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Einstein on theory, logic, reality



Long ago (late 1980s) I attended a lecture by Einstein biographer I. Bernard Cohen. (Cohen actually interviewed Einstein and published it in the Scientific American in the 1955 issue.)

In his lecture, Cohen described Einstein’s view of scientific discovery as a sort of ‘leap’ from experiences to theory. That theory is not logically deduced from experiences but that theory is “jumped at” — or “swooped” is the word Cohen used, I think — thru the imagination or intuition based on our experiences (which of course would/could include experiments). This reminds one of the known Einstein quote that “imagination is more important that knowledge.”

In his book Ideas and Opinions, Albert Einstein said:

“Pure logical thinking cannot yield us any knowledge of the empirical world; all knowledge of reality starts from experience and end in it. Propositions arrived at by purely logical means are completely empty as regards reality. Because Galileo saw this, and particularly because he drummed it into the scientific world, he is the father of modern physics—indeed, of modern science altogether.”

(See Part V of his “Ideas and Opinions” in the section entitled “On the Method of Theoretical Physics.”)

In a related passage from the same section, Einstein noted:

“If, then, it is true that the axiomatic foundation of theoretical physics cannot be extracted from experience but must be freely invented, may we ever hope to find the right way? Furthermore, does this right way exist anywhere other than in our illusions? May we hope to be guided safely by experience at all, if there exist theories (such as classical mechanics) which to a large extent do justice to experience, without comprehending the matter in a deep way?

To these questions, I answer with complete confidence, that, in my opinion, the right way exists, and that we are capable of finding it. Our experience hitherto justifies us in trusting that nature is the realization of the simplest that is mathematically conceivable. I am convinced that purely mathematical construction enables us to find those concepts and those lawlike connections between them that provide the key to the understanding of natural phenomena. Useful mathematical concepts may well be suggested by experience, but in no way can they be derived from it. Experience naturally remains the sole criterion of the usefulness of a mathematical construction for physics. But the actual creative principle lies in mathematics. Thus, in a certain sense, I take it to be true that pure thought can grasp the real, as the ancients had dreamed.”

Note his reference to theory as being ‘freely invented’ (and even ‘illusion’) which echo the role of intuition and imagination in the scientific development of theory (but which are probably not completely divorced from experience either!).

The last two quotes above incidentally can be found online in Standford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Einstein’s Philosophy of Science


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