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Ernst Mach and Albert Einstein

Ernst Mach was an Austrian physicist, 62 at the turn of the century. He criticized the concepts of space and time that were a part of Newtonian physics, and as such he preceded Albert Einstein. In 1930 Einstein would say that, "It is justified to consider Mach as the precursor of the General Theory of Relativity."

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein, 1921

Mach was to have his name attached to speed delineations: mach 1, mach 2, et cetera. He described bullets traveling faster than the speed of sound compressing air and creating shock waves.

Philosophically, Mach went from scientific methodology to a philosophy of science – the two not always understood as different. Scientific methodology was a tool that said nothing about how one should think about anything outside the aspect of nature being studied. Many who used the tool of scientific methodology believed in the supernatural. Mach addressed the question of one's ability to know and preferred to draw a line, claiming that we cannot know more than what scientific methodology can tell us. He argued that all knowledge was based on sensation, perception and what can be measured.

Mach did not accept atomic theory because atoms could not be observed or measured. Then Einstein came along and pushed beyond Mach's conclusions that the speed of light is constant and that energy (as in explosions) is mass multiplied by the speed of light, squared. This Einstein did trying to understand gravitation and his Theory of Special Relativity.

A part of the new physics was quantum mechanics worked on by Einstein and others. Differences of opinion developed. Quantum mechanics was about causation with wave-like motion at the atomic and subatomic levels. Like all science it was about measurement. In Quantum mechanics what appeared to be the randomness of particles made measurement difficult or impossible. What could be measured were effects. The random aspect in Quantum mechanics was not about whether the universe moved in a determined fashion. But some lost sight of it as a measurement problem and turned it into a metaphysical question: determinism versus indeterminism.

After Mach's death, scientists confirmed Einstein's physics in a combination of empirical observation and mathematics. Mach's philosophy of science holding to observation and measurement remained.

Mach's philosophy was rejected, however, by Lenin in his book on epistemology titled Materialism and Empiriocriticism, published in 1909. It was to have little impact outside the Soviet Union. Lenin's book was a reaction to a three volume work Empiriomonism by Alexander Bogdanov, a fellow Russian Social Democrat. Bogdanov was trying to merge Marxism with the philosophy of Ernst Mach, Lenin stood firm in declaring that there was a reality outside of heads. We all know, he complained, that nature came before humans. Mach had not been denying that this was so. Wanting to avoid metaphysics, Mach merely left that question as outside the realm of science. But Lenin didn't like leaving an individual thinker chained to his subjectivity and he put Mach in league with the famous philosopher of solipsism, Bishop Berkeley.

The philosophy of science withstood Lenin's challenge. Soviet physics would be identical with physics in the West despite Lenin's dialectical materialism. Scientists would not find dialectal materialism useful in solving problems in physics, biology or other disciplines.

Einstein also dabbled in philosophy and his physics and philosophy were not entirely separable. Einstein has been described as "the architect of grand unification in physics." In his book, Conciliance (page 6), Edward O. Wilson writes of Einstein expressing pleasure at "his successful alignment of the microscopic physics of capillaries with the macroscopic, universe-wide physics of gravity."

Einstein believed in questioning his assumptions as he went along, and it was this questioning that took him along the great mental distance that he traveled. He pursued the philosophical consequences of his discoveries. He warned that concepts should be subject to revisions. Regarding time and space he had stretched the mind and moved from what had been Newtonian presuppositions. For Einstein, space could not be perceived as an absolute. Instead it was relative to a point of reference. And time was also not an absolute; it was relative to the movement of an object. This boggled the mind of those who wanted to go beyond their own subjectivity, perceptions and point of reference.

Einstein was bothered by the subjectivity, and he worked at establishing a-priori principles (knowledge independent of experience) upon which to rest theories in the physical sciences. In this he was trying to go beyond Mach's philosophy of sticking too observation and measurement.

Copyright © 2009-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.

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