June 4, 2014

Do Scientists Pray?

Purpose is a human concept. By that, I mean purpose exists only in the human realm. The existential “purpose of my life” question is a man-made construct. An oxygen atom doesn’t wake up in the morning and wonder “what the future holds for it” or “how it can be a good atom today.” The earth bears its burdens unquestioningly. The sun shines without fear or favor. Lions hunt neither because they have to meet their quarterly goals nor to become “well adjusted” lions. We, insignificant carbon life forms on a beautiful but largely anonymous planet, have come to believe in this thing called purpose. Is the flow of a river its purpose? Standing majestically tall is not the purpose of a great mountain. They are the things that define them. What is the thing that defines us? Is there one thing that defines all of us? The answers can only be personal.

Yet, all the “purposeless” things in the universe appear to be bound by a common spirit. By a common spirit, I mean a unifying thread. A spirit, once you sense it, can lift you to the stars and galaxies and all those wonderful places without even having to transcend space. The Vedas refer to it as the Parabrahman. Some like to call it God.

It is perhaps this religiosity that Einstein spoke about when replying to a child who asked him, “Do scientists pray?” It’s a wonderful exchange between the master and a child and I’d like to share it here. [Source: Brain Pickings ]

Do Scientists Pray?

Letter from Phyllis, a sixth grader from New York.

The Riverside Church

January 19, 1936

My dear Dr. Einstein,

We have brought up the question: Do scientists pray? in our Sunday school class. It began by asking whether we could believe in both science and religion. We are writing to scientists and other important men, to try and have our own question answered. We will feel greatly honored if you will answer our question: Do scientists pray, and what do they pray for? We are in the sixth grade, Miss Ellis’s class.

Respectfully yours, Phyllis

Albert Einstein replied in just 5 days.

January 24, 1936

Dear Phyllis,

I will attempt to reply to your question as simply as I can. Here is my answer: Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish.

However, we must concede that our actual knowledge of these forces is imperfect, so that in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith. Such belief remains widespread even with the current achievements in science.

But also, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.

With cordial greetings, your A. Einstein

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