0 0 Colin McGinn Colin McGinn2017-07-18 21:57:402017-07-18 21:57:40Einstein
I’ve been reading Thomas Ryckman’s careful and informative book on Einstein’s philosophy. He strongly opposed Newton’s absolute space and time for Machian reasons, as he also opposed unobservable causes. What I’d like to know is whether he followed Mach into other positivist claims–about other minds, the past, the future, ethics, atomism, the self.
atoms no… Einstein with Perrin killed off the physicist’s skepticism about atoms : http://advlabs.aapt.org/bfy/files/AJPBrownianPaper.pdf. However this skepticism was already marginal before Einstein — perhaps Poincaré was the most important hold-out in the scientific world. (An absolute giant in mathematics)
The experimental situation was much clearer in the early 20’th century than in the late 19’th… equipment gets more sensitive with time.
Einstein went much further, he also said that light could also have a “atomistic” nature. This got him his Nobel prize for contributions to quantum mechanics. He thus invented the “light particle”, or photon which is still quite hard to rationalize.
The British school was there far earlier — Maxwell in 1860 was already doing fantastic mathematical work with the idea of atoms .
Yes, but positivism has a problem with all “unobservables”–hence instrumentalism. So why is Einstein so convinced that space can’t be absolute (absolute motion not being observable) but doesn’t mind the unobservability of atoms and other things? Why can’t absolute space and time be theoretical posits? He seems like an inconsistent positivist (the usual position with positivists).
Having finished the book, I’m struck by Einstein’s different attitudes towards relativity theory and quantum theory: he opposes positivism about the latter but relies on it for the former.
Regarding your July 20 comment: I think it’s safe to say that by 1905 the concepts of absolute space and time were causing theoretical problems (due to the constancy of the speed of light) while the concept of the atom presented a theoretical solution (to the problem of Brownian motion).
As for being an inconsistent positivist, Einstein admitted it. In 1949 he wrote that the scientist “must appear to the systematic epistemologist as a type of unscrupulous opportunist: he appears as realist insofar as he seeks to describe a world independent of the acts of perception; as idealist insofar as he looks upon the concepts and theories as free inventions of the human spirit (not logically derivable from what is empirically given) as positivist insofar as he considers his concepts and theories justified only to the extent to which they furnish a logical representation of relations among sensory experiences. He may even appear as a Platonist or Pythagorean insofar as he considers the viewpoint of logical simplicity as an indispensable and effective tool of his research.”
Good quote: but then his theories reflect each of these contrasting (inconsistent!) viewpoints.