In Praise of the Tamed Metaphysicist: Einstein on Reality, Rationality, and the Human Passion for Comprehension
By Maria Popova
“Reason is a tool, a machine, which is driven by the spiritual fire,” Dostoyevsky wrote in 1838 as he contemplated how we come to know truth.
More than a century later, Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) examined the nature of the spiritual fire that fuels reason, which he called “a passion for comprehension,” in a 1950 Scientific American essay later included in Ideas and Opinions (public library) — that superb compendium that gave us Einstein’s abiding reflections on the value of kindness, the secret to his thought process, the common language of science, and his increasingly timely message to posterity.
Einstein, who first contacted that “passion for comprehension” in his formative experience with a compass, writes:
There exists a passion for comprehension, just as there exists a passion for music. That passion is rather common in children, but gets lost in most people later on. Without this passion, there would be neither mathematics nor natural science. Time and again the passion for understanding has led to the illusion that man is able to comprehend the objective world rationally, by pure thought, without any empirical foundations — in short, by metaphysics. I believe that every true theorist is a kind of tamed metaphysicist, no matter how pure a “positivist” he may fancy himself. The metaphysicist believes that the logically simple is also the real. The tamed metaphysicist believes that not all that is logically simple is embodied in experienced reality, but that the totality of all sensory experience can be “comprehended” on the basis of a conceptual system built on premises of great simplicity. The skeptic will say that this is a “miracle creed.” Admittedly so, but it is a miracle creed which has been borne out to an amazing extent by the development of science.
Complement the indispensable Ideas and Opinions with Einstein on science and religion, the secret to learning anything, growing old, his breathtaking love letters, and his magnificent letter of advice to Marie Curie on how to handle haters.
Published May 12, 2016