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.