“It is basic for all physics that one assumes a real world existing independently from any act of perception. But this we do not know...”
EINSTEIN’S VIEWS ON THE NATURE OF REALITY AND OUR ABILITY TO UNDERSTAND IT.
Two letters by Einstein to Mario Laserna Pinzon, the celebrated Colombian mathematician, philosopher, politician, and founder of the University of Los Andes in Colombia. Laserna had met and befriended Einstein during his time studying in the graduate program at Princeton University.
In the first letter, dated September 22, 1952, Einstein is answering Laserna’s request for clarification of Einstein’s views in the hopes of publishing them with his own in a paper that would serve as a “Prolegomena to Physical Science”. Einstein is apparently responding to a draft of the paper, which Laserna has presented as a dialogue between the two. Einstein is also addressing Laserna’s thoughts about “A second paper on the question of external reality dealing with a definition of primary and secondary qualities so as to preserve as objective most of the data we consider so in daily life... It is also based on problems and opinions dealt with in conversations with you.”
It seems that Laserna and Einstein disagree on the connection between reality and concepts/perceptions.
According to Einstein:
“Concepts, as far as they have any basis, are – judged logically – free inventions of the mind (together with propositions connecting them). But those concepts and propositions receive their value and justification exclusively through their only intuitively given connection with perceptions (Erlebnissen). There is no logical way to deduce concepts and propositions from our crude experiences ("induction”). This is equally true for concepts like “red”, “tree”, as for concepts like “distance”, “atom”, etc. The difference lies in the fact that scientific concepts and propositions are mostly brought into connection with sense-perceptions in a more indirect and complicated way. Also the use of numbers does not involve a difference in essence between scientific and common sense methods.”
Apparently Laserna is surprised by Einstein’s answer, which seems to place a solid barrier between the world of concepts/perception and “reality”, for in his subsequent letter to Einstein in December 1954 he returns to the subject.
This time, in his reply from January 8, 1955 (the second letter included here), Einstein is more explicit:
“It is basic for all physics that one assumes a real world existing independently from any act of perception. But this we do not know. We take it only as a programme in our scientific endeavours. This programme is, of course, pre-scientific and our ordinary Language is already based on it.
The concepts body - object and shape are not given to us directly by our sense- impressions but are a result of a mental construct. That this is not so easy to see is only produced by the fact that those steps made by everyone of us in early childhood seem to us logically necessary. But this is not so.”
It seems that Einstein is arguing that concepts and perceptions are not proof of, nor do they necessarily elucidate anything true about, "reality”. Perception is what really matters to us as humans after all; understanding ends with perception. What we don't perceive is not relevant since it is impossible for us to access it. We have to assume, however, a “real” world in order to understand our perceptions. And science, it seems, is involved creating accurate concepts to understand and model those perceptions.
Provenance: Obtained directly from the Laserna family.
Two 8.5x11 in. sheets. The September 22, 1953 letter on Einstein’s “Institute for Advanced Study” letterhead; the January 8, 1955 with his “112 Mercer Street” blind-stamp at top. The first letter with usual folds, some light general toning, and scattered foxing; the second letter with the usual folds, some foxing, and a significant dampstain starting at the bottom right corner and extending into the text.
TWO LETTERS WITH FASCINATING CONTENT IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTANDING EINSTEIN’S WORLDVIEW AND APPROACH TO SCIENCE.