17 Jun Is There a Formula That Explains How We Should Lead Our Lives? Einstein Helped Me Find One…
In 1916, Albert Einstein changed the way we see the world with the publication of his theory of relativity. Five years later, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics. At the height of his fame and influence, Einstein turned his bushy eyebrows and determined focus to a new task, something that would be his most ambitious project yet. He wanted to unite all the fundamental forces of nature into a single, all-encompassing set of equations. He felt strongly that all of nature could be described by a single theory. It became known as his search for a Unified Field Theory.
Einstein approached the challenge with a single-minded zeal that had served him well in the 11 years he spent on his theory of relativity. ‘Our situation is the following,’ Einstein wrote in a letter in 1938. ‘We are standing in front of a closed box which we cannot open, and we are trying hard to discover what is and is not in it.’ As the years ticked by, and Einstein dug his heels in against the developing science of quantum mechanics, his contemporaries began to believe Einstein was wasting his time. They’d mumble amongst themselves that he was on a fruitless quest and that the greatest mind of their generation was headed in the wrong direction. Einstein would go on to spend the last 30 years of his life dedicated to this task.
Is it possible to develop our own unified theory of life?
Ever since I learned of Einstein’s quest, I’ve wondered if it were possible to develop a single equation that could explain the philosophical life, instead of the physical. Can we find a formula that tells us how we can live together peacefully?
I soon realised that religions promise answers to these questions. Maybe not in a single formula, but in a set of principles and commandments. Through stories and rituals, religions have built on five basic moral foundations: do no harm, play fairly, be loyal to your group, respect authority and live purely. While these rules were useful and played their part in shaping modern societies, I wanted them to go further. I wanted one rule, one equation, to rule them all.
To consider this properly, one needs to confront the nature of our existence. I grew up in a religious household, but by the time I was a teenager too many questions couldn’t be answered adequately and too many doubts lingered. So I drifted away. But no matter how disenchanted I grew with the idea of god, I could never fully stamp out the idea of a divine source. I was knocked into that middle place, ‘unable to worship a god in whose existence I could not wholly disbelieve,’ as Salman Rushdie once described. I was thrown into a restlessness that made me always feel like there must be something more to life.
I spent the next six years travelling by myself around the world and on a search for that ‘something more.’ I wanted to see the world as it truly was, and to figure out the best way for me to move through it. Besides learning to see, there was another art to be learned — not to see what is not. As Carl Sagan said, ‘It’s better by far to embrace the hard truth, than a reassuring fable.’
I realised the formula I was seeking would need to align with the two lenses through which we see the world, spirituality and science. Ideally, it could even act as a bridge between the two. While the two can seem contradictory at times, they share a sense of wonder. Each has its own power, beauty and mystery. It’s in the middle ground, the balancing act between science and art, form and function, facts and beliefs, that we experience the sublime. We need a spirituality that’s not afraid of science and that doesn’t seek to deny it. I wanted to find out if there’s a way to balance the things we know with the things we feel. To match our intuitions with the true reality of the world.
What I learnt along the way
On my travels, I meditated with monks in Thailand, danced with hippies in Australia, lived hand-to-mouth in Europe, bathed with Hindus in the Ganges and worked at a newspaper in Colombia with chain-smoking intellectuals. I worked in 15 cities across six continents, often working in basic jobs but learning the fundamentals about the local cultures and beliefs through the people I met. The most striking thing to see was the similarities between people from opposite sides of the world. At our core, I came to learn, we’re all the same. We all have moments of fear, anger and joy. We all want to love and be loved.
I also began to sense that everything is connected and part of a larger whole. What some beliefs would call karma. If you look at the natural world, you can see an order to how elements interact, the harmony of our ecosystem, as if we form part of one huge organism. There’s a cause and effect to everything we do, which is one more reason why kindness is so important. We can come up with all types of theories and beliefs but ultimately if we all treat each other with a bit more kindness the world would be a better place. As the writer Aldous Huxley said, ‘After 45 years of research and study, the best advice I can give people is to be a little kinder to each other.’
In some of the great mountain ranges – the Himalayas, Andes, Rockies and Alps – I came to see nature as a cathedral, and saw firsthand how it can rejuvenate, empower and inspire wonder. It’s the closest I’ve come to communing with the divine. Travel writer Don Pinnock felt something similar. He wrote, ‘I’ve walked alone through the sweat of the earth’s rainforests, travelled over the skin of her deserts, looked deeply into the eyes of her wild and beautiful creatures and heard the planet humming in the ice fields of Antarctica. This has left me convinced the earth is a living thing: Gaia – the idea that the living and nonliving components of earth function as a single system – and that we’re part of its being. This planet is our mother, our father and our lover.’
Through taking in the different cultures and beliefs I came in contact with, I realised that people have a yearning to believe in something. We naturally look for a purpose in life, a meaning to it all, an understanding of how all this came to be. We need answers to the Big Questions. That’s why religions developed in the first place: as a means to explain the universe. To tell us, for example, where the earth comes from, why the sun rises in the east and why there are seasons. But they soon progressed from myths to become a useful tool in controlling the actions of the population. As Napoleon Bonaparte said, ‘Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich.’ According to Sapiens author, Yuval Noah Harari, the concept of a God was only introduced about 8 or 10 000 years ago. Before that, we worshipped our ancestors.
