Einstein and Rational Argument

Reading the essays in Ideas and Opinions, I was struck by Einstein’s variety of expression of different types of ideas.

“E=MC2” 1946 represents Einstein’s scientific writing for a popular audience (with his characteristic clarity of thought). I will not quote him here, since I am sure everyone has observed his skill in explaining scientific ideas.

In “Why Socialism” 1949, he attempts to apply logical reasoning to a political topic. We can still recognize here his scientific bent. “Man is, at one and the same time, a solitary being and a social being. As a solitary being, he attempts to protect his own existence and that of those who are closest to him, to satisfy his personal desires, and to develop his innate abilities. As a social being, he seeks to gain the recognition and affection of his fellow human beings, to share in their pleasures, to comfort them in their sorrows, and to improve their conditions of life. Only the existence of these varied, frequently conflicting strivings accounts for the special character of a man, and their specific combination determines the extent to which an individual can achieve an inner equilibrium and can contribute to the well-being of society. It is quite possible that the relative strength of these two drives is, in the main, fixed by inheritance. But the personality that finally emerges is largely formed by the environment in which a man happens to find himself during his development, by the structure of the society in which he grows up, by the tradition of that society, and by its appraisal of particular types of behavior. The abstract concept ‘society’ means to the individual human being the sum total of his direct and indirect relations to his contemporaries and to all the people of earlier generations. The individual is able to think, feel, strive, and work by himself; but he depends so much upon society—in his physical, intellectual, and emotional existence—that it is impossible to think of him, or to understand him, outside the framework of society. It is ‘society’ which provides man with food, clothing, a home, the tools of work, language, the forms of thought, and most of the content of thought; his life is made possible through the labor and the accomplishments of the many millions past and present who are all hidden behind the small word ‘society.’” (pp. 153-154)

In “Addresses on Reconstruction in Palestine” 1931-32, he does not even try to use a logical argument for a Jewish homeland. He does recognize possible problems, but does not attempt to base his views on an analysis of human nature as he does in the example of his political and moral thinking above.  As a result, he has been shown by subsequent history to be naive in his hopes and expectations. “Our aim is, in accordance with the old tradition of Jewry, a cultural one in the widest sense of the word. That being so, it is for us to solve the problem of living side by side with our brother the Arab in an open, generous, and worthy manner.” (p. 178) “our work of construction has been, and must continue to be, carried out in such a manner as to serve the real interests of the Arab population also. In this way we shall be able to avoid getting ourselves quite so often into the position, disagreeable for Jews and Arabs alike, of having to call in the mandatory power as arbitrator.” (p. 179)

These examples of Einstein’s reasoning move me to ask how broadly methods used in science apply. Einstein himself doubts that the practices of religion are justifiable by methods of science. Here is a careful analysis of Einstein’s views on religion, an atheist’s exegesis of the essay we read, “Science and Religion.”

What about politics and morality? For example, we find ourselves in a great national debate about immigration policy. Can we use logical argumentation and observation (or experience more generally) to justify our choices of how to participate, channeling Einstein in “Why Socialism”? What about public policy more generally? Are there first principles, logical connections, and data analyses that we can avail ourselves of? There is a Swedish researcher who loves to present to non-scientists surprisingly informative patterns of historical trends that may be useful when considering social policy.

Or is it all mere belief? Only to be taken on faith? Are there no reasoned arguments for one immigration policy being better than another? We in this book club (often) attempt to argue rationally about morality of government policies. Are we fooling ourselves? Is it all sound and fury signifying nothing? Or do we argue from the same motivations as when we argue about science?

Politics and morality are thorny. But so was the situation in physics that lead to Einstein’s theories of relativity. We need an Einstein for a theory of politics and morality. Ron Boothe’s story about the Olympia Academy should inspire us to take a crack at it.

I disagree with Einstein on religion, particularly on the importance of something akin to religious faith being necessary for science. “Science  can  only  be  created by  those  who  are  thoroughly imbued  with  the  aspiration towards truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence  are  rational, that  is,  comprehensible  to  reason. I  cannot  imagine a scientist without that profound faith.” Science and Religion, 1939.

One can be motivated by faith, but it is not necessary. One can merely love engaging in rational discourse and observe the results of using scientific methods and be pleased with them. When I arrive at an understanding, be it ever so partial, of a difficult concept in physics, for example, the Minkowski space referred to in “Relativity and the Problem of Space” 1954, I feel an intense positive emotion bordering on thrilling. I also enjoy the thrill of the chase, as I get closer and closer to understanding things. Emotions motivate us to try to understand things, to do science and politics, and religion.

Rationality and scientific methods have evolved with us as their hosts. As long as they continue to benefit us we will accept them. Here is a clear discussion of faith in science that expresses my thoughts well.

I love reading Einstein on science. His ideas on the role of faith in science are quite another thing.

This entry was posted in 2017 Selections, Albert Einstein's Ideas and Opinions. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Einstein and Rational Argument

  1. Ron Boothe says:

    I really appreciate your thoughtful analyses of some of Einsteins ideas, as reflected in the collection of his essays we read in the book club last month. However, there is one issue about which it seems we disagree — Einstein’s assertion that:

    “Science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration towards truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot imagine a scientist without that profound faith.”

    I happen to agree with Einstein’s assertion, while the last two sentences of your essay indicate that you do not.

    The first two sentences of his quote having to do with “truth” and “religion” seem too broad for me to try to deal with in a (relatively) short comment so I am going to ignore those here and try to keep my focus limited to the second two sentences.

    To try to explain why I agree with Einstein, I am going to use an analogy that involves viewing and thinking about films, an activity about which I am passionate (as I was about doing and thinking about science for a period of over 40 years prior to my retirement.)

    Some films, when I view them the first time, leave me with an impression that I did not really understand what was happening in terms of the plot, but that if I were to think about the film hard enough and long enough, perhaps interspersed with multiple additional viewings, I could “make sense of the film” in such a way that I would feel that I “understood it”. (I am not going to try to define these terms in quotes — simply posit that they reflect psychological states I experience.)

    When a film triggers this reaction in me strongly enough that I am motivated to spend a considerable amount of time engaged in the effort and subsequently achieve this feeling of understanding, it leads me to a psychological state of feeling “good/fulfilled/satisfied”. Two examples of films where this happened to me were Memento and Primer.

    However, I have also had a very different, negative, experience engaging in this activity with some other films. Less so in recent years because I usually only engage with films in which there are one or more reviews stating that it is a “serious” film, but these negative experiences happened more frequently in times past when I would pick a film to watch haphazardly. In those negative cases, the conclusion I reached at the end of the process was not that I had failed to understand the film, but that the film was inherently “not understandable” due to various factors involving inconsistencies or lack of continuity in the plot.

    If I were to live in a universe where I knew (lets just posit that I know this somehow) that every film available to watch was of this latter type, I would not personally have any interest in engaging in the activity of “trying to make sense of films”, even if during an initial viewing a film gave the impression of being “understandable.” For me personally, being a passionate film viewer in the sense I have described here necessitates having a “faith” that (at least some) films are “understandable”.

    I think the application of this analogy to being a scientist is probably self-evident. I spent decades of my life passionately thinking about and carrying out scientific projects. I found the life of a scientist to be eminently satisfying, but only because I had “faith” that at least some parts of the physical universe are “comprehensible”, to use Einstein’s term. However, if I were to live in a universe where I knew (lets just posit that I know this somehow) that the universe is completely incomprehensible (all scientific theories and experimental results that appear to show the physical universe being “orderly” or obeying “laws of nature/physics” being merely illusions and or delusions on the part of scientists), then I would not find it personally satisfying to have devoted my life’s work to science.

    It is important to note that neither Einstein’s nor my statements here assert anything about whether or not the “faith” of scientists is objectively true, only that many/most scientists share this faith. Apparently Einstein did, and so do I.


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