Thursday, July 13, 2017

New Einstein Philosophy book

Philosopher Thomas Ryckman has a new book on Einstein:
Einstein developed some of the most ground breaking theories in physics. So why have you written a book that examines him as a philosopher?

Einstein’s theoretical accomplishments, especially the two theories of relativity, as well as his occasional philosophical pronouncements, had a tremendous impact in shaping the modern discipline of philosophy of science in the first half of the 20th century. Also, throughout his career as a theoretical physicist, Einstein in fact adhered to a particular style of philosophizing, though not in a sense familiar to academic departments of philosophy. I call this a “philosophy of principles”; his central innovations came by elevating certain physical, formal and even metaphysical principles to the status of postulates, and then exploring the empirical consequences.
This is typical of Einstein idolizers crediting him for relativity being such a crucial and revolutionary breakthru.

Lorentz's analysis started with Maxwell's equations, Michelson-Morley, and a couple of other experiments. From these, he deduced that the speed of light was constant, that the same physics holds in different frames, and the Lorentz transformations. FitzGerald, Larmor, Poincare, and Minkowski used similar reasoning.

What set Einstein apart, in the eyes of Ryckman and other philosophers, was that he elevated the constant speed of light and frame-independence principles (from Lorentz and Poincare) to the status of postulates, instead of empirical science. As historian Arthur I. Miller argues, Lorentz and Poincare were willing to admit that experiments might prove the theory wrong, and so Einstein should get all the credit.

This is a backwards view of what science is all about. As Lorentz pointed out, Einstein just postulated what had previously been proved.

Just to be clear, I don't want to criticize new mathematical works. Poincare and Minkowski injected new mathematical ideas and interpretations into relativity, and that was great work. Einstein did not find any new mathematics or physics. He is idolized because he took what was called "principles" in the physics literature, and elevated them to "postulates". That's all. To a mathematician or an empirical scientist, elevating a principle to a postulate is no accomplishment at all.
Einstein was famous for his pacifist views yet set them aside to contribute towards the development of the atomic bomb. This was something he later regretted, campaigning for nuclear disarmament alongside Bertrand Russell. What spurred his, albeit temporary, interest in the development of atomic weapons?
The short answer is that Einstein hated the Germans, and wanted to nuke them. He only regretted the bomb because he was a Communist and opposed the Cold War.
What do you see as his most important contribution to the philosophy of science?

In my opinion, Einstein demonstrates that it is possible to be a “realist” about science without adopting the metaphysical presuppositions of what is today called “scientific realism”. In particular, Einstein balanced the aspirational or motivational realist attitude of many working scientists with the clear recognition that realism remains a metaphysical hypothesis, not demonstrable by empirical evidence.
I thought that I was a realist myself, until I read the nonsense that philosophers write on the subject. Einstein's realism is an incoherent mess, and the philosophers are worse.

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