Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Einstein and the Logical Left

Albert Einstein had a problem. He had been working for almost five years to figure out a way to work gravitation into his theory of relativity and he thought he had it. But then there were the holes. He knew he needed a set of field equations and he thought he had them. But there was the problem. Einstein had a core belief that a successful theory would uniquely determine the state of the universe and these field equations almost did, except that he realized that using a mathematical trick, he could take a very, very, very small region of space with nothing in it -- a hole, he thought -- and twist the space inside the hole making it a different universe, albeit only a slightly different universe, still described by the same solution to the equations. But each solution was supposed to completely describe a unique universe. The hole problem.

Then he figured it out. The answer wasn't from the physics or the mathematics, it was philosophical and little did he realize it would also be political.

The answer was that the universe with the twisted space inside the hole was not in fact a different universe, it was just a different way of describing the same universe, a strange description, but just a different way of saying the same thing. The hole problem was just a linguistic problem -- it was a problem in figuring out what the theory meant, in figuring out what the theory said was real. The real elements, the furniture of the universe, would be what is the same in all descriptions.

In his first seminar on the theory at the university of Berlin, was a philosopher named Hans Reichenbach. Reichenbach seized on this notion of reality as invariance and developed a philosophical version for the general notion of truth. A scientific theory gets mapped onto observations, if the mapping is complete then the theory is confirmed. Any two different theories which are confirmed by all the same observations are just different descriptions of the same theory. Reality is what remains the same across all the descriptions.

Reichenbach ultimately came back to teach at Berlin, but it took a lot of work by Einstein, and even then it wasn't in the philosophy department -- he was given a chair in the physics department in the foundations of physics. The philosophy faculty refused to allow it. In part because his new scientific philosophy was not considered real philosophy, but it was also because when Reichenbach had been at Berlin as a student, he was an activist for social democracy, a vocal critic of the conservative, Catholic dominated universities.

Reichenbach's criterion of truth ultimately became part of a philosophical movement called logical empiricism. It was a movement which sought to understand or dissolve all philosophical problems through either logical analysis of language or scientific investigation. It was an attempt to achieve a scientific understanding of the world...and that was political.

At the time, Germany was in a situation where science was politically charged. Scientists were internationalists. Science was not subject to political, hierarchical fiat. The world is as it is whether you wanted it to be that way or not. And with the theory of relativity destroying a couple hundred years of received doctrine, it made the whole universe seem as wide open as the German political world with the old governmental order dissolved. These philosophers saw themselves as creating a logical left in which science was a tool for liberation.

Reichenbach's colleague in Vienna, Otto Neurath, gave up an academic career to develop new sorts of museums. The goal was to be able to teach science without the math, so that working people who didn't have the time or background could learn science -- the key, they thought, to social advancement, to raising up the working class into the middle class.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, they were purged from the universities and most fled. Many came to this country, but their influence on the intellectual left of America was blunted. Especially when compared to that of the members of the neo-Marxist Frankfurt school who settled as a group in New York. The two groups had been rivals in pre-war Europe and that animosity found its way to America. The successes of Horkeimer, Adorno, and Marcuse in America coupled with the McCarthy and the Cold War, contributed to the virtual disappearance of the logical left and the dominance of the humanist left.

With the exception of pockets like the environmental movement, it remained dormant. That is until the last couple of years...but that's another story.