Einstein’s beliefs, Spinoza’s God and ‘The thinking man’s religion’
I later discovered that Einstein went on a similar thought journey. When asked whether he believed in God, Einstein said: ‘I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists – not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.’ Einstein wrote that he experienced a ‘cosmic religious feeling,’ a persistent awe at the ‘sublimity and marvelous order’ of the universe. He was not alone. Many contemporary scientists and philosophers share this view. They may not believe in God, per se, but the awe the universe inspires in them does appear to come close to religious devotion.
The Spinoza Einstein was referring to was Baruch Spinoza, a 17th-century Dutch philosopher. He’s regarded as the most celebrated advocate of pantheism – the belief that the universe and God are identical. Pantheism states that God is the universal energy within each of us and everything that makes up the natural world and the cosmos. God is not a judgmental giant sitting up in heaven, instead it’s a force within us all – ‘we are all light bulbs in the electrical system of the universe,’ as Sarah Macdonald wrote. Pantheists believe we’re a product of the universe – you’re literally the universe becoming aware of its own existence.
Some modern scientists say that pantheism is the reasoning person’s religious response to the world because it doesn’t interfere with science. They say science is not only compatible with spirituality; for them it’s a profound source of spirituality. In the 19th century, pantheism was the viewpoint of many leading writers and philosophers, naturalists and scientists, such as William Wordsworth, Georg Hegel, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nikola Tesla, Friedrich Nietzsche and Henry David Thoreau. In the past century, it has been espoused by D. H. Lawrence, Stephen Hawking, Alan Watts, Carl Jung and Carl Sagan.
As I continued on my travels, my thoughts often returned to a potential ‘Unified Life Equation’. I had countless thought journeys that took me down philosophical dead ends. Eventually, the main learnings were all that remained. That religion is as practical as it is natural, for example. That there’s a sense of divine energy in nature. That many people feel in their souls everything is connected and we’re all the same. I realised what’s most important is how we treat each other and that we look after our environment. Ultimately, it came to this: if we have love and kindness for each other, ourselves and the natural world, then the world will know harmony. Everything else that matters can flow from this. It may seem overly simple, but maybe that’s a good thing. I came to think of it as a new holy trinity.
Love and kindness for yourself, others and the natural world = harmony
We need ourselves to be healthy to survive, we need others to be healthy to commune with, love and celebrate life with and we need a healthy environment in which to thrive and live in harmony. This seems compatible with both science and spirituality. Maybe this trinity of life could help us plot a new way forward that places all life as its priority? Maybe it should be our focus in the here and now, rather than the beliefs that promise an everlasting afterlife that’s waiting for us beyond our graves?
Why does this matter?
During the Covid 19 pandemic, there have been lots of calls for the system to change, that it’s broken. The way capitalism focuses on productivity is stripping the earth, the way we choose our leaders is wrong and the way they lead is wrong, too. Education and healthcare, individual rights and personal principles – it’s all wrong! But maybe the most important system to be out of whack is our belief system, because everything begins with the stories we tell ourselves.
Our beliefs shape our world and how we move through it. That’s why this is important. A new way of thinking could get a handle on our two biggest global problems – ecological destruction and growing inequality. This vision of nature and each other as sacred – which seems to have the potential to appeal to all people, secular and non-secular alike – may just be what’s needed if we’re to preserve this planet and create a more balanced society.
If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal. If god is nature, maybe we will be more likely to care for it? If god is in each of us, maybe we will be more likely to care for each other?
I think we created the concept of an all-powerful, omnipotent god not to fill the void but to escape the responsibility. Embracing this line of thinking does something vitally important in today’s world, it puts the responsibility back on us.
I find one of the most appealing aspects of this thinking is that it’s well attuned to our times. We’re living in a world where human’s neglect of nature and the environment has reached the point where it threatens all our livelihoods and lives. What we need at this time is a spirituality of nature and environment, so we can turn to the most pressing issues with renewed zeal. For example, how will we feed an ever-growing population? How will we provide clean water, generate renewable energy, prevent and cure disease and slow down global climate change? We need to understand that the natural world is as sacred as any of the gods you or your neighbour pray to. And treat it as such.
Einstein’s final lesson
Einstein never gave up on his quest for a Unified Field Theory. The day before he died, he asked to have his latest notes brought to him. Some scientists have come to believe the old man may have been on the right path after all. He just started down it a few decades too soon. When Einstein began this work, physicists believed that there were only two universal forces that the theory would have to unite. Today, according to string theory, there are 11.
Similarly, there are many laws, dimensions and explanations that are yet to be discovered that will shape a new way of seeing the world in the future. What seems important is that we’re adaptable, embrace the new truths as they come, and develop a divine respect for nature and each other so that we can find a way to live together peacefully. As Einstein said in 1955, ‘The important thing is not to stop questioning… Never lose holy curiosity.’