Search This Blog

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Albert Einstein and the Sheboygan Institute of Physics

It is a little known fact that Albert Einstein first submitted his paper outlining his theory of special relativity to for the Journal of the Physics Institute of Sheboygan (somewhere in Illinois I think).

Needless to say, his reply was not something he anticipated.

The first reviewer rejected the manuscript because nowhere in it did Einstein demonstrate how relativity could shed any new light on why dinosaurs went extinct. The second reviewer objected that Einstein’s math used non-euclidean math, when everybody knew that Euclidean math was the proper tool to use. Finally the third review said relativity didn’t make sense, of the common variety that is.

Luckily for Einstein and physics, this little known fact was of course an unknown fact. Ideas in physics, like ideas is most of the physical and biological sciences are understood, tested, and communicated with a common set of metaphors. Although formalized in mathematics, the real thought is with the thought experiment. Einstein was the first to popularize the notion that manipulating the common metaphors of existence, like observing the behavior of two speeding trains, or feeling weightless in a rapidly descending elevator, can be used to develop ideas that can have a mathematical logic that in turn can be used to make predictions about the big and the small. Like Newton and his apple, Einstein and his rushing trains, or modern explanations of the universe based on infinitesimal loops and cosmic string, physicists can freely use whatever metaphors they want, knowing that in the end they can all be reduced to logical principles, and because they are rooted in a reality observed, can be in principle tested.

When we move across the academic hall to the psychology department, metaphorical thinking is just as common, except that no one can agree on which set of metaphors are the best ones to use to describe behavior. Are the metaphors of Freud best, or do we use Skinner’s or even Dr. Phil’s?

No one knows.

What this means is that psychologists spend more time talking past each other than to each other because no one group will accept the metaphorical currency of the other. Like the Sheboygan reviewers, each psychologist has a different way that he thinks the language of psychology ought to be. The reason for this impasse is simple, namely because at root psychologists simply have no set of metaphors that can describe how the human brain works, and untethered to a neural reality, ideas fly off like errant meteors.

Think about it. Before the telescope and microscope, no one had a clue about how the universe or our bodies worked, and hence metaphorical conceptions of the universe and life ran wild. It was only with Galileo and Pasteur that metaphors of time, space, and disease began to be constrained, and represent the metaphors of scientific knowledge that we know today. In other words, because we had metaphors that were grounded in the reality of observation, physicists and laypeople alike at last had a common metaphorical language of how the world is and how it works.

Only when we have the metaphorical language of how the brain works, and in particular how motivation emerges from a working brain, will be able to escape from the confusion that is modern psychology. As for myself, recently I submitted my own little article on a topic of motivation (namely muscular relaxation) to a few psychologists to vet their opinions. The first one responded that it was not written using the data language of behaviorism, therefore he could not comment. The second psychologist was perplexed, and pleaded ignorance, or was it stupidity?
I am now waiting for the third response, which no doubt will have something to do with dinosaurs.

I can’t wait.

No comments: