Einstein and the a Priori

Tanasije has recently offered up Einstein as an example of how empirical science is dependent on a priori knowledge. His point seems to be that once Einstein had his two fundamental principles (i.e. the principle of relativity and the principle of the constancy of the speed of light) he was able to use ‘pure reason’ and deduce a priori the rest of his physics. But the question of a priori knowledge, I think, is the question of the status of the first principles and the status of the rules that we use to deduce the rest of the physics. It is only if you think that the two principles + rules for deduction are known to be necessary facts about the nature of reality independently of experience and solely by reason.

The empiricist can account for what Einstein did; the two principles followed from empirically validated theories of the time (the principle of relativity is stated by Galileo and is a part of Newtonian physics as Einstein knew it and the constancy of light is predicted by Maxwell’s equations). The rules that are used to deduce (i.e. classical logic) are highly useful empirical generalizations. So Einstein does indeed start from first principles and deduce physics (if that is indeed what happened), but nothing in the story told by the empiricist is really independent of experience.

In order to have some serious rationalism going on, one would have to add to Tanasije’s accoount the claim that Einstein’s principles and the rules of classical logic are known by reason to be necessary facts about reality. Einstein does seem to cite a thought experiment as evidence for the constancy of the speed of light. He says he imagines chasing after a beam of light. What would it look like? If Einstein could catch up with the beam and look at it how would see the light standing still, which is unintuitively odd. So, he must not actually be able to catch up to the beam. But the only way that that is possible is if its speed were constant relative to Einstein no matter how fast he went. QED.

But is this really evidence for rationalism? Not quite. Some scientists (Paul Davies, for instance) think that that the speed of light may have been slowing down since the Big Bang. What is going on here seems to be this. We have a theory wich is the one that best unites disperate phenomena and is empirically adequate. We usually have outlying data and often scientists take creative leaps to integrate these outlying data points and thereby unite more disperate phenomena and provide greater empirical adequacy. It is plausible to think that Einstein himself was motivated by a conflict between theories he found intuitively compelling for the reasons cited above.

The moral of the story? Intuitions are theory driven and not ‘tother way ’round!


4 thoughts on “Einstein and the a Priori

  1. Hi Richard,

    I want just to add, that there are few physicists papers around which investigate the possibility for special relativity to be figured out just from the invariance principle, without the principle of constant speed of light.
    Now, the questions is what do we do with this? Do we just say – “who cares how we can get to it, be it that we deduce it (through logic which we accept for this or that reason) from one principle or two, what is important is just that it works”? I personally, can’t be satisfied with that – it is surely interesting that a theory as special relativity can be deduced from logic + invariance principle. (if it can be, but also the general relativity being deduced from two principles is just slightly less interesting)

    So, if you agree that this is interesting, call your self empiricist or rationalist, this seems to me as a philosophical problem. Can we figure out this through empirical research? Or will we just raise our shoulders and say – “It is as it is, there is no reason for things being this way, they just happen to be as they are.”

    I mean, isn’t this kind of understanding of the world a reason why people get into philosophy in first place?

  2. Anything problem that is sufficiently complex, whether it involves solely the products of ‘pure’ thought, ‘learned content’, or some combination of, will require require an empirical process. Therefore, if even all the laws of science can be developed on only basic principles (axioms) of mathematics and logic, then understanding the deeper, complex, themes of the universe, will ultimately, involve empirical knowledge.

  3. Thanks for the link bro. I don’t think that Einstien “imagining chasing a light beam and seeming intuitively odd for light to pass it”, can be considered a priori, anyways. I don’t think so. That’s gut feeling/belief, because there is nothing in that thought, that seems to is irrefutably suggest that light will pass someone riding on the beam. At least, as any laymen could imagine. I remember an 8th grade teacher asking the class what they would see if a car is going at the speed of light, and turns on it’s headlights. The whole class seemed to think that one would NOT be able see the light cast in front of the car. That being said, relativity seems to be more of an empirical product.

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