There has been for a while now a story floating around the internets wherein a turn-of-the-nineteenth-century German physics professor
is imperiously lecturing a group of students about the nonexistence of God. One lone student has the courage to stand up to the professor and ('quietly' or 'in a soft voice,' they always add) offers a scientific argument which the professor is unable to refute, proving, even to the professor that (gasp!!) there is indeed a God
; that student, so the story claims, was (double gasp!!) Albert Einstein
It doesn't take much digging to find that the story is bunk, but the telling and retelling of it makes for an interesting, if somewhat sad, commentary
on the tale-tellers and retellers naetheless. Firstly, the 'proof' claimed to have been presented by young Einstein (but not that Young Einstein
) is always actually a rather poor one. The typical version has the German professor using the argument from evil
as a 'disproof' of God, with Einstein cleverly countering that, because there is no such thing as 'cold' or 'darkness' (these being scientifically reckoned as simply the absence of 'heat' and 'light'
) then it follows that 'evil' is simply the absence of 'good' (ergo, the absence of 'God' from that which is evil); and so, presto!! Theodicy
is refuted!! God exists!!
The story is historically debunked by Snopes
as something neither ever recorded during Einstein's life, nor consistent with Einstein's own repeatedly expressed religious views. For it was Einstein who declared: "I do not believe in the God of theology who rewards good and punishes evil. My God created laws that take care of that. His universe is not ruled by wishful thinking, but by immutable laws." And it was Einstein who replied to the umpteenth inquiry of a rumor of his religiosity with "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."
But putting aside the false attribution and the content of the tale itself, what does it tell us about any religion that its proponents are so easily willing to believe a fairly absurd and easily disprovable lie, and to propogate this lie? That they are so ready to accept the fallacious logic
of an appeal to authority
, instead of conducting a rational examination of the appeal itself? There are really multiple levels of error at play here; firstly the false attribution of the story to Einstein, but secondly the equally false subtext that an argument, having been made by Einstein must thusly be irrefutable. Which, naturally, ought to hamstring anybody who wishes to put forward any of the myriad theological traditions which Einstein expressly rejected (such as, oh, say, Christianity
). The story, as we see, ends with the 'atheist' professor being humbled and unable to retort, equally symbolizing the tale-teller's conviction that the argument, made by Einstein, is irrefutable.
And the tactic of employing such a story raises difficulties precisely because of the multiplication of fallacies involved. To counter one is to leave the others unaddressed, so to simply point out that Einstein never made the claimed statements may be taken by the tale-teller as proof of the "soundness of the argument"; and to simply poke holes in the soundness of the argument may be taken by the tale-teller as proof that "ah, but Einstein really did make the claim." And obviously, to address all of the fallacies will burn through time and effort, and likely bore the audience. And the tale-teller might actively switch gears with sufficient quickness that, once one aspect of the story has been disproved and the next is in the process of being debunked, he will immediately resume his belief in the part that was just disproved
, simply because it is no longer the part that is being argued (and this my friends I have seen happen with my own eyes).
And so in conclusion, if somebody comes to you using such an outright combination of fallacies as an argument in favor of their belief, that by itself seems pretty good proof that their belief is one to be reserved for the dishonest scam artist
and the gullible fool