Appreciating Einstein’s bridge between philosophy and science a century after Relativity

Illustration by Frank Neufeld

Albert Einstein was more than one of the 20th century’s greatest scientists; he was one of its greatest minds. That’s a distinction not lost on members of the Western’s Rotman Institute of Philosophy.

“Einstein fills so many roles for us today,” said Philosophy professor Robert DiSalle. “He is the comical intellectual with deep insight into ideas that are incomprehensible to the rest of us, combined with a goofy indifference to the concerns of everyday life. He is the solitary genius, who saw further than his contemporaries by standing a little bit apart from them and seeing from a point of view they hadn’t yet reached. And, finally, he is the philosophical and moral conscience of physics, someone who saw beyond equations to think about the philosophical significance of our fundamental ideas about science, and the moral significance of the uses to which we put our scientific knowledge and power.”

A century ago this month, Einstein achieved his long-sought theory of gravitation, the General Theory of Relativity, by publically debuting it during presentations to the Prussian Academy in November 1915. A seminal text, this paper led to a scientific revolution that forever changed our understanding of the universe.

In developing the theory, the famed scientist brought together ideas from mathematics, physics and philosophy to create a remarkable new conception of gravity, space and time. His work is a model of the engagement between philosophy and science and echoes the main mission of those who seek to continue that work today.

“Einstein often identified hidden assumptions that earlier physicists had made, and realized that they were to blame for problems that seemed intractable,” said Christopher Smeenk, Director of the Rotman Institute of Philosophy. “In combining ideas about light with those about motion, going back to Galileo, Einstein realized that common assumptions about the nature of time were simply mistaken. This approach demands clarity to identify the assumptions, and imagination to see what the alternatives might be.

“Many philosophers take a similar approach to their research, aiming to identify the assumptions that can make a particular philosophical problem so challenging.”

To celebrate the achievements of the 20th century’s greatest philosopher-scientist, the Rotman Institute of Philosophy launched Einstein @ Rotman 2015, a year-long program of activities for both scholars and the general public, centred around the successes and enduring mysteries of Einstein’s ideas. The inaugural lecture, Gravity, Geometry, Philosophy: 100 Years in Einstein’s Universe, was delivered by DiSalle in March.

The series set out for people to gain an appreciation of Einstein from many vantage points.

“I still marvel at his uncanny ability to shed light on the most fundamental questions in so many disparate areas of physics and make those unexpected connections between disparate areas of physics,” DiSalle said. “He disregarded traditional boundaries between science and philosophy. He had a lifelong intellectual independence, and his willingness to follow what others regarded as risky and uncertain paths.”

Stathis Psillos, former Rotman Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Science, echoed those sentiments.

“You must be attracted to his philosophical acumen,” Psillos said. “The scientific problems he chose to work on had a broader philosophical and epistemological significance. He was always making connections between science and philosophy.”

This rare ability to see all sides of a problem, not just limiting himself to a single discipline’s thinking, fueled many of the answers Einstein found.

“At moments when theoretical physics appeared to be at an impasse – in the theory of electromagnetism and again in the theory of gravity – Einstein saw the problem was essentially a philosophical one having to do with concepts of space and time that were taken for granted,” DiSalle continued. “He saw a way forward through a process of philosophical reflection on those concepts and their connections with physical reality.”

Einstein also symbolizes true intellectual freedom. He was a thinker rooted in the past, but not beholden to it.

“I think of Einstein as carefully walking a line between conservative and revolutionary,” Smeenk said. “He was revolutionary due to his enormous creativity and ability to explore deeply counter-intuitive ideas. But he was also conservative in the sense he sought to preserve what was right in previous theories. His imaginative contributions are all the more impressive because he was constrained by a critical reflection on earlier ideas.”

Einstein also ran counter to more modern notions positioned against wild, free-thinking exploration without a guarantee of immediate commercialization or return on investment.

“He taught everyone the principles that seem like common sense to everyone around you may conceal some hidden assumptions that have no justification at all, and that serious critical reflection might be required to overcome them,” DiSalle said.

“He taught us that the most profound, world-changing scientific advances often come from ideas that have no foreseeable practical value, and that start out from purely conceptual problems. An enlightened society must create an honoured place for those who pursue these problems for their own sake, and must give them the freedom that such pursuits require.”

Rob Read, Rotman Institute of Philosophy Administrative Assistant, curated an exhibit of Einstein artifacts, papers and memorabilia as part of Einstein @ Rotman 2015. Einstein – Philosopher/Scientist: 100 Years of General Relativity runs through Dec. 12. He has seen the physical manifestation of Einstein’s multidisciplinary mind.

“He was a diligent and hard worker at his chosen career, which he took to as a calling early in life,” Read said. “But, at the same time, he spent a lot of his time on other pursuits. He was a hobby musician and a commentator on practically everything under the sun, from religion to the threat of nuclear war. He used his celebrity to bring attention to issues of great concern, and wrote books and articles on non-scientific topics he believed he had an insight into.”

Read cited Einstein’s essay Why Socialism?, published in the first issue of Monthly Review in 1949, a defense of why he, as a non-political scientist, should be listened to on a topic like politics.

“He combined the power of being a specialist in an area he was very passionate about with being a generalist in many other areas that were of importance to him,” Read concluded.

The exhibit also has fun with the Einstein legacy. Since his death in 1955, the great thinker has morphed beyond his intellectual roots, into a ‘superstar’ in popular culture, akin to Elvis and Marilyn Monroe in many ways. His attraction to a non-scientific audience endures to this day.

“In many ways, Einstein is our next-door neighbour,” said Psillos, who is currently a Philosophy of Science and Metaphysics professor at the University of Athens, Greece. “He is an ordinary person, not a member of any scientific or other elite, who is extremely talented and, against all odds, makes the world bow to him. This feeds the imagination. He’s one of us and yet so different, so special.”

Beyond the plush toys, posters and T-Shirts, recent generations have gained an appreciation for Einstein outside his role as a scientist and embraced other aspects of his humanity.

“Einstein’s first world-wide fame came in 1919, when a British astronomical team confirmed the astonishing theory of a young German physicist. Even at this early stage of his career, Einstein’s work was seen as bridging bitter divides in war-torn Europe, in part due to his own outspoken pacifism,” Smeenk said. “In his later life, Einstein took his stature as a public intellectual seriously, speaking out with clarity and passion on a variety of political issues. I expect his popular image, as the epitome of a sage, with enormous creativity and insight, owes a great deal to these activities in his later years, along with his scientific achievements.”

Psillos agreed. “Einstein had a passionate sense of social justice and social responsibility. He never confined himself within the walls of the academe,” he said. “He was always looking out to world. He used his mighty voice to speak out for human rights, peace, tolerance and liberty.

“He taught us to never let your prejudices determine your path of inquiry; always question your assumptions and views; look passionately for theoretical understanding of the world around you and try to change it for the better.”