Einstein’s gamble

An examination
by Chris Hibbard

“Not only does God play dice, but… he sometimes throws them where they cannot be seen.”
– Stephen Hawking

“Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.”
– Max Planck

“The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.”
– Proverbs 16:33 (New International Version)

“God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of the players, (i.e. everybody), to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.”
Terry Pratchett

Is God a gambler after all?

One of the more common quotations attributed to Albert Einstein is this: “God does not play dice with the universe.” This quote became so popular that it has found its way into jokes on The Simpsons, slogans on T-shirts and bumper stickers and references in other quotations by other authors. This popularity is interesting, for though it is a phrase that is both adored and overused, many who use it do not truly understand it. Once removed from its initial context (in a 1926 letter to Max Born) and skewed from its actual content (which will be revealed shortly) this quote loses much of its effectiveness. How the quote was so twisted, mistranslated and subsequently misrepresentative of Einstein himself is of little consequence, for these things are not uncommon. What are of greater concern to this particular author in attempting to understand what Einstein meant by the statement are the answers to the following questions:

1. What is quantum mechanics?
2. What was the Einstein-Born letter about?
3. Who is this ‘old one’ and what is his secret?

These questions will be answered in the following pages.

1. What is quantum mechanics?

In the loosest, most simple terms, quantum mechanics is a physical science that deals with how matter and energy behave on an atomic and subatomic level. Now used in the understanding of nanotechnology, condensed matter and cosmological events such as that supporting the Big Bang theory, quantum mechanics predicts the behavior within systems – particularly those systems where Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of physics seem to fail. The term itself, Quantum Mechanics, was first used by Max Born in 1924, two years before the aforementioned letter was written to him.

The foundations of quantum mechanics date back to the early 1800s, but the real beginnings of quantum theory and research stem from the work of Max Planck in 1900. Planck’s work and that of his peers, Einstein, Born, de Broglie, Bohr, and the like, made important contributions to what is now called “the old quantum theory”. In many regards it has since been replaced (and in some senses deemed antiquated and even false) by other theories of more modern scholars, yet in the beginning these proponents of quantum mechanics were fascinated by two major issues: wave-particle duality and what became known as the Copenhagen interpretation.

Rooted in a 300-year-old debate over the nature of light and matter, wave-particle duality is essentially the concept that all matter exhibits properties that sometimes behave like waves, while at others behave more like particles. This dual nature proved that the more classical singular concept of acting ‘like one or the other’ did not adequately describe the behaviour of objects. This duality led to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which is essentially understood as stating that every particle has something called a wave-function which dictates the probability that it can be found in any particular location following a measurement. However, each measurement seems to cause a change in the behavior of the particle, thereby making either the measurements seem inaccurate or the particle seeming somehow conscious or cognizant that it was being measured. With this, comes our inability to detect both the position and the speed of any given particle. We can detect one or the other, but never both at the same time.

This notion that our observations of particle behavior seem to influence the very behavior of the particles themselves, is a problem which Einstein called ‘spooky action at a distance’. This action was a problem, Einstein would claim, in that it implied that any influence between one object on another, occurs instantaneously – faster than the speed of light – the fastest known speed in the universe; a speed limit which theoretically could not be broken.

2. What was the Einstein-Born letter about?

These theories related to subatomic particle behaviour that Neils Bohr, Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg studied were not wholeheartedly accepted by Einstein, who was a firm believer in determinism. Determinism is a philosophy under which every event, decision and action in life and the universe, is determined by an unbroken chain of prior causes and effects. Einstein felt that events just don’t occur without being first caused to occur in some shape or form. Outside of quantum mechanics, in the macro/physical realm that concerns nearly every other stream of science – this determinism is accepted as general fact. Cause leads to effect – period – end of story.

Einstein was incredibly reluctant to accept that this deterministic nature of the world around him had its limits. He believed that the entire universe was deterministic in the sense that every event that occurs is caused by other events which are in turn caused by other events and so on, in such a way that all effects are ‘determined’ by causes which can be known. Tsunamis are not caused by the wrath or anger of a god, but by shifts in the Earth itself. Theoretically, those shifts could be linked back to the proverbial flap of a butterfly’s wings, but regardless, something caused the tidal wave and something caused the change in the earth that caused the tidal wave.

This determinism which Einstein believed so strongly in surely played a role in keeping his scientific pursuits ‘pure’; keeping superstition, religion, and all notions of coincidence or mere chance completely outside of any and all scientific debate. Einstein’s disagreements with his peers were primarily philosophical. He rejected all claims that implied that the “deterministic” philosophy of Newtonian mechanics was untrue. While some of his peers claimed that there is an underlying reality in which the positions and speeds of particles are inherently undeterminable, Einstein had what is now known as a ‘hidden variable theory.’ This theory allowed that there may be causes and effects taking place which are currently unknown to us, but which we are able to understand if we could just find some new physical phenomena or scientific ability to assist us in our identification of them. Using a theory such as this, Einstein managed to make the Uncertainty Principle fit within his sphere of knowledge, a sphere which otherwise would not accommodate such unknown variables.

Essentially, this hidden variable theory was behind the short letter Einstein wrote to Max Born in 1926. The letter itself was a reply to another, and was a fairly short one at that. Max Born’s wife had earlier sent a newly-written play to Einstein, soliciting his opinion and knowing that his son-in-law Rudolph Kayser was a respected author and critic. After some short salutations, formalities and a promise that he had delivered said play to Kayser, Einstein included the following:

“Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the ‘old one’. I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice.”

Before continuing, I believe it is important to note that this, the original quote in its entirety, does not include the words ‘God’ or ‘universe’ whatsoever. What Einstein meant was that in his mind, the rules of reality that guide the universe and the functions within it are not subject to change. ‘These rules are set’, Einstein would say, ‘no matter where you are in the universe.’ ‘We may not understand the rules’, he would say, ‘but there is not some omnipotent being up in the sky that is changing the laws of physics, for these laws simply do not change. Furthermore, if there is someone or something behind the design of the universe, then their design was not a careless one.’

Born would later share his personal feelings regarding this letter in a collection of communiqués: “Einstein’s verdict on quantum mechanics came as a hard blow to me. He rejected it not for any definite reason, but rather by referring to an “inner voice”. This rejection plays an important part in later letters. It was based on a basic difference in philosophical attitude, which separated Einstein from the younger generation to which I felt that I belonged, although I was only a few years younger than Einstein.”

Einstein believed that the then-current quantum theory could not be true simply because it implied that there were limits to how much we could know about particles and their behavior. If this were so, then everything that initially appeared random to an observer may as well not even be worth further investigation; and worse, it would be theoretically impossible to truly predict any single event. Reality, for all intents and purposes, would become a slave to some existential roll of the dice, be it luck, chance, fate, or grand design. ‘It is the job of the physicist’, Einstein would claim, ‘to uncover the laws of nature that govern these laws’. Upon doing so, it would be shown that randomness and chaos are not integrals part of the fabric of nature.

Ten years after he wrote the letter to Born, Einstein had accepted quantum mechanics as a consistent theory for the behavior of atoms, if only as being ‘the most successful physical theory of our time.’ Yet Einstein held fast to his point of view right up until his death – something which some later physicists claim was perhaps his only mistake. During the next two decades, Einstein produced a series of objections to the ideas raised by non-locality, the now-widely accepted Copenhagen Interpretation, and spooky action at distance. None of these experiments however, not even his famous EPR Paradox thought experiment, ever truly resolved the problems.

3. Who is this ‘old one’, and what is his secret?

It was not unusual for Einstein to speak openly, casually and frequently about god. (Note the lower case G.) He spoke out so often in fact, that a colleague of his once remarked “…Einstein used to speak so often of God that I tend to believe that he has been a disguised theologian.”
From his young interest in Catholicism, through his involvement with quantum physics, to his staunch support of Judaism, the spiritual side of Einstein was the subject of many questions. Since his answers to these questions were typically clear, concise and laced with quick wit, he rarely allowed any room for error in the interpretation of his true meaning.

“It was, of course, a lie, what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

Religious individuals still persist to this day in trying to use the dice quotation (the misquoted version of course) as a means to defend their own beliefs or to apply a Christian aspect to Einstein which just did not exist. To these types, who already feel that Einstein believed in god, his mere mention of ‘god’ is all the assurance they need. This is truly ironic, for Einstein was an atheist, who if affiliated with any religion would fall closer to Judaism than Christianity. He believed in the god that was described by Spinoza, a 17th-century philosopher and ethicist. “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.

To clarify further, Spinoza’s God merits some further investigation. The God of Spinoza was not some kind of superhuman authority, nor was it concerned with the immortality of any individual. “It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropomorphic concept which I cannot take seriously,” Einstein wrote. “I feel also not able to imagine some will or goal outside the human sphere. My views are near to those of Spinoza: admiration for the beauty of and belief in the logical simplicity of the order and harmony which we can grasp humbly and only imperfectly. I believe that we have to content ourselves with our imperfect knowledge and understanding and treat values and moral obligations as a purely human problem — the most important of all human problems.”

In this way, Einstein argued in his writings on religion that there was an underlying order and coherence to the universe which he chose to identify with, and as, God. His efforts and work to understand this order were, in his way, also his efforts to understand “God”. “Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control,” Einstein wrote. “It is determined for the insect as well as for the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.” But if not God, then who is this piper of which he speaks? This is a standard next question.

To answer it, it is important to understand that Einstein often used god informally, and as a metaphor for the laws of nature. He possessed a genuine sense of cosmic wonder and an admiration for the majesty of the universe, including the subtle beauty and the mathematical elegance contained within it. Einstein tended to relate a story from his childhood when pressed on this sense of wonder.

“When I was a child of four or five my father showed me a compass. This needle behaved in such a determined way and did not fit into the usual explanation of how the world works; that is that you must touch something to move it. I still remember now, or I believe that I remember, that this experience made a deep and lasting impression on me. There must be something deeply hidden behind everything.” So he certainly does come across as a spiritual man, of that there is no doubt. But even when viewed through the lens of Judaism and the sacred Talmud, Einstein still did not subscribe to the idea of a Supreme Being who created the universe and currently presides over it. Einstein tried time and again, year after year, to drive this point home.

“What I see in Nature is magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism. I am a deeply religious nonbeliever. This is somewhat new kind of religion. I have never I don’t try to imagine a personal God; it suffices to stand in awe at the structure of the world, insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it. The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naïve,” or even worse than naïve perhaps.

Einstein also wrote the following statements in response to pressure about the existence of God. “If God has created the world, his primary worry was certainly not to make its understanding easy for us”; “I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves”; and probably of greatest importance: “I want to know how God created this world, I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts. The rest are details.”

So it seems that Einstein was unwilling to believe in both chance and destiny yet believed in choice. He believed in the principle of Occam’s razor, that there is usually one simplest explanation that is also the most probable. He believed that the eternal mystery of the world is in its inherent comprehensibility, for “the fact that it is comprehensible at all is a miracle,” and he believed in some sort of a universal force and perhaps even some kind of divine creator who set the machine in motion. But there is no doubt that Einstein’s one and only true ‘religion’ was science.

“I can, if the worst comes to worst, still realize that God may have created a world in which there are no natural laws, in short, a chaos. But that there should be statistical laws with definite solutions, i.e., laws which compel God to throw the dice in each individual case, I find highly disagreeable.”

In conclusion, there are many things that have changed over the past 60 years in our world. From the atomic bomb to integrated computer circuits; black holes and laser beams to GPS satellites; many of these advances have the lingering fingerprint of Einstein’s work stamped upon them. His successors in the realm of quantum physics have since essentially proven that physicists like Bohr and Born were predominantly correct in their “Copenhagen Interpretation” of fundamental quantum mechanics.

Popular astrophysicist Stephen Hawking has outright said that Einstein was wrong, due to black hole behavior seeming to suggest that “God not only plays dice but also sometimes throws them where they cannot be seen”. Yet we are still bound to the Uncertainty Principle. We can not effectively ever know both the position and the speed of a particle at the same moment. While String Theory and Chaos Theory have proven to be effective tools in our further understanding of our universe, tools which Einstein would have definitely found intriguing were he still alive, in his lifetime he had enough to think about. In his own words: “Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvellous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavour to comprehend a portion, be it never so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.”


Brian, Denis. Einstein: A Life (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, 1996) p.127
Bucky, Peter A. with Allen G. Weakland. The Private Albert Einstein (Andrews and McMeel, Kansas City, 1992)
Calaprice, Alice. The Expanded Quotable Einstein Princeton University Press 2000.
Clark, Ronald W. Einstein: The Life and Times (World Pub. Co. , New York, 1971)
Dukas, Helen and Banesh Hoffman (Editors). Albert Einstein – The Human Side (Princeton University Press, 1979)
Einstein, Albert. Ideas and Opinions (Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1995 version)
Einstein, Albert. The World As I See It (Citadel-Kensington, 2006)
Hawking, Stephen W. Dr. NATURE magazine. No. 257. p.352-355. October, 1975
Jammer, Max. Einstein and Religion (Princeton University Press, 1999) p. 138-140
White, Michael and John Gribbin. Einstein: A Life in Science Speech: My Credo 1932. (Dutton, Penguin Books USA Inc., New York, 1994) Page 262.


~ by Chris Hibbard on October 31, 2008.

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