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Mar 24 2013

Paul Dirac on religion

Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac (1902-1984) is one of the founders of quantum physics, whose name we will encounter later in the series of posts on the Higgs. Due to his family’s low financial status, he initially studied engineering but fortunately for the world of physics, he could not get a job as an engineer and managed to scrape up the money to pursue graduate study in physics at Cambridge. He rapidly established himself in the emerging field of quantum mechanics, winning a Nobel Prize at the age of 31.

In one chapter of Werner Heisenberg’s book Physics and Beyond that is titled Science and Religion, Heisenberg recounts a series of conversations that he had about the nature of science and religion with Wolfgang Pauli, Niels Bohr, and Dirac, a quartet of giants of physics, during the famous Solvay Conference of 1927 where the foundations of quantum mechanics were thrashed out by the major figures involved in its creation.

The conversation was sparked by Albert Einstein’s repeated invocation of god in his public utterances. Heisenberg says that someone raised the issue thusly: “Einstein keeps talking about God: what are we to make of that? It is extremely difficult to imagine that a scientist like Einstein should have such strong ties with a religious tradition.” Pauli said, “I don’t believe Einstein is tied to any religious tradition, and I rather think the idea of a personal God is entirely foreign to him”, a statement that turns out be accurate, as can be seen from a letter that Einstein wrote a year before his death, where he said quite unequivocally that his use of god was as a metaphor and nothing more.

The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this… For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.

While all four agreed that religion was pretty much useless, it was Dirac’s comments that caught my eye because, as was his style in all things, he was refreshingly honest and direct and this passage is worth quoting in full, partly for that reason and partly because we rarely hear of Dirac’s view on this topic.

“I don’t know why we are talking about religion,” [Dirac] objected. “If we are honest—and scientists have to be—we must admit that religion is a jumble of false assertions, with no basis in reality. The very idea of God is a product of the human imagination. It is quite understandable why primitive people, who were so much more exposed to the overpowering forces of nature than we are today, should have personified these forces in fear and trembling. But nowadays, when we understand so many natural processes, we have no need for such solutions. I can’t for the life of me see how the postulate of an Almighty God helps us in any way. What I do see is that this assumption leads to such unproductive questions as why God allows so much misery and injustice, the exploitation of the poor by the rich and all the other horrors He might have prevented. If religion is still being taught, it is by no means because its ideas still convince us, but simply because some of us want to keep the lower classes quiet. Quiet people are much easier to govern than clamorous and dissatisfied ones. They are also much easier to exploit. Religion is a kind of opium that allows a nation to lull itself into wishful dreams and so forget the injustices that are being perpetrated against the people. Hence the close alliance between those two great political forces, the State and the Church. Both need the illusion that a kindly God rewards—in heaven if not on earth—all those who have not risen up against injustice, who have done their duty quietly and uncomplainingly. That is precisely why the honest assertion that God is a mere product of the human imagination is branded as the worst of all mortal sins.”

“I dislike religious myths on principle,” Dirac replied, “if only because the myths of the different religions contradict one another. After all, it was purely by chance that I was born in Europe and not in Asia, and that is surely no criterion for judging what is true or what I ought to believe. And I can only believe what is true. As for right action, I can deduce it by reason alone from the situation in which I find myself: I live in society with others, to whom, in principle, I must grant the same rights I claim for myself. I must simply try to strike a fair balance; no more can be asked of me. All this talk about God’s will, about sin and repentance, about a world beyond by which we must direct our lives, only serves to disguise the sober truth. Belief in God merely encourages us to think that God wills us to submit to a higher force, and it is this idea which helps to preserve social structures that may have been perfectly good in their day but no longer fit the modern world. All your talk of a wider context and the like strikes me as quite unacceptable. Life, when all is said and done, is just like science: we come up against difficulties and have to solve them. And we can never solve more than one difficulty at a time; your wider context is nothing but a mental superstructure added a posteriori.”

That pretty much sums it up, in my opinion.

