At one time, ancient astronomers believed that the heavens were eternal and made of ether. This theory made it impossible for them to observe meteors as burning stones from outer space. Although the ancients witnessed meteor showers and found some on the ground, they couldn’t recognize them as meteors from outer space. They sought out and observed only those things that confirmed their theory about the heavens. Albert Einstein intuitively knew that thinking is speculative and how personal beliefs and theories distort what we observe. We are like the ancient astronomers and actively seek out only that information that confirms our beliefs and theories about ourselves and the world.
A description of Einstein’s thinking process was found in a letter to his friend, Maurice Solovine. The letter started with a simple drawing consisting of one straight line which Einstein said represented experiences, which are given to us, and beliefs and axioms which are situated above the line but are not directly linked to experiences.
Einstein explained that psychologically, his beliefs and axioms rest upon his experiences. There exists, however, no logical path from experience to an axiom, but only an intuitive connection based on his interpretation of the experience, which is always subject to revocation. These speculative interpretations shape our beliefs and perceptions which determine our theories about the world. Finally, our theories determine what we observe and, paradoxically, we only observe what confirms our theories which further hardens our beliefs and axioms.
The following story illustrates how a person’s theory determines what is observed and how what is observed is interpreted according to the person’s theory.
The university professor challenged his students with this question. Did God create everything that exists? A student bravely replied, “Yes, he did!”
“God created everything? The professor asked. “Yes sir”, the student replied.
The professor answered, “If God created everything, then God created evil since evil exists, and according to the principal that our works define who we are, then God is evil”. The student became quiet before such an answer.
Another student raised his hand and said, “Can I ask you a question professor?”
“Of course”, replied the professor.
The student stood up and asked, “Professor, does cold exist?”
“What kind of question is this? Of course it exists. Have you never been cold?”
The young man replied, “In fact sir, cold does not exist. According to the laws of physics, what we consider cold is in reality the absence of heat. Every body or object is susceptible to study when it has or transmits energy, and heat is what makes a body or matter have or transmit energy. Absolute zero (-460 degrees F) is the total absence of heat; all matter becomes inert and incapable of reaction at that temperature. Cold does not exist. We have created this word to describe how we feel if we have no heat.”
The student continued, “Professor, does darkness exist?” The professor responded, “Of course it does.” The student replied, “Once again you are wrong sir, darkness does not exist either. Darkness is in reality the absence of light. Light we can study, but not darkness. In fact, we can use Newton’s prism to break white light into many colors and study the various wavelengths of each color. You cannot measure darkness. A simple ray of light can break into a world of darkness and illuminate it. How can you know how dark a certain space is? You measure the amount of light present. Isn’t this correct? Darkness is a term used by man to describe what happens when there is no light present.”
Finally, the young man asked the professor, “Sir, does evil exist?” Now uncertain, the professor responded, “Of course as I have already said. We see it every day. It is in the daily example of man’s inhumanity to man. It is in the multitude of crime and violence everywhere in the world. These manifestations are nothing else but evil.” To this the student replied, “Evil does not exist sir, or at least it does not exist unto itself. Evil is simply the absence of God. It is just like darkness and cold, a word that man has created to describe the absence of God. God did not create evil. Evil is not like faith, or love that exist just as does light and heat. Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God’s love present in his heart. It’s like the cold that comes when there is no heat or the darkness that comes when there is no light.”
The young student’s name purportedly was— Albert Einstein. Einstein, himself, neither confirmed nor denied he was the student.
(Michael Michalko is the highly-acclaimed author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses; Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. http://www.creativethinking.net)