Saturday, November 22, 2008

Einstein, ethics and craftsmanship

While this may seem to have little to do with the hands, I've been thinking lately about Albert Einstein. Like many creative individuals he had some of his greatest sparks of creativity in his middle years, and then spent the balance of his life, teaching, explaining and exploring the implications of earlier insight. I find a slight parallel in my own life as a craftsman. Many of my best ideas came when I was much younger, and now I am blessed with the opportunity to explore and refine their applications.

Einstein turned his attention from the physical workings of the universe to its moral and ethical dimensions. Please bear with me as I do the same.

There are some interesting connections that I discovered on Wikipedia. First is that Einstein was part of the Ethical Culture movement founded by Felix Adler, founder of the Working Man's School (now Fieldston Academy) in Manhattan. Adler was an outspoken proponent of manual training for all children as a means of imparting a moral dimension to their education.

Second is that Einstein served on the board of the First Humanist Society of New York founded by Unitarian minister Charles Francis Potter. His religious beliefs would be regarded as consistent with those of many modern day Unitarian-Universalists.
In a 1930 New York Times article, Einstein distinguished three styles which are usually intermixed in actual religion. The first is motivated by fear and poor understanding of causality, and hence invents supernatural beings. The second is social and moral, motivated by desire for love and support. Einstein noted that both have an anthropomorphic concept of God. The third style, which Einstein deemed most mature, is motivated by a deep sense of awe and mystery. He said, "The individual feels ... the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves in nature ... and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole." Einstein saw science as an antagonist of the first two styles of religion, but as a partner of the third style.
There is a profound connection between the scientists' striving to explore and understand the workings of the universe, and the craftsmen's efforts to explore and create. Both are moral acts beyond the didactic discourse of religious principles and externally imposed morality. To make is always an act of ethics and an expression of morality, and the impulse that drives the craftsman to make objects of beauty, utility and lasting quality is the same impulse that drives the scientist in his or her speculations about the nature of our reality.


  1. As a present day Ethical Culturist, I appreciate the mention of Einstein's involvement with the movement. It is unfortunate that his liberal use of the word "god" has been twisted into an errant perception that he was a believing theist. The evidence seems to indicate that he was not.

  2. He claimed to be an agnostic. Human beings love to jump to conclusions and propose mystical causation to all that is inexplicable.

    I was concerned leaving town for Thanksgiving because money was really low in my accounts and I was going to travel on a shoestring. A check from a gallery arrived this morning, just in the nick of time. I could jump to the conclusion that that was God's hand at work in the Universe. Or I could say, I had filled that order just in the nick of time, and the check came according to the terms, net 30.

    So maybe there is a God, maybe not, depending on whether you prefer to jump to conclusions or base them on research and discovery. Einstein was a research and discovery kind of guy.