Jump to content


Photo
- - - - -

Einstein's intellectual debt to David Hume


  • Please log in to reply
4 replies to this topic

#1 The Heretic

The Heretic

    Thinking

  • Members
  • PipPip
  • 13 posts

Posted 04 July 2005 - 11:29 PM

(Originally posted here on my boards)

At the end of the OP in this thread i had written the following: "...and Albert Einstein admitted that he could not have the gumption to oppose Newton's immortal status without reading Hume." I first came across this tidbit in Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy, but it was not until now i found more information to substantiate this.

Albert Einstein is notorious for his perceptive insights in physics that changed the field forever, and freed it from the domineering presence of Newton. Nevertheless, what isn't common knowledge is how he arrived at those intuitive theories. To the dismay of those with manifestly anti-philosophy bias, Einstein clearly indicated a debt to the writings of the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume. By ruminating on Humeâ's assertion that mere observation alone couldn't grasp the very laws of nature, Einstein arrived at the theory of relativity. On the brilliant golden standard of the Enlightenment philosophy, Treatise of Human Nature, he wrote, "I studied it with fervor and admiration shortly before the discovery of relativity. It is very well possible that without these philosophical studies I would not have arrived at the solution."

With a circle of friends who called themselves the Olympian Academy, the twenty-something years old Einstein read Hume's Treatise, and was powerfully impacted by this declaration: "Habit may lead us to belief and expectation, but not to knowledge, and still less to the understanding of lawful relations." In other words, people got by with the convenient fictions of habits and instinct during their day-to-day activities. However, those fictions were obstacles for theoretical physicists, given that their speculations often flew in the face of common sense.

The genius of Einstein gave birth to odd truths that contradicted with the very habits and customs of the mind, of which Hume had claimed to anchor us in sanity. The theory of relativity was founded on the counterintuitive idea that time is not a universal standard, that God's clock of the cosmos did not exist. Relativity demonstrated the arbitrariness of absolute time as a conjecture once and for all and nothing more. In closing, we should not take our intuitive beliefs for granted even if they're practical and aids us in our short-term goals.

Here is what i found in this pdf document:
Einstein 1979, p. 50. Elsewhere he included Poincaré together with Hume and Mach in a similar list, noting that he read Hume “in a quite good German edition’ ’ ("in einer recht guten deutschen Ausgabe”) (Einstein - Michele Besso, 6 March 1952), possibly Hume 1895. In 1915, Einstein wrote to Schlick: “You have also correctly seen that this trend of thought [positivism] was of great influence on my efforts, and specifically E. Mach and still much more Hume, whose treatise on understanding I studied with fervor and admiration shortly before the discovery of the theory of relativity. It is very well possible that without these philosophical studies I would not have arrived at the solution” (“Auch darin haben Sie richtig gesehen, dass diese Denkrichtung von grossem Einfluss auf meine Bestrebungen gewesen ist, und zwar E. Mach und noch viel mehr Hume, dessen Traktat über den Verstand ich kurz vor Auffindung der Relativitätstheorie mit Eifer und Bewunderung studierte. Es ist sehr gut möglich, dass ich ohne diese philosophischen Studien nicht auf die Lösung gekommen wäre”) (Einstein to Moritz Schlick, 14 December 1915). In spite of Einstein’s garbled reference to the work that he 8 read, it appears to have been A Treatise of Human Nature (see the reading list of the Olympia Academy, cited below, and Einstein to Michele Besso, 6 January 1948).

#2 Tormod

Tormod

    Hypographer

  • Members
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 14353 posts

Posted 05 July 2005 - 02:32 AM

Interesting post, but does anyone really doubt that Einstein was influenced by Hume? As you point out he said so himself.

#3 Qfwfq

Qfwfq

    Exhausted Gondolier

  • Members
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 6241 posts

Posted 05 July 2005 - 02:34 AM

I don't know these details of Einstein's biography, afaik he could well have read Hume, but a few things are obvious to me:

There had long been a psychological barrier against challenging Newton's mechanics, however the very essence of science had long been anti-dogmatic. Prehaps not many people would have had the nerve, but Einstein was one of them.

The Maxwell equations had revealed an intrinsic difficulty with the principle of relativity, something highly fundamental to Newton's work and considered at least as "sacred" since Galileo and Newton. This alone was already a challenge itself to Newton. In those decades, people were trying just about anything and it would have taken a lot less chutzpah than before Maxwell.

Euclid's geometry had been considered somewhat indisputable, in a likewise manner but for a far longer time, before Riemann.

In short, the mentality of 1905 was no longer quite like that during the previous 200 years, concerning the indisputability of Newton's work, and I would not say that Einstein freed physics from the "domineering presence" of Newton.

Last but not least, Einstein did not in the least trash Newton's work, this is very much a misconception. He simply showed where a few things were missing, causing a few numerical differences, things that no one could reasonably have expected anyone to have been aware of previously. Newton's remained and remains a great achievement, the step previous to Einstein's, just as Galileo's was the step previous to Newton's and, before these, came those of Kepler and Copernicus and, no doubt, the seldom mentioned Al Khawrizmi.

#4 Moronium

Moronium

    Creating

  • Members
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 2894 posts

Posted 10 June 2018 - 12:51 PM


In 1915, Einstein wrote to Schlick: “You have also correctly seen that this trend of thought [positivism] was of great influence on my efforts, and specifically E. Mach and still much more Hume, whose treatise on understanding I studied with fervor and admiration shortly before the discovery of the theory of relativity. It is very well possible that without these philosophical studies I would not have arrived at the solution”

 

 

 

What's not revealed in this brief excerpt is that, within a few more years, after considerably more reflection, Einstein completely repudiated positivism, telling Heisenberg, for example, that it was nonsense.  He came to regard the philosophy of his former inspiration, Mach, with virtual contempt.

 

He was, once again, ahead of his time in doing so.  It took another four decades or so for philosophers of science to abandon positivism as a viable approach to scientific theory.

 

Einstein later admitted to being an 'epistemological opportunist" who adopted whatever epistemology fit his needs at the time.  In 1905 he had a strong a priori conviction that the "principle of relativity" had to be a "law of nature."  He said he had been working on reconciling the Galilean principle of relativity with Maxwell's equations, almost exclusively, for 8 years without success, and was ready to give up entirely.

 

Out of desperation he hit upon the notion of "relative simultaneity,"  and, employing the positivistic notion that time can be reduced to "what a clock reads," he formed his theory of special relativity..  What he didn't really see at the time was that, as he himself said later, this form of positivism actually reduced to solipsism (i.e., Berkeley's maxim that "To be is to be perceived"), a notion which he vehemently rejected later.


Edited by Moronium, 10 June 2018 - 12:55 PM.


#5 Moronium

Moronium

    Creating

  • Members
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 2894 posts

Posted 10 June 2018 - 01:19 PM

See, for example, Franco Selleri's book "Weak Relativity."   An excerpt:

 

The impact of Mach’s positivism was transmitted by the young Einstein. But around 1920 Einstein turned away from positivism because he realized with a shock some of its consequences; consequences which the next generations of brilliant physicists (Bohr, Pauli, Heisenberg) not only discovered but enthusiastically embraced: they became subjectivists. But Einstein’s withdrawal came too late. “Physics had become a stronghold of subjectivist philosophy, and it has remained so ever since.” [Popper]. Popper witnessed Einstein’s radical change of opinion about Mach’s philosophy: “Einstein himself was for years a dogmatic positivist ... He later rejected this interpretation: he told me in 1950 that he regretted no mistake he ever made as much as this mistake.

 

 

http://blog.hasslber..._Relativity.pdf


Edited by Moronium, 10 June 2018 - 01:20 PM.