Einstein 1938: The Philosophical Background

Reference: Evolution of Physics

This paper presents Chapter I, section 9 from the book THE EVOLUTION OF PHYSICS by A. EINSTEIN and L. INFELD. The contents are from the original publication of this book by Simon and Schuster, New York (1942).

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.

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The Philosophical Background

The results of scientific research very often force a change in the philosophical view of problems which extend far beyond the restricted domain of science itself. What is the aim of science? What is demanded of a theory which attempts to describe nature? These questions, although exceeding the bounds of physics, are intimately related to it, since science forms the material from which they arise. Philosophical generalizations must be founded on scientific results. Once formed and widely accepted, however, they very often influence the further development of scientific thought by indicating one of the many possible lines of procedure. Successful revolt against the accepted view results in unexpected and completely different developments, becoming a source of new philosophical aspects. These remarks necessarily sound vague and pointless until illustrated by examples quoted from the history of physics.

We shall here try to describe the first philosophical ideas on the aim of science. These ideas greatly influenced the development of physics until nearly a hundred years ago, when their discarding was forced by new evidence, new facts and theories, which in their turn formed a new background for science.

In the whole history of science from Greek philosophy to modern physics there have been constant attempts to reduce the apparent complexity of natural phenomena to some simple fundamental ideas and relations. This is the underlying principle of all natural philosophy. It is expressed even in the work of the Atomists. Twenty-three centuries ago Democritus wrote:

By convention sweet is sweet, by convention bitter is bitter, by convention hot is hot, by convention cold is cold, by convention colour is colour. But in reality there are atoms and the void. That is, the objects of sense are supposed to be real and it is customary to regard them as such, but in truth they are not. Only the atoms and the void are real.

The underlying principle of all natural philosophy is to reduce the apparent complexity of natural phenomena to some simple fundamental ideas and relations.

This idea remains in ancient philosophy nothing more than an ingenious figment of the imagination. Laws of nature relating subsequent events were unknown to the Greeks. Science connecting theory and experiment really began with the work of Galileo. We have followed the initial clues leading to the laws of motion. Throughout two hundred years of scientific research force and matter were the underlying concepts in all endeavours to understand nature. It is impossible to imagine one without the other because matter demonstrates its existence as a source of force by its action on other matter.

Throughout two hundred years of scientific research force and matter were the underlying concepts in all endeavours to understand nature.

Let us consider the simplest example: two particles with forces acting between them. The easiest forces to imagine are those of attraction and repulsion. In both cases the force vectors lie on a line connecting the material points. The demand for simplicity leads to the picture of particles attracting or repelling each other; any other assumption about the direction of the acting forces would give a much more complicated picture. Can we make an equally simple assumption about the length of the force vectors? Even if we want to avoid too special assumptions we can still say one thing: the force between any two given particles depends only on the distance between them, like gravitational forces. This seems simple enough. Much more complicated forces could be imagined, such as those which might depend not only on the distance but also on the velocities of the two particles. With matter and force as our fundamental concepts, we can hardly imagine simpler assumptions than that forces act along the line connecting the particles and depend only on the distance. But is it possible to describe all physical phenomena by forces of this kind alone?

With matter and force as our fundamental concepts, we can hardly imagine simpler assumptions than that forces act along the line connecting the particles and depend only on the distance.

The great achievements of mechanics in all its branches, its striking success in the development of astronomy, the application of its ideas to problems apparently different and non-mechanical in character, all these things contributed to the belief that it is possible to describe all natural phenomena in terms of simple forces between unalterable objects. Throughout the two centuries following Galileo’s time such an endeavour, conscious or unconscious, is apparent in nearly all scientific creation. This was clearly formulated by Helmholtz about the middle of the nineteenth century:

Finally, therefore, we discover the problem of physical material science to be to refer natural phenomena back to unchangeable attractive and repulsive forces whose intensity depends wholly upon distance. The solubility of this problem is the condition of the complete comprehensibility of nature.

Thus, according to Helmholtz, the line of development of science is determined and follows strictly a fixed course:

And its vocation will be ended as soon as the reduction of natural phenomena to simple forces is complete and the proof given that this is the only reduction of which the phenomena are capable.

Throughout the two centuries following Galileo’s time science has held the belief, consciously or unconsciously, that it is possible to describe all natural phenomena in terms of simple forces between unalterable objects.

This view appears dull and naive to a twentieth-century physicist. It would frighten him to think that the great adventure of research could be so soon finished, and an unexciting if infallible picture of the universe established for all time.

Although these tenets would reduce the description of all events to simple forces, they do leave open the question of just how the forces should depend on distance. It is possible that for different phenomena this dependence is different. The necessity of introducing many different kinds of force for different events is certainly unsatisfactory from a philosophical point of view. Nevertheless this so-called mechanical view, most clearly formulated by Helmholtz, played an important role in its time. The development of the kinetic theory of matter is one of the greatest achievements directly influenced by the mechanical view.

This mechanical view led to the development of the kinetic theory of matter.

Before witnessing its decline, let us provisionally accept the point of view held by the physicists of the past century and see what conclusions we can draw from their picture of the external world.

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FINAL COMMENTS

To me the basic aim of science is to derive an understanding of nature. When a theory attempts to describe nature, it should do so as accurately as possible. The prerequisite of that accuracy is the ability to see thing as they are. Thus we come to the wider philosophical issue of how we can see things as they are.

Force and distance may be regarded as simple concepts but we are far from fully understanding what these concepts really are.

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