Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Einstein rejected positivism

I defend logical positivism, so I disagree with all the modern philosophers and theoretical physicists who reject positivism.

Einstein said:
I am not a positivist. Positivism states that what cannot be observed does not exist. This conception is scientifically indefensible, for it is impossible to make valid affirmations of what people ‘can’ or ‘cannot’ observe. One would have to say that ‘only what we observe exists’which is obviously false.

Albert Einstein in an interview with Alfred Stern, Contemporary Jewish Record 8, 245–9 (1945); also in A. Calaprice, ed., p. 253
No, Einstein is wrong.

Positivism does not say "what cannot be observed does not exist." Positivism does not try to describe things that are unobservable or nonexistent. Those are metaphysical issues that positivism was invented to avoid.

Einstein's biggest influence was to turn theoretical physicists from positivists to anti-positivists. The anti-positivists are always making pronouncements about things that cannot be observed or tested. It is the modern equivalent of arguing about "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?".

Science is all about explaining what can be observed or tested. Once you start debating the existence of things that can never be observed anyway, you have left science. Such questions are meaningless, in the sense that no one can prove you right or wrong.

The positivist conception is the core of science, so of course it is scientifically defensible. Einstein's view is not. We can make all sorts of valid affirmations about what we can or cannot observe. Most of science is about what we can observe. There are also lots of examples of what we cannot observe, with famous examples being Heisenberg uncertainty (cannot simultaneously observe position and momentum of an electron precisely), and black holes (cannot observe any dynamics inside the event horizon). A simpler example is that you can burn a letter to make it unreadable.

Special relativity is the main reason Einstein is considered a great genius, and the main reason he gets credit is that he denied the existence of the aether. He did not really deny the aether any more than Lorentz did, but people think he did.

Poincare had the more correct posture. He said that the aether was unobservable, but it is convenient for some purposes.

So Einstein is more famous because he said that the aether does not exist, but he later denied that it is possible to ever say that something is or is not observable!

I would have thought that Einstein's bad philosophy would be abandoned by now, but the opposite is true. More and more, physicists insist on making big claims about parallel universes, strings, and other unobservables.


  1. Einstein did once say:

    “does that mean the Moon is not there when I am not looking at it”.

    Roger, while I understand that as far as SCIENCE goes, we are limited to what we can observe, it is laughable to think that only what we can observe is affecting us, maybe more directly than you realize. Not knowing that bacteria existed did not stop it from killing people. When most people believed the earth was a flat disk, did that make it so? Or did the reality exist independently of whether or not someone knew what it was? Being that even blind people know that what you can't see can kill you, I think it's safe to say that unobserved reality is still pretty concrete, as the wall does not ask for your notice or for your permission to crush your nose if you walk into it.

    I am of the school that reality does not require you to observe it for it to exist, this relieves humanity of the horrible burden of having to worry about observing everything that is affecting us gravitationally in order to make our planet move the way it does through the cosmos. Can we say things about which we do not know? Yes, as a wise man knows he is aware of precious little of all there is to know.

    1. "only what we can observe is affecting us"

      Anything causing an effect is measurable. It's baked into the notion of an effect. Think it over.

    2. I've thought it over, and your premise is faulty. It assumes an enormous amount about the nature of causality. There is an entire field of physics that deals with "semi" or "weakly" measurable qualities. In general, one can think of the effect of a single theorized graviton- might not be sufficient to effect any given measurement. However, when the influence of zillions of gravitons is summed over time- it can effect the trajectory of a particle such that a measurement is altered.

      The gravitational force is about 36 orders of magnitude
      weaker than the electromagnetic force. This is called the hierarchy problem in fundamental physics.

  2. Yes, germs can kill you even if you do not see them.

  3. If you observe only two points P1 and P2 you can define one straight line but you can think of many others curves - which you cannot define - that contain the two points; however, after you observe the third point P3 you can construct a more complex model beyond the straight line.

  4. Do you have a post giving your opinion on Popper?

    1. May I suggest the philosopher David Stove when it comes to Popper. Here is a simply refutation that will save you time: Popper says views are falsifiable but this ignores how we come to suggest any view in particular. For instance, two views can explain the same thing but be mutually exclusive. Therefore, induction is more important than deduction. Popper isn't really a positivist.

  5. Popper's name comes up occasionally as the last philosopher of science who had any sense. But he was not really a positivist, as explained here and here. So I do not really agree with his outlook of science.

  6. My analysis of "motion" started with absolute Space and Time, and the motion that goes on within this absolute space and time environment. The outcome of this analysis was an independent discovery of Special Relativity(SR). I also independently derived all of the SR equations, including the Lorentz transformation equations. The method in which I derived these equations involved a simple geometry which included the simultaneous stacking of both "motion vectors" and "length scalars".

    "Absolute Motion" that is ongoing within an "Absolute Space-Time" environment, produces the outcome of the SR phenomena.

    However, as SR predicts, absolutes such as absolute motion, absolute rest, etc, can not be detected. As a consequence of this, these absolutes are completely ignored, thus the absolute foundation of which SR resides within, is not taught in schools at all. Thus when ever I point out the absolutes of which SR resides within, verbal bullets come flying at me by the dozens.

    See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KKAwpEetJ-Q&list=PL3zkZRUI2IyBFAowlUivFbeBh-Mq7HdoQ

  7. I like that you are criticizing Einstein as a philosopher- and I agree with some of your assessments. However, Einstein was more a civil rights activist and socio-economic theorist than a philosopher.

    What I find hilarious is all the people who try to "disprove" GR without having even a solid high-school physics education- and seem to have a weak understanding of what a theory is. Somehow, they think they will succeed where tens of thousands of the world's best physicists have failed. Here is a summary of the current state of affairs (it was published in Nature in 2021, which is as canonical as you can get in science):

    "The best model currently available to describe gravity is the general theory of relativity. This theory has not failed any test so far, but something is odd about it, because it cannot [yet] be explained in terms of quantum mechanics. ... A further mystery is that the gravitational force is about 36 orders of magnitude
    weaker than the electromagnetic force. This is called the hierarchy problem."

    GR has been validated more than any physical theory has. Its sort of the "Gold Standard" of physics. That isn't to say it can't be improved upon- but any theory that replaces it will have to make the exact same predictions for all the phenomena that it touches upon- including newly detected stuff, like gravitational waves.