Did Einstein Prove God Exists?

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Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein. Lucien Aigner / Getty Images

In this Internet anecdote of unknown origin, a young university student by the name of Albert Einstein humiliates his atheist professor by proving that God exists. Given the anecdotal nature of the tale and Einstein's stated opinions about religion, we have no reason to believe it's authentic.

Description: Urban legend
Circulating since: 2004 (this version)
Status: False (see details below)

Email contributed by Wilma C., June 23, 2004:

The professor of a university challenged his students with this question. "Did God create everything that exists?" A student answered bravely, "Yes, he did".

The professor then asked, "If God created everything, then he created evil. Since evil exists (as noticed by our own actions), so God is evil. The student couldn't respond to that statement causing the professor to conclude that he had "proved" that "belief in God" was a fairy tale, and therefore worthless.

Another student raised his hand and asked the professor, "May I pose a question? " "Of course" answered the professor.

The young student stood up and asked : "Professor does Cold exists?"

The professor answered, "What kind of question is that? ...Of course the cold exists... haven't you ever been cold?"

The young student answered, "In fact sir, Cold does not exist. According to the laws of Physics, what we consider cold, in fact is the absence of heat. Anything is able to be studied as long as it transmits energy (heat). Absolute Zero is the total absence of heat, but cold does not exist. What we have done is create a term to describe how we feel if we don't have body heat or we are not hot."

"And, does Dark exist?", he continued. The professor answered "Of course". This time the student responded, "Again you're wrong, Sir. Darkness does not exist either. Darkness is in fact simply the absence of light. Light can be studied, darkness can not. Darkness cannot be broken down. A simple ray of light tears the darkness and illuminates the surface where the light beam finishes. Dark is a term that we humans have created to describe what happens when there's lack of light."

Finally, the student asked the professor, "Sir, does evil exist?" The professor replied, "Of course it exists, as I mentioned at the beginning, we see violations, crimes and violence anywhere in the world, and those things are evil."

The student responded, "Sir, Evil does not exist. Just as in the previous cases, Evil is a term which man has created to describe the result of the absence of God's presence in the hearts of man."

After this, the professor bowed down his head, and didn't answer back.

The young man's name was ALBERT EINSTEIN.

Analysis: This apocryphal tale of a college-age Albert Einstein proving the existence of God to his atheist professor first began circulating in 2004. One reason we know it isn't true is that a more elaborate version of the same story was already making the rounds five years before that with no mention of Einstein in it at all.

Another reason we know it isn't true is that Einstein was a self-described agnostic who didn't believe in what he called a "personal God." He wrote: "[T]he word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish."

And, finally, we know it isn't true because Einstein was a careful thinker who wouldn't have abided the specious logic attributed to him here. As written, the argument neither disproves the existence of evil nor proves the existence of God.

(Note: None of what follows is intended to disprove the existence of God, nor does it suffice to do so.)

Specious Logic Isn't Einstein's

The claim that cold "doesn't exist" because according to the laws of physics it's merely "the absence of heat" amounts to nothing more than semantic game-playing. Heat is a noun, the name of a physical phenomenon, a form of energy. Cold is an adjective describing a relative lack of heat. To say that something is cold, or that we feel cold, or even that we're going out in "the cold," is not to assert that cold "exists." We're simply reporting the temperature. (It's helpful to recognize that the antonym of cold isn't heat; it's hot.)

The same applies to light (in this context a noun denoting a form of energy), and dark (an adjective). It's true that when we say, "It's dark outside," the phenomenon we're actually describing is a relative absence of light, but that doesn't mean that by speaking of "the dark" we mistake it for a thing that "exists" in the same sense that light does. We're simply describing the degree of illumination we perceive.

Thus, it's a philosophical parlor trick to posit heat and cold (or light and dark) as a pair of opposite entities only to "reveal" that the second term doesn't really refer to an entity at all, but merely the absence of the first.

The young Einstein would have known better, and so would his professor.

Defining Good and Evil

Even if those false dichotomies are allowed to stand, the argument still founders on the conclusion that evil "doesn't exist" because, we're told, evil is simply a term we use to describe "the absence of God's presence in our hearts." It doesn't follow.

Up to this point the case has been built on the unpacking of purported opposites — heat vs. cold, light vs. dark. What's the opposite of evil?

Good. For the argument to be consistent, the conclusion ought to be: Evil doesn't exist because it's only a term we use to describe the absence of good.

You may wish to claim that good is the presence of God in men's hearts, but in that case you'll have launched a whole new debate, not finished one.

Augustine's Theodicy

Albeit thoroughly butchered in the above instance, the argument as a whole is a classic example of what's known in Christian apologetics as a theodicy — a defense of the proposition that God can be understood to be all-good and all-powerful despite having created a world in which evil exists. This particular form of theodicy, based on the idea that evil is to good as darkness is to light (the former, in each case, supposedly being reducible to the absence of the latter), is usually credited to Augustine of Hippo, who first laid out the argument some 1600 years ago. God didn't create evil, Augustine concluded; evil enters the world — which is to say, good departs from it — via man's free will.

Augustine's theodicy opens up an even bigger can of philosophical worms — the problem of free will vs. determinism — but we needn't go there. Suffice it to say that even if one finds the free will loophole persuasive, it doesn't prove that God exists. It only proves that the existence of evil isn't inconsistent with the existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent deity.

Einstein and religion

From everything we know about Albert Einstein, all this scholastic navel gazing would have bored him to tears. As a theoretical physicist he found the order and complexity of the universe awe-inspiring enough to call the experience "religious." As a sensitive human being he took a profound interest in questions of morality. But none of this, to him, pointed in the direction of a supreme being.

"It does not lead us to take the step of fashioning a god-like being in our own image," he explained when asked about the religious implications of relativity. "For this reason, people of our type see in morality a purely human matter, albeit the most important in the human sphere."

Sources and further reading:

Einstein Letter on God Sells for $104,000
New York Times, 17 May 2008

Einstein on Prayer; Purpose in Nature; Meaning of Life; etc.

Atheist Professor vs. Christian Student
Newsgroup posting, 25 March 1999

The Problem of Evil