17 comments

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  1. 1
    slc1

    Wolfgang Pauli, who was a nominal Roman Catholic of Jewish descent, was quoted as saying about Dirac: “Dirac believes that there is no god and that Dirac is his prophet”.

  2. 2
    lou Jost

    Mano, thanks for this great historical gem!!!

  3. 3
    Argle Bargle

    If religion is still being taught, it is by no means because its ideas still convince us, but simply because some of us want to keep the lower classes quiet. Quiet people are much easier to govern than clamorous and dissatisfied ones. They are also much easier to exploit. Religion is a kind of opium that allows a nation to lull itself into wishful dreams and so forget the injustices that are being perpetrated against the people. Hence the close alliance between those two great political forces, the State and the Church.

    Religion isn’t about happiness or salvation, it’s about power.

  4. 4
    jamessweet

    hahaha, awesome.

  5. 5
    grumpyoldfart

    Sadly, all these decades later, religion is still going strong. Shit, in America there are millions of people who think god sends earthquakes to punish gays!

  6. 6
    arbor

    Pauli was an ass. While reading The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom, I repeatedly found myself being seriously disappointed in Pauli’s behavior.

    I enjoyed the book very much, by the way. The account of Oppenheimer poisoning the apple of a coworker was bizarre and… bizarre. Sad that it is so plausible.

    I have found Dirac fascinating for years. I have a lot of respect for the man.

  7. 7
    Mano Singham

    I agree. Pauli seems like he was an extremely unpleasant and arrogant person. Also thanks for reminding me about the Dirac biography that I had been meaning to read for some time. It got rave reviews and yet inexplicably I forgot to get it.

  8. 8
    M can help you with that.

    I live in society with others, to whom, in principle, I must grant the same rights I claim for myself.

    This is a simple concept, but one which, taken seriously (and by all accounts Dirac took concepts very seriously), is just about the foundation of ethics. Just a recognition that no, I’m not the center of the world in anyone’s mind but my own, and I shouldn’t expect to be. I’m not sure why religion seems to push away from this so much (maybe part of people creating gods in their own image?), but it does seem to be atheists, agnostics, apatheists and the like who find this easiest to grasp.

  9. 9
    grasshopper

    Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac (1902-1984) is one of the founders of physics …

    Should this read Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac (1902-1984) is one of the founders of quantum physics?

  10. 10
    Mano Singham

    Yes, you are right. Thanks! I have corrected it.

  11. 11
    Rob Grigjanis

    Dirac was also responsible for my favourite equation. Sheer beauty.

  12. 12
    MNb

    Tssk, tssk, such a nasty strident militant New Atheist Paul Dirac was ….

  13. 13
    slc1

    I can’t speak to Pauli but many great scientists have been quite arrogant and were reputed to not suffer fools gladly (Isaac Newton anyone?). Such an attitude can be quite unpleasant. Prof. Murray Gellmann is notorious for such an attitude.

    I once had lunch with the late Prof. Dirac, who I found to be quite shy and rather self effacing. We didn’t discuss Prof. Pauli, who had long since departed this mortal coil but did discuss Edward Teller (another very unpleasant man) whom both of us had had run ins with.

    Another example of a famous physicist who could be quite unpleasant is the late Julian Schwinger. I attended a seminar that was supposed to be a discussion on whether magnetic charge could exist where he and my thesis adviser were supposed to give opposing views. Prof. Schwinger conducted a filibuster promoting his theory of magnetic charge and my thesis adviser never got a chance to present his position. All in all, a quite unpleasant experience.

  14. 14
    Nick Gotts

    Thanks, I’ll have to get hold of a biography of Dirac.

  15. 15
    Mano Singham

    The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac by Graham Farmelo is the one that is highly recommended. I have just ordered it and look forward to reading it.

  16. 16
    Rob Grigjanis

    Here‘s a youtube playlist. The first is a talk given by Farmelo on Ontario’s TVO. Excellent stuff.

  17. 17
    azportsider

    I know! Isn’t that great?

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