On the Method of Theoretical Physics

On the Method of Theoretical Physics 
Author(s): Albert Einstein 
Source: Philosophy of Science, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Apr., 1934), pp. 163-169 
Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Philosophy of Science Association Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/184387 . Accessed: 05/12/2014 21:42 

If you wish to learn from the theoretical physicist anything about the methods which he uses, ~ 5'K I would give you the following piece of advice: 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. This statement may seem to be designed to drive my audience away without more ado. For you will say to yourselves, 'The lecturer is himself a constructive physicist; on his own showing therefore he should leave the consideration of the structure of theoretical science to the epistemologist'. So far as I personally am concerned, I can defend myself against an objection of this sort by assuring you that it was no suggestion of mine but the generous invitation of others which has placed me on this dais, which commemorates a man who spent his life in striving for the unification of knowledge. But even apart from that, I have this justification for my pains, that it may possibly interest you to know how a man thinks about his science after having devoted so much time and energy to the clarification and reform of its principles. 

Of course his view of the past and present history of his subject is likely to be unduly influenced by what he expects from the future and what he is trying to realize to-day. But this is the common fate of all who have adopted a world of ideas as their dwelling-place. He is in just the same plight as the historian, who also, even though unconsciously, disposes events of the past around ideals that he has formed about human society. I want now to glance for a moment at the development of the theoretical method, and while doing so 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. The man who was not enthralled in youth by this work was not born to be a scientific theorist. But yet the time was not ripe for a science that could comprehend reality, was not ripe 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. But if experience is the beginning and end of all our knowledge about reality, what role is there left for reason in 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. It is these consequences to which our particular experiences are to correspond, and it is the logical derivation of them which in a purely theoretical work occupies by far the greater part of the book. This is really exactly analogous to Euclidean geometry, except that in the latter the basic laws are called 'axioms'; and, further, that in this field there is no question of the consequences having to correspond with any experiences. But if 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.

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