Albert Einstein was considered one of the great problem solvers of his generation. His remarks about the universe query scientific and conventional wisdom. Can we discover in his life and innovative beliefs any attitude, aptitude, method or skill suitable for a conflict solver who intervenes in human conflicts?
Young Einstein composed an essay explaining why he would like to study theoretical mathematics or physics: Above all it is my individual disposition for abstract and mathematical thought, my lack of imagination and practical talent. My inclinations have also led me to this resolve. That is quite natural; one always likes to do things for which one has talent. And then there is certain independence in the scientific profession which greatly pleases me. This quotation from Einstein’s adolescence shows his vocation, temperament and early talent for appreciating his own strengths and weaknesses.
Sense of opportunity
Einstein was the only graduate from his department not to find academic work. In 1902 he took a job at the Swiss patent office. He ended up preferring the patent office job because: (1) the pay was better; (2) you could concentrate on publishing quality rather than quantity. An academic career in which a person is forced to produce scientific writings in great amounts creates a danger of intellectual superficiality. While in the patent office he completed an astonishing range of theoretical physics publications. For Einstein, the job at the patent office was an ideal context for creative and free production of ideas in his spare time.
Creativity and Humility
In 1905, at the age of 26, Einstein set forth his theory of relativity which discards the concept of time and space as absolute entities, and views them as relative to moving frames of reference. The same year he postulated light quanta or photons, comparable to energy quanta and on these based his explanation of the photoelectric effect. By 1909 Einstein was recognized as a leading scientific thinker and in that year he resigned from the patent office. In 1911, he asserted the equivalence of gravitation and inertia. In 1916, he completed the mathematical formulation of his general theory of relativity, which included gravitation as a determiner of curvature of space-time continuum and represented gravitation as a field rather than a force. When British eclipse expeditions in 1919 confirmed his predictions, Einstein was idolized by the popular press. The London Times ran the headline: Revolution in science-New theory of the Universe-Newtonian ideas overthrown. In 1921, he won the Nobel Prize for his contributions to theoretical physics, especially for his work on the photoelectric effect.
Einstein spent the last years of his life reclusively working on a new theory, the unified field theory which, however, was not successful. Einstein always regarded his major achievements as mere stepping-stones for the next advance.
Peaceful Solution to Conflicts
While working on the general theory of relativity in 1915, Einstein put down in black and white: All genuine friends of human progress should combat the glorification of war… This, in my opinion, includes everything that goes by the name of patriotism. Einstein was not trapped by the enthusiasm for armed conflict, as were many of his fellow scientists. He maintained: You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war. Throughout his life he repeated his opposition to war and the military system.
Einstein revealed about himself: I always have a high regard for the individual and have an insuperable distaste for violence. All these motives made me into a passionate pacifist and anti-militarist. I am against any nationalism, even in the guise of mere patriotism. I am an adherent of the ideal of democracy, although I well know the weaknesses of the democratic form of government. Although I am a typical loner in daily life, my consciousness of belonging to the invisible community of those who strive for truth, beauty, and justice has preserved me from feeling isolated.
Quantum Mechanics and Conflict Resolution
Modern physics is founded on the theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics. The quantum revolution introduced new physical principles and new dynamical laws. Among the casualties of the revolution were the unquestioned Newtonian mechanics and with it the ancient idea of a deterministic, clockwork universe. Quantum mechanics is the study of the relationship between quanta and elementary particles. The effects of quantum mechanics are typically not observable on macroscopic scales, but become evident at the atomic and subatomic level.
One important consequence of the quantum dynamics was the so called “uncertainty principle” discovered by Werner Heisenberg, a Nobel Prize for Physics in 1932. The formulation of the principle is that if we want to measure the position and the momentum of a particular particle, to do so we must “see’ the particle, and so we shine some light on it. This gives an “uncertainty” in the particle’s position. So, quantum systems do seem to behave differently if we observe them. The subject who observes modifies the object that is observed. This discovery was interpreted by epistemologists as a demonstration that an objective world independent from personal perceptions is not real.
Einstein questioned the above interpretation. Einstein deemed: The man who is thoroughly convinced of the universal operation of the law of causation cannot for a moment entertain the idea of a being who interferes in the course of events —provided, of course, that he takes the hypothesis of causality really seriously. Therefore, no scientist could presuppose that she studies, analyzes, measures and calculates a world whose existence depends on the observer. A scientist operates under the presupposition that an objective world exists, hence Einstein’s famous exclamation: You believe in a dice-playing God.
Understanding that the universe is an objective reality is not a principle that applies to the dynamics of personal conflicts. A conflict solver must elaborate her strategy based on the principle that human conflicts are per essence subjective because they originate always in the dynamics of personal thoughts, emotions and beliefs of the disputants.
The sources of personal conflicts are the result of the perceptions of persons. So, the world of social conflicts and the natural world seem different since they respond to diverse overlapping and cross-crossing networks, fields and forces.
In Einstein’s terminology: Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use. It is the theory which decides what can be observed.
With an exquisite sense of humor and ingenuity Einstein asserted: Gravitation cannot be held responsible for people falling in love. How on earth can you explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love? Put your hand on a stove for a minute and it seems like an hour. Sit with that special girl for an hour and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.
What theories does the conflict solver use to understand human conflict? How does the selection and application of a particular theory shape our understanding of the conflict itself?
Paradigms and simplicity for conflict solution
When his 12-year-old son Edward asked Einstein why he was so famous he received the following response: When a blind beetle crawls over the surface of a curved branch, it doesn’t notice that the track it has covered is indeed curved. I was lucky enough to notice what the beetle didn’t notice.
It is important for a conflict solver to understand that our perceptions vary depending upon where we stand. Einstein had an ever present analytical attitude that supported the process of creating and solving problems. He pronounced: The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.
A conflict solver should never stop questioning and trying new strategies. Einstein is attributed with saying: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different result. The principle that one must try different things to expect different results is a central guide in strategies for conflict resolution.
A conflict solver needs to recognize the contingent and relativistic value of any opinion in a conflict, instead of adopting dogmatic positions. The world around us is colored by our experiences. This is as true of our understanding of nature as it is of our emotions, political opinions or taste in music.
One story Einstein liked to tell about his childhood was of a wonder he saw when he was four or five years old: a magnetic compass. The needle’s invariable northward swing, guided by an invisible force, profoundly impressed the child. The compass convinced him that there had to be something behind things, something deeply hidden. A conflict solver must posses the talent to see and research for that which is invisible.
Defining the Conflict
Einstein adopted a fresh look at old problems. He tackled problem solving with four premises:
a. Problems cannot be solved by the level of awareness that created them.
b. We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.
c. The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.
d. No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it.
These premises brought Einstein to formulate his relativity theory, by looking at the concepts of time and space not as an absolute but as relative to moving frames of reference. The invention of a new framework may be very arduous. That is why Einstein emphasized: If I were given one hour to try to solve the world’s most pressing issue, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem.
Looking at Contexts
In looking for solutions one must be aware of the context where problems exist. Einstein described himself and his life as an element of the contexts to which he belonged. That is why he humbly articulated: A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.
Conflicts always exist in contexts. For a conflict solver the opinion of one party is only the beginning, she must discover the opinion of the other parties and contextualize all opinions.
Only with intuition can a person see beyond the existing conceptual framework. In this context Einstein’s reflection is revealing: Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions. Prejudices tend to inhibit the intuitive intelligence that a conflict solver needs to convert conflict into opportunity.
Einstein had the determination to reconcile the laws of mechanics with the laws of the electromagnetic field, based more in his intuition than in tons and tons of data.
Intuition is an internal process that informs us about how perceptions relate to each other. This takes time and requires interplay of ideas. Intuitive awareness is not just intellectual based. All learning involves sequences of steps, playing with ideas and relating new ideas to old ones. The difference is of emphasis and dominance. Feeling and thinking are two complementary processes to each other and each is essential. When intuition plays a dominant role it can mediate between feeling and intellect. To put it simple in Einstein terms: The intellect has little to do on the road to discovery.
Information for Conflict Resolution
Information and knowledge for conflict resolution of complex problems may not be sufficient. Einstein believed: I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.
While some believe that data is always fundamental for scientific progress, Einstein countered: Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. Paradoxically, more information may be counterproductive in certain situations. Einstein is reputed to allege: Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.
The management of complex problems requires keeping fresh and simple tactics. Einstein noted down: Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. He also wrote: Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.
A variety of Einstein’s insights into scientific phenomena and problem solving were reviewed with the goal of identifying appropriate attitudes, aptitudes, methods and skills that might be useful for negotiated solutions in human conflicts. This task was carried out assuming that a creative conflict solver could gain knowledge of the imaginative paths followed by one of the most recognized intellects of the past century. The result was not the discovery of completely new schemes alien to the prevailing thinking in the field of conflict resolution, but rather the reaffirmation of accepted values and strategies, and the emphasis on novelty and simplicity.
Merri L. Hanson edited and improved this text. Merri is the Director of Peninsula Mediation & ADR in Williamsburg and Hampton, Virginia. www.peninsulamediation.com