One broadly circulated quote is particularly galling because it so subtly hijacks Einstein’s mystical sensibility (which was genuine and intelligent and nothing like the cozy platitudes of contemporary spirituality) that it sounds like something he might have actually said. A reporter was supposed to have asked Einstein what he felt the most pressing question facing humanity was, and he supposedly responded: “Is the universe a friendly place?” It is impossible to locate a primary source for this quote or any of its several variations, but that doesn’t stop a few undistinguished books from offering a version so ballsy that it creates an appearance of authenticity, with an extended riff from Fake Einstein that includes the following: “If we decide that the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly and that God is essentially ‘playing dice with the universe,’ then we are simply victims to the random toss of the dice and our lives have no real purpose or meaning.” To attribute this to Einstein is wrong on so many levels, not least of which that it completely distorts the meaning of Einstein’s remark about God not playing dice (which he actually did say, but in reference to the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics, not the question of the universe’s “friendliness”). But never mind that, because this piece really isn’t about Einstein; it’s about luck.
The question of whether the universe is a friendly place or not is indeed an important question. Fake Einstein was right. The difference between a universe with some sort of Providential dynamic and one that is completely contingent, accidental and indifferent is vast, and that’s why religious debates are such a weighty part of human history. But the problem with this question as phrased is that it assumes there is only one answer, as if it’s not a matter of perspective. First of all, there’s the difference between a cosmic perspective and a human perspective, a difference the real Einstein grasped fluently. “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists,” he said (in a verifiable quote), “not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” But even in terms of the fate and doings of mankind, it’s still a matter of perspective, because whether the universe can be seen as a friendly place or not has a lot to do with the distribution of luck. That’s what people who quote Fake Einstein generally don’t want to acknowledge.[gn_pullquote align=”right”]If you were to ask the exceptionally lucky person whether the universe is a friendly place or not, they would probably gush about the universe’s generosity, as if their experience were or could be universal.[/gn_pullquote]
If luck is randomly distributed (i.e., if luck actually exists, and is not in fact God in disguise), its distribution is probably going to look something like a bell curve, which is a typical distribution pattern in nature. Most people will have roughly average luck, and smaller numbers will have unusually bad or good luck. At the very ends of the spectrum will be a few people who just seem to come up aces at every turn, and a few others who get the short end of the stick again and again and again. Now if you were to ask the exceptionally lucky person whether the universe is a friendly place or not, they would probably gush about the universe’s generosity, as if their experience were or could be universal (if only everyone just believed, or worked hard enough, or took the right risks, etc.—essentially, the Oprah perspective). And the exceptionally unlucky person would see the world as a place where you’ve got nothing coming but boot-heels and shit-storms, no matter what you do or believe (no spokesperson for this perspective—they don’t get TV shows).
The fact that most people, with lives alternating between good breaks and bad ones, are somewhat ambivalent on the matter of the universe’s friendliness, makes perfect sense. Sometimes it seems friendly, and sometimes it doesn’t. Even beyond the human frame, on the question of whether the universe is friendly to life or not, it’s the same equation: sometimes it is, and sometimes it’s not. When you’re the buck with the harem, strong enough to hold off predators and rivals, the universe is a friendly place. When you get sick and a wolf picks you off, not so much. When you’re a dominant species or genus, expanding dominion across the landscape, the universe is a friendly place. When a comet hits and wipes out the whole lot, it’s decidedly more hostile.
My point here is not to answer the question of whether or not the universe actually is or is not, on balance, “friendly.” It’s to wave a caution flag at the notion that good luck is easy to replicate, and that the experience of an unusually friendly universe can be a common one. You’d think that, based on the mixed-luck experience of most of us, we would already know this. But I think the media landscape skews our perspective. Failures don’t get interviewed in Parade magazine, and no one retweets phony Einstein quotes that say what we don’t want to hear. We’re always tilting towards unwarranted faith, trying to believe that the universe is friendlier than it actually is.[gn_pullquote align=”right”]When someone professes faith in “the universe,” I want to ask them just what aspect of the universe it is that they have faith in.[/gn_pullquote]
Saying this does not make me a pessimist, and it doesn’t mean I think all faith is unwarranted. It’s just that when someone professes faith in “the universe,” I want to ask them just what aspect of the universe it is that they have faith in. Is it the circumstantial aspect, with its disease and disasters and poverty and injustice and all the other manifestations of bad luck that our world is so rife with? Or is it something else—say, our ability to choose our orientation to life despite these vicissitudes of luck? Because that’s the kind of “friendliness” that can be universally experienced, the kind of “friendliness” that can be an object of genuine faith. The real question is this: Is it a friendliness we can recognize as friendliness?
Incidentally, that’s what Fake Einstein actually asked that reporter, but the reporter, who I have on good authority was Brian Williams, misheard him, and said in response, “Yes, I am a friendly place.” So perhaps that settles it.
UPDATE: The day after I finished this piece, I saw this quote in The Week’s Feb. 20, 2015 issue, reprinted from the Springfield, Missouri, News-Leader: “Coincidences are God’s way of remaining anonymous,” by, you guessed it, “Albert Einstein.” Of course Einstein never said any such thing, as far as I can tell—though Doris Lessing may or may not have said it, based on a quick Google search (really, how hard is it to check?)—and he certainly didn’t believe what the quote implies, from the likes of everything I’ve read that he actually said. But whatever, someone said it somewhere, let’s print it. (Speaking of coincidence, it’s no coincidence that this quote, too, subverts the notion of luck. That’s a staple of Fake Einstein quotes. So sleep easy, anxious humans: Fake Einstein says everything happens for a reason!)