Why Einstein was both wrong and right in being so stubborn

Einstein’s stubbornness

Based on my limited study of some notable epochs in the history of science, chiefly Newton’s demolition of the mechanical philosophy, I have to say I am rather amazed at times by Einstein’s refusal to go along with Quantum mechanics. Perhaps, it would be instructive to draw parallels with an earlier era in the sciences where a shift in the dominant thinking, arguably greater than that brought about by quantum mechanics, occurred. I talk here of the Newtonian revolution. 

Before Newton, the very thought of action at a distance was an anathema. Mechanical philosophy drove the prominent scientists of the day, most influential among them, Newton himself. But Newton, unintentionally destroyed the mechanical philosophy. Yes, he showed, there could be action at a distance. No, his works demonstrated, not everything in the world, for instance, the force of gravity, has to be “mechanical” or “physical”. In fact, as science progressed further after him, with concepts such as electrical and magnetic “fields”, and later on concepts as exotic as “curved space time”, becoming comfortable tools in the toolbox of scientists, the entire concept of the “physical” or “material” disappeared from the sciences.

But, Newton had his own Einsteins to contend with, two of them geniuses of the highest rank, Huygens and Leibniz. Huygens and Leibniz explicitly rejected Newton’s “mystical” theory because it was “incompatible with the laws of mechanics” (“God doesn’t play dice”, anyone?) They criticized him for reintroducing “occult” forces into science, from which science of course had extricated itself after great advancements. The third notable person to be greatly horrified by this destruction of the “laws of mechanics” was the greatest scientist of them all: Newton himself!

The above reminds me of the parallels between Einstein and Newton. Just like Newton had rendered the mechanical philosophy  obsolete, and hated himself for it, it was Einstein, wasn’t it, who came to hate what he had done. It was after all Einstein, who had “fathered” the Quantum Theory (Feynman calls him the father of quantum theory outright), when he first proposed, going against centuries of consensus (to Huygen’s wave theory of light), that light consisted of particles called photons.

And now I am going to say something which might be a bit funny (a confession, I have never ever used the style of argument that I am going to use in this paragraph below): I believe Einstein’s main strength and weakness was that he was a German! Germans were obsessed with philosophy. The world would be such and such based on? Atomism, the mechanical philosophy, romanticism, idealism, etc. It had to be consistent with some philosophy. Well, science had given up this way of operating ever since the time of Newton (when he, as mentioned, had decimated the mechanical philosophy).

And who says that the world has to be consistent with some man-made philosophy? Cut out the arrogance. Just because we in our minds imagine such and such to be the case, doesn’t mean that such and such will be the case. So maybe particle behavior is not consistent and deterministic. This is exotic but exactly how is that more exotic than Galileo saying that the world rotates and revolves or than Newton claiming that action can occur at a distance?Einstein was also horrified by entanglement. ”This goes against my very conception of science”. This again is eerily similar to Huygens and Boyles reaction to Newton. They felt the that theory of gravitation was a ”treason against the good cause of natural science” !!!

I am of course not arguing against having a world view or philosophy. Just that at least scientists should not get married to a philosophy. Sure, it helps drive the imagination, like indeed it helped the young Einstein make his momentous breakthroughs, but once you get married to a philosophy, then you basically become irrelevant like Einstein apparently unfortunately did in his old age.

And now one concluding argument about why Einstein was right to be so stubborn. Well, Einstein’s stubbornness is also part of what drives science. In fact, as we know, some of the best experiments that occurred to test the foundations of quantum mechanics, occurred directly as a result of Einstein’s objections. Indeed, experiments based on his ideas kept on being performed long after he was gone. The knowledge that was gained could not have been gained had not there been an objector as strong and stubborn and authoritative as Einstein.

And finally, on a personal level, Einstein was right in being stubborn because he felt the damn thing was wrong and he stuck to his principles. Much better than accepting something just because in the past other greats like Huygens, Leibniz, Boyle et al, had proved to be wrong. Hats off to Einstein for his stubbornness!

(Acknowledgements: The ideas for this piece have been inspired by works of I. Bernard Cohen, Steven Weinberg and Noam Chomsky)

One response to “Why Einstein was both wrong and right in being so stubborn”

  1. […] an earlier post on Einstein, I discussed Newton’s demolition of the mechanical philosophy. Since the topic of materialism […]

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