Albert Einstein once said,

Strange is our situation here on Earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other men - above all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness depends.

This seems to be a view that follows from the Anthropic principle. In the statement, what does he mean by the phrase "to divine a purpose"?

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    As a transitive verb, to divine something can mean to come to know or guess it by reflection; it's not necessarily related to a god. See the definition at thefreedictionary.com/divine.
    – JDH
    Dec 8, 2013 at 14:35
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    He doesn't say "divine purpose" anywhere; what he said was "to divine a purpose", which means that some people seems to be making up a purported purpose out of thin air where it appears (to him) that there is none or should be none.
    – Lie Ryan
    Dec 8, 2013 at 15:15
  • While Einstein may be considered a philosopher by many, you are asking for the definition of an English phrase; questions like this may be better suited for English.SE, unless you happened to think that the wording used is unique to the discipline of philosophy (in this case, it's not).
    – stoicfury
    Dec 10, 2013 at 6:21
  • @JDH: that is true, but the association of divine with divinity, in the context of what he's talking about gives the word a heavier import and significance that say the word 'find' does. Mar 10, 2014 at 22:53

4 Answers 4


“To divine a purpose” just means to identify a purpose, or to think one has recognized a purpose, and in this case a purpose for living or a purpose of being alive. Einstein probably chooses the word “divine” here because it avoids the connotations of verbs like “discover” or “uncover” which would suggest that that purpose is real, while also avoiding the connotations of verbs like “imagine” or “create” which would suggest that the purpose is unreal. “Divine” splits the difference between these, and also is ambivalent about whether the thinking that leads to that purpose is rational or not, as it contains a connotation that the thinking might not be rational. That is, I think Einstein intends to leave it unsettled whether there is a real further purpose or not, and unsettled whether it is possible to reason about purpose or whether establishing purpose is a creative or imaginative act. He just notes that we sometimes think we find purposes in life.


if divine = godly god = creator

to divine = to create or to make up

I did ask: https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/156589/divine-a-purpose-a-divine-purpose

And what makes the most sense to me is: Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to perceive a purpose.

  • “Divine” in this sentence is not an adjective. It's a verb. It means to learn by guessing or intuiting. Mar 10, 2014 at 16:44
  • That would make this sentence into guessing or making your way as you go. Pretty close to creating your own way. Do you have a reference for that somewhere? I could not find any. Mar 10, 2014 at 16:46
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    New Oxford American Dictionary: “divine, verb [ with obj. ] discover (something) by guesswork or intuition” Mar 10, 2014 at 16:48

In the statement, what does he mean by the phrase "to divine a purpose"?

To 'divine' a purpose is to act as a god: it is to tell a story that shapes reality according to one's will. From George Herbert's A Dialogue-Anthem:

                              Christian, Death

Chr.   ALAS, poor Death ! where is thy glory ?
          Where is thy famous force, thy ancient sting ?
Dea.   Alas, poor mortal, void of story !
          Go spell and read how I have killed thy King.

Chr.   Poor Death ! and who was hurt thereby ?
          Thy curse being laid on Him makes thee accurst.
Dea.   Let losers talk, yet thou shalt die ;
          These arms shall crush thee.

Chr.                                                 Spare not, do thy worst.
          I shall be one day better than before ;
          Thou so much worse, that thou shalt be no more.

We can see this as Death claiming the final right of telling a story (Star Trek TNG: All Good Things...):

All good things must come to an end.

The Christian retorts:

Your power was lost by attempting to kill God, opening the way for mortals to become gods.

Suppose, however, that the Christian is wrong. Then the power we do have is to tell a story that will last until death. In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker describes people who attempt a "sui generis project", which will allow the person to somehow "live forever". You can think of this as a "legacy which lasts forever". What happens if we take a step down from this "sui generis project"? I suggest that is approximately where Einstein lies:

man is here for the sake of other men - above all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness depends.

This is a pretty standard enlightened self-interest stance. It says that I will live for a finite period of time, and therefore there are ways to optimize my experience in life over that finite time period. While helping an orphan in India may have benefited Einstein, there were likely higher pay-offs closer to him, ways he could spend his time which would more likely benefit his short timespan for here. In this way, it is easier to understand the seeming insanity of Jesus':

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?

If you are here on earth for but a short time before Death claims you, why spend too much effort enhancing the lives of those who won't likely enhance your own life? Now, we know that giving to others produces happiness, so this "enlightened self-interest" thing is more complicated than many indicate. However, every action has an opportunity cost; help too many orphans and you will spend miss opportunities to build relationships with other scientists and unlock the secrets of the universe. This may be more important than we think; see Richard Hamming's You and Your Research, in which he emphasizes the importance of dedicating one's time to science, in and out of the lab.

Anyhow, Einstein is describing the development of a story which arises from his will, that can fit into the constraints of a finite life on earth. This would be a god-like act if Einstein could have lived forever. As such, it sort of falls short; hence the common usage of the verb 'divine'.


Other quotes I have found say "to a divine purpose" not "to divine a purpose". What source is the original quote taken from? In my simple mind, the word divine as defined by google dictionary means "of, from, or like God or a god". So divine purpose means godlike or God given purpose.

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    That is one definition of the word 'divine' used as an adjective. 'Divine' is also used as a verb to mean 'to discover by intuition' and that is how it is used in the original quote. Can you link to your sources that say "to a divine purpose" ?
    – Not_Here
    Apr 25, 2017 at 15:51

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