A new book by Gettysburg College philosophy Prof. Steven Gimbel received a front-page review in Aug. 5’s New York Times Sunday Book Review.
Its title drawn from a Nazi epithet, Einstein’s Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion explores how Talmudic habits of mind may have set the stage for Einstein’s insights. New York Times reviewer George Johnson called the book “original” and Gimbel “an engaging writer.”
“What he means is that there might have been elements of Jewish thinking that gave rise to what is now recognized as one of the deepest insights of all time,” Johnson wrote. “What gives Einstein’s work a Jewish flavor, Gimbel believes, is an approach to the universe that reminds him of the way a Talmudic scholar seeks to understand God’s truth. It comes only in glimpses.”
“The heart of the Talmudic view is that there is an absolute truth, but this truth is not directly and completely available to us,” Gimbel writes. “It turns out that exactly the same style of thinking occurs in the relativity theory and in some of Einstein’s other research.”
Prof. Gimbel took some time after the release of this review to answer a few more questions about his book.
Where did the idea or inspiration for this book come from?
This project began as a collaboration with Stephen Stern, a professor in Gettysburg College’s religious studies department who specializes in Judaic Studies. During a conversation with Stern about the difference between standard ethical theories and Jewish ethics, I realized that there seemed to be a parallel between the differences in the forms of thought in the ethical theories and the differences in the ways of thinking employed in the gravitational theories of Isaac Newton compared to those of Albert Einstein. The more we pushed the analogy, the more interesting and multi-faceted the project became.
What elements of Jewish thinking do you think Einstein considered?
Ultimately, none. It turns out that the Nazi claims that the theory of relativity are “Jewish science” in the way they envisioned is false. Einstein was influenced by many important thinkers, reading works from cutting edge physics to 18th century philosophy. Einstein had his influences, but none of them were Jewish.
You wrote that the Talmudic view is that absolute truth exists but isn't fully available to us. How did that concept help lead to relativity?
What we see in relativity is the notion of an absolute truth that is always seen from a frame of reference. We glimpse an aspect of what is really true, but to come to an understanding of the larger truth we need to understand how it is seen differently from other perspectives and contemplate the relations between these limited viewpoints. We see a similar sort of thinking in the Talmud. There is no cause and effect relation here – Einstein did not derive his way of thinking from the rabbis – but it is interesting that there is this parallel. The Nazis used the phrase “Jewish science” to try to undermine the theory of relativity and they were factually wrong in their reasoning and morally wrong in their bigotry, but Jews are very proud to have Einstein as one of their own. This parallel provides one way in which, stylistically, Einstein can be thought of as part of a larger project, even if there was not an express intent on his part to join that group. Einstein wasn’t trying to think like other important Jewish thinkers, but coincidentally he did.
Describe this book in three words. Describe Einstein in three words.
Ideas cross borders. Don’t fear heresy.
What do you think Einstein would be most curious about today?
The project that Einstein was working on at the end of his life was a way to unify all of physics, to find a standpoint from which everything in the universe could be made sense of in a clean coherent fashion. This is still the guiding project of physics today, the search for a grand unified theory. The presumption is Einstein’s — that there is some way to take these different theories and see them as elements in a larger truth. In this way, we continue his intellectual legacy.
If you weren't teaching philosophy at one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country, what would you be doing?
I couldn’t work anywhere other than the liberal arts environment at Gettysburg College. The freedom to follow ideas, to engage my curiosity in any field, to collaborate with open-minded colleagues across the intellectual spectrum is the key to being able to play with the ideas that fascinate me.
Finish this sentence: Einstein was the greatest ____ who ever lived.
Gimbel is the Edwin T. and Cynthia Shearer Johnson Professor for Distinguished Teaching in the Humanities and chair of the Department of Philosophy at Gettysburg College. He earned the College’s Luther and Bernice Johnson Award for Distinguished Teaching. Among his other books are Exploring the Scientific Method: Cases and Questions and Defending Einstein: Hans Reichenbach’s Writings on Space, Time, and Motion.
Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college, which enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students, is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.
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