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One of my favorite quotes from Albert Einstein is, “Science without Religion Is Lame, Religion without Science Is Blind.”

I’ve used it mostly over the years to demonstrate that someone, once considered the smartest man in the world (or at least a rational, scientific genius) was not necessarily atheistic or dismissive of faith.  But the meaning appears to be lost on some, or at least is open to much debate.  What was he really saying?  Apart from religion benefiting from science (a topic for another time), what could science possibly gain from religion?

First, a little background.  Einstein did not believe in the God found in traditional religion, but eschewed being pegged as an atheist.  One editorialist on this subject writes,

Einstein may have not believed in God, but he felt that faith was a must. This is probably why he never gave a second thought to studying the quantum theory and its random nature. He once said that “God does not throw dice”, meaning that quantum theory randomness is out of the question for him. This belief in faith is probably also why his position towards religion was often misinterpreted.

The quote in question, from a letter to philosopher [[Eric Gutkind]], could be interpreted literally and narrowly as asserting that some kind of spiritual belief is required for good science, as if a material athiest need not apply for the task.  Of course the other part of the equation is that religion has no direction without science, or more reasonably interpreted, the attitude of science, which is reason.

We all know there have been highly regarded holy men without advanced knowledge of the physical world (though definitely the human condition); we can statstically assume many atheist scientists have contributed to the advancement of such knowledge.  Therefore, this must not have been the point of his statement.

But without nit-picking the exact context of the conversation, or pinning down his general attitude toward such things, we can still find truth in it.

The easy answer is that historically religion played the role of asking and answering all cosmological questions great and small.  It was the birth-mother and impetus of virtually every branch of modern science, the descendants of a time when disciplines such as astronomy and astrology were one and the same.  But this leaves us a dead end, where today the current physics super-genius, Stephen Hawking, asserts that we now understand the cosmos enough scientifically that God is no longer necessary.

But Einstein didn’t say belief in God, but religion that gives legs to science.  And the attribute of religion that shockingly could be seen as the very basis of scientific advancement is faith.  This is not faith defined as arbitrary acceptance of disparate truths by disparate traditions, but the attitude of faith, being open to that which is not known.

It is the conception of an unknown that defines every hypothesis.  There may be no reason to believe one hypothesis over another, but without the assumption there is something beyond which is already known, there is no reason for any experiment.

Interestingly, it has been “lack of faith” that has stifled and held back science time and again.  Be it Evolution or Wegner’s outlandish geology theory, there has always been great inertia to overcome once any given model is accepted as the answer.  The refusal to consider a seemingly contradictory possibility is human nature, and scientists, after all, are no less human that their clerical counterparts.  Faith doesn’t pretend there is nothing left to know, or even that it truly knows at all.  Without this, the door is not open to new discovery.

Other attitudes of religion have given and continue to give inspiration as well.  The very notion of awe toward nature is an unempirical yet potent experience.  Even immersed in one assumption or another, it transcends any rational notions of first cause.  The wonderment of a Sagan or Spinoza was not the effect of their work, but it’s, dare I say the “metaphysical” milieu by which their logical skill launches into fanciful art that is only mistaken for metaphor. 

So it is not the answers of religion — often admittedly rigid themselves — that benefit science.  Even the tool set of theology, rooted in the same philosophical  foundations as science, are not helpful.  That would be like cutting water with a knife, or the converse of what the angel challenged the prophet Daniel to do, to “weigh me a pound of fire, measure me a bushel of wind …”

No, it is that faith allows an extrenal, truly metaphysical context, however real or not, to the totality of the physical universe.  And being unreachable by it’s definition, always leaves room for one more discovery or further understanding, without which Euclid and Newton would never have given way to Einstein, Einstein to the colleagues of Hawking, and to further generations of theoreticians ad infinitum.

And as history has shown us that no model can stand the test of time without modification or obsolescence, science is not the discovery of some unified holy grail that answers it all, but the more human, untheoretical experience of striving for such a god principle, personable or not.

No discovery will change this somewhat alogical, unvoiced condition.  Reality as the sum of particles and waves is not nearly as “real” in any meaningful way as the moments of awe and glimpses of infinity by which even death cannot steal from us.  It reminds me of another favorite quote from Einstein, after having heard of the successful test of the first atomic bomb: “This changes everything … except human nature.”

And the faith of the scientist that somehow the universe is both unimaginably greater than himself and intimate with him is the very soul of that nature.