Summary: Einstein vs. Logical Positivism by Rossen Vassilev Jr.

The original article can be found at:

Vassilev begins his article by pointing out that Logical Positivism was a philosophical movement that originated in the 1920s. Arguably its most critical mission was to establish the same methodology of science and mathematics for other fields, particularly philosophy. The logical positivists dismissed any and all ‘non-scientific’ speculation from genuine analysis or explanation. They insisted that such statements were literally meaningless; only statements that could be logically verified or corroborated through experiment/observation have meaning. This was known as the Principle of Verification (or Verification Principle) and was the driving philosophical and epistemological force behind the Vienna Circle (a particularly influential group of logical positivists).

According to the Principle of Verification, the meaning of any statement lies in its method of verification. Moreover, statements about, say, God or art or ethics would all suddenly be technically meaningless according to the logical positivists. Logical positivists were excited at this prospect because they were very much committed Naturalists. But not all philosophers were on-board with their philosophical approach or its underlying intentions.

Karl Popper was just one of many critics of Logical Positivism. He countered the Principle of Verification with the argument that no number of instances, regardless of how high, could ever conclusively establish the truth or falsity of a claim or statement. He gave the example of ‘All swans are white.’ But a black swan has, in fact, been discovered despite the numerous instances of white swans being seen prior to that point in time. Moreover, he asserted that what marks a hallmark scientific theory is not that it is irrefutable, but that it is falsifiable. Truly scientific theories ought to make concrete and specific predictions based on experimental data or observations that can either be falsified (i.e. shown to be wrong) or corroborated (i.e. tentatively accepted until more or later data is available).

Despite the staunch opposition to logical positivism’s Principle of Verification, Vassilev observes that the logical positivists took Einstein’s theoretical revolution in physics as vindication and evidence for their own philosophical views. Quoting John Earman, he writes, “a brief examination of the actual history of logical positivism reveals that one of its most fundamental inspirations is precisely this Einsteinian revolution. The early writings of the logical positivists – of Schlick, Reichenbach, and Carnap, in particular – all focus on the theory of relativity, a theory whose revolutionary impact is explicitly recognized in the course of a polemic against their philosophical predecessors” (Inference, Explanation and Other Frustrations, p. 85, 1992).

This smug self-assurance poorly disguised as vindication was nowhere more apparent than in the tendency of what Lee Smolin refers to as “virtuosity in calculating over reflection on hard conceptual problems.” But what was the underlying reason for this arrogance? Einstein apparently said something in passing that really resonated with some of his followers and pupils. Not only was he supremely confident that his theory would be demonstrated to be true, but also, he stated: “Our experience hitherto justifies us in believing that nature is the realization of the simplest conceivable mathematical ideas. I am convinced that we can discover by means of purely mathematical constructions the concepts and the laws connecting them with each other.” It is not hard to see how this virtuosity arose.

Commenting on the general trends in Cosmology and Astronomy following Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Smolin states:

“New theories have been posited and explored, some in great detail, but none has been confirmed experimentally. And here is the crux of the problem: in science, for a theory to be believed, it must make a new prediction – different from those made by previous theories – for an experiment not yet done. For the experiment to be meaningful, we must be able to get an answer that disagrees with that prediction. When this is the case, we say that a theory is falsifiable – vulnerable to being shown false. The theory also has to be confirmable; it must be possible to verify a new prediction that only this theory makes. Only when a theory has been tested and the results agree with the theory do we advance the theory to the ranks of true theories” (The Trouble with Physics, p.xiii).

As Vassilev explains more directly: “although many of the ground-breaking and highly exotic ideas coined by Einstein’s scientific successors – such as white holes, wormholes, dark matter, dark energy, subatomic strings, parallel universes, hidden dimensions of spacetime, and gravitational waves – may appear in the mathematical equations and calculations of theoretical physicists, in most cases no evidence has yet been found in the observable Universe to confirm their existence.

Two of these problematic theories that have since gained the public’s attention, but suffer from a lack of empirically verified or corroborated evidence, include the Many Worlds Hypothesis (aka the Multiverse Theory) and the Inflationary Theory of Cosmology. Neither of these, according to Smolin, is properly supported by available empirical evidence. Smolin explains that if we work in the reverse order, we may end up with beautiful formulas, but they may be entirely out of touch with reality.

Smolin also targets String Theory as well. According to him, it “proposes that all the elementary particles arise from the vibrations of a single entity – a string” which is so infinitesimal that it is invisible even to the super-sophisticated instruments of modern science.” But Smolin rejects String Theory as a genuine scientific theory because it “makes no new predictions that are testable by current – or even currently conceivable – experiments.” As a result, no matter what the hypothetical experiments or computer simulations show, String Theory cannot be disproved or disproven. But the reverse also holds true: no experiment or simulation will ever be able to prove or demonstrate its truth (The Trouble with Physics, p.xiv).

Summing up why empirical or direct observational evidence is crucial to science, Vassilev states that by only focusing on beautiful formulas or whatever conveniently fits in with our preconceived notions or worldviews, we run the grave risk of giving up on the genuine search for truth. In essence: “you lose the ability to subject your theory to the kind of test that the history of science shows over and over again is required to winnow correct theories from beautiful but wrong ones. To do this, a theory must make specific and precise predictions that can either be confirmed or refuted. If there is a high risk of disconfirmation, then confirmation counts for a lot. If there is no risk of either, then there is no way to continue to do science” (The Trouble with Physics, p.169). Ultimately, Vassilev argues that science, especially physics, must focus on hard-nosed empiricism and not get carried away with creative or beautiful formulas that may have nothing to actually do with our reality.

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