In which I respond to questions and comments posted on Reddit.
One day, you will find yourself outside this world which is like a mother’s womb. You will leave this earth to enter, while you are yet in the body, a vast expanse, and know that the words, “God’s earth is vast,” name this region from which the saints have come.
Many of my fellow atheists consider all talk of “spirituality” or “mysticism” to be synonymous with mental illness, conscious fraud, or self-deception. I have argued elsewhere that this is a problem—because millions of people have had experiences for which “spiritual” and “mystical” seem the only terms available.
Of course, many of the beliefs people form on the basis of these experiences are false. But the fact that most atheists will view a statement like Rumi’s, above, as a sign of the man’s gullibility or derangement, places a kernel of truth amid the rantings of even our most gullible and deranged opponents.
(Albert Einstein lecturing in Vienna in 1921)
In my last post, I suggested that Einstein shared my skepticism about free will. Nothing in my argument turned on this, of course: Several great physicists have believed in free will, and Einstein got many things wrong, both inside and outside of physics. One doesn’t argue these points on the basis of authority in any case—and this is what distinguishes science and philosophy from religion. Respecting one’s elders, however brilliant, is no substitute for making sense.
Nevertheless, it is generally interesting to know what great scientists believe. And a helpful reader has called my attention to the fact that Einstein viewed the connection between scientific and moral truth in terms similar to those I argue for in The Moral Landscape (thanks Matt!).
In the following essay, Einstein endorses a strong conception of moral truth, founded on axioms, and focused on the well-being of humanity. While he does not discuss progress in neuroscience and psychology—which, I maintain, makes the separation between ethics and science ultimately unsustainable—he seems to consider ethical truth to be on all fours with the truths of mathematics and the rest of science.
I have added a few footnotes to clarify points of interest.
The Laws of Science and The Laws of Ethics
By Albert Einstein
Science searches for relations which are thought to exist independently of the searching individual. This includes the case where man himself is the subject.  Or the subject of scientific statements may be concepts created by ourselves, as in mathematics. Such concepts are not necessarily supposed to correspond to any objects in the outside world. However, all scientific statements and laws have one characteristic in common: they are “true or false” (adequate or inadequate). Roughly speaking, our reaction to them is “yes or “no.”
(The one who does not judge, by h. koppdelaney)
There are many forms of introspection and mental training that go by the name of “meditation,” and I have studied several over the years. As I occasionally speak about the benefits of these practices, people often write to ask which I recommend. Given my primary audience—students of science, secularists, nonbelievers, etc.—these queries usually come bundled with the worry that most traditional teachings about meditation must be intellectually suspect.
It is true that many contemplative paths ask one to entertain unfounded ideas about the nature of reality—or at the very least, to develop a fondness for the iconography and cultural artifacts of one or another religion. Even an organization like Transcendental Meditation (TM), which has spent decades self-consciously adapting itself for use by non-Hindus, can’t overcome the fact that its students must be given a Sanskrit mantra as the foundation of the practice. Ancient incantations present an impediment to many a discerning mind (as does the fact that TM displays several, odious signs of being a cult).
But not all contemplative paths kindle the same doubts or present the same liabilities. There are, in fact, many methods of meditation and “spiritual” inquiry that can greatly enhance our mental health while offering no affront to the intellect.
For beginners, I always recommend a technique called vipassana (Pali, “insight”), which comes from the oldest tradition of Buddhism, the Theravada. The advantage of vipassana is that it can be taught in an entirely secular way. Experts in this practice generally acquire their training in a Buddhist context, of course—and most retreat centers in the U.S. and Europe still teach its associated Buddhist philosophy. Nevertheless, this method of introspection can be brought within any secular or scientific context without embarrassment. The same cannot be said for most other forms of “spiritual” instruction.