How does a scientist’s religious and ethnic background inform his approach to science? A new book argues that the answer is: “a lot more than we think!” Dr. Steve Gimbel, Chair of the Philosophy Department at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, joins us this week to talk about his new book: Einstein’s Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion.
INTERFAITH ALLIANCE STATE OF BELIEF RADIO MAY 23, 2012
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: DR. STEVE GIMBEL[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: Welcome back to State of Belief Radio. I’m Welton Gaddy.
Dr. Steve Gimbel is the Chair of the Philosophy department at Gettysburg College. I’m very pleased that he is a State of Belief listener, and I’m even more pleased that he joins us today in the studio to talk about his new book: Einstein’s Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion. Steve, welcome to State of Belief Radio.[DR. STEVE GIMBEL, GUEST]: Absolutely wonderful to be here. [WG]: I’m glad you are. If you would, start by talking about the book as a whole, and what led you to write it. [SG]: Well, I’ve been fascinated by Albert Einstein for years. I started my education studying physics. I then branched into philosophy, and started to work in these questions about the nature of the universe, and given the science that we have, how should we understand the world that we live in? Well, I was working there when a colleague of mine, who does Judaic studies, came in, and we had a deep conversation about Jewish ethics. And all of a sudden it struck me that there was this fascinating parallel between the way that Einstein reasoned and the sort of approach to ethics that you see in classic Talmudic ethics; and it started me thinking: “Well, let’s see if there’s more down this road.”
Now, we know that Einstein was actually – as much as we think of him as sort of this wise clown; we think of the hair, we think of the wisecracks that we see on bumper stickers – really, he was a very political figure. And in the period between World War I and World War II, with the rise of the Nazis, his theory was vilified – and it was referred to as “Jewish science.” And the question then was, well look, it’s easy to take anything associated with the Nazis and simply write it off as absurd; but when you look, Jews have a deep and abiding love of Einstein, and the question is, well, why? Part of it was he was a Zionist but part of it clearly is that he’s Einstein. And so the question then is, could we say, in any meaningful sense that yeah, it is Jewish science – and that’s something to be proud of. And so that’s really where the conversation began.[WG]: My goodness. Well, obviously, Einstein is still seen today as a very unique person in history. How universal were some of those themes that you identify in the book? Did they extend to some of Einstein’s contemporaries, or is this just another part of the uniqueness of the man in this time? [SG]: No. I think there really are lessons for today that we can take out of that time. What you had at that time, you have to remember that Germany, having come out of World War I – which was a time where you could even think of it as similar to 9/11, where there was just this sense of the whole community coming together around something that was militaristic – and then when Germany lost World War I, there was a deep division between the German conservatives and the German left; and it was a very, very contentious time. So the nationalists – they thought that, well, if the war had been lost, it was because of the insufficient patriotism of the other side. And so as a result you had a culture that really was split into two. You had two Germanys – in a way that you might see us as having two Americas – and the result, then, was a weak government and an economic collapse, and with rough economic times comes a look to scapegoats. Einstein belonged to the political left; and here he was, a scientist with this radical new theory completely reshaping the way we see space, time, matter – and at the same time, he was a pacifist speaking out against the war. Speaking out for a sense that it isn’t about nationalism, that it ought to be internationalistic; and it was something that was not well-received by the German conservatives. And the thought was: “Well, if we can do away with his science, we do away with his political power. And so you saw science politicized at that point in a way that you often see it politicized now – in the same way that you see creationism referred to as “liberal science.” That really is what that word, “Jewish,” meant in “Jewish science” as the Nazis stated it. [WG]: So it really was a negative term. [SG]: It was very much so. [WG]: A very negative term. [SG]: You had, at that period, not only in science and in mathematics but in art, in architecture, in politics, everywhere the world seemed turned upside down – and so there was this uneasiness; and in all of these new advances, in music, in art, Jews were there. And so this term “Jew” was meant as a pejorative; it was meant as we think now of the term “New Coke” as a failure. That’s really the way that the term “Jewish” was intended by the Nazis when they labeled it as “Jewish science.” [WG]: Well, obviously, today the tension between religion and science is really described as a part of the culture wars, and it sounds to me like that’s the same thing that was going on then. [SG]: In a sense. But if we take a longer view, it actually gets more interesting: so what Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is, is actually a theory of gravitation; it’s a theory of gravity. And if you look at the two theories of gravity that preceded his – Isaac Newton’s and before that René Descartes – what you actually see is our best scientific theory of gravity at the time deeply influenced by religion. Now, in the case of both Descartes and Newton, it was both the content of the theory and the way they reasoned about it. So Descartes was a Catholic, and you really see in the way he comes up with his picture of gravitation a deep adherence to Catholic theology. So he was trying to make sense of the world in that way – in the same way Newton was very much a radical Protestant. He was a Unitarian – which gave him trouble being at, he taught at Trinity College – but you see him very clearly state that what he’s trying to do with science is read the mind of God.
And so the question was: well, with Einstein, who’s a Jew, do we see that same sort of connection? And so when we look at the connection between science and religion, it isn’t necessarily a tension. Historically, the two were very much connected. Now, Einstein was a secular Jew and it’s clear that, you know, we know what he was reading, we know what his influences were on the content of the theory – and there really is nothing connected to the Torah or the Talmud there. But there’s a way of thinking that is, in a certain sense, very much Jewish-style. And the idea here is: if you look, there’s a difference between Judaism and Christianity in the central approach, in that, for Jews the idea is that there is an absolute truth – but the human perspective is too small to see God’s truth. We all glimpse it from a different angle, and so each of us get a part of it – and the idea is to be able to connect the different perspectives in order to have a higher sense of the truth.[SG]: Would Einstein, if he were listening to this conversation, would Einstein say: “No, I mean, that is a pejorative term, I’m just being a scientist” – or would he have said: “Yes, I’m impacted by my Judaism and I am a scientist”? [WG]: Well, what’s interesting is, he actually did talk about this, and at one point, addressing a Jewish audience, he said: “Look, you can tell Jews, not only by the way they look, but by their intellectual work” – so in a sense, he is clearly saying this. Now, I don’t think he would point to any part of a given theory and say: “That’s Jewish science.” But at the same time, this is a man who was brought up in a community. Scientists are people. We like to think of science, in a certain sense, as being this objective thing that’s removed from society or removed from the times – it’s eternal in its truth – but really, scientists are people; and the reason they think about the things and the way they think about those things are conditioned by where they come from and who they are. [WG]: In researching Einstein’s Jewish Science, what did you come across that might have led you to say “Eureka!”? Were there any discoveries like that? [SG]: Well, it’s interesting, because it actually led down several very different roads – because this phrase “Jewish science” could mean so many different things. Now, you know, the simplest meaning of Jewish science would be science by a Jew – so is Einstein Jewish? Well, it seems like an easy question, right? Jews think so, the Nazis thought so, he thought so – but it turns out they all meant very different things by that term. And so when I began looking into this notion of Jewish identity, having grown up in the community, you know, the simple answer is: well, look, if your mother is Jewish, you’re Jewish. Where did that come from? Why is that, you know, union card? Why is the membership card connected to your mother? Now, I was actually bar mitzvahed in an orthodox shul, so when I was up there being bar mitzvahed, my mother couldn’t sit with my father! So clearly, you know, gender issues are present, especially amongst the orthodox, so why was it the mother? And as I began researching that, there began to appear all of these interesting historical questions that we don’t quite see resolved; and so, what seemed like a simple question about Einstein, like everything else, turned out to be more complicated. [WG]: Well, you are a listener to State of Belief, so you know that a question like this is coming. What lessons do you draw from what you learned in writing this book that apply to the areas of science, religion and politics today? [SG]: Yeah, I think the key to that is the word “cosmopolitanism”, right? When you look at the central mathematical notion that Einstein uses, there are two concepts. There is invariance – that which doesn’t change based upon your perspective; and covariance – that which does change with your perspective. So we’re sitting across from each other. If I held up my hands and said which one is to the left and which one is to the right, we would disagree. That doesn’t mean that from where you’re sitting there isn’t a fact of a matter. There are certain truths that are truths of your perspective; but then there are other truths that are universal – and what the Theory of Relativity did was find a way to connect the individual truths from these different perspectives – truths about length and time and mass – and show a way to create a larger universal picture that is true for everyone. And what we see is that sort of approach to truth coming out not just in the scientific realm, but we see it in feminist philosophers, we see it in postcolonial Africana philosophers. The idea is, every one of us has access to some important part of the truth; and what we need to do is really listen to each other, and understand the truth from your perspective, which is a truth within that perspective, but figure out how it is that we connect, how it is that we get to some larger truth across what seemed to be unbridgeable divisions? [WG]: OK. We’ve got to go over that one again. What did you learn in this study that helps you explain why a member of the United States Congress would be more interested in supporting Creationism in the public schools than in following scientific theory? [SG]: OK. The idea there is: the belief that there is a single truth, and that we have “it” – as opposed to: look, there are very different ways of looking at it. Some of the elements of this perspective are going to be universalizable. Certain ones are only going to be intrinsic to it. So there are certain ways of looking at the world through your glasses that are going to be different from the way I see it through my glasses. Now, for some of those there are going to be ways that we could connect your glasses to my glasses, and see that what you’re glimpsing from your angle and what I’m glimpsing from my angle can be brought together into a larger truth. Now, what you see in those who are trying to demand Creationism be taught is this sense that: we have the truth. Science comes from this perspective that: “Look, there is a truth out there. We’re going to take a chance, we’re going to put forth a theory, and we’re going to test it in different ways, from different perspectives. If it holds up – we see, maybe we’ve got a glimpse of something. If it doesn’t – we continue to look. [WG]: So you have the ability to make irrationality look rational. So you must be a heck of a good teacher. [SG]: Well, I’m not sure it makes irrationality rational, but I think there are going to be threads of rationality that we could at least hope to find. [WG]: Now I’m serious in this question, but it needs to be a succinct answer. When someone reads your book, what’s the most important thing you want them to take away from that? [SG]: The most important thing that I want them to take away from the book is this sense that ideas come from people, people who have limited perspectives, but who have something to teach us – no matter when it was they were writing, or what it was they were saying. [WG]: Dr. Steve Gimbel is the Chair of the Philosophy Department at Gettysburg College, and the author of the new book Einstein’s Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion.
Steve, thank you so much for writing this book, and thank you for coming in to talk with us on State of Belief Radio today.[SG]: This has been an absolute joy. Thank you.
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The host of State of Belief, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, leads the national nonpartisan grassroots and educational organizations, The Interfaith Alliance and The Interfaith Alliance Foundation and serves as the Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana. Welton is one of 20 international religious leaders on the Council of 100 Leaders, a group created by the World Economic Forum to improve dialogue and understanding between the Western and Islamic worlds.
While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Welton emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is the immediate past President of the Alliance of Baptists and is a twenty-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance.
Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, Welton served in many leadership roles in the SBC including membership on the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-1984 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-1977.
Welton received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.