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“There’s a Cat in the Library!” William James and Albert Einstein’s spiritual insight

One of the best parables told by America’s greatest psychologist of the early 20th century, William James, who tells a story about a  cat that loved to hang out at the library. The cat knows all the comfortable places; he knows how to get in and get out; he knows how to identify all the individual nooks and crannies. To the cat, the library is familiar territory; it probably feels quite proud that it masters all that it surveys—except for one thing: the cat hasn’t a clue that the library is a place where readers expand their knowledge of the universe, or enjoy reading as a delightful pastime.

William James likens the materialistic scientist of his age (but the analogy would apply no less to many of the scientists of our present day as well), to the cat of our parable. James explains further, “‘Here is the universe,’ he says to himself. All of its phenomena are determined and defined by the laws of nature. There are no longer any mysteries or secrets; a few questions here and there may still remain unanswered, but ultimately we know what lies behind it all, because we know the fundamental laws of physics.” But not all humanistic scientists share this kind of attitude; there are those who view science as never-ending search, and who believe that the universe has a great many aspects of which we are still unaware, or which at least have not yet been formulated scientifically.”

James’ idea is thought-provoking. Yes, the universe is like a library full of knowledge and consciousness is the key to self-knowledge.  The mysteries that suffuse the universe–especially from a Maimonidean perspective–seems to strongly suggest us that the universe does not necessarily revolve around puny humanity. Of course many Jewish thinkers like Saadia Gaon and Nachmanides see the cosmos as an essentially anthropocentric enterprise, but personally, I find Maimonides’ attitude much more intriguing and realistic. Could there be parallel earths? Several scientists and quantum scholars seem to think this is a distinct possibility–even though there is no empirical evidence that this is so.

Einstein may have had James’ parable in mind when he wrote, “The human mind is not capable of grasping the Universe. We are like a little child entering a huge library. The walls are covered to the ceilings with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written these books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. But the child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books – a mysterious order which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects.”[2]

The human child may not have a real grasp of the library is either, but at least he realizes or senses that the library contains more information than he can possibly imagine. Unlike the cat, the human child realizes that each book tells a story—whether he understands that particular story may not be so clear to the young person at his age, but he knows that as his mastery of language and ideas improve, eventually he will be able to enjoy any book he desires to read. The cat, on the other hand, will always remain a cat.

Einstein’s advice for laypeople and commoners is especially relevant today:

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery–even if mixed with fear—that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our  minds—it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.” [3]


[1] Cited from Ephraim E. Urbach, Robert Brody, Moshe D. Herr, Collected Writings in Jewish Studies (Jerusalem: Hebrew University Magnes Press, 1999), 29.

[2]  Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions.

[2] Albert Einstein, The World as I See It (New York: Philosophical Library, 1934), 15.



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