Einstein's Last Message: Saving our world by changing how we think


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Why do so many of us, including our politicians, stick to harmful ideas and poor choices? In 1946 Einstein warned that if we don't change the way we think we are likely to destroy ourselves. He was concerned by the prospect of nuclear war, but now we are facing man-induced climate change and broad-scale environmental destruction. So how do we change to think more wisely? Rod O'Connor, a healthcare researcher and cognitive psychologist, outlines a way to decide better. This book won’t guarantee our choices are correct, but it may stop us from acting stupidly. It may even help us save our world.

Introduction: How can we think better?

Early on the morning of the 20th May 1834, near a pond close to the pension Sieur Faultrier in Paris, two men exchanged pistol rounds over a beautiful woman. One was Evariste Galois, a passionate republican and gifted mathematician. He had worked through the night writing a new mathematics known as Group Theory - it describes the symmetries of physics and helps us understand the structure of the universe. Evariste was shot in the stomach. He lay unattended on the grass for several hours, then died the next day. He was twenty years old.[i]

Galois had a genius for explaining. His late-night brilliance added to the store of problem-solving mathematics and science that has passed on to later generations. Yet his thoughts and feelings caused him to act wildly. His involvement in dangerous politics had taken him to jail, and a love affair produced a violent death. It seems a human can be very bright, but still make disastrous choices.

This contradiction characterizes our species. We are brilliant yet destructive, we might call it ‘the Galois paradox.’ We majestically develop remarkable technologies, engineers take us into space, and biologists eradicate diseases. But at the same time, we decide in a way that is self-defeating, even suicidal. We maintain nuclear weapons, choose despotic leaders, engage in war, and destroy other species. We are clever like the deities of old, the ancient Greek, Norse, and Indian gods: inquisitive, creative, and ready to harm. We are so smart we could extinguish most of life on earth, along with ourselves.

Einstein’s message

Einstein was worried about our problematic nature. On the 23rd June 1946, more than a hundred years after the death of Galois, he was interviewed by the New York Times in an article titled "The real problem is in the hearts of men." Here he gave what he called his "message." He said the atomic bomb had altered the nature of the world, and "a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move to higher levels."[ii] In essence, Einstein feared we lacked the wisdom to avoid what may destroy us, a concern he maintained for the rest of his life. In 1955, only days before his death, he signed the Russell–Einstein Manifesto, calling for international disputes to be resolved peacefully.

Since Einstein, people have continued to act dangerously. We have failed to control our poor decisions, making mistakes on a grand scale. To the threat of nuclear war, we have added the perils of environmental destruction and global warming. A traditional hazard has reappeared too - a viral disease pandemic - but we will recover from this (pandemics like COVID 19 have occurred before); in contrast, our people-made dangers threaten to end humanity.

While we face threats that could end us, and have done so for over seventy years, we carry on as before. The behavioral sciences have not found answers - researchers have discovered more about how our brains work, but not how to make decisions for the future. We lack a functional understanding of humankind, practical information that will help us repair and refine our thinking.

This book has been written to help provide that knowledge. It does not aim to be correct in every way but seeks to identify essential elements - those that tell why we harm so readily, and how we can stop destroying our beautiful living planet.

To produce the book, I examined the scientific literature. I collected studies of awareness, creativity, reasoning, emotion, and decision making. But I soon realized that these fragmented studies did not provide a complete picture of how we think and decide – they were too separate from the real world. So I expanded my search, and sought real-life reports of crucial decisions, as occur when life is threatened or at the magical point of a momentous discovery. I also recorded observations made by novelists and playwrights, and, where necessary, drew upon my own experiences.

Having assembled the material, I looked for order. I sought patterns showing how we form options and choose among them. I looked for clusters of elements working together, evidence of overarching decision processes.

And now, I made my first discovery. Whichever way I tried to understand the material, there was another formulation, and the same content, subtly changed in emphasis, could be made to fit that too. I found we have an extraordinary and seemingly unlimited capacity to gather ‘relevant’ information and ‘make sense’ of it. The historian E.H. Carr had noted something similar – he said facts are not like “fish on a fish-mongers slab” but like fish in a vast ocean, where what we catch depends on “where we fish and the tackle we use.”[iii] I would later recognize that this suppleness of mind is both our greatest strength and our most sublime weakness.

Four Russian dolls

Then I made another discovery. I realized the way we make sense changes with the material we are trying to understand. We reason one way if the information concerns the material world, another when trying to understand people, a third when managing the hopes and desires of our inner-self, and a fourth when our sense of right and wrong tells us what to do. These four thinking worlds lie nested within each other, like Russian dolls (matryoshka).

In the following, I report my findings. The material is dense: there is a lot to tell, and it is not always that easy to grasp. But our thought processes are extraordinary, the best inspired and magical, the worst terrifying. And in the weaving together of the various sources of knowledge and insight, there are truths about humans. I show how we can think better - and here lie the keys to save ourselves and nature too.

About the author

Rod O'Connor has a PhD in experimental cognitive psychology, and has consulted for The World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the UK Economic and Social Research Council, and the World Health Organization. He tries to write in a way that is scientifically sound, practical, and entertaining! view profile

Published on August 14, 2020

30000 words

Genre: Psychology

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