[The following essay is directed toward an imaginary positivist with unflinching faith in the veracity of Einstein's research programme of relativity, because of relativity's overwhelming empirical success. Rather than being anti-science (quite the opposite, actually), my humble goal here is simply to show that empiricism does not provide the full picture, and that fallibilism is justified as a default position when considering contemporary science. I would have liked to explicitly dwell upon specific philosophers of science (particularly Kuhn, Lakatos, and Feyerabend), but that will have to wait for another time. Lastly, this is unfortunately not an introductory essay, and is directed toward those who are at least superficially familiar with relativity and the history of physics preceding it.]
The pessimistic meta-induction is the supposition that just as so many theories in the history of science have been superseded, current theories will likewise be found to be unsatisfactory, despite their empirical success. This can be taken in a strong or a weak sense: the strong sense implies that current theories are completely wrong (just as phlogiston, to contemporary scientists, is completely wrong), and the weak sense (fallibilism) acknowledges the empirical success of current theories while insisting that they may be incomplete—epiphenomena, of sorts, of a larger pattern. It is the aim of this essay to make a case for fallibilism, illustrating its case with examples from special relativity, general relativity, and quantum theory; once the latter case is made, the strong pessimistic meta-induction will be left as a possibility, since by definition no positive case (save the explicit falsification of current theories) can be made for its correctness, but only a negative case. Starting with a brief glance into Einstein’s epistemology, the historical development of the concept of ether will be documented, and upon finding that it is not necessarily as “superfluous” as Einstein may have once thought, the implications of this incompleteness will be examined.
“You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother,” Einstein is reputed to have said. This strikes the reader as a surprising statement to come from one so notorious for the abstruseness of his theories, but it reveals a striking distinction for philosophies of science: that between how a theory works (in all its mathematical intricacy) and what it means. As Hegel writes in his Shorter Logic, “The chemist places a piece of flesh in his retort, tortures it in many ways, and then informs us that it consists of nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen, etc. True: but these abstract matters have ceased to be flesh.” Here we see that Hegel rejects the mechanical in favor of the conceptual, presumably reacting to the reductionist tendency of scientists to favor the former at the expense of the latter, but we see in Einstein a desire to retain the two in all their incommensurability. Yet, we can also proceed backwards from Einstein’s distinction: if mathematics is a formal delineation of the relations between terms, then insofar as mathematical physics is an empirical science, its terms cannot merely be mathematical variables, but objects, to which correspond concepts. With physics in particular, however, the boundaries separating concepts are of prime importance, and it is these mutable boundaries that pose the primary weak point of scientific research, to the point where fallibilism becomes a rational mindset for scientists regardless of the empirical success of any given theory taken on its own. Read the rest of this entry