“Destiny assigns to different men different paths by which to arrive at their notion of divinity. To some, such as Socrates, Kant, or Gandhi, it was given to know God through the moral nature of man. To others, as in the case of Spinoza, the road to divinity was by way of intellectual love. To Einstein it was given to arrive at God by way of purely physical reality. Therein lies the unique significance of his approach to universal problems: he trod the relatively humble path of physical science to reach the heights of an almost mystical union with the divine. Einstein arrived at the Absolute by revealing the universal reign of relativity. His original aim, as he himself tells us, was to arrive at certain universal standards that would be true not for this or that observer, but for every observer anywhere in the physical universe. The result was his discovery that the absolute itself was relative.
“To understand the immense significant of that discovery is to understand Einstein, and his unique contributions to our knowledge of reality; and no one who fails to understand this understands Einstein as he wished himself understood, for which I have evidence in my own correspondence with him.” -Max Fishler, “The Universe of Albert Einstein”.
AN IMPORTANT LETTER FOR UNDERSTANDING EINSTEIN’S SCIENTIFIC METHOD AND THE PHILOSOPHICAL APPROACH THAT ALLOWED HIM TO MAKE DISCOVERIES THAT WOULD RESHAPE OUR VIEWS OF THE UNIVERSE.
How Einstein’s philosophy of science guided his scientific achievements:
“Einstein's influence on twentieth-century philosophy of science is comparable to his influence on twentieth-century physics [and] of special note is the manner in which Einstein's philosophical thinking was driven by and contributed to the solution of problems first encountered in his work in physics” (Don A. Howard, “Einstein’s Philosophy of Science,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
Einstein was deeply immersed in the philosophical underpinnings of science and made the critical choice to question and challenge them. As he explained in a letter from 1944: “A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is—in my opinion—the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth” (quoted in Howard).
In an earlier letter to Max Fishler, Einstein specifically rejects what was, for years, one of the most dominant modes of thought in the Western World and the most widely accepted starting point for acquiring knowledge of the natural world, Immanuel Kant’s definitions of “a priori” truths: “analytic propositions, which derive from logic and ‘reason itself’ rather than from observing the world” (Isaacson, Albert Einstein). This rejection by Einstein freed him to re-imagine the accepted definitions of such critical components of reality as “time” and “space” to create his theories of both special and general relativity.
In rejecting the Kantian “a priori” model, Einstein, one might assume, would be advocating for a science based purely on data, information, or more broadly (as he defines it in the present letter) “sense-experiences”. This approach, however, led more directly to a different path of knowledge-acquisition in the twentieth-century, a path also at odds with Einstein’s methods: the influential Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory. As the American physicist David Mermin, explained, “If I were forced to sum up in one sentence what the Copenhagen interpretation says to me, it would be 'Shut up and calculate!'”, an interpretation in stark contrast to Einstein’s quest for more qualitative truths (Mermin, “What’s Wrong with this Pillow?”).
Einstein, rather, advocated for a more hybrid approach. As he explained in a 1918 address celebrating Max Planck's sixtieth birthday:
“The supreme task of the physicist is … the search for those most general, elementary laws from which the world picture is to be obtained through pure deduction. No logical path leads to these elementary laws; it is instead just the intuition that rests on an empathic understanding of experience” (quoted in Howard).
Years later, in 1954, Einstein more explicitly identifies how his scientific method, grounded in “intuition that rests on an emphatic understanding of nature” but necessarily becoming more abstract, led to his monumental theory of relativity:
“The theory of relativity is a beautiful example of the basic character of the modern development of theory. That is to say, the hypotheses from which one starts become ever more abstract and more remote from experience. But in return one comes closer to the preeminent goal of science, that of encompassing a maximum of empirical contents through logical deduction with a minimum of hypotheses or axioms. The intellectual path from the axioms to the empirical contents or to the testable consequences becomes, thereby, ever longer and more subtle. The theoretician is forced, ever more, to allow himself to be directed by purely mathematical, formal points of view in the search for theories, because the physical experience of the experimenter is not capable of leading us up to the regions of the highest abstraction” (ibid).
It was this hybrid approach, reflecting a delicate interplay between experience and abstraction, that allowed Einstein to become a true “seeker of truth,” an artist who used his startling imaginative abilities – manifested most acutely in thought experiments, predictions, and unifying seemingly disparate elements of nature – to revolutionize our understanding of the world.
Einstein’s letter to Max Fishler is one of his clearest presentations of his scientific philosophy. Dated April 1, 1954, the letter, on Einstein’s embossed Mercer Street letterhead, reads in full (in English translation from the original German):
Mr. Max Fishler
336 No. Sierra Bonita Ave.
Los Angeles 36, Calif.
Most honored Mr. Fishler:
It is actually impossible to me to reply to all the incoming letters, even the most pertinent ones. In your case, one deals in a field wherein it is almost inevitable to be at cross-purposes with each other. I do wish, nevertheless, to try to summarize my meaning in a few sentences.
1) All concepts are “subjective” (or, better “not empirical”) in the sense that their formation is often aroused by experience but are never logically postulated. This holds for the time-space concepts as well.
2) Concepts may appear as empirical when we become aware of the role that sense-experiences may have played in their construction. This is the case in the space-time concepts. The empiricists base themselves on this.
3) The space-time concepts are in the same sense empirical or not-empirical as the concept “corporeal object” whose construction precedes the space-concept.
One can so treat space-time concepts axiomatically as to have in view only the logical relationships among the concepts and not their relationships to experiences. So regarded, the space-concepts have no relationship to experiences. (This is obviously not what Kant had in mind).
With friendly greetings,
In the letter Einstein explains his hybrid approach. He makes the critical distinction that “concepts” such as space-time are neither exclusively empirical as many of his contemporaries would wish (although he warns they may “appear as empirical”), but rather “subjective”, but not in the Kantian sense of “a priori” truths. The concepts are, rather “aroused by experience” and “never logically postulated”. He concludes the letter with what is perhaps a warning that if space-time concepts are treated “axiomatically” – with relationships only among themselves – they may become close to Kantian a priori’s and “have no relationship to experiences.”
The recipient Max Fishler was an author who, at the time of this letter, was considering writing a book on Kant’s philosophy with respect to the discoveries of relativity. Although he had lectured at least once on the topic, he never completed his book. He did, however, publish a later (1958) volume, What the Great Philosophers Thought about God containing a chapter on Immanuel Kant.
Provenance: Originally sold in 1964 as part of Parke Bernet’s March 31 sale of Manuscripts and Maps including “Important Einstein Correspondence”.
Typed Letter Signed [TLS] in German, signed “A. Einstein” in black ink. One 8.5x11 inch sheet with Einstein’s Mercer Street address embossed at top, written on recto only. One manuscript addition in Einstein’s hand. With original envelope and English translation. Housed in custom presentation folder. Expected folds, otherwise fine.
A FASCINATING LETTER ADDRESSING THE CORE ISSUES OF SCIENTIFIC PHILOSOPHY.