On the Method of Theoretical Physics
"On the Method of Theoretical Physics" was presented by Albert Einstein as the Herbert Spencer lecture at Oxford on June 10, 1933. In the year 1934, it was published in Mein Weltbild (Amsterdam: Querido Verlag). In the same year (April, 1934) it was published in Philosophy of Science, Vol. 1, No. 2, by the University of Chicago Press, on behalf of the Philosophy of Science Association. It has also appeared in other publications, such as Ideas and Opinions, with new translations and revisions by Sonja Bargmann, and in The World as I See It, a translation of Mein Weltbild by Alan Harris.
- If you wish to learn from the theoretical physicist anything about the methods which he uses... Don't listen to his words, examine his achievements. For to the discoverer in that field, the constructions of his imagination appear so necessary and so natural that he is apt to treat them not as the creations of his thoughts but as given realities.
- I want... to glance... at the development of the theoretical method, and... especially to observe the relation of pure theory to the totality of the data of experience. Here is the eternal antithesis of the two inseparable constituents of human knowledge, Experience and Reason, within the sphere of physics. We honour ancient Greece as the cradle of western science. She for the first time created the intellectual miracle of a logical system, the assertions of which followed one from another with such rigor that not one of the demonstrated propositions admitted of the slightest doubt—Euclid's geometry. This marvellous accomplishment of reason gave to the human spirit the confidence it needed for its future achievements. ...But yet the time was not ripe for a science that could comprehend reality... until a second elementary truth had been realized, which only became the common property of philosophers after Kepler and Galileo. Pure logical thinking can give us no knowledge whatsoever of the world of experience; all knowledge about reality begins with experience and terminates in it.
- Conclusions obtained by purely rational processes are, so far as Reality is concerned, entirely empty. It was because he recognized this, and especially because he impressed it upon the scientific world that Galileo became the father of modern physics and in fact of the whole of modern natural science.
- A complete system of theoretical physics consists of concepts and basic laws to interrelate those concepts and of consequences to be derived by logical deduction.
- [I]f we conceive Euclidean geometry as the science of the possibilities of the relative placing of actual rigid bodies and accordingly interpret it as a physical science, and do not abstract from its original empirical content, the logical parallelism of geometry and theoretical physics is complete.
- We have now assigned to reason and experience their place within the system of theoretical physics. Reason gives the structure to the system; the data of experience and their mutual relations are to correspond exactly to consequences in the theory. On the possibility alone of such a correspondence rests the value and the justification of the whole system, and especially of its fundamental concepts and basic laws. But for this, these latter would simply be free inventions of the human mind which admit of no a priori justification...
- It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible...
- The conception... of the purely fictitious character of the basic principles of theory was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries still far from being the prevailing one. But it continues to gain more and more ground because of the everwidening logical gap between the basic concepts and laws on the one side and the consequences to be correlated with our experiences on the other—a gap which widens progressively with the developing unification of the logical structure, that is with the reduction in the number of the logically independent conceptual elements required for the basis of the whole system.
- Newton felt by no means comfortable about the concept of absolute space, which embodied that of absolute rest; for he was alive to the fact that nothing in experience seemed to correspond to this latter concept. He also felt uneasy about the introduction of action at a distance. But the enormous practical success of his theory may well have prevented him and the physicists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from recognizing the fictitious character of the principles of his system.
- [S]cientists of those times were for the most part convinced that the basic concepts and laws of physics... were derivable by abstraction, i.e. by a logical process, from experiments. It was the general Theory of Relativity which showed in a convincing manner the incorrectness of this view. ...quite apart from the question of comparative merits, the fictitious character of the principles is made quite obvious by the fact that it is possible to exhibit two essentially different bases, each of which in its consequences leads to a large measure of agreement with experience. This indicates that any attempt logically to derive the basic concepts and laws of mechanics from the ultimate data of experience is doomed to failure.
- Have we any right to hope that experience will guide us aright, when there are theories (like classical mechanics) which agree with experience to a very great extent, even without comprehending the subject in its depths? ...there is the correct path and, moreover... it is in our power to find it. ...in Nature is actualized the ideal of mathematical simplicity. ...pure mathematical construction enables us to discover the concepts and the laws...
- [E]xperience... remains the sole criterion of the serviceability of a mathematical construction for physics, but the truly creative principle resides in mathematics. ...pure thought is competent to comprehend the real, as the ancients dreamed.
- In the paucity of the mathematically existent simple field-types and of the relations between them, lies the justification for the theorist's hope that he may comprehend reality in its depths.
The most difficult point for such a field-theory at present is how to include the atomic structure of matter and energy. For the theory in its basic principles is not an atomic one in so far as it operates exclusively with continuous functions of space, in contrast to classical mechanics whose most important feature, the material point, squares with the atomistic structure of matter.
- The modern quantum theory, as associated with the names of de Broglie, Schrödinger, and Dirac, which of course operates with continuous functions, has overcome this difficulty by means of a daring interpretation, first given in a clear form by Max Born:-the space functions which appear in the equations make no claim to be a mathematical model of atomic objects. These functions are only supposed to determine... the probabilities of encountering those objects in a particular place or in a particular state of motion... This conception... forces us to employ a continuum of which the number of dimensions is not that of previous physics, namely 4, but which has dimensions increasing without limit as the number of the particles... increases. ...I ...accord to this interpretation no more than a transitory significance. I still believe in the possibility of giving a model of reality, a theory, that is to say, which shall represent events themselves and not merely the probability...
- On the other hand... we have to give up the notion of an absolute localization of the particles in a theoretical model. This seems to me to be the correct theoretical interpretation of Heisenberg's indeterminacy relation. And yet a theory may perfectly well exist, which is in a genuine sense an atomistic one (and not merely on the basis of a particular interpretation), in which there is no localizing of the particles in a mathematical model.
- [I]n order to include the atomistic character of electricity, the field equations only need to involve that a three-dimensional volume of space on whose boundary the electrical density vanishes everywhere, contains a total electrical charge of an integral amount. Thus in a continuum theory, the atomistic character could be satisfactorily expressed by integral propositions without localizing the particles which constitute the atomistic system.
Only if this sort of representation of the atomistic structure be obtained could I regard the quantum problem within the framework of a continuum theory as solved.