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Einstein's intuition

Einstein is universally regarded as the greatest physicist of the 20th century. He alone was responsible for relativity and was a major contributor to quantum mechanics. These two theories have dominated twentieth century physics. Yet for most of his adult life Einstein was at odds with the majority of his colleagues about the nature of quantum mechanics. Was this disagreement simply a matter of different opinions or was something deeper involved? Einstein was an intuitive genius. He was of course intelligent, but by no means an intellectual genius. It is no accident that he was working in the patent office when he developed special relativity. He was not considered competitively qualified for a professorial appointment until he had revolutionized our understanding of time and space.

It is worth looking closer at this quarrel. Extroverted thinking, that dominates our culture including science, draws its energy from the external facts or experimental results. Quantum mechanics is extraordinarily successful at explaining those facts. The refinements that his colleagues made to the theory while Einstein was pursuing his futile quest for a more complete theory have made quantum mechanics, and specifically quantum field theory the most accurate theory man has ever developed by a wide margin. Certainly his colleagues had reason to complain when they accomplished so much and Einstein so little. Einstein respected the enormous achievement but felt we must start over.

There is no doubt that quantum mechanics has seized hold of a beautiful element of truth and that it will be a touchstone for a future theoretical basis in that it must be deducible as a limiting case from that basis, just as electrostatics is deducible from the Maxwell equations of the electromagnetic field or as thermodynamics is deducible from statistical mechanics. I do not believe that quantum mechanics will be the starting point in the search for this basis, just as one cannot arrive at the foundations of mechanics from thermodynamics or statistical mechanics(461)[20].

We must start over because you cannot derive a causal theory from a statistical one. Einstein had an inner vision or intuition about what was and was not a good fundamental theory. A theory that did not match that inner vision was sadly lacking no matter how successful it became. Quantum mechanics did not match this vision and no amount of doctoring it to cover a wider range of effects or achieve greater accuracy could help. Quantum field theory, which combines special relativity and quantum mechanics, was anathema to him.

Einstein never had a good word for the relativity version of quantum mechanics knows as quantum field theory. It successes did not impress him. Once in 1912, he said of the quantum theory the more successful it is, the sillier it looks(24)[41].

His colleagues, impressed by the enormous success of quantum mechanics, did not share his view. They understood how the theory fell short of what had been accepted principles for a physical theory. Their solution was to modify these principles. Thus we have a host of interpretations of quantum mechanics each with its own special metaphysics and new principles for a fundamental theory. For the extrovert the idea must succumb to the data. For the introvert it is the opposite. Neither principle works universally. That is why an opposition is needed.

Why do I insist that the idea will ultimately win out in this contest? It is the accumulation of intuitive problems with the theory. They are what make the theory look sillier the more successful it becomes. The problems are listed in Section 8.8. Beyond this intuition is able to consider possibilities that intellect cannot deal with. Intuition is always ready to start over. Intellect is loathe to do so because without its existing conceptual framework it is lost. It has nothing to orient itself with.

For intellect to proceed in physics it must have or work out the mathematics in some detail. Intuition can play with ideas at a looser level. Intuition can leave the conceptual framework of classical particles that quantum mechanics is trapped in. Without knowing the details it can match patterns and see where connections are possible in a different framework. Of course this process is far more error prone then a more narrow intellectual approach, but for many problems it is the only possible approach.


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