just doesn't have enough mojo.

  4. John, you have been nost prolific since your return. And very wise and thoughtful and challenging. This is another great post by a great Christian. Thank You.

    love, john + + "The spirit of liberty is the spirit of not being too sure you are right.” – Judge Learned Hand

  5. Hey John!

    Thanks for this post. Einstein is one of my favorite dudes! In the little I have read of his "philosophical" perspectives, such as what you presented here, I have the sense that I have a much better understanding and feel for his philosophy than I do for his science. I seem to understand what he is driving at in matters social and political, but can't seem to really get my head around his theories of relativity. Oh well...

    The free will thing is interesting. While pondering the many personality types and the ideologies they may tend to embrace and affinities they may tend to express, I have wondered how much of that is truly a matter of individual choice or independent will. This is something that I wonder about regarding myself as well as others.

    I have a high school friend who currently teaches philosophy at the Denver Seminary, a very conservative institution, and is finishing up a text book on Christian Apologetics. He is very conservative theologically, politically, and socially. I am not. I have got to wonder what forces that may be beyond our control have moved us to points of view that are so diverse that real communication is difficult? So yes, perhaps like Einstein, I tend to ascribe some aspects of our being to forces not entirely within our power to will. I suspect that he has no more power to will himself to adopt my worlview than I do to adopt his. And thus it is.

  6. SNAD!!! That's the link I was looking for when I posted the comment on Bullies and Squirrels.

    I'll just hop right into that thread and put the link into it.

  7. You can always go with Jonathon Edwards: humans have free will but God runs everything!