Einstein on Free Will and the Power of the Imagination
“Human being, vegetables or cosmic dust, we all dance to an invisible tune, intoned in the distance by a mysterious player.”
By Maria Popova
We are accidents of biochemistry and chance, moving through the world waging wars and writing poems, spellbound by the seductive illusion of the self, every single one of our atoms traceable to some dead star.
In the interlude between the two World Wars, days after the stock market crash that sparked the Great Depression, the German-American poet and future Nazi sympathizer George Sylvester Viereck sat down with Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) for what became his most extensive interview about life — reflections ranging from science to spirituality to the elemental questions of existence. It was published in the Saturday Evening Post on October 29, 1929 — a quarter century after Einstein’s theory of relativity reconfigured our basic understanding of reality with its revelation that space and time are the warp and weft threads of a single fabric, along the curvature of which everything we are and everything we know is gliding.
Considering the helplessness individual human beings feel before the immense geopolitical forces that had hurled the world into its first global war and the decisions individual political leaders were making — decisions already inclining the world toward a second — Einstein aims in his sensitive intellect at the fundamental reality of existence:
I am a determinist. As such, I do not believe in free will. The Jews believe in free will. They believe that man shapes his own life. I reject that doctrine philosophically. In that respect I am not a Jew… I believe with Schopenhauer: We can do what we wish, but we can only wish what we must. Practically, I am, nevertheless, compelled to act is if freedom of the will existed. If I wish to live in a civilized community, I must act as if man is a responsible being.
When asked about any personal responsibility for his own staggering achievements, he points a steadfast finger at the nonexistence of free will:
I claim credit for nothing. Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect as well as for the star. Human being, vegetables or cosmic dust, we all dance to an invisible tune, intoned in the distance by a mysterious player.
For Einstein, the most alive part of the mystery we live with — the mystery we are — is the imagination, that supreme redemption of human life from the prison of determinism. With an eye to his discovery of relativity, he reflects:
I believe in intuitions and inspirations. I sometimes feel that I am right. I do not know that I am. When two expeditions of scientists, funded by the Royal Academy, went forth to test my theory of relativity, I was convinced that their conclusions would totally tally with my hypothesis. I was not surprised when the eclipse of May 29, 1919, confirmed my intuitions. I would have been surprised if I had been wrong.
I am enough of an artist to draw freely from the imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.
Complement with Robinson Jeffers’s superb science-laced poem “The Beginning and the End,” Simone Weil on the relationship between our rights and our responsibilities, and neuroscientist Sam Harris on our primary misconception about free will, then revisit Einstein on the interconnectedness of our fates.
Published February 26, 2023