An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Fall 2003

Physics & reality

Albert Einstein
View PDF

Editor’s Note: There is probably no modern scientist as famous as Albert Einstein. Born in Germany in 1879 and educated in physics and mathematics at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich, he was at first unable to find a teaching post, working instead as a technical assistant in the Swiss Patent Office from 1901 until 1908.

Early in 1905, Einstein published “A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions,” a paper that earned him a Ph.D. from the University of Zurich. More papers followed, and Einstein returned to teaching, in Zurich, in Prague, and eventually in Berlin, where an appointment in 1914 to the Prussian Academy of Sciences allowed him to concentrate on research.

In November of 1919, the Royal Society of London announced that a scientific expedition had photographed a solar eclipse and completed calculations that verified the predictions that Einstein had made in a paper published three years before on the general theory of relativity. Virtually overnight, Einstein was hailed as the world's greatest genius, instantly recognizable, thanks to “his great mane of crispy, frizzled and very black hair, sprinkled with gray and rising high from a lofty brow” (as Romain Rolland described in his diary).

In the essay excerpted here, and first published in 1936, Einstein demonstrates his substantial interest in philosophy as well as science. He is pragmatic, in insisting that the only test of concepts is their usefulness in describing the physical world, yet also idealistic, in aiming for the minimum number of concepts to achieve that description.

In 1933, Einstein renounced his German citizenship and moved to the United States, where he lived until his death in 1955. A recipient of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1921, he was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 1924.


General Consideration Concerning the Method of Science

It has often been said, and certainly not without justification, that the man of science is a poor philosopher. Why, then, should it not be the right thing for the physicist to let the philosopher do the philosophizing? Such might indeed be the right thing at a time when the physicist believes he has at his disposal a rigid system of fundamental concepts and fundamental laws which are so well established that waves of doubt cannot reach them; but, it cannot be right at a time when the very foundations of physics itself have become problematic as they are now. At a time like the present, when experience forces us to seek a newer and more solid foundation, the physicist cannot simply surrender to the philosopher the critical contemplation of the theoretical foundations; for, he himself knows best, and feels more surely where the shoe pinches. In looking for a new foundation, he must try to make clear in his own mind just how far the concepts which he uses are justified, and are necessities.

The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking. It is for this reason that the critical thinking of the physicist cannot possibly be restricted to the examination of the concepts of his own specific field. He cannot proceed without considering critically a much more difficult problem, the problem of analyzing the nature of everyday thinking.

Our psychological experience contains, in colorful succession, sense experiences, memory pictures of them, images, and feelings. In contrast to psychology, physics treats directly only of sense experiences and of the “understanding” of their connection; but even the concept of the “real external world” of everyday thinking rests exclusively on sense impressions.

Now we must first remark that the differentiation between sense impressions and images is not possible; or, at least it is not possible with absolute certainty. With the discussion of this problem, which affects also the notion of reality, we will not concern ourselves but we shall take the existence of sense experiences as given, that is to say, as psychic experiences of a special kind.

I believe that the first step in the setting of a “real external world” is the formation of the concept of bodily objects and of bodily objects of various kinds. Out of the multitude of our sense experiences we take, mentally and arbitrarily, certain repeatedly occurring complexes of sense impressions (partly in conjunction with sense impressions which are interpreted as signs for sense experiences of others), and we correlate to them a concept–the concept of the bodily object. Considered logically this concept is not identical with the totality of sense impressions referred to; but it is a free creation of the human (or animal) mind. On the other hand, this concept owes its meaning and its justification exclusively to the totality of the sense impressions which we associate with it.

The second step is to be found in the fact that, in our thinking (which determines our expectation), we attribute to this concept of the bodily object a significance, which is to a high degree independent of the sense impressions which originally give rise to it. This is what we mean when we attribute to the bodily object “a real existence.” The justification of such a setting rests exclusively on the fact that, by means of such concepts and mental relations between them, we are able to orient ourselves in the labyrinth of sense impressions. These notions and relations, although free mental creations, appear to us as stronger and more unalterable than the individual sense experience itself, the character of which as anything other than the result of an illusion or hallucination is never completely guaranteed. On the other hand, these concepts and relations, and indeed the postulation of real objects and, generally speaking, of the existence of “the real world,” have justification only in so far as they are connected with sense impressions between which they form a mental connection.

The very fact that the totality of our sense experiences is such that by means of thinking (operations with concepts, and the creation and use of definite functional relations between them, and the coordination of sense experiences to these concepts) it can be put in order, this fact is one which leaves us in awe, but which we shall never understand. One may say “the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.” It is one of the great realizations of Immanuel Kant that the postulation of a real external world would be senseless without this comprehensibility.

In speaking here of “comprehensibility,” the expression is used in its most modest sense. It implies: the production of some sort of order among sense impressions, this order being produced by the creation of general concepts, relations between these concepts, and by definite relations of some kind between the concepts and sense experience. It is in this sense that the world of our sense experiences is comprehensible. The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.

In my opinion, nothing can be said a priori concerning the manner in which the concepts are to be formed and connected, and how we are to coordinate them to sense experiences. In guiding us in the creation of such an order of sense experiences, success alone is the determining factor. All that is necessary is to fix a set of rules, since without such rules the acquisition of knowledge in the desired sense would be impossible. One may compare these rules with the rules of a game in which, while the rules themselves are arbitrary, it is their rigidity alone which makes the game possible. However, the fixation will never be final. It will have validity only for a special field of application (i.e., there are no final categories in the sense of Kant).

The connection of the elementary concepts of everyday thinking with complexes of sense experiences can only be comprehended intuitively and it is unadaptable to scientifically logical fixation. The totality of these connections– none of which is expressible in conceptual terms–is the only thing which differentiates the great building which is science from a logical but empty scheme of concepts. By means of these connections, the purely conceptual propositions of science become general statements about complexes of sense experiences.

We shall call “primary concepts” such concepts as are directly and intuitively connected with typical complexes of sense experiences. All other notions are–from the physical point of view– possessed of meaning only in so far as they are connected, by propositions, with the primary notions. These propositions are partially definitions of the concepts (and of the statements derived logically from them) and partially propositions not derivable from the definitions, which express at least indirect relations between the “primary concepts,” and in this way between sense experiences. Propositions of the latter kind are “statements about reality” or laws of nature, i.e., propositions which have to show their validity when applied to sense experiences covered by primary concepts. The question as to which of the propositions shall be considered as definitions and which as natural laws will depend largely upon the chosen representation. It really becomes absolutely necessary to make this differentiation only when one examines the degree to which the whole system of concepts considered is not empty from the physical point of view.

stratification of the scientific system

The aim of science is, on the one hand, a comprehension, as complete as possible, of the connection between the sense experiences in their totality, and, on the other hand, the accomplishment of this aim by the use of a minimum of primary concepts and relations. (Seeking, as far as possible, logical unity in the world picture, i.e., paucity in logical elements.)

Science uses the totality of the primary concepts, i.e., concepts directly connected with sense experiences, and propositions connecting them. In its first stage of development, science does not contain anything else. Our everyday thinking is satisfied on the whole with this level. Such a state of affairs cannot, however, satisfy a spirit which is really scientifically minded; because the totality of concepts and relations obtained in this manner is utterly lacking in logical unity. In order to supplement this deficiency, one invents a system poorer in concepts and relations, a system retaining the primary concepts and relations of the “first layer” as logically derived concepts and relations. This new “secondary system” pays for its higher logical unity by having elementary concepts (concepts of the second layer), which are no longer directly connected with complexes of sense experiences. Further striving for logical unity brings us to a tertiary system, still poorer in concepts and relations, for the deduction of the concepts and relations of the secondary (and so indirectly of the primary) layer. Thus the story goes on until we have arrived at a system of the greatest conceivable unity, and of the greatest poverty of concepts of the logical foundations, which is still compatible with the observations made by our senses. We do not know whether or not this ambition will ever result in a definitive system. If one is asked for his opinion, he is inclined to answer no. While wrestling with the problems, however, one will never give up hope that this greatest of all aims can really be attained to a very high degree.

An adherent to the theory of abstraction or induction might call our layers “degrees of abstraction”; but I do not consider it justifiable to veil the logical independence of the concept from the sense experiences. The relation is not analogous to that of soup to beef but rather of check number to overcoat

The layers are furthermore not clearly separated. It is not even absolutely clear which concepts belong to the primary layer. As a matter of fact, we are dealing with freely formed concepts, which, with a certainty sufficient for practical use, are intuitively connected with complexes of sense experiences in such a manner that, in any given case of experience, there is no uncertainty as to the validity of an assertion. The essential thing is the aim to represent the multitude of concepts and propositions, close to experience, as propositions, logically deduced from a basis, as narrow as possible, of fundamental concepts and fundamental relations which themselves can be chosen freely (axioms). The liberty of choice, however, is of a special kind; it is not in any way similar to the liberty of a writer of fiction. Rather, it is similar to that of a man engaged in solving a well-designed word puzzle. He may, it is true, propose any word as the solution; but, there is only one word which really solves the puzzle in all its parts. It is a matter of faith that nature– as she is perceptible to our five senses– takes the character of such a well-formulated puzzle. The successes reaped up to now by science do, it is true, give a certain encouragement for this faith.

The multitude of layers discussed above corresponds to the several stages of progress which have resulted from the struggle for unity in the course of development. As regards the final aim, intermediary layers are only of temporary nature. They must eventually disappear as irrelevant. We have to deal, however, with the science of today, in which these strata represent problematic partial successes which support one another but which also threaten one another, because today’s system of concepts contains deep-seated incongruities.

Permission to reprint Physics & reality granted by the Albert Einstein Archives, the Jewish National & University Library, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.