It may seem absurd to question whether or not Einstein was a scientist, but doing so reveals an underlying source for many of our societal ills. Indeed, part of the role of pioneering science is to question received assumptions and search for new directions and possibilities that remain hidden and inaccessible to common consciousness. In this case, the fact is that if the common assumptions about the scope and practice of science are true, then Einstein was not a scientist. And if Einstein was not a scientist, then neither were many of the greatest scientific pioneers throughout history. But if we admit (the seemingly obvious fact) that Einstein was a scientist, then a great many people, including a wide variety of scientists, are wrong about what constitutes the essence of science.
Most scientific research funding bodies would certainly be skeptical of any grant application that claimed ‘it is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment’. However, this quote comes from Nobel Prize winning physicist Paul Dirac, and is only a sample of similar views held by many of the most significant pioneering theoretical physicists who developed quantum mechanics. Another notable physicist, James Trefil, writes that Einstein’s paper on relativity ‘was mainly about philosophy’, and that the reason scientists were not so concerned about the proof of Einstein’s ideas from experimental data ‘comes from the fact that relativity is beautiful’. Trefil admits that ‘beauty’ is ‘a strange word to apply to what is, after all, a mass of equations, but that’s the way physicists perceive it’.
Of course, empirical data are intrinsically vital to the scientific enterprise, but such data alone are insufficient for us to understand what they mean, or to know what to do with them. We also need some sort of intuitive guidance when seeking novel solutions, for if such solutions were deductively self-evident, then every scientist would already know them rather effortlessly (so long as they knew how to think logically). But scientific discoveries are hard won battles, even when sometimes resulting from what appears to be luck, because these scientists needed the extensive relevant knowledge and trans-logical insight to recognize and understand what they happened to find.
If Einstein’s paper on relativity was ‘mainly about philosophy’, then was he a philosopher or a scientist? If we limit the definition of ‘philosophy’ to what happens in most academic philosophy departments most of the time, then he was not a philosopher. But if we use the word ‘philosophy’ in the way the ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Pythagoras did, then Einstein was certainly a philosopher, as well as a scientist. In fact, it was the polymath philosopher William Whewell who introduced the term ‘scientist’ in 1833, so not only do scientists owe their name to the philosophers, but also the general field of science itself was born from philosophy.
The fact that the practice of science has become so out of touch with its philosophical roots is one of the reasons we are facing such disastrous problems across the globe. Just imagine what would happen if more and more scientists recognized and valued the importance of beauty over profits, fame, or tenure. What if we decided to stop making products that harm us and the environment (and anything which harms the environment ultimately harms us), and instead chose a path of beauty, rooted in the pursuit of wisdom and truth? As Einstein freely admitted, ‘the ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty, and Truth’. Such ideals are not the enemies of science; they are its foundation.
If you think you know something about science, then you had better know something about beauty, too.
(For quote sources, see The Eternal Law.)