Believing that something must be true about the world because you can’t imagine otherwise is, five hundred years into the Age of Science, not a recommended strategy for acquiring reliable knowledge. It goes back to the classic conflict of rationalism vs. empiricism. “Rationalism” sounds good — who doesn’t want to be rational? But the idea behind it is that we can reach true conclusions about the world by reason alone. We don’t ever have to leave the comfort of our living room; we can just sit around, sharing some single-malt Scotch and fine cigars, thinking really hard about the universe, and thereby achieve some real understanding.You would think that the necessity for science to rely on empirical investigation would have been settled centuries ago, but there is a widespread and pernicious academic belief that Copernicus and Einstein proved the superiority of rationalism. As commenter and mathematician Samuel Prime says:
Didn’t Einstein arrive at his two theories of relativity by an approach similar to rationalism? He hardly had much experimental basis for making the postulates he made in these theories. (The tests came some years later.) I think beauty and simplicity were among the driving forces in his rationalism.No, this is a big myth, as rebutted in my comments at the above blog, and in my book.
Samuel's strongest argument for Einstein's priority is that Lorentz credited Einstein:
Further, Lorentz made the following comment regarding Einstein’s relativity:This is really some strained praise for the man who was, by then, the most famous scientist in the world. All new physical theories are heuristic working hypotheses. All work is original if you assume that the author would have reinvented all the work of his predessors.
“I considered my time transformation only as a heuristic working hypothesis. So the theory of relativity is really solely Einstein’s work. And there can be no doubt that he would have conceived it even if the work of all his predecessors in the theory of this field had not been done at all. His work is in this respect independent of the previous theories.”
Lorentz, H.A. (1928), “Conference on the Michelson-Morley Experiment”, The Astrophysical Journal 68: 345-351
Lorentz generously credited Einstein. It is true that Einstein's papers included explanations of some points omitted by Lorentz. Einstein's work can be considered independent of previous theories if you assume that Einstein would have conceived the work of all his predecessors. That is right. But it does not change the facts that those theories were conceived before Einstein, that Einstein only postulated what his predecessors proved, that this was the opinion of Lorentz, Einstein, Minkowski, and everyone else at the time, and that Lorentz credited Poincare over Einstein.