Phil. 4


Phil. 125, Dowden






The 19th century philosopher of science William Whewell said the aim of science is to discover the works of God. Others have said the aim is to find the principles of nature. Still others have said the aim is essentially to predict what will happen and to explain what has already happened.

Albert Einstein disagreed. He has another viewpoint on the aim of science:

"Although it is true that it is the goal of science to discover rules which permit the association and foretelling of facts, this is not its only aim. It also seeks to reduce the connections discovered to the smallest possible number of mutually independent conceptual elements. It is in this striving after the rational unification of the manifold that it encounters its greatest successes...."

For Einstein, the aim of science is to acquire a theoretical understanding of nature, and he believed that this gives us the power to predict, and the power to explain as much as possible by as little as possible. It is by having theories that we are able to do this.

A scientific theory has the property of "compressing" a great number of facts into a few basic laws. For example, one can start with Newton's theory of mechanics and gravitation, namely his three laws of motion plus his law of gravitation, plus the state of the sky today, and use these to predict the dates of the next appearance of Halley's comet in the sky and the next low tide in San Francisco and when Halley’s comet appeared two thousand years ago.

But Einstein wants more compression. He wants to compress laws into more basic laws. For example, Bohr's theory of the atom can be used to deduce which kinds of chemical compounds can be formed easily, so Bohr’s theory compresses many facts about which chemical compounds are relatively easy to form and which are difficult. But Bohr's theory can do more. Using a few general laws, Bohr's theory of physics also systematizes part of the field of chemistry in the sense that it enables the deduction of many of the laws of chemistry that were originally discovered by trial and error in the chemists' laboratories, so in that sense Bohr's theory provides understanding of a part of chemistry. That is what Einstein meant by “theoretical understanding.”