Albert Einstein was inspired to propose his Theory of Relativity after reading the works of a 18th century Scottish philosopher, it has emerged.London Daily Mail:
A new letter, discovered at the University of Edinburgh shows that the German-born theoretical physicist had studied David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature just before proposing special relativity in 1905.
The groundbreaking theory suggested that the speed of light remained the same even if the observer was speeding up or slowing down, suggesting that time and space therefore could not be constant.
A newly discovered letter from the University of Edinburgh shows that Einstein's Theory of Relativity was inspired by 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume.This view is not really new. The letter was discussed in 2105, and the Hume influence in a 2004 paper.
The letter from the German physicist describes his avid reading of David Hume's 'A Treatise of Human Nature', just before proposing his own theory of special relativity in 1905.
The physicists even admits in the letter that it is 'very possible' that he may not have achieved his theory of relativity were it not for Hume's questions.
Hume was a famous philosopher, historian and economist was known for his ideas of naturalism and scepticism.
His book 'A Treatise of Human Nature', was first published in 1738, sixty-one-years before the birth of Einstein, and in it he questions the idea of time and space being related in the context of science.
Hume writes: 'The chief objection against all abstract reasoning is derived from the ideas of Space and Time. Ideas in everyday life may appear clear and intelligible, but when they pass through the scrutiny of the profound Sciences... they seem full of absurdity and contradiction.'
This is all so absurd. Einstein did not discover special relativity in 1905. He later told interviewers that he had been working on that 1905 paper for about 8 years. The theory that we know today as special relativity was almost entirely the work of Lorentz, Poincare, and Minkowski. Einstein had almost nothing to do with it.
The credit to Hume and Mach is based on Moritz Schlick writing a 1915 essay discussing relativity and Mach's and Hume's philosophies. Einstein wrote a complimentary letter to him at the time, and later wrote:
The type of critical reasoning required for the discovery of this central point [the denial of absolute time, or simultaneity] was decisively furthered, in my case, especially by the reading of David Hume’s and Ernst Mach’s philosophical writings. (Einstein 1949a, 53)But this was just Einstein's way of stealing credit for himself. Saying that he got inspiration from dead philosophers is about like saying that he got inspiration from the Bible or Shakespeare. It is just a sneaky way of denying that his ideas from contemporary relativity publications. It is known that he read Poincare's works on the relativity of time, and what Einstein wrote was the same.
These sorts of myths are promoted by the Einstein idolizers and the anti-positivists.
The anti-positivist angle is not so obvious. Positivists believe that scientific knowledge is based on experiments and reason. The anti-positivists deny this, and say that great geniuses like Einstein can just invent a theory without relying on empirical knowledge, and his ideas will catch on like a big fad.
So they say Einstein invented relativity based on philosophical ideas from decades, or even centuries, earlier.
This is crazy. Everything Einstein said about special relativity was published better and earlier by Lorentz and Poincare, and they explicitly relied on experiments like the Michelson-Morley.
thanks for this interesting post. I think you make a legitimate point. It's not that Einstein read Hume and "Eureka!", discovered special relativity. However, philosophy was one important factor in the formulation of the theory, notably in the process of eschewing absolute time. The philosophical influence is more credible when we compare it to other important factors, like industrialized society in which the theory was worked out, plus a whole lot of math and physics.
If you're interested, Aeon published my essay on this topic: https://aeon.co/essays/what-albert-einstein-owes-to-david-humes-notion-of